To the beat of the drum

You never know how much you want something until you can’t have it. Postponing my trip to Uganda was a decision I made out of respect for those I love and one I knew I had to make, even if it hurt. This past month has given me time to think, process and reflect, and has made me realise, more than ever before, just how much KAASO means to me.

What scared me most was not knowing how long this postponement would be, worrying that if Ebola did manage to spread across the continent and wreak havoc in East Africa, it could be a very long wait. Luckily, that wait was not as long as I’d feared. The case of Marburg found in Kampala turned out to be just that, a single case. It has been contained and all those quarantined released. While Ebola continues to be a terrible plague across West Africa, life in Uganda continues to move to the beat of its own lively drum.

So, after many long discussions, hours of research and several hilarious conversations with the village (one of which was with Teacher Enock who told me, “Madam Emma, you may come back. Marburg – he is not here!”), my flights are booked and on Friday I return to my Ugandan home. And I do so with the full love and support of my family who are right behind me in my decision.

Thank you for all your messages this past month, to those of you who reminded me how to smile when my face forgot, who reassured me that my little friends would still be there waiting when I returned.

As Dominic replied when I forwarded him my flight details:

“This is very good. We shall be so happy to have you on the 23rd. Everybody here is very eager to receive you and I think the whole school will go crazy when you arrive.”

The feeling is mutual.

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Guest Post: KAASO through the eyes of Spanish volunteer Lara Briz

One of the greatest things about being a KAASO volunteer is the incredible community of past volunteers you meet around the world. Volunteers returning from KAASO get in touch with each other to share stories, brainstorm ideas and to keep the spirit of KAASO alive. There’s a real sense of being part of something amazing.

This latest post was written by Lara Briz, a Spanish volunteer who recently went back to KAASO for the second time. It shares her emotions in going back as well as describing the great new initiative she set up as an alternative to traditional child sponsorship.

Read on and enjoy!

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In the summer of 2014 I went back to Uganda. It was my second time there and it felt completely different to when I arrived the first time. I felt more confident and was looking forward to seeing how things had changed over the last two years. Arriving in Entebbe, the first thing I saw when walking out of the terminal was Dominic’s face, standing out from the other faces and signs waiting for people at the airport gate. The welcome and friendly look on his face made me realise I was truly back at KAASO.

Coming back to a place you already know is always a bit dangerous. You can find that things have changed a lot since the last time and be disappointed. You can also discover that people have changed and the place doesn’t make you feel at home anymore. My first days at the school proved to me that was not the case at all. I started to see lots of familiar faces, and some new ones. After two days, I was again part of the KAASO community and so happy to be back. Children are always curious when a new “muzungu” is around. This can sometimes be a bit intimidating, dozens of little faces looking at you every move you make, but to my surprise, I realised that I had missed it!

During those first days I talked to Dominic a lot about how the school was right now, what they had achieved since my last visit, and the problems they were dealing with these days. I was impressed by all the new things going on at the school. There were a couple of new water tanks donated by some amazing people from Canada, new pineapple crops were growing near the school, there was a new henhouse that incorporated eggs into the children’s diet, and many more inspiring new developments. I am always impressed when I read about what Dominic and Rose do, but seeing it with my own eyes made me feel really proud of them.

Unfortunately, not everything was going so well. They were having big problems trying to feed all the children. In the beginning when KAASO first started, there were only about 30 children. Nowadays, there are more than 600 and around one sixth of them are sponsored by the school, which means that with the fees of some, they have to maintain and feed all the children, pay the teachers, fund the materials, and keep the school running. Thanks to the crops they had planted, the situation was slightly improved, but still they had to find a way to get enough food for everybody and some months it was really difficult and incredibly stressful for them.

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Because of the difficulty in funding the school from the contributions of a few, some of the volunteers and I had been trying to find sponsors for some of these children at KAASO who cannot pay. But again this has its challenges. Sponsorship is a long-term commitment and after some bad experiences with sponsors dropping out, we came to the conclusion that it is better to have no sponsorships than to have failed sponsorships. It is very damaging to the children to have a sponsor that starts and then stops, leaving them wondering what they did wrong.

