A profound influence

And then it was over. Five weeks, gone in a heartbeat, the days too quickly being swallowed by time and now I find myself winging my way northwards, to London, trading dirt paths for multi-lane roads, rows of banana palms for blocks of flats, equatorial heat for December cold. I love London but my heart is heavy. Leaving my Ugandan home hurts every time but somehow this time feels harder than other years. I think this has been the most incredible of all my trips, full to bursting with so many happy moments, with both families there to share in the joy and, finally, with my love at my side, walking beside me through the village he has heard so much about since the day we first met. Usually I am sad to leave but excited to be reunited with Nath but now, having had him in the village with me from the start, I wish I could have stayed so much longer. But time marches to the beat of its own drum, out of my hands, unwilling to be slowed. So here we are.

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There are so many moments from the past few weeks to write about, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I will do my “level best”. Thanks to a donation from Northbourne Park School in the UK, KAASO was able to buy a projector which meant we were able to screen the bus video to the children, reliving the joy of the day the bus drove into KAASO, as well as delighting the children with images of Bermuda – up till then, simply a name written on the side of their bus and now on their water tanks, a name that inspired fear of the mysterious Bermuda triangle, which the children were always terrified I’d disappear into. It was such a thrill watching their faces as they saw Beau’s amazing documentary for the first time, bringing a wave of emotions back over me, reliving that glorious day.

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We celebrated KAASO’s last day of the school year with the nursery children’s graduation ceremony. Nath, as the guest of honour, played the role of Chancellor, presenting certificates to each tiny pupil who will next year join Primary One, officially starting their primary education. The children were so excited to come up and shake Nath’s hand and pose for their photos, some with parents or guardians, others alone.

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As the ceremony ended, the school gates buzzed with motorbikes piled high with mattresses and metal suitcases, as the children went home for the holidays, leaving us with just a few dozen remaining pupils. As the younger children were leaving, the older ones were returning, the Kiwi Sponsorships students coming back from secondary school to KAASO to help out in the holidays, their way of giving back in thanks for the support the school has given them over the years. I was so happy to be reunited with my old friends, now growing up and transitioning from children to adults making their way in the world. It was busy and exciting and hectic trying to catch up with them all as they arrived en masse, eager to tell me about their year at school, especially the eleven Senior One students who started secondary this year. I lived their highs and lows, their challenges as they battled bouts of malaria, their excitement as they shared their highlights of their year – our wedding, school visiting days and tours, listened to their dreams of future plans and helped guide them in their projects for the holidays – piggeries, passionfruit gardens, matooke plantations and poultry projects.

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As my visits ran through the days and into the nights, Haylee was busy with Nurse Jackie and the remaining KAASO students making crafts for our Christmas market back in Australia. Nurse Jackie, in between looking after sick children in the school sick bay, has now made over 400 placemats and I’m so incredibly proud of her. It’s been a huge project and one I hope we can continue as they are just gorgeous – an idea inspired initially when I wanted a Ugandan touch at our NZ wedding so commissioned the students to make 150 placemats which proved to be a huge hit. We continued last year, selling them at a Bermudian Christmas market and now it’s Wangi’s turn! The secondary students also made Christmas stars and mobiles and now all our bags are full to bursting with beautiful Ugandan crafts. Watch this space for the Suubi Sanyu craft division!

 

As the crafts took shape inside, so did the pathways outside, as Nath and his team of Kiwi Sponsorship boys pushed wheelbarrows of earth around the school, creating trenches, drains and pebbled paths to stop the chronic dust from overtaking, dust that turns to mud in the rainy season and makes moving around the school a challenge. After a solid week of 12-hour days of hard labour, the boys proudly laid the final paving stones outside Dominic and Rose’s house and the KAASO Pathways & Drainage project part one was completed – a huge achievement! Dominic laughed that no one had ever seen such a hard-working muzungu in the district – and Nath sure has the blisters to prove it. The boys were paid one soda a day but no one complained – it’s their way of appreciating the support they’re receiving in their education and doing their bit to help KAASO keep moving forward.

For seven weeks now, KAASO has not had to pump water once, the school now being sustained by the tanks from the Bermuda Water Project – four x 20,000 litre concrete tanks and a 10,000 litre plastic tank ensuring that no drops of precious rainwater are wasted. People from all around the community are coming to admire the system and Dominic can’t stop beaming.

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Our final night at KAASO, we had the most beautiful farewell party sitting out under the stars while the students sang and danced for us and the teachers gave moving tributes and expressed their immense gratitude for the work done over the past month. It was hard to stop the tears from falling listening to their heartfelt words and when Nurse Jackie lead the students in singing ‘Leaving on Jet Plane,’ a song I taught them in 2009, I gave up trying to stop the tears. But Dominic has an uncanny way of making me switch from tears to laughter in a matter of seconds and soon we were all up dancing, upbeat Congolese melodies ringing out in the starry night. The pathways complete, Nath’s final legacy was building a fire pit up outside Dominic and Rose’s house, and the party was soon transplanted to the fireside. Thus I found myself that final night sitting by the roaring flames grinning from ear to ear as the teachers and matrons danced, and I caught up with Brenda, my little friend from Primary One in 2009, now at secondary school, 15 years old and almost as tall as me. She laughed back at the days when she barely spoke English and I used to call when I was away from KAASO and Rose would put her on the phone to talk to me and all she could say was ‘yes’ – and now here we were talking about her future plans of becoming a nurse, the songs she loves to write and sing, and sharing her dreams of all she hopes to do in her life. Like a proud mother, I just shake my head in wonder and marvel at the journey I have taken.

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In his speech at our wedding, Nath thanked Dominic and Rose for all the love and kindness they have shown me, pointing out that I met the two of them and everyone at KAASO before I met him and it really brought home to me the profound influence that KAASO has had on my life. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t come to KAASO with Cherie and Kirsty back in 2009. I can’t even imagine it. KAASO has shaped me in so many ways and I am who I am today because of this beautiful village community. So even though my heart still feels heavy as I fly away from my Ugandan home, I can be nothing but grateful for having found KAASO – and being able to share it with those I love most.

