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QCT on the Road: To Get Lost Is To Learn The Way

By Nicola Brentnall, QCT Chief Executive

“To get lost is to learn the way” - African Proverb.

Uganda Marathon, Sunday, 23rd September 2018.

6:15 am, and we are already on the road to Masaka with Eric and Edna from the Uganda Marathon. A whistle-stop for photos at the Equator and then on again to Masaka, 3 hours' drive from Kampala.

This organisation, founded and run by young people, is based in Masaka with back up on governance matters from The Uganda Foundation in the UK. The co-founders, Tom from Masaka and Henry from the UK, met each other after Tom put out a call via the internet for volunteers to help him support local people in Masaka struggling with illness, poverty and many more challenges.

Henry got in touch, visited, and together they came up with the idea of bringing a marathon to the area, where international runners could raise funds to help. The Uganda Marathon was born.

“A sense of service, community and connection is strong.”

The first race was held in 2015 and it has since grown to involve 1500 runners; 200 international runners, and the rest local people who have been inspired to run having seen the race in previous years. Substantial growth is planned with the help of a likely new sponsor to underwrite the costs.

The Uganda Marathon is known as “A Race Like No Other”. This is because it not only brings runners from all over the world to the area to run the race with local people, but also raises funds for local grassroots organisations identified by the team at Uganda Marathon. Together these organisations address local needs with their local, expert knowledge of the issues and the solutions. During their time in Masaka, the international runners volunteer in small, carefully supervised groups at the projects they fundraise for. It is here that a sense of service, community and connection is strong.

Connection with others is at the heart of the Uganda Marathon. Its office and shop can be found in the bustling heart of Masaka, squeezed in alongside small cafes, mobile phone vendors and many other tiny businesses. This is a very different feel to other aid agencies, some of which occupy the smartest buildings and compounds in town, situated outside the centre.

This style is not for the Uganda Marathon. The team is known well by their neighbours, with locals dropping in to the office regularly for a chat. From the shop, the staff sell the products made by the projects for which they fundraise. These include leather goods, handicrafts, garments and so on - helping bring in more money to enable even more people to be supported, sustainably. Sustainability is essential to the team and they advise their partner charities on this and on many other helpful things.

The young team in Masaka, some of whom are funded by The Queen's Commonwealth Trust, now cover all the key roles, including strategy, finance, monitoring and evaluation, and international partnerships. A local Board of Trustees is responsible for the work, working alongside the UK Board of the Uganda Foundation. In time, the plan is for the UK team to withdraw, leaving the local team in complete control. The set up works well.

Masaka is a region plagued by extreme poverty. Challenges facing local people include access to education, high youth unemployment, HIV and AIDS, domestic violence, absence of most hygiene facilities and lack of affordable accommodation - with many people living in precarious and very poor accommodation.

“This project could be truly significant on an international scale.”

What I found in visiting some of the projects funded by the Marathon, were stories of strength, grace, dignity and resilience. Young leaders helping to bring practical help and support to those around them who otherwise have little or nothing.

Like Moses, aged 19, suddenly finding himself head of his family and out of education, supporting his siblings through his new business, which provides hugely valuable part-time work to other young people.

Or "Coach", who has helped the football team in the lowest income school imaginable to get into Uganda’s top 3 school football teams. The pride and potential from this achievement is huge in the school and community alike.

Or Nicholas, who founded a charity to help children orphaned by HIV to survive while supporting other young people to start their own businesses, ready to employ others.

Or Andy, Johnson and Nicholas, leading a plastic recycling business, helping local people earn a little vital money from collecting the thousands of discarded plastic bottles that litter every inch of the area. This offer is particularly important to people with disabilities, for whom opportunities to earn an income are very limited indeed. The benefits of this project in time could be truly significant on an international scale, and an interview sharing why this is the case will soon follow with them on the Inspiration Page of The Queen's Commonwealth Trust website.

Towards the end of the day, I stood alongside C, an elderly man who participates in a club for the elderly that is supported by Uganda Marathon. He and two club members welcomed us warmly, and we listened while C read a report of the work they were doing to support each other. This includes the provision of milk and eggs, vegetables from a kitchen garden, handicrafts for sale, and more. Without this, the club members have little or no means of support. It was a moment of connection and warmth, of generations coming together. The elderly group smiling and delighted to see the young people from Uganda Marathon. “They bring the sunshine” C said, in relation to their smiles.

“What exists here is courage, equanimity, a strength to survive no matter what.”

But I will be frank with you. On that Monday in Masaka, I came to know the true reality of absolute poverty for the first time. How A, a single mother, raises four children and chickens for sale from two tiny rooms where there is no water or electricity. There are thousands like her. As we went from project to project, despite the smiles, there seemed little good in the future that lay in store for those we saw. The need was so great, the challenges so many and so enormous.

By the end of the day, I felt disoriented and exhausted, lost under the dark Ugandan sky. I spent a troubled night, wrestling with the unfairness of it all, but with the dawn of the second day, the way ahead suddenly became clear.

For in the face of the hardship, the struggle, and challenges, what exists here is courage, equanimity, a strength and ability to survive and get through no matter what. And it is young people, local and international young people, who are coming together to tackle these challenges, taking them on one by one. The cumulative impact of all these acts of kindness is truly enormous.

I have been working with young people for a very long time and understand that they are capable of great things. But I had to be lost in Uganda to truly appreciate the significance of what they do and what more they can achieve. And in finding this insight, I am clear that The Queen's Commonwealth Trust must do all it can and more to connect, champion and support them, understanding the circumstances in which they work, and the challenges they face. How we should do all we can to promote how, in joining forces to work on projects large and small across the world, they are making a very significant contribution. They are equal partners, leading and making things better today. Right now. In Masaka and everywhere.

Our Patron, The Queen, has always believed in the ability of young people to achieve great things, if they are just given the chance and the backing of others. Our President, The Duke of Sussex, shares this belief and wants young people to be taken seriously as the change-leaders they are. It is our role at The Queen's Commonwealth Trust to give them this platform and to get their voices heard and their work supported.

I leave for Zambia and CAMA completely fired up.

Young leaders make the difference. I just didn't realise until now how much.

With thanks to all at The Uganda Marathon and The African Prisons Project, who have taught me so much in the last few days.

Nicola Brentnall Masaka, September 2018

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