It’s over a month since I returned from my Ugandan adventure and in true cliché tradition it now ‘seems like a dream’! This ‘dream’ will be forever etched on my memory.
The trip met and exceeded my expectations. The first surprise about Uganda was its countryside. The view of the bleached desert landscape of Dubai and its environs contrasted sharply with the rolling hills surrounding Entebbe, which were full of lush and green vegetation. Our onward journey in a rather cramped ‘costa’ bus didn’t change this impression. The roads in Uganda are frequently log-jammed and our journey was no exception. We stopped a few miles away from our destination at the equator much later than scheduled and arrived at Masaka hungry and tired. However, we were warmly welcomed (and fed) by the Uganda Marathon (UGM) organisers at the campsite. Those of us staying at the hotel were then transported down the hill ready for the week to start in earnest!
The UGM model aimed at philanthropic athletes is an attractive one. Runners are invited to take part but have to pledge that they will raise money for a local cause. There is no minimum amount that has to be raised and athletes can either choose a particular project, for which they wish to raise money, or can opt to allow their fundraising to be allocated as the organisers see fit. During the week leading up to the actual race the runners visited numerous projects that had benefited from the money raised in 2015 (This was the first year UGM took place) In addition, the organisers invited international charities with local interests to apply for a free place. This is what CLEFT won.
I cannot emphasise how powerful it is to see ‘in person’ the benefits of fundraising. The day after we arrived, we visited a school for disabled children in which the students were taught woodworking, leatherworking, knitting and metal work. The metal workshop had been opened as a direct result of UGM money and the workshop had become self-sustaining. The school enabled youngsters with disabilities to live a life in which they had self-respect and in which they were able to contribute to the local economy. We also visited Bugabira School. The principal proudly showed us the chicken house, which had been financed and built by 2015 UGM runners and which was now providing eggs and birds (to sell and eat) and lessons in how to care for the birds.
The following day I made my trip to Kampala to visit the hospital, where the money I raised was due to be spent. It turned out to be an emotional experience. I was apprehensive about the day as I was due to go on my own by taxi and had not heard back from the surgeon whom I was expecting to meet! It turned out to be quite an adventure. Luckily I shared the taxi with two other runners whose charity was also based in Kampala. We made an early start and the journey was good until we reached the outskirts of Kampala at which point we were temporarily gridlocked as one of the main roads had been closed. Then began the quest to find Kiruddu Hospital! Just at the moment I was convinced we were lost we found it…after 4 hours travel (from Masaka) in the heat!
After a long wait Dr Tshimbila Kabangu came out and looked after me very well indeed. He showed me around the Burns Ward and then showed me the room that was to become the new theatre for cleft lip and palate repairs (while the Mulago hospital was rebuilt) He introduced me to nurse Josephine, the cleft nurse, who explained how hard it was for Ugandan mothers when they discovered their baby had a cleft. She told me that it would usually be blamed on the mother and that in some cases would be regarded as a curse. Families would come to the hospital after a birth, thinking it an emergency then be upset to be told that it wasn’t. Mothers frequently hide their babies until the repair is done and clearly there is a culture of shame about having a child with a deformity. Nurse Josephine also talked about how happy mothers (and fathers) were after the repair was done and that what a wonderful moment this is! In a few cases the mothers would weep with joy.
We then talked about how the money I had raised might be spent. Nurse Josephine explained that the unit needed a new cleft lip and palate surgical kit: the current equipment was functional but getting old. Later, I spoke to cleft surgeon Rose Alenyo who said that the hospital needed equipment for speech therapy and explained that parents were unprepared for the problems their children faced when learning to talk. I felt quite emotional yet proud that my efforts could really help the surgeons do their jobs more effectively.
Race Day was both exciting and scary. The route was an extremely hilly 13.1 miles, which the marathoners lapped. I mostly ran the first lap, though much slower than I usually run a ½ marathon and then mostly walked the 2nd lap as it became very hot by 9.30 am onwards. I drank more than I than I’ve ever drunk in a race and poured a lot of water over me to keep cool. Several people dropped out at the ½ marathon spot and a few others dropped out due to illness or heat exhaustion. I finished, and was one of the last runners to do so, but I think I was the oldest woman doing the full marathon so feel proud about that! I discovered later that the total elevation of the run was 2404 feet so we ran/walked up a small mountain on 5th June 2016 on the Equator – no mean achievement by anyone’s standards!
The biggest fundraising surprise was how generous my friends, family and church have been for a 2nd year. In fact I have received far more donations for the Uganda Marathon than I did for the London Marathon. Maybe it was the exotic nature of the event or maybe it was due to the intensely personal cause for which I was raising money but I blasted my initial £2000 target and was able to give a total of £3000 to CLEFT following my Ugandan Quiz, which took place shortly after I got back from my trip.
I am immensely grateful to CLEFT for choosing me to run for them. I have had an experience I will never forget and have faced a few personal demons on the way. Perhaps most importantly it has left me with a renewed determination to do more for CLEFT in the future. In the meantime I will put on my running shoes ready for the next race!