Exiles Forum

Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland


Bringing the gift of hope to the people of Uganda


SHOWING THE COLOUR... Oxfam Ireland's 1(0 Ryan and Paul Dunphy wore the charity's T-shirts whilst visiting the Palabek Gem transit camp

SHOWING THE COLOUR... Oxfam Ireland's KD Ryan and Paul Dunphy wore the charity's T-shirts whilst visiting the Palabek Gem transit camp where people have received gifts of goats and cattle, again available in the Christmas 2008 'Unwrapped' catalogue.

On YOUR BIKE...Kagwa Christopher, who has returned to his home in Mucwini, northern Uganda, gives Dublin singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy a lift on the bicycle he recieved from Oxfam. Bicycles are among the Oxfam Unwrapped gifts for Christmas 2008.EACH of us has grown up in a world in which Africa - despite its vast size and abundance of natural resources - appears to confirm the Scriptural adage that the poor shall always be with us.

Perhaps, in the bigger scheme of things, the real purpose of it being so is to challenge those of us fortunate enough to have been born on the more privileged side of the track - materially at any rate -and remind us that we are, indeed, our brothers' keepers.

Never having been to Africa, I accepted an invitation to visit Kitgum in northern Uganda, there to see firsthand the work done by Oxfam Ireland and witness the practical outworking and benefits of that charity's 'Unwrapped' gift scheme.

I did so as one who has already subscribed to alternate gift schemes whereby rather than buying another pair of socks for a getting-on-in-years male relative who probably has more of the said-footwear than the Pringle company, instead you spend that money on something of prospect-enhancing, potentially life-changing value for someone whose need is greater than that of your Uncle Tom, Dick or Harry. Realistically, how many pairs of socks can he need?

And is there really any point in another bottle of toilet-water for Aunt Edna when there are millions of people in hundreds of places like Kitgum who have neither water nor toilets? Big questions. Especially at Christmas when we tend to buy all manner of things for people who neither want nor need them.

Ahead of the trek in mid-October - the latter stages of East Africa's wet season -we were jabbed to immunize us against a variety of ailments and prescribed anti-malaria drugs.

By 'we' I mean a party of five: Oxfam Ireland's KD Ryan and Paul Dunphy, singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy - most notably of Women's Heart fame - Dublin-based photo-journalist Kim Haughton and myself, the sole northerner.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL...Pumping fresh, clean, Oxfam-provided water in a camp in Madi-Opei transit camp, home to 2,000 people who are now making the move back to their own farms.So down to Dublin for a pre-trip briefing at Oxfam Ireland's Burgh Quay headquarters and a first ever meeting with those who were to be my companions.

Passport; check. Visa; check. Money changed - to US dollars, of all things; check. (Once in Africa, dollars are changed to Ugandan shillings, 20,000 of which are worth about 6.80).

Ten days later, four of us - Kim, who had a prior engagement, followed - met at Dublin Airport for the first of four flights en route to Kitgum: Dublin-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Nairobi, Nairobi-Entebbe, Entebbe-Pader.

The first, third and fourth of those flights are quite short. The second is 4,150 miles, so even at a speed of 520mph it's an eight-hour overnight ordeal during which you get little or no sleep.

However, a compensatory plus was the fact that, as we crossed the equator en route to Nairobi, the dark cloud formed a stunning silhouette against the fire of an orange/red early-morning sky. Stunningly beautiful and a moment which makes the fatigue worthwhile.

Below was land of unexpected verdure. It's lush and it's green, which, given East Africa's well-documented droughts and seemingly insoluble food shortages, is something of a paradox. Just the first of a great many, I am to discover.

From the capital of Kenya to Entebbe, which is the airport serving Kampala, Nairobi's Ugandan equivalent. It was late Sunday morning, Ugandan time, when we got to the Golf View Hotel on the shore of Lake Victoria, where we stayed for the remainder of the day and overnight before flying north to Pader, on the very fringe of civilsation as we know it.

Lake Victoria is 10,200 square kilometres. To put that in context, Lough Neagh - the biggest freshwater lake in the Britain and Ireland - is 392 square kilometres.

TOILET HUMOUR... Eleanor McEvoy enjoys a light moment with a youngster waiting to use latrines provided by Oxfam to help in the fight against bacteria-borne disease.Uganda occupies 241,000 square kilometres; Ireland in this instance taken as a whole - measures 87,000 sq km, the respective populations being 30.9 million and just under six million.

