On the 27th of October a group from the Royal and Prior travelled to The Bethel Royal School in Uganda on what would end up being a life changing experience for staff and students alike.
In 2008 the five Royal schools in Ulster celebrated their 400th Anniversary. To mark the occasion the schools decided to help fund the building of a secondary school in the Nakasongolaregion of Uganda. This project was in collaboration with an organisation called ‘Fields of Life’. Fields of Life was founded in 1995 by Trevor and Ruth Stevenson and they now have education, agriculture, healthcare and water projects in The Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.
Fields of Life enlisted the help of a local primary school teacher, a lady called Annette Kissa to get the project off the ground. It is thanks to Annette’s tireless work and vision that the school is the thriving success that it is today in 2014. It is Annette’s belief that Education is the key to beating poverty and giving children a future. Annette is now the director of the school and has changed the lives of so many children, their families and the wider community in this region of Uganda. She is truly an inspirational selfless woman and touched the hearts of our entire group.
Today Bethel Royal has approximately 600 students with around 550 of these boarding at the school. The children come from very diverse backgrounds, with many being orphaned, abandoned or from poverty stricken homes. The school sits on 120 acres of land, much of which is used for agriculture. The school grows a variety of crops including maize, beans, bananas and cassava. They have a small herd of beef and dairy cows as well as some egg laying chickens. They collect rainwater in silos for washing and cooking and have a spring well nearby from which clean drinking water is pumped and transported every day. The school is now self-sufficient and produces enough crops to feed the entire school. They have a small mill where the maize is ground into flour; this is used to make a naan bread like product called chapatti, which forms the staple part of the student’s diet. A cow is killed every Sunday and each student gets a small amount of meat. Some of the meat is also given to the poorest families in the surrounding communities. It is Annette’s hope that next year the school can produce enough milk so that every student can have a glass of milk every day. The school has several multipurpose classrooms as well as some specialist rooms for science, computers etc. The boarding facilities at the school consist of large dorms, divided into boys and girls with basic bunk beds to sleep over 40 students in every room. The school also has a small guesthouse for visitors, where we stayed on our visit.
Our trip started in the very early hours of Monday the 27th of October. We left the Royal and Prior at 1 a.m. After loading all 42 suitcases of luggage, gifts and donations onto Gerry’s coach, we said our farewells and set off on our long journey. We flew from Dublin to London Heathrow then had a 9 hour transfer to Entebbe airport Uganda. We travelled around an hour by bus to the Countries capital, Kampala. We arrived at 12.30 am the following night, 3 hours ahead of time at home. We were all exhausted and stayed overnight at a Fields of Life guesthouse in the city. The next morning after breakfast and a little time to relax we set off again by bus. This time a 3 hour journey north, deep into the Nakasongolaregion of Uganda to our final destination at THE Bethel Royal School. Our students were amazed by the heart-warming welcome we received, children lining the roads smiling and waving and a choir singing their joyful greetings as we stepped off the bus. We met several students, staff and Annette. It was a moment full of hugs and happiness and was the start of what was to be a wonderful time at Bethel.
With the help of Annette we put together an itinery that would let us experience all aspects of Bethel school life and would be beneficial for both our students and theirs. A typical day started at 6.00 am. After showers and dressing we had breakfast at 7.00. Classes start at 7.30 in Bethel, and they will have chores on the farm, at the water pump or in the mill completed at this stage. In the mornings, in groups guided by Bethel staff we visited various classes. We observed and joined in and also took time to speak to the classes and give presentations about life and school at home. We were amazed at the quality of teaching demonstrated by the Ugandan staff with such limited teaching resources. The students were so keen and eager to learn, they appreciated the chance they had been given to receive an education. An opportunity so few African children get.
In the afternoons we organised various activities with groups of the Bethel students. This was a great opportunity for our students to interact and get to know them. Over the week we had sports, art, woodwork and language clinics. Annette was fascinated with the Irish language and enlisted the help of our own Miss Bonner. Along with some of our more lingual students, a blackboard and some hand puppets, Miss Bonner taught a huge number of Bethel students some basic Irish. We were all amazed how quickly they picked it up and they were even singing in Irish by the time we left. Our two Miss Fergusons along with staff and students from both schools spent some time every evening producing a beautiful mural representing both schools. It will remain a remainder of the connection between our two schools for many years.
Bethel is a Christian school full of talented singers, dancers and preachers. The school boasts several choirs and we had the pleasure of their company every night outside our guesthouse when they came to entertain us. They had us on our feet singing and dancing and thanking God for the day gone by. They had a lovely saying at the school that ‘every day is sweeter than the day before’. This was so true and summed up our time with them perfectly.
On the Saturday we visited the nearby New Beginnings Orphanage. The Orphanage was founded in 2009 by a gentleman called Roger Annet from Kilkeel. The Orphanage provides a home and family to over 120 children, with ages ranging from 2 to 18. They are currently building a nursery school which will be used to educate their youngest children, in the hope that they will progress to primary and secondary school in years to come. We brought them a range of supplies including books, stationary and other scholastic materials to stock the Nursery school when it is completed. The children are well cared for but it is clear that they crave love and affection and many come from very sad backgrounds. During the day we organised sports and games for the children and spent as much time with them as possible. In the evening we presented them all with medals and some sweets and we all watched a DVD together. The orphanage visit was an emotional experience, one our group will never forget.
We had a lovely church service on the Sunday morning led by the Bethel students. Like every day in life they thanked God for their health, their school and the chance at an education and a future that they had been given. In the afternoon Annette took us around the communities and families living near the school. We got to see the poverty that exists but also the outreach programmes and effect the school is having on the development of the area. Through building and animal rearing projects the people are slowly educating and working their way out of poverty. Annette is a vital link between the school and the wider communities and we saw the love and gratitude the people have for her first hand. Sunday ended with a joint Royal Schools outdoor talent show. It was an exhibition of both schools talents in music and dance and was a lovely way to finish our trip, with the entire school and many families from the local community in attendance.
Throughout the week we presented the various gifts and donations we had brought out with us. These included clothing, toiletries, school supplies and sports equipment. We also made a joint donation along with Dungannon Royal to buy a generator and pump, so that next year the school will have drinking water from a tap at the school and not have the back breaking work of pumping it by hand and transporting it every day. We were humbled by how thankful the school was for such small gifts. We would like to thank everyone at home who helped in any way to make the trip possible. The group of students we had with us were a credit to the school and their families. They made the most of every moment of the trip and did everything with a smile on their face.
Our group gained more from the trip than words can describe. They made memories and friendships that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. They got to experience a very different culture and a people that lift your spirits and make you see the world in a much more positive way. We have come home with a much greater appreciation of everything we have, and a realisation that material things don’t bring happiness, but joy is in the people in our lives.