When a decade of doing any one thing begins to approach, I guess it’s a good time to look back and reflect. Not only to reflect on what has been done, what has been accomplished but also on what you have learned. My colleague Olivia has done a great job of giving a comprehensive overview of the past 10 years in her previous blog (read it here). I wanted to share a little of my personal journey over the past 10 years and to highlight what I have learned thus far both about myself and about running a charity aiming to bring hope to children in Uganda. For any of you who have supported us over the years you may have heard some of these things before, you and I may have shared conversations or emails about such things. You may have been part of my learning, sharing your advice and guidance to a young charity worker who hasn’t always had the right tools in her bag. So I want to say thank you, not only to those who have dug deep into their pockets to give and transform the lives of children and communities but also to those who have shared their knowledge, their expertise or simply been an emotional support to myself or one of our team as we continue to do our best with what we’ve got. So here goes, a non-exhaustive list of a few things I have learned in these 10 years.
1) People Surprise You
When we first started fundraising for the children in the slums, I was personally quite uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for money. Whether it was because I was afraid of how I might look or how those asked might feel I’m not sure. But over the years people have surprised me with their generosity, not only giving of their money but of their time and effort. Often it’s those you expect the least who surprise you with their compassion, care and kindness. Working with the children and communities has been blessing and they continually surprise me with their resilience, creativity and generosity too.
2) Listening is more important than anything
There’s nothing more frustrating than someone pretending to listen to you. As a chatty 18/19 year old starting out on this journey, I don’t think that good listening skills were really in my repertoire but I have learned that this is vital to working with compassion. The communities we work with have some of the weakest voices in the world, politically speaking. If we don’t listen to them who will? Large scale international aid attempts to do so with ‘baseline studies’ and ‘community consultation’ however the project that ends up being delivered is often a little, if not way off the mark from what the community really wanted and needed. Listening to communities has helped us to develop projects that last because people actually want to be involved and work together on solving problems. Our counselling projects have developed from the realisation that truly being ‘heard’ is one of the most basic of human needs. Often we cannot take away the trauma and pain that has been suffered by some of these people but what we can do is listen to their stories and stand with them. Listening is also the most important thing when working in relationship with others. Over the years, listening to Sam and our Ugandan staff team with their experience, ideas and expertise has probably been the key to the success of our projects. They really do know what they are talking about as they are the ones working day in and day out with the communities.
3) Money doesn’t solve things
Money does make things happen and we certainly could not run our projects without it, but the money in itself is not what solves things, people do. Having been around the international development scene for a while now I have seen first-hand how throwing money at something does not make things work. We work in some of the most complex human situations in the slums. These areas are accustomed to substance misuse, gangs, abuse, prostitution, child abandonment, family breakdown and any other human issue you can think of. For this reason, most aid agencies just don’t want to get too involved in slum communities. Throw a load of money at the slums and it could be a real disaster. Equally, not ignoring the fact that what they really want and need is more money is also important. But real change, I have come to believe comes through relationship. Give an abandoned child all he or she materially needs and they still lack a relationship with a loving family. Our social workers, teachers and project leaders have built deep relationships with children, parents, community members and community leaders and these are the things that really make a difference. Relationship is a key theme that I now see runs through all that we do at Kids Club Kampala. From relationships with supporters around the word to the relationship between a family and their child who has been reunited with them, these are the things that change lives.
4) Good intentions are not all you need
Many of you may know our Christian ethos here at Kids Club Kampala and I for one would say that I have felt that this journey has been a God purpose in my life. I remember when starting out and feeling very unknowledgeable many of my Christian counterparts mentioned the cliché ‘God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called.’ And although this might sound romantic and reassuring I do feel that it leaves out a fundamental point about responsibility. As someone who is taking on the challenge of running a charity it is of utmost importance that you do qualify yourself as quickly as you can in the areas needed. If you have good intentions but have sought no guidance and don’t know what you are doing then things are not going to pan out well and in the end of the day you are responsible. I often like to think of the medical philosophy to ‘do no harm.’ One can have great intentions to help someone who needs a medical operation but if you don’t know how to do it then you are going to cause harm by ‘giving it a shot’. In fact, many people with good intentions in international aid do enormous harm unintentionally. It is so important to do things cautiously and considerately and as I said before by listening to others above all else. The greatest example is probably the development of our Ewafe Project. This project provides emergency care for children who have become abandoned, orphaned or at risk. When this project was beginning I was very aware that taking on the responsibility of children at such a vulnerable time was a tricky thing and that we needed to really consider how to plan this project properly. I moved out to Kampala for 4 months after completing my masters in Developmental Child Psychology, something I had chosen to study to learn more about the conditions children need to develop well. I had seen so many organisations running orphanages that effectively separated children from their families and caused emotional and developmental issues for children. I wanted to make sure that we modelled and designed our continuum of care in line with what is best for each child and that ultimately we would ‘do no harm’ as we endeavoured to support these children at their time of utmost need. Working with Sam, our Ugandan director and Beatrice our Ewafe Project lead, we developed a project that now prioritises family care for children by tracing for and reuniting families where safe and possible. Many of our team have gone on to study and acquire knowledge in related areas in order to inform the work that we do. Sam has recently completed a masters in Community Participation, researching the effects of family breakdown on children and Olivia studied International Development. Each year we also partner with the University of Sheffield International Development Masters program and welcome researchers to Kampala to find out more about the issues we are fighting within the slums. Learning is one of the most important things we can do and I am always looking to learn more from others in the field. I have personally turned my focus to the family reintegration work that we do and have decided to study Family Psychotherapy in order to learn more about family systems. This I hope will help to inform the therapeutic work that we do with children and families before, during and after family reunification. But there will always be more to learn and we are always looking for more guidance and advice.
5) This thing is bigger than me
At the beginning this project seemed like a small endeavour that would be a personal quest to support the children and communities I had met in Uganda. What was built out of a relationship between three friends soon grew to a family of over 70 local volunteers, 26 staff members in Uganda, 5 staff members in the UK and Ireland, hundreds of supporters around the world and thousands of children and communities. Although I may have thought that this was just a personal project it was always much more than that. I have been privileged to be given a chance to take part in a plan that God had from long ago and almost as soon as it had begun it grew further than what I had expected it to be. And thank God too that it isn’t all up to me, it’s amazing and comforting to know that what we are doing rests on the shoulders of so many amazing, capable and inspiring individuals.