Friday, 28 November 2014

The Kindness Elves Return

Last year we welcomed the Kindness Elves into our home, thanks to the wonderful idea by Anna at The Imagination Tree and I was very much looking forward to joining in again this year.

Unfortunately, on opening our Christmas box we discovered that one of our elves had met an untimely end which may have had something to do with Eli deciding to pull his hat off last year and causing all his stuffing to fall out!

So,we had a rethink and decided to change the elves we used and go for something slightly smaller and less easy to damage!  My wonderful sister hunted out these elves from the new Tiger shop which has opened in Leicester (why aren't there any Tiger Stores in the north of England?!) and has sent them to us just in time for their arrival on Monday.

We will keep the same names as we used last year, but will explain in the letter that Santa thought they'd get on better if they were a little bit more elf-like in their size...or something equally creative to convince the kids.

I have been super organised and have each day planned out already which should help to ensure that the elves (and Meg and Eli) have something to do each day in December.  If all goes as it should I've got some really great ideas which will hopefully help the kids to share some little pieces of joy with our friends, family and neighbours.

We have also got our elf door ready to appear on Sunday morning, followed by the elves on Monday.

So, here they are:


If you want to join in, head over to The Imagination Tree where Anna has put together several ideas for things you can do with the Kindness Elves.

We also have a number of other traditions which make the festive seasons special for us, and which will be making a return.  These include:-

Christmas Eve Box
Last year, the Kindness Elves left a box full of goodies when they headed back to the North Pole which included pyjamas, a Christmas book, a Christmas DVD and some treats to enjoy whilst watching it that evening, some reindeer food and a special key to allow Santa to open the door as we didn't have a chimney.  

The kids absolutely loved this and Meg even mentioned it last week when talking about what we would get up to this Christmas.  I can't wait to see their faces when they get this years.  



Advent Candle
This is a tradition I have carried over from when I was a little girl; I found a very attractive candle for 99p in Home Bargains and we will burn it down each day to countdown to Christmas.

Christmas Books
We have collected a number of Christmas books over the last 5 years and with the Kindness Elves bringing at least one new one every year, we hope to grow our collection!  The start of December is the perfect time to bring them out, to really start to build the excitement and also to enjoy stories we don't get to read throughout the rest of the year.


Advent Nativity
This is a new one for us this year, but we are hoping to do advent a little differently.  I have bought a wooden nativity set and each day will reveal a new character for the scene along with their part of the nativity story.  I have seen this done by a couple of people and always think it looks like such a lovely way to tell the nativity throughout the month of December ending with, of course, the birth of baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.  I will let you know how we get on!


Have you got any Christmas traditions?  I'd love to hear them!

ClarinasContemplations

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Gruffalo Child's Forest Trails: Delamere Forest

Earlier on in the year, we visited Delamere Forest to complete the Stick Man trail and so when I heard that the Forestry Commission had created Gruffalo Child trails in various forests around the country, I knew the kids would want to go.

The Gruffalo's Child is one of Eli's favourite books (although for some reason he insists on calling it The Gruffalo's Darling) and when I revealed the night before that we were going he was immediately brimming with excitement, chattering nine to the dozen and absolutely not going to sleep.  In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have waited until the kids were just going to bed...

Meg on the other hand was more concerned with a bigger question: what if we bumped into the Gruffalo?!

We arrived at Delamere Forest bright and early and met my parents who had been coerced kindly agreed to accompany us.

I'm glad we went first thing as the day turned out to be beautifully mild and dry (although we got extremely muddy thanks to the recent wet weather) and by the time we had finished the trail at around 1pm, the forest was incredibly busy with families trying to make the most of the nice day!

As with the Stick Man trail, this is a self-led activity, although you can purchase an activity pack for £2 which contains some colouring pages and information as well as a little task for children to complete as they walk around.


The task involves spotting letters hanging from trees and at the end rearranging them to form a word.  If you hand the sheet in you receive a little prize as well which is a nice touch.  Both Meg and Eli really enjoyed this task and it was a great way to practice some phonics with Eli as well (ever on the lookout for an educational opp...)


You follow various signs which point the way and dotted around are little interactive boards which invite children to do various things such as listen to the wildlife around them...


...or pretend to be a tree.


There are also some well known characters hiding in the trees as you walk around, so you need to keep your eyes peeled!


We went off track at one point and discovered someone had created a den with some sticks.  Immediately Meg and Eli were asking whether it was the Gruffalo's den and went off to investigate.  


Cue Grandad making some very Gruffalo sounding noises and trying to trick the children which they, naturally, thought was hilarious.


Best of all was that Delamere is one of the 15 sites (the trail is at 24 altogether) which has home to a 7ft wooden sculpture of the Gruffalo so we did get to find him after all.  


Once we had completed the trail we trooped back to the Cafe to have some lunch and collect the prizes which went down very well.  