Till next time…

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My big fat Ugandan wedding – and other stories…

 

My trips to Uganda are always incredibly busy but I think this one has to take the cake. Somehow I didn’t quite get my head around how manic it would be juggling my 56 sponsor visits, the official opening of the Bermuda Water Project, the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, starting up a placemat and crafts business, going through all the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund projects, celebrating our very own Ugandan wedding and hosting 10 muzungus (Swahili for white people – literally means ‘one who wanders aimlessly’ after the early missionaries in Africa!) in the volunteer house… Throw in a safari, the nursery students’ graduation, an accounting workshop, a day at the lakeshore for the teachers’ annual staff party and a visit to a local coffee producer, and there hasn’t been much time to breathe! But I can’t help but love every second.

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As I write, Nath is outside with a team of Kiwi Sponsorship boys building much-needed pathways through the school, stopping the students from skidding through pools of mud when the rainy season hits with force and preventing the waves of dust that billow through the dry season. Work is also underway on a netball field thanks to funds from St Paul in Australia – Nath’s old school where his mum works – as well as the St Paul Australia/St Paul Uganda garden. Other donations are going to construct a latrine and changing room for the teachers – for 18 years, the teachers have shared the children’s pit latrines and it’s about time they had a toilet of their own. These are just some of the many projects on KAASO’s priority list that are being tackled and, as always, the vision of the school continues to blow me away.

Our Ugandan wedding was only 10 days ago but I have to pinch myself to believe it actually happened. Of course I knew that it was going to be huge but it’s another thing to actually experience the full weight of the love of a school, a village and a community. The day started at 6:30am, in the dark, being told it was time for me to leave to get ready – had I bathed? I was still in bed but jumped out and tried to quickly prepare myself for what was about to be one of the biggest days of my life. Mama, Jas and Haylee came with me to the local Bridal Salon in Kyotera where absolute hilarity ensued as they tried to work out how to style my hair – no one had ever worked with Western hair before, never mind long blonde locks – most African women wear synthetic weaves. Haylee fortunately stepped in to help create the bun required to prop up my (compulsory) crown and veil. Being sewn into my enormous princess dress, having high heels strapped to my feet and jewels bedazzling my neck will forever be etched in my memory – not to mention the moment we all stepped out onto the main street of Kyotera which didn’t know what had it hit it – a giant muzungu meringue with a team of hot pink bridesmaids (I love that Haylee’s first time as a bridesmaid was in Uganda!) and two muzungu mothers in satin gomesi, the traditional Baganda dress. We certainly caused a stir! We drove through the streets of Kyotera to the home of a parent from KAASO who hosted us for a wedding breakfast of beans, rice, chapatti and spaghetti. An hour and a half late, the boys joined us, inverting the tradition of the bride being the one to keep the groom waiting… We had a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it photo shoot in the back streets of Kyotera before starting our police-led convoy through the town, Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ blaring as our 25 car convoy hooted and bounced its way through the pouring rain, creating a spectacle I don’t think will ever be forgotten in Kyotera.

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Arriving at KAASO, all 600 children along with hundreds of parents and people from the local community were standing in the rain waiting to welcome us, chanting and singing our arrival. We performed the traditional Baganda wedding ritual whereby Nathan has to offer a cock (a rooster!) to Nick, the muko – brother in law – at which point Nick must decide if Nathan’s cock is big enough to trade for his sister… Needless to say there were plenty of laughs! The day continued with speeches, traditional dancing, a song from Brenda which she had written for me, a beautiful tribute from Kim with the Primary Five students, an insane procession of gifts and no less than three outfit changes – from my huge Murial’s Wedding-style white dress to the traditional gomesi to my final ‘party dress’ made by an old student of KAASO who is now a fashion designer in Kampala. I never could have imagined when I first came here that one day I’d be back marrying the love of my life (again) with my entire family there to witness. Beau was a legend, capturing it all and I’m sure there will be a rather entertaining video to come… To top it all off, Ugandan TV was also there and last week, our wedding featured on the national news!

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We barely had time to recover from the wedding celebrations before it was time for the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, celebrating two of our nurses – Irene and Teddy – as well as Brian who has completed his secondary school. The day began, as always, with a meeting of the sponsor students who all began by introducing themselves and sharing their dreams of what they hope to become – young doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, accountants, plumbers and businessmen in the making. It always makes me so proud to listen to the students inspiring each other, encouraging their fellow students in reaching their dreams. The guardians’ meeting is always one of the highlights of my trip, while being one of the biggest heartbreaks. I struggle to get through my speech each time as I am floored by the humility, strength and gratitude of these guardians, many of whom are elderly jajjas, grandmothers. Having my family there to bear witness to it all was especially moving for me as I am so often overwhelmed by trying to take it all in alone. The graduation ceremony that followed was a time of festivity, laughter and dance as we celebrated our three students who have now completed their education – and thus ending their 6-year Kiwi Sponsorships. That now takes us up to a total of 13 graduated students, all of whom are now making their way in the world in various vocations around Uganda – nurses, vets, pharmacists, plumbers and lab technicians. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a child, you can find more information about it on our website at KAASO Kiwi Sponsorships or contact me directly – I have a list of 11 students who won’t make it to secondary school next year without help so any new sponsors are highly welcome!

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Time is spinning way too fast and while we have already been here a month, it has passed in a heartbeat. With less than a week to go, I wish I could slow down the clock. I love my Ugandan family with all my heart and I love even more that my three families are now joined. When people around the world ask what I do, I always smile and simply say, “KAASO.” It is the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine doing and everyday I feel grateful to have left my heart in this magical little corner of the world.

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The swinging pendulum of village life

Sitting at my little desk, clean and fresh after my evening bucket bathe, listening to the children out the window singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – a song that has never gotten old since my first trip in 2009. Now each generation teaches the new one the songs we sang and I’m forever smiling as I listen to the songs of my childhood wafting through the school.

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The past ten days have flown by in a rush of excitement, colour, laughter and whirling dust and I already feel myself wishing time could slow down. But as surely as the rains continue to fall, the days march on.

