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Sunday, 13 June 2010

East African Playground Interview

East African Playgrounds (EAP) is a UK-based charity that sends out teams of volunteers from the UK and builds playgrounds for schools, orphanages, charities and other organisations in East Africa. Tom Gill and Carla Powell, two enterprising graduates, founded the charity in 2009. I put my questions to Tom, to discover how you get a charity up and running and what drives the project. Their journey has been one full of upsets and hard work, yet truly inspirational and I have a feeling it has only just begun….

Can you tell us a little about you both?
Tom: I developed the idea of building a playground after working and travelling in Tanzania. I realised that the children had nothing to do after school, and remembered how much I loved my local playground. I went back to Tanzania the following year after raising £6,000 and recruiting two volunteers – which resulted in the three most exhausting months of our lives! I was approached by others in Tanzania to continue my work… and there began East African Playgrounds. I am a mature student and am now finally in my third year at Leeds University studying Social Policy. I also have a lot of experience in the building trade and these expertises come in handy on project! It’s an honour to be able to see the joy that our playgrounds bring into the lives of so many children.

Carla: I jumped at the opportunity to set up EAP with Tom, and to spread happiness through playgrounds. My experience of Africa started with volunteering for a month building schools in Uganda, followed by a month of travelling Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. This gave me a great overview of each of the countries and confirmed my love for Africa. I have just graduated from Leeds University with a degree in Childhood, Education and Culture. My degree gives me a great foundation for my involvement in EAP, and I am able to apply ideas about education and socialisation through play, but I constantly seem to be learning more. Bringing play into children’s life is so important – play brings far more than just enjoyment into children’s lives.

Staring a charity at such young ages is an achievement. What have been the biggest and most unexpected challenges?
Thank you very much, to give you a full answer of the biggest challenges is quite hard. Everything we do has a very exciting element to it, so that always makes any challenge easier to over come. So far everything has come along really well and EAP has grown organically. I think the biggest challenge is just trying to fit in running EAP as well as our jobs (Tom is in part-time work and Carla works full time) and studies (Tom is in his final year of studies at Leeds University). We are currently trying to find funding so that we can take EAP on a more full-time basis.

Where did you learn the more practical skills vital for building playgrounds?

Over the years I have worked for several people in the building trade, bricklayers, window fitters, conservatory builder and house renovators. After several summers in Tanzania I gained a few more basic skills. We actually utilise local skills to build the playgrounds. We use local carpenters for all the woodwork and we use local welders for the building of the structures. This way we can not only build playgrounds, but also support the local tradesmen and the local economy of the areas in which we work.

How do you balance project management with other work and commitments?
Currently this is the most difficult part of running EAP. We generally do EAP work when every we get spare tie. Lunch breaks, study breaks, evenings and weekends.

EAP is one of many charities working in East Africa, most of which concentrate on helping to provide more basic human rights. Why do place such importance on creating playgrounds for children?
In Africa, children often have very little time to be children. Many work in their homes, orshambas, once they are old enough to perform basic chores. We recognise that there are many excellent charities and organisations in Africa that assist with people’s basic needs. There are, however, little resources dedicated to providing space for children as part of their right to childhood. As a charity, EAP follows article 31 of the United Nations ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’, which states that children have the right ‘to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child’.
Building playgrounds will not change the world, but it will complement the work of existing charities and give children something that many others take for granted. And we think that’s very important.
In short we are in the business of promoting fun to as many people as we can.

Who else does the scheme benefit apart from the children?
The way we have set up EAP is to help as many people as we can. We like to think that we are helping all the volunteers that we take away by providing them with a unique experience that will hopefully help them in the future, and maybe even lead them into further work in areas of the world that it is greatly needed. We try to support the local people we work with through employing local tradesmen and also we employ a local cook (often we rotate which local does the cooking each week so that we can support the maximum number of people). We purchase almost all of the material locally, so we are supporting local economies also. We try our best and often we ask local crafts people to come and teach us how to paint, make jewellery and carve.

You rely on the help of volunteers, how does the experience change them?
We hope that it opens their eyes to other cultures, ways of life and issues that Africa has as well as all the amazing things about east Africa and the people we live with. We also hope that they learn new skills. Most of our volunteers come away with an experience that changes them and changes what they do and the way they look at the world. Most of all though, our volunteers learn from the people of the areas we work in and take those lessons into their future endeavours.

How can you see the charity expanding in 2010 and in future years?
We are hoping to have 3 fantastic projects in the summer of 2010. After that we are hoping to move EAP forward. We have some big plans that include building more inclusive and interactive playgrounds, building a wider range of equipment, getting business support, getting more universities involved and more design schools involved in design new things for us, we hope to enable their people and other charities to benefit from EAPs structure and our design. We are currently looking for new funding to help us move to the next stage in our development.

To find out more about East African Playground and find out how to get involved or donate visit: www.eastafricanplaygrounds.org.