Before this second trip to Uganda, I had collected some money from friends in Europe and wanted to use it to help mitigate this problem but I didn’t know how. After a couple of days at KAASO I decided the best thing I could do with the funds I had raised was to approach the problem but from a different perspective. Instead of finding somebody to pay a child’s fees, I could try to make the child’s family able to pay the fees themselves. I talked to Rose about it, and we sat and discussed it for a long time, brainstorming the best ways to help these families. As always, Rose never ceased to amaze me. Her intelligence and understanding of both Ugandan and “European” behaviors and feelings is just amazing.

We chose five families to help, most of them run by widows. Economic opportunities are extremely limited for rural women in Uganda and women generally have fewer assets than men and limited opportunities to make money. They have difficulty gaining access to the credit they need to set up small businesses that generate income, so they are constrained to remain at home and depend on their husbands. But when they lose their husbands, the situation becomes incredibly tough since they have no opportunities to make money, and no man to provide for them and their family.

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From all the possible businesses, Rose advised that pigs were the most profitable. So we started to plan.

During the next few days, we visited many such families and discussed their issues. Rose helped translate to them what we wanted to do and while I didn’t understand their Luganda answers, words weren’t really necessary; their faces spoke for themselves. They were so happy to hear the good news! As Rose explained to me, in Uganda it is rude if you visit somebody and don’t receive a gift for your visit, and I certainly experienced this. After several days of visiting, we had been given so many fruit baskets!

Busy days followed as we bought all the required materials and hired workers, trying to ensure we stayed in budget. We designed what we considered the best sty, both economical and functional, using sand, rocks and cement for the floor, poles and wooden planks raised around the perimeter and covered by a zinc roof. We bought two pigs for each woman, one male and one female, as well as feed and vaccinations for at least the first year. After that time, all going well, the projects should become self-sustaining.

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Let me introduce the wonderful women who participated in the project:

Madam Nasiwa Bena

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She is 78-years old and lives in a mud-brick house next to KAASO. She was the only one to whom we decided not to give pigs as it wasn’t the best way for her to make money due to her age. She used to make mats when she could save enough money to buy the materials, so instead we bought enough dye and material so that she could make plenty of mats. Hopefully the sale of her mats will generate enough for her to buy new materials and the balance help support her family.

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She has 10 sons and grandsons and one of her daughters who lives with her suffers mental illness and cannot do any work. After spending many days with her during my stay in Uganda, I was so impressed by her determination and strength. It’s hard to believe she is 78-years old.

Madam Nakalema Angelina

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She is 60 years old and lives in a small mud-brick house in the forest. Most of her sons died from HIV, so now she has to take care of many grandsons, some of them also suffering from HIV. I can still hear her wonderful laugh and happiness. The first time I met her, after leaving the house, Rose and I were walking back through the forest when one of her sons came to ask us to stop and wait. Next thing, Angelina appeared with baskets of peanuts, delicious mangos and other fruits. I almost cried – there is so much we can learn from the Ugandan people….

Madam Nakitto Teopista

She is 34 years old. Three years ago, her husband died in a boda boda (motorbike) accident, leaving her alone with three children. After this, her husband’s family took everything from her, including the ownership of her pigs. She continued to take care of them and received a small amount of money from her husband’s family for doing so.

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Now, with this project, she will have her own sty and won’t have to depend on anyone else. As well as her piggery project, she also works as a seamstress to help feed her children.

Mr and Mrs Kabuule

I had met Mr. Kabuule the first time I visited Uganda as he used to help organise meetings of the Empowerment Group. He was a small man but so kind and friendly, I couldn’t imagine that he was suffering from a terrible disease that prevents him from working or doing almost anything that requires any kind of strength. This congenital disease also affected his grandfather and his father. This time I met the rest of his family and he was very happy that his was one of the families chosen for the project. In this picture is Madam Kabuule having a meeting with Rose in our Ugandan ‘office’.

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Nakuya Harriet

Harriet is the fifth woman we chose for our project. She is a widow who lives next to KAASO and who used to help clean houses around the village. We built her a sty and you can see here how proud and happy she is!

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My time in Uganda was just incredible. It is crazy how much you can achieve with just a little bit of money. You can change a woman’s life, and therefore a family’s life. You can give them a future, making them feel proud of themselves, not dependent on anybody but themselves. I admire Ugandan women so much and I am sad that it is so difficult for them to gain access to the credit they need to set up a business.

