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

Greetings to you all,

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

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Saying goodbye to Dominic, Rose and Teacher Sarah at KAASO

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

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Preparing matooke for the graduation lunch

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

 

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Telling Emma he would be sponsored by ‘Madam Rebecca’

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

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The parents and guardians’ meeting

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

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Dominic and Rose, keeping things running

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

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Lunch time

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

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Phionah receiving her graduation sash

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

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With Justine and her aunt

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

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Dominic congratulating Damian

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

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With Caroline after her graduation

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

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Caroline and her mother

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

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

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Thomas proudly showing off his star

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Arthur helping Maria with the ironing of the placemats

 

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

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With all the parents and guardians after the graduation ceremony

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With the Kiwi Sponsorships students of 2016

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

 

A community growing stronger

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

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

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Emirinah graduating from nursery to Primary One

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Students heading home for the holidays

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

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A very happy little girl being picked up by her father

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

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

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A family supported by the piggery project initiative

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

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

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A family supported by a piggery project

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

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Rose and Teacher Gerald – the piggery team!

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

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Rose, Teacher Sarah, Beth and Dominic say farewell

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

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

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A hand up

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Children at KAASO eating jackfruit

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

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

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

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Winnie and Juliet

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

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Charles and his head teacher

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

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With Anthony and his broadcasting lecturer

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

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Mbarara sponsor student visit

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

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Beth and Rose en route to visit a community piggery project

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

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

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With Henry outside his university hostel

 

So much more than just a bus

 

At this rather crazy time in history, I sit here wondering how it can be that the world seems to be happy to embrace such ludicrous politics – first Brexit and now Trump… How can this be? I feel very fortunate to be where I am here in Uganda, surrounded by such amazing people continuing to do amazing things in the world. The village has never been more appealing.

Leaving politics behind, I reflect on the past ten days since arriving in Uganda. I have been so fortunate to share my KAASO life with both Beau and Rebecca and the school bus delivery will forever go down as one of the most incredible moments of my life. My returns to KAASO have always been such a happy time, so full of love, excitement and anticipation for the weeks to come. But I never could have prepared myself – never mind Beau and Rebecca – for the welcome that awaited us with the school bus. Despite blowing a tire 20 minutes into our journey, we were back on the road an hour or so (and several tire changes) later and continued our trip south. Rebecca had come prepared with dozens of beach balls and hundreds of balloons to fill the bus so we dizzied our already excited selves by blowing up balloons while the scenery of Kampala flew by, the urban slowly giving way to rural. We stopped at the equator to take photos to mark this momentous occasion – we were to leave the northern hemisphere behind and make our home in the south. I have had so many of these photos over the years but this year there was a very special guest in the photo – the school bus, proudly positioned in the background behind the equatorial ring. I couldn’t have been happier.

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Arriving at the turnoff from the main road to the dirt road that leads to KAASO, we were met by the school truck (yup, the old one that used to move the children around that the bus was replacing…) loaded with children all waving branches and cheering our arrival.

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They came flying off the back of the truck and loaded into the bus to begin the final leg of our historic journey. All along the way as we passed through villages, people came out to wave and clap and cheer our arrival. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Along with the school truck, we also had an escort of a dozen boda bodas (motorbike taxis) and people running along the side of the road with us. Tears were rolling down my face and the children’s excitement intensified as we came down the hill towards the KAASO school gates and my heart was pounding in anticipation of what would await us. I heard them before I saw them. Literally hundreds of people running down the road towards us, the happiest mob I’ve ever been engulfed by – they came flying towards us and literally launched themselves at the bus, hugging and crying and cheering our arrival.

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Teacher Sarah, one of my oldest friends from the early days at KAASO, was among them and when I caught her eye she came running around to the window where I sat and grabbed my hand. There were no words – we just held each other tightly, sobbing through the window. It was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life – we had done it! Teacher Sarah eventually let go as the bus rolled down the tiny dirt path to the lower school field, which was where the full welcome committee was waiting for us – all 600 children and hundreds of parents and well-wishers. The bus was blessed by a local priest and the whole community sang prayers of thanks and praise for their beloved bus. The evening that followed was filled with celebratory dancing, heartfelt speeches, tearful thank yous and the most overwhelming sense of achievement. I thought of the night five months earlier when I had stood in front of everyone in Bermuda and promised that I would drive the bus they had made possible into the village and that I would think of them. Now, the bus parked in the KAASO school grounds, I thought back on that night and once again, the tears flowed freely. I wished that they could all be here with me to experience this moment but I was so incredibly grateful that I had Rebecca and Beau with me to share in the joy.