The following day's flight - from Entebbe to the landing strip which is Pader - was made in a 19-seater plane. Below were huts made of wattle, dried grass and baked-mud bricks. As we flew over them, I wondered what exactly awaits us.

To say I was not fully prepared for the tights we encountered as we began to make our way by 4x4 from Pader to Kitgum, a distance of 62 kilometres, is to understate the case. In truth, I was totally unprepared for this. For here, on the roadside, was hardship worse than I had envisaged.

The roads are not roads in our sense of the word; they are deeply rutted, potholed tracks of sun-scorched, red earth. In our Toyota Land Cruiser, driven by Oxfam worker Geoffrey - a native of Kitgum and a Frank Bruno lookalike - we were bounced and buffeted remorselessly. And that, coupled with the heat, was physically sickening.

But the greater sickness was that of the heart on seeing the abject poverty outside. Inside the vehicle you just sit and wonder how, in this day and age, with all our centuries of know-how, learning and advancement, the world continues to be so ill-divided? How can this be right?

The simple answer, of course, is that it isn't right; it is just a stark, inescapable fact wherein lies the challenge to those of us who have to share with those, who -through no fault of their own - do not. Their needs are the most basic imaginable. Water. Food. Sanitation. Shelter. Clothing. The prospect, at least, of an income with which to support themselves.

And security. In a region subjected to 20 years of barbarism, most recently at the hands, machetes and guns of the Joseph Kony-led and wholly misnamed Lord's Resistance Army which has abducted an estimated 20,000 children, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into brutal killers.

Tens of thousands have died. Poverty is a by-product, war having forced the people off their farms, out of their villages and into huge refugee camps. Almost two million of them.

But now they are returning to their homelands. They are rebuilding their huts and beginning to farm again. Their children are receiving an education. Oxfam is helping them to transform their lives.

That struck home repeatedly in the course of this trip was the relentless hardship of these people's existence. For water, we switch or a tap. If we need food, we go to the supermarket, where we choose from shelves laden with it. If we're sick, we see a doctor. Ne take the car when we want to go some where. We drive on good roads. If we walk, it's on proper pavements. If we're unable to work through illness or unemployment Are benefit from a welfare system that provides sufficient support to see us through our crises.

Not so in northern Uganda, however. Everywhere I looked here, I saw people to whom nothing comes easily. Always there s a challenge to be met, a difficulty or disadvantage to overcome. Adversity in all things is their norm.

That they survive at all is remarkable. And I can only marvel that, so often, it's with a smile and in a spirit which defies rationale. It is truly humbling.

Above all else, it is these incongruities which will remain with me long after )they memories of East Africa have faded. Chat and the fact that at the end of a week sere, remarkably I leave with some sense if hope based on what I have seen of the mpact of Oxfam 'Unwrapped'.


Where to shop

OXFAM has 19 shops in Northern Ireland from which most of the gifts in the charity's Unwrapped catalogue are available.

Other gifts are available on line from

The shops are as follows:

  • County Antrim - Ballyhackamore, Botanic Ave, Castle Street, Cregagh Road, Dublin Road, Rosemary St, Ormeau Road (all Belfast); Lame. County Armagh - Portadown, Lurgan.

  • County Down - Bangor, Holywood, Newry, Newtownards. County Fermanagh -Enniskillen

  • County Londonderry - Coleraine, Londonderry.

  • County Tyrone - Cookstown, Omagh.

This year buy presents that make a difference

OXFAM Unwrapped gifts which make a difference:

Price range 6-10

Piglets - 28

Water buckets - 6

Support a woman in business -30

*Dignity kits - 8

Build a toilet - 31

Cooking stove - 10

Vegetable garden - 32

Price range 10-20 -

School superhero pack - 35

School books - 12

Plant trees - 36

*Mosquito nets - 14

*Palliative care - 38

Drinking water for three families - 17

Protect women - 40

Chicks - 18

Price range 40-100 -

*Food for an orphan - 19

Bicycle - 45

Give girls a start - 20

*The Apprentice - 50

Musical instruments - 20

*Drinking water for 12 families -68

Price range 20-40 -

Dairy cow - 70

*Herb garden - 22

Family hero pack - 89

*Plant potatoes - 24

Price range 100-200 -

*Condoms - 24

Farm pack - 158

Goat - 25

Price range over 1,000 -

*School fees for three orphans -27

Water for a whole village -2,080

*Available only on website

Ulster Star