A chance to shine
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Their first visit to Uganda ended in disaster with a serious bout of food poisoning. So just why are Alan and Jane Hutt giving up almost everything to go and live in the country? Sheena Grant went to find out
FOR a couple who have just given up the security of a weekly wage, along with many of the material possessions most of us have come to believe we could not live without, Alan and Jane Hutt seem remarkably happy.
They have sold their cars, given sack-loads of “stuff” to charity shops, left their jobs and have said goodbye to their comfortable home in Rendlesham with no idea when – or even if – they will return for good.
Yet they cannot stop smiling.
On the day I visited their quirky house (the sitting room is on the first floor) they had just five days left in the UK before flying out to new lives in one of the poorest and most remote parts of Uganda.
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With them they were taking just a suitcase of clothes, a few books, a laptop (to stay in touch with their three children, aged between 19 and 23, back home) and some medicines.
They will be living in Kabale, close to the Rwandan border, in the home of a Ugandan friend currently working in Scotland, and taking on voluntary roles at a school in nearby Rwentobo, run by a Christian organisation called World Shine Ministries.
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In many ways Alan and Jane are more surprised than anyone that they are making the move. After a three-week visit to the country two years ago they vowed never to return. Alan got salmonella food poisoning so badly that Jane at one point feared she would be making the flight back to Rendlesham alone.
“I ate some dodgy rice,” says Alan. “I thought I would play safe and avoid the chicken but the rice got me instead. I think it had been kept too warm for too long. It was so bad I didn’t think I was coming home.”
Once Jane got Alan to the local hospital the language difficulties didn’t help. The couple knew only a few words in the local Rukiga and Jane struggled to make herself understood.
“They (wrongly) diagnosed malaria – everything is malaria – and Alan lost a stone in weight in three days,” she says.
“We thought, after that, it was not for us. It was disappointing because we had felt this call to Africa for some years and had been expecting to fall in love with the place, but it didn’t happen.
“But when we had been home a little while we felt things begin to change and as the year went on we started to think maybe we should give it another go.” After a two-week visit last summer, which went much better, the couple decided they were ready to make a long term commitment and go out to Uganda on an “open-ended” basis.
“We loved the people,” says Alan. “They were so hospitable and friendly, and the second visit was so different to the first. It was very hands-on. We were helping paint the school and dig the foundations for a new dormitory block. We worked as cross-cultural mediators and that’s the role we will be doing when we are out there for good.”
Once back in the UK after that visit last summer they set about making the move permanently. Alan, a French polisher by trade, gave up his job as a self-employed painter and decorator and Jane quit the behaviour support role at Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge she had held for the past 11-plus years.
“The day I handed in my notice it all started to feel a bit more real,” she says. “But it wasn’t a big decision once we knew we had just got to do this.”
Although the couple are devout Christians and will be working for a Christian organisation they do not think of themselves as “missionaries”.
“Uganda has a large Christian population anyway – about 85%,” says Jane. “The place we are going has a high percentage of Muslims too and we will all be working side by side.”
“I will be over-seeing building projects taking place,” says Alan. “They have started building a three-storey dormitory to house 300 orphans and vulnerable children. Many of the children currently walk 18-mile round trips to get to school and a number of them are girls and vulnerable orphans who have lost both parents, usually to HIV-Aids. The dormitory will house them on a more permanent basis and allow them to attend the school more easily.”
“I will have a more pastoral role,” says Jane. “It will involve looking after the welfare of the children and staff, liaising with and working alongside parents, and developing and co-ordinating projects to support the school and UK links with the school. We have got a school partnership in the embryonic stages with Farlingaye and a primary school in Derby has signed up for one, too. That is an area we see growing.
“I am also a trained counsellor and that is going to be a big part of my role, particularly with women.”
The couple will be the only British people working at the school. The rest are Ugandans.
“We really just want to go out there to help,” says Jane. “There’s so much to do.
“When we went for our first visit we met some children from the school and did some home visits. We met two little girls, called Hope and Agnes, whose mother had just died of HIV. Their father was already dead. They were orphans. We came home with that experience planted in us.