We arrived last Monday to an exceptionally overwhelming welcome – and that’s saying something for Uganda. Dominic and Rose had driven up to Kampala to meet us and drove us down to the village. I had warned Nath of the reception that was likely to be waiting for us at school, but I was totally unprepared to find that the welcome extended to the main road, some 10km from KAASO itself. Teacher Sarah and a busload of children were at the turn off from the main road onto the dirt road singing and dancing, beating drums and shaking shakers. Through the darkness, they launched themselves at us in welcome and then proceeded to escort us thorough the villages back to KAASO, the children hanging out the windows singing and cheering as we drove, the teachers jumping out in every village to do a celebration dance and announce our arrival as we passed. Pulling into the school gates, the entire school was waiting to meet us, leading us down to the main hall where the festivities continued with speeches, traditional dances and musical performances. As if they had read the email I wrote on the eve of our arrival, they all said time and time again that we should feel at home – for we had, in fact, come home. They told Nath that this was my home so it was now also his and he should “feel free”. It certainly was a night to remember.

In true Ugandan fashion, our world quickly plummeted from a great high to a terrible low. On the way down from Kampala, we had stopped into a clinic to visit the father of Juliet, one of our beautiful sponsored students, who had collapsed the previous day and was on oxygen, struggling to breathe. Juliet’s mother and brothers were at his bedside while Juliet, was away at her nursing school. We left the clinic around 7pm on Monday evening. Nine hours later, Juliet’s father was dead. We all went to the burial where there were close to five hundred people all mourning the loss of this great man. Many of the students from the Kiwi Sponsorships were there in support of Juliet and it was bittersweet to finally introduce Nath to Henry and so many others he had heard about for years, while trying to also be there a heartbroken Juliet. Antonio, Juliet’s father, while unable to pay school fees for his children, had instead supported the school in a self-taught engineering capacity, pumping water from the pond and running the school’s maize mill. He will be sadly missed.

The pendulum swung the next day when we all headed into Kyotera, to the grounds of the newly formed Kyotera District, a breakaway from Rakai District, where we were to meet not one, but two African presidents. Uganda’s President Museveni was coming to Kyotera with President Magufuli of Tanzania in celebration of a new oil pipeline due to run the length of Uganda and down into Tanzania. While the idea of ripping up the land in Uganda to run an oil pipeline to Tanzania somewhat terrifies me, the chance to watch KAASO perform before two African leaders was too much of a draw card to keep me away. We arrived diligently at 9am for the function, only to wait another 8 hours before the presidents pulled in on their armed convoy. During that time, we witnessed several school performances, endured ear-drum bursting “background” music and watched in wonder as a road was built through the mud from that morning’s rains to ensure the presidents’ cars didn’t get stuck in the bog. Finally, at 5pm, police cars came screaming across the newly-laid gravel road and behind them, the two presidents stood waving out of their open topped armed 4WDs and took their seats on their red-carpeted floor under their decorated tent. It definitely was a sight to be seen. In spite of my skepticism at how this new pipeline was possibly going to benefit the local people, I couldn’t help but get swept away watching the KAASO students perform for the presidents. They were the only school to do so and the thousand-plus crowd cheered them on, seriously impressed. After performing, the children got to meet the presidents and both Rose and I had tears streaming down our faces like proud mothers as we watched our students shake hands with the presidents. To think that this school began 18 years ago in a grass-thatched hut to help young orphans get the chance of an education and now they were the only school chosen in the whole district to perform before their nation’s 31-year leader. How far they have come.

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The water project is now complete and it’s just amazing to watch as the daily rains come pounding down and the water flows satisfyingly from the roof into the gutters and is then channeled down into the waiting tanks. Since the project was completed, KAASO has not had to pump water once from the pond, saving over 300,000 Ugandan shillings (close to USD$100) in less than three weeks. I’m so grateful to all those who played their part in making this happen. I’ll be sending more photos and a full report later!

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Image 16-11-17 at 9.23 AM (1)My sponsor visits have started I have been catching up with students at KAASO and across the country, hearing their stories and news from this past year. My heart was full to bursting as I saw Caroline off on her way to nursing school, one of my original Kiwi Sponsorships students who failed her Senior Five year in the days before we had students branch off to vocational courses after Senior Four. Caroline pulled herself together and not only went on to pass her Senior Six final exams but also got accepted into nursing school. She’s on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor and I couldn’t be prouder. Today we drove inland along bumpy dusty roads to visit both Teddy and Irene, two of our nurses who will be graduating next Sunday, the completion of four years of secondary studies and two-and-a-half year nursing certificates. They are now making their own way in the world and it’s such a joy to watch these students take their futures into their own hands.

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Nath and I sat with Rose and Teacher Gerald yesterday to talk through the progress of the Suubi Sanyu fund and I was absolutely blown away. Over 15 loans have been taken so far and almost all of them paid off on time. There have been loans to grow maize, to hire a sound system for a Christmas party, to start up a chapatti business, to create a piggery, to plant a passion fruit garden, even to buy a fridge for the new KAASO canteen. For all those who bought the beautiful African-fabric placemats last year, I’m happy to announce that Nurse Jackie has already made close to 200 place mats, which I’ll be bringing home to sell. Seeing the determination in these students’ eyes is so immensely satisfying and I can’t wait to see the fund continue to grow and inspire these budding entrepreneurs.

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Every day I’m here, I feel a sense of urgency to do more, to see more, to help more and to learn more. Nath and I have spent countless hours discussing the school’s ever-growing vision and priority list and the scope is huge. But it’s so exciting to be part of something where a little goes such a long way and where everything is so greatly appreciated. It’s humbling to play a small role in that, and endlessly satisfying to watch the school go from strength to strength.

We have shared some wonderful evenings up KAASO hill with Kim and are looking forward to catching up with John and Mirriam in Kampala this weekend. I love my huge Ugandan family and am so incredibly excited to share it with my Kiwi and Aussie families. Next time I write, the volunteer house will be full to bursting with 10 muzungus…. I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope with all the love and excitement of next Friday’s wedding without bursting but I will do my “level best”.

