I have been associated with St. Clare’s Parish for over 20 years as a parishioner, catechist and teacher.
When Father Loughran first told the parish about the Hodovo Project I felt drawn into the situation. As a parent, a teacher and as a parishioner I was interested and eager to learn more. I really wanted to help and was prepared to do what I could. I could see the children on the photographs were children in need. These children are still in need!
To be part of the fact-finding visiting group to Hodovo was not something I had ever expected; nor did I think that I would actually be able to see for myself the reality of life there. I was so grateful to have this opportunity and felt very proud to represent the parish.
So, with a carefully prepared album of photographs, showing fund-raising efforts, and 80kg of donated paper, exercise books and pens and pencils we set off for the settlement. I felt apprehensive and wondered what it would be like. Would it be as bad as the photographs had shown? How would we be greeted? What would the school be like? Would I go away feeling inspired to continue with the project? Was this visit justified? These are just some of the thoughts that went through my head.
As we approached Hodovo it soon became apparent that things were every bit as bad as the photographs had shown. The ground was a dirt track, there was no proper road and items of building materials lay idly and dangerously around the school.
Vjeko, the guide, met us on arrival and his face beamed with joy and gratitude as he greeted Father Loughran again. He took us to the school building where we were introduced to Marina, the head teacher and Kristina the interpreter. We were all greeted with such warmth and humility; indeed this was to be the case throughout the visit.
The afternoon sun shone through the perfectly formed arches of the building that framed the surrounding countryside but the shadows lay only to accentuate the damage and rubble beneath the upper classrooms.
We climbed an outdoor stairway to the entrance of the school and entered an exceptionally clean corridor. Little geranium plants sat on narrow shelves behind a sparse Easter display, completed by the school children. On close inspection of the corridor it soon became apparent that the cleanliness was aided by the fact that there was nothing in the corridor to catch the dirt. The walls, the ceiling and floors were bare; damp patches blotted the ceilings and top of the walls.
A very warm-hearted lady called Staza was the proud caretaker and cleaner. She oozed pride in her workplace and led the way to the classrooms. The five classrooms had desks, chairs, one cupboard (that was empty), and a wood burning stove for heat. There were no pencils, chalk, paper, paints or equipment for learning. My goodness, I thought. There is nothing! One of the classrooms deemed to be the ‘best classroom’ had a small rug on the floor and a few soft toys. A bookcase housed very few items.
When Mr Purcell presented the resources donated by the school and their families the head teacher was very happy and noted that these would last for a year.
Continuing our tour of the school we were shown the stock-room that had barely anything in it. A few sheets of paper and fabric stretched across the shelves giving the illusion of something when basically there was nothing. A box of chopped wood for the stoves lay in the corner of the room. The building
was cold and I wondered what it would be like in winter. The recycling box had one empty bottle and cardboard box.
We continued our tour and were shown the two toilets, one to be used by Christian children and one to be used by Moslem children reminding us of the political difficulties that remain.
The staffroom where our meeting took place was a narrow room about 10 feet by eight feet. In the corner was a stove and Staza indicated that this was where she had to heat the water to clean the building. She looked tired and holding out her chapped hands said she would like a pair of gloves for her hands. Also, she would love a water heater to heat the water. It was very humbling to stand with Staza and know that we have so much at our fingertips; she didn’t even have a pair of gloves for her hands. Staza asked if we were cold and even offered her cardigan. Such kindness!
Father Loughran spoke of the Hodovo group in the parish who were raising awareness of the settlement and invited Marina, the head teacher to outline the needs of the school. He stressed that ‘we want the children to have a good start in their education’. At this point the Project became a reality and more inspiring for me. Marina responded to Father, not by presenting a pre-prepared list of items that she would like for the school, nor mentioning sums of money. Instead she told the group that as a mother of three children, and as a head teacher in charge of staff, the most important task and influence was to provide a safe and caring environment for the children in her care. She stressed ‘these children are very poor and unhealthy and school is the only happy and caring place in their lives’.
She told us how she encouraged the children, and her teachers to reach out to others in need; to people who have less than they have. The school had managed to raise funds to help Uganda by decorating Easter eggs and decorating postcards. I felt even more inspired to help these humble, dignified, proud but poor people. Marina told us the school needed P.E equipment, books, TVs, DVD players and computers. She thanked the group for visiting and sent her thanks to the parish and school who were willing to help her.
We left the school and drove to the refugee settlement where the children live. The settlement was incongruous, the houses in the distance looked grand and strong but there was no real movement, colour or life around the place. As we drove nearer it was evident that the grand houses were just shells; many of them were unfinished and incomplete, a sight so common on our visit. The windows were stark and few people had curtains.
A beautiful young girl rode proudly past on her bicycle but it was noticeable how thin and pale she was. She didn’t linger, but rode off, suggesting she had nothing to communicate-her appearance said all that had to be said. A few young boys stood shyly near the car and followed us at a distance as we walked up the dirt track of the settlement. They were intrigued and amused; they kept their distance but still wanted to be near the visitors. The children had little play equipment and the clothes lines had few clothes on them. An emotional and poignant reminder of the poverty was highlighted by a threadbare teddy bear and a grey donkey hanging on a makeshift clothes line. How precious those toys must be, I thought.
It was silent in the car as we left the settlement. Visual images of what we had experienced constantly flashed through my mind and I felt deeply for the plight of these people. The barren landscape and the neatly laid vegetable plots filled with soil taken from the valley below emphasised the daily toil. The logo designed by the children, ‘Every Little Bit Counts’ seemed so appropriate now.
Hodovo is a place so different from ours. Environmentally and materially, we have so much; they have so little, through no fault of their own. I did recognise strongly however the common gospel values that we share and how we should support each other in the universal Family of God.
The visit to Hodovo is one I will never forget and to step into the world of these people made me reflect at a very deep and prayerful level. I feel even more inspired in supporting the Project and helping in any way I can to make a difference to the lives of these people. Please remember these people in your prayers.