Back in the world again

And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s September. All my best intentions and New Year’s resolutions to keep in touch more, to write more, to share more stories seem to have gone by the wayside. But yesterday, while cruising with Nath through Ely’s Harbour, brainstorming book proposals and future plans, he reminded me that it’s never too late to get back in touch with the world. So here I am.

My last post, A Year of Milestones, summed up 2016 and all that it was. 2017 has been similarly epic, but also interspersed with the moments of calm and reflection that come from (finally) having your own space in the world, a place to rest your travelling shoes. From January until July, with the exception of a brief Easter trip to Newport, RI, we went almost half a year without getting on a plane, a record for us given the past four years of frenetic travel. It was such bliss to have a home of our own, a fixed, immovable place on a far-flung island, one that has come to mean the world to us. The people we have met, the opportunities we have had and that breath-catching view that never ceases to fill me with joy – Bermuda, we will miss you.

The America’s Cup came and went like a hurricane. After over three years of trying to convince people that being married to Nath did not compromise my ability to work on the Cup, I finally got a job. I spent the event period running the Longtail Lounge, a corporate hospitality lounge filled with Bermudians and international guests who came to fill themselves with Moët and gasp at the flying rocket ships that sailed before them. I put together a team of fabulous girls, friends old and new, and together with Mark and Ben, the Longtail Legends rocked the Cup village.

Being part of Artemis Racing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so immensely proud of Nath and the entire team for what they managed to achieve – from where they started to where they ended up was a phenomenal leap. To me, most importantly, was also how they did it – the spirit, the sense of family, the determination and the refusal to give up right to the very end was extraordinary. “We are Artemis,” is a cry that will echo in my ears for many, many years to come.

Nath and I left Bermuda two weeks after the Cup ended for a whirlwind month around Europe – Nath competing in the moths, flying at a thousand miles around Lake Garda, a huge contrast to cruising with my parents along the south of France on their new boat, Sojourn II, Nath learning how to sail slowly. A brief stopover in England, sharing stories with friends and family before heading on to Sweden to celebrate the wedding of Nath’s teammate and his gorgeous bride on the Stockholