Uganda, Ireland, and “Ruth”.

I’m in a dilemma. Last June before I took holidays I received a letter out of the blue from Uganda. The writer was a 16 year old Ugandan girl. Along with the letter, she enclosed her school report. It was a very good report by the way, and even more remarkable as the tale unfolded.

As often happens, unsolicited letters and emails are often dumped by most of us, either in the bin or the spam box. My first impulse was to dump it. Then I looked at the school report again. It was clearly the real thing, printed on poor quality cerise-coloured paper, complete with hand-written teachers’ comments on the girl’s work.

She addressed me as “Dear Mary Elizabeth Eugenie O’Donnell …”.  Now who in the world would know all three of my Christian names, I wondered, except someone who had come across them – more than likely – in a (spurious??) International Dictionary of Writers I once gave information to many many years ago. In any case, in her page-long hand-written letter she outlined her situation. Both parents have died of HIV/AIDS and she is the sole carer for three other children. They live alone. She was writing to ask me if I could help her pay her school fees, as unless she obtained this money she would be unable to finish out her schooling. 

I did nothing at first. I folded the letter and left it on my desk and went off for two weeks holiday during which I sunned myself and ate and drank with enormous pleasure, as well as reading a pile of books on the Kindle. On my return, the letter lay on my keyboard just as I’d left it. I re-read it. Then I emailed the school (as per the report details) and explained what had happened. Was this a genuine request? Who was this girl (let’s call her ‘Ruth’)?

The next day I received a reply from the school principal, confirming that this was indeed a genuine letter. He wasn’t asking anything of me, but confirmed that the girl could not continue without the fees, which were a lower three-figure sum in Sterling. The school and its teachers also hold her in some regard, I gathered, and are certainly sympathetic towards her plight. I decided to plough ahead and write and tell him that I would pay the school fees, to which he responded very positively. The next day, photographs were emailed to me of these children. A day later, the principal had gone out and photographed their dwelling. It was a crumbling mud house barely supported by wood lintels. No electricity, obviously. No running water. This was where Ruth studies, in between minding her three siblings. They have little food as they have no income.

Aid and developmental agencies get very annoyed when Westerners donate money directly to anybody in a foreign community, as I decided there and then to do. I understand why: it creates difference within communities, and if it’s a lot of money sets the recipients apart from their peers. In other words it can be divisive and resentment-causing rather than what one intends. However, in this case I did not feel I could say no. I thought, if I pay these fees she can at least continue her schooling. I marvelled at how this girl can even concentrate, given her living conditions. It bothered me so much that I began to feel guilty every time I opened my mouth to tuck in to a good meal, every time I popped open a nice bottle of wine, every time I rolled over in my very comfortable bed. But I got a grip on myself. This is not the way to ‘donate’. So I ditched guilt somewhere in a special bin in my head, where guilt should end up but doesn’t always. Perhaps my guilt turned to remorse that this is the world we live in.

To compound things, these girls live in a house on somebody else’s land. The owners of that land are themselves under pressure to survive, and now want the house and patch of ground on which it sits, back. The girls have two days to get out (today is August 7th). It is an appalling tale. But I know it’s just one more situation among millions, and nothing exceptional. And yet it is highly exceptional to me. Obviously I’m not going to go tearing out to Uganda. It was difficult to get the Bank of Ireland to agree to transfer the money to an account out there, Uganda being regarded as ‘politically unstable’. But in the end they did it, something I’m very grateful for and thumbs up to B of I for pushing for the money transfer. I don’t believe I can save the world, or change very much except by the drop in the ocean gesture, such as paying those fees perhaps. But it doesn’t address the politics and attitudes of a place where – it appears – there does not seem to be someone who looks out for a family of four young females who are alone in the world, the eldest of whom is desperately seeking a way to improve her life.

The girl has already emailed me. She was delighted when the money landed in the account that the school principal set up in her name. She cannot have an account until she is aged 18, so for the moment it is in the name of the school director. I literally sent the fee and a small extra amount for provisions and so on. It will not go far. It is a basic amount. In any case, she has now paid the fees but is more or less out of a home in which to live. She may have to live on the roadside, with her siblings. When I think of the awfulness of this I also think of the awfulness in which some Irish young people also live. That can’t be forgotten either. Yet this seems to be a level up in terms of desperation, perversion of social justice, and fair play to children. I do not know what will happen to Ruth. I will have to take advice from a good friend in one of the Irish developmental agencies. But one thing I know is that I am committed now to seeing something through, although what precisely it is, I cannot tell at this juncture.

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