Builders bond a friendship

March 26, 1999

Uganda needs more primary schools. So Patrick Kelly and students from Britain and Ireland went out to help Last summer, 12 university students from Britain and Ireland rendezvoused at Gatwick Airport before boarding a British Airways flight to Nairobi. We were heading for Uganda to take part in a four-week construction project in a remote village in the kingdom of the Baganda.

At one level, we were government guests: invited by Uganda's minister for primary education to help build classrooms as part of the government's universal primary education initiative. More directly, we were participants in an annual "workcamp" for university students coordinated by Ugandan, Irish and British non-government organisations.

While it might seem a model of volunteer do-goodism, from an economic point of view the project would easily be dismissed as foolhardy. Of what use is a ragged band of undergraduates, unskil-led in the art of brick-laying, cement mixing and latrine-building, labouring away with shovels and trowels in the equatorial sun?

Our task was to put in walls, windows, doors and concrete floors in three partially-built classroom blocks, and to build a VIP toilet (ventilation-improved pit latrine). A half-dozen students from Makerere University in Kampala joined and schoolchildren helped by drawing water from a well (which meant walking 1km with a 20-litre jerrycan on their heads) and carrying bricks.

Professional builders had already completed the structural work (foundations, columns and tin roofs). The minister, Francis Babu, knew better than to entrust the lives of Ugandan schoolchildren to the engineering skills of students of history and business.

Captain Babu loaned us his country house to live in during the workcamp. It was a single-storey brick bungalow - a mansion by local standards - but had, like the mud-walled houses in the village, no running water or electricity because of its remoteness.

Smashing rocks was brutal, frustrating work. The sledgehammer shafts tended to break just as often as the stones themselves. Four student-workers breaking rocks created almost continuous work for the site carpenter in repairing broken handles.

Jonjo Beunza, a Basque medic at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, and the medical coordinator of the Kyoga Foundation, the local organising body, said the Makerere students were very impressed by the cheerfulness, trust and spirit of hard work permeating the camp.

"The villagers have never seen people like you work," declared Captain Babu, a vocal advocate of local empowerment. "This project has gone a long way to show the people that they can do some of these things by themselves, that they don't need to wait for the government all of the time," he said.

The Muzungus or "white men", were equally impressed by the exuberance of the Ugandans, who project a confidence of being ready to take on the world. This joy flies in the face of a daily life in the bush marked by material poverty on a scale and intensity never encountered in Europe.

Children walk barefoot and few own more than a small handful of clothes. Villagers ask for our soiled and torn work clothes, which we had planned to discard. Old boots are especially coveted.

Official statistics speak volumes: life expectancy is a mere 43 years, placing this country of eight million second from the bottom of the world rankings. Aids is ravaging the population, while drug companies see no commercial gain from investing in research for a vaccine. An astonishing 48 per cent of Ugandans are under the age of 15, while 46 per cent live in what the IMF classifies as "absolute poverty".

It is widely recognised that universal education is the only way out. The government has set a target to almost double the number of children in primary schools to nearly five million in little more than a year. Hence the pressing need to build schools.

Under its universal primary education initiative the government gives each community the building materials that the community itself cannot produce, (corrugated iron, cement, nails, and wood), while the village must provide materials locally available (usually bricks, sand, and stones). This partnership is intended to make each community appreciate that the school belongs to them.

But in our village work had stopped. Every community of persons gets "fatigued", Captain Babu said, and needs a moral boost. This exemplifies the intrinsic frailty of human resolutions and the need to overcome the "moral obstacles" to development.

The school-building work by the students from England, Ireland and Makerere does not pretend to change the world overnight but aims to build "solidarity" among participants: a sense of personal and collective responsibility for development, and an awareness of the interdependence between the haves and the have-nots.

Solidarity is the consequence of a model of the unity of mankind that goes beyond the natural bonds of blood, race and kinship - indeed has supernatural dimensions. This philosophy, and the spirit of service, is explained early on to prospective workcampers. Those who find the emphasis irksome soon realise the workcamp is not for them.

Pope John Paul II has elevated solidarity to the rank of a Christian virtue, and defines collaboration as the act proper to this virtue. He has also voiced great hope in Africa's future. His formula for Third World development - peace as the fruit of solidarity - also has wider relevance in today's troubled African sub-continent. It is a call for the abandonment of the politics of blocs, gold and narrow ethnicities that lie at the root of the strife.

Patrick Kelly is assistant director of Netherhall House, a hall of residence for university students in London.

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