Africa's unsung heroes

Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody on going to Uganda with Save the Children and the heroes that hold some

It will be Gordon Brown's first visit to Africa as Prime Minister when he joins other world leaders in Uganda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, on 23-25 November. In the south the capital, Kampala, will be "beautified" but, as far as we know, none of the heads of state will visit the impoverished north to see how Uganda is emerging from war, let alone meet the families traumatised by two decades of violence.

The conflict started in 1986 when the current president, Yoweri Museveni, seized power. The Lord's Resistance Army then formed in defiance of Museveni's coup, intent on destabilising and demoralising the north. A fragile ceasefire is now in place.

The tactics of the LRA, the most consistent of which have been the abduction and forced enrolment of children, wrecked communities. The UN estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 children, some as young as six, have been kidnapped in the past 20 years. They are taken from their homes, surrounding fields and even schools. Hooked into giant rope-lines of captured kids, they are led to LRA hiding places where they are beaten and threatened with death until they are brainwashed enough to be trusted with a rifle.

Flying to Gulu with Save the Children, we passed over verdant land as far as the eye could see. I'm told you can grow anything here. But the people of Gulu are poor and desperate. That the land is rich enough to feed all the people many times over, but doesn't, depressed me deeply. People are terrified to stay in their homes for fear of kidnap or murder. For safety, many live in displaced persons camps. Few trust the ceasefire.

After a 20-year war, most of the infrastructure in the remote parts of Uganda has suffered. Like the men, women and children, education and health care are also serious casualties. While we were in the Gulu region, we visited schools and hospitals and found the conditions appalling.

At one Save the Children project school we were greeted by about 1,500 pupils who share only 37 teachers. This is a well-staffed school since it has been helped by the charity; it has desks, books and permanent classrooms. Others we visited had few of these essentials. In most, children sit tightly packed on the floor learning from a well-worn blackboard. If they have a classroom, that is.

The affable headmaster was himself a victim of the LRA. A few years back he was taken from the school grounds: the LRA was trying to make the education system grind to a halt by kidnapping teachers. He was held for ten days before he bravely escaped and even more bravely continued to rebuild the school.

When we see just how many of the facilities were donated by Save the Children, it makes me wonder what they would do without such organisations. It could still be the field from which the headmaster was abducted. Back then, lessons were held under the shade of a large tree.

The war has left little government funding for education, so people like the headmaster have had to make things happen. The school has a large vegetable garden where the children grow food for their lunch.

But schools here are seldom as permanent as this one. Others we saw were little more than shacks, with one teacher for every three classes. Each class waits patiently, sometimes for hours, for its turn with a teacher. Yet the conditions in schools pale in comparison with those in hospitals.

On our last day in the north we visited Gulu hospital. The head nurse, Oliangole Jenny Rose, and the principal nursing officer, Lillian Okot, showed us round the wards. The smell was overwhelming. The bedsheets were stained, the floors dirty and in some cases covered in straw. Children screamed in severe discomfort while their exhausted mothers tried to console them.

The only sterile area was the surgery, so even the most basic procedures, such as redressing a wound, had to be carried out there. In a separate ward a recent mother doted over a little bundle on the floor, which, on closer inspection, revealed tiny twins. The mother and her cherubic girls had Aids, for which there is a shortage of drugs.

Nurse Okot told us that many staff have been tempted away to higher-paid and less dangerous jobs in South Africa, Europe and the United States. She had spent years travelling, learning medical techniques from around Europe, but felt she needed to return to her homeland to help. These communities could not cope without such heroes.

Nurse Rose told us that the hospital had no generator, and the night I arrived there was a power cut. I was in a hotel and woke up in oppressive darkness. Trying to hold a hospital together in those conditions seems impossibly difficult. But the staff try.

There is little government assistance for health care in northern Uganda. Patient demand is too great, the staff are too stretched, basic supplies too few.

Schools suffer the same neglect. There are not enough classrooms, books and teachers to meet the overwhelming needs of children who want to learn "for a better life". Some hope to be doctors or lawyers but the largest number intend to be teachers. They want to follow in the footsteps of those whose courage has inspired them.

We hear a lot about corruption and greed in Africa, and the desperation and poverty of its people. We hear less of the heroes holding communities together. It was my privilege to meet a number of these astonishing people in our short time in Uganda. The teachers, nurses and community leaders in the country are an inspiration. They can only hope now for a lasting peace.

Gary Lightbody, frontman of Snow Patrol, travelled to northern Uganda with Save the Children

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China