I know Comic Relief, the people behind Sport Relief, of old. It took me many years to get a break into the world of comedy, and I would combine my efforts to do so with working as a PA in the charity sector. The last charity I worked for was Comic Relief.
During my time there, my eyes were opened to the scale of poverty and social injustice in the UK and Africa and I saw how vital the charity was. It really changed people’s lives. But I never thought I would one day be standing outside a Ugandan slum making a film about the people they help.
Ten years on I was on a flight from London to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to do just that. Eight hours later we landed and there I was, not knowing what I was about to see, or who I was about to meet. I was more than apprehensive.
Life in an open sewer
I was led through an area of Kampala that had clearly been seriously and repeatedly flooded. Once pretty little houses were now derelict and abandoned, and all to some extent inundated with filthy-looking water.
I was in the Bwaise slum in Kampala, where three times a year the lack of drainage, coupled with the development of surrounding areas, means that the people who live there find their homes overtaken by water, which brings with it disease and death.
Open sewers cascade through this once prosperous and desirable area and the whole place has the feel of a forgotten ghost town. I had read people lived like this, but seeing it first hand is terribly upsetting. A genuine shock. The phrase “open sewers” says it all and the stench was hard to bear.
I was shown into a sodden courtyard and introduced to Aisha, 28, mother to 12-year-old Derek and eight-year-old Marjorie – but her smile belies the fact that she once had a third child, Christine.
Losing a child to the water
Just over two years ago, as Aisha again attempted to bail out the disease-ridden liquid from her home, her six-month-old Christine rolled off the bed in their flooded shack and momentarily found herself in the water below. Despite Aisha scooping her up in a split second, the little girl must have taken a mouthful.
Soon the baby became sick and diarrhoea set in – it was Aisha’s worst nightmare and what she lived in fear of day in and day out. She rushed Christine to the hospital but despite their efforts she died just two days later.
The toxic filth that these people were forced to share their homes with had claimed another life. It was an unbearable story to hear. And Aisha’s sense of guilt dominates her every moment.
The word “tragic” is perhaps overused these days but Aisha’s pain is as raw now as it was the day her daughter died, but as a single mother to two children after her husband was killed in a robbery, life must go on.
As she prepared a basic meal of rice and beans for Derek and Marjorie, she told me of the worry she lives with that she will lose them too, that every time the water comes, a sense of panic rises within her that it will strike again and take another of her children.
I could see the fear in her eyes. Aisha is trapped in a nightmare, reminded of the worst moment any mother could imagine every time she sees the dark menacing water seeping into her dark one-room home.
But change is coming – thanks to the charity Water Aid and funded by Sport Relief.
Dreaming of escape
As well as building much-needed toilet blocks and standpipes to help eradicate the spread of deadly but utterly preventable diseases like cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea, Water Aidis aiming to introduce drainage systems that can help restore areas like Bwaise back to their former glory and put an end to the needless deaths of children like Christine.
A clean water standpipe has already been introduced to an area nearby and, with Derek and Marjorie, I went to fill jerry cans for the family to wash in and cook with.
Although it’s a good half-hour walk there and back lugging a heavy weight on the return, there were no complaints from my young companions. They remember vividly the day their sister died and know just how vital this daily journey is.
Their hope in these circumstances is extraordinary. Derek told me he wants to be an engineer, Marjorie a nurse. Despite such a harrowing existence they are still dreaming. In many ways, it makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Every penny is vital
So much that we take for granted back home is far from a certainty in a place like this – but perhaps nothing encapsulates that more than water. To be able to turn on a tap and trust what comes out of it is only the beginning.
Imagine living in a place that isn’t just flooded constantly, but flooded with water so dangerous that just one mouthful can be fatal.
Even though I thought I knew what this trip would be like, even though I’ve seen the films from places like this over the years, even though I’ve even worked for the charity myself – the sense of anger and injustice I felt as I said goodbye to this family overwhelmed me and made me even more convinced that every penny that Sport Relief can raise is vital.
If you could see it with your own eyes and sit face to face with a woman like Aisha too, you’d feel exactly the same. I know you would.
However difficult the trip, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet Aisha and her family. Their hope and faith, despite their situation, were incredibly humbling and they taught me to learn the art of being grateful, to see the joy that surrounds even the most horrific of circumstances.
And they’re right to have hope. Because, through Sport Relief, we can help.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 13 March 2012.