‘My very nearby sister’

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It is impossible to get off the phone from Rose unmoved.

Sitting under the window of Kirsty’s second floor apartment, sun streaming in, the streets of London bustling as people go about their Wednesday morning business, I am transported to the dusty roads of Uganda, picturing the day as Rose describes it – ‘it is so much rainy and then it shines’. The crops are growing well and soon it will be time to harvest the maize and potatoes and the stores will be full with new season’s produce. Rural village life, worlds away from my city view and yet somehow technology allows us to be brought so close together that it feels as if Rose is here, talking and laughing as if she were sitting next to me.

‘You are my very nearby sister,’ she laughs. It feels so.

The children are all busy preparing for sports and music competitions that will take place this weekend. They are hoping to emerge victorious this year after coming so close two years ago when they were pipped at the post, coming a close second to another, better-connected primary school. In Uganda, as everywhere, it’s who you know not what you know.

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The chickens have started harvesting eggs and the children are delighted to be sampling the fruits of their labour. Rose tells me the chickens are ‘very fine, they have started laying and we are really happy for that.’ Thanks once more to all those who donated to the chicken project, it is proving to be a great success!

Thanks also to a generous donation from Willem Jan van Andel, the school will finally be secured. Until now, there have been fences and gates surrounding most of the school perimeter but the front remained open due to lack of funds for school gates. Construction is now under way and soon the school property will be fully fenced and enclosed, helping keep the children safe at night.

We have new sponsors, new projects and many new exciting initiatives in the mix. Rose thanked me again and again for all that I and my wonderful family and friends do for KAASO. ‘We sang you our thank you song but you did not hear!’ she laughed when I asked if my latest money transfer had arrived. ‘Thank you for trying to make so many friends for KAASO, we are really appreciating all that you do.’

It puts everything in perspective to have conversations like this in the context of a world that all too often forgets to stop, listen and engage, to make time for each other without distractions, to value other people and listen to the story they have to tell. Conversations with Rose help remind me to take time to smell the roses.

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Zaake Secondary School

On my latest trip to Uganda, I met an incredible man named Zaake. A successful businessman dealing in Chinese imports, he was originally from Rakai District and his children had all gone through KAASO. However, once his children finished KAASO he had been forced to send them further afield for secondary school as there were no local secondary schools with a level of teaching to match KAASO. He asked Dominic and Rose if they would set up a secondary school but they declined, saying they already had their hands full juggling KAASO, Dominic’s job as Director of Kamuganja Primary School, not to mention their own 7 children.

Zaake persisted, asking if he fully funded the project and organised the construction with assistance from his Chinese importing contacts, would Dominic and Rose sit on the board of directors to help offer input in the curriculum and guide the educational decisions. They agreed and construction began at once.

I went to visit the school while it was still under construction in November last year and was amazed at the size, scope and scale of the project.

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Zaake Secondary School – the computer lab and administration block on the left, classrooms on the right

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Dominic and Zaake

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A new home in a village far away

Summer has arrived early in San Francisco and I’m loving every minute. While it’s not exactly Ugandan tropical, my evening walk along the waterfront tonight was full of smiling people, parks of picnickers, pathways lined with those soaking up the last of the light, and as the sun slipped down behind the Golden Gate, some mad people were even swimming…

And on this beautiful evening I have some incredible news to share with you – our dormitory is finished. Mark House was officially opened on the school’s Visiting Day and is now the handsome home to dozens of gorgeous red-sock wearing boys. While the girls proudly moved into their very own Kiwi House in 2009, now, in 2013, the boys have Mark House.

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The dormitory was named in honour of an incredible man named Mark Blomfield. I first met Mark in 2011 when he turned up to one the typically chaotic dinners my mother hosts for hundreds on the deck of our house in the Bay of Islands. He was captivated by the story of KAASO and immediately offered to sponsor two of the children through secondary school. But he didn’t stop there. When I sent out my fundraising appeal in July, voicing the ambitious hope of raising $10,000, I was sitting in an airport frantically typing as my flight was called to San Francisco. Before I’d even managed to board my flight, Mark had pledged £1000. He was a passionate supporter of this dormitory and a constant source of encouragement for me to keep going with the fundraising, believing every step of the way that we would get there. To help get us over the line, Mark offered to match every donation dollar for dollar, an overwhelming act of kindness and compassion. Tragically, last November, Mark died of a heart attack. It was a devastating loss and while I had only known him a year, he made a huge impression in that short time. He was someone who cared deeply and, with quiet determination, made sure this dream would come to life. This dormitory is dedicated to his wife Jan and to Mark’s memory. I know he would have been proud.

