PUBLISHED: 17:10 19 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013
A trip to Africa with the Bishop of Sherborne resulted in a life-changing decision for Richard and Claire Budd, who decided to build a school in Sudan, as Claire explains
What is it about Africa that captivates so many of us? This continent captures our imagination and pricks our collective conscience in equal measure. Perhaps the answer is in our DNA along ancient ancestral lines. For me, though, I suspect it goes back to 1985 when I was 15 and Live Aid filled me with anger at the terrible suffering in Ethiopia.
At the age of 23 I joined the BBC as a broadcast journalist. I was always a keen supporter of Comic Relief and dreamed of working on fundraising films in Africa. So when my photographer husband, Richard, was asked to go to Sudan on assignment I was quite envious. Our daughter was just six months old when the much-missed former Bishop of Sherborne, Tim Thornton, asked Richard to help with some photography for the Salisbury Sudan Link. Richard jumped at the chance and in December 2006 arrived in Southern Sudan for his first ever visit to Africa. It was a trip that would change both our lives.
For Richard it was, and still is, a huge physical and mental challenge. His trip took him to the remote and war-torn Nuba Mountains. Cut off for 21 years by a civil war that ended only in 2005, its a place where people still refuse to come down from mountain villages for fear of the terrible violence they witnessed over two decades.
Richard visited a hospital; there was a piece of cardboard hung above the door of an empty, dirty room. On it in pencil was written Maternity. He saw a young child with malaria lying on an ancient bed, a table with a small selection of medicines and one kidney-shaped bowl that was it. That was the hospital.
When he came home, Richard told me about what hed seen. He also showed me his photographs. In one, a smartly dressed boy in a shirt and tie is standing up in a mud hut surrounded by friends. Richard explained that the boy had asked to speak to the visitors and told them that his secondary school was closing because there was no money to keep it going. The boy was called Tahrir. I was instantly impressed by his courage and felt tremendously angry. I announced that we would step in and help. My husband was surprised at my fury and my tears but he felt exactly the same.
We spent months trying to establish what was needed and discovered that just 2% of the population in Southern Sudan is educated to primary level. Schools had been destroyed during the war and married men were now at primary school alongside five-year-olds. We also realised that the school had to be a boarding school because of its remoteness, especially if there was to be any chance of getting an education for girls; they tend to be kept to work at home and are often married at 14.
While I researched the possible pitfalls, Richard jumped into action. He designed a logo and website for the school, used his captivating photographs to create a brochure and began handing out copies to everyone we could think of. We set to work on our first fundraising event, a fashion show in September 2008. Others events followed, including concerts by talented local artists and our wonderful Christmas Ball at Kingston Maurward College, now in its third year.
The response was amazing: cheques fell onto our doormat on a daily basis and as soon as we had enough money we commissioned local builders in Sudan to begin making bricks.
Our top priority was to make Grace Secondary School a household name in Dorset and give everyone the opportunity to get involved. Giving young people in local schools the chance to learn about Grace has been very rewarding. Last summer Richard came up with a plan for local schoolchildren to build Sudanese-style tukuls. The project took place at the Weymouth College Training and Construction Centre in Prince Charles Poundbury development on the outskirts of Dorchester. That led to an unexpected encounter inside one of the mud huts with HRH Prince Charles. He was performing the official opening of the centre in December 2009 and dropped in for a chat.
After less than two years we had raised more than 100,000 and on a blistering hot day in May, with 3,000 people gathered in great celebration, Grace Secondary School finally opened its doors. The scorching air was filled with the sound of excitement and hope.
As a choir of women dressed in red robes swayed in procession toward the doors, the Minister for Education cut the blue ribbon and the crowd erupted dancing, singing, pipe-blowing and stilt-walking in costumes made from palm leaves, with white paint adorning legs and faces. The movement created a swirl of red dust on the baked land beneath their springing feet. And, poignantly, in a place that has seen the horror of a brutal civil war, the sound of laughter.
The school has taken on 120 young students, male and female, Christian and Muslim, and we are committed to support them until they can become self-sufficient. Already the students have got together, found some land and planted maize to help with school meals. Our hope is that people in Dorset will become Friends of Grace. Our aim is to find 150 people to give 300 per year thats about a fiver a week. But any amount would be extremely welcome. Every penny goes straight to the school.
Become a Friend of Grace Secondary school by giving a monthly donation by standing order. You can also make a donation by post: cheques, made payable to Key To The Future, can be sent to 33 Holloway Road, Dorchester, DT1 1LF.
Gift Aid forms can be printed from the Make A Donation page at GraceSecondarySchool.com or ring Claire on 07854 173244 for further details.
The third annual Grace Secondary School Christmas Ball at Kingston Maurward College on 18 December. Contact Claire for more details or visit the website.