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Since that Sunday, Dominic has – literally – not stopped smiling. Two days later, the bus was used to transport the Primary Seven (final year) students to sit their Primary Leaving Exams and the children, usually nervous, were all smiles and full of excitement – they got to ride on the BUS! We have been inundated with thanks from the entire community who all feel so proud to have been a part of the fundraising efforts and who promise to cherish this bus forevermore. In the world that most of us come from, a bus is, quite simply, a means of transport. For a village in Uganda, it is so much more than that – it is a sign of development, a symbol of hope, an achievement worth celebrating and, most importantly, proof that anything is possible. When Dominic first told the community that KAASO was going to try and raise funds for a bus, few believed it would be possible. However, with the coming of the bus, as Teacher Sarah explained to us the night of its arrival, the community has seen – yet again – that Dominic and Rose are not only true to their word, but that can make dreams come true. I feel so honoured to have played my part in that and I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all those who contributed to make this happen.

Rebecca’s time at KAASO went all too quickly but we certainly made the most of every moment. She helped to teach art classes and PE classes and had the children in fits of laughter making balloon animals, their eyes wide with wonder as she twisted the colourful balloons into dogs, giraffes and dinosaurs. We had a tearful farewell after sharing a beautiful night together at Lake Mburo, a nearby national park, but I know that Rebecca, having experienced the magic that is KAASO, will be back one day.

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Beau and I continued onto Mbarara where we had a joyous reunion with Henry – now 19 years old and in his first year of university. I had to pinch myself seeing this 12-year old boy I once knew now funding himself through university, his 6-year sponsorship over. He is an inspiration to the other sponsor students and I feel so proud of what he has managed to achieve.

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Yesterday, Beau and I drove to Kampala and, aside from running out of petrol along the way, we managed to arrive without further incident. Scooping up my old friend and long-term Ugandan resident John, we made our way to Entebbe airport where we picked up Beth who has come to join me for three weeks in the village. It’s such a thrill to have her here and I’m so excited for the weeks ahead. I was a bittersweet day as I also had to bid farewell to Beau who is headed back to Australia and then onto Bermuda but I will look forward to being reunited with both him and Rebecca in December when I get back. We will have so many stories to share!

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From Qatar airport in between flights, Beau has managed to put together this short video of the bus arrival at KAASO – there is much more to come but what a legend to have done this so quickly! Don’t miss Teacher Sarah in the lime green gomesi (traditional dress) at the end…

I sign off here as it’s time to get back to the village before darkness falls. I thank you all for your incredible love and support – reading all your amazing messages helps motivate and inspire me to keep on pushing, to keep on striving and to make each day I spend here really count.

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The school bus has reached its home

I have always been truly humbled by the reception I receive each time I go back to Uganda but arriving with the school bus was one of the most emotional, incredible, heartfelt, inspiring and beautiful moments of my life.

I will let Beau’s stunning photos speak for themselves….

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A school bus sails into the village…

Greetings from the shores of Lake Victoria!

Two days and several thousand miles later, from an island in the Atlantic to a land-locked nation in East Africa, I have arrived back in Uganda. This is my seventh annual trip here and I’m so excited to catch up with everyone in my village home, to hear about the highs and lows the year has brought and to share in the celebrations of those who are soon to be graduating from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme. However, this trip also has a particularly special purpose. For years, KAASO has had a dream dangling on the horizon but, until now, it has remained just that – an unattainable, far-off dream. Tomorrow though, that dream will become a reality. KAASO is getting a school bus.

Since 2009 when I first came to Uganda, Dominic and Rose have been telling me how much the school needs a school bus. The alternative – children riding on the barred tray of the school truck – is both illegal and incredibly dangerous. The truck has tipped several times and fortunately none of the children were badly hurt but we all feared that it was only a matter of time. It was not a sustainable option. A couple of years ago, KAASO began reaching out to the community requesting funds towards the school bus and over $1,500 was raised but, in a community where it’s hard to find the money for school fees, coming up with the remaining $30,000 for a bus was a colossal challenge.

