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December 13 2013 Latest news:
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, chief executive of Halcyon, a communications company with offices in Heathfield, works on the first visitor accommodation units in Kabubbu with colleagues and local builders on a corporate team-building exercise in 2004
The lives of thousands of people in Kabubbu, Uganda, are being transformed thanks to help from many organisations in Sussex. The rescue mission has been driven by a determined couple from Hailsham...
The lives of thousands of people in Kabubbu, Uganda, are being transformed thanks to help from many organisations in Sussex. The rescue mission has been driven by a determined couple from Hailsham.
Appearances can be very deceptive. The white cottage may be quaint and peaceful, tucked away on a quiet lane north of Hailsham. But this is where a revolution has been organised which has utterly transformed a village 4,000 miles away in the heart of Africa. A village ravaged by AIDS and malaria. A village once devoid of hope.
Geoff and Geraldine Booker dont look like revolutionaries. Both in their early 60s, Geoff is white-haired with a thin beard. He has an irreverent sense of humour and laughs easily. Surely he spends his time teaching a grandson the art of leg-spin or fly-fishing? Geraldine is warm, welcoming and motherly. Shouldnt she be nursing a rose garden or boiling up jam for the local fete in their tiny kitchen?
In fact Geoff is preparing to fly to Uganda when I first visit. Geraldine is already there. Theres an assortment of donated suitcases in the conservatory waiting to be packed with aid and gifts for children.
We chat over cups of tea at a large dining table. Its a Victorian food preparation table that Geoff restored. Against the wall are two dressers, decorated with neatly-arranged pieces of bone china. Geoff found the base of one being used as a workbench and brought it back to its former glory. Restoration and seeing potential where others see only a lost cause: these are the keys to the Bookers story.
Geoff explains that in a matter of days, he and Geraldine will celebrate the tenth anniversary of their charitys involvement in the village of Kabubbu, 20 miles north of the capital, Kampala. The Speaker of the Ugandan parliament will formally open an AIDS centre. Beside it he will see the health centre which treats close on 20,000 people a year. Beyond it, bustling with life, are the primary and secondary schools offering 1,000 jungle children an education. Not one of these buildings was standing when the Bookers first visited Uganda in 1999 at the invitation of a friend who had links with a church there.
I didnt particularly want to go, recalls Geraldine when I catch up with her later. All I could think about was Idi Amin and poverty. It didnt excite me at all.
Geraldine spent three weeks touring villages in Uganda and Kenya with a group of people. Geoff left them early for a business trip in South Africa.
Kabubbu was one of the places she went to after hed gone.
At the time, it was just another village, she says. We drove there as it was getting dark. It was up a track and I had no idea where we were going. I even thought that maybe it was a set up, that we might be ambushed.
They were taken to a church and sat around a table in the candle light. The local pastor explained that the area had many, many orphans. And he told a story passed on from his grandmother of how the village had prospered in the 1930s when white people had come and built a medical centre but had fallen into decline when it closed. The pastor said she had promised him white people would return one day to save the village.
Geraldine was moved by the plight of the villagers who called themselves The Forgotten People but she wasnt sure she wanted to get involved. They had no running water, no electricity and no medical care. The only work was subsistence farming or breaking rocks into ballast in a quarry a job which many of the women did.
At first we said we wouldnt go back, says Geoff. But we had so many questions swimming around in our minds. We wanted to know how these orphans survived, what had happened to their parents. We said wed return for a week. So we put together a list of questions and asked Pastor George to gather the local elders and 12 orphans for us to interview.
The following year, in February 2000, Geoff and Geraldine went to Kabubbu with two friends. It was a life-changing trip.
Instead of a sprinkling of elders, 32 turned up. And, with them not a dozen orphans, but 400. Later, as the Bookers were unexpectedly ushered in to meet the Minister of Education, a Ugandan television crew turned up to film. Everyone expectant that their saviours had come.
The Bookers could not hear everyones story but spoke to some of the orphans. They say the most poignant part was listening to the childrens hopes for the future.
What impacted us was the sheer hopelessness of them ever achieving their dreams, says Geoff. They wanted to be teachers, nurses or doctors. But none of them was at school.
Many of the children were in tears as they spoke. So were their visitors. But it was the forlorn ambition of a nine-year-old boy that sealed it for Geoff.
He told us that he wanted to be a pilot, he recalls. Now there was no way he had even seen a plane, apart from in a picture. But he had such hope. It was humbling. That was a defining moment for me.
The elders presented the Bookers with a wish list: they needed clean water; care and education for the orphans and a health centre. Geoff and Geraldine listened but made no promises other than that they would tell their story when they returned to the UK.
We had no intention of going back again, says Geoff. Promising to tell their story was a kind of cop-out really.
We certainly werent thinking about building a school, adds Geraldine. We just wanted to get out of the village in one piece. But I suppose, as I think about it, I did feel compelled to do something.
Two days after their return they were telling the Kabubbu story at their church in Heathfield. The response left them stunned.
All we did was speak for two minutes, no more, about what we had seen. Thats what we had promised to do, Geoff recalls. But the reaction was extraordinary. Word spread so fast. Doors opened. A lot of things happened that were just beyond rational explanation. It just snowballed. More and more people wanted to hear about the village. So we kept on telling the story.
