Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Give and Take

Now back on UK soil, I will post a couple of blogs that were written in Uganda – the Wi-Fi at our hotel in Kampala was intermittent and very unreliable and, not surprisingly, there was none in the centres with the children, so, after 5 hours of trying late into the night, I decided to wait until I was back in the luxury of London before publishing. The following is my observations on the centres and our times spent with the children and staff.

The Connecting HR Africa team, standing on the shore of Lake Victoria
with Chris from Retrak, our guide and friend

We are, from left to right: Sophie, Ian, Katrina, Lisa, Donna, Helena, Kate (me), Alice, Amy, Julia and Laura

We are nearing the end of Connecting HR Africa’s trip to Uganda, where we have spent time working with the staff of Retrak and supporting street children; the word that everyone keeps using to describe our experience here is “amazing”. Since last Sunday we have seen and participated in many extraordinary events and activities (staff learning forums and one-to-one meetings, slum visits, art and craft sessions with the children, some wonderful discussions with the inspirational and extraordinary people who care for the children on a daily basis, we have participated in football and volley ball matches, 

Playing volleyball at Clubhouse
met up with fellow HR professionals for a networking evening (the birth of Connecting HR Kampala), 

Inaugural meeting of Connecting HR Kampala

and danced simply for the love of it, basking in the companionship of those around us in the sun and rain in Africa.

Dancing in the rain in Africa, at Clubhouse, the 1st Retrak centre

We have had a lot of fun, but, more importantly, we have held meaningful conversations with the potential to influence lives for the better, and done things that have had a genuine impact on others much less materially fortunate than ourselves.

Donna and friends at Clubhouse

Members of Connecting HR (Katrina, Helena, Amy, Ian and Julia) and girls at Bulamu

Lisa helping boys to read
It is worth noting that, for the main part, the people we met (unless desperate on or just off the streets) were more content in their skins than most of us are in the West – the pace, pressure and rush of life is in a different gear in Uganda – local people refer to “Uganda Time”, which is a reflection of their being relaxed and accepting. It’s OK to turn up late to a restaurant or a networking event, what is more important is to have a genuine connection and productive discussion

Boys playing and making bunting at Tuda, helped by Sophie, Alice, Lisa and Helena

or experience once you are together. The outcome is more important than the route, but you should enjoy the view when on the journey.

Some of the Connecting HR Africa team enjoying the sunset
on the bus back to our hotel

Ugandan village near the rainforest

Fields of sugar cane

Each of us in the Connecting HR Africa team has gained a better appreciation of Uganda, its people and customs. Of equal importance for each of us is that we have learned things about ourselves. We have been fortunate to share experiences that have altered the way we view our world. In my case, it has crystallised my appreciation of the importance of legacy and the value of paying it forwards and it has made me slow down and enjoy the moment. I have also started to learn that it is OK to be me and that I am not unworthy of being liked. 

Me being presented with my necklace by a 5 year old little girl
(What makes a 5 year old run away from home)
For many complex reasons, I have never liked myself much, as people I love dearly often told me that I was a failure in their eyes and that whatever I did was never good enough. While away with Connecting HR Africa, I was able to accept that others appreciated me simply for who I am. So, on a personal level Uganda has been transformational.

Some of the outstanding Retrak staff (Timothy, Jackie and Juliette) relaxing with me
There is no doubt that we have given something of value to a few – I read a book to a delightful eight year-old girl – her friend quietly informed me, although it was obvious, that her little companion did not speak English. However, we found that we could both interact in that universal language of making silly animal noises whilst looking at pictures. With much giggling we pointed at farmyard creatures and imitated the sounds they make, I then told her the name in English and she repeated it. It was clear that she understood, because when she saw the same animal later in the book she pointed at it and said “Dog”, or whatever it was. I believe she learned 7 new words while she and I were sitting in the welcome shade by the wall of the girls' dormitory, and our mutual chortles (as we both quacked like ducks and bleated like sheep) did us both good. She needs to be able to speak and read English if she is to rise above her disadvantages going forwards.

Reading together - "quack, quack! Duck"
Although the youngsters in Bulamu (Retrak’s girls-only centre in Kampala) were vocal in their frequently avowed affection for all of us, they seemed to make a particular fuss of me – shy little hands slipping into mine, furtive smiles, personalised drawings

and loom-band bracelets offered with a smile, and then the honour of being, not only the first person called to the dance floor, but also the first person to be presented with the very attractive necklace that they had made (one for each of us) as a farewell gift. 

I suspect my dancing made them laugh (I’m not graceful at the best of times and when dancing can resemble a grinning elephant swaying to the beat) and the other interest was most likely due to my being the oldest in our group and hence culturally deserving of respect, but for me it was a learning to try and accept being the centre of attention (I tend to shine the light on others and am uncomfortable being in the glow).

