From one home to another

Greetings to you all,

What an incredibly full but immensely fulfilling 10 days it’s been. I was worried that such a short trip to the village might feel like it wasn’t worth so much travel, but it went far beyond my expectations and it’s reassuring to know that, having spent so much time in Uganda over the years, I can get so much out of a whirlwind trip like this last one.

Rose and Dominic had done an incredible job of making sure everything was ready for our arrival and Kirsty and I were greeted at the airport by 8 of the Kiwi Sponsorships students, which meant that within an hour of arriving, my interviews had commenced!

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We had a beautiful night at the Guinea Fowl, a blissfully chilled little guest house in Entebbe, sitting under the stars with Dominic, Rose and Ambrose, a boy we met when we first came to KAASO 10 years ago who Kirsty has been supporting ever since, now a grown man (and qualified pharmacist!) with his wife, Flower, and their 6 month old baby, Anthony. Such a special time.

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The following morning, we caught up with John & Mirriam, Sonia & Paul – friends from NZ, Canada and the US, all living in Kampala with their expanding families and it was amazing to share stories from over the years and to meet the new additions to their families.

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Our arrival in the village was magical – a full welcoming celebration had been organised and we were entertained by dancing, singing, speeches and countless hugs and smiles, while being refreshed by fresh homemade passionfruit juice – my absolute favourite! The children had made signs and pasted them around the school – ‘Welcome Back Home Emma and Kirsty’ – and that’s just how it felt. Like we had come home.

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The days were full to bursting as we toured the school and got the updates on its myriad of projects. I managed to catch up with all the Kiwi Sponsorships students (something that usually takes 6 weeks – now done in record time thanks to the organisation of Teacher Gerald, the Kiwi Sponsorships Coordinator in Uganda, who had arranged for all the students to meet in central locations so we could get through them in the limited time we had!), got the latest on the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund, spent evenings up with Kim up KAASO hill, shared stories with Rosie, the British volunteer currently living at KAASO, and saw the incredible progress of the KAASO Main Hall and Classroom Block we are constructing with the support of KATKiDS in Bermuda (greatly assisted, as always, by the unstoppable Rebecca Roberts!). There was certainly never a dull moment.

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The Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation Day was very special as it was tied in this year with the 20-year celebration of KAASO. It seems so hard to believe that 20 years ago, KAASO began with just 12 young orphans living in Dominic and Rose’s living room, being taught in a grass thatched hut – and now that same school has educated literally thousands of children, with a current roll of over 630 students receiving top class educations, a third of them without paying a single shilling to do so. How far they have come.

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Our Kiwi Sponsorships graduates this year were Anthony, the son of a peasant farmer, who has just fulfilled his dream of becoming a journalist, and Deborah, a girl with a shockingly tragic past whom Nath and I took on supporting a few years ago. Deborah has made such a dramatic turnaround and now has a qualification in tailoring, fashion & design. Seeing Rose wearing the most beautiful dress Deborah had made her on the day of graduation filled me with such immense pride. Again, I marvelled at how far we had come as the 5th annual graduation ceremony took place, and our 22nd graduate was celebrated.

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It was very emotional being in Uganda for the first time since we lost our dear Damian, one of our beloved Kiwi Sponsorships students, who was murdered in May this year. His absence was greatly felt, but the gap was filled in a small way by his dynamic five-year-old daughter, Lizzie. None of us knew of Lizzie’s existence until after Damian’s death as he had feared to tell us for worry of disappointing us, but in the wake of his death, her gorgeous little face, so very similar to her father’s helps bring us some relief as we are reminded of her incredible father and we know that his memory will live on within her. She is now studying at KAASO, supported by Damian’s amazing sponsors, Sarah, Matt, Hugo & Amelia.