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None of this would have been possible without the donations of generous people and friends who trusted me with this new initiative. To all of them, thank you so much. And of course thank you to Rose, Dominic and their son Derrick, whose time, intelligence and efforts are what made all of this happen.

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Que Sera Sera – whatever will be will be

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Growing up as a little girl, mama always used to sing to me ‘Que Sera Sera’ – whatever will be will be. It quickly became one of my favourite songs and so, arriving at KAASO in 2009 with my guitar on my back, it was an obvious choice to sing with the children. They adored it and the school grounds would often be ringing with little voices singing their ‘que sera seras’.

When I listen to this song, it reminds me that while life is full of the unknown, of ups and downs, twists and turns, and forks in the road, somehow everything works out in the end. Whether or not we have rainbows day after day.

This video is a celebration of all those gorgeous little children at KAASO, those I have come to know and adore over the past five years.

You can’t help but smile when you see their faces, their happiness is contagious.

Thanks once again to Beau Outteridge Productions for editing this for me – your time, patience and support is much appreciated.

Sing along and enjoy!

A busy year in the village – KAASO’s latest newsletter

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Good things come to those who wait and at long last, we have the latest KAASO newsletter. A very loosely ‘monthly’ affair, this one incorporates news from January – October…

It’s packed with all the latest happenings at KAASO, everything from visiting refugee camps to building libraries, from Dominic’s trip to the USA to receiving a generous donation of 20 laptops from a school in Florida. There’s even a section on the delicious meals at KAASO!

Read about the school’s computer classes and Dominic’s hilarious update on the various projects running at KAASO – you will hear all about Mr Passion Fruit, Mr Piggery, Mrs Sweet Potato, Mr Maize…

My personal favourite is Teacher Sam’s section on the Education Week celebrations. Read how the music “boomed like a gun and covered the audience like wall paper”, how “the melodious voices evaporated like a fragrance leaving the audience in suspense” and “in the blink of an eye the audience was like dustpans waiting to swallow rubbish.”

Enjoy!

A tough decision

Yesterday I made one of the toughest decisions of my life. As you will all be aware, the Ebola virus has been causing devastation throughout West Africa since March this year, leaving a trail of fatalities in its wake. It’s an unthinkable tragedy and I have watched on with huge sadness as these events unfolded.

However, my plans to return to Uganda remained unchanged. This was an epidemic taking place over 5,000 kilometers away on the other side of a continent. People so often speak of ‘Africa’ as one place, a single country rather than a landmass covering 30 million square kilometers, triple the size of Europe, with 54 counties, home to over a billion people. I sometimes wondered if there was an Ebola outbreak in Ukraine it would stop people travelling to Paris. I highly doubt it and yet it’s half the distance between Uganda and West Africa.

Last Sunday the Ugandan Ministry of Health notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that there had been a fatality in Kampala from Marburg, a virus from the same family as Ebola with similar symptoms and fatality rates. I began to do some research into this disease and learned that there had been small outbreaks of both Marburg and Ebola in Uganda in 2011, 2012, and 2013. These ‘outbreaks’ were all regionalised, all quickly contained and shut down. The tragedy for the West African nations where the Ebola virus is currently running wild is that the outbreak comes after a decade of civil war which has left infrastructure in tatters and confidence in governments low.

In Uganda, people have been educated to be much more open about illnesses since the government’s widespread HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the 1980s and confidence in public services is far higher than their West African counterparts. Uganda has been widely praised for its response to the 2012 Ebola outbreak that killed 17 people. Together with the WHO, Uganda’s health authorities worked to quickly and effectively quell the outbreak with public announcements by President Museveni on radio and TV urging Ugandans to take precautions against the disease.

The current situation in Uganda is that there has been a single case of confirmed Marburg which has killed one health worker. Five people remain in isolation and there is every expectation that the virus will end there. I have been in touch with my friends in Uganda and a fellow Kiwi living Uganda in since 2009 has assured me that life in Kampala continues 100% as normal.