We even stopped along the way to have a go at making our own shelter with Meg determined to find the biggest branch she could!


This is a great way to get children exploring nature, especially through the colder months.  Although we were lucky enough to get a good day, as you can see, we ended up more than a little bit muddy (as evidenced by Eli below) but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. 


You can find your closest trail here, and they are in place until February 2015.  

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Send A Cow: Empowering Women, Uniting Families, Creating Futures

*Please note that in this post I discuss some of the horrific things experienced in Uganda during the LRA insurgency.*

Also, if you want a brief introduction to the work Send A Cow do, and why I was out in Uganda then read this post first.


Meg and Eli have a new favourite game.  It involves leaping off the stairs into the waiting arms of James.  Their giggles of delight are infectious as they dare each other to go just one step higher, always confident that their Daddy will catch them.  Never questioning that he will be there.

Their surety comes from the knowledge that they are loved and protected, that their world is secure, that we, as parents, will provide for them and take care of them.  That their future is whatever they want it to be because we will work hard to make it so.

They play and they laugh and they live a generally carefree life because of this knowledge. As a mother, this is my ultimate aim.

But what if events outside of your control took over?  What if, one day, men came to your home and stole everything you had?  Your livestock, your money, your food, your future.  What if they took one of your children?  

What if you had to flee your home, your village, your community and live in a refugee camp where food and water was scarce, where men left their wives on a daily basis because it was easier to get food as a single man than as a family, where hygiene was non-existent and rape and abductions were commonplace?


What if you returned to your family land only to discover that there was nothing left for you?

This is the story for many families living in Northern Uganda.  Families who were forced to leave their homes when the LRA insurgency took place.  For some context, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) were a band of rebels led by Joseph Kony who occupied parts of Northern Uganda from around 1987 until 2008.  The families I visited whilst I was out in Uganda had all had their lives affected in some way by the rebel insurgency.  Some in the most horrific and unimaginable ways possible.

Whilst I would like to tell you the story of each farmer I met, and share the joy and happiness I felt in each community, I'd be harping on for weeks and so after much debating and writing and rewriting, I am simply going to share the two stories which stuck out to me the most during my visit.

I was amazed and impressed by each individual family that we met, the way they had worked through Send A Cow's programme and were beginning to become established and start the long climb out of poverty but it is these two women in particular who resonated with me as they shared.

As a wife and a mother, I found their stories hard-hitting and emotional.  I have carried them with me since my return and I believe that they are a fantastic representation of why Send A Cow's work is so vital in this area of Uganda, demonstrating the real impact it can have on women who are not so very different from you or I.

Ultimately, whilst these stories make for harrowing reading they are also stories of hope.  I considered just sharing the results of Send A Cow's intervention and assistance but I thought it was important to see the start for these women.  To see how far they have come, how truly inspirational they are and what can be achieved when people are given the right sort of help and when they have the determination to do better for their children and their futures.

Firstly, I met a woman called Martina Anyenko.  Martina and her husband are elders in a community which graduated just under a year ago from Send A Cow's programme.  On the surface they appear to be a happy family who are working hard.  Their farm is ordered and flourishing, and they are the proud owners of several good-sized mud homes as well as a large brick house with a tin roof.  This is a sign that they are doing extremely well (it was almost always the uppermost wish of families we met to have a brick house with a tin roof.)


However, their story didn't start out that way.  Martina lived in a refugee camp for over 20 years with her husband after having to abandon her family farm in 1986.  During the escape from their home, whilst running from the rebels, one of her children fell hard and hit his head, the result being regular seizures and epilepsy for which they received no treatment or assistance.  Whilst in the camp she was subject to daily struggles to ensure that her family had enough to eat and drink.  Three of her daughters were raped when they were 13, 14 and 15 whilst in the 'security' of the refugee camp; her 15 year old daughter fell pregnant and died during childbirth.

Whilst there her husband trained as a counsellor and worked with rescued abducted children.  He was himself taken captive by the rebels for a three month period.  On his return, although he continued to work with rescued children, he also sought relief in the bottom of a bottle and would often come home drunk and abuse his wife.  

Martina returned home in 2009 with not just her own children to take care of, but grandchildren and the children of her brother who had died in the camp.  They discovered that all of their possessions had been taken or destroyed and they had to start again from nothing.

Her experience is almost unimaginable and yet this beautiful, strong, courageous woman stood in front of us with a big smile on her face and told of her plans for the future.  How, because of Send A Cow's programme she can now send all the children in her care to school.  How she has built a brick house for her family and that she hopes to open a shop where she can sell some of the organically grown produce to bring in further income for her family.


'I didn't go to school,' she said.  'But I feel as important as those who did because now I am empowered.'

