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The Uganda Marathon – Part Two

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Wow, what a trip!

Uganda, you really do live up to your name, the Pearl of East Africa.


Utterly mind-blowing from start to finish to put it mildly and a life changing experience that I never envisaged I would encounter.

Leon and Lottie

From the moment my partner Lottie Moore and I stepped foot in Uganda, we both felt a warmth from the people that we never knew existed.  Everywhere we went, we were greeted with beaming smiles and an unerring desire to please us in every way possible.  Unnerving? No, far from it.  I think we can all take a leaf out of their books, the world would be a much more enriching place if we could all follow suit.


Our adventure kicked off in Entebbe where we stayed on the shores of Lake Victoria in a guest house.   Our hotel was the epicentre of where the locals gathered to spend time with their families and friends.   African beats & incessant laughter ensued and mouth-watering smells enticed our senses as they cooked up many local dishes.  We were invited for drinks and got chatting to loads of different folks – inevitably, football was a key talking point when I informed the folks that Manchester was my place of birth.  Much to my dismay, the red side of Liverpool had the larger following!


Entebbe is a charming place, we visited the botanical gardens and had the most knowledgeable guide who talked us through all the local plants & their myriad of healing qualities.  The monkeys took a liking to us as we treated them to a few bananas out of our hands.  The locals were also busy rustling up a feast for a party and had the local DJ setting up chucking out tunes….as barmy as it sounds, it just all worked seamlessly!


We wanted to experience all the sides to the city and went on a bike ride with another young, very engaging chap who showed us the sights on a 3 hour ride.  He took us everywhere and we witnessed such a gulf between wealth and poverty and the conditions that families live in side by side.


Mansions that wouldn’t look out of place in the wealthier suburbs of the UK border the most impoverished shanty towns where people quite literally have nothing.  There was a buzz of activity as folks went about their day, whether it be selling local produce, foraging for food or simply watching the world go by.  Everywhere we went, we were met with a shout of “Wazungu” from children of all ages – the term is used to refer to someone with white skin and we were to become well acquainted with this word throughout the duration of our trip.


Onwards from Entebbe when the rest of the group arrived from various parts of the globe – 150 of us in all descended upon Masaka in old rickety buses, packed in with luggage on our laps, we would get to know our fellow travellers pretty well en-route – the journey on paper seemed straightforward enough, 2 hours (African time)…6 hours later, endless gridlocks on narrow, bumpy, sandy, pot hole laden tracks that barely fit one vehicle let alone two down meant a hairy journey.  This was par for the course in Uganda – the shortest of journeys turned into epic ones…


Our camp stood at the top of the village in Masaka with the most breath-taking, panoramic views of rich, green countryside as far as the eye could see.  This was to be our base for the next 6 days, what a treat – no wifi, no phone signal, we really were in the middle of nowhere and nothing from the outside world mattered a jot. Bliss.  A proper chance to live in the present and forgot about the stresses of our everyday lives back home.

Leon Lottie and kids 2

Over the next few days, we spent time helping out our respective charities and visited the local schools including those for children with disabilities.  We also visited a number of the projects that the team had helped out on last year and saw the impact the money raised and all the hard work had made. “Make a Difference Day”, however, was the highlight for us by a distance.


Lottie and I spent the day with our chosen Charity called STEP which stands for Support for the Elderly People.  We were met in the village by a truly wonderful person called Emma, he was the head teacher of the local school and he couldn’t have been more energetic with a beaming smile and such an infectious laugh & spirit.  He threw his arms around us all, a greeting that seemed so natural and inspiring which set the tone for the day.  He told us about the programme and how much value the work we will do contributes to the lives & sustainability of the elderly in the village.


The next 8 hours were the most rewarding and was the most labour intensive day of work I have ever had.  Right from the off and in sweltering heat, we all rolled up our sleeves and helped the locals build a piggery that would accommodate a further 12 pigs.  We dug trenches, lugged bricks, tossed tons of sand & stones to make cement and put a corrugated roof on the frame of the piggery.


