My adventure began almost a year ago when I saw an advert on our brigade’s ‘Service Update’ board for volunteers to travel to Uganda to teach fire safety education to children. The target to make the trip was to raise £1,500 to help towards flights, accommodation, food and so after getting involved in a range of fundraising, and before I knew it I was taking off from Bristol to meet my travelling companions in Schipol.
I met up with Colin Watson and Ian Robertson as we waited to board our flight to Entebbe. Colin is the Chair of the charity Community Safety Uganda and now retired from his career as a much travelled civil servant. He is a very active and passionate Rotarian and while in Africa with the charity helps many communities by liaising with politicians and Councillors to access life changing improvements such as water filters for simple clean water for the villages. The third member of our team was Ian, who recently retired from his position as District Commander for the Metropolitan Borough of South Tyneside Fire and Rescue Service.
Ian’s knowledge and experience relating to all Fire and Rescue Service issues was vital having achieved specialisms including Fire Investigation, Hazmat, HDIM, and Water Incident Management. Now retired and running a Health and Safety Fire Consultancy working in the UK, Africa and the Middle East he is a very active Trustee of the charity Community Safety Uganda. Over the past eight years Ian has managed the professional competence side of the charity and has devised and delivered a fire safety education programme to schools in the Mityana District as well as training to the firefighters in the town. He is now involved at the request of the Ugandan Government in the training and development of the National Fire and Rescue Service.
One of the charities greatest achievements has to be the acquisition of a fire appliance from the Kampala Council in 2013 which was only agreed after the building of the Mityana Fire Station! The charity has supplied equipment for the appliance along with the fire kit and training for the firefighters in the town. This outstanding achievement has helped to make the 350,000 residents of the Mityana District safer and educated a generation which inevitably has saved lives.
Ensure even the youngest receive fire safety messages
On arrival at Entebbe airport the sensory overload began. The heat, the smells, the sounds and the sights confirmed I was a long way from North Devon and I was enthusiastically embracing the whole adventure. After a brief settling in at our hotel, we began with the programme as there was a full schedule of fire safety education to be delivered to the children in the district. The Mityana District spreads out for miles into endless communities nestled among banana groves, papyrus swamps and tea plantations. We were taken off to the different villages by our driver and with us was a translator to ensure that even the youngest children received the fire safety messages we were there to give.
The roads would take us down smaller and smaller tracks, and then we would arrive into an area where there would be a school with perhaps 1500 students and you would wonder where all these children came from! The children had the brightest, smiliest faces and were very much up for having some fun with a homemade football on the grass or a sing along before being ushered back in to their classrooms for the lesson.
The schools were very run down most with dirt floors and it was only the richer ones that had bars on the window in fact I rarely saw any glass in the windows – these were only the church funded schools. Once in the classrooms the children were impeccably behaved and would welcome us with their best voices and settled down quickly to listen intently to the lesson. The education was simple concentrating on the importance of shout, get out and stay out, stop drop and roll and how to initially treat a small burn with cool water - not with cooking oil or sugar as many are brought up with.
With the secondary school students the education included the triangle of combustion, how fire grows through conduction, convection and radiation and how it can be extinguished through starvation, smothering and cooling. While not detracting from the seriousness, it was all part of the fun to get the children SHOUTING and interacting to make sure they remembered these messages. Seeing their bright, giggling happy faces will be something that will remain with me for the rest of my days.
Education key to eradicating fire disasters
One of the most inspirational schools we visited was an orphanage – one I really wasn’t looking forward to. As was the norm when arriving at a school, we were quickly spotted and before long playing the okey cokey together out under the African sun. The manners of these small people were incredible and there was no heckling or grabbing when we gave a sticker to each student – they received this small gift with grace and warmth – quietly holding their hands open in their laps for us to place the small piece of paper into. When we left to the sea of waving arms and big smiles I noticed a mural on the wall which said “I will never forget you as I have your name written in the palms of my hand”.
Most of the children have no shoes on their feet and ripped clothing and yet they all sit attentively in school and behave impeccably. They know that education is their chance to a better life and so make sure that they listen to their teachers. Families have to pay to send their children to school and so for them it is a privilege and if they can afford it they wear uniforms which are always kept to their best. If the children come from some distance away they may board at the school and sleep in one of the many dormitories. At one school we visited, there had been a fire in a dormitory in May of this year which had luckily started after the students were in class. Had it started in the middle of the night, there would have been over 100 children inside with bars on the windows for security. Luckily no one was hurt but it could have been a very different story as it has been numerous times in the past. Education is part of the key to helping eradicate these types of disaster and something that Community Safety Uganda is successfully involved in.
It is difficult to imagine that places still have to manage without the basic things we take for granted such as clean water and electricity. Many still have to walk to the watering hole with their yellow containers to collect their water which is far from clean. Electricity is rare out in the countryside and those areas that do have it are dangerously tapped into. Installations in homes and schools aren’t always to the highest standard and this are a regular cause of fires.
The simple life seemed almost idyllic until you become aware of the poverty and deprivation caused by years of political unrest. It’s not until the rains came that I was able to appreciate how hard it must be to maintain the standards they work so hard to keep. It seemed wherever we went and wherever we looked the buildings were falling down, the roads virtually impassable and still so many communities without the basic necessities. They are a proud and hardworking people who give freely their warm smiles. Watching mothers with their babies strapped to their backs walking barefooted along the muddy roads back to their tiny homes to cook on the fire outside in the rain really brought it home to me how hard their lives are.
I had the most amazing time in Uganda with Ian and Colin. In usual circumstances a group of around 12 would travel out with the charity but it was just the three of us this year due to the industrial dispute and yet we still managed to deliver education to 20,000 students, so it was a great achievement and for anyone wishing to have a mini adventure I would highly recommend it.
Community Safety Uganda are now recruiting for future programmes taking UK FRS personnel as volunteers into Uganda in order to deliver Schools Fire Safety Education. Should you require any further information regarding the charity or of future programmes visit www.communitysafetyuganda.co.uk or contact Ian Robertson trustee (07976220423 / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pictures courtesy of Caroline Anderson / Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service