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I didn’t know how it would feel returning to KAASO as a mother. I thought I would feel even more emotional than usual about the children and their difficult situations – and of course, I did feel that. But what struck me most what the new light in which I saw the parents and guardians. In the past, I had often been frustrated by the lack of things in the children’s lives – not monetary things, but love, support, encouragement, guidance. But now, as a parent myself, I know that raising children isn’t always easy – it can be exhausting, frustrating, repetitive and hard work (while at the same time being the most amazing thing in the world!). But couple all that with having no money, barely enough food, no real home to live in, no job prospects and no education, and parenting becomes near impossible. Meeting with the parents and guardians of the Kiwi Sponsorships students on graduation day has always been such a special time for me, as they show their immense gratitude to the sponsors for supporting their children in their education, but this year I felt struck by the realisation of how difficult it had been for these parents, guardians, grandparents and distant relatives to simply raise these children to where they now were – and I recognised that just having brought them up was an achievement in itself. Most of these adults had never made it beyond primary education themselves and were sustenance farmers who lived at the mercy of the rains, caring for at least half a dozen children in their simple mud brick huts. And here were their offspring now graduating as journalists, nurses, midwives, plumbers, electricians, teachers and lab technicians. I now understood the full extent of the immense pride they felt at seeing their children have the chance of a future they never even dared to dream about. And that filled me with a newfound pride for what we are achieving in the community – this wasn’t just about the children, but also about the adults that raised them, doing the best they could with what little they had. Anything I can do to help make their tough lives a little easier is immensely rewarding – and appreciated beyond belief.

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Having Kirsty at my side on this trip after our initial blind date at KAASO 10 years ago (incredible now to think that we didn’t know each other when we first moved to the village!) was very special. It was amazing to share the experience – both that of being at KAASO, but also of having had to leave our boys behind in NZ. We both missed our little ones like crazy and I definitely won’t be rushing to leave Jack again anytime soon, but it was worth it in the end. He was soooo well looked after by his dada and his Nana Jas, who came to stay, and it meant that I could go to the village worry-free after my two-year absence. Jack is so incredibly well loved, and while that will forever continue, it’s also important to me to share some of that love with children who could do with a little more love in their lives.

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So now I’m home to spend time with my boys, reflect on my time in the village, and get ready for Christmas, my favourite time of year. Crazy to think this time last year we were waiting for Jack to arrive – and now he’s not far off turning one. Oh, how time flies.

Thank you for sharing my journey and for all your continued support for KAASO. To all my wonderful sponsors, your reports, photos, videos and letters will be coming to you as quickly as Jack’s nap times allow!

With love and gratitude,

Em xoxoxo

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Let the adventure begin

Greetings to you all,

Well, it’s certainly been a while! The last year has been one of the most incredible of my life – welcoming our little Jack Henry into the world and experiencing the most immense joy at seeing the world through his eyes has been mind blowing. It sounds silly, but I truly never realised how much I would love being a mama until Jack came into our life. And now I’m totally smitten.

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I have spent every minute of every day with him and, until now, a few hours while he’s sleeping is the longest we’ve been apart. But all of that is about to change. Tonight I board a 17 hour flight to Dubai and then onwards to Entebbe where Dominic and Rose will be waiting to take me back to my village home. I feel sick at the thought of leaving my little monkey behind, but also incredibly excited to see my Ugandan family after two years apart.

I’m so thrilled to have Kirsty joining me – one of my original muzungus and a supermum of two boys, also leaving them behind for this short stint so that we can be back in the village that stole our heart. It was 10 years ago this year that Kirsty, Cherie and I first went to KAASO and it’s also an amazing 20 years since KAASO began – starting with those 12 children, now home to over 600. A year of milestones! This time two years ago I was in the village with my Kiwi, Aussie and Ugandan families celebrating my Ugandan wedding to Nath, now I go with Kirsty to celebrate the 20 years of KAASO, 10 years of the Kiwi Girls and a much-awaited reunion with the 69 bright sparks in the Kiwi Sponsorships programme (soon to become 71 thanks to the two new sponsors who have already come on board for next year – if anyone is interested in taking on a child, I have a list of 7 more students looking for support!).

