Returning to Reach Out: My time as a volunteer

By Karl Mikkelsen

In 2000, I moved to Kampala with my parents. I was 3 years old at the time, and I could only speak Danish. I soon started going to an international kindergarten in Bugolobi, where I quickly learnt English. A year later, my little sister was born in the International Hospital of Kampala. In May of 2002, my mom was offered a job in Reach Out’s Social Support Programme by a family friend, Dr. Margrethe – who had started Reach Out together with the parish priest at the time, Father Joseph Archetti.

My mom’s first task was to further develop Reach Out’s Bread of Life Programme, which aimed to help Reach Out clients financially by lending them money, so they could start up a small business. After that, she started the Roses of Mbuya Programme by organizing workshops with Reach Out clients that wished to join the Roses. Roses of Mbuya initially had 12 women working in its workshop as well as one coordinator. It later expanded significantly with as many as 60 people working for the Roses at its peak.

I used to visit Reach Out a lot during the three years that my mom worked with the organization. Every time there was a Reach Out event or party, I would be there together with my little sister, and we would play around in the compound outside the Reach Out buildings. My clearest memory of Reach Out from that time, is the time my sister and I modelled for the Roses of Mbuya brochure together with Princess, the daughter of one of the Roses tailors. We posed in fancy Roses-made clothes, my sister and Princess in dresses and myself in a shirt.

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Princess, Karl and his little sister posing for a picture in clothes made by Roses

We moved to Ethiopia in 2005, and later on we moved back to Denmark. Even though we no longer lived in Africa, my fond memories of life in Kampala stayed welded into my mind.

12 years after leaving Uganda, I decided to come back. As soon as I had made up my mind on taking a gap-year, I had only one country on my mind. I contacted Dr. Margrethe, who no longer works at the Reach Out site, but who is an active board-member. She put me in touch with Dr. Betty, who was then the current director of the organization.

On the 3rd of January 2017, I landed in Entebbe airport – an airport I had been to quite a few times while living in Uganda. I started work in Reach Out’s Communications Department a few days later, on the 9th of January. My immediate impression of Reach Out was the incredible development which the organization has been through since my family and I left Uganda. Reach Out has increased its number of clients by incredible numbers and helps out more people than ever.

Gaining experience with Reach Out

My first day went by quite quickly, starting with a morning gathering in the Reach Out compound. At the gathering, I introduced myself to the Reach Out staff, who then went on to give me a blessing and a warm welcome. I met my colleagues, who all made me feel very welcome and comfortable. I got to know my closest colleagues quite well pretty quickly, which was nice considering that I only had a total of four weeks to work for Reach Out.

I was put to a test almost immediately after starting work at Reach Out when a university class from Madison University of Wisconsin visited Reach Out on my second day there. My colleague Annika was at home sick, and it was up to my other Communications colleague, Geraldine and I to document everything that happened that day. We joined our American visitors on their visit to Acholi Quarters, where we visited a group called “Beads of Life” which Reach Out started, aiming to help out some of the clients living in Acholi Quarters financially. The group is made up of about a dozen women who make and sell beads and other small crafts out of recycled paper. They bid us a warm welcome and sang a song about how much Reach Out had helped them. The American students seemed to enjoy the little performance a lot, and they all purchased crafts from the women.

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We were then taken on a small tour of the slum-area, where we hiked down to a nearby stone quarry, which provides income for many other Acholi Quarters residents. Several of the women from the “Beads of Life” group had worked in the quarry before joining Reach Out. This was my first time in a real slum, and I was quite astonished by the state of the place. The smoke from small fires next to the shacks mixing with the smoke coming out of the Boda Bodas passing by on the narrow and torn up road was hanging in the air. It was impossible to take a fresh gulp of air while walking, but the smell of smoke covered up the smell of the open sewer drains by the roadside.

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I tried to stay professional and focus on documenting the students’ experience, but I still managed to get mistaken for one of the students by one of the Reach Out clients. It was clear that I still had a lot to learn about being a journalist. I wrote my first ever blog post during my first week at Reach Out, and after publishing it I felt more confident. I felt that I was starting to get the hang of life as a Communications employee. Together with my colleagues Annika and Geraldine, I reflected on how I could improve my writing skills.

A few weeks later, Reach Out hosted a youth camp for clients between the age of 12 and 22 years. I was sent to the Recreational Centre in Kiwatule, where approximately 70 adolescents and a group of Reach Out staff were gathered. I arrived without any idea of what was going to happen, but with my camera and my notepad I was ready to document whatever was taking place. I was introduced to the Reach Out peers, who all put in incredible efforts to make the youth camp as enjoyable as possible for the young clients. I had the chance of interviewing a couple of the camp attendants, including 15-year-old Timothy and 20-year-old Vivian. They both made a big impression on me, and their attitude towards their life with HIV was very admirable and inspirational. While Timothy had big dreams of a successful career in music, Vivian took on the role of a mother to many of the younger camp attendants. She aspired to take care of some of the more vulnerable adolescents in her community, and she told me incredible stories of how adolescents would come to her house in the middle of the night asking for help. She made it quite clear that she felt responsible for the wellbeing of many of the younger Reach Out clients, and their nickname for her, “Mammy”, was very suitable.

