Early in February this year I travelled to Fort Portal once again, this time taking with me four intrepid volunteers: Dan, Emma, Helen and Eric, (a doctor, physio, nurse, and educational psychologist).
They braved the matoke (green bananas...the staple food in Uganda and an acquired taste for the western palate), the red dust roads, and the culture shock, to work with Sr Theresa and her team of teachers in developing the skills needed to work with the most severely disabled children.
Between us we saw over 60 children in two weeks. Some of these children were already in the school, but more were brought in to the school in the truck provided through previous fund raising efforts. Of the children already in school, some presented medical conundrums, but more were a problem in school because of their behaviour. Our educational psychologist was particularly helpful here, and his suggestions on reward systems and differentiating the curriculum were received with enthusiasm.
The children brought into the school had a broad range of problems. As Sr Theresa knew before we arrived that the paediatrician in the party had a particular expertise in childhood epilepsy, many of the children had poorly controlled seizures. Others had profound learning difficulties or very severe cerebral palsy. These latter children were real survivors, holding on to life against all odds, but often in a very drab world. Clearly these children were from self selecting families and the standard of care at home was exemplary (not one child had a nappy rash!), but they had no access to even basic physiotherapy , health care, or play and stimulation.
We found that many mothers (and fathers as well) were determined to help their children but didn’t know how. We were able , based on our experience in the UK, to make some suggestions as to how groups of children could be brought in to the school for a morning a week for play and exercises and for parent to parent support. When we left, this “outreach programme” was about to start... a very exciting development and a very new one in this part of Uganda, and one that sends a clear message about valuing children who are so often stigmatised here. Sr Theresa is herself well placed to support her teachers in continuing this programme, and we were also able to link up with a local Ugandan physiotherapist who has undertaken to visit the school on a monthly basis to follow up the children attending. So I am optimistic for the future.
At the end of our two weeks the children in the school sang and danced for us, and the team reciprocated with their rendition of “ten green bottles” and “Old Macdonald” with ukulele accompaniment. The children were as welcoming as ever, and delighted with their visitors singing!
I would add my own thankyou to theirs, for the time and expertise contributed by the team, given at their own expense and in their annual leave. They were stars!
For me, this visit has confirmed again that every penny you give in support is well used.