I was due to fly out tomorrow and my boyfriend’s younger brother, Beau, was meeting me the following week in Kampala. I’d spoken with the boys’ parents and their dad had asked if they should be concerned about Ebola and their mum had smiled and said Emma wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t safe. They trust me to ensure that Beau will be safe, and while he is old enough to make his own decisions, he was coming with me based on the fact that I deem Uganda safe – as it always has been on my four previous trips.

If it were up to me alone, I would proceed with the trip as planned as I truly believe we would be safe and that the chance of either of us coming into contact with either Marburg or Ebola is minuscule.  But over the past few days I have come to realise that this is not a decision that affects only me and I cannot ignore the fact that my going to Uganda has widespread ramifications for those close to me. For the very first time in my life of spontaneous, out-of-the-ordinary adventures, my parents have stepped in and asked me not to go. This morning I had a heartfelt conversation with Rose who, ever wise, told me of a Ugandan proverb:

‘The elders sometimes do not see so well but still, they understand some things.’

So I am going to have to abide by this proverb and it is with huge sadness and disappointment that I let you know I have postponed my trip to Uganda. I will most certainly return – hopefully sooner rather than later – but for now I need to be selfless and make a decision for those around me rather than for myself. I don’t want to put my family through that worry as I can’t assure them that everything will be alright because I simply don’t know. I have every confidence that Ebola will not reach Uganda but who am I to say? Just a Kiwi girl who left her heart in Uganda.

It particularly hurts to know that this is a luxury I have – to choose to go now or not – but that is the point my parents have raised. There is no reason I must go now – the school, the village, all those I know and love will still be there in a few weeks, a few months and there is no pressing reason I must leave tomorrow. Rose reminds me that they will be looking forward to my arrival any day and says ‘for our love for you and your family, we will respect you.’ I hope with all my heart that this devastating disease is soon stamped out across the entire African continent to let innocent people return to their lives – and so that I can return to my Ugandan home.

Thank you to all those who have supported and encouraged me in the lead-up to this trip. Tomorrow afternoon will be a difficult moment as that plane leaves without me but one thing I know for certain is that this is not a cancellation but a postponement. I will be back soon.

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Sharing my story

One of the best things about a life on the road is meeting up with far-flung friends and fortuitously crossing paths with people you haven’t seen in years. Back in 2009 before my first trip to Uganda, I was home in Auckland working on the Louis Vuitton Trophy when I met a lady named Danielle Genty-Nott. At the time she was working for Sky City who were doing all our event catering and we hit it off, discussing my upcoming trip to Uganda and travels in general. She joined my group email list, receiving weekly emails from Uganda during those first six months and later updates from my annual return trips to the village.

I had just launched my blog in May this year when she got in touch saying if I was ever in London, where she was now running Tourism New Zealand for the UK and Europe, to give her a shout. As fate would have it, I was flying to London the following week. We met for a long lunch and caught up on the past five years, sharing of stories of Uganda and beyond. She was passionate about helping me get my story out there and at the end of lunch she promised to put me in touch with Bridgid Hawley, Director of Kea New Zealand (Kiwi Expats Abroad) for the UK and Europe.

On my following trip to Europe, I diverted through London where I had the pleasure of meeting with Bridgid and speaking to her about KAASO, Uganda and my book.

The result is the following article – I hope you will enjoy!

Kea Interview with Emma Blackman

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It’s incredible what can be achieved

For years there had been talk of a secondary school affiliated with KAASO. People in the local community has asked Dominic and Rose if they would establish another school to help educate those leaving KAASO but resources were too few and time was too short.

However, thanks to the extraordinary dedication of a man named Zaake, this dream became a reality. Zaake, a local businessman dealing in Chinese imports, was passionate about developing the community surrounding Kabira. His children had gone through KAASO but then had had to leave to go to secondary schools far away as there were no reputable schools in the area. If Dominic and Rose would agree to help oversee the educational side of things, Zaake would fully fund and oversee the creation of the school. And thus Zaake Secondary School was born.

In December last year I visited the construction site where the school was being built. Wooden scaffolding clung to the red-earth bricks and I wondered how it would ever be ready in time for the new year.

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However, any doubts were put to rest on 18th January this year when the school was officially opened and its classrooms filled with old students of KAASO and dozens of other children from the surrounding villages. It was a huge accomplishment and since then I have been eagerly following the progress of the school and its students.

