Tánaiste's visits to Irish Aid projects in east Africa highlights value of help


ON THE dusty main street of Moroto, a ramshackle town in the most impoverished region of Uganda, it takes no stretch at all to imagine the childhood Lomongin Abdi left behind.

Barefoot urchins in rags walk along the muddy lanes, a few begging, a few selling trinkets. There is no famine here, but to say life is harsh is an understatement. Success here means lowering the percentage of households who live on $1.25 a day or less from 28 per cent. When you live on the precipice of subsistence, everything is a struggle.

Abdi was once one of those kids. His father, a soldier, died in 1996. His mother moved into Moroto but was uneducated and could not find work. He was forced into becoming a street child. “Life is hard. I joined the streets to beg and do hard labour. I carried people’s luggage to get small things I could bring back to my mother.

“I still managed to stay in school because I loved education. In my primary school I was always the top of the class.”

His chances of continuing education would have been zero if it had not been for an intervention that occurred when he was about 13. He was one of about 200 children who were successful in scholarship exams for a new programme.

The bursary was provided by the Irish Government and has, over time, became one of the great achievements of Irish Aid.

Over the past eight years, about 1,300 children in this region have been given scholarships to take them through secondary education in boarding schools, with enough money for all incidental expenses.

In Abdi’s case, it got him through secondary school and into university in the capital Kampala where, at 22, he is studying demographics and reproductive studies.

Yesterday he was one of a large number of students who turned up to a school in Moroto to meet Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore.

He and three other students, two female and one male – from similar desperately poor backgrounds – spoke of how this programme had changed their lives and opened up opportunities that were hitherto unimaginable.

The Tánaiste said the provision of education was an act of great empowerment, a basic human right. Mr Gilmore was on the first day of his five-day visit to east Africa seeing Irish Aid projects in action.

Mr Gilmore met Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, who is also the minister for the region.

He also visited another extraordinary project where Irish Aid gives direct assistance to elderly citizens who are too infirm or too old to work. About 19,000 households in Karamojo get grants of €8 a month, which makes a massive, tangible difference to their lives.

The money is transferred as credits on payphone cards. They can then use them in shops or through agents in a vast region that lacks services such as banks.

The visit to Uganda continues today with the Tánaiste scheduled to travel to Kenya tomorrow.