I have never been to KAASO as a mama. I went first as a wide-eyed volunteer, I returned 18 months later as a friend, and then over the years of repeat visits that friendship became more akin to family. But this trip feels like the most significant yet – now, as a mother, I get to feel the full force of how important the work being done at KAASO is, to truly understand what it means to love and support a child – something I don’t believe I could feel the true extent of until now. I had loved before, I had felt before, I had been incredibly passionate before, but the fierce love I have for Jack, the kind of love that makes me feel I could move mountains, part oceans and blow trees over, is like nothing else. I was always an overly emotional girl and now I’m almost frightened to return to KAASO with my ever-heightened sense of feeling. It’s going to be an emotional few days for me I know!

So, with a heart full to overflowing, I leave my little Jack Henry behind in the safe and warm arms of his dada, his nana and his Auntie Haylee, so that I can be reunited with the original Henry that inspired this all – and Dominic, Rose, their family and the 600 children of KAASO…

My 10 days out of New Zealand gives me 8 days in Uganda, just one week in the village. It’s going to be frantic, it’s going to be a whirlwind, it’s going to be hard at times but I know I will be fine, I am doing the right thing. There are children to visit, construction projects to oversee, priority lists to update, Graduation Ceremonies to organise and the 20 years of KAASO to celebrate. I will not have a minute to dwell on my longing for my boy(s!).

So wish me luck, and let the adventure begin…

Much love,

Em (a.k.a. Madam Emma or Mama Jack Henry as I’m now known!) xxx

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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

A beautiful joining of worlds at a time when we need more open minds

Dominic and Rose have seen and done a lot of things. Every year, they give over 600 children the gift of education at KAASO, the school they created 18 years ago. They have raised seven children of their own as well as mentoring and supporting hundreds of others. Their Empowerment Group enables members of the local community to feed their families and educate their children through microloans projects, piggeries, poultry farms and adult education. Both Dominic and Rose have travelled around their region and their country, inspiring others to give more, help more, be more. But, born and raised in Uganda, opportunities to travel abroad were about as common as flying pigs in the local piggery.

In June of this year, that changed.

Thanks to a school partnership established by Lizzie Hulton-Harrop between KAASO and Northbourne Park, a primary school in the UK, Dominic and Rose’s dreams of travelling overseas together came true. Last year, Lizzie and two teachers from Northbourne made the trip to KAASO to begin the partnership, and Dominic and Rose’s trip to the UK this year was to help further the work begun.

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Dominic and Rose at Entebbe Airport with their 24-strong send-off committee

For Rose it was her first time on a plane, with the exception of a short trip to Tanzania when she was a teenager. Dominic had been twice to the US at the invitation of the National Educator Program of America, first in 2013 to present at an educational conference in California, and again in 2014 to complete the second part of the two-part workshop he had begun in Florida the previous year.

So he was the kafulu, the expert, seated next to Rose as they flew to the land of so many volunteers they had welcomed into their home over the years.

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The selfie Rose sent me from their flight to Dubai

They were met in London’s Gatwick by Lizzie and her mother and driven to Northbourne Park School (NPS) in Kent, not far from the famous white cliffs of Dover. There, they spent a week living with Sebastian Rees, the school’s headmaster, and his wife Gillian, in their home within the school grounds. NPS is housed in a beautiful old building dating back to the early 19th century and is home to both boarders and day scholars, around 120 students in total from the UK and around Europe. It was ironic timing to be building a close partnership between two far-flung nations at a time when the UK was so dramatically exiting the European Union. Dominic and Rose actually landed in London the morning the Brexit results were announced and I was relieved to hear that they were warmly welcomed into the country, in spite of Britain’s frustrating backwards step towards separatism.

Dominic and Rose spent a phenomenal week at NPS with the students and teachers, studying different educational techniques, visiting the homes of some students and enjoying the school’s end-of-term festivities. I arrived from Bermuda full of anticipation to see Dominic and Rose – the first time we had ever met outside of Uganda. Pulling up outside the impressive school grounds, I entered the old stone buildings and reported in with the school receptionist, explaining I was there to see Dominic and Rose from Uganda. Before I had a chance to say anything else, she smiled knowingly and told me to follow her. She led me to the school staff room where Dominic and Rose were seated, casually chatting with the other teachers as naturally as if they’d been there their whole lives. They launched themselves at me with huge warm Ugandan hugs then proceeded to introduce me as one of their family to all their new best friends. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, thinking how in less than a week, they had already forged such strong bonds with everyone here, and the respect and admiration the teachers had for them was evident. My visit also gave me the chance to finally meet Lizzie, with whom I had been corresponding for years but never actually met face to face. We had worked together closely for months to make this trip a reality and it was amazing at last to be standing here with Dominic and Rose and to feel that all that hard work was worth every second.