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As Close to Coming Home

On a plane bound for Uganda, I sit reflecting on the journey that got me to this point.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I left Uganda for the first time. I had just spent six months in the village of Kabira living at a school called KAASO and, while I knew that something unbelievably special had happened, I didn’t realise that the entire course of my life had forever changed. I had no idea that eight years later I’d be headed back to Uganda for my eight visit – with my husband at my side. I could never have imagined that the village would be planning a Ugandan wedding for us, that both of our families would be flying from all corners of the globe to be there for that most humbling, most incredible day. And yet, here I am. Here we are.

Eight years ago, I left KAASO with a promise to sponsor a boy called Henry. A few other wonderful souls had also agreed to sponsor children that, without support, would not have made it past primary school and onto secondary school. I was filled with hope and optimism that we could make a difference in the lives of these few children. Within a couple of months of my return from Uganda that first time, all seven children I hoped to find sponsors for were supported. I didn’t realise that this was to be the start of the Kiwi Sponsorships, a programme that today helps 55 children – now young adults – to have the chance of an education. Nine of those students have since graduated and later this month we will celebrate the graduations of three more. We are making progress and, slowly but surely, changing lives.

Eight years ago, there was no such thing as the Suubi Sanyu Fund. I had sat through countless meetings of the Women’s Empowerment Group – now the KAASO Empowerment Group – which enables members to access the microloan fund that has so helped the community that surrounds KAASO. I had witnessed the phenomenal impact this fund was having on the lives of adults in the area. And as I watched the children from the Kiwi Sponsorships become teenagers and then grow taller than me, I realised that they too needed access to capital, a chance to get ahead. Together with Nath, we created a fund that now enables KAASO students and graduates to get loans that would have previously been unavailable to them. It’s a source of great pride to see these young entrepreneurs take their futures into their own hands and I can’t wait to tour the various projects this fund has enabled – and to show Nath what the vision we dreamed up together has helped to create.

Eight years ago, I decided to write a book. Across the dust-strewn pages of dozens of notebooks, I scrawled stories, thoughts, observations and countless words of wisdom spoken by Dominic, Rose and the other inspiring people I met in the village, ideas I hoped to one day share with a wider audience. Multiple drafts, rewrites, days, months and years later, my manuscript is now finished and I hope with all my heart I will soon find the right agent and then publisher who shares my passion for this story so I can bring it to the world.

Eight years ago, I didn’t know the boy sitting next to me. It would be another two and a half years after leaving the village before he walked onto the rooftop of a Newport hotel in Rhode Island and changed my life. It still feels surreal that now, one year and eight months after daddy-o rowed me ashore in the Bay of Islands to marry the boy of my dreams, I am about to repeat that experience – minus the boat, the beach, the ukulele orchestra and the naked people (yes, we got married somewhat unintentionally on a nudist beach…!). While our ‘real’ wedding has already taken place – as Nath keeps reminding me – the wedding that is about to take place is just as special to me. Not many people are fortunate enough to have the incredible honour of having a wedding thrown for them – not to mention one in a village a world and a half from home. We haven’t even touched down on African soil and yet I already feel it in my bones, in my heart, this overwhelming sense of anticipation and humbling gratitude, which creates tears of excitement that keep threatening to spill from my eyes.

Eight years ago I left Uganda at the end of my first African journey. Since then, I have lived the life of a continent-hopping nomad, calling many places home along the way. It’s an adventure for sure, but sometimes it’s hard to define ‘home’ when your horizons are forever changing. But one thing is for sure – returning to my Ugandan family with my husband at my side, soon to be joined by my Kiwi and Aussie families, is as close to coming home as it gets. It seems that now, more than ever, the words I read at our wedding in New Zealand last year ring true:

“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.”

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Inspired by Bermuda, underway in Uganda – KAASO’s new water harvesting system

I often find myself trying to explain why a Kiwi girl married to an Aussie living in Bermuda thinks there are parallels between the international sailing community and a rural village community in Uganda. It all seems a bit improbable. … Continue reading

Back in the world again

And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s September. All my best intentions and New Year’s resolutions to keep in touch more, to write more, to share more stories seem to have gone by the wayside. But yesterday, while cruising with Nath through Ely’s Harbour, brainstorming book proposals and future plans, he reminded me that it’s never too late to get back in touch with the world. So here I am.

My last post, A Year of Milestones, summed up 2016 and all that it was. 2017 has been similarly epic, but also interspersed with the moments of calm and reflection that come from (finally) having your own space in the world, a place to rest your travelling shoes. From January until July, with the exception of a brief Easter trip to Newport, RI, we went almost half a year without getting on a plane, a record for us given the past four years of frenetic travel. It was such bliss to have a home of our own, a fixed, immovable place on a far-flung island, one that has come to mean the world to us. The people we have met, the opportunities we have had and that breath-catching view that never ceases to fill me with joy – Bermuda, we will miss you.

The America’s Cup came and went like a hurricane. After over three years of trying to convince people that being married to Nath did not compromise my ability to work on the Cup, I finally got a job. I spent the event period running the Longtail Lounge, a corporate hospitality lounge filled with Bermudians and international guests who came to fill themselves with Moët and gasp at the flying rocket ships that sailed before them. I put together a team of fabulous girls, friends old and new, and together with Mark and Ben, the Longtail Legends rocked the Cup village.

Being part of Artemis Racing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so immensely proud of Nath and the entire team for what they managed to achieve – from where they started to where they ended up was a phenomenal leap. To me, most importantly, was also how they did it – the spirit, the sense of family, the determination and the refusal to give up right to the very end was extraordinary. “We are Artemis,” is a cry that will echo in my ears for many, many years to come.

Nath and I left Bermuda two weeks after the Cup ended for a whirlwind month around Europe – Nath competing in the moths, flying at a thousand miles around Lake Garda, a huge contrast to cruising with my parents along the south of France on their new boat, Sojourn II, Nath learning how to sail slowly. A brief stopover in England, sharing stories with friends and family before heading on to Sweden to celebrate the wedding of Nath’s teammate and his gorgeous bride on the Stockholm archipelago before returning to our Bermudian home for the last time.

