Ugandan women can carry almost anything on their heads.
Ugandan women can carry almost anything on their heads. Amy Marshall

Experiencing Uganda at a real level

IN March 2012, a campaign to "Make Kony Famous" went viral.

But just days after people tweeted, retweeted, posted and bombarded social media sites with the Invisible Children film, deep concerns about the campaign began to emerge.

Not only was the still-at-large warlord no longer in Uganda, it raised questions about how people in developing countries control their own message and share their stories with the rest of the world.

This is my attempt to tell a different Ugandan story.

People keep asking me how I found YOFAFO, why I chose Uganda.

I'd never done any international volunteering, didn't have any money, had never been to a developing country and had never been overseas alone.

Maybe it was a slightly crazy Elizabeth Gilbert moment which had me traipsing through international volunteering websites.

Or maybe it was a series of encounters, deep breaths, dreams and moments which led me there.

Either way, when I sent off eight applications and received eight responses, I naturally chose the only one which was written in slightly broken English, which didn't have an attached volunteer information pack and which had an outdated fluorescent green website and a Facebook page with just one friend.

Valence genuinely did need some help.

My grandmother called in a panic about some "bad news" she had seen on television, my other grandmother threatened to call my father, my friends kept warning me about deadly hippos and my mother tried to crack my email account so she could write to YOFAFO and tell them I wasn't really coming.

But before I knew it, I was flying over the second biggest lake in the world, right to the source of the mighty River Nile, my suitcase ready to explode with tripods and cameras and the boxes of condoms my mother forced me to pack "just in case".

As soon as I saw Valence's smile, I knew I'd made the right choice. It is impossible not be inspired by this man.

Valence Lutaisire, 35, grew up in the remote Ugandan village of Kitoola, about 60 kilometres east of the capital Kampala. Both his parents had died by the time he was nine.

Through good luck, countless prayers, the generosity of child sponsors and a whole lot of hard work, Valence made it through university.

Fifteen years later Valence is still the only person from Kitoola to have a university degree.

He is determined to change this fact.

When Valence made it through university, he had many opportunities available to him, but instead chose to return to Kitoola where he founded the Youth Focus Africa Foundation (YOFAFO).

In less than 10 years he and his wife Doreen, 32, have built two primary schools and a health clinic, started a microfinance program and community bank, secured more than 100 child sponsorships, and developed strong agriculture and public health programs.

I spent three months in Uganda this year, as YOFAFO's social media co-ordinator, taking photos, gathering stories, redeveloping the bright green website, shooting films, making friends and trying to explain what Twitter is.

I also had to learn to run again.

Most people seem to think all Africans can run.

It may be true many of them have a natural gift for it, but when I put on my shorts and sneakers and went trotting through the sugarcane, muddy lanes and jungle surrounding Lugazi (the town where Doreen and Valence live), I stood out like a luminous meteor after a decade of darkness.

There are only three reasons Ugandans run: for a "matatu" (taxi/bus), from the tax man, or to catch a pickpocket. Sometimes they skuttle from the tropical downpours.

So not only was I white and female, but my jogging was a source of humour, intrigue and confusion for everyone involved.

Children ran out in groups of 20, and jumped and shouted "Mzungu! Mzungu!" (moo-ZOONG-goo = white person) from 200 metres away, so everyone knew I was coming.

Some of the women smiled and laughed (some of them waited until I'd passed to do this) and others just gave me stoney stares. Up to six men on

boda-bodas (like scooters) could be asking for my number at the same time and yelling out the Ugandan word for "bottom".

When you work all day chopping sugarcane with a machete and you can only afford to eat rice and "matooke" (steamed plantain/green banana) and posho (cornmeal) the aim of the day leans more towards energy storage than fitness and fat burning.

And in fact, people call women "fat" as a compliment.

In some parts of Uganda, women are locked away and fed dairy products for the two weeks leading up to their wedding to make them plump and beautiful.

I felt like I was flaunting every first-world luxury in front of their faces.

I fell into a hole. The food, the separation from family, the absence of hot showers, the latrines - none of it bothered me. But not being able to run was wreaking havoc with my mental state.

Thankfully, a solution appeared: a half marathon was being held on the River Nile in the nearby town of Jinja and I convinced Doreen's brother, Dickson, to be my training partner.

The next three months was typical of anyone who embarks on such an experience - a time to examine the way we approach life, my personal values, my unconscious stereotypes.

It's an opportunity to put faces to those impacted by the world's imbalances. Eventually, you walk away wondering if you gave anything close to what you received.

One of the bigger projects I have embarked on with YAFAFO is to gain approval for the organisation to be included on the crowd source funding website Global Giving.

We have passed the due diligence process, but to secure permanent inclusion, need to raise $4000 in 30 days, from 50 different donors for a special project.

YOFAFO's chosen project is two new classrooms for its school at Kitoola, where many children are waiting to start school but there is no space to put them.

Tomorrow, Dickson, Valence and another volunteer are going to be running in Uganda, and I will be running along the Capricorn Coast in my leopard print socks to raise money for the project.

Across Australia and the world other people will be tap dancing, yoga posing, walking and cycling in leopard print to raise money for YOFAFO.

I can't guarantee all the children at the school will go on to be doctors or presidents, but I can ensure their gratitude for being provided the opportunity for an education and the possibility of dreams.

To buy some bricks or a wheelbarrow of concrete, please visit in-uganda.

For more information about YOFAFO you can also visit or read my blog at


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