Pigs, hope and happiness

It’s my last morning in Uganda, the birds are chirping, the rain has washed everything clean and my bags are exploding with handmade gifts of thanks from small children and elderly grandmothers in the village. This month has flown by all too quickly but the time has come to head home.

Since I last wrote, it seems an entire lifetime has taken place in the course of a week. One of the major things I’ve come to learn about the Kiwi Sponsorships and my time at KAASO is that the actual sponsorship side of things is just a small aspect. It’s really more a mentorship programme. Rose and I have sat for hour upon hour with each of the 30 secondary students to discuss their futures and see how we can help shape them. The most lengthy conversations have been with the students finishing their sponsorships as well as those finishing Senior Four who are now going to head for vocational courses to help them on their way into the world. At our Sponsorship Committee meeting the other week, Dominic gave an incredible speech about ‘the road to Masaka.’ Masaka is our nearest large town and, if you drive there directly from the village, it’s around a 45 minute trip. However, Dominic explained, many of us are unable to take the direct road to Masaka – his own journey was full of twists and turns as he struggled to put himself through school, constantly kicked out due to his inability to pay fees. Dominic described the journey metaphorically: instead of coming out of KAASO and turning right, you can also turn left and travel the dirt road to the lakeshore where you can then board a boat, cross to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, traverse the islands, take a ferry to the mainland and then a bus to Masaka. It’s a longer, more challenging route but the destination is the same. Many of our sponsor students, unable to simply finish school and go onto university as their sponsorships will have ended, are going to need to take the long road to Masaka. They will need to do vocational courses then work their way through life to save up for diplomas and degrees themselves but I know that with Dominic and Rose’s constant support and guidance, they will make it. Dominic finally graduated with his teaching degree at 38 years old and he is a better, stronger, more determined man because of the potholed road he had to take.

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Dominic showing me the secondary school he studied from

Over the past year, Nath and I have spent hour upon hour discussing how we can best help the students on their journeys and an idea has been slowly forming, inspired by Damian’s tomato project last year. Many of you may remember my young friend Damian, a boy in the Kiwi Sponsosrships who had a dream to create a tomato garden, but not the capital to make it happen. I loaned him the money to make his dream come true and left him in the fields last December planting his seedlings. Unfortunately, life in the village can be tough. It was an exceptionally sunny January and February and he didn’t have enough water to keep his tomatoes from drying up. He worked tirelessly to try and keep up, but in the end, he had to sacrifice some of his large plot to focus on those plants he could save. Time passed too quickly and he had to leave the village to start his plumbing course before he was able to harvest his tomatoes so he left them in the hands of those he trusted. We will never know exactly what happened but Rose and I have come to believe that his grandmother harvested most of Damian’s tomatoes, only telling Rose about three crates – and only giving Damian the money for three crates – keeping the rest for herself. It’s devastating to think that an elderly grandmother could steal from her orphaned grandson but this is the village where people are desperate to survive and life is not always as we hope. Rose, Dominic and I had a long, difficult conversation with Damian. We did not want to directly accuse his grandmother of lying and didn’t want to labour the point as he was already so disappointed and ashamed that he had let me down because of his poor harvest, but we wanted him to know the truth. In the end, we decided that Damian will take what little money he did make and reinvest it in planting maize which can be harvested next year when he is back for the holidays and safely around to supervise the harvest himself. It was a painful lesson to learn but trust is not something to be given lightly here.

In spite of the challenges of Damian’s story, it lit a spark in me and Nath and we decided to start a student microloan fund. No bank here would ever lend money to an asset-less 18-year old but the students have such good ideas, they just lack the capital to make them happen. After a series of meetings, brainstorming sessions and various site visits, the Suubi Sanyu Fund is now up and running at KAASO. The name, Suubi Sanyu (chosen by Henry) means ‘from hope to happiness’ and that’s just what we hope to create. The pioneering group of students – Henry, David and Kevin – have launched projects growing eggplants, planting eucalyptus and passion fruit nursery seedlings and brickmaking. They are underway, they are determined and, under the guidance of Dominic, Rose and Teacher Sarah, I’m confident the fund will grow and help make a difference to the lives of many of those students who have passed through KAASO’s gates.

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The Suubi Sanyu Fund team

For a city girl who grew up largely on boats, I get more than my fair share of farming life in the village and this trip has taught me a lot about pigs. I never fully understood just how much pigs were doing for the community in Rakai but this trip I really took the time to traipse through the pig stys and see for myself how pigs were changing the lives of many. Last year, a Spanish volunteer called Lara started an inspiring initiative called the Wolves and Pigs Project.