So now is a time of reflection, of gathering our thoughts, of hypothesising about what the future might hold – something entirely out of our hands now – and, inevitably, packing up our home. To go where? That is still uncertain. What is absolutely certain, however, is that we are going to Uganda – together – in November. After five years of hearing stories about the village that stole my heart, it’s time for “Mr. Nathan” to meet his Ugandan family. Oh, and we thought we’d just throw a big, fat Ugandan wedding in there too. A date has been set – 24th November – the planning committee is underway, and family and friends are starting to book flights from around the world. Dominic and Rose have timed the date so that not only can the 638 KAASO students and 46 staff members attend, but also the majority of the 53 sponsor students, their families and those from the surrounding community. As the preparations get underway, Nath just watches me with a patient, albeit slightly terrified, smile, knowing how much this means to me but struggling to comprehend just how huge it is going to be. Even I have no real handle on how the day will unfold. When I ask Rose what exactly is going to happen at this wedding of ours, she simply laughs and asks, “But Madam Emma, you want to spoil the surprise??” No, no I don’t.

A year of milestones

It seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was still waking to the roosters at KAASO, and now I’m sitting on a glorious 22 degree winters day at Bermuda airport about to trade sunshine and palm trees for the snow and bright lights of New York City. The world and all its contrasts.

As sad as it was to leave my KAASO family, it has been amazing being reunited with my Bermuda family and sharing stories from the six weeks I spent in Uganda. The love, support, compassion and generosity has been overwhelming and I feel so grateful to be surrounded by such a loving community of people. The response I’ve had to the children’s crafts has been incredible and the Suubi Sanyu micro loan fund is so much better for it. Thank you so much to all those who have supported this enterprise – you are wonderful!

As the year comes to a close, I look back and think of how many milestones 2016 has held. Daddy-o rowed me down the aisle to marry the love of my life, thanks to Jennie’s guidance and unfailing belief I finished writing my book (yet to be published but that’s next year’s challenge!), I watched my love win a silver medal in Rio, I spent a year ‘living’ at the same address, together with Beau and Rebecca I delivered a school bus to KAASO, then proudly supported over 50 sponsored students and cheered on three Kiwi Sponsorships students on graduation day at KAASO. It sure has been a year to remember!

As I prepare to sign off for the holidays and enjoy some long-awaited R&R with Nath, I want to take a moment to thank you all for sharing this journey with me. For supporting me from near and far, for sponsoring piggeries and giving students the chance of an education, for donating to school buses, for listening to my stories time and time again, for designing countless logos (Claire!!), for encouraging me to keep going when times get hard and for making me feel endlessly loved and valued. I am so much better for having all of you – and everyone in my Ugandan village home – in my life.

I leave you with this gorgeous little KAASO Christmas video – thanks to Beau for putting it together. On behalf of the whole KAASO family, we wish you a very, very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

https://youtu.be/FodxJg1lPNU

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The children of KAASO with their new school bus

“We can’t do everything, but we can do something”

Greetings to you all,

Six weeks have flown by in a heartbeat. Six full, intense, emotional, incredible and impactful weeks and now I find myself getting ready for the final leg of this long journey back to my island home. Saying goodbye is never easy but it is not ‘weraba’ – goodbye – it’s ‘tulaba gane’ – see you later.

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Saying goodbye to Dominic, Rose and Teacher Sarah at KAASO

Last weekend will forever be imprinted on my mind – a reunion, a meeting, a graduation, and a celebration of how far we have come since 2009. On Saturday, the school gates were in constant motion as a steady stream of sponsored students flowed in. Last year, at our inaugural Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, I provided the feast. This year, after talking to Rose, I worked out that guardians were not only capable of contributing something from their farms and gardens towards the meal, they also wanted to. So children arrived with bunches of matooke strapped to the back of bicycles, chickens tucked under their arms, baskets of avocadoes and pineapples balanced on their heads – their contributions towards the graduation lunch.

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Preparing matooke for the graduation lunch

That evening we had the annual Kiwi Sponsorships Committee meeting where Rose and I addressed over 30 gathered sponsor students and I couldn’t help catching my breath as I looked around the room, linking in my mind each child with their sponsor, thinking of the difference we were all making together in these eager young students’ lives. One very important part of the Kiwi Sponsorships is the mentorship aspect – not just from Rose, Dominic and me but also from within the group of sponsored students who can look up to their peers. So, after Rose and I had spoken, each of the students got up to voice their thanks and to share with the others their experiences. It really was a joy to hear. Anthony rejoiced that his dreams had come true now that he was studying journalism. Brian – usually so very shy – stood up to state that “in life, everyone has luck but for me my luck is KAASO as they are the ones to have helped me to succeed.” Violah, one of the students going into Senior Four advised the younger students: “You should have drams. If you don’t know where you are going, every road will lead you another way.” Emma, a young new sponsored boy (yup, Emma’s a boys name in Uganda), gratefully thanked KAASO for letting him finish his schooling even though his father could not pay fees and he would normally have had to drop out.

 

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Telling Emma he would be sponsored by ‘Madam Rebecca’

The students’ words moved me greatly, but I could never have prepared myself for the emotional overload of the parents and guardians’ meeting the following morning, the day of the graduation. Many of the sponsored students are looked after by elderly jajjas – grandparents – their creased faces deeply weathered by years of sustenance farming and enduring unfathomable tragedies as they watched their own children fall victim to HIV/AIDS, motor accidents and other mysterious illnesses usually diagnosed simply as ‘headache’.

