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'Seeing people from Uganda whose lives are transformed by help of Northern Ireland donations brings me real joy'

How your cash is helping small communities to help themselves

Self Help Africa head of operations Denny Elliott
Self Help Africa head of operations Denny Elliott

By John Toner in Uganda

Donations made in Northern Ireland are transforming the lives of rural people in war-torn regions of Uganda.

Self Help Africa, the charity formerly known as War On Want, helps small-scale farmers and community groups with start-up cash, high-quality seed and trading assistance.

Ulster Rugby star Rob Herring (29) recently visited Uganda with the head of NI Self Help Africa (SHA), Denny Elliot (59), as an informal ambassador and to take a look at the differences on the ground.

Mr Elliot spoke of his joy at seeing first-hand the impact funding from here makes.

He said: "The trips I have traditionally made to places like Somalia, Angola and Bangladesh were all emergency humanitarian relief and it was hard to get some of the things I had seen out of my mind, it was tough.

"But this visit to Uganda was different, it was really uplifting and I got a real sense of what the future might be like for the people we met.

"The farming groups and community collectives were incredible; it was really encouraging because we were helping to ensure they were getting a good price for their crop and quickly.

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Rob Herring in Uganda
Rob Herring in Uganda

"It was an overwhelming feeling of happiness and satisfaction to see that in action, there was a real feelgood factor.

"The trip really did inspire me because we're not a very well-known organisation and I have been trying to find a way to tell our stories and why it's important for people to support us. Very small amounts of money can make huge differences to the lives of some of these people.

"For me the visit means I can now go off and speak to our corporate partners here in Northern Ireland about why they should support Self Help Africa with some real authority because I have met the people and heard their stories."

Parts of east Africa, including north and eastern Uganda, have been ravaged in recent years by bloody conflict involving rebel warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, notorious for abductions and the use of child soldiers.

Veteran charity sector worker Mr Elliot spoke of how donations made by people here make a real-world impact to those affected by the conflict and displacement in Uganda in recent years.

He added: "The value of the money people donate to us is massive. The impacts we achieve with our target groups in Uganda are really positive. We know 75% of people are now able to put high-carb and high-protein food in front of their children and there has been an increase of 245% in disposable income for some people over the last five years. That makes a lasting and sustainable difference to people who have seen war and suffering.

"One of the groups we met didn't even need our support any more and they were thriving, and are now mentoring other community groups in the area about pooling their resources and using the skills and practices they have learned.

"When people donate to Self Help Africa they are planting a seed which goes on to make a sustainable impact on communities and families."

During the visit to Soroti District in eastern Uganda, Rob Herring and Denny Elliot met with Akonyu Stephen (53), who has been head of SHA operations in Soroti for over 16 years.

He told Sunday Life how valuable the work of the charity has been over the years and continues to be.

"The funding that came through over all those years which went to the communities has been extremely vital because through the agriculture that they are doing, and the off-farm activities, people have been able to move forward.

"People now have access to money and work and are able to plan for their future.

Soroti district in Uganda
Soroti district in Uganda

"I have been here for a long time and grown with the problems.

"In a nutshell, I think the support of Self Help Africa has been very helpful to the people here because these are communities that have lived in displacement camps for a long time, some of them for over 15 years. Some of them were born in the camps and don't know any other life.

resilient

"When we started engaging with them, especially when they began returning to their places of origin once the security situation improved, they had nothing.

"They also didn't have anything in the camps so they were going from nothing to nothing. Our objective was to rebuild their confidence and self-esteem, their humanity.

"We discussed everything they had gone through while they were in the camps and in the course of that we were able to implement some projects to improve the livelihoods of the people.

"Whilst we were doing all that, we saw that the most important thing that we needed to do was to re-skill the people as they had been living in the camps for so long, they had no idea what to do in terms of farming. Their lives had been rotating around handouts from relief agencies and government. This meant they were purely dependent.

"Through engagement, we discussed with them possible solutions to their immediate challenges upon returning to their homes. Beforehand they didn't have input, which the project is now providing them.

"They didn't have means to open up the land which the project provided, for example oxen for animal traction which meant they could use bigger pieces of land to plant the seeds we were offering them; that helped in terms of their recovery.

"Alongside this we were discussing with them the effects of displacement, the conflict and the tribal strife they had experienced, and finding ways of getting them to appreciate that they cannot live in past."

The SHA programmes encourage self-sufficiency and small-scale garden farming as the spectre of climate change stalks an already struggling section of society.

Mr Stephen added: "Going forward we would love to see really resilient communities who have the skills and the means to survive on their own without necessarily getting any external support.

"Giving them the skills to cope is our aim whilst working on certain mitigation measures. Our services are still very much necessary in these areas."

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