And here’s where my story begins.

It all started in the most unlikely of settings – a beach-front restaurant for a rosé-infused lunch with a friend called Rebecca. I was explaining how much KAASO needed a school bus but how daunted I was by the task of trying to raise $30,000 USD to make this happen. You can gather donations for buildings and piggeries, I explained, brick by brick, sty by sty, but wheel by wheel doesn’t really work for a school bus. You kind of need the whole thing.

So Rebecca and I teamed up with the mission to make this actually happen. Her company, RenRe, was hosting their annual sailing day in early June and Rebecca suggested we use this day to help raise our funds. If I could get a bunch of America’s Cup sailors to helm the boats that RenRe’s clients and brokers would be sailing on, we could ask for bids to secure their favourite Cup sailor on board their boat. I emailed sailors from Artemis Racing, Oracle Team USA and Softbank Team Japan asking if they might help out – ‘an afternoon sail for a school bus?’ was my pitch. Within an hour, I had Dean Barker, Chris Draper, Jimmy Spithill, Tom Slingsby, Grant Simmer, Iain Percy, Francesco Bruni and, not surprisingly, Nathan Outteridge, committed to helping. We were on.

The team from RenRe, spearheaded by Rebecca, did an impressive job of rallying up support and enthusiasm and, once again, Claire’s amazing graphic design skills came into play, helping to create an infographic to explain what we were trying to achieve. All six America’s Cup teams donated signed merchandise which I had gathered at the America’s Cup World Series event in New York and, along with some LV Cup products from previous editions, I also had donated experiences from America’s Cup – and from my very obliging husband!

The day of the fundraiser, I felt sick with nerves. There was so much riding on this day and while I knew anything we could raise would be amazing, I was acutely aware of how much money was needed and that it might in fact take several fundraisers to achieve our goal. I so badly wanted this to work.

I boarded RenRe’s superyacht where I spent the day on board with a bunch of wonderful people, drumming up support for the silent auction items as well as encouraging those on the boats to bid higher and higher for their favourite sailors to join them for the final race of the day. Momentum gathered quickly and I was blown away not only by people’s generosity but also by how interested they were in the cause and how much the idea of providing a school bus to children in Uganda struck a chord with a bunch of people on an island in the middle of the ocean.

The final race was incredible. The Cup sailors did an amazing job of showing everyone a good time – and doing all they could to ensure that they were ahead of their team mates. By the time everyone rolled into the RenRe dock, the day had already far surpassed my expectations. And that was before the live bidding even began.

Originally there were only supposed to be two live auction items – a two-hour foiling sailing session with Nathan and a 4-person ride in an America’s Cup chase boat to watch the boats training on the Great Sound in Bermuda. However, a combination of much excitement, many drinks, and overwhelming support saw these two auction items multiply to six. Iain Percy from Artemis Racing, realising that there were multiple groups willing to pay good money for the chase boat ride, threw in two extra rides on the Artemis chase boat, spurring on Grant Simmer from Oracle Team USA to donate a ride as well.  That act alone raised us $12,000. Then, the CEO of RenRe, deciding that his wife should also have the chance to sail with Nathan, asked if Nath would donate another foiling experience (the first had already been won) which he gladly agreed to and the bidding opened once more. While Rebecca was helping coordinate the auction, I was madly running around trying to calculate where we were at so far between the boat bids, the silent auction items and the ever-growing live auction funds. As the live auction closed, I pushed EQUALS on my calculator, and then stood staring at my screen, stunned. Then the tears began to fall. We had raised $30,190.

I gave an impromptu – and hugely tearful – speech, letting the room know that we had reached our goal – we would have our school bus. A sea of smiling faces erupted into applause and cheers and I just stood there, crying and grinning dumbly before engulfing Rebecca in a huge hug. We had done it!

In the weeks that followed, Rebecca did an incredible job of helping me collect each and every dollar and I was amazed to find that our total amount just kept going up and up – people were so moved by the experience that they wanted to donate more, to give more, to help more. I was blown away.