Mark House

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And then there was a roof…

Sitting at my kitchen table after a glorious sunny weekend in San Francisco and wanted to share a quick update on the progress of our new dormitory. The foundations have been laid, the walls have risen to full height and at last the roof is going up! As the funds flow in, the bricks are gathered, the roofing poles lined up and the older boys of KAASO eagerly await their new home.

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We have been blown away by the support shown and I am incredibly proud to report that we have now raised over NZD$10,000! A phenomenal display of generosity which means we can now do more than our original dream of just completing the basic construction; we can actually furnish the dorm with double-decker bunks (required by the school authorities – the original motivation for building this dormitory) so that KAASO stays legitimate in the eyes of the government. We still have an amazing donor who is matching $ for $ any donation made between now and the end of September and for this I am eternally grateful. We never dreamed we’d be able to come this far in such a short space of time so thank you, thank you, webale nyo.

I spoke to Rose a few days ago and she was absolutely speechless when I told her the second transfer of close to 7 million Ugandan shillings would soon be in her account. When she finally found her voice she said with a huge grin, ‘Ah Emma, thank you please to all of your friends for loving us. Really, they are loving us and we are appreciating soooo much!’

I’m forever humbled by Rose and Dominic and the world I stumbled upon at KAASO and I am so happy to be able to share with you this story of hope.

From a foggy city to a village of hope

I have finally settled into a home on a hill where from my window the city of San Francisco sprawls across rolling hills and the fog, ever-present, hangs quietly overhead. It appears that after many, many months of roaming all four corners of the globe, this wanderer has finally put her feet to rest – at least for the time being. I moved to San Francisco a month ago and since then have traipsed far and wide across the city searching for a home, hiked vertical streets, dodged bell-ringing cable cars, and run around madly entertaining guests at sea and on land as the first San Francisco America’s Cup World Series event unfolded across the Bay. I have slowly begun to unpack and plant roots and, ultimately, come to love my new part of the world.

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Meanwhile, in Uganda, progress is being made. Since I last emailed from Paris, just one month ago, we have raised almost $5000 NZD – close to half of what we need to get this dormitory up off the ground. The pile of bricks we started with is rising and construction is ploughing forward. Thank you so very much to those of you who have donated so far, the gratitude flooding out of the village is overwhelming. If anyone else is still interested in donating, we have a truly incredible sponsor who has offered to match dollar for dollar any money received between now and the end of September! A very humbling show of generosity.

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There is a Canadian volunteer, Justin, at KAASO who has been keeping us updated on the dorm’s progress and sending through photos as construction continues. The goal is to have this building finished by the end of the year so it can be opened and the children can move in before Christmas.

Thanks so much to you all, from my little corner of San Francisco draped with African beads and dotted with Ugandan baskets…

Bats & beads, dorms & divas…

I have blisters on my fingers from sharpening coloured pencils, I now find it normal to kick giant centipedes from my room, I’ve gone cross-eyed from tying knots in beaded fishing line, the bat that lives in the roof above my head no longer bothers me, I hardly notice the cockroaches that run across our dining table, I say sorry to people for things I didn’t do, I know that I will not be able to walk past a single person without greeting them for five minutes repeating the same phrase, I think nothing of crunching gravel in my rice and when the pond water is muddy brown, I bathe in it anyway. I am officially becoming Ugandan.

So we thought it was about time we got out of the village and had a weekend in the city. Yes, that same city where people literally ran riot through the streets not so long ago but now you would hardly know except for the marked presence of soldiers in the streets. In typical Ugandan fashion, they rioted, made a horrifically gory calendar to celebrate/commiserate/commemorate the dead and dying and forgot about it. And so here I find myself, in the Kampala in search of a glass of wine and a good coffee. So far so good.

With less than a month left at KAASO, time really is flying and the days are so full. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly watching the girls move into their new Kiwi House. And when I say move, I mean move. Triple-decker bunks were carried from the library/computer lab to the new dorm by the 100-odd girls who are now living in Kiwi House. It’s hard to give an idea of the scale of it but picture 100 girls, 100 metal trunks containing all their worldly possessions, another 500 children watching on with interest and in the midst of it all, workmen still working, making bricks and mixing concrete (with their bare feet). It was a sight to see. But construction is all but finished, they are just finalising a few last minute things and then Kiwi House will be complete. It’s an incredible achievement, one we only dreamed could ever be possible and you all have made it happen so sending you all more thanks than you could ever imagine. The official opening is going to be held at Visiting Day on 18th October so we will celebrate in style, probably with an insanely sweet orange soda or some such delight…

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Back home to KAASO – where the water doesn’t flow but the smiles are wide…

Back in my world of wide eyes and even wider smiles and little hands that find my own. After six weeks on the road it really did feel like coming home pulling into KAASO where children came running to greet us from all directions. It’s like being a celebrity in a middle-of-nowhere, rural Uganda kind of way.