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Some of the young people working on an art piece for the camp

I returned to the camp later the same week to gather some more pictures and information for my blog post. It was evident that the adolescents had become more confident during their days at the camp, and many of them posed for pictures in front of a stone giraffe that stood in the middle of the centre’s garden. This was very important, as the camp aimed to empower the youths’ psychosocial skills. Adolescents with HIV are very vulnerable, as there is a lot of stigma and prejudice in the local communities. By increasing the youths’ psychosocial skills, they are able to deal with stigma and prejudice in a way that affects their lives positively.

A few of the adolescents came over to speak to me, asking where I was from and how long I was staying at Reach Out. Some of them expressed disappointment when I told them that it was my second-to-last day in Reach Out. The day ended with a large dance in the main hall of the recreational centre, and even though several of the youth clients asked me to join them in the activity, I said no thanks and continued to take pictures of them. Their dancing was on a completely different level from mine, and I did not want to end such a fun day by embarrassing myself. I returned to Reach Out and completed my blog post on the camp. I could look back at the two days, I had been at the camp with great hope for the youths of Reach Out. The level of commitment and positivity from the adolescents had really impressed me – especially from 20-year-old Vivian.

Friday the 3rd of February was my last day at Reach Out, and I felt very sad that my time there was coming to an end. My closest colleagues and I were invited into Dr. Betty’s office, where they had prepared some snacks and drinks. They thanked me for my contribution to the Communications Department, and I thanked them for teaching me so many useful skills. We sat in the office for a while, sharing funny stories and having fun. They gave me a very lovely farewell card with personal messages from everyone present in the room, as well as an incredibly beautiful shirt from the Roses of Mbuya shop. I put on the shirt immediately and Geraldine snapped a few pictures of me. For a minute, I relived being 5 years old again, posing for pictures in my Roses shirt.

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Karl opening his present at the farewell party
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In a Roses shirt

Finding Princess

I knew my time was up with Reach Out, but before I left, I felt I had one final thing to accomplish. Princess, the girl who had modelled for the Roses of Mbuya together with me and my sister all those years ago, had not been in contact with Reach Out for several years. I felt that it would be nice to see her and to show her the picture of the three of us from when we were young children.

One of my mom’s former colleagues, Joy, who is still working with Reach Out, had kindly searched for Princess during my weeks in Reach Out. Joy had found her and set up an appointment with Princess’ aunt on my last day at Reach Out. Together with Joy and Geraldine, I walked down to the local police station in Bugolobi. Opposite the police shed, there was a small sewing business. Joy told us to enter, and inside we found Princess’ aunt.

The aunt told us that Princess’ mother, Salima, had sadly passed away, and that Princess was living with her now. The only thing which Princess had inherited from her mother was her old sewing-machine, which she had once purchased through the Roses of Mbuya. Princess had completed S4 in High-school and aspired to be a journalist. She was working in her aunt’s shop at the Bugolobi market, while her aunt ran the business as well as a workshop which looked like a true copy of the first Roses of Mbuya workshop.

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Princess’ aunt showing Karl and Joy around her workshop

Princess arrived from the shop at the market, and I showed her the picture of herself, my sister and I.

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Princess observing the childhood picture from Karl’s phone

She found it quite amusing that she had once modelled for the Roses of Mbuya, even though she could not remember anything from the time. She took us to the shop in Bugolobi, where she had a sewing machine that she used for repair-orders. She told us that she was planning on completing high-school on A-levels, and that she wanted to go to university after that to study journalism. I was very happy for her, as I did not know how well she was doing before we found her. She is HIV-negative, and her future looks very promising.

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Karl and Princess posing for a picture after their meeting  a caption

 

After visiting Princess, I felt that I had accomplished my goals at Reach Out. It was time to say good-bye to all my lovely colleagues. As I looked back at my time with Reach Out, I felt a wave of joy. I had met so many nice and admirable people and I had had so much fun with my colleagues. Even though I have lived in Denmark for so many years now, Uganda continues to feel like my second home and will always have a special place in my heart. The same goes for Reach Out, as I was once what my colleagues call a “Reach Out baby”. After coming back to work for the organization that my mom felt so passionate about, my affiliation has only been strengthened and I hope to return very soon.

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Karl receiving his send-off blessing from Reach Out staff

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