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Lizzie, Rose, Dominic and me in the NPS Staff Room

It was the end of the school year and all the parents, teachers and students gathered into a marquee for the final Speech Day. We were seated as guests of honour in the front row and Sebastian, the headmaster, gave a moving speech about how much they had learned from Dominic and Rose over the past week. He invited them on stage to receive gifts of farewell, voicing his excitement for this long and prosperous partnership. I loved that the emphasis was on how much NPS had learned from Dominic and Rose’s visit; people often assume – wrongly – that developing nations have the most to learn from the West while I feel strongly that there are equal lessons to be learned on both sides.

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Dominic in front of the NPS buildings after the Speech Day formalities

Following the speeches, everyone mixed and mingled over cucumber sandwiches and cream scones and I got the chance to meet some of the families, students and teachers who had been touched by Dominic and Rose’s visit. So many people came up to me, saying how honoured they were to have spent time with this inspiring couple and a little girl attached herself to Rose and refused to let go, explaining that they shared the same name so were “kind of like sisters.”

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Rose and Rose

When the time came to leave, I watched Dominic and Rose bid farewell to each of their new friends and thought about how amazing it was to have arrived at the end of their brief stay and to bear witness to the impressions the had made on this close-knit but outward-looking community in such a short space of time. NPS has students from all over Europe and their inspiring headmaster emphasised the bonds forged over the years between the UK and its European neighbours, assuring those gathered that, no matter what, those friendships, relationships and prosperous bonds would continue.

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Dominic and Rose with headmaster Sebastian and his wife, Gillian

We were dropped off at the local train station and as I stood waiting on the platform with Dominic and Rose for our train to London, I realised that they were staring at the tracks in wonder.

“How does this work?” Rose asked quietly and I looked at her as the realisation dawned – this was their first time on a train. I explained the process and then delighted the rest of the journey as they marvelled at the passing scenery, commenting on the different farming techniques, the crops grown, the animals they saw, all the while Dominic whooping with excitement every time we went through a tunnel.

“Rose! We are under the ground!” he kept saying with his irresistible grin.

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Rose and a very happy Dominic on the train to London

Arriving in Kings Cross St Pancras at rush hour on a Friday night was hectic to stay the least. Dominic and Rose experienced their first escalators, first elevator and first turnstiles all in the space of a few minutes. And then suddenly, we were outside, the buildings of London towering over us, my two Ugandan friends gaping in wonder.

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Outside Kings Cross St Pancras Station

It was a strange feeling in the days that followed to be leading rather than being led. Rose and Dominic have – and always will be – my guides to all facets of life in Uganda, guiding me not just geographically but emotionally and culturally, helping me navigate my way through unknown territory. But suddenly, I was the guide. It was a strange role reversal.

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Dominic loved the escalators!

I checked them in to their hotel at the bottom of my brother’s Farringdon street and gently explained how to use the shower, the soap dispenser, and the key cards, all of which caused a great deal of hilarity. That night, we dined with a group of past volunteers at a local restaurant and Dominic and Rose’s faces lit up to find themselves reunited with so many old friends from around the world, all of whom had gathered to see them. Some volunteers had travelled from around the UK, Rachel had flown in from Berlin and Cherie had come all the way from New Zealand to coincide with this visit from our Ugandan family.

