My name is Paul Tobia, I’m a 56 year old builder / psychiatric nurse / ageing hippie from England who decided to volunteer for Soft Power Education after talking to Bob (the girl) who has volunteered regularly over the past few years. Before leaving my wife and grown up kids to their own devices for three months, I learnt that Soft Power had a project for me to run; they certainly did.
I arrived in Uganda in early August 2007, trepidation to the fore, Africa was new to me and it wasn’t like Bristol. The colours, the smells, the energy, the friendliness were all fabulous. The roads were not unless you were fond of near death experiences! I spent a week seeing what Soft Power did and was mightily impressed. This was not a top heavy organisation beset with red tape, jargon and over-regulation. They got stuff done and had a good time doing it.
Buwenda Pre-school lies in Buwenda village, about 4 miles north of Jinja. Although only 2 miles from the tourist area of Bujagali Falls, it has few facilities; electricity and running water are rare but most people have a small plot of land where they grow vegetables and keep goats and chickens. The pre school had been built by Soft Power a few years previously. The organisation then had very little money and it showed. The inside was dark, cramped and had potholes a foot deep. Outside, all the grass had gone, the paint was peeling off the outside walls and there was very little for the kids to play on or with. I had 11 weeks to change this.
In sharp contrast to the state of the school were the kids, 140 of them aged 3-5, energy to burn and amazingly (for someone with experience of British schools) they loved being there. They were orphans or children thought of as most in need. They greeted you with an enthusiasm you felt you did not deserve. They had very few resources but still managed to interest and amuse themselves.
The teachers led by the redoubtable Florence were highly committed to the school. Their teaching methods may have seemed old fashioned but they were very appreciative of the work we were doing.
The first stage was to improve the outer building and the grounds. I designed a series of retaining walls in different shapes into which we would put earth and then plants (above left). The first couple of weeks involved a lot of hard graft with digging foundations and filling them with concrete. I nearly kept up with the Ugandan labourers but I must admit I discovered administrative duties that needed my attention when I became too tired. I also discovered that a simple process like mixing up concrete is done very differently in Africa; my English methods were seen as somewhat eccentric. A further difference is that in England virtually every job involves some sort of power tool which here without electricity was not possible.
We began to build the retaining walls, which were then plastered and began to look quite impressive.
After the first few weeks I began to receive help from people who had volunteered to work for Soft Power, some were backpackers who just stayed for a day or two, whist others came for a few weeks. Brownie a signwriter from Australia came with his wife Helen. Brownie proved a great asset (and interesting bloke) and his sign for the front of the building was admired by all (above right). A few weeks later we were joined by Jenny and her nephew Ryan who proved to have a considerable talent for painting the animals which now cover the outside of the building (below left).
The volunteers are Soft Power’s lifeblood both in terms of labour and financial contributions but they also define its culture; exuberant, purposeful and committed. Virtually all enjoyed their experience and several described it as life changing.
The walls were filled with earth (I don’t know where the Africans got this from but it only cost 5,000 shillings) and plants were acquired from nurseries. The structures were then painted, volunteers Julianne and Peter pictured above providing the hard work (below right).
The Outside walls were painted with murals depicting different aspects of Ugandan life. Most of the animals here can be seen in Buwenda but it must be admitted that the toucan on the left is not a Ugandan resident and can be blamed on my lack of bird knowledge and poor eyesight.
In August the children were on holiday which was our cue to gut the inside of the building, build a new brick wall, relay the concrete floor, paint the walls complete with teaching aids and fill the roof space with planets, aircraft, birds and the earth all made from paper mache.
As the deadline for finishing the project loomed I became perhaps unnecessarily frantic, I was going home and I did not want to leave it half completed. Steven, Soft Power’s master builder and Kibii their manpower organiser both had numerous calls from me demanding labour and materials. We had, however, already achieved much, the outside walls were now completed.
At the front of the school we built a somewhat ambitious playhouse for the children. It was two stories high and had a hardwood varnished floor. The steps up to the second floor proved rather tricky!
Inside the walls had been painted and as shown above volunteers Lesley and Rebecca painted a frieze round the walls which depicted the alphabet, numbers and numerous objects from jerry cans (a very common sight) to rainbows (also quite common in Uganda’s climate)
The children seemed to love their new classroom and with the help of Kieran an Irish carpenter we built more benches so they all had seats, which with the help of the kids were painted beautiful bright colours.
Except for one unpainted wall (still too wet to paint) everything was finished and on a sunny day in September, Hannah the head of Soft Power, the local education chief, the school’s trustees, Soft Power workers, teachers, relatives and the children themselves gathered to officially re-open the school. Best dresses were worn and a number of the kids were dressed for the occasion.
For me it was a proud and emotional moment (which I perhaps didn’t show, I am British) Speeches were made, including my own monotone ramblings and we released 150 balloons for the children.
I was very sorry to leave but was prouder of what we achieved than anything in my 22 years of nursing. It took me out of my safe, predictable English way of life and showed me a world that really challenged my notions of what is important. It’s very easy to sound horribly worthy and righteous but what Soft Power does is important. Most education round the world is heavily biased in favour of the privileged; from public schools in Britain to the American University system but this is the opposite. Our pre-school took the least privileged kids from a very underprivileged country and gave them a better chance in life. I am very pleased that the school’s playhouse was the only two storey building in Buwenda. To say we did it for the kids is a cliché but a true one.