In the end, we raised over $40,000, all of which has now reached the village and, on Wednesday, Dominic purchased the bus. As if that wasn’t enough, a few weeks ago, Rebecca decided to join me to help deliver the bus along with my brother-in-law, Beau, who is going to make a short film about the bus delivery. Things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.

So now I sit looking out across Lake Victoria with Rebecca at my side, and I have to pinch myself to realise it’s not just some amazing dream that I’ll soon wake up from. Beau flies in tonight and Dominic will pick us all up in the bus tomorrow morning and together, we will drive to the village.

I am so hugely grateful to each and every person who helped make this happen – to the sailors, the donors, the far-away cheerleaders and of course to Rebecca, whose huge heart and incredible determination that this was going to happen has meant, quite simply, that is has. Tomorrow is going to be one for the record books – and one requiring quite a few tissues I feel…

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Lake Victoria, Uganda

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

 

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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Sun sets in the west

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As the sun set in the west, we flew east, out of Uganda and out of Africa. I’m now sitting in Dubai airport full of tinsel, fake snow and bling, neon signs flashing in my tired eyes, trying to convince me I need their diamond jewellery, gold watches, top shelf spirits and overpriced goods. There’s even a Lamborghini on display. Overwhelming to say the least after the week I’ve just had. My cup of tea feels like all that’s keeping these dusty feet grounded.

My trips to Uganda have always been packed to bursting but I feel like this past week has surpassed all others. Refugee camps, solar budgets, Christmas parties, countless visits to far-flung families, several tearful farewells, a journey across the country to visit Rose’s father, a final meeting in the back seat of Dominic’s car flying through traffic en route to the airport… It’s been a busy time to say the least and my head is still spinning trying to take it all in. Where to start?

I returned to KAASO from Kampala on Monday, not riding co-pilot as I had hoped with my solar technician but on the back of a boda to the heaving taxi park where we negotiated our ride on a bus headed south and spent the next four hours sweltering sitting on the engine jammed in between sacks, boxes and of course the obligatory chickens. The pounding Kampala rains made it a steamy affair and I was immensely happy to return to my village home that afternoon. The solar story is long to say the least, and ongoing – negotiations and discussions continued right up until this morning when I had to cut them short to make my flight in time but we still hope to be able to have things resolved before the children flood back through the KAASO gates next year. I will keep you posted…

On Tuesday we packed all of the sponsor children into two cars and with me at the wheel of one and Harriet, the other volunteer, at the wheel of the other, we set off, headed towards the Tanzanian border. At Rose’s suggestion, we were to visit Sango Bay refugee camp on an educational tour for the sponsor children to remind them just how lucky they were. And that they did.

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Not really realising what a refugee camp was, the students dressed in their Sunday best, and on passing through the security checkpoint, were soon surrounded by swarms of wide-eyed children, hopeful of receiving some of the clothing the students had gathered to distribute and no doubt keen for a bit of excitement to break up the monotony of their lives in the camp. It’s a veritable no-man’s-land – many of the inhabitants are in fact Ugandans who left their homeland some 50 years ago in search of more land in Tanzania. Last year the Tanzanian government decided they didn’t want these foreigners in their country anymore and exiled people in droves. Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese were given warning of the impending exile but few believed it to be serious until soldiers arrived on trucks and forcibly removed them, leaving them time to take nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They trucked them across the border and handed them over to the Ugandan government who sent them to Sango Bay refugee camp. The camp now houses 5,000 people, over half of which are children. Unicef and other NGOs are helping to supplement the government supplies and rations in the camp and there’s a makeshift school for over 1,000 children but conditions are pretty dire. I felt uncomfortable being a spectator to such a scene but speaking to the students later, it was clear the visit had had quite an impact and it was interesting to watch the tables turned – the sponsor students are largely orphaned or with little family support and it’s easy to think of them as hard done by but here they were distributing their own clothing to those in even greater need. Everything is relative.

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The following day I threw a Christmas party for the sponsor students and those children still left at KAASO. There are a handful of kids whose parents or guardians have “failed to pick them” as Rose tells me, so they remain drifting around KAASO looking slightly lost and downbeat. So it was a delight to watch their eyes light up when I told them that of course they too were invited to the Christmas party and they eagerly took their place in line to enjoy the feast we had prepared. Henry and I did our annual Christmas tree trip to his mother’s garden where I stood holding a rusty ladder while he hacked at branches with a machete and the car was soon full of the smell of Christmas. His mum took the lead in decorating and soon the classrooms were strung with decorations, balloons and streamers I’d brought with me from San Fran and the Christmas tree was dotted with tropical flowers that the boys brought from the gardens. As I sit writing, Dubai airport is playing ‘Feed the world – do they know it’s Christmas time at all…’ Yes, yes they do.