The girls’ centre made all of us think – their behaviour was so different from that of the boys. They were light fingered, slipping pens and pots of nail varnish into pockets and under sashes. They were watchful and at times scheming or openly squabbling with others – trying to manipulate situations to their personal advantage and surreptitiously taking things off their fellows, seeking to be given anything regardless of use or value, or stealing it if they thought we weren’t looking – even the most simple items like stickers, elastic bands and thread. 

Katrina helping children draw on paper plates

A scramble for loom bands
We had been told that, in many ways, the girls had had more traumatic experiences than the boys. All the ones we met had endured horrific situations, you could see it in their eyes and their disinclination to make genuine connections (the majority of them had been trafficked, suffered rape and physical/mental abuse; many had been detained in domestic servitude and reduced to working as slaves for strangers) – all of the girls at the centre had been handed into Retrak’s care by the police.

The girls at Bulamu
I suspect that the police involvement might be part of the explanation for the marked contrast in the girls’ behaviour versus the boys’. We had two former UK police officers in the Connecting HR Africa group (one had been an expert in domestic violence and the other in youth issues and child support). Talking with each of them, they confirmed that being in police custody could prove an additional stress factor impacting on an individual – the girls were needing to overcome multiple trauma, as well as the societal expectations that they, as women, should be sending money home to support their families back in their villages (often the reason for their being trafficked in the first place) – no wonder they felt the need to grab what they could. Donna and I ran a jewellery making session and little hands grabbed and snatched at loom bands, like gannets swooping on fish. 

Donna and I were not as talented as the girls at making bracelets, but we watched and learned.

Donna also noted that girls were more violent when inspecting her tattoos – pinching and hurting her, while the boys just touched and wanted to know if it was real. 

Tattoos are uncommon in Uganda - they are mostly seen on TV or in the media on celebrities. Many of the children wanted to know if Donna was famous or an artist, the girls almost seemed jealous of her and so surreptitiously took the opportunity to hurt her while appearing interested.

I know from running change programmes at work that success often depends on people feeling that they have the freedom to make a choice as to their future. Learning has to start with self and the desire to change. At the boys’ centre, Clubhouse, the majority of children had arrived via outreach activities on the streets and in the slums. Of the 80 who followed us back to the centre on Monday (for lunch and a snooze away from the dangers of the streets) 5 had chosen to remain at Retrak when we returned to the centre on the Friday. They had had a right to decide as to whether to be in the centre (which entailed an agreement to abide by centre rules – no drugs, blades or unacceptable behaviour and a commitment to wanting to change, ideally to going home to be reunited, but supported, within their own family). In Tuda, the second boys’ centre at which we spent time, the boys had been with Retrak for longer and understood and wanted to be part of the centre’s life – living according to Christian values. They willingly helped cook, clean and do things for others.

Boys cooking lunch at Clubhouse
(NB building behind is having its leaking roof repaired)
One little lad had lost his leg, but he was proactively helped to join in the dancing. 

They watched out for each other and were relaxed in their skins. In contrast, having been placed in the Retrak centre by the police, I believe that the girls felt that they had been deprived of their freedom to choose – it’s not a genuine choice to be told that it is either police custody (often incarcerated with adults in a crowded cell, where awful things happen) or else to be enclosed in a centre run by a charity. In the boys’ centres they were free to leave at any time. In contrast, the girls were in a secure unit with a security guard on the gate – it was for their own protection, but may not have felt that way. Girls are more vulnerable and occasionally adults have tried to enter to take advantage of them. Perhaps I am over-reading the situation – the difference in behaviour might just have been a reflection of the depth of abuse that the girls had had to endure prior to reaching the haven of Retrak. However, what could not be ignored was the passion and care of the staff in all the centres, working tirelessly to try to create an environment in which the children could thrive and have a future.

The nurse at Clubhouse

The cooks at Bulamu

Uganda Retrak Staff Top Team at L&D session at Head Office
Florence, the inspirational CEO, is addressing us

Alice with Charles (it was his 2nd week working at Retrak)
Charles shares a name and age with my eldest son.
With all the privileges we enjoy and take for granted in our day-to-day lives, it was humbling to see children so clearly delighted by the most simple of things. We sang, we danced, we drew, we played – all things that should be part of every childhood. Some generous friends of mine had donated toy cars and the boys at Tuda lined up behind a rail, almost like receiving communion, to be handed a small vehicle each. 

Their joy was tangible – no squabbling and no “your car is bigger than mine” fights. I have never seen a group of boys so delighted by such a simple gesture. It was an honour, in even a small way, to make these people’s lives better and see them smile.

