Giving children the chance to choose


You might remember hearing the name Ukerewe Island on the news late last year. It was between here and the neighbouring Ukara Island that a ferry sank, resulting in the loss of more than 220 lives. As we dock at Nansio, Ukerewe district’s main town some 50km from Mwanza on Lake Victoria, I wonder if any of the people I’ll be encountering over the next two days lost loved ones. Chances are some did. We all deal with loss of loved ones in our own ways, of course, but it seems to me that people here probably need to find the stoicism to keep going in the face of death more often than most.

This is so remote. Lake Victoria is the size of Ireland and Ukerewe is big. Nearly 350,000 people live on the collection of islands that make up the district; that’s about the population of Belfast. Heri, Frank, Davis, photographer Chris and I zoom up the main street on the back of motorbikes to our accommodation for the next two nights. It’s very basic but a comfortable bed and a hot shower are really all one needs. We stroll back into town as the sun sets, about a half hour walk along buzzing streets, for dinner on the lake shore. I’m far from convinced that chicken and fried banana will work as a combo but it definitely does. As I climb under the mosquito net after another busy day I reflect on what has been a life-affirming experience thus far.

As always, the sun’s up just before me. And, as ever, we start with a visit to the local council offices to sign the guest book and meet the relevant officials. I find the repetitive format of these meetings reassuring. This shows there are procedures and policies in place throughout the country to ensure engagement with schools – and schoolchildren – is done appropriately. The various layers of government in Tanzania appear to interact effectively, which makes the work of Children in Crossfire much more impactful.

We have two schools on our schedule this morning. First up, about an hour from Nansio along the usual bumpy roads, is Mibungo Primary School. In Swahili that’s Shule Ya Msingi Mibungo. I’ve struggled with the language and, if honest, I’m a little annoyed with myself for not getting to grips with the basics before I travelled. Next time!

We pull up to the same sort of beaming faces as I’ve seen several times now. Happy children at play. In the distance I can hear an older class being put through the paces of what I’m sure is their times tables. Into the pre-school class we go, to be greeted with a warmth that belies the poverty of these children’s circumstances. They don’t know the world they live in is so unjust, I suppose, but we do.

Their classroom, like others I’ve seen earlier on my trip, is full of colour. The kids are singing and playing and learning. One in particular seems very close to the pre-school teacher; I’ll learn later that she’s his grandmother. The longer I’m there the more I see she’s a maternal figure to all of them; they respond to her every word and move.

I leave that classroom on a beaming high, full of pride at what Children in Crossfire does. But then comes a bitter low as I’m shown the school’s toilet facilities. I haven’t shed a single tear on this trip but this brings me to the brink. I’ve never seen conditions so unsanitary, so unclean and so unhealthy for little hands. Even though I knew I’d see sights like this I’m still shocked. This just isn’t fair. Even though we’re making great strides for the smallest children here – and in so many schools throughout this country – there is so much more we’re needed to do. Toilets with running water so children can wash their hands would be the obvious start here in Mibungo. On the short drive to our next school, I’m a mix of anger and energy. We have work to do.






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We are a registered charity in Northern Ireland (NIC101412) and The Republic of Ireland (CHY 20045517). Children in Crossfire is now also a registered 'Not For Profit' in the USA and is recognised as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (EIN 46-2267122). We are developing Advisory Groups in Chicago and Boston to assist with a fundraising programme.
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