IMG_6597I have always advocated against Primary School sponsorships as what sponsor can honestly promise a commitment of 15 years? I won’t take on sponsors who aren’t prepared to help students through until the end of their six years of secondary or vocational school, so to take on children in primary school means up to 15 years of support which is simply too big a commitment. And besides, as tough as it is for Dominic and Rose to juggle the orphans who do not pay school fees at KAASO, they somehow always find a way to make it work. So, instead of sponsoring primary school children, Lara came up with the idea of helping their families to earn money to pay school fees themselves. A hand up rather than a hand out. For around USD$200, a family can either build a new pig sty or expand their existing pig sty to help them raise piglets, breed them and onsell them. In a country that goes crazy over pork, the market for pigs is enormous. All four of the families Lara helped support are now paying school fees for at least one of their children – elderly grandmothers are are now able to help their orphaned grandchildren, and parents who survive from sustenance farming are able to supplement their income from pigs and support their children. It’s immensely satisfying to watch.

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Jajja Marvin outside her home with some of her many orphaned grandchildren – she is now able to feed them from the profits of her piggery

If any of you are interested in a one-off USD$200 commitment to fund a piggery to help a family to become more self-sustaining and to pay their children’s school fees at KAASO, please get in touch. My dream is that we can give several families the gift of a pigsty for Christmas!

I spent my final night in Kampala with my friend John from Wellington along with his partner Mirriam and their gorgeous little daughter Laria. It’s so special to have such amazing friends here in Uganda and my annual trips really have become part of who I am. It’s time to leave here now, mama and dad are waiting to spend Christmas together in the Bay and I can’t wait to be reunited with Nath who is currently racing in Rio. To all my friends in Uganda, I will miss you but you will always be in my heart and this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you soon! Tulaba gane mukwanos.

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Henry at KAASO

 

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Shined with Kiwi Shoe Polish

When I first came to KAASO in 2009, I had no idea where my journey would lead. I hoped my time in the village would change me and the way I viewed the world, but I could never have imagined how great the impact it would have, that it would change not only the way I saw the world, but my place in it. KAASO has now become a huge part of who I am and I just love these trips back to my village home.

As many of you know, the Kiwi Sponsorships programme I have been running for the past six years all started with Henry, an irresistible little boy with a huge smile and even bigger dreams. He had more than enough determination to make those dreams come true, but not the funds. My parents and I stepped in to help him and the Kiwi Sponsorships was born. Other friends and family members soon joined and, over the years, as I find myself unable to stop talking about KAASO, even more people have joined in to support those students unable to continue onto secondary school. There are now have 32 students who are receiving an education thanks to that love and care.

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It is easy to feel in life that we are just one small drop in a great ocean of need and what can one person possibly do? My time at KAASO has taught me that we can do more than we realize, not just by financially supporting a student but, most importantly, by believing in them. Many of the children here come from families ripped apart by AIDS, poverty and incredibly difficult circumstances. Yesterday I visited a girl whose father was shot dead on the side of the road when she was still in her mother’s womb, another whose father was killed in a motor accident when she was just two months old and whose mother, unable to cope, abandoned the girl with her elderly grandmother. There are so many difficult stories, sometimes it’s hard to take. But in spite of their challenging situations, these children still have spirit. They have determination and drive and the will to make something of themselves. They finish primary school fired up and ready to take on the world. However, without the benefit of KAASO’s incredible system of free primary schooling, their dreams of further education are quickly cut short.

So I can only imagine how it must feel for such children to then find out that someone across the world, someone they have never laid eyes on, has offered to help them, to believe in them, to support them through their schooling so that they can have the opportunity so many of us take for granted. An education. It’s overwhelming seeing what the promise of an education brings to the children here, the look of disbelief on their faces when they learn that someone they have never met believes in them and is giving them the chance to learn. It is humbling in the extreme. No wonder my time at KAASO is so incredibly emotional but so immensely satisfying.

On Tuesday, we celebrated our first Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation ceremony. We first met with all the sponsor students in our annual sponsorship meeting, run by our Chairperson, Henry. He thanked me for coming back every year, explaining that it was so much more than just the financial support, it was the hours and hours we spent talking together, discussing futures and believing in them. “That shows it is love, it is care, it is endless support.” We met with the parents and guardians of the sponsored students, mostly elderly jajjas – grandmothers with faces weathered by age and responsibility – and Dominic gave an inspiring speech about how when the three Kiwi Girls – Cherie, Kirsty and I – first came to KAASO, all anyone knew of the word “Kiwi” in Uganda was Kiwi Shoe polish. Over the years, they have come to learn that a Kiwi is so much more than a kind of shoe polish. “But,” Dominic said with his cheeky grin, “in a way, Madam Emma is like Kiwi shoe polish. She has really polished KAASO!”

