Our patron Milton Jones blogs about his recent trip to Uganda:
Apparently World Smile Day (Friday, 3 October) was established by the designer of the original smiley face logo in order to devote one day each year to “smiles and kind acts” throughout the world, regardless of politics, geography and religion. As a comedian, trying to make people smile is what I do. But as patron of a small but ambitious charity – Chance for Childhood that works with some of the world’s most vulnerable children in Africa – I got to see firsthand some of the more long lasting “kind acts” that others do every single day of the year.
Africa, a land torn apart by documentaries, the sun scorches the terracotta earth as butterflies surf the breeze like multi-coloured bow-ties. This isn’t my natural environment. I’m in Patongo in Northern Uganda to see the work of a youth centre set up to help rebuild a community decimated by the war ten years ago. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army swept in and carried off a generation of children as plunder. Emotionally I’m way out of my depth. I’m just a smart-alec comedian who wants to try and help. (Or do I just like the idea?)
Now the teenagers have trickled back, cheated of innocence and bringing with them their trauma and children born in slavery. Some seem dead behind the eyes, but physically alert and ready to fight or run at a moment’s notice.
Soon after we arrive I’m asked to entertain about 80 youths, who don’t speak English and have been waiting two hours in the sun for ‘the internationally famous comedian’ to make them laugh. This could go wrong.
In this town a group of locals are trying to turn things round. Together with Chance for Childhood (formerly Jubilee Action) they’ve built a multi-purpose building. There’s counselling and mentoring (all the staff have their own story too) as well as classes, in things like numeracy, tailoring, and setting up a small business.
Law and order is sporadic. Add in poverty, malnutrition, corruption and 8% HIV this is can be a desperate place. Some have suffered at the hands of the enemy, others rejected by their families or abused by neighbours. Soil can be the difference between life and death and there are many land disputes. counsellors from the centre travel miles into the bush to give support and try to quicken the authorities to flex the weary arm of the law. But there are legal fees, and without even food few have the appetite to press charges (the charity is in the process of establishing a legal aid unit).
When the law does operate it is often one-sided. If you look guilty and over 16, you can be banged up in the local prison where you can wait months for a trial. Some are in the local prison for petty crime – like stealing a blanket, but more commonly for rape (‘defilement’). But then consensual sex for under-18s is still a criminal offence if caught.
It’s the ordinary Ugandans that are going the extra mile that impress the most. Vicky the Child Protection Officer at the local police station is feeding prisoners on remand with her own food. The dedicated staff of the Centre, who between them find beds and food in their own homes for those without. They have a vision of a better place.
The brutal crimes of war shattered this community in few weeks, but it’s going to take years to put it back together again. It takes people of faith, vision and lots of patience to face the enormity of the task.
Meanwhile back to the youth group I’ve been asked to entertain. I pull faces and play the crowd as much as I can. It’s almost impossible. Then mercifully we go into Q and A. ‘Tell us please about the difficulties you’ve had in your life as a comedian’. But as I look out at the audience of former child soldiers and girls with several children as a result of rape, at that moment it seems like the most inappropriate question in the world.It will take time for these children to trust again, but the smiles and the laughter are coming back one small act of kindness at a time.