I’ll never forget the moment late last year, about a month after joining the Cotton On Foundation team, when I was told “you’re off to Uganda!” Immediately I experienced such a mixture of excitement and nervousness – but above all, I felt lucky. What an opportunity! After a frantic couple of weeks, there I was on a plane, off to experience the poorest, most remote part of the world I’d ever seen.
Sitting down to write this journal brings back so many special memories.The trip was an opportunity of a lifetime and the impact it had on me went far beyond what I expected as I boarded the plane that morning.
Travelling with a small group, we spent our time in and around Mannya village. Tasked with collecting content to help tell the story of impact our latest projects were having on the local communities was a daunting prospect, but ended up being an adventure I am forever grateful for and one I’ll never forget.
The children in the communities were so excited to see us, always waving, running after our car as we drove through their tiny villages, yelling out in Lugandan (the local language) with the biggest smiles on their faces.
Highlights for me included walking the thirty-forty minutes up Mount Mannya at dawn one morning, climbing the steep path to Nubbunga village, a tiny outreach community located at the top of the hill. The scenery was incredible, passing local farmers and children, including a gorgeous little girl who was terrified when she saw my pale skin and blonde hair. As she was in inconsolable tears, her Mum laughed quietly and explained in broken English that it was the first time she’d seen a mzungu (white person). At the top of the climb, we visited the building site for Nubbunga Primary School, one of the Cotton On Foundation development projects currently underway. I was overcome by the enormity of the project, providing improved education opportunities for over 500 students – but also in the back of my mind was the knowledge that these littlies have to make this climb multiple times a day, whether it’s to simply get to school or collect clean drinking water for their families when the local dam is dry. For so much good that has been done here, there is still so much we can do.
Mannya is located in the Rakai District of Southern Uganda which is the birthplace of AIDS in Uganda. The impact of this devastating disease is still apparent today. It was an incredibly saddening moment during local Sunday mass to look around the parish and see children outnumber adults tenfold. AIDS has literally wiped out an entire generation of people and what hit me completely was to see children looking after children. Older brothers and sisters acting as a parent might, caring for and raising their siblings. There was no teasing, no bickering between even the littlest kids, everyone just looked out for each other and supported one another in a way that was so inspiring.
Our trip was timed with the opening of the new Ross Langdon HIV Education and Treatment Centre which is a first of its kind in the region. The Cotton On Foundation-supported facility is purpose built and aims to increase awareness and reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS within the community. On the opening day, over 180 people, mainly women, came through the centre for testing, treatment and counselling. During my entire trip this was the most real and overwhelming moment – seeing their stricken faces and the suffering from this disease was really confronting and brought me to tears. It hit home how much still needs to be done to help ensure a brighter future for these people.
Another lasting memory is visiting the local schools and seeing the student’s eagerness to learn. The community leaders and some of the mothers I met and spoke with place such an emphasis on the importance of their children getting to school and receiving an education – it was incredible to see. When we walked in to speak to classes they’d sing welcome songs and teach us their lessons; it really was my favourite part of the trip!
The beaming smiles on the children’s faces filled me with so much hope. Everyone we spoke to was extremely generous, thankful for the support and not only were we made to feel welcome, we were made to feel like family.
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