TOMAS could not help feeling sceptical. As he watches wife Jusztina and daughter Mango excitedly tear open an envelope in their Bruntsfield home desperate to see pictures of the Ugandan girl they hope to lift out of poverty, he is troubled.
As they gaze upon the dark, smiling child in the glossy brochure, five-year-old Mango is introduced for the first time to Josephine, a girl her own age but living a vastly different life in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is a familiar scene across Scotland. Like many, Mango’s parents provide a monthly donation of £12 to children living in the Third World hoping their small contribution can make a difference to the lives of Josephine and others like her.
But while his wife and daughter pore over the literature, Tomas can’t help thinking of a scam he had heard about years before where the police raided a warehouse full of illegal immigrants writing letters for a sponsorship programme.
He harbours suspicions about how his donation will be used, whose hands it will end up in and whether the smiling girl in the photographs will see any real benefit.
“I think the doubts about charity have always existed and anyone who has given to charity has at one point or another has asked questions about what difference they are making,” says the 30-year-old film maker.
His wife believes it is geniune and what begins as a living-room discussion about the efficacy of child sponsorship spirals into a 8,500-mile journey to sub-Saharan Africa and the recording of a short film “Finding Josephine”.
“I set out to make a film about the pitfalls of charity,” said the Edinburgh Napier graduate. “But what I didn’t realise was how much I had to learn from this journey: the encounter with Josephine’s family turned out to be much more emotional and eye-opening than I had expected.”
In the ten-minute documentary, due to be broadcast across up to 70 TV channels around the world, Italian-born Tomas – who comes from Irish and Jamiacan stock – travels to Katikamu, Uganda, with Mango to meet the girl he has been sponsoring through children’s charity Plan UK, for the last three years.
Almost as soon as they arrive in Africa – and despite the language barrier – blonde-bobbed Mango and her Ugandan pen pal become instant companions. They dance hand-in-hand, attend lessons together and in a moving scene Josephine carries her new friend to the departing pick-up truck before they say farewell. Tomas grows close with Joseph, the girl’s father, who works a 12-hour day in a neighbouring village for just £1. The ten-kilometre round-trip would all but consume his daily pay packet and so Joseph’s three-hour commute is carried out on foot. Ultimately reassuring, the film suggests that in this case the monthly donations from Western sponsors do seem to be having a positive impact on the village. The money is not handed directly to the family to avoid jealousy and community strife but is instead invested in infrastructure that should remain long after the charity pulls out. There are bore holes for water, a school, clinic, and training in money-management, sanitation and women’s rights all funded over the years by the charity Plan.
“I got the sense that the locals were included in the process and felt pride and ownership of the projects that Plan was facilitating,” said Tomas.
“The feedback from the film was things like: ‘That is very reassuring, I want to give money to charity now,’ he said. “I wanted the film to stimulate the question: is charity enough?
“It is like bailing out water from an enormous ship that is sinking. The work the charities do is worthy but not enough to address problems in the world.
“These are topics that can’t be addressed in a ten-minute film but when people feel preached at they switch off.
“I think in terms of communicating, the best thing is to get people to ask the same questions and reach their own answers. In Uganda, I learned their concerns day to day were pretty similar to our own: debt, dealing with illness, providing food for your children, getting to work without spending most of your income on travel. But they are much closer to life and death scenarios than we are.
And he added: “I think the truth is that Joseph and people like him all over the world are poor because the first world is rich. We need to work on our own awareness and empowerment, to understand how our decisions and lifestyle affect people across this globally-linked world. As individuals we can put pressure on the companies we buy from to insist on ethically-sourced materials with fair pay to those who produced them, we can lobby our politicians to endorse legislation to make fair-trade the norm not the expensive exception, we can consider how our waste of food and consumables affects the global price of these resources and makes them out of reach for the poorest people in the world.”
As a parting gift, Josephine gives Mango a rather makeshift doll. It is little more than a dried banana leaf folded over a chunk of wood tied with string and a stick tucked under the fold like brittle little arms. In the final scenes, Mango is captured sleeping with the doll she cherishes before it’s nestled beside a stuffed Bart Simpson and a scrum of other velvet-soft teddy bears in a box brimming with children’s toys.
Tomas says: “This film isn’t about guilt or activism, it’s about standing up for what we believe in and becoming the change we want to see.”
The film “Finding Josephine”, produced by Lili Sanderlin of Capital-based North Isle Productions, is set to be screened in several European countries, Canada, Indonesia and even Dubai. It can be seen by visiting www.polifilm.co.uk and viewers can join the discussion at Whypoverty.com
Sponsor a child and save a life
IN some of the poorest countries in the world, the stark reality is that one in five children won’t live to see their fifth birthday.
Global children’s charity Plan UK have been working to tackle poverty for 70 years through projects which include providing safe drinking water and education.
They also help communities prepare for natural disasters and aim to help families earn a living that will secure their children’s future.
A charity spokesman said: “By sponsoring a child with Plan UK, you’ll be helping children living in poor countries around the world have access to safe water, healthcare and an education. For just £15 a month you’ll share a personal connection with a child in one of the 50 developing countries in which Plan works.
“You can find out about, write to and even visit your sponsored child, gaining a unique perspective on the issues which face developing countries and the ways Plan is helping. Plan supports over one million
children worldwide through its child sponsorship programme.
Donations support families and communities and make a long lasting change where it’s needed most.”
Visit www.plan-uk.org or call 0300 777 9779