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Volunteers’ dinner with Rachel, Cherie, Fraser, Lizzie and Tom

The following day, I sat with Dominic and Rose in a local café for our annual run-through of KAASO’s priority list. This meeting has always taken place at the KAASO dining room table so it felt rather surreal to be sitting in a London café talking over scrambled eggs and lattes about the latest happenings at KAASO, but they just took it in their stride and I was transported back to my village home as they talked. It was with great pride that I recounted the story of how we were able to raise enough money to buy a school bus for KAASO thanks to my friends in Bermuda (the full school bus story to come soon). They were overwhelmed with gratitude and we excitedly made plans for the arrival of the bus later this year.

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My first KAASO meeting to be held in a London cafe 

We jumped on board a red double-decker bus (another first) and I loved watching their faces as the world flew by at eye level out the window. We had just settled in when we were abruptly told to get off the bus just before Picadilly Circus and when I questioned the driver he explained that the roads were blocked and we could go no further.

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In Picadilly Circus

Not understanding, I led Dominic and Rose through the streets towards our destination and suddenly it all became clear – we had landed bang, smack in the middle of London’s highly-charged anti-Brexit rally. For half an hour we walked backwards against a sea of thousands who angrily protested the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Well-accustomed to crowds and chaos, Dominic simply turned to me with a grin and asked, “Whose side are we on? Are we with the protesters?” Dominic was thrilled when I nodded my agreement, and proceeded to punch his fist into the air in solidarity as he walked, joining in the chorus of dissent. I couldn’t help but laugh and think back on my last trip to Uganda in which we had so often found ourselves in political rallies leading up to the Ugandan elections. Dominic and Rose were no stranger to people taking to the streets.

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Dominic embracing the Brexit rally

We finally made it to Hyde Park Corner where we met Teressa Macbeth, who has been sponsoring Violah, one of the Kiwi Sponsorships students, with her husband Jono for the last three years. It was a beautiful catch up and I loved watching these two worlds unite, having heard so much about the other. Teressa listened intently as Dominic and Rose shared the tragic story of Violah’s family and I felt so grateful that together we would enable Violah to get the education she deserved.

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With Teressa at Hyde Park

After lunch, the three of us sat on a sunny park bench in Hyde Park to continue our discussion of the latest priorities at KAASO. I jotted notes in between Dominic and Rose’s questions about the swans and paddle boats on the lake, the motorised golf-carts collecting rubbish and, my favourite question from Rose, “How do these people not have to work?” Sure, it was a Saturday but not many in Uganda have the luxury of spending a day lying in a park sipping Pimms and reading the newspaper.

We had another wonderful evening with a collection of volunteers at a French restaurant in Angel and I couldn’t help but smile looking down the long table, thinking how amazing it was that the thing that united us all was a tiny village in Uganda and here we were sharing stories over sauvignon blanc in London.

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Pre-dinner drink with Lizzie, Rebecca, Sarah and Rachel

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the much-anticipated meeting of Dominic and Rose and Nathan. For three years this trio has been hearing about each other, already considering themselves family, but on Sunday 3rd July 2016, my dream finally came true. Nathan flew all the way from Bermuda for one day to meet them and nothing could have meant more to me. Watching Dominic and Rose embrace him as a long lost family member is an image that will stay with me forever. The four of us walked to a nearby café where we met my brother, Nick, and his girlfriend Grace for brunch. Nick had already met Dominic and Rose, having spent two weeks with me in Uganda last year but it was also the first time for them to meet Grace and over brunch, Rose gave a moving speech about how the full Blackman family was finally united.

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Nathan with Dominic and Rose at last

During Nick’s visit to Uganda, the preparations for this UK adventure had already been underway and Nick had joked that if Dominic and Rose ever did make it to the London, he would take them on an open top bus tour. And that’s just what we did. Sunday Funday was spent together with Cherie and her boyfriend, Fraser,  hopping on and off an open top red London bus, seeing the sights of the city.

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Dominic, Nathan, Fraser & Cherie on the open top bus tour

We lit candles in St Pauls Cathedral (which Dominic and Rose were thrilled about St Paul is the patron saint of KAASO), picnicked in front of Buckingham Palace, had a whirlwind shopping stop on Oxford St, drove over Tower Bridge, marvelled at the London Eye (“There are PEOPLE in those things?” Rose asked me, shaking her head. “Oh no, no, no please!” she laughed when Dominic suggested we try) and ended up back in King’s Cross for a farewell dinner.