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The Kiwi Sponsor Committee we formed last year is still going strong (Ugandans LOVE committees) and every holiday they’ve been meeting to discuss the term, write letters to their sponsors (tragically both packages of letters from the last two meetings were lost in the mail but this time I’ve got all the letters safely in my hand luggage) and catch up on school life. Henry lead the proceedings as the Chairman of the committee and Dominic and Rose gave inspiring speeches. Rose talked of the “treasure of education,” reminding them just how lucky they were to have the support they did, encouraging them to “try your level best to find your way” but not to “jump for something – go step by step.” Dominic has the uncanny ability of being able to get across a serious message while still having the room in fits of laughter, myself included. He stressed the importance of the KAASO family, something we all belong to and that even though there are ups and downs, if you are family, you love each other regardless and will tolerate people for all that they are. Rose had the final word, thanking me so much for somehow managing to find sponsors for all these students and therefore changing the course of their lives. Her words reduced me to tears with their simple beauty: “Emma is not just a volunteer, she’s not just Emma, she’s a big lady – even if she looks a bit small. You see – she can create a way where it isn’t.” But that thanks is not mine – it’s to all of you who help, support, encourage and follow my journeys to KAASO. You help me create the way and for that I thank you.

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I managed to catch up with all 25 sponsor students – in their homes, at their schools or back at KAASO. It was nothing short of epic as what started as trying to help one 13-year-old Henry get to secondary school has become a kind of mentorship as I sit and discuss the futures of each and every student. It can be both exhausting and heartbreaking but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are now four students at nursing school, two doing veterinary certificates, four more about to finish secondary school next year and range of others at various stages of their schooling. My dream is that one day they will all be qualified in one way or another, they will be working and able to support themselves and their families, especially the incredible grandmothers who tirelessly keep families afloat across Uganda, and that they will go on to become role models in their communities as a way of repaying the support they have had both from their sponsors and from the KAASO family.

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My final morning at KAASO, I went to visit Damian’s tomato garden. I didn’t know what to find as the days had run away from me and it had been almost a week since our first discussion. Turning the corner on that dusty path on a scorching morning, I couldn’t have been more impressed. He had slashed two thirds of his half acre plot, dug holes, filled them with manure, planted seedlings and carefully covered each one with homemade banana palm shades to protect them from the relentless equatorial sunshine. Hoe in hand, he was hard at work when I arrived and as he came bounding over to meet me, he couldn’t stop grinning. He was radiant and when I asked if he was enjoying himself I thought his face might explode from smiling so much. He was in his element.

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We went through the budget and he showed me his calculations of each and every shilling I had given him so far and outlined how he planned to spend the rest. I walked away feeling that if nothing else, that one project made every minute of waiting for this trip worthwhile.

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I left KAASO biting back tears as I said my goodbyes to Stellah, the girl I sponsor whose 17th birthday we celebrated together on Thursday, Henry and all the other remaining children. I know I will be back next year but it’s always hard giving those last hugs and turning out the gates with a sea of sad eyes and little waves following me. Loaded with children, suitcases and crops to take to Kampala relatives, I drove Dominic’s car with Rose as my navigator up to Kampala, distributing people and cargo along the way. We arrived late and hit Kampala’s notorious traffic, ending up thoroughly wedged around a roundabout in a pile up of cars, trucks, taxi vans and suicidal motorbikes, of which I inadvertently managed to hit two along the way. Fortunately no one was hurt, just a bunch of shouting at fist-waving at this crazy muzungu driver.