Her husband shared how he had given up drinking alcohol (the strongest thing he drinks now is tea!) and is now in a true partnership with his wife.  They work and adjust together, think and share together.  He is proud of the team they have become.


Whilst we sat and listened to Martina and her husband share their story (which is horribly not an unusual one for those in Northern Uganda), whilst they showed us around their wonderfully cultivated and ordered farm, whilst they dutifully demonstrated how they ride the motorbike they are so very proud of; the thing that really struck me was how hard they had worked to move forwards.  


Because it was their hard work which had transported the family out of poverty and created a future for their children and grandchildren.


The same goes for the next inspirational young woman I met.

Proscovia Achora is 26 years old.  She has six children and her first child was born when she was just 13 years old.  Proscovia was abducted from a refugee camp by the rebels and taken out into 'the bush' where she was forced to marry a man who was around 60 years old.  Despite being married she was still regularly 'given' to other men.


Proscovia was rescued by the Government army and taken back to the refugee camp where, pregnant and scared, she got married again, believing that nobody would want her as she was defiled.  But life in the camp wasn't necessarily any better; she had no food and no clothes to wear and the only way she could make money was to fetch water for other people.  Unfortunately her baby died whilst in the camp as she didn't have the resources to take care of her.

On her return to Gulu with her husband, they too had to begin from scratch.  Proscovia had spent almost her entire life in a refugee camp or out in the bush and had little to no knowledge of how to tend land, and how to look after herself and her family.  Although she had 4 brothers, they were scattered during the insurgency and she doesn't know whether they are alive, or where they might be.

Through Send A Cow's programme, and the support she received from her community which is entirely made up of child mothers (young girls who were abducted by the rebels) like herself, she is now something of an entrepreneur.  She is part of a music, drama and dance group which regularly do paid performances, she plays football, and is the owner of two solar panels.  Local people pay Proscovia for the energy to charge their mobile phones and she also uses the solar panels to light her home.


Send A Cow provided Proscovia with a local cow in calf and she is able to use the milk produced for herself and her family, as well as selling the extra for profit which she uses to pay for her children's education.  She also uses the waste from the cow to produce fertiliser which she puts on her land to help grow crops.


Proscovia was incredibly shy, and although she said that she now feels respected and happy, she spent the majority of her time talking to the floor rather than making eye contact with us which speaks volumes about the horrendous things she has experienced.  She gave thanks that not only have the Send A Cow team provided her with agricultural knowledge and the support of a community but their extension workers (those who are regularly out visiting the communities and farmers) are also trained in counselling and she has been able to receive help for the psychological trauma she suffered.


Later on in the day we were lucky enough to see Proscovia as part of the community when they performed several dances for us and it was amazing to watch her come alive.  You could really see the transformation and, again, it highlighted how important the community element of Send A Cow's programme is.


These two stories are just a tiny snapshot of the work that Send A Cow are doing in Africa.  I am not going to strong arm you into believing how amazing they are (and they are...really...) because you can see that by visiting their website but instead, just as a final piece of the puzzle I want to share my understanding of why it seems to work.

Send A Cow don't do handouts.  They don't turn up and ask a family what they need and then go away and duly raise the funds to provide the items.  They don't treat these families like charity cases who need a good scrubbing up and a bit of food and then they'll be alright won't they?  

Send A Cow educate and equip.  They start by asking what a family has, and how that could be used to create something sustainable.  They encourage communities to gather together and pool resources for the good of everyone.  They teach gender and social equality and the importance of working as a family unit.  


Many of the families in this area have spent the majority of their lives in refugee camps, some were born and raised there.  They have little understanding of the basics of hygiene and don't know how to work for themselves.  They have been used to handouts from aid agencies and so, on returning to their homes, are stuck in a hopeless cycle.

The very first thing Send A Cow does is to introduce cleanliness and hygiene such as building a latrine and using a 'TipTap' to wash hands.  This has been shown to make a huge difference to the families and on each farm we visited we were proudly shown the latrine, the covered shower and the TipTap (being used below.)


They educate the farmers on the need to store up food, rather than selling everything they have, to ensure that even through difficult seasons there is enough to sustain their family and they encourage them to have long term plans, to have hopes and dreams for the future; something to aim towards.


I visited projects in the very early stages of Send A Cow's intervention and ones which had graduated, like Martina's community and I saw the impact that it can have.

These women are not so different from me, from you.  They want the same things for themselves and for their children.  How easily our roles could have been reversed and honestly, I don't know if I would have had the strength of will to overcome it in quite the same way that these women have.  

They are truly inspirational and, yes, I am going to do a bit of a hard sell now because I truly believe that the work Send A Cow is doing to end poverty is working, that it is sustainable and that it is important.

So if you do one good thing this week or one generous thing this festive season, I would urge you to visit Send A Cow's website, to read about their sustainable farming projects and how they work.  To donate, if you can, or buy a gift from their virtual catalogue to ensure that more families and more people like Martina and Proscovia who have been affected by war and poverty and simply a lack of resources, can be empowered, united and hopeful for the future.


If you want to see any other photos from during my trip then be sure to search for the hashtag #UgandaWithLove

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Back to Business...

I am back.  I am in one piece.  I am tropical disease free (although I am rocking a dreadful cold thanks to the chilly English weather).  I am all kinds of inspired and exhausted and challenged and drained.  

I have so many notes to work my way through and over 800 photos to filter before I can coherently put together an account of my time in Uganda but I am hoping that it will be before the end of the week, brain-power permitting.

Even now as I sit here and write this, as Meg and Eli practice their exercises on my yoga mat just a few feet away and the dog repeatedly head-butts me in the eternal signal of 'I want a walk', as I ponder what we will eat for dinner which doesn't require too much preparation...as life just continues, it feels strange to think that this time last week I was in Uganda.  Experiencing so much.  Hearing so much.  Seeing so much.

How will I ever even begin to unravel everything?









Monday, 17 November 2014

TalkTalk Review: TV Mix Off


As any fans of the show will know, TalkTalk TV are the proud sponsors of The X Factor and this year they have created a brand new app to get fans closer to the talent show.

The TalkTalk Mix Off app gives viewers of the show the chance to star in their own unique music video taking inspiration from some of the nation’s favourite pop stars.  Whether it’s recreating your favourite boy band dance routine or channeling your inner diva in front of a wind machine, it's another great way for TalkTalk homes and fans of The X Factor to get even closer to the show. 

You can download the app onto Apple devices, android devices or use your computer and it is very straightforward.

How it works:

* First you select your track, video style and customise it.


* Then you record your performance - sing along, dance like crazy and have fun etc

* Finally, there is the option to mix it up by adding others to your video.

It is a lot of fun and so easy to use.  Meg and Eli have had lots of fun creating their own videos to some of their favourite tracks.

Why don't you see what you can create?

This post has been written as part of our role as TalkTalk Family Bloggers.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Half Term Fun at the National Forest Adventure Farm


Recently we were invited by the lovely folk at the National Forest Adventure Farm to join them and check out their Spook-tacular half term event and to pick a pumpkin from their special patch.

As any parent will know, having great days out to enjoy during half term is a great way of breaking up the week and ensuring that you wear your children out sufficiently so we were more than happy to travel down to Adventure Farm.

As we walked across the car park towards the entrance we noticed many people heading back to their cars, arms laden with bright orange pumpkins.  Meg became increasingly concerned that there would be no pumpkins left for us to pick so we had to head there first (and then back to our car again) before we could fully explore and appreciate the park.



Although we visited at the end of the week there were still plenty of pumpkins left for us to choose from and from the size of the patch and the number of roots in evidence I bet it was amazing to see when it was first opened.


One thing which really stood out was the effort that had gone into dressing up the farm so that it was fit for a fright.  From added attractions such as the Spooky Hotel and the Mummy Maze to special activities like pumpkin carving, they had very clearly gone out of their way to transform the farm.



As well as the special attractions which had been added in for the purpose of the Spook-tacular event there were the usual things you would expect to find at a farm such as an animal barn (with scheduled petting times), tractor ride and adventure playground.




On entrance we were also each given a ticket for the barrel stampede ride which was very popular with Eli who could hardly contain himself as we waited and kept trying to zip between the legs of the other people in the queue.


We mostly stuck to the attractions outside as the weather was beautiful for the end of October, and we wanted to make the most of it.  There is an indoor soft play with adjacent cafe but it was heaving for the majority of the time we were there so we avoided it.

Both Meg and Eli really enjoyed 'FunField' which had the pirate ship playground, a sandpit, an inflatable assault course and two giant bouncing pillows.  There was also mini-golf and a 'beat the goalie' football game which seemed to be very popular with older children.


The only criticism I have is of this particular area.  There were two giant inflatable jumping pillows; one for under 8's and one for over's.  Although there was a member of staff overseeing this area they were quite young and made no attempt to clear the under 8's pillow when a large group of older children descended on it.  Unfortunately, I only noticed this as Eli got crushed and ended up in tears and we had to leave the fun.  Other than this, I found the staff to all be incredibly helpful and friendly.


Overall I was really impressed with the different activities available at the farm.  We arrived at 12pm and didn't leave until it started to get dark at 5pm but I think even if we had arrived at 10am we'd have found plenty to do.


Winter prices are just £6.75 for anyone over 2 and I think this is great value for money, especially if you coincide your visit with a special event.  Even better, the upcoming Christmas on the Farm event, is free entry for adults with each paying child.  What could be more enticing than that?

I would thoroughly recommend this farm for a great family day out.

Disclaimer: We were offered free entry for the farm in return for this review.  However all thoughts and opinions are our own.