Geraldine contacted a dozen local schools offering to talk to children in their assemblies. It was timely: Ratton Secondary School in Eastbourne was just considering how it could sponsor a child in the Third World; Broad Oak Primary had a link with Uganda dating back years and wanted to get involved. Other schools were equally positive: Kabubbu had caught peoples imagination. Soon a child sponsorship scheme was established 20 a month would send a child to a primary school in a neighbouring Ugandan village.
Within 18 months a dream was realised. Enough money was raised to build Kabubbu its own primary school. Its a moment Geoff treasures.
It was August 2001. I was doing a live radio interview during a fundraising bike ride in Hailsham and my phone rang. Someone in Kabubbu was calling to say they had just bought a piece of land for the school. Two days later we had the money we needed to build it. I just thought Wow, something is happening here, something special.
In the same year, British Airways began supporting the charity. It provided money for the villages first water borehole. By June 2002 a second sponsored bike ride raised money for a health centre: the wish list was becoming reality. Clean water and medical care were no longer a six-mile trek away for villagers.
Articles in the local and national press saw the project accelerate still further. Letters from would-be donors came in from across the UK. More and more children in Kabubbu had sponsors and began attending the primary school. A library and adult literacy centre was built. A Sussex Rotary Club bought an ambulance for the health centre.
Many couples would have been overwhelmed but Geoff and Geraldines careers proved the perfect training. Born in Tunbridge Wells, Geoff has spent most of his life in Sussex. He began in publishing, rising to assistant managing director of Kingsway in Eastbourne before joining an American music licensing company, CCLI, which he helped establish in the UK and South Africa. Hed left to concentrate on building up Quicken Trust a charity he set up to help other new charities get started. But Quicken could now focus entirely on Kabubbu.
Geraldine is from Heathfield. Her father was a farmer. Like Geoff, restoration is part of what makes her tick. Her heart for the outcasts was evident long before she set foot in Uganda. Once their son, Gary, reached the age of ten, she and Geoff began taking in young people whod been rejected by society and needed a strong, disciplined home life. Authorities from as far away as Cambridgeshire referred youngsters to them. Geraldine was mum to all. Next she trained as a counsellor. Then she trained others, eventually writing papers on the subject for two universities. She had just stopped counselling work when Kabubbu came knocking.
The Bookers knew that projects in Africa are often owned by one individual who can become very wealthy over time. To ensure the benefits reached the whole community, they set up a charity in Kabubbu the KDP. Geoff, Geraldine and six local elders sit on its board. All donations given to the Quicken Trust are passed to the KDP. No part of any gift is spent on admin or marketing in the UK or pocketed by individuals in Kabubbu.
Geoff and Geraldine are well aware that there are many other good causes. This year alone has seen the earthquake disaster appeal for Haiti, the Pakistan flood relief and Sport Relief. Children In Need will be on our TV screens again soon. The Bookers make sure sponsors are kept up to date and build relationships. It is the personal touch that attracts donors.
Geoff and Geraldine now visit Uganda at least four times a year. Theyre quick to praise the many others who have helped them, including the team who run the project from the office in their converted garage. But the most acclaim goes to a couple in Kabubbu, Enoch and Lilian Kagoda. Enoch was head of the primary school and now runs the KDP.
They are amazing people, says Geraldine. We could not have done anything without them. They are educated people from the city and they gave up everything to live among the illiterate poor in the country.
But Mummy Geraldine and Daddy Booker as they are known by the children of Kabubbu are not finished yet.
Everything we have done is to safeguard our investment, explains Geraldine. Its pointless sending kids to primary school if theres no medical care and they could die from something easily treatable. And its pointless too, if theres no secondary school for them to go to next.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Anyone interested in more information, volunteering or sponsoring a child or grandparent in Kabubbu can contact Quicken Trust at P.O Box 113, Hailsham BN27 4US. Phone 01323 832361; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.quickentrust.com
THE SUSSEX LINK
The second half of the decade has seen more people travelling out to Kabubbu as the number of projects has mushroomed. Carpenters, City bankers, television reporters, teachers, students, and a myriad of others have helped with a range of projects including building homes for villagers, gathering information about health and families or working with schoolchildren. More than 850 volunteers have now been to Kabubbu. Links have been established with 75 schools across the UK, mostly in Sussex. More than 400 children in Uganda now have sponsors.
The traffic has become two-way. Choirs from the village have twice visited the UK, playing to packed houses in venues around Sussex. Two Ugandan students have taken up sponsored places at St Bedes school near Hailsham. More recently teachers from Heathfield Community College and Mayfield Primary have exchanged places with schools in Kabubbu.
Three groups of students and teachers from St Bedes have been to Kabubbu. The schools Head of Boarding, Lou Belrhiti, has championed the link.
I have experienced the developing world first hand and Im a great believer that teenagers, especially those from a wealthier background, benefit enormously from seeing theres a different world out there, she says.
Like everyone who has worked with them, Lou is effusive about Geoff and Geraldine: Its a privilege to know them. They are an inspiration with their enthusiasm and willingness to go the extra mile.
The plan is to make Kabubbu self-financing. Pupils from wealthier families are now boarding at the secondary school and their fees subsidise other projects run by the KDP. The tourist lodges attract visitors who can combine Kabubbu with white water rafting on the Nile, two hours away, or a safari.
But the need for sponsors is still there. The Bookers want to see village kids getting to university and realising the dreams that were impossible a decade ago.