We set off the next morning to visit Rose’s father, ‘just outside’ Kampala – what turned out to be over a two hour drive away. It was a long and dusty road but wow was it worth it. Husband to eight wives, father to over thirty children (Rose lost count at 25) and a prominent magistrate in the area, her father is a fascinating man. In spite of his success, he insisted that all of his children learn the value of money, that food must be worked for and nothing taken for granted. Rose grew up with 15 siblings her age and together they would work in the gardens to ensure there was food on the table. When he retired, her father decided to open a primary school next door to his house to help educate needy children from the area and to keep himself busy. Rose clearly took after her father. Well-spoken, highly educated with excellent English, her father sat with me and thanked me profusely for coming all that way to visit him, saying he was honoured by the effort I’d made to “put him in my programme.” As we spoke, he sat looking from me to Rose and finally burst out laughing saying it was confirmed. I looked at him in confusion – what? It turns out that except for the colour of our skin, he believed that Rose and I looked so similar we could be sisters and henceforth declared that I was a daughter of his and part of his family. It was my turn to be honoured.

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My final night was spent at John and Mirriam’s where I watched on with amusement as Rose and her brother tried lasagne for the first time and her brother’s young boys raced around the front courtyard in John and Mirriam’s daughter’s pram, captivated by this alien contraption. As I sat at the dining table, enjoying a precious glass of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc which John had been saving for a special occasion, I felt so incredibly grateful to have this amazing network of friends who have come to feel like family in an unlikely corner of the world. The best part is knowing that I will always be going back and that these relationships are forever.

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Fittingly, my last day in Uganda was hectic. Dominic was meant to join us in the morning, coming up on the early bus from KAASO as he had had two weddings to attend in the village the previous day. Of course, the bus never showed and so he missed the meeting Rose and I were having with Rotary John. We were just driving out of his compound gates for the airport when a motorbike came flying in with Dominic hanging off the back, grinning as he jumped off the bike and into the car. All the way to the airport I sat discussing the future of KAASO with Dominic and Rose, hearing their hopes and dreams and brimming with pride. Every time I come back here I am reminded, yet again, of how incredible those two are and how lucky I am to have stumbled across this little gem in a tiny village in the middle of the African continent. What they have done, what they do and all I know they will do, inspires me endlessly and as I look around this glittering consumerist world of Dubai at Christmas, I close my eyes and picture all those little faces I left behind and I am reminded of what’s important in life. And for that I feel truly, truly grateful.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas with those you love.

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And rain will make the tomatoes grow

Time in Uganda is a funny thing. While a single day can seem to span for a week with so much happening and so much to get your head around, somehow a week can pass in a day, leaving you wishing there was more time. This time two weeks ago I was arriving in the village; in just one week I will be on a plane home. I wish there was more time but I am ever grateful for my annual visits, especially this one which made me realise with newfound intensity just how much I value my time in Uganda.

Last Sunday was KAASO’s Speech Day which was a huge celebration marking the end of the school year, combined with the graduation of the gorgeous nursery children who are now promoted to Primary One.

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It was a moving day, with children of all ages performing before their parents and guardians, singing, dancing, drumming, moving and shaking. I was so proud watching them all, those I first met almost six years ago, now all grown up. Brenda did an incredible job of her performance and received a huge reception from the crowd.

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Dominic gave a heartfelt speech thanking me for all I had done for KAASO and I was humbled by the gratitude and kindness that flooded my way from everyone I met. I still marvel at how far this school has come over the past few years and how lucky I feel to have stumbled across this very special little corner of the world, nestled in a tiny village amidst banana palms and mango trees.

Speech Day ended with a disco which saw people from 3 to 93 up dancing in the school’s front courtyard. We were hugely fortunate that the rains held off as we’re in the midst of the rainy season and the previous day had seen the most torrential downpour I’ve ever experience in Uganda with pounding rains turning dust to mud, flowing in rivers through the school for hours. I can’t help but smile as I write, as the thumping music from a nearby bar pounds out “I bless the rains down in Africa.”

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In the midst of the dancing, the school year officially ended and the children started to flood out of the school gates with their mattresses, metal suitcases and worldly belongings on their heads. I tried to farewell everyone but it was overwhelming trying to take in the mass exodus of over 500 children who marched like ants out the school gates, spreading out across the country for the holidays with parents, grandparents and distant relatives.