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The parents and guardians’ meeting

Dominic gave an opening address then suggested each guardian stand up and introduce themselves and let everyone know which child was theirs. A seemingly simple task. Jajja Bruno (parents and grandparents in Uganda are commonly referred to by their children’s names so my own mama would be Mama Emma) stood up and told the story of first bringing Bruno to KAASO, never imagining he would be able to get such a good education after her daughter, Bruno’s mother, abandoned him as an 8-month old baby. Bruno has only seen his mother once since then (when she came back to dump his little sister Maria in a swamp) and he has never met his father. Then there was Jajja Violah, who broke down in sobs telling the story of how her beloved son, Steven, had died so tragically of liver disease and how she had feared that would be the end of his four children’s schooling but KAASO had taken them in and now the two eldest were being supported by the Kiwi Sponsorships. Mama Phionah wept tears of joy at the relief that her daughter was being sponsored, saying that after her husband’s death she had thought it would also be the end of her children’s education as she would be unable to pay school fees as a solo sustenance farmer. Jajja Marvin mourned the loss of her son and his wife, whose lives were both cut tragically short by HIV/AIDS, emotionally expressing her incredible gratitude for Marvin’s education but tearfully concluding that his HIV positive brother, Arthur, was seriously ill. Alice, Charles’ aunt, spoke on behalf of her family, sharing their relief that Charles would receive the education he deserved after his father, Alice’s brother died so suddenly leaving Charles in the hands of his aunt and elderly Rwandan jajja who had walked to Uganda decades earlier with her herd of cattle to escape the genocide. These were just a few of the over 30 stories that were shared that morning. Emotions were running so high that half way through the room, Dominic – ever the teacher – got us all to stand up and sing a gospel song to help release some of the emotion that was threatening to overtake us all. The stories continued and I openly wept as jajjas knelt at my feet, launched themselves at me in hugs, all the while Rose faithfully translating each and every word for me. I am constantly floored by her ability to hear such stories with compassion and love but to hold it together and be strong for those that need her unbreakable strength. “We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” she told me back in 2009 when I was first faced with a list of 18 students needing sponsorships and the realization that I would not be able to find sponsors for each and every one. She simply reminded me to focus on those I could help. She has helped keep me together through situations that I thought might break me and I’m forever grateful to her for that. So when it came my turn to speak, to attempt to put into words my enormous gratitude to Rose for all she has done and continues to do for these students, the entire community – and for me – I broke down. Which, so beautifully, resulted in me being engulfed by a cascade of warm arms as jajjas came to hold me as my tears fell. Rose then took me in her own arms, thanked me for my words and told me how much she loved me. I needed a thousand of Dominic’s gospel songs to shake off the emotion of that one!

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Dominic and Rose, keeping things running

Lunch provided a welcome break and I made my way around Freedom Square, beaming, as groups of children excitedly tucked into their mountains of matooke, potatoes, beans, pumpkin, chicken and, their favourite food – rice. “Madam Emma, you come and we share,” rang out across the school, the Ugandan tradition of sharing all you have never ceasing to humble me further. “Oh no, please! I have my own meal but thank you so, so much,” I would reply and watch their disapproving frowns that I wouldn’t come and take some of the best meal they would have all year.

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Lunch time

The graduation ceremony itself was beautiful. I couldn’t stop grinning as I watched our graduates sitting excitedly waiting for their moment to shine. As well as the three Kiwi Sponsorships graduates, we were also celebrating Phionah, Dominic and Rose’s eldest daughter who had completed her last year of high school, along with Nurse Shiba, who has been sponsored through her Diploma in Clinical Medicine by Share Uganda, a Northern Irish charity that has done so much for KAASO from a medical standpoint over the years.

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Phionah receiving her graduation sash

The graduation began with Justine, one of the very first Kiwi Sponsorships students that I took on at the end of 2009 thanks to the support of Di and Ross Warring, friends of my dear friends Don and Gendy. Justine has completed her Certificate in Nursing which enables her to now work in clinics and hospitals around Uganda. Her plan is to work for a few years to save money and then eventually go back to school to upgrade her certificate to a diploma. I can’t wait for that second wave of graduations!

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With Justine and her aunt

Next was Damian, who I also first met in 2009 when he was in Primary Six. I have always had a soft spot for Damian, who has the world’s widest smile and a heart of gold. It was Damian who first gave me the idea for the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund when he came to me requesting support for the tomato garden he wanted to grow on his grandmother’s land. The project had its ups and downs and wasn’t ultimately as profitable as he’d hoped but that just made him even more determined than ever. I went to visit Damian at his vocational plumbing school this year and the teachers couldn’t stop singing his praises – his attitude, his academics, his approach to his studies were all exemplary. I couldn’t have been prouder. Huge thanks to Sarah and Matt Mackenzie for all the love and support you’ve shown Damian over the years!

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Dominic congratulating Damian

Finally, we celebrated Caroline. Matt Lansdown took on Caroline at the end of 2009 and while Caroline has not had an easy road, ultimately her story was the one that made me proudest on graduation day. Caroline’s dream has always been to become a nurse but this was before I knew what I know now about the importance of branching off for vocational courses after Senior Four so I encouraged her to continue to Senior Five. Unfortunately, at the end of 2014, I was devastated to learn that Caroline had failed Senior Five. I’d never experienced that before and didn’t know what to do. How could I ask Matt to pay for her to repeat her year? That wasn’t part of the deal. I felt sick. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I had Rose, my rock, my navigator. She called a meeting with Caroline and her incredible mother and together we agreed, at Caroline’s insistence that she would repeat Senior Five – and pass this time. Matt very kindly agreed to pay half her fees and Caroline put her head down and worked harder than she’s ever worked for the last two years and passed both Senior Five and Six. To say I was proud to shake her hand on graduation day was an understatement.

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With Caroline after her graduation

Caroline’s graduation in itself would have already been huge enough but the story gets better. Inspired by the help that Caroline had been given by perfect strangers, Mama Caroline decided to start her own school, a mini version of KAASO in her own home village to help those who would be unable to get an education otherwise. “You came all this way not knowing any of us and helped us – strangers to you! So I thought, ‘why should I not do the same?’ And so I created this small school. Things are very basic but we are trying. I think that’s good enough, not so?” The ripples are flowing and it never ceases to amaze me the wave of support I’ve been riding the past seven years. I truly couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling way to spend my days.