By the end of the day, our project was complete and what will remain with me forever was the gratitude and kindness from the community regardless of their age.  We really had made a difference to so many people.


To know that a community will now become more sustainable on the back of our hard work was really gratifying and humbling.  We also visited a number of families in the community who were benefiting from the great work and money raised last year.  The most saddening visit was to an elderly lady of 80 years old.  She was single-handedly caring for her 4 grandchildren who were all under the age of 8.  Their parents had sadly lost their lives as a result of HIV a few years previously.


We were welcomed into their home and were met with a barrage of smiles and unbridled joy from the family.  They couldn’t have been more welcoming and wanted to thank us for our help to improve the quality of their lives.  It was very humbling and saddening to see the conditions they lived in and it became apparent that every day was a struggle to provide food for the family.  Education clearly had to take a back seat due to a lack of means and the pigs they owned were also suffering as a result of malnutrition.  This was a powerful reminder of the genuine problems that are prevalent across Africa and the daily struggles that a lot of families face.


Over the course of the week, we made some great friendships with so many like-minded people on the trip.  Regardless of our walk of life or how we spend our days back home, there was a powerful collective feeling amongst the group that we were here with a common goal to make a REAL difference.  This was going to be telling on Race Day as we were all going to need to dig deep to help each other round the brutal Marathon course.  On the eve of the run, we had a detailed briefing from the Medics reminding us of the potential health hazards that lay in wait.  It was a pretty sobering reminder, and a much needed one as we were about to embark on a serious run under extreme conditions and heat.


The Race Day itself was mind-blowing.  2000 Ugandans lined up alongside us and we all milled around the start line at 6.45am limbering up to the sounds of western beats & soaked up the pre-race tension and energy.  The camaraderie between the runners was electric, we were all buzzing and wishing each other the very best of luck.


What was to follow was the most brutal physical challenge I have ever undertaken.  The course followed the most uneven, pot-hole laden & rugged dirt track with what seemed like endless, steep hill climbs.  The heat was oppressive as the clouds gave way to searing sunshine shortly after the start.  In spite of these extreme conditions, we were cajoled and cheered on every step of the way by the buzzing community who were lining the streets to wish us well.  We ran through the villages we’d visited during the week and were joined by groups of young children who held our hands and ran in spurts with us.  They couldn’t have been happier and their enthusiasm kept our spirits lofty and our energy levels topped up.


At mile 8, Lottie annoyingly suffered a very painful knee injury and despite her dogged & determined spirit she was unable to continue running.  We brushed aside this disappointment and we decided to “speed walk” so we pinned our ears back and managed to knock the remaining 5 miles out.


The finish line was awash with people cheering, waving us over the line with rapturous applause and I was so proud of Lottie (self-confessed run hater!) that she had managed to complete her maiden and last half marathon!  I was then overcome with what can be described as a moment of utter madness as I turned to Lottie and told her I was off to do the next lap and complete the full marathon.  What ensued were the hardest 13 miles of my life.  The streets were now deserted and I had to dig deeper, both mentally and physically, than ever before.


I was kept motivated and endured the endless pain by the purpose behind why we were doing this and the impact it will have on so many people.  Thankfully, I made it in one piece.  Crossing that finishing line was a hugely emotional moment for me.  All the hard work and energy we had invested into the run up to our trip to raise money and awareness for the charities we were running for culminated in my crossing the line and raising my arms to the air.  That evening we had a terrific, if slightly jaded celebration and bade farewell to all our new friends we had made over the week.


Our Ugandan adventure was over and I can honestly say that the whole experience had smashed every level of expectation I had hoped for.  I felt truly humbled by the wonderful people I met and privileged to be part of something so unique and special that would contribute to improving so many lives.


We will be back Uganda, Lottie and I are determined to continue to make a difference and are already planning what we can do next.