Caritas providing all-round assistance in Uganda

Photo: Caritas

The Prague branch of the Christian charity Caritas is involved in aid and development projects in many parts of the world, among them India, Zambia, Congo and Uganda. Its work in Uganda, east Africa, spans a decade and involves a broad range of activities. Petra Matulova, Caritas development centre director, explains how one form of assistance led to another.

Petra Matulová,  photo: Caritas
“We started work in Uganda in 2001 and we started with a child sponsorship programme. This was because we saw many children who are uneducated and have no access to education which is very important so we decided to look for sponsors in the Czech Republic who might we willing to help. That’s how we started out. Then we saw that that education is simply not enough if children are dying from curable illnesses such as malaria. And we said to those sponsors we would like to use part of the money you are sending on health care for those children and they agreed without question. Then we realized we could not provide proper health care without a hospital –so we decided to build a hospital as well. And later we thought OK so we are helping individual children – giving them an education, health care are raising awareness about sicknesses, hygiene issues and others but we asked ourselves –is it enough? Is it enough to assist the development of a child if we leave it in a community that is undeveloped – are we giving them an opportunity to grow? And the answer was no, of course. Because you cannot give someone an education and expect them to do something big in a community that is really undeveloped. So that’s when we established a development fund which means that 20 percent of the money that goes to support one child in Uganda is set aside for community projects – an agricultural project or making handcrafts or some other income-generating activities. We build community halls so that people who are illiterate can learn how to read and write.”

How were you received by the locals – were they wary at the start and have things got better?

“I think that the important thing at the very beginning was that we consulted the locals. We did not come there as those clever white people who know what to do. We came and started by asking –what do you need? What is the most important thing for your community? And that is how we established out projects, how we arranged things. I think this really helped for them to accept the project and moreover to be part of it.”

Did you visit the hospital and how are things going there?

“I visited the hospital and I was so pleased to see it. It was amazing. I remember when we started building it in 2006. There was just this field and we started bringing bricks and I remember thinking Oh my God this is such a pipe dream – we will never get there. And now you come there and there are functional departments with doctors and nurses who know what to do. We have a ward for adults, a ward for children, two operating theatres, we do Caesarians which is very important in Uganda. We also have an HIV clinic and most recently a dentist –who started last week. That is perfect because although Ugandans’ seem to have extremely good teeth –they are very white – they actually suffer from all the common problems as we know them –so a dentist is very important. And we also have an infection unit and I think everything is working so well. And what I see as very important is that this hospital is not a humanitarian project but a development project. We put an accent on prevention and awareness as much as possible, because we believe it is better to explain to people how to avoid sickness than cure it. I know that sounds really obvious but for me it is a very important part of the project, although donors are less interested in this aspect. They always ask how many lives we have saved - which is obviously very important, but one also needs to ask how many people we have educated about TB, malaria, yellow fever or others – how to avoid it, how to prevent the sickness –that is also very important. And the answer would be hundreds –which I am really proud of.”

Photo: Caritas
What about the long-distance adoption programme? How is that going?

“Well, to be quite honest during the economic crisis the number of sponsors froze. And when we talk about a crisis in Europe in third world states it always has a much harder impact than here. So we were really worried about what would happen –and whether things would deteriorate even further. So as any organization we were forced to effect a bit of crisis management. So we decided to offer the possibility to support someone short-term. Because when someone starts supporting a child in primary school the programme will last for another ten years –which may seem like a big responsibility to some people. I am most grateful to those who take it on but then there are others who would like to help but are not sure if they can commit for so long. So we offer them the chance to support someone for just a year or two – maybe a girl who is studying to be a seamstress and who will get a sowing machine at the end of the programme so she can do something about her future. And we also accept monthly payments which comes to something like 200 crowns a month which is really not that much and of course people can get together and pool money to support one child – which we welcome. It is better than nothing. So all those are options. “

You spent a fortnight there –was there any incident that stuck in your mind –anything that left a mark?

Photo: Caritas
“Many situations. Sometimes I even think I have forgotten them and then something reminds me and they spring back to mind. Many experiences are really deep in me and I am really proud of that and my mind is still processing it all. I remember students who finished their studies and who came and brought me their diplomas to show and said see – now I am master of something or other. One brought me his diploma thesis and I was really, really touched. I opened it and there was the usual inscription thanking the person who acted as consultant and there was a message of thanks to Jan from Vyskov near Brno. And he said I know that my professor was guiding me so well and that my parents were praying for me but without this person from the Czech Republic I would never even have been able to buy the paper for this thesis –so I am really grateful and I dedicated this work to him. That was a really important moment for me and I believe there are going to be more students like this.”

You got involved in this as a volunteer a few years ago. How was it for you to first go to Uganda as a European, as a young woman –was it a big shock and did it change your priorities?

Photo: Caritas
“I think I was more prepared than was necessary. It was my first trip to Africa and you hear many stories, you see many movies and you read a lot -so I was more scared than I need have been. So I went there prepared for anything – I had a cure for almost anything. I had injections in case I had to go to hospital and there were none. So I was worried but also tremendously looking forward to it. When I went there I lived in the village and it was just amazing. You got close to the people, chatted, you listened to them, found out what life in Uganda is about. And I started as a volunteer – I was sent out for three months as an English teacher – which was great because I got very close to the children –both the young ones and the older ones – and I could ask them what Uganda needs, what they need, what are their plans and goals and about their life and habits. Later on when I returned to Uganda I went there as project manager which was a much more responsible job and very administrative-oriented and I know that without this experience as a volunteer I would never know the community and I would not understand them properly. So I thought I was prepared for everything but I was not prepared for an experience which would make me feel like I have a second home somewhere near the equator.”

I know you have a lot of photographs here to give the public an idea of how things work when they help –is there any kind of message that you feel is important to convey to people here about life in Uganda when you are asking them to help?

“That’s a difficult question – it is like when they tell you -you are in the elevator with Bill Gates and you can get a million dollars but have only a minute to sell your project –what would you say. There are many things I would like to say but from my point of view the most important thing is to stay informed and don’t close your eyes to what is happening in the world. I am always proud of the Czech Republic when I see how much money was collected for emergency aid projects abroad – the tsunami disaster or help for Haiti. We may not feel like we are a rich country but we actually are compared to Africa. And when you decide that you want to help someone I think it is a very important decision. And also for me it was very important to see how Ugandan people are grateful for anything they have. In the Czech Republic when I meet someone and ask how are you they say -not good, the boss is making my life difficult, the money is not good, prices are growing…. but if in Uganda when I meet someone and ask the same question they say yeah, fine and how is your family? The values were somewhere else, they complain of course –everyone does but when I see what they live with and how they manage and they are still happy and they enjoy every single day – so why shouldn’t we? “