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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“Thank you for loving us”

Greetings from under the shady palms of Uganda,

It hasn’t even been a week but I am well and truly back into the swing of things here in my Ugandan home. With a stomach full of fried grasshoppers (’tis the season…) and teeth sugar-coated from sweet sodas after a local school visit, I sit reflecting and trying to capture the past few days.

Rose surprised me at Entebbe airport, meeting me off my flight with Dominic and a bunch of roses wrapped in colourful cellophane. It was incredible to see her, I have always had to wait for the long journey south before being reunited with this amazing mother-to-600 and friend to me. The three of us chatted animatedly on the trip down to KAASO, catching up on all the latest news from KAASO and the surrounding community. We pulled in through the school gates after dark and I was overwhelmed by a 300-child choir serenading my return, their little ‘wimowaes’ ringing through the village. My room and the dining room were all hung with hand-drawn signs welcoming me home, plastic flowers adorned my mosquito net and balloons hung from my chair inviting me to ‘sit comfortably.’ It was good to be back.

I don’t know whether it was the postponement of my trip or simply the fact that I continue to return every year, but since being back I have felt an enormous sense of appreciation from everyone I meet for my annual visits and I am constantly showered by thanks and gratitude. “Thank you for loving us,” rings in my ears daily. “Really, you are loving us so much and we are so grateful for all you are doing and those people back home, eh, they are loving us too!” More than they could ever know.

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It’s the last week of the school term before breaking off for the Christmas holidays and the children are preparing with fervour for the upcoming speech day on Sunday at which I have been invited to be the guest of honour. It seems this is an event to rival any Broadway production as the school constantly rings with the sound of drumming and singing as the children practice over and over again, ensuring their Sunday performance to the parents and guardians will be perfect. Little Brenda, a girl I first met as a 6-year-old in 2009, is the main soloist and I feel so incredibly proud watching her move around the grassy stage, thinking back on the days when she was too shy to look me in the eye, never mind perform to a crowd. These continued visits help remind me how far these children and the school as a whole have come over the past 6 years and I am forever humbled to be part of something so extraordinary.

The children have also been enjoying picking up where we left off with our music sessions, singing with me under the shade of trees around the school grounds. Stephen, one of the Kiwi Sponsor students, is back from secondary school for the holidays and has been coming for daily guitar lessons. He learns so quickly and can’t stop beaming as he plays and it’s just a joy to see. What’s been even more rewarding has been watching him teach the guitar to other children at KAASO, some of the older children who have been singing with me since 2009 and have always wanted to learn to play. Now they have their chance and it’s coming from one of their own students, something I only could have dreamed of a few years ago.

In between rehearsals, music sessions and late-night catch ups over the dinner table with Rose, I have been working with Dominic to put together a solar budget to help bring back to life the system installed in 2009 which is no longer working. We have had many lengthy discussions, I have climbed multiple triple-decker bunks to photograph wiring systems and charge controllers, sat in solar offices in the nearby town of Kyotera waiting for men to arrive on the back of motorbikes bringing information and quotes. It’s a lengthy process but we are getting there slowly and I hope that by the time I leave we will be able to bring solar-powered light back to KAASO.

The Kiwi Sponsor students are slowly trickling back to KAASO as they finish up their year at school and now I find them helping around the compound, cooking, cleaning, sweeping, feeding chickens, bathing smaller children and doing all they can to help Dominic and Rose, their gratitude evident for the adopted parents who have supported them so much and enabled them to get to where they are. It is such a pleasure to see their smiling faces and we are planning a Christmas party for them all before I leave in December.

Every time I come back to Uganda I am reminded of how truly incredible this place is, how determined the children are to succeed against considerable odds, how dedicated Dominic and Rose are to helping them, how far KAASO continues to come and how much joy I receive from simply being here. There is, as always, a long way to go and many mountains still to climb, but as Rose said in the light of a dim bulb hanging over the dining table last night, “You can’t do everything, but at least you can do something.”