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After the meeting and a huge feast for lunch, I stood, bursting with pride as our graduation ceremony got underway. Courtney, the wonderful fellow Kiwi volunteer at KAASO, had decorated Kiwi House with the children, just as Cherie had done so six years earlier for the opening of Kiwi House. Now I watched as eight of our students were celebrated for their achievements over the six years of their sponsorship. Four students have now finished Senior Six, their final year of secondary school, and another four have graduated from two-year vocational courses following Senior Four – two nurses and two vets-in-training. After the speeches, I was called to the verandah of Kiwi House dressed, somewhat hilariously, in a graduation gown, where I read the names of each student to an audience of parents, guardians, community members and children. As each child came to the stage, Dominic presented them with a graduation certificate while Rose pinned their GRADUATE sashes to the happy students. As I hugged each one tightly, I thought I might explode with happiness.

The day ended with a disco, typically upbeat Ugandan music blaring from a borrowed sound system and as I danced amongst the students, now as tall as me, I thought back on when I had first met them as young 12-year olds and Dominic’s words from his rousing graduation speech rang in my ears:

“This school began in 1999 and we had little. Henry was in our first grass-thatched classroom as a tiny small boy and one day during the rainy season it collapsed on top of him. The whole village came to help rescue Henry and his fellow students. Today, that same small boy is graduating. We first saw these students when they were small, small insects. And now they are big elephants. We congratulate them!”

From everyone at KAASO, thanks so much to our family of sponsors. You are changing lives, giving hope, and raising elephants.

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Cutting the ribbon

Sitting in my room looking across at my wall plastered with hand-drawn welcome messages, painted pictures and banners welcoming me home. Outside the music is blaring as the children bounce to the beat, scrubbing up a mountain of soapy laundry suds. It’s washing day in the village. And god it’s good to be here.

My annual welcoming committee seems to grow each year and this time, Nicko and I were met not only by Rose and Dominic but also the new head teacher, Teacher Sam and Courtney, our fellow Kiwi volunteer (whose boyfriend I worked with in the Greek Islands – it’s a small world!). We reached KAASO where the school term had already ended but our arrival was colourful as always. The children had strung a ribbon across the school gates and stood waiting for us, squealing with excitement, waving us in. Teacher Sarah invited me out of the car and handed me a pair of scissors. I cut the ribbon and cheers rang through the village: we had arrived.

The best part about coming back during the holidays is that the sponsor students are back from secondary school and I am reunited with these handsome young men and beautiful young women whom I first met as hopeful little children almost seven years ago. Some of them are now finishing school, others graduating from vocational courses, while others are preparing to start courses that will help send them on their way to getting jobs which will enable them to support both themselves and their families. I have learned so much on this journey over the years about how the schooling system works, how educational courses operate, the opportunities available to children here – and the challenges they face. With Dominic and Rose guiding me every step of the way, I am proud to say that we are making progress. Our graduation celebration is set for next Tuesday and I can’t wait to recognise the tremendous dedication these students have shown over the past six years.

Everyone has been so thrilled to finally meet ‘Brother Nick’ – family is everything here and it means so much to the KAASO family to finally meet the last member of the Blackman family. Needless to say, Nathan’s future visit is much-awaited (which will coincide with our Ugandan wedding…).

Nick has joined me on my village visits over the week, walking muddy tracks through villages to meet families who welcome us with open arms into their homes and we catch up on the year that has been. As always, it is incredibly humbling and it has been amazing to share this journey with Nick – one he has been following from afar for years but there’s a huge difference between reading words on a screen and kneeling on mud floors with the people that feature in these emails. It was with great joy that I watched Nick and Henry meet for the first time. They are now brothers and have spent many happy hours together catching up on Nick’s sailing – with Henry dressed head to toe in Nick’s sailing gear.

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Life in the village has been busy as ever. The Pope flew in two days after our arrival which saw the entire country transfixed as this predominantly Catholic African nation welcomed their beloved spiritual leader. Dominic, as only Dominic could do, managed to get an invite to meet the Pope and he now grins as he shakes everyone’s hand back in the village – sharing his holy blessings. This boy from the village who now runs a school, is a mentor throughout the whole community and who inspires a generation, never ceases to amaze me.

Nick’s journey is ending but mine will continue for another few weeks and I am excited to continue my visits and to keep moving forward with all the new projects we are undertaking. It’s been amazing to see the progress of the past year – the solar is now fully functioning and powers the entire school, the water pump brings running water to the school each day, the school truck continues to be loaded to the heavens transporting supplies around the community and the chickens are thriving. Thanks so much to all those of you who have contributed to these projects over the past year. Your donations go a long way here.

Sending much love from beneath the banana palms.