I would like to thank all of you who have supported the trip – every penny that you have donated does make a difference. If you would like to donate now, here is a link to my JustGiving site. Many Ugandans live off US $1 per month, so the amount we have raised so far will feed and sustain lots of children. It costs £105 to educate a child for a year and £8 for them to have a proper medical check-up. However, it was clear from being on site in Uganda that the charity would benefit from more support. I think a second girls’ centre – one that girls could elect to move to if they wished to progress according to Retraks’ values and goals (similar to Tuda for the boys) would make a huge difference. Clubhouse, the boys’ centre near the slums, only has 25 beds – we had 80 additional boys join us at lunchtime on Monday – what if they all had decided that they wanted to stay?

A 25 bed boys' dorm
It is estimated that there are 10,000 children on the streets in Uganda – 6,000 of which are in Kampala. We are in the fortunate position that we have plenty and hence can help. However, it’s not just money, the staff said that the thing that made the biggest difference for them was that we, as a group of HR professionals, wanted to share our skills, get down and dirty, understand their issues and help. 

L&D session lead by Amy and Lisa at Retrak Uganda Head Office
I gather that most visiting groups just want to gawp at the children and have photos taken with them. I fear the girls at Bulamu felt that they had to lay on a show for us, but they did sing and dance so well.

My next post will touch on our experiences with the staff and our ability to make connections.
Staff attending a training session at Tuda
I am proud to be part of a group who can honestly say that they have made a difference and I know, from the feedback that we have already been given, that the Connecting HR Africa trip is viewed as having been a success for Retrak. There will be future excursions. Perhaps what I have said has inspired you to wish to be involved. If you want to know more, drop me or any of the others a line.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016


Living in the West, it is perhaps a little too easy for people to sniff in disgust at the poor in other countries and comment that: "Charity begins at home". However, I’d like to encourage you to reconsider. Yesterday I, along with the other people participating in Connecting HR Africa, went with some of the staff from Retrak to visit the street children who spend their days in the slums of Kampala, with the intention of offering them a better life off the streets and away from the slums and open sewers. The children are never forced - the choice is theirs and I am impressed at the respect that is consistently given to them.

Children jumping an open sewer in the Kampala slums
We had both the local area bosses’ permission and an agreement from the police, but even with their support we were instructed to remove all jewellery and watches (even wrist bands and anti-mosquito bangles) prior to setting off, and not to take cameras or phones. Anything of value is temptation to a child who has nothing and, just as the Jack Dawkins (perhaps known better to you as the Artful Dodger) and Fagin (the adult who exploits the children and encourages them into stealing for him) in the musical Oliver!, when young Oliver Twist joins Fagin’s group of street thieves – “you’ve got to pick a pocket or two”.


The children in Kampala have no other option than to steal or to allow people to take advantage of them in exchange for food or money in order to survive, and the situation in Uganda’s capital is little different from the horrors that Charles Dickens campaigned against in his books over a century ago. Dickens' serialised novels held up to scrutiny the underbelly of Victorian society. Here in Kampala it is like stepping back in time – there is child labour, children as young as five are in servitude (often as a result of child trafficking); street gangs are run by unscrupulous adults;
 "...the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils. Having prepared his mind, by solitude and gloom, to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, he was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue for ever." – Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
and child prostitution is rife (we saw a girl of about 12, who was clearly seeking customers, dressed provocatively, and a man whom we suspect was a pimp). In 2016 we should have progressed beyond such things, no matter the country. What really struck me when spending time with the street children in the slum was the hardness and suspicion etched on their faces, despite their cheeky grins, hugs, fist bumps and high fives. On the streets nobody is your friend – if you are starving you will steal from anyone, and nobody will help - not even the young person the same age as you with whom you laughed and got high earlier in the day (Maslow got it right, as far as needs are concerned).

55% of children under 5 in Uganda live in poverty. 58% of the Ugandan population is aged under 18 and hence there are few adults to cope with a rising problem – existing social services have been overwhelmed, there is very poor communication between different public bodies – for example although the police are responsible for rounding up homeless children, they do not run the hostels where children should be kept and as a consequence vulnerable children frequently find themselves incarcerated in prison cells with dangerous adults despite having not done anything wrong – in these situations there are often disastrous consequences. HIV is rife and there is a superstitious belief in large parts of the community that if you sleep with a virgin you will be cured of AIDS. Rape is common – and sex is demanded as payment for food or things to make life feel less painful.
 The girl's life had been squandered in the streets, and among the most noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there was something of the woman's original nature left in her still – Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Life expectancy for men and women is one of the lowest in the world, and this is unlikely to improve in the near future. AIDS has emerged as a significant cause of death and illness among young children; thus, the already high infant and child mortality rates can be expected to rise. Among children under five, who account for over half of hospital deaths, the main killers are malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, and malnutrition. Malaria has been found to be the principal killer among adults admitted to hospitals, while diarrhoea, pneumonia, and anaemia are almost as common as AIDS as reported primary causes of death.