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Leaving on a jet plane

On this, my final day in Uganda – for now – the heavens have opened and the rains are falling. Unfortunately not on the crops of the village but on the capital of Kampala, where rivers of mud flow through the streets and the traffic has come to a standstill. It’s hard to believe I have come to the end of my time here, and this past week has been full to bursting, trying to fit in every last minute task on my list, saying a thousand goodbyes and sharing countless hugs.

Last Saturday we had a wedding at KAASO for some of the school’s neighbours who tied the knot on our school field. In the days leading up to the wedding the school was a hive of activity, with friends and relatives arriving throughout the day and night and Rose and Teacher Sarah running around preparing mattresses in the classrooms to house the onslaught. I was dressed in one of Rose’s beautiful satin gomesi, the traditional Ugandan dress, and was inundated with praise for how smart I looked from every man, woman and child. A muzungu in a gomesi causes quite a stir in the village.

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A Ugandan wedding is like nothing you have ever seen. Over 1,200 chairs were lined up under circus-top marquees and strings of lights, flowers and lace criss-crossed in between, leading up to a giant central maypole. No sooner had the bride and groom entered with their entourage, than the rains came crashing down. Thunder and lightning filled the sky as over a thousand of us tried to squeeze under the sodden tents. I had Brenda with me and we huddled together until the tent looked set to crumble and the water was past my ankles; we decided to make a run for it. We splashed our way across the water-logged field and took refuge in one of the classrooms, where dozens of others had had the same bright idea. Taking a seat on a damp mattress on the floor, Brenda promptly fell asleep in my lap while we waited for the rain to stop. Two hours later, the skies cleared, the marching band recommenced and the festivities continued. We ate and drank and danced until I finally snuck away with Brenda to get some sleep, waking at 5:30am to hear the music still blaring from the field. Ugandans sure know how to celebrate.

Before coming here, I had had a generous donation from a friend who suggested I throw a Christmas party for the children. I ran the idea by Rose and it was quickly decided that we would use this occasion to bring together all the sponsor children to celebrate, along with those few children remaining at KAASO for the holidays. Rose and I hit the Kyotera markets, buying sacks of rice, bargaining for bunches ofmatooke, selecting tomatoes, avocados, cabbages and potatoes. In the midst of it all, the car broke down and several hours ensued with me at the garage, somehow having lost Rose, driving around Kyotera in circles, eventually finding her at a roadside stall where she’d gone to visit Dominic’s sister. It was dark by the time we got back to KAASO where I was grateful for our team of helpers who magically appeared to unload the car for us.

The day of the Christmas party, we awoke at dawn. Sacks were laid across the dirt courtyard, giant cauldron-like pots lined up, fires were lit and the peeling began. The sponsor girls were responsible for the food while the boys slaughtered chickens then decorated the school ‘hall’ (three of the classrooms with the wooden petitions removed). I made myself scarce for the chicken slaughter but enjoyed helping with the decorating. I had bought Christmas decorations while in London staying with my brother and the children delighted over the flags, banners, streamers and mini Christmas trees I pulled from my bag.

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A dozen villages, a thousand smiles

Who would have thought you could be so busy in a small Ugandan village but the past two weeks have been filled to bursting. During that time I have travelled for miles and miles along dusty, bumpy roads, visited over a dozen families, been showered with thanks, met armies of relatives, drunk countless cups of tea, and been gifted more chickens than I care to remember. Fortunately Rose now knows to intercept these squawking chickens that so often come my way, graciously accepting them on my behalf. It’s funny to think this whole journey in 2009 started with a chicken flying from the boot of Dominic’s car as I bent to offload my heavy backpack. And here I am now, almost 5 years later, still up to my eyeballs in flapping chickens. Some things never change.

