Helping Uganda

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Mel and Steve Robinson are swapping the good life in the Hastings for mud huts in Africa. Susie Boswell meets a dedicated local couple of Third World volunteers.

They’re in their early 30s, married with their own home in Bonny Hills, healthy and fit; both grew up in Wauchope. They’re a typical hard-working, prosperous young Australian couple in the Lucky Country: a combined income well into six figures, a couple of cars, she with a full-time job, he an electrician running his own business, engaged with the community and looking forward to raising a family in the future.

But Mel Robinson, 30, and husband Steve, 34, are about to throw it all in, swapping their comfy home for a rudimentary shed, a subsistence diet of starchy cassava roots, canned food and fish, an earth latrine for a toilet and the near certainty of falling ill with organisms that penetrate the skin and infest the liver. They leave this month to live for a year in an east Ugandan village region, amid poverty-stricken Third World settlements on the banks of the River Nile. And they couldn’t be happier.

They’ll work with Soft Power Education, a volunteer charity that builds schools for Ugandan village children – and a future with hope. They first discovered Soft Power’s work several years ago, as typical Aussie backpackers exploring the world out of London. They took an overland truck tour in the Ugandan countryside, a basic safari seeing the wildlife, the waterfalls and the beautiful bush along the Nile, with some white-water rafting thrown in.

A Briton, Hannah Small, founded the charity. She’d been a tour guide in the area and found that comparatively wealthy western tourists could make a difference by giving a day or two of time out of their travels or a spare $20 note to help maintain or refurbish the ramshackle mud huts that pass for school buildings in some 29 rural villages of the Budondo county. Steve and Mel worked for one day, and were hooked.

They later returned for a three-month period and earlier this year took leave from their jobs and went back for seven weeks. They decided then to dedicate a year of their lives to the task and have since been busy organising to pack up; they fly out on July 25. Mel’s enthusiasm is infectious: does Steve share it? You bet!

“For me, when we first went over there several years ago, I would have stayed then, quite happily,” says Steve, his eyes lit up at the recollection of the peace and satisfaction the pair found there.

“I came back to Australia from our backpacking trip quite disillusioned, wondering why were we coming back. I’d lost the plot of what life was all about: it’s hard to justify how we live here. It was difficult for me and it took me a long time to settle back here.

“For me … a lot of people are looking around for something to fill the emptiness … this is what I think life’s all about for me. We’ve had a passion to go and do it, and it gives us something back as well.”

Mel Robinson

Mel Robinson

Mel picks up the story. “We have everything here, but do we need material things like plasma screens and a Mercedes to make us happy? It’s not only the kids, it’s all the people over there that draw us back. There’s hunger, HIV, AIDS and orphans, yet they’re so happy in their environment, nothing’s stressful. Our rubbish is their treasure: they collect discarded plastic bags and tie them up together until they form a soccer ball. They have nothing, they live from day to day, but they’d give you the shirt off their back if it would make you happy.”

At home, Mel’s used to trying to make kids happy. As marketing manager for Timbertown, she’s been its most passionate advocate, working to get the previously under-funded theme park improved and lifted back to its glory days, a formidable task and ongoing project in recent times. But it doesn’t compare with the Ugandan challenge.

Now she’s surrendered the Timbertown job; she finishes up just one week before she and Steve fly to equatorial Africa. In the group of villages comprising about 65,000 people she’ll run a special education centre Soft Power has built – separate to the school refurbishments work. The centre offers kids advanced educational insights and Mel will administer its program, look after the daily management of six teachers and seek ways to use the space to assist the community, as well as increase funding for the cause.

Steve has paused his electrician’s business to look after the construction side of things in the villages, overseeing 65 local labourers, making sure school building sites have all the tools and materials they need and transporting kids cross-country for their trips to the special education centre.

The existing original school huts are built from sticks held together by mud. As many as 120 students fill a small classroom. There are no chairs: children sit on the dirt floor and micro-organisms from contaminated water sources crawl into their skin, using the kids’ bodies as a host to hatch their eggs. Both Mel and Steve have been infected in the past. Soft Power gives the huts safe cement floors. And builds water catchments and tanks to provide a clean water supplies.

The charity’s name is derived from a Buddhist philosophy that holds that: “In the past there was hard power, in the form of military might and political force; the future is soft power – factors such as information, knowledge, culture and ideas”.

It’s a proven force. When Hannah Small first pulled in to the community in 1999, the villagers said they needed a new roof for a school. She saw that a tiny contribution from tourists that barely took them out of their way could buy and install a new iron roof. By 2003, the generosity of travellers and the work of local labourers had seen a pre-school for 120 AIDS orphans opened. The new education centre to be operated by Mel is not a substitute for schools: its limited resources provide an opportunity for around half the local children to spend just four days a year looking through a window to the wider world to get a glimpse of what a future with education can hold: they get to turn on a (solar-powered) computer just once and learn about things that can sustain them, such as clay pottery arts and agriculture.

If you would like to support this great cause direct debit donations or sponsorships can be arranged by contacting stevenmelstravels@yahoo.com.au or by calling Steve on 0427 65 45 67 or Mel on 0434 025 433. All donors will be sent regular updates on how their funding has helped. Find out more at www.softpowereducation.com

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