Thanks to Lara Briz, a fellow volunteer who returns regularly to KAASO, I am able to share with you photos of Zaake Secondary School today, functioning and completed and a most impressive facility for the people of Rakai.

Looking at these photos makes me beam with pride at how far the KAASO community has come in the past five years since I first fell in love with this remarkable place. It’s incredible what can be achieved when the determination, dedication and passion of a people is ignited.

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Laying eggs, laying bricks

When I was last in Uganda in November 2013, a volunteer named Daniel O’Kelly had fundraised with his family to construct a chicken house and had left enough money to purchase 200 chicks. The building had been constructed and the chicks lined up with the breeder in Kampala but KAASO lacked the funds to buy chicken feed and other essentials.

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Thanks to the generous support of family and friends, we raised the money to complete the project. Trucks arrived bearing giant sacks of feed and Dominic went out and purchased the troughs, drinkers and lanterns needed for the chicken house. Money was set aside to vaccinate and de-beak the chickens on their arrival.

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When Dominic and Rose drove me to Entebbe Airport, they came back with a car full of 200 chicks – this was one time I was happy to be on a one-way journey to Kampala… Now, seven months later, the chicken project is thriving. Last year in the USA, Dominic was introduced to the concept of ‘Career Academies’. The basic concept is to integrate projects into the school that will help the children learn practical skills beyond the standard academic curriculum. Rose adopted the chicken project as a career academy, selecting students to be ‘chicken monitors’ and teaching them how to raise chickens so that one day they can use these skills to set up a chicken project of their own.

Thanks to the love and care of these chicken monitors, the chicks have turned into chickens and the first eggs have been laid. When I asked Rose if they had sold or eaten the first eggs she laughed heartily. ‘Oh no! We must first eat them because we are longing! So long we have been longing for these eggs and now they have come. Eh, they are so tasty!’ The project will help vary the children’s largely monotonous diet and the remaining eggs will be sold to buy chicken feed and keep the project going. The idea is that the project becomes self-sustaining, generating income for KAASO, providing protein in the children’s diet and helping teach new skills to the chicken monitors.

Here are some of the latest shots of the chicken project from Amanda and Kartal Jaquette who have just returned from KAASO:

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And here we have it – our precious first egg!!

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With thanks and love to the generous donors behind this great new initiative:

Willem Jan van Andel

Don & Maureen Robertson

Christine Belanger

Judy Blackman, Shelley Duncan & Margaret Koski

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Not only are the chickens laying eggs, but the workers have been doing their own laying – brick laying! With another amazing donation from Willem Jan van Andel, the KAASO school perimeter will finally be enclosed. Here are the latest images coming out of the village showing the front wall that now separates the school from the road. The fence will soon be completed with metal gates at the main entrance and iron bars filling in the triangular spaces. KAASO has children as young as 3 years old and now the entire school can be closed off, helping keep the children safe and secure.

It is an exciting time at KAASO with Dominic about to head off to the USA on Saturday where the KAASO network will no doubt grow further.

Thanks so much to you all for reading, for caring and for being a part of this inspiring journey.

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‘A chance to change KAASO, Uganda and the World’

Five years ago when I was first in Uganda, the idea of Dominic going to America seemed about as likely as me becoming a pole vaulter. He was born and raised in Uganda and had dedicated his life to helping the children of the area in which he grew up. The only time he ever left Uganda was to cross the border into Tanzania at the start of each school year to pick up the handful of Tanzanian orphans who boarded at KAASO.

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However, last year the National Educator Program (NEP) of the USA heard of Dominic through a past volunteer and invited him to present the story of KAASO at an educational conference in California and then attend a leadership workshop in Florida. Within the USA, his food and accommodation would be covered by NEP but it was up to us to get him there. Kirsty and I launched a fundraiser and thanks to the generous support of family and friends, in particular Judy Johnson and Iain Percy, we raised the money for his flights. Kirsty, Justin and other volunteers helped Dominic through the arduous US visa process and we were happy to learn that Dominic had already obtained a passport a few years earlier in case the chance ever arose to head overseas.

