Day 1-8: Building a playground in Uganda

It’s day 8 of my Ugandan adventure and finally, after more than a week of no electricity, let alone internet, I’ve finished my project with East African Playgrounds! Have a read of what I’ve been up to so far (oh, and Andy says hi).

Day 1, Thursday 30 July

Leaving my parents at the airport was a strange feeling – I knew that next time I saw them, I’ll have had so many new experiences. And as I mentioned in my initial blog post, I had no idea what those experiences would be. The flight was via Doha in Qatar and was actually one of the best I’ve ever been on – we all had personal television screens and even the food was decent. I had just enough time to look at the creepy giant teddy bear in Doha airport before catching my connection and before I knew it, I had reached Entebbe airport in Day 1Uganda.

Queuing up to collect our visas took ages, so I passed the time by getting to know the others on my trip and analysing the Ugandans’ poor use of hash tags (#HippopotamusInTheWaterInThePearlOfAfrica or #GorillasAreSoCool, anyone?). When we finally left the airport for Jinja in the late afternoon, I had my first glimpse of Ugandan life. Instead of having populations interspersed with countryside like in the UK, in Uganda there are large towns which sprawl out into communities, so the streets are continuously alive. The most interesting things I spotted along the way included a woman carrying a stack of carpets on her head, a man trying to sell us chicken on a stick through the window of our bus and children shouting “Muzungu” (Westerner) at us all the time. Ugandans seem to live their private lives very much in the public eye – their children and animals play in front of their houses, rather than in them. I could tell this would be something I’d have to get used to over the course of the trip.

Day 2, Friday 31 July

I woke up to the most incredible view of the Nile and my mind finally, properly registered that I was actually in Africa for the first time. I couldn’t wait for the weeks ahead.

We then took a matatu (minibus) away from the Nile River Campsite we’d been staying at for about an hour outside of Jinja. We arrived at Huda nursery, primary school and orphanage, and what a welcome we received. The children sang and gave speeches about how much our visit meant to them, and the huge amount of preparation they had clearly put into their performance really showed just how excited they were about getting their Day 2playground at last. After joining in with some dancing (damn, Ugandans can dance) we took a tour of the school yard to take a look at what parts of the playground we’d be building. As the schoolchildren kept waving at us, could not tear their eyes away and wanted to hold our hands all the time, it quickly became apparent that they’d never seen a white person before. Someone suggested they wanted to see what our skin felt like; one young boy spent a lot of time analysing my freckles and poking a bruise on my arm (ouch). They were obsessed with our cameras too; posing all the time and then shrieking with laughter when they saw what they looked like on the screen. Everything was a new experience for both them and us.

Day 3, Saturday 1 August

With a 6.30am wake-up call, our first day on project began. We were introduced to the East African Playgrounds team – builders Emmy and Hussain, engineers Salime and Iyas and cook Betty, who I am sharing a room with (she is indeed fantastic at her job). They are all absolutely hilarious, although they couldn’t quite pronounce my name, with “Shakira” and Day 3“Sean Paul” being my nicknames for the week! My blonde hair appears to be a bit of a fascination too, with one of the staff members making me promise to “never cut it off” or he’d cry. Ugandans are very physically affectionate which takes a bit of getting used to, but it is just a sign of platonic friendship. For example, in the evening one of the builders sat and held my hand for a very long time, explaining how he wanted to learn our individual names because he would never call us “Muzungu” as we did not call him “black”. That was very thoughtful.

Our facilities are extremely limited: no electricity, let alone internet, bucket showers and holes for toilets (“long drops”). Everyone else has to sleep on mattresses on the floor, but I get a bed – leader perks! Surprisingly I can actually deal with the lack of power and showers, but the long drops are absolutely horrendous. You have to basically hold your breath, pee quickly and accurately, and hope that the insects don’t attack you in the meantime…

The first day building the playground was a lot tougher than I expected. I knew the work would be physically challenging, especially the first few days as we had to dig the foundations for elements such as a slide, seesaw and giant tyre caterpillar. However, I did not anticipate how much the heat would impact my work – manual labour is 100 times harder in hot weather (I understand now, dad!). However, the children helped make the work more bearable, chasing the rolling tyres around and making a pond out of one of the holes we dug.

Day 4, Sunday 2 August

The digging became even more difficult today, as we were tired from poor nights of sleep in the hot weather and we still ached from the work of the day before. I knew though that the work would ease up from day 5, with the bolting, filling and painting beginning. There was arts and play to look forward to in the afternoon – part of East African Playgrounds’ work as a charity is to go around each of the schools receiving a playground and teach them the vital skills they require to develop their imaginations in order to use a number of elements on the playground which aren’t very obvious in purpose, such as a sphere of Day 4tyres. We focused mainly on play, starting games like stuck in the mud. It was the Muzungus vs the children and at first we were the stuckers, then we swapped over. I am ashamed to say that the kids beat us left, right and centre.

