The Geoffrey Story

Supporting Each Other For his 50th birthday celebration in 1998 Doug Williams invited all his friends to a rage with no presents. However he did invite the revellers to make donations to help the work of RYDA. These generous people raised around $AUD1500 to send to Kampala. So that his friends would know something of the background to the disbursement of their donations he wrote this story.

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It was my last day in San Diego, April 1996, and I had been working in Britain and America for about six weeks. My head was well turned towards home when I went to breakfast in the YMCA cafe adjacent to the Youth Hostel. I sat at the counter to eat rather than at a table. There was a black bloke sitting next to me who didn't look Negro and did look out of place. I decided to keep myself to myself; I was tired and a lot of that came from having given out through workshops and demonstration lessons over the previous weeks.

He asked me to pass the salt - and my resolve to be withdrawn lapsed.

Turned out he was from Uganda and was director of a youth organisation which was doing many things including caring for up to 400 street orphans. He had been invited to San Diego to tell of his work, but was forlorn at the lack of response. I asked him how my church could help. It was an innocent question - I thought. His answer was that he could use some books to help the children learn to read. That seemed reasonable enough. We swapped contacts and I offered him my open house in the same way I do with most people I meet. I made no promises about helping but told him I would do what I could when I got home.

My minister, Rev. Lesley Shekleton, thought it was a good idea, so as a result St. Margaret's Uniting Church congregation collected a heap of books and some toys. I immediately sent a few by airmail to cheer Geoffrey along and let time help me figure out how to ship the rest to Uganda - as if I didn't have enough to do!

Not far down the track Geoffrey decided that a congregation which went to this trouble needed a personal visit of thanks. I didn't understand this for a while. A letter would work for us, but the board of Rubaga Youth Development Association (RYDA), which includes the Mayor of Kampala and other dignitaries, were convinced that people who go out of their way to give this level of help need to be aware of the fullness of their thanks.

St. Margaret's Mooroolbark Australia

So, Geoffrey announced his impending arrival - right in the middle of one of my busiest work periods in 1996 which included being away in Queensland for five days. I didn't need to organise an itinerary for an African visitor which involved church work I had nothing to do with. But others, especially Nick Ray, Cathy Millar and my own children lent their support and the event happened - and so did my work commitments. There was definitely a certain divine awareness of the stress I was feeling with respect to this visit.

It was a remarkable time. Geoffrey spoke to our congregation of his work and left most of us speechless. You hear about street life, poverty, hunger and child prostitution in the media; you see the images of forlorn black faces. It is very different when a black face that gives his every waking minute to constructing self help programs, and manipulating local and international politics and funding designed to lift his children out of these gutters is standing in your own pulpit detailing the background of the lives of real kids.

Ron & Iris with Geoffrey

St. Margaret's members Ron & Iris Goldie with Geoffrey on his second visit to Australia in October 1998. Geoffrey explained how Uganda was rich with produce but that it often rotted on the ground for lack of refrigeration. Iris immediately suggested digging 'tunnels' to act as cool safes as the pioneers used to do in Australia.

Geoffrey was held speechless for a moment too. The life expectancy in Uganda is something like 41. Our service is more traditional and generally attended by grey power members. He rose to the pulpit to speak and couldn't for a minute. Then he explained that he had never seen so many older people in one place and addressed them from then on as his mothers and fathers. At the end of the service we introduced him to 91 year old Jack Hookey.

In a fax prior to his visit Geoffrey had mentioned something about tennis balls. That was another thing that didn't seem too hard and the congregation got right behind it. When Geoffrey finally left Melbourne it was with a huge suitcase stuffed with tennis balls and a couple of soccer balls. We got a photo back a few weeks later of a group of dusty street kids all aiming their fluoro green balls at the camera and flashing their ivory smiles.

However, while he was here there was much more.

  • Geoffrey and I personally took cartons of books to the Medical Church Missionary Society to be placed in a container they were sending to Africa. This turned out to be the one down side of the whole story.
    Eighteen months later the container had not arrived in Tanzania and no-one seemed to know where it was. Twenty months later there were reports that it may have arrived in Mwanza, but those reports came to nothing. The saga is even more frustrating for the Society than us since they had a range of medical equipment in the container.
  • Nick looked after him for the time I was in Queensland and introduced him to street workers in Melbourne.
  • Cathy took him to the bush.
  • I took him to Healesville Sanctuary.
  • My kids took him bowling and introduced him to other church workers.
I believe Geoffrey won the bowling!

But craziest of all, was his book. He arrived with a torn, grubby writing pad with leaves falling out. Some of the pages looked like they had been trimmed with a bush knife. Geoffrey announced this was a manuscript of a book he needed to publish. Titled Street Children: Why Are They Out?, it included case studies of children's lives and clear policy and practice for helping them. Could I help him publish it in the two weeks he was here?

Oh sure! Five of those days I was in Queensland working with Aboriginal kids. But it happened. Jean Lardner took my notebook computer while I was away and retyped the manuscript - not bad going since a considerable portion was in Swahili and she had never used a computer keyboard, let alone a compact notebook one. I think this single episode was entirely responsible for her hair turning ...!

When I returned I laid out the manuscript, Geoffrey checked it and we printed the master pages. We cut the drawing from his bundle of papers and used it as the cover. Two days before he left we took it to a copy shop to order twenty-five spiralled bound copies.

The day before he left we picked up those copies and ... my car broke down very permanently; but that's another story.

Some months later I arrived home from the States to find a fax telling us the Save The Children Fund (Norway) had offered to finance a reprint of 1000 copies of the book. They agreed with him that it is through telling the story of his work that others will find ways of supporting it. The distribution of that book has been used by God to influence others to support this man who has the incredible role of trying to feed, educate, keep healthy, keep out of trouble and reunite with their families, the hundreds of kids living on the streets of Kampala.

There has been much more since that first visit.

In late '96 Ina Koetsier, who was the chairperson of our Outreach Committee, suggested we raised money for a computer for RYDA's office work. With such a facility Geoffrey could not only keep records on the kids which would increase the chances of reunion, but could store prepared documents which answered queries about the work. At the time these had to be retyped with the same information every time someone asked about RYDA. God led me to a source of excellent reconditioned second-hand machines at about a quarter of the price of a new machine. Will Richards offered to purpose build a machine that would run for two years if necessary without breaking down and throw in a dot matrix printer, all for $AUD680. It was a tremendous offer and with transportation costs we estimated we only needed about $AUD1000!

Christmas Computer In this period the church couldn't pay the interest on its building loans and could barely afford its minister. But in about seven weeks the money was there and on Christmas Day '96 that machine was sitting under my Christmas tree waiting to be delivered when the shipping companies came back from holidays. In her other life Ina exported Australian food and she arranged the transport by air to Entebbe. It was there in days and at a generous discount thanks to DPE International (Wards Skyroad).

Other spin-offs have been:

  • The Ruthfords, one of our church families who had migrated from South Africa, organising an African food night and raising around $AUD500.
  • Nick, with the help of the Anatoff Community which works with street kids in Melbourne, organising a pub night in the city and raising well over $AUD1000. RYDA has used this to purchase second hand Singer pedal sewing machines to begin a workshop for kids to develop skills which will help them earn an income.
  • Cathy and Peter Millar visiting Geoffrey and RYDA in Kampala.
  • One of our church families (with a little assistance from others) taking on a commitment to pay for the education of one young girl until she finishes compulsory schooling.

And now you are contributing as my birthday present.

I don't need any more 15 minute 'pass the salt please' conversations in my life. But perhaps we are all offered the chance of one.

July 1998

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Sewing Machines