When does any journey really start? Right now I have the feeling of someone about to embark on a new journey, but in truth I probably crossed the real start line many years ago. The ten year old me under the smoky skies of Blackburn reading books about Africa with a mix of wonder and awe. Or the rough edged eighteen year old me who rode a crawling ex army Bedford truck all the way across the Sahara and the Congo to white beaches of Indian Ocean. Or a trip to Uganda in my mid twenties and the gut wrenching reality of the Aids crisis at its peak. Then later. A father now, standing by the brown waters of the Gambia River with Carol and my young sons under a burning sun. Staring out at the island in the centre of the flow. Long deserted white buildings almost invisible under a vast tangle of vines. An old slave fort. A ghost of a memory of a truly vast crime committed by my people. Maybe even a place where relatives of my boys passed through en route to the killing fields of Barbados.
A West African school. Windows without glass. A rusty iron roof. A dusty clay football pitch hammered flat by years worth of hard, bare feet. And a sea of beaming smiles. And we had a business at a time which meant we were able to shake on a deal with an old Irish missiorary in the capital. £50 a month into his acount in Dublin which was turned into £50 a month of pencils and pens and exercise books. And for a while letters would land every month with exotic African stamps bearing news or many more children reading and writing.
And then our business went bust and we had to write to say there would be no more pencils and exercise books and pens. But after the school, we always said a day would come when we would do something again. In Africa. In the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.
Or did this this journey really begin a few short months ago. Walking the dogs under grey Scottish skies with a BBC World Service podcast in my ears. A documentary about the country of Uganda where the average age is sixteen. All the challenges and opportunities faced by a land overflowing with the hopes and dreams so many young people. And suddenly there was something which was so shockingly simple it stopped me in my tracks.
Most Ugandan school girls miss a quarter of their education because they do not have access to any sanitary ware. It is a problem which lacks any degree of complexity. This isn't an issue made complicated by local customs and laws. Instead it is the biology of every female citzen of this planet of ours. Straight away the problem resonated and rang bells. I recalled Carol writing to Scotland's Health Minister to point out how female heroin users going onto the methadone programme would experience extra heavy periods and how we really needed Government funding to provide good quality sanitary ware for our clients.
We never heard back.
School girls missing a quarter of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware. A huge but simple problem requiring a very straight forward fix.
Provide sanitary ware.
I took the problem home and we had a talk and decided the time had come for us to try and make a contribution to the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.
So here I am perched on a terrace looking out across the waters of Lake Bunyonyi and feeling for all the world like some kind of wannabe Hemmingway as colourful swallows swoop under the under the eaves of the tin roof and a roll up smokes away in the ashtray at my side.
To get to the 'Lake of little birds' means a 20 km rutted track which climbs away from the manic noisy streets of Kabale and then up and over the steep terraced hills. If a few hours have passed since the last rain, you can maybe average about ten miles an hour. If the deluge is more recent, then five miles an hour is a more realistic number. The road is a red clay mix of trenches and potholes which hangs off the steep slopes which rise from the water in a vivid quilt of green.
Seeing Lake Bunyonyi for the first time is a like entering the film set for Jurassic Park. A hundred years ago the world had many places like this. Now there are very few left. It is impossible not to feel privileged to be here.
But I digress.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, Google took me to contacts and conversations and Janet at the Rafiki Foundation and finally an introduction to Reverend Benon who is the headmaster at a school of five hundred in the hills by the border with Rwanda. E mails traversed the ether from Dumfries and Galloway to Kabale Province and then back again. The Reverend confirmed everything the World Service documentary had reported. Yes, this is a huge problem. And yes, the answer to the problem isn't all at complicated. There is no shortage of sanitary ware in Kabale Province. There is a shortage of money to buy sanitary ware. As soon as it was clear we would be able to actually achieve something worthwhile, we booked our passage.
It has been nearly a week now and we are becoming adjusted to the African way. It is impossible to overstate how impressive these people are. For a start, just about everyone who waves from the road side looks like an Olympian. The big deal we make about six packs at home seems laughable out here. The tasks these guys carry out for ten hours of every day would probably be deemed too severe for a proposed stongest man reality show at home.
