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

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“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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