Perhaps unfairly, Uganda has been associated in the global media with war, disease, hunger and poverty. Tragically, indeed, it's been ravaged by civil war and Aids. In response to Uganda's dire state, 15 students from the SH Ho College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) went on a 14-day social service trip to the country in July.
The mission was organised in collaboration with Watoto, a charity that assists vulnerable women and children in Uganda. It included visits to orphanage villages and care centres for women.
Sharon Tsang, a year one medical student and one of the volunteers from CUHK, treated local women at one of Watoto's Living Hope Centres to a spa day. "These ladies were captured and tortured by the army. They are infected with Aids and have been abandoned by their families. My fellow classmates and I helped them put on face masks and paint their finger nails. We want to show them that despite their suffering, they are worthy of love and care," Tsang says.
At the centre, the ladies also made handicrafts as a means of supporting themselves. They were very keen to show the CUHK students the handbags and accessories they had made, Tsang says.
In the future, according to university officials, CUHK hopes to use the talents of its business students to help the Ugandan women market their products.
Visiting the orphanage village was a moving experience, Tsang says. "We played some simple games and had a barbecue with the children. [They] had lost their parents either to war or to Aids. `Mothers' - local ladies who have lost their own families - took care of groups of eight orphans," she adds.
"All the children in the orphanage village have experienced an extremely painful past though their laughter suggests otherwise. They are cheerful and optimistic. They are eager to tell you what they want to achieve when they grow up and they are hopeful for the future."
Tsang recalls an incident involving a Ugandan child sharing a fizzy drink with her. "The kid loved soft drinks but there was only one bottle left. He looked at the bottle and then handed it to me. His willingness to share, despite the fact that it was the only bottle left and it was a hot day, touched me deeply."
Andy Cheung, a year one pharmacy student and also a volunteer, agreed with Tsang on the positivity of the children. "From their smiling, happy faces, you could not tell they were orphans. We played together and had a lot of fun. Before coming on the trip, I planned to help out, but after the trip, I felt I was the one who had gained [from the experience]. The children of Uganda have made me feel so blessed to have a family, to be able to study at a university and for all the things that I have in life."
By the trip's end, Cheung and his classmates had decided to donate money to support a young boy named Henry. "[He] is quiet because he is new to the area. He needs time to heal. Before we left, we gave him a shirt that was covered with messages of encouragement. Some day, I hope he will understand the meaning of the words on it and lead a happy life," he says.