Dirk Sykes, Head of the Geography Department at Y Pant School spent his October half term holiday (2007) in a town called Mbale in northern Uganda. He was there with a large group of people who included police officers, politicians, engineers, teachers and university lecturers. Their aim was to link with colleagues in Uganda so that, through friendship, some of the problems associated with poverty, in this region of Africa, could be tackled. The people of Mbale Region are some of the poorest in Africa with average incomes less than £1 per day, average life expectancy of 46 years and infant mortality rates of about 200 per 1000 children.
Mr Sykes travelled with an organisation, based in Pontypridd, known as PONT (Partnerships Overseas Networking Trust). Dr Geoff Lloyd from Pontypridd was one of the original founders of the group, and is one of the driving forces behind the project. The aim is to link professionals in Rhondda Cynon Taf with their counterparts in Mbale Region. The seeds of the project, which have since germinated and flourished into PONT, were first sown in the Ethiopian famine of the mid 1980’s when a group of doctors from Pontypridd volunteered to work in refugee camps in the region. Jane Davidson, Welsh Assembly Minister, is an active supporter of the project and accompanied the group to Uganda. During her visit Jane met with the vice president of Uganda and explained the aims of the project.
The aim of Mr Sykes visit was to cement links with Bulaago Secondary School. This school is located on top of a mountain, 2 ½ hours drive from Mbale town along a dirt track that turns to mud in the rainy season. The school has no electricity, no e-mail link and the postal service is unreliable. Hence communicating with the school is, to say the least, difficult. It was therefore essential that Mr Sykes visited the school in person if the contact, which was established over a year ago, was to be developed. The welcome Mr Sykes received at Bulaago School was quite humbling in its generosity. The memory of it will last forever and Mr Sykes would like to thank the teachers and students of Bulaago School and the Headmaster, Mr Nandala Moses.
The visit was a great success and ended in a teachers’ conference involving most of the schools of the region. Mr Sykes had an amazing and very emotional week in which he felt he personally learnt a great deal. The week’s high points included the welcome at Bulaago School, the children of Namatala slum in Mbale, who squabbled over who could hold the hands of their visitors, and the dancers at FNDC village, one of several NGOs working in Mbale Region There were also many times when the visitors were close to tears such as when talking to a teenage girl who was forced to work as a prostitute to earn money for her family and was now dying of AIDS, and the common sight of children who would walk over two hours to school every morning and went hungry every day because their parents could not afford the £3 a term needed for school meals.
Mr Sykes would like to thank members of the PONT team for their friendship and support during the week. Particular thanks also to Edie, Becky, Lauren, Franki, Emma, Sophie Green, Jenny, Hannah, Helen Needs, Martha and Sophie Vellam for their help in preparing for the visit and raising almost £300 for Bulaago School. All of the funds raised went to buy the school basic equipment that they requested. The link between Y Pant School and Bulaago School, Uganda is now firmly established. The co-operation will be long term to the benefit of students in both schools.