Emeli Sande Visits Retrak Partner Projects

Brit Award winner Emeli Sandé travelled to Mbale in Uganda for Comic Relief to visit our partner Children’s Restoration Outreach (CRO) and to spend a night with some of the most vulnerable children our projects support.

Here is what Emeli said about her experience…

There are some things you see in life that are really shocking. For me, that was watching a group of five young boys shouting with excitement as they climbed over a rubbish pile – ­because they’d found some old mangoes which had been thrown away. I was in Uganda with Comic Relief and the street children, all aged 10 and under, had taken me to the market where they regularly went to find food.

Just hours earlier it had been a totally different story when I’d met the boys at the Child Restoration Outreach (CRO) project in the east of the country. From the moment we arrived at the centre, we were surrounded by a crowd of children. They were all smiling and happy and their excitement at having new visitors was infectious. They grabbed my hands and pulled me towards a seating area where they were singing songs. I sat next to 10-year-old Sowedi, who had a big smile that instantly drew me in.

However, after a lovely morning together, Sowedi took me out on to the streets of Mbale where he lives to show me what his daily life is like. He’s one of an estimated 10,000 children who live on the streets of Uganda and face daily challenges such as abuse and exploitation.

As soon as we stepped out of the gates of CRO I felt his whole demeanour change. The cheerful little boy I had just got to know instantly hardened. I felt him closing up. This, after all, was his real life. And he went into survival mode. Sowedi took me first to a rubbish dump where he and his friends often spend the day collecting plastic bottles which they can sell to be recycled.

It’s so dangerous as there is burning rubble and glass everywhere. Sowedi doesn’t even have shoes. He said that if he did the older boys would come and take them anyway. When I asked how he stayed safe on the rubbish pile, he said: “My best skill is being careful.”

Again, it was heartbreaking. And after all of that, he often only makes the equivalent of 8p in a day for the bottles he collects. Just as we finished talking there was a huge downpour and we had to run for cover to a nearby animal shelter. The boys were only wearing T-shirts so they tucked their arms inside them to keep warm. If it rains all day they sometimes have to spend the whole time on their feet in shop doorways in order to stay dry.

Once the rain stopped Sowedi and his friends led me to the local market where they go to look for food three times a day. It was loud and chaotic, with big lorries squeezing through tight spaces, motorbikes whizzing back and forth and people shouting instructions this way and that. The boys seemed so tiny as they navigated their way through. That’s when I saw them eating the mangoes and my heart just sank. It was so overwhelming and I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that children live like this in this day and age.

Later that night I went to see where the boys sleep and that’s when the reality really hit me. Sowedi and his four friends curled up together on the pavement with some thin sheets of cardboard underneath them. They just looked so little. They are so young and so vulnerable. They are just babies really, but they have to be so strong and so resilient. I found it difficult to hold it together as I thought about my friends’ children who are the same age. I just couldn’t even imagine them having to fend for themselves.

They are just 10 years old. They should be going to school and being tucked up in bed every night, not trying to survive by themselves on the streets. I felt awful trying to put on a brave face for the boys, when really I was totally shocked at what I was seeing. It was pitch black and as people walked past I felt intimidated as an adult, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them. It’s amazing how they survive.

That night I felt quite overwhelmed, because I’d been at CRO earlier and had seen them being children, just like any other 10-year-olds, and it felt very safe. Sowedi and other street children are able to attend the centre daily for meals and education and the staff aim to get them enrolled into school. One of the other vital things I noticed is social workers also supported them in the real fundamentals of life: their self-esteem and mental health. We often only think about providing food and water, but it’s important for them to want and feel they deserve a better life.

Emeli described the impact of Retrak’s projects on the children, “it gives them hope, gives them choices – gives them everything, really.”  Thanks to your support, the generosity of the British public and CRO, we are delighted that Sowedi has now been reintegrated with his family.