By Hilary Thompson, Sacred Heart Schools Network Coordinator, with assistance from Bridget Shepherd, Year 13
Nine sixth form students from Sacred Heart High School in Newcastle travelled over 6000 miles this summer to spend two weeks in a sister school in Uganda. Their aim was to learn more about life in Sub Saharan Africa at the same time as contributing to the community by painting various classrooms and the Chapel. The project was set up and led by Sr Carmel Flynn rscj from Dublin who has led similar visits from Ireland since 2003. We had other very welcome Irish help, Sinead, a volunteer for the summer, and Sr Pat Egan, who provided us with wonderful meals; before coming to Kalungu, all three had already spent two weeks at Laini Saba!
St.Charles Lwanga GTC in Kalungu, south of Kampala, is a girls’ secondary boarding school with 320 students run for the local diocese by the Society of the Sacred Heart. It is deep in a rural equatorial landscape, surrounded by banana plantations.
From the beginning the girls received a warm welcome. Sr Noellina rscj, the head teacher, had arrangedwashing clothes together for each student to have a “buddy”, which proved a great success. After initial shyness receded, stories were exchanged, attitudes discussed, magazines pored over, lessons attended, plantain bananas peeled, meals and hilarious routines shared. On Saturday the Fenham students were introduced to washing clothes African style: a bucket, cold water and hard soap! A highlight was a formal debate, held every Friday evening, to which our girls were invited to contribute. Coached by the Ugandan students on the subtleties of the topic (“This house moves that the Ugandan government should introduce a dress code for women”), a heated debate was held and the motion defeated. In smaller groups the girls were also welcomed in to some homes in the village and were able to see first hand what subsistence living is like.
Meanwhile scrubbing, cleaning and painting continued and the time began to fly by faster than anyone could have predicted. We managed to clean and paint four science labs and the chapel. The second set of Science labs were something of a challenge. There was a lot of crawling under the dusty desks, past an open type of plumbing while trying not to think too much about what was lurking there!
The group were able to go because of the great response to their fundraising activities from their friends, relatives, the school and former students, both of Fenham and AMASC England, and the support of Society of the Sacred Heart. As well as raising £1500 each, the girls, Steve Wilkes, Assistant Head teacher and group-leader, and I had all kinds of goods and gifts to take, including football shirts and ICT equipment. Steve gave St Charles’ staff some training on the equipment and used the portable OHP to assist in painting the open Heart symbol on the chapel wall- the symbol of a dedication which unites Sacred Heart sisters and our institutions all over the world.
On Sunday we visited the local Sacred Heart primary school at Kyamusansala, another boarding school for over 400 girls, of whom 100 are orphans. They and some other students, as in the secondary school, are funded by charities connected in some way with the sisters. We were treated to an amazing welcome to the new buildings of the school and after lunch the sixth formers and visiting staff took over the classes while Sr Carmel delivered Child Protection training. Some girls found themselves with over 90 children sitting in one classroom and it put the differing standards into perspective! Bridget Shepherd writes, “A good school still had massive classes that would be completely unacceptable in England. While they were very well behaved how could we engage all 90 children at once? On this occasion we taught the children songs, they danced for us and we each shared information about our own lives.”
There were many things that brought home the differences between our cultures and circumstances: the cramped visiting a family dormitories, the ragged clothing of children in the village, the repetitive diet, the interrupted electricity and water supplies, the toilets and washing facilities, the approach to learning, the ability in languages, the long school day, paying in kind (e.g: crops) for schooling, the preconceptions on both sides about our respective lives. The local priest at Mass spoke about how good it was to see white people doing manual work and how that was a lesson about equality for his young parishioners. At the same time there was so much that brought us together, especially the fun of celebrations: whether it was the dancing at the school disco on Saturday evening to an African beat, the appreciation of the beautiful singing, drumming and dance at mass and the farewell concert and party.
Sr Noellina spoke very warmly of the Newcastle students: how they had impressed everyone at St Charles with their sense of purpose, team work and generosity. We were humbled when we thought of how much we had all learned and been given. There was much sadness at our parting, but to buoy us up there are so many memories to cherish and the confidence that the partnership between the schools will continue.
Here are some impressions and reflections from the Fenham students:
“It was just great to see the wider scale of Sacred Heart and its power.”
“I'm hoping my experience in Uganda will enable me to illustrate to others here the value of education in developing countries and the other needs there.”
“Seeing the children in Kampala really showed us how lucky we are."
“Visiting the homes in Kalungu was a great insight into the lives of ordinary people.”
"The girls’ attitude toward school has made us realise that education isn't something to be taken for granted."
"The people we've met in Uganda have affected us more than we could have ever imagined. They'll be in our hearts always."
“I have learnt that I don’t need material goods, small things we can do can make a big difference and it has inspired me to do more charity work.”
“I enjoyed the painting and it gave me a real sense of achievement, but more valuable was the time spent with the (Ugandan) girls, living without home comforts, experiencing another location and culture, and living with the team.”