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We had barely jumped off our motorbikes when we were taken by the hand and led on what felt like a glory tour around the school, hearing shouts as children ran from dormitories, racing over to welcome us home. We were given Ugandan hugs – i.e. being launched at with such force that last time we returned from a trip I ended up with a bruise on my hip bone.

We soon discovered that two months had not been enough time to fix the broken water pump and the children were still having to carry water from the well in jerry cans on their heads – this was ‘Africa time’ in the extreme. Energised from our trip and feeling the full motivation of just-returned-ness, Cherie and I decided the next day to go to the well with the children to fetch our own water rather than going out of minds with no water to bathe, wash clothes – or flush our toilet. I don’t think we quite realised what we were in for. We followed the children through the school, past several mud huts, through the forest, into a field where we continued to walk until we finally spotted the well – at the bottom of a rather large hill. Trying not to look fazed, we traipsed down the mud path until we got to the well. There was a crowd of children filling their jerry cans and no line that I could decipher but the children seemed to have some kind of system arranged between them. From what I could gather, it was largely based on hierarchy. Being two red-faced muzungus, we did not feature in this hierarchy.

Eventually, we realised that we would wait all day unless we just shoved our jerry cans under the water spout, pumped by a small child that seemed happy to continue pumping for us. We ambitiously filled two 10L jerry cans each then quickly realised our mistake; most of the children had one 5L jerry can. Yes, we were much bigger than most of them but not necessarily much stronger. We struggled back along the dirt track, having to pause embarrassingly frequently along the way. It was hugely satisfying to make it back to school and the looks on the teachers’ faces was worth the effort when they saw the two of us emerge amongst the children carrying our own jerry cans. Unfortunately we got distracted by the gorgeous nursery children who came running out to see us; many of them we hadn’t seen since we got back so we picked them up and spun them around and chatted as best you can with a 5-year-old Ugandan child. It wasn’t until some time later that we turned around to realise our jerry cans had gone. We searched everywhere until we finally asked Rose in desperation – ‘Where would you take a jerry can if you were a small child?’ To the kitchen, she smiled. Back down across the school and there were our jerry cans lined up neatly outside the children’s kitchen – a wooden shack with a fire and giant cauldron-like pot full of porridge. We grabbed our jerry cans and vowed to take more care next time – if we could manage a next time…

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Translating words into action…

Life at KAASO continues to spin me, throw me, baffle me and make me smile. The sun is beginning to climb and you know that in a matter of minutes the day will be scorching beyond belief. After six weeks here there is a strangely contradictory sense of really belonging, while also knowing that you will never quite understand what’s going on. It’s a paradox you learn to embrace, to accept and ultimately to enjoy.

Many of you have expressed a desire to contribute, to donate in some way and for this I am eternally grateful. We arrived here knowing that we wanted to do everything in our power to help the school and the community – yet also knowing that we needed to first spend some time here to soak it all up and to understand what really needed to be done. Having talked with Dominic and Rose for hours the past weeks we have finally worked out the greatest fundraising priority for the school: the completion of the half-finished girls’ dormitory so that the computer lab and library can be vacated and used for their original purpose.

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The computer lab/library has been completed for some time now but due to lack of space and funds, is currently being used as a girls’ dormitory. As strange as it may seem for children in rural Uganda to need a computer lab, you would be surprised at how great the need is. Many children that are lucky enough to leave KAASO to go onto secondary school end up top of their classes in everything – yet they are failing the computer classes for they have never even seen a computer before. Around the world, computers are becoming indispensable and Uganda is no exception.

In the words of the District Chairman at a recent fundraiser: ‘Very few of our schools in Rakai District having computer training facilities. You may ask: why do these people in the developing world need computers? Computers are now part and parcel of our life. We are trapped between the developed world and our traditional ways. I appeal to you passionately, please help our children to move forward so that we do not become backwards. The world is now a global village, help us to join it.’ Continue reading