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With Dominic on the stairs of St Paul’s Cathedral

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Rose and the London Eye

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Nathan and Dominic passing Westminster

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Outside Buckingham Palace – a highlight for Dominic and Rose to see the “Queen’s House”

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After our picnic in St James’s Park

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One very happy gang of bus tourers!

It was an emotional farewell that night as Dominic and Rose were leaving early the next morning to go to Belfast to meet with Share Uganda, a Northern Irish charity that helps with medical projects at KAASO and the surrounding community. As I said my goodbyes, I thought back on a moment during the weekend, when I had found Rose staring into space. I asked her what she was thinking and she looked at me and said, quite simply, “I am wondering, ‘Who am I? Who am I to deserve such a thing?’ These things we have been reading about in books and films – and now they are just there! Eh, it is all beyond belief.”

I reminded her that there were no two people on the planet that deserved this trip more than they did and that they would carry this within them forever, the ripples flowing out on their return to Uganda. The stories they would share, the lessons they had learned, the cultural exchange they experienced would slowly spread throughout their community, helping to bring two worlds together and reminding children everywhere that anything truly is possible.

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Till next time! xxxx

Northbourne Park School: www.northbournepark.com

The Northbourne Park/KAASO Partnership: www.nopakaasoschools.wix.com/2015

Share Uganda: www.shareuganda.co.uk

It’s time to row inland

What an incredible whirlwind the past year has been. As most of you know, over summer in Wangi, Nath proposed with a handmade ring of sailing rope at the dinner table with both sets of parents watching on in speechless delight. We resumed our colourful magical mystery tour around the globe, hopping from 49er regattas to America’s Cup events before packing our life into a container and setting up camp in Bermuda. In the midst of it all, I did an incredibly enlightening writing course at UCLA where I met my inspiring mentor, Jennie, and, after working from satellite desks around the globe all year, last week I finished my manuscript while bobbing on a houseboat in Buenos Aires. It seemed only appropriate – it’s certainly been a year full of adventures.

Houseboat living was a hilarious juggling act. It turned out our floating homes were actually on an island up a river which meant that Nath and Goobs would go by RIB to the sailing club each morning while Claire and I rowed our tippy little dinghy around the marina in search of wifi to upload Claire’s graphic designs and my latest writing submissions. Thunder and lightning storms, torrential rain and power outages made some days more challenging than others, particularly when we lost water for three days but, as I keep reminding Nath, it’s all just practice for when we sail off into the sunset and cruise around the world together. He just smiles. One day, I will to teach him the pleasure of sailing slowly. But in the meantime, with the Olympics and the Cup just over the horizon, I’m happy for him to keep sailing as fast as he can!

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Yesterday evening, Nath and I farewelled our little houseboat, stacked my tower of exploding bags into the dinghy (plus a violin – thanks Alex, young Mark will be over the moon!!) and paddled ashore. We boarded separate flights headed in opposite directions and now it’s time for this girl to row inland. Thus I find myself on my own in the hazy midst of a two-day journey that will take me from a river in Argentina to a village in Uganda.

But I won’t be alone for long. Tomorrow I will be stepping into the customs hall of Entebbe Airport where the immigration officers are going to be baffled by not just one but now two Blackmen in Uganda – five minutes after I land, so does my brother. I can’t wait to share the incredible world of KAASO with Nicko who has been hearing about Uganda for so long and now he’s joining me on my annual pilgrimage back to the village. A huge thank you to Nicko not only for having the faith to follow me down the red dirt road – something I hope many more of you will do one day – but also for patiently receiving the bombardment of parcels from sponsors that I have been directing his way. Gifts for the children now take up 28 of his 30 kilo baggage allowance leaving him not a lot of space for his own clothes or belongings. That’s dedication. Luckily it’s warm on the equator.