“The school is in a very deprived and poor area and a lot of the people who live in the area are refugees from the genocide in Rwanda, as this area of Uganda is virtually on the Rwandan border.
“During that visit we also met a woman called Justina who had fled the genocide. Her husband was killed in Rwanda and she re-married and had a daughter. Her second husband had just been killed in a road accident and that rendered her homeless. She and her daughter were living in a shed that had been loaned to them.
“We felt if we could only help one person we had met on that visit it had to be Justina.”
Back home in Rendlesham the couple raised enough money to buy a piece of land to build Justina a traditional Ugandan house, which is what she wanted.
Because they organised the purchase of the land from England the couple had no idea they were actually buying somewhere the size of a football pitch.
“We just said we wanted somewhere big enough to build a home,” says Jane.
Now they are hoping that perhaps more houses can be built on the land to help other women like Justina.
In fact, Jane and Alan were so affected by Justina’s experiences that they have set up a project in her name to support others like her.
“It’s called the Justina Project and it sits under World Shine Ministries,” says Jane.
“We are not there to change people or change their culture,” says Alan. “We are there to help. There are hundreds and hundreds of Justinas and little girls like Agnes and Hope, whose mum died while we were there with them, leaving them orphaned, aged nine and 10.”
Average life expectancy in poor parts of Uganda is just 45 years, largely because of the impact of HIV, road accidents and water-borne illnesses.
“Their diet is actually really healthy, so if they manage to avoid all those other things they can live long lives,” says Alan.
Most people in the mountainous area where the couple will be working earn their living on the land.
While many in the UK will still associate the name of Uganda with the murderous regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s, much has thankfully moved on in the country, which is now relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous. Tourism is an important industry, with many people travelling to see mountain gorillas close to the area in which Jane and Alan will be working.
“It’s the Switzerland of Africa and was called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill,” says Jane.
Uganda is still largely a tribal society and the country has a total of 54 tribes.
“The staff and a lot of children speak English,” says Jane. “We’ll continue to teach the children English and we will try and learn the native language as well.”
Leaving their three children behind is a big wrench but the couple hope to have some visits from them in the summer and plan a journey back to England over Christmas.
One is on a gap year and living at home, another is at university and the third has graduated and is hoping to become a teacher.
“They are accepting that they are growing up and their lives are moving on,” says Jane. “This is our opportunity to go and do what we feel we have to. Our childen realise that and are supportive.”
“We want everyone to be happy about the decision,” says Alan.
The couple will rely on sponsorship to support them financially in Uganda, as they will be working as volunteers.
They plan to live frugally, with their biggest expense being the purchase of a 4x4 vehicle – essential for the terrain.
Ugandan children too often need sponsoring if they are to get an education, as the country’s schools are all fee-paying. The school where Jane and Alan will be working has 650 pupils on roll, 150 of whom have sponsors.
“World Shine has minimal low fees, too, as well as sponsorship programmes,” says Jane.
The couple say the time they have spent in Uganda over the last two years, among people living in dire poverty, has already changed them.
“In some ways giving things up has been hard for me because I have always liked nice things,” says Alan. “But over the last two years I have realised it doesn’t have to be this way: we don’t have to have the latest car, the biggest house, that new three-piece suite. We can live with what we’ve got.
“When you see people with nothing, you realise that. We live so much in a throwaway society but there are people out there who really have nothing. Instead of looking at what we haven’t got, we should look to what we do have.
“The more you get, the more you want and the more you strive to get. This gives us an opportunity to let go of all the material things. We will take clothes, books, a laptop and medicine, but nothing else.
“We have seen these two little girls who lived in a house where their mother died. They had nothing. We saw a lady who lived in a brick shed with only a mattress, a mosquito net and a Bible.
“I used to be money-driven but it isn’t important any more.”
Jane and Alan are now in Uganda. To find out more, visit their website at www.parting-seas.co.uk or www.worldshine.org or www.worldshinefoundation.org, where you can also follow a link to the couple’s Facebook page.