In January 2014 First Minister Carwyn Jones made a five-day visit to Mbale in Uganda, where he visited projects supported by the Wales for Africa programme, including those started by the twinning charity PONT.
The programme was launched by a warm welcome from the local political and civil leaders and included some spectacular dancing and drumming.
Over the next few days a packed programme included-
A visit to Bubutu health centre to see the primary healthcare work set up by PONT. Dr Geoff Lloyd, PONT’s coordinator said: "To imagine the NHS in the UK working without GPs would be unthinkable, but this was the situation in Mbale when we first arrived in Uganda. As a result, the hospitals were overloaded with large numbers of patients who should have been treated at an earlier stage in their illness in their own village.
“We made it a priority to work with local people to develop a network of health workers and, to date, we have trained more than 900 healthcare workers serving a population of more than 250,000 people in Mbale.
“The Welsh Government has been brilliant in the support it has given to this programme over the past 10 years."
One of the key problems previously identified by PONT was the lack of emergency transport to move patients from their villages to the hospital in an emergency. The PONT ambulance team developed the innovative idea of importing motorbike ambulances to the Mbale region.
Tony Rossetti, from the Welsh Ambulance Service, was able to demonstrate one of the motorbike ambulances in action during the First Minister’s visit last week. So far seven are in operation in the region, with another 25 due to arrive in the next few weeks.
The First Minister went on to visit Bubutu High School, which is twinned with Pontypridd High School, where he opened the new girls’ dormitory, which staff and pupils from Pontypridd helped fund and build. Jayne Brencher, one of the inspirational teachers behind the link, thanked Mr Jones for honouring both schools by making the visit and handed over a plaque presented to the First Minister on his recent visit to Pontypridd High. Many students and teachers from both schools have visited each other’s countries on exchange visits.
While at Bubutu High School, the First Minister also planted the last of the million trees funded by the Welsh Government in Mbale by the Size of Wales project. It aims to plant an area of tropical forest the equivalent to the size of Wales in a number of countries to offset climate change. The project has been so successful that the next stage was launched in Mbale with the first of 10 million trees being planted by the First Minister.
The five-day official visit also included the PONT workshop where Mr Jones saw the ambulance stretchers being constructed – these were designed by University of Glamorgan students.
Howard Smith, who leads the engineering team, said: "This workshop was donated and exported by Corus [now Tata Steel] and has been invaluable in enabling us to design and build these innovative stretchers, which have a single wheel, allowing patients to be carried long distances on narrow footpaths out of their homes in the mountains. It is also the site where the motorbike ambulances are constructed and repaired.”
At a nearby site, the First Minister was able to visit the International Learning Opportunity (ILO) volunteer, who is placed with one of the partner non-governmental organisations. The ILO programme places managers and professional personnel from Welsh organisations in either Uganda or Lesotho for an eight-week period to expand their problem-solving and lateral thinking skills.
Jenny Allen, who manages this project for PONT, explained how beneficial it is to both the volunteers who are selected and to the organisations in which they are placed in Mbale.
On the final day the First Minister toured the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a population of more than four million people but is a fraction of the size of the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, in Llantrisant, with which it is twinned. One of the outstanding successes of this link has been the donation and establishment of an endoscopy unit, which is the first one in Uganda outside of the capital Kampala.
Although it was a very busy few days, the First Minister enjoyed the visit, and has done a great deal of good work in building on the goodwill generated by the people of Rhondda Cynon Taf in their links with the Mbale region.