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Caroline and her mother

After Damian’s tomato garden lit the spark for creating a student microloan fund in 2013, I came back and spent hours discussing the idea with Nath and together we decided to launch the Suubi Sanyu fund in 2014, a fund from which students can draw loans to help get their dreams off the ground – or in the ground as the case may be! Last year saw the ‘soft launch’ of the project with three students starting with brick making, nursery beds and cabbage gardens. The brick project unfortunately was a big struggle with the rains coming with a vengeance the day after the bricks had been fired, revealing that the soil the boys had used had too much sand in it. The whole lot was lost. It was a big blow for the students – and the fund – but fortunately, thanks to the generosity of Donna White, Nath’s Australian Sailing physio, who gave her 18-year old son a donation to the Suubi Sanyu fund for Christmas that year, the fund – and the students – bounced back. Currently, the Suubi Sanyu fund is financing piggery projects, passionfruit gardens, jewellery making projects, a roadside chapatti business as well as beautiful place mats and Christmas decorations the children have been busily making over the past six weeks. I couldn’t be prouder of what these children are achieving and I’d also like to add a huge thanks to Claire for designing our amazing logo!

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In Masaka buying material for the Suubi Sanyu placemats and star Christmas decorations 

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Thomas proudly showing off his star

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Arthur helping Maria with the ironing of the placemats

 

There is still much to do and the coming months will involve hours of follow ups from my trip, but for now it’s time to get back to my ever-patient husband without whom none of this would be possible. Nath, thank you so much for all your support, for letting me fly, for being there every step of the way to bounce ideas off, to pour my heart out to, for wiping away my tears of heartbreak and sharing in my tears of joy, for reminding me of the way forward when I get lost and for being the rock upon which I stand. My load is definitely lighter thanks to you. I cannot wait for next year when Nath and I will go to KAASO together and he will finally get to meet all these characters in the stories he’s been hearing about for so long. The school, the village, the community are planning a big, fat Ugandan wedding for us and it’s going to be epic! Charles’ jajja has donated one of the bulls she walked to Uganda with from Rwanda, Jajja Violah has donated the ‘sacred cock’ (in the Baganda culture, the groom must give a rooster to his brother in law – Nicko, better free your calendar!) and Mama Caroline has offered to cover the costs of the traditional Ugandan gomesi wedding dress being made for me. It’s definitely going to be a day for the memory bank!

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With all the parents and guardians after the graduation ceremony

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With the Kiwi Sponsorships students of 2016

A final thank you to you all for the messages of love, support and encouragement. I couldn’t do any of this without my amazing cast of supporters and I only wish you could each experience just a moment of the gratitude that I am floored by each time I go back to Uganda. There’s certainly enough to carry me around the world and back.

 

A community growing stronger

Greetings from the village where the rains are thundering gloriously and the banana palms are lapping up the drops,

So much has happened since I last wrote – it seems a lifetime can happen in just two weeks here. We celebrated the nursery students’ graduation and end of the school year at KAASO, as the students packed their metal suitcases and rolled their mattress in preparation for their departure.

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Emirinah graduating from nursery to Primary One

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Students heading home for the holidays

It is a time of rocketing highs and lows as some children are reunited with their parents while others stand tearfully waiting for those who never come. By the end of the day, over 100 of our 638 students still remained at school, glumly kicking around trying to work out why no one came for them.

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A very happy little girl being picked up by her father

That number has slowly dwindled and now there are only around 20 for whom KAASO will remain their home for the holidays. The school bus transported a bunch of Tanzanian students back to the border and yesterday the bus departed on its first official charter – rented by a group of teachers going to a function in Eastern Uganda. It’s being put to good use!

Around this time last year, I sent an email requesting support for community piggeries. In addition to the Kiwi Sponsorships programme I created to help students finishing KAASO get through secondary school, I also witnessed the need for assistance for families with children still studying at KAASO, those struggling to pay school fees. So, following up on the great work started by a Spanish volunteer, Lara Briz, I launched an appeal for a community piggery initiative. The response was staggering and we got sixteen piggeries – which meant that sixteen families would receive assistance and a chance to help themselves to pay their children’s fees.

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A family supported by the piggery project initiative

Yesterday, Rose , Teacher Gerald (who has been helping to oversee all the piggery projects) and I completed the last four visits. Fifteen piggeries visited (the last one was apparently “too far” – considering one of yesterday’s visits was almost a two hour drive away, I’d hate to see what “too far” really meant), fifteen families helped and dozens of pigs growing stronger each day. It was astounding to see what a couple of rusted iron sheets, a few logs nailed together over a concrete slab and two grunting pigs can do for a family here.

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The pride in each family we visited was evident as they showed us their project, and the way it was integrated into their gardens, using the manure to help fertilise their banana and coffee plantations. Parents spoke of teaching their children about rearing pigs and excitedly outlined their plans for expansion. Most of the pigs are now 5 months old and at 9 months will be able to start “producing” piglets which can then be sold to help parents pay their children’s school fees. Each of the recipients of each piggery farm were carefully chosen by Rose based on those she believed would best be able to make the project work, taking into consideration those who were capable of doing the work (many families here are headed by elderly jajjas – grandparents – whose children have either died or abandoned their young children, a frighteningly popular trend that never ceases to astound me).

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A family supported by a piggery project

The chosen families were then brought together for a community meeting here at KAASO where the project was explained to them and they all agreed that the main focus would be to use the profits to pay school fees with the profits as soon as it was feasible. A local vet explained how best to care for their pigs and provided each project with the necessary vaccinations and deworming pills. The funds supplied by each donor covered not only the construction of the pig stys and purchase of a male and female pig for each project, but also this medical treatment, feeds for the first nine months and the supervision of Teacher Gerald who travels on the back of a motorbike to each project once a month to offer guidance and support. It’s incredible what $200 can achieve. A huge thanks to all those who got behind this project – individual stories and photos from each project to come!

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Rose and Teacher Gerald – the piggery team!