Arriving in the USA on 29th June 2013, Dominic was taken under the wing of Mark Thompson, the inspiring Executive Director of NEP, who guided him through American life and introduced him to people from around the world. Despite being far from Uganda and all those he knew and loved, Dominic tackled life with his usual optimism and exuberance and all who met him were blown away by his charisma – and by the incredible story of KAASO. He made many great connections and formed a sister school partnership with a primary school in Flordia who have since donated 21 laptops to the KAASO computer lab. He learned about new teaching methods and the concept of ‘career academies’ whereby students are encouraged to learn practical skills which will help them in life and not just academic teachings. This has been implemented at KAASO in the form of the self-sustaining poultry project which is largely student-run, helping educate the children about how to generate an income alongside their studies. There are many other exciting projects that KAASO one day hopes to launch such as a bakery and a local coffee processing plant.

Not only did Dominic introduce these ideas to KAASO, he also shared them with Zaake Secondary School, Ssanje Primary School (the government school at which Dominic is also head teacher), presented at various community meetings around the district and was invited to State House to give an account of his trip. In Dominic’s own words:

‘Attending an international conference has changed my thinking, my way of life and even my status in the society. So many people are consulting me.’

All in all, the trip was an incredible success and Dominic, KAASO and the community at large have greatly benefited from his experiences.

So when Dominic was invited to return to the US to complete the second part of the International Leadership Fellows Institute he began last July, I knew he had to take this opportunity. The course is ‘a year-long professional program designed to challenge and strengthen exceptional candidates. The Institute’s goal is to develop principals with the knowledge, skills, and vision to lead progressive, innovative schools where teachers are empowered to be leaders and all students have equal access to success.’

Thanks to the generous support of Nathan Outteridge, Dominic will be flying out next Saturday to Tampa, Florida, to complete the final stage of this two-part course. Mark Thompson will again be mentoring Dominic through the process and helping Dominic to build on the relationships and connections he formed last year.

I am excited to follow his progress and look forward to hearing about all he will learn, experience, see, and ultimately share with the KAASO community.

Dominic wrote to me saying, ‘I feel that if I continue with this course, it will give me a great chance to change KAASO, Uganda and the World.’

If anyone can, Dominic will.

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‘My very nearby sister’

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It is impossible to get off the phone from Rose unmoved.

Sitting under the window of Kirsty’s second floor apartment, sun streaming in, the streets of London bustling as people go about their Wednesday morning business, I am transported to the dusty roads of Uganda, picturing the day as Rose describes it – ‘it is so much rainy and then it shines’. The crops are growing well and soon it will be time to harvest the maize and potatoes and the stores will be full with new season’s produce. Rural village life, worlds away from my city view and yet somehow technology allows us to be brought so close together that it feels as if Rose is here, talking and laughing as if she were sitting next to me.

‘You are my very nearby sister,’ she laughs. It feels so.

The children are all busy preparing for sports and music competitions that will take place this weekend. They are hoping to emerge victorious this year after coming so close two years ago when they were pipped at the post, coming a close second to another, better-connected primary school. In Uganda, as everywhere, it’s who you know not what you know.

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The chickens have started harvesting eggs and the children are delighted to be sampling the fruits of their labour. Rose tells me the chickens are ‘very fine, they have started laying and we are really happy for that.’ Thanks once more to all those who donated to the chicken project, it is proving to be a great success!

Thanks also to a generous donation from Willem Jan van Andel, the school will finally be secured. Until now, there have been fences and gates surrounding most of the school perimeter but the front remained open due to lack of funds for school gates. Construction is now under way and soon the school property will be fully fenced and enclosed, helping keep the children safe at night.

We have new sponsors, new projects and many new exciting initiatives in the mix. Rose thanked me again and again for all that I and my wonderful family and friends do for KAASO. ‘We sang you our thank you song but you did not hear!’ she laughed when I asked if my latest money transfer had arrived. ‘Thank you for trying to make so many friends for KAASO, we are really appreciating all that you do.’

It puts everything in perspective to have conversations like this in the context of a world that all too often forgets to stop, listen and engage, to make time for each other without distractions, to value other people and listen to the story they have to tell. Conversations with Rose help remind me to take time to smell the roses.

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