Almost everyone here is self employed. They wake up early without a penny in their pocket and step out into the morning light to duck, dive and hustle. The youngest and the oldest stay home to raise the crops. Every hut is surrounded by a patchwork of ever rotating crops – bananas and corn and sorghum and sweet potatoes and beans. Goats and cows are taken to grass verges of the roads by their five year old shepherds. The young men and women of the family ride the back of bikes and scooters to the hyper energy of the streets to carve a few dollars out of their chosen niche. What looks like utter chaos at first glance soon achieves a miraculous kind of order when you look closely enough.
On the surface of things, the cold hard facts are daunting. The average wage here is about $3 a day and yet food is expensive. A 2kg bag of rice costs about the same here as it does in Tesco at home. Every street buzzes with swarms of Buda Buda riders. A Buda Bada is a motorbike which trades in giving 'backies' from A to B. Sometimes they carry one passenger. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. The loads they manage to carry beggar belief. As we tip toe our way around the pot holes in our rented Toyota 4x4, the Buda Buda boys race past us complete with 50kg sacks of plantains and beaming grins. They don't tend to do helmets here. Of course they don't.
A Buda Buda boy will earn £6 on a good day. £2 goes to the guy who rents out the bike. £1 goes on fuel and maintenance. Which leaves a profit of about £3 for twelve hours of hustling. Not enough to pay for a roof over the head and the basics of life. Instead this is the cash which buys the family the stuff the fields cannot provide. Soap and school uniforms for younger siblings and doctor's bills for grandparents. The family is the Welfare State. The safety net is all down to relatives and neighbours and villages. Life is physically hard. Relentlessly challenging. And yet nobody is left isolted and lonely and worthless.
Even on a good day you would be lucky to see ten percent of the pedestrians on one of our empty streets wearing a smile. Here the streets are a rolling soap opera where everyone beams. There is so much we could learn from these extraordinary people if only we were minded to. But we aren't of course. Instead we shrink in horror at the though of having so little.
The endless, wall to wall friendliness shown to us is truly humbling, especially in the light of the disgraceful way we have behaved in these parts down the centuries. Nelson Mandela gave us all an object lesson on how African culture treasures forgiveness over all other things. Past crimes are locked away in inpregnable vaults. This is place where only today and tomorrow matters. Yesterday is very much deemed to be dead and gone. Thank goodness for that! Otherwise I very much doubt if the guys at the border would have been willing to stick and East African Tourist Visa into our passports. Instead they would have stared us down with cold, hard eyes. Are you serious? After what you people did here?
So tomorrow our journey really begins. We will climb into the Toyota and set on on what we now think of as the 'Lollipop Run'. The boot is well stocked with big bags of Kojak style lollies and and kids of the 'Lake of Little Birds' are getting to know our vehicle well. They leave their goats and come cascading down from the fields to jump in gleeful anticipation of the white guy and the black lady in the 4X4.
Then it is a meeting outside the Kabale branch of the Stanbic Bank to meet our guide, Ambrose who will take us to meet the kids at the school in the hills. Our goal for this trip is to make sure every girl in the school will be able to attend every day of class for the next year. It seems like this goal will be achievable.
And then? Then we will have a new responsibility. What we are able to bring to the table is thirteen years experience of running a charity. Of by hook or by crook coming up with enough funds to help out 5000 people a year who lack the means to buy food.
To come up with 5000 sticking plasters to cover up the wounds of our Government's mean cruelty. This time we have the honour of doing more than handing out sticking plasters. Education is the key to everything here. When education is added to the vast reserves of energy, optimism, ambition of Uganda's vast army of young people, almost anything will be possible.
Who knows how far this journey is going to take us. We don't. I guess we need to take each new mile with a slow African stride. Duck, dive and hustle and one way or another you get there by the end of the day.
This a place where it is hard not to feel just a little superstitious. A couple of days ago I had a spooky feeling when I checked my e mails. The inbox contained a message form the Scottish Government. I few weeks ago I filled in application for funding for our foodbank to offer emergency sanitary ware in each of the 23 collection points across Dumfries and Galloway where our food parcels are stored. The timing of the acceptance seemed like a pretty encouraging omen to me!
And maybe just maybe, somewhere out there the ancestors of our two boys will look down us as we bounce over the pot holes of the 'Lollipop Run' and give our efforts a quiet nod of approval. After all, every single human being on our planet can be traced back to the vast Rift Valley which provides a home for this 'Lake of a thousand birds'. In the end we are all Africans. Sadly those of us who live out our lives in the cold lands of the north have forgotten how to live our lives in the African way.
It seems like this journey of ours might have many miles to come.