Last weekend, I drove to Kampala with Beth, Rose and a carload of tiny children heading home for the holidays. The journey was, as always, rather eventful with the 4 hour trip taking over 10 hours thanks to another run-out-of-petrol incident (the fuel gage on Dominic’s car doesn’t work when you’re on dirt roads which is a challenge when you live a 20 minute drive down a long dirt road…) and the gear shaft blowing up and needing to be replaced. Fortunately for us, in true Ugandan fashion, having just driven for an hour over atrocious dirt tracks after a piggery visit, we conveniently broke down in a roadside trading centre right in front of a local mechanic who happened to be hanging on the side of the road. By the time we finally pulled into Kampala at 9pm, having handed over our little passengers and Rose to Rose’s brother, Beth and I were exhausted and I was more than a little frazzled – Kampala driving at night feels like driving through Space Mountain at Disneyland, with full-beam lights, trucks, motorbikes, people and fully-loaded bicycles coming at you from all angles. Needless to say, arriving to a home-cooked dinner and a bottle of red wine at John and Mirriam’s house was absolute bliss. I love my Ugandan home-away-from-home and that I can walk into a house in Kampala and have little Laria come flying at me, welcoming home her Auntie Em. Each year she gets a little taller, a little wiser and a little more irresistible.

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Rose, Teacher Sarah, Beth and Dominic say farewell

Our time in Kampala was filled to the brim, visiting schools, sponsored students, craft markets (getting ideas with Rose about new projects for the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund – full story to come next email!) and then saying goodbye to Beth. It was amazing to have her here and to share this KAASO world with a good friend. Thanks Beth for not just talking about it but for actually coming and for doing so with all your heart and soul. KAASO is forever grateful – as I am.

Each of my annual visits to Uganda seems to get busier and busier as I take on more and more and the support grows. Since arriving here, I have had some wonderful new sponsors come on board, giving seven students the chance to begin secondary school next year, in addition to the 34 students already sponsored. Along with our 6 – soon to be 9 – graduates, it certainly keeps us all busy here! I never could have imagined when I first came here that seven years later we’d have grown so much and have come so far. Thank you all for sharing this journey and being a part of the KAASO family from all your corners of the world. I am incredibly proud to know that so many people near and far now know the KAASO name and are helping to spread the web of support, pushing the school forward, giving children hope for the future and helping a community grow stronger.

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A hand up

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Children at KAASO eating jackfruit

At long last the rains have come, bring relief from the endless drought that has plagued the area. The land has been so parched, creating huge issues as crops dry up and food supplies become scarce. Thankfully, two nights ago, the heavens opened and everyone is rushing to the gardens – and out into the night as the rains bring flying ants which are hugely popular as fried snacks in Uganda. Beth and I have politely declined the handfuls of crunchy ants offered our way…

My trips back to Uganda are always shaped by the sponsor visits I plan out with Rose and the hilarious off-road adventures that follow as we bump our way around the district visiting the sponsored students in their villages, at their schools, universities and vocational courses. It has been incredible catching up with all the students and seeing their progress made over the past year since my last visit and what has blown me away the most has been visiting the students in their vocational courses – those who are able to follow through on their dreams thanks to the support of their sponsorships and mentorship from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme.

Last week, Rose and I drove out to Villa Maria Hospital, about 15 km north of Masaka where Juliet and Winnie, two sponsored students are in their first year of their two-and-a-half year nursing course. We found Juliet in the wards and she was so thrilled to find us there, proudly showing us around the hospital. Winnie was out in the fields doing community outreach through the hospital’s free child vaccine and adult HIV-testing programme so we sat under a tree with Juliet to catch up on her year. Just as we were finishing up, an ambulance pulled up and out jumped Winnie, back from the villages and she threw her arms around us in delight and we all had an amazing catch up.

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Winnie and Juliet

From there, we drove to another hospital where another sponsored student, Charles, is training to be a lab technician. We met with the head teacher who sang Charles’ praises, saying how well he was doing in his course and how proud he was of Charles, who couldn’t stop grinning.

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Charles and his head teacher

Our final stop was to Anthony, another of Charles’ sponsored classmates from KAASO who has almost completed his certificate in Journalism studies and is soon to start his diploma. I have never seen a student so excited to be studying, or so grateful to have the opportunity to do something that he would have had no chance to do without external support. Anthony’s dream for as long as he can remember is to become a broadcaster and, after my chats to his lecturer, it seems that Anthony is well on his way to fulfilling that dream. It was such a satisfying day for both me and Rose in that it really demonstrated that the programme is working. While we once sent students through to the end of secondary school, they now branch off after their fourth year of secondary to do vocational courses – meaning that by the end of their sponsorship, they have a qualification which enables them to get a job, to start earning money and to begin the road towards upgrading their studies further down the track. It’s very much a case of helping them to help themselves – “teach a man to fish,” Dominic keeps repeating with a grin.

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With Anthony and his broadcasting lecturer

If that wasn’t already satisfying enough, I had the pleasure of also visiting a bunch of our sponsored students in Mbarara – now graduated from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme and now walking on their own two feet. Both Henry and David are studying at universities, paying their fees through a combination of agricultural and entrepreneurial projects and family support – their families have all pulled together what they can to reward the efforts of the boys’ studies over the years and as a way to acknowledge the incredible support they have received from their sponsors over the past six years. Henry told us animatedly about his new hibiscus juice business which he has launched as a way to help support himself through university. It’s been a great success so far, with his juice selling out daily. Here’s to scaling up! I really couldn’t be prouder of what these students are doing.

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Mbarara sponsor student visit

It’s been wonderful having Beth share in the beautiful world of KAASO. Together we have travelled across the district visiting piggeries and sponsored students and Beth has quickly been adopted as the computer teacher at KAASO, educating teachers on how to use computers and taking on the mammoth task of helping Teacher Sarah input all the student fees data into Excel – a huge modernizing step from the hand-ruled notebook she has been using in the past.

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Beth and Rose en route to visit a community piggery project

It’s time to get back to the village – via the home of Brenda, a girl I first met in my P1 class in 2009 who has now just graduated from her final year of KAASO and will next year be joining secondary school. It never ceases to amaze me how much these children have grown up and how far they have come. I can’t wait to see where the next ten years will take us…

If anyone is interested in sponsoring a child, you can read more in the Kiwi Sponsorships section of this blog.

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With Henry outside his university hostel