Since I last wrote, the school has almost completely emptied out, leaving a small group of children either related to Dominic and Rose or fully orphaned with nowhere to go. Some of the the sponsor children have also come back to KAASO for the holidays to help out around the school – and because it feels like home. The other day Dominic and Rose’s daughter Rhonah came home from school with Teacher Sarah’s son Joy. They had with them their report cards and when Joy passed his over to Teacher Sarah I thought she was going to faint. She shrieked for joy, embraced her son and then, fanning herself, sat down heavily. I looked at the report card shaking in her hands and saw what she saw – Joy was top in his year with percentages in the 90s for every subject. I sat next to her and she just shook her head, smiling to herself, taking it all in. Once the shock had worn off she turned to me, her face full of pride. ‘Madam Emma, my son – first! In that good school. I’m just a simple girl from the village and that school, eh! The children of people with so much money, people from Kenya, Congo – overseas countries. Big people! And it’s my son from the village, he is first. Of all of them. Can you believe? Eh!’ She shook her head, smiling, soaking up the wonder of it all. It was a beautiful moment.

Yesterday I completed the last of my visits to the 12 Kiwi sponsor children and thus ended a chapter of joy, wonder, heartbreak and humility. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed into homes, made to feel part of the family, showered with love and offered all the food they had to give.

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There was Justine, a girl whose parents are both living HIV positive so sent her to live in a neighbouring mud hut with her aunt who looks after her and three of her grandchildren whose parents have either died or are unable to care for them. There was Caroline, who was out tending to her cabbages when we arrived, whose mother took me in her arms and embraced me with all her heart, introducing me to the 8 other children who live with them – abandoned, disabled, unwanted children left to this big-hearted woman to care for them.

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There was my lovely Henry, whose father died when he was 6 years old but who was brought up by his loving mother who cooked for us a feast as large as her smile, insisting we enjoy the fruits of her labour from their gardens. A two hour drive followed by a half hour trek brought us to the home of Charles who lives in a little house on a hill with his Rwandan grandmother – he does not know whether his mother is dead or alive and his father tragically died of AIDS in 2010. His family literally fell upon me in flood of tears, thanking me for helping to support Charles, the grief still so raw within the stark concrete walls of their home.

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Humbled

The heavens finally opened, bringing thunderous rain tumbling from the sky and everyone is rejoicing. Since morning, the school has been a hive of activity with children and adults alike running around positioning strategic tubs, buckets and jerry cans to savour every magical drop. A river of muddy water is running through the school, bringing justification to the bridge that otherwise does nothing but span the dusty earth that takes me from my room to Dominic and Rose’s house.

The week since I last wrote has been a roller coaster of emotions, of highs of lows, of heartbreak and happiness. And above all, I have never felt so humbled in all my life. One of the main reasons I wanted to come back this year (other than the fact that these visits have turned into annual pilgrimages) was to visit all of the sponsor children as the first wave finished up their fourth year of secondary school and it’s time to start thinking about their futures. Many children leave secondary school after their fourth year to pursue more vocational courses which helps to speed up their education and get them out in the workforce earning money sooner so that they can support themselves or their families or both. The amazing thing about this year’s visits has been that because the school term has ended, I am visiting each of them at their homes in their villages, meeting their families, and consequentially feeling the full weight of their gratitude for the first time.

My first visit was with David, a boy whom we met in his final year of primary school in 2009. I’ve visited David several times at his secondary school and he is one of those boys who is always smiling, always upbeat and positive. I had no idea what to expect from meeting his family when Rose and I jumped on the back of a boda, the motorcycle taxis used for transport here. We rode over dirt roads for about half an hour before pulling up outside the crumbling mud hut that housed David and what remained of his family.

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Back in my village home

I’m sitting at my makeshift desk looking out the window at the children sweeping the dust and cleaning the compound, moving quickly as the skies have darkened and thunder is rolling in. After months of no rain with only a few scattered storms, everyone is desperate for the water that will quench the thirst of the dry fields and withered crops. I am back in a world where the weather gods dictate the fate of the people who rely so heavily on the land below. Worlds away from our society of overflowing supermarket shelves and produce imported year round so that we barely know what should be in season when. For a city girl, this was all new to me in 2009. Now I just feel an overwhelming sense of belonging being back in my village home.

