Help Girls Learn, Uganda was born four years ago on my return from Uganda. I visited the country after meeting Lilian, a young woman from Kampala who was visiting Australia. I had just finished writing 'Alexander Altmann A10567', a young adult novel set in Auschwitz. As soon as I heard Lilian’s story about growing up in a small impoverished village, desperate for an education, I knew the heart of my next novel.
But Lilian’s story was only one story, one voice. I needed to learn more, so I flew to Uganda. I didn't know what it felt like to be a poor African girl without shoes or schoolbooks; I needed to speak to girls who did. The best way to do that, I decided, was to contact aid organisations who fought to keep girls in school. I settled on five organisations based in Kampala who advocated for girl’s rights and emailed each of them asking them to introduce me to some of the girls they had helped.
I interviewed thirty girls and women. I went to their villages, visited their huts, walked to the wells where they gathered water and visited the dusty schools where they learned to speak English until, one by one, they dropped out. They told me about forgoing meals to pay for textbooks and trading their bodies for school fees. They told me about being kept home from school when they bled because they couldn’t afford pads. Some had been given as wives in exchange for cattle. All of them wanted, more than anything, to learn.
I started my days at 8 am, with a line of girls waiting to share their stories. Most days I returned to my hotel after dark, too overwrought to sleep, but alongside the anger and sorrow also sat hope and a deep admiration for the girls I had met. None of them had both their parents. Many were orphans, their mothers dying of diseases the witch-doctors couldn’t cure and their fathers abandoning them for second and third wives. They lived without running water or electricity. A lucky few were in secondary school, on scholarships, the only girls in their class. They lived in concrete boxes in the city’s slums, walking an hour to school on an empty stomach and they considered themselves blessed. They were lucky to be learning, they told me, their faces lit by smiles. “If you can read and write you can get a good job and you won’t be hungry.”
I gave them sugar, flour, soap and pencils, but it wasn’t enough. Nor is the noise I hope to make with my book. I left Uganda with their voices on tape and their secrets and dreams in the pages of my notebook. I left with new friends - beautiful girls filled with hope, able to find joy in the smallest of things - and a pressing need to do more than just write, so on my return to Australia, I established this site.
Help Girls Learn, Uganda, is an initiative to get girls into schools and keep them there. If you want to help better girls’ lives, click on the link below to donate. The money you provide will go to the five aid organisations who introduced me to the girls who inspired 'I am Change'. Organisations like Girl Child Network, Uganda who run empowerment clubs for girls; AAFCAD, who improve the lives of the people in Kampala’s poorest slum; Girls Not Brides a global partnership committed to ending child marriage; Concern for the Girl Child who empower vulnerable girls through sponsored education and The Uganda Youth Alliance for Family Planning and Adolescent Health who educate young people about the dangers of early sexual activity.
I saw the difference these organisations made, how they’d saved girls from unwanted pregnancies and marriages to older men, fed them when they were hungry and sat them at desks. Girls who’d been forced to sell their bodies on the street were now able to read, women who’d grown used to being beaten now lived independently and ran their own businesses.
Your donation will allow these organisations to continue to fund women’s support groups and savings groups, skill workshops and housing projects, schools and scholarship programs. The girls I met in Uganda were poor but they are fierce and determined. They don’t need our pity. They will shape their own future, if given the tools. As Namukasa says in her beautiful forward to my book: 'Things can change. Me and my friends will make them change. We just need some help.'