Ulster star Rob Herring keen to promote sport in war-ravaged Uganda
Ulster and Ireland rugby star Rob Herring says he would be keen to promote the sport in Uganda after visiting the country, which is recovering from a bloody internal conflict.
The hooker (29) travelled to the east African nation earlier this month as part of his role as an informal ambassador for Belfast-based charity Self Help Africa.
Formerly known as War On Want, Self Help Africa (SHA) is an international development charity which focuses on small-scale farming and has 13 charity shops across Northern Ireland.
After visiting some of the farming communities and social collectives the organisation supports, Rob found time to pop into Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala - and spoke to Sunday Life about his experiences.
He said: "Just being here has really opened my eyes to the work SHA are doing and the difference it's making to people's lives. I'm just a rugby player in Ireland, but I'd love to help going forward. It's definitely something I'd like to stay involved in and help as much as I can in whatever way possible.
"Hopefully I can try and create some kind of awareness in the UK and Ireland about SHA. Ultimately the funding which comes from donations is what makes the differences I've seen on this visit.
"I'd love to come back to Uganda again, it's a beautiful country with beautiful people. I'd like to come back with SHA in some capacity, but it would be great to do something around Irish rugby and Ugandan rugby. The sport is big here, they have over 700 registered players, which is almost as much as in Ireland, I had no idea that was the case.
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"I'd definitely try to create a link between the countries in the sport if I can through some sort of partnership. I didn't really know what to expect here, but the welcome we've had from everybody has been amazing. Everyone is so warm and welcoming, it's been a great trip."
Over the course of a week, Rob visited several locations in the eastern district of Soroti and saw first-hand how the organisation assists farmers and rural communities with skills, training and funding.
Parts of east Africa, including north and eastern Uganda, have been ravaged in recent years by rebel warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, notorious for abductions and the use of child soldiers.
Rob spoke of how impressed he was with SHA's efforts to help people rebuild their lives in the wake of the conflict.
He said: "It's been a pretty incredible experience. Just coming out here and seeing how the work being done is really changing and bettering people's lives is just incredible. Some people might be sceptical about the charity sector back home, but when you see this sort of work in the flesh, really changing people's lives, it's remarkable.
"Meeting some of the rural farmers was great, they are so grateful for the work that Self Help Africa do, they openly talk about how much it has changed their lives.
"We went to see a women-led community collective on the first day, which was amazing. They have set up a community enterprise and are able to organise savings and funding for each other in a way which is revolutionary for them as a community. The way Self Help Africa has been able to upskill and empower them is very impressive, they now have ambitions of creating a larger trading company in their local area.
"Some of their backgrounds have been tough and there's been a lot of violence in this part of the country, but now they're able to move away from that, send their children to school and have some financial and social security," Rob added.
"I think the way the organisation has been able to share knowledge and investment to help make that happen is incredible. It really has changed their lives.
"We come from the UK and Ireland where we are lucky enough to have everything we want. Many of the people we visited have very little but are happy with what they have, and it just shows that we don't need all the flash things in life.
"It was brilliant to see how happy people are with their friends and family despite some of the hardships they face.
"I was really interested in seeing how the farms are run with the assistance of the organisations and how that in turn helps them to have a better quality of life.
"When I first met some of the guys from Self Help Africa they spoke so passionately about their work and the thing that got me hooked was that this isn't about aid.
"A lot of charities back home simply give aid to people, and there is definitely a need for that, but the thing that attracted me to Self Help Africa was that they are trying to provide sustainable long-term solutions.
"Like the women's group we met for example, SHA aren't even involved there any more because they've grown into a self-sufficient community enterprise.
"The organisation goes to these places and empowers people with skills and knowledge, which provides something more sustainable for their futures. The people we met were assertive and confident to go and do their own thing thanks to some of these programmes and that's a brilliant way to build for the future."
Rob, who was born in Cape Town, said the charity's activity in east Africa appealed to him specifically because of his South African heritage. He added: "Being an African-born man was definitely part of my motivation to try and help SHA. I've been living in Northern Ireland now for some time and I'm in a privileged position playing rugby and living out my dreams and I want to start giving back.
"It's a credit to Ulster Rugby that a lot of the guys, when they have time on their hands, feel that way. It's been something that has been encouraged among the players, so when this opportunity came along I was enthusiastic about it straight away.
"Being born on this continent I know some of the natural beauty of the place and the people, but there's no hiding away from the fact some of the countries in Africa do struggle economically at times, so to have a bit of outside help does benefit people.
Rob found time to throw a rugby ball around with some children in Soroti.
"I think it might have been the first time some of the kids had seen a rugby ball and there were some funny looks when we started throwing it around. It was good fun and we passed the ball around for a bit which was go od craic and they seemed to enjoy it, so that was the main thing."
- If you'd like to find out more about the work of Self Help Africa in Uganda, visit selfhelpafrica.org and if you wish to make a donation please visit selfhelpafrica.org/uk/donate/