I arrived to the waiting smile of Dominic and, as usual, the journey south to the village was colourful. We stopped by to visit Rotary John who welcomed me warmly and filled me in on the projects that had been going on in Kabira. Beehives, micro-finance projects, eucalyptus forests, poultry farms, pineapple plantations and piggeries have kept people busy and while the drought hinders such efforts, the determination of the people is strong. We left John in Kampala and continued our journey south, making our way along roads which have been steadily improved over the years but this doesn’t seem to decrease the length of the trip. I first thought that we lived a thousand miles from Kampala but in reality it is only around 300 kilometers.

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This winding journey  is an appropriate way to adjust to African time. Dominic and I chatted about his trip to America and it was clear that he had been affected hugely by his time there. I didn’t think it possible for him to be even more motivated, even more determined, even more inspired than before but he has proven me wrong yet again. The trip opened his eyes to a world beyond his own and he made a huge number of friends from across the globe with his contagious enthusiasm and magnetic personality. Already some of these connections are starting to help KAASO and I feel incredibly proud that we could help facilitate these relationships.

At KAASO, I was welcomed by a mob of excited children who sang and danced and clapped as I entered the school gates. The first face I saw was that of Brenda, one of the little girls from my P1 class in 2009, now 11 years old and growing up fast. It is amazing to watch these children grow over the years and even though every year there are more and more new faces, the old ones take me back to the time when I called this place home. Continue reading

Uganda awaits

It feels like an eternity since I last wrote – the past months have been full to bursting. But now, sitting in yet another airport, it seemed like an appropriate time to sit down and reestablish contact with the world. Outside the light is fading over Amsterdam where I have been for the past 24 hours for a brief but amazing catch up with a long lost friend I met one afternoon in the Greek Islands on the eve of my very first departure for Uganda. And here I am now, four and a half years later preparing to board my flight southbound, back to the African continent.

This trip to Uganda is about getting grounded, reconnecting with the village and catching up on the past year and a half since I was last there. In that time, thanks to so many of your generous donations, Mark House was completed and I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes and to visit all the boys who now call our dormitory home – there will be pictures coming for sure! Also, thanks to the incredible kindness of a few and the outstanding organisational skills of Madam Kirsty, we brought Dominic to the USA in July this year to speak at an educational conference in LA and attend an educational workshop in Florida. I can’t wait to hear all about it and, in Dominic’s words, to ‘compare stories of being American!’ I’m not quite sure I consider myself American after a year and a half in the States but will be hilarious to compare notes all the same…

I’ll be in the village for one month, and during that time I also plan to visit all of the sponsor children at their respective high schools on my magical mystery tour around the country with Rose as my co-pilot, navigating my way across the pitted roads, past the fish-sellers and fruit-laiden roadside stalls. It will be almost Christmas by the time I leave so I’m looking forward to having some pre-Christmas celebrations with the children and to spending time with those who are back at KAASO for the holidays.

It’s hard to believe I left my Bondi home in Sydney nearly two years ago. Since then, it’s been an incredible adventure of ever-changing horizons followed by planting my feet in one place for over a year – a rare miracle in my world. I met so many amazing people in San Francisco and it’s a really special feeling to be able to take your world with you – this travelling circus of people that follow the America’s Cup around the globe are like one big family to me. While the past year was marked with ups and downs, I ultimately left with great memories of the foggy city.

It’s a strange feeling now, sitting in a brightly lit room full of people going about their business, music playing, suitcases wheeling, laptops tapping, TVs buzzing and glasses clinking, knowing that this time tomorrow I will be back in the village, sitting outside under a tree, strumming my guitar and surrounded by singing, swaying, grinning little faces. I close my eyes and try to picture it and it still feels like another world, so very far.

But it’s undeniable, Uganda is calling me back. That dusty road is stretching before me and I can’t wait for the cacophony of sound, the flying hugs and tangle of limbs that await me. It’s been a while, but it’s time to return to my Ugandan home.

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