This, my sixth trip back to Uganda, is a particularly special one. Six and a half years ago, I first tumbled onto African soil, wide-eyed, green, naïve, hopeful and full of aspirations to save the world. I quickly worked out the whole world might be a bit ambitious but I had to at least do something. Then I met Henry. He was twelve-years old, he had a smile as wide as the Sahara and enormous dreams to match. He wanted to go to secondary school. Thanks to mama and daddy-o, that dream has come true for Henry. And thanks to my other amazing sponsors, there are another 31 children able to continue their education. As I write, Henry and the original five sponsor students of 2009 are about to graduate from six years of secondary school. Nicko and I will be there to celebrate this incredible achievement and I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.

For those of you who have followed my trips since day one, a heartfelt thanks for your continuing support. Every single word of encouragement, every message, every conversation has spurred me on, enabling me to do what I do and I’m forever grateful for that. For those who are just joining the journey now, welcome. I hope you will enjoy being carried through the villages in my dusty backpack as much as I love sharing this adventure with you all.

The Story of the Kiwi Sponsorships

At KAASO in December 2013 with some of the girls from the Kiwi Sponsorships

At KAASO in December 2013 with some of the girls from the Kiwi Sponsorships

The Kiwi Sponsorships have become a huge part of my life and occupy a very special place in my heart and soul. It occurred to me recently that many of you may not know how it was that this programme came about or exactly what it is so, on this quiet spring afternoon in San Francisco, I thought I would share the story with you.

Henry at KAASO in 2009

Henry at KAASO in 2009

In 2009 I met a remarkable boy called Henry. He was incredibly intelligent, falling over himself to be helpful, seriously determined and respected by teachers and students alike. He was in his final year of primary school and had just turned 13 years old. Henry came to me with a letter in July of 2009 asking me to sponsor him through his secondary education as his father had died and his mother could not afford the fees. At the time, I was an unemployed volunteer who had no idea where her next income was coming from. I sadly explained to Henry that I could not help him.

As the year went by and the Primary Leaving Examinations approached, I began to wonder what would become of this extraordinary young man the following year. Would he attend one of the government secondary schools where you’d be lucky to find a book and a desk? Would he stay at home to help his mother work in the fields? Would he simply fade out of my consciousness as I left the African continent? Eventually I decided that none of these were acceptable.

The Kiwi Sponsorships started with Henry in late 2009 and the growth has been overwhelming. In 2010, Henry’s first year of secondary school, he was joined by six other students whom I had found sponsors for. My return visit to KAASO in 2011 brought with it five new sponsors. By 2014, twelve sponsored students had become 22 students. This year, the programme will put 25 students through secondary schools around Uganda, with another five children sponsored at KAASO Primary School.

Last December's Sponsorship Meeting at KAASO

Last December’s Sponsorship Meeting at KAASO

Marvin, in his second year of sponsorship, gifting us a jackfruit to say thank you

Marvin, in his second year of sponsorship, gifting us a jackfruit to say thank you

I have been truly blown away the response I get when I talk about this programme, the love and support that flows from people I meet around the world. I have always been involved in the world of international sailing events and many of the people I have met at these events around the globe are now helping to fund these bright young students through school in Uganda. It is such a buzz for me to share their stories with their sponsors and to bring these two such disparate worlds together. My sponsor base consists not only of those from the sailing world, but also a loyal collection of family, friends and fellow volunteers.

One of my most recent sponsors I have never even met but she contacted me via this blog which a mutual friend had put her onto. It makes me so happy to think that this can be a vehicle to help spread the stories of my amazing little friends in Uganda with a wider audience.

My last transfer of school fees is winging its way through cyberspace as we speak which will put this year’s group through another year. These remarkable students are so determined to succeed in spite of their difficult circumstances and it’s a joy to watch them grow. Thanks to your support, the next generation of nurses, plumbers, vets, doctors, teachers, journalists, accountants and entrepreneurs is being formed. It is a privilege to share this journey with you all.

Our up-and-coming nurses at Rakai Community School of Nursing, December 2014

Our up-and-coming nurses at Rakai Community School of Nursing, December 2014

To the beat of the drum

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

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

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

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

As Dominic replied when I forwarded him my flight details:

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

The feeling is mutual.

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