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The consolation of all these departing children is the return of the sponsor children and every day it seems I am met with another flying hug from a newly returned secondary student. The children I met in 2009 are now 18 and 19-year olds who dwarf me and have matured into a bunch of incredible young adults. I went to Masaka on Friday to pick up Henry and David from school and beamed with pride as these two handsome young men in crisp white shirts and ties showed me around their school, grinning as they explained their responsibility to set an example for the younger children as they are now the ‘elders’ and role models of the school – next year is their last year of secondary school before they will head out into the world.

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It makes me so immensely proud to see all these grown up students back at KAASO, helping around the school and guiding and inspiring the younger children. I have been meeting with each of the sponsor students, catching up on their year, hearing of their hopes and dreams and what they hope to become given the incredible boost they have had by being sponsored through secondary school. I listen to their dreams of becoming doctors, vets, pharmacists, nurses, businessmen… Most importantly, what has impressed me this time is that these students have grasped the concept that their sponsorships are not everlasting but amazing head starts in life which they must not take for granted. Those that are approaching the end of their studies are mapping out their next paths, working out how they can cultivate gardens and set up poultry projects and get jobs to help support themselves and their families and fund the next stages of their lives. It has been so heartening to meet with them all and to feel the overflowing gratitude towards their sponsors that pours from each and every one. I started this project five years ago, having no idea where it would lead, never imagining I would now have over 20 children being given the simplest gift of all, one we so often take for granted – an education.

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While sitting with one of the sponsor students last week, a new idea was born, one I hope will set a precedent and be the start of something truly incredible. He was explaining to me that he wanted to create his own tomato garden in the holidays which he could harvest before going back to school in early March. He lost both of his parents and in the holidays stays with his grandmother not far from KAASO in her small mud-brick hut where she takes care of half a dozen other orphaned grandchildren. He explained to me that his grandmother had a plot of land she was willing to give him for the project, all he lacked was the initial capital to get his tomatoes in the ground. Sitting together on the floor of my room, I listened intently as this 18-year old boy carefully explained the process of creating a tomato garden, the materials required and the costs involved. I was well and truly impressed. I gave him a blank sheet of paper and told him that if he could come back to me with a detailed budget and plan as to how he would achieve his goal, I would lend him the money. He looked at me in shock, clarified that I was serious, thanked me profusely and disappeared. Two hours later, he was back, budget in hand. Under the supervision of Teacher Sarah, the project is now underway and it’s something I hope will be the first of many such student-driven initiatives. It’s incredible what can be achieved with a whole lot of determination and a little bit of capital. He has been busy slashing the land with a machete and purchasing seedlings and manure and when I went to visit the land one evening he just smiled at me and said, “Madame Emma, thank you so much. Really, I am appreciating so much.” I can’t wait for the first bite of juicy tomato when I return next year.

With another volunteer at KAASO and a couple of others we picked up along the way, I ventured west to Queen Elizabeth park. I had never been to the Western Region and was amazed at the contrast in scenery. While Kabira overflows with green banana palms, fertile crops and striking red earth, Queen Elizabeth was a dry savannah with the spectacular Mt Rwenzori rising in the background, lakes George and Edward glistening in the sun and on the distant horizon, the hazy mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We followed packs of lions, were chased by territorial bull elephants, trekked chimpanzees through the rainforest and dined in the light of paraffin lanterns under the stars. It was amazing to see another part of Uganda and the vast diversity of this country, smaller than New Zealand in landmass but with a population almost 10 times our 4 million people.

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I travelled to Kampala yesterday, bumping into Kim along the way and we caught up on the progress of her malnutrition ward and the gardens she uses to feed her young patients during the crowded bus trip north. Dominic met me off the bus and together we met with solar companies in Kampala. Tomorrow morning I will travel alongside a solar technician back to the village as co-pilot in the truck of Solar Energy for Africa, hopefully one step closer to getting the solar system sorted. I had a lovely to catch up with John, a Kiwi friend who moved here in 2009, and his gorgeous two-year old daughter and have enjoyed staying with my dear friends Sonia and Paul, who I first met in 2009. AFRIpads, their business of washable sanitary pads has gone from strength to strength and is now helping girls not only in Uganda but in refugee camps and disaster areas around the world to cope with their monthly periods.

Every time I come to Uganda, I learn more and more about this country, its people, culture and life in the village. It’s a world of contrasts, a world that is deafening and peaceful, frantic and slow, contradictory and yet somehow, somehow, things make sense.

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