Having been here for a few days now, I have to say that my perspective about poverty in Africa has vastly changed. Yes, they are very poor, but they don’t know what they don’t have, having never seen devices like smartphones, for instance. They are so happy just running around outdoors, and I haven’t yet seen a child cry, regardless of how many times they fell over playing stuck in the mud or if they lost a game. It gave me a refreshed sense of the things that are really important in life, like family and friends – not how many likes you’ve got on Instagram, for instance. What I did notice however was that clothing was the biggest indicator of poverty. Most of the children had no shoes and wore the exact same clothes day after day which were never washed or prepared, so it was clear that they only actually possessed one outfit each. Before I came on my trip, my local Sainsbury’s in Ashford was kind enough to donate 150 t-shirts, which is almost enough for one per child. Now having realised just how important new clothes are to these children I am incredibly grateful for the donation and will be giving away as many of my own clothes as possible. They need it far more than I do.

Day 5, Monday 3 August

Today the fun work began and we started adding shape and colour to our playground, cracking out the bright and cheery primary colours. The children who did not live at the school permanently had returned to board for the week, so we had even more kids than usual looking at us work and trying to help, regardless of the horrifically muddy ground as a result of the overnight rain. In the afternoon we had an arts session, encouraging the Day 5children to create their own artwork out of natural objects like leaves and stones. Of course the activity escalated, with the group making crowns, hats and jewellery, and then some boys came along blowing into the hollow stem of a plant, which sounded just like a vuvuzela. It was ridiculous.

After that a very shy 16-year-old called Esther came over, quietly asking if her mother could give us a gift as a thank you for the playground. She gave us some fruits called cocas, which were delicious, and she sat down and told us her story while we ate. Her English is excellent and she is clearly very intelligent – she told us she wanted to train to become a doctor.

Before dinner the teachers of Huda gave us a lesson, and I learned some basic conversation in Lusoga, the local language in Uganda. I was sat next to the headteacher who was really friendly and wrote down the correct spellings of each of the phrases for me. Whenever I try them out on the kids they just laugh though – hopefully I’ll improve as time goes on! I took the opportunity to show one of the builders my shorthand work for journalism, and he looked at the alphabet and said with surprise: “You don’t know how to write?!” The evening was spent munching on sugar cane (delicious) and watching the clear Ugandan sky, hunting for fireflies and shooting stars. It was pretty perfect, if I’m honest.

Day 6, Tuesday 4 August

The mud had dried up by day 6 and allowed for a much nicer day of work. We refined our painting skills as the children watched us in the sunshine, and we were motivated by the impending real shower we were to have that afternoon. After lunch a matatu picked us up and we drove to the Nile Village Resort in Jinja, which had a swimming pool with the most gorgeous views over the river. A refreshing swim and a shower really perked me up and I lounged in the afternoon sunshine watching some cheeky monkeys attempt to steal a Day 6tablecloth from a very angry waiter.

We then headed for dinner at the Two Friends restaurant just outside Jinja, and for that we had to take our first ride in a boda, which is basically a motorbike taxi. It was so much fun, as you go really fast and the journeys are cheap. You can apparently pay to make two drivers race, so I might do that over the next few days. Eating at a Ugandan restaurant is really interesting because all the meals arrive separately, you have no idea how long it will take and you could be there for hours. The food was great though and the bar was lively, so we all headed home full and happy.

Day 7, Wednesday 5 August

I could not believe it was the penultimate day of the project when I’d finally gotten into the swing of things at Huda. We were under a bit of pressure to get all of the tyres painted, as the final day of the project is spent painting all of the metal elements with a different kind Day 7of paint. The builders were in a strange mood today, with Hussain painting a smiley face on my arm (which I still can’t get off) and calling it “Baby Shakira” and playing Ugandan music on the radio. As we had no arts and play session in the afternoon we were supposed to be doing a couple of extra hours of painting, but unfortunately we were rained off. But the weather in Uganda is very odd: it can rain heavily for an hour and then completely clear up. So later on we caught up on the painting in the afternoon sun.

In the evening we headed to the local shop to get ice cold Coca Cola and then walked back in the dark, letting the fireflies guide us.

Day 8, Thursday 6 August

The sun was shining for the final day of the project, and we started painting the complex, which has a slide, fireman pole and a climbing frame attached to it. As we were tidying up today too, we had to be especially careful to not drip on anything, which was tough! The headmaster’s wife came over to talk to me while I was working and was telling me that she’s one of nine children, and that she’d like to email me in the future. I also discovered who had been taking secret photos on my camera when I caught Hussain with it – mystery solved.

As lunchtime approached we finished painting the final section, and each put a handprint on the underneath of the complex with our names next to them. It was quite emotional; I Day 8can’t believe we’ve finished the playground! After a delicious lunch of chicken which had lived at the school until that morning, we had another arts and play session, this time decorating empty toilet rolls, which the kids really enjoyed. We then headed into Jinja to go to the markets, and played a game called market madness where you get given a random person from the group and have to buy them a disgusting outfit to wear to dinner. It was hilarious.

I am now sitting with a milkshake with WiFi, really looking forward to the gorilla trek which begins this weekend. Playground done and onwards and upwards – I’ll write an update when I can access the internet again!

Read my other blog posts about the trip here and here.

Published by Sian Elvin

Journalist and editor from the UK.

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