“My first visit to England” – Thomas Bwambale

I always wanted to travel to Great Britain and explore as travelling is one of my hobbies.

Unfortunately, I did not have the perfect chance to do so! When I finally finished my A levels in 2021, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Tools for Self Reliance (TFSR), in the UK with support from Rotary clubs of Winchester and Southampton Magna as well as Rotary District 1110. I was overjoyed to receive the experience as I knew I would also be able to have a glimpse of the skyscrapers in London, glimmering blue water of the sea and many other beautiful places.

The delays in receiving my charity work visa seemed like building castles in the air, but I was successful in the end. On the eve of my flight I did not sleep! I was very excited but at the same anxious as this was going to be my first time on an airplane as well as leaving my country.

I got to the plane alright. It was spacious with luxurious seats. It looked so royal, impressive and wonderful. I was really excited and full of many expectations. My seat was near the window which gave me a fine view of the outside world.

The pilot started the engines which gave out a loud roar, and then began to move. Soon it was airborne and flew higher but after some time it felt like it was falling back to the ground. All the other passengers looked confident which kept me calm. From that point, the plane flew smoothly and glided through the air like a bird and by the time I got to Heathrow I was just enjoying the panoramic view through the window.

My dear friend Nick Bell picked me up from the airport. I was filled with joy and thrilled looking at how much countryside there was. All along I had thought the whole of England was like London! We eventually got to Crowded House, Nick’s home in King’s worthy where I was introduced to beans on toast.

Three hours later, my adventure in The UK started. My first activity was to help in the clearing of stinging nettles and Old man’s beard at St. Giles graveyard which was a very fascinating experience.

I then had one week at Nick’s home which became a home to me away from Uganda to help me acclimatise to the English ways of living. I obtained a rail card and got introduced to the railway transport. I also learnt some slang and English expressions like “cheers mate, quid, okey dokey” through the internet, in order to fit in well.

At the start of August, I commenced my voluntary work at Tools for Self Reliance. Everyone was kind, generous and hospitable. The lovely volunteers taught me how to refurbish second hand tools. I learnt how to refurbish hammers, chisels, saws, planes, drills, orbital sanders, jig saws and sewing machines. I also learnt how to make boxes and packing tools that the charity sends to different African countries they work with.

I got the opportunity to participate in tool sales events like ‘Tea for Tools’ in the summer, The Oak fair in Dorset where I handled the sterling and credit card payments for my first time. I also worked closely with the site manager to collect tool donations from nearby areas like Milford on Sea, Southampton and Salisbury. Together we loaded the van for events like the Romsey Show and helped to set up the stall for Tools for Self Reliance for the same event.

I was also privileged to travel to Southwell in Nottinghamshire to visit one of the groups of Tools for Self Reliance. It was great fun travelling but also exciting to meet new people who were very hospitable. I very much enjoyed working with other volunteers in tidying up and organising TFSR’s stall in Robin’s Nest in Southampton.

Whilst in the UK, I did some sightseeing and lots of fun activities which included fishing in Swanage on the sea where I caught a lot of mackerel. This was amusing because I had never done fishing but also I come from Uganda which is a landlocked country. I also visited Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight where I travelled on the hovercraft for my very first time. Additionally I travelled to Oxford and Birmingham which were all lovely places.

I am very keen on English football and in particular the premier league so visiting the Emirates Stadium which is home to the North London champions and that’s none other than Arsenal, The Gunners, was a dream come true. The Emirates stadium presented a wonderful sight beyond words. Whilst in the dressing room, a strange and pleasant sensation ran through my spine. The whole experience was incredible for me. I further got the opportunity to watch The Gunners in action against Saints at St. Mary’s Stadium.

I visited and presented to various Rotary clubs like Canterbury Sunrise, Southampton Magna, Brookmans Park, Ringwood, Winchester and The Inner Wheel of Winchester. I also attended the two district 1110 conferences in Bournemouth and Southampton respectively. This was a great opportunity to listen and learn from amazing speakers but also meeting new people and making friends.

To add to the list, I visited the famous Stonehenge which I had been seeing in movies for donkey’s years, I also saw a similar sight with stones in a circle in Avebury and this was very intriguing.

I joined the Rotary Club of Winchester on some of their activities such as taking Ukrainian refugees to Marwell Zoo and a Ukrainian charity concert, exchange weekend with Rotary Club of Canterbury Sunrise, Mayors for Peace event and Winchester freedom parade.

On one occasion I went to a Turkish barber to get a haircut. I was mesmerized by the bill! 25 bloody pounds it was. This is an equivalent of 100,000 Ugandan shillings that can pay the water and electricity bills for my family’s house for two months. In the end I stopped converting the currency as it made me feel extravagant yet I wasn’t.

I am also very proud to have done my first marathon, called the Clarendon Marathon, organised every year by Salisbury Rotary in partnership with Winchester Rotary in aid of TFSR for which I raised £1500. It was very tough as it was off road, hilly and muddy but I was tougher with my five weeks training and determination to complete it!

During my final days in the UK, I visited the magnificent London. I went on the London Eye to have a better look at the majestic Big Ben and other skyscrapers. The river Thames looked like a perfect silver-thread. The landscape below presented an enchanting sight. I also did the river cruise and went under the Millennium Bridge, London Bridge, Tower Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. I crowned the day by going to the theatre for the first time to watch an interesting musical play, “Cabaret”.

I was also surprised with a farewell party which was glamorous. It is at this party that I was gifted a wonderful laptop computer. It was sad to say goodbye to all the lovely Rotarians and friends who became family to me. The generosity and hospitality of each one was amazing. I was hosted in different homes and various Rotarians offered to take me to various places which were all worthwhile.

I miss the lovely full English breakfast and roast dinner meals. I also loved the trains so much and I still remember most the announcements like “mind the gap between the train and the platform edge, see it, say it, sort it.” I can only describe my time in England as a short but a wonderful dream! Can I ever forget this experience? No, never. It left an indelible impression on my mind and I reckon the UK is worth another visit.

Thomas will be sending regular newsletters, the first can be read here: November 2022 newsletter

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