Many of the children we saw in the slums were clearly ill, their noses were running and they suffered from sores and injuries, they were also on drugs – I was offered a couple of small packages of grubby greyish yellow crystals and a sniff of a bottle with a rag at the bottom (many of the children were clutching them). Most of the children in the slums sniff aviation fuel – they don’t do it simply for the gratification of getting high (although the respite from the grind of their daily existence must be welcome);

… one of the side effects of the sniffing aviation fuel is that it prevents the inhaler from noticing the cold when sleeping rough - although it is hot during the day, it can be chilly at night. In addition, sniffing helps suppress the appetite, which is an advantage when food is hard to come by or over expensive (whatever the manner if payment).  Despite providing short-term relief, the long-term harm of sniffing is dire.

This blog is reading like a catalogue of issues but I do want you to understand what it is like, what the donations you have provided will be spent on and the hope for the future. If you haven't given anything, it's not too late and everyone here would be thrilled were you to make a donation to my Just Giving page – every penny contributes directly to the charity and the people it helps. 

I have to confess that, after coming to Uganda and seeing things myself, I am genuinely stunned and impressed by the work that Retrak do. They enable children to come off the streets and start having a childhood. They cope with the drug dependency and mental and physical health issues that the street children suffer from and then help re-establish a sense of self-worth and an appreciation of others and opportunities for the future. It must be so hard trying to reintegrate a child with a family when there were valid reasons as to why he or she ran away in the first place.. I am in awe of the skills and patience of the staff – it takes time and effort to establish trust and make a difference to a maltreated and badly damaged child.

In addition to a shortage of space, Retrak suffers from not being able to respond to the enormity of the problem in Kampala – there are 10,000 children on the streets, but the Retrak establishment that supports children fresh out of the slums/streets only has 25 beds available, so they have to turn children away. 

It was depressing driving through the streets around the bus station last night and seeing how many children there were sleeping in shop doorways.

They believe that they are safer there than in many other locations.

“There were some ragged children in another corner; and in a small recess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, something covered with an old blanket.” - Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Street children asleep in a doorway, UK 1890
Many Ugandan street children club together and pay one of the guards in residence in the shop doorways to watch over them while they sleep. They lie in front of him on sheets of cardboard, with a rough sack or blanket pulled around them. Other children who cannot afford to pay for the service try to lie close to their more affluent peers and hence the area becomes packed every night with traumatised children trying to secure some rest. The boys and girls who end up with Retrak have some terrible stories - not just as to why they ran away or had to leave home but also the experiences they have had to endure while on the road or once in Uganda's capital.

"I have sat by myself and cried to think of his wandering about in the dark nights with nobody to help him." – Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

It is interesting how much you can tell about a person from their eyes and expression. Look at the below photograph of Victorian street urchins in the UK. I saw similar faces on boys and girls in the slums.

The children in the slums only smiled with their mouths – their eyes and facial expressions were hard and wary. 

When we headed back from the slums, Pied Piper-like, nearly 100 boys followed us and 80 of these made it to inside the site. After a sleep under the veranda porch, and a medical inspection including a test for AIDS (as a result of which 2 children were taken to hospital that afternoon), they had lunch (which we dished up)

and then went out onto the fields with Alice and some of the other Connecting HR sportsmen to play football. Gradually, as the afternoon progressed, these boys started behaving more like children, as opposed to suspicious and manipulative mini adults with light fingers. They noticeably began to relax and enjoy themselves. Not all of the boys we had fed decided to stay - for some, the freedom outside the compound and the lure of drugs was too strong - they were allowed to leave whenever they wished. The Retrak sites are not gaols and their aim is not to ensnare children into long-term residential care with the charity.

Retrak’s raison d'ĂȘtre is to help get street children off the streets and, ideally, for them to settle back with their families. Individual support and counselling is provided to each and every child, as well as legal liaison with both the police and the courts and facilitation with parents (if they can be traced) and/or foster parents or relatives. On average the process from a child leaving the streets to their being comfortable with returning home to their parents takes 4 months. In addition, there is an embryonic outreach programme being launched, to help families and communities who need it - with the aim of prevention by addressing root causes for why children flee. - such as parental anger inspired by poverty and desperation. 

You could say that, because Retrak’s goal is to help a child become successfully reunited with its family, its journey ends at home. So,  returning to where this post began, but using a different lens, it is true that: “Charity begins at home’ - where the dismissive Western scoffers have said it should be. And my final observation has to be - What the Dickens are we doing allowing street children to be so prevalent, alone and abused? It is impossible not to be moved when here with them. Clearly Charles Dickens himself understood and felt the same.

We should strive to ensure that Dickensian conditions are wiped out across the globe. Together we can make a difference.