Journey Diary / Shiraz Ariarli

I landed in Uganda at 4 am after a six-hour layover in Turkey, with high fever and a completely vague mind. A 25 year old, after two very long trips and many short ones, with lots of experience in developing countries but that has never been to Africa. A 25 year old, that was in the middle of a design degree but decided one day that she wants to go in a completely different direction and work in the field of international development and humanitarian aid. 

After a few months of searching for the right place, I found Little Light Uganda NGO, an organization operating in Namuwongo slum, Kampala - one of the hardest slum areas in Uganda and the world. So I notified the university, sold everything I own, moved out of my comfortable apartment in Tel Aviv, packed my bags, and flew to the beautiful African continent. 

At the small reception area in Entebbe Airport, waiting to pick me up, was one of the organization's local staff, standing with a huge smile, which I later learned to recognize as an identifying mark of Ugandan people. It was still dark when we made our way to the volunteer’s apartment, and there aren't many street lights in Uganda, but I could already feel the bumpy roads and see, in the sunrise lights, the women preparing for work carrying huge baskets on their heads and tiny babies on their backs.

On my first day in Little Light, I'm being taken to a tour in Namuwongo. An incredibly big neighbourhood, thousands of narrow passageways in between small huts made out of timber and mud, full of garbage, the sewerage flowing in the open air, and small children running around between all of the above. After two long trips in India, I have seen poverty before, but the sights have managed to shake me up. 

Our organization was established over 10 years ago by Israelis who saw the hard reality in Namuwongo and wanted to create a change for this community of amazing people who have nothing but a huge never-ending smile. They joined the local community and, together, they built this beautiful place that provides education, empowerment, and support to hundreds of children, women, and youth. 

Our compound is located on the border of the slum. In the morning, it operates as a kindergarten and a school, in the afternoon it becomes a community center for our women empowerment group and youth program. Ugandan schools cost money, not a big amount in our world but way more than what a family living from 1-4$ a day can pay. That is why our entire operation is financed by private people with big hearts who “adopt” a child from afar and finance their school fees.

Our youth group goes through empowerment workshops and life skill classes, does community work projects and also get a safe place to socialize and do what they love most - dance!

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Our amazing women empowerment group that was founded by Little Light’s children’s mothers is an incredible thing on its own. Women who went through so much, many who are refugees from former war zones and\or single mothers but still find the strength to move on and build better lives for them and their children. 

Day after day they show up to our compound, they still strive for knowledge and we give them what we can with different life skills and empowerment classes. They also work together, to create their financial independence by making the “Umoja beads” which they then string together into beautiful traditional African jewelry.

Uganda, Little Light and the people have become a home for me. The place has entered so deep into my heart that when my 3 months of volunteering were coming to an end, I just couldn’t see myself leaving. So my family came to visit, we traveled around this beautiful country and then, they went back home and I stayed for 3 more months of volunteering.

The goal, of course, is that one day, this community will not need us anymore, that they will have the ability and skills to run their own programs and finance their own children’s schools. We aren’t there yet and that is OK but, we are thinking and working with them, hand in hand, together, trying to give access to the education, tools and skills that will enable the change to climb from them, their community and their culture.

For me, besides the hope that our organization provides, the most important part of our work is opening doors and possibilities for this amazing, capable community. Giving opportunities for people to grow, learn and create the life they want for themselves. We, me and you, we live in a world where no one thinks of the possibility that their children might not go to school, a world with compulsory education laws, where education is not a privilege but a basic right. And we all know that education is the only way to develop and succeed in our world.

Ever since I finished my volunteering time in Little Light, I joined other community development projects around the world but a huge part of my heart stayed in Uganda and so I continued volunteering with the organization the whole time. Today, three years later, I supervise the volunteer department and all projects run by our organization and I keep in touch with our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries.

After all my volunteering experiences and the beautiful human I encountered, came the realization that community development is my passion in life and also, the understanding that there are so many youths out there who wish to do, grow, develop, contribute and become active members of their societies but no one is willing to give them a fighting chance. Out of these realizations, I chose to dedicate my life to the hope that change is possible, doing work that pushes the world to become a better and more equal one, to the belief that creating opportunities will enable those young, capable and ambitious youths to develop themselves and their communities to the best places possible. 

So today, three years after my first arrival in Uganda, I moved here to start my project - a social business that employs young adults from the slum areas of Kampala for a one year program where they get to earn their own living while going through a comprehensive social program and later, get assistance and guidance in the transition into higher education and the labor market.

Many say that my generation cares about nothing but watching TV and enjoying our privileges. 

I try to live differently and I am not the only one. We are also a generation that wants to know, learn, do, protest and change and is willing to put in the time and effort required to do so. Not everyone of course but many. Younger and older people that choose to travel differently, travel while recognizing the value of the other culture, supporting the local community, respect it instead of trampling or ignoring it, travel and give back to the community.

I believe, with all my heart, that if there is a void or huge shortage in one place, it affects each and every one of us and we have the moral obligation to act. The American philanthropist Soros said, that humanity’s goal should be a community that understands that everyone, everywhere has the need for freedom, equality, and the opportunity to grow and develop. And believe me, until you see it with your own eyes you cannot understand real poverty and you cannot comprehend the true, unsettling nature of inequality. A life where education is a luxury and a shower, a pair of shoes, or a warm meal are not obvious things to have.

We all have the right to live in dignity regardless of where and when we were born, our gender, our religion, or the color of our skin. And, we all have the obligation to respect one another, to not disrespect, to cherish the differences. We have the obligation to keep our world as beautiful and diverse as it is while we also work and contribute to making it better, more equal, more accepting.