More than 100 million children in the world receive no education. Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq recently met a few of them in Uganda while filming for Comic Relief. The experience opened her eyes: "It's easy for films about Africa to wash over you, to think of children like this as just brown faces far away. But when you meet them you realise they've got the same kind of personalities as children everywhere. It's a lottery where we're born, no one is really different. That's what I hope our film will put across," she says.
The film provides a very human glimpse of the desperately hard lives led by these village children deprived of schooling. There's Margaret, aged six, who has never worn shoes, and spends the day sweeping up, collecting wood for the fire, and preparing meals; school is too far away for her to attend.
Then there's the twins Kato and Wasswa, aged six, looked after by their sister Diana, aged 13, whose parents died of HIVAids three years ago: they till the fields all day to make enough money for one basic meal. There's Mahamood, aged eight, who has 11 brothers and sisters, and is taught the basics at home by an older brother: his father, showing the symptoms of HIVAids, can't work, so his mother sells tomatoes in the market, making just 30p a day profit. And there's Nilumansi, aged nine, whose parents died of Aids when she was three, and who is looked after by her grandmother.
Konnie Huq, whose parents come from Bangladesh, is a good choice to front the programme. Born in Ealing, with an economics degree from Cambridge, she comes over as intelligent, compassionate, idealistic and unaffected. On camera she's warm and natural with the children, bouncing on their beds, playing football with them, working in the fields, helping them bath a baby. "Striking up a rapport with them was important, but it wasn't difficult, because they were so friendly and sweet," she says. "I felt they were my friends, and I felt very sad when I left them. Coming back to London, I was just struck by how privileged and pampered we are, how people just throw money away, how unfair it all is."
Some 650,000 children in Uganda are unable to go to primary school. Less than half the girls go to secondary school; instead they stay at home, cook and clean, or look after younger siblings. "It's so tragic, because school is their only way out," Konnie says. "It's free at primary level, but the families are so poor they can't afford pens and paper, books, uniforms.
Everything is against them."
To help such families, Comic Relief has set up the Send a Cow project. It's a scheme which supplies livestock to women's organisations, and helps them to look after it, thereby enabling them to make better use of the land, and increase their crop yields and income. Women are the main food providers in Uganda, especially now that the high death rates from HIVAids have left many young women as head of the family.
One problem the Comic Relief team encountered was the widespread refusal to acknowledge the existence of HIVAids. One girl, whose parents Konnie knew had died from the disease, told her they had been killed in a car crash:
"It's a shame that they won't say what the illness is, because the stigma makes it a million times more difficult to make progress. But you have to be very careful, it's such a taboo subject."
One place where the issue is being tackled is the Kamwokya Christian Caring Community in Kampala, funded by Comic Relief. Here children whose families can't afford schooling get some basic lessons. Conditions are difficult, with four classes in one large room. "It's not ideal, but it's all they have," Konnie observes. "I sat in on some lessons, and the teachers do a brilliant job."
She and the film crew were greeted by a poignant song from the children, who sang of being Aids orphans determined to carry on with their lives.
"It was sad but also positive," she recalls. Her moving and informative film comes as a video in the Red Nose Day education pack recently sent to schools. The pack is stuffed with imaginative lesson plans, posters, assembly guides, fund-raising suggestions, and details of the Send My Friend to School Challenge, which encourages children to lobby the G8 leaders about the 100 million without education. Meanwhile the stories of Nilumansi and of Diana and her brothers will be featured in a Blue Peter Comic Relief special, which will investigate more fully why they are being deprived of this most basic right.
l www.rednoseday.com The Blue Peter Comic Relief special will be shown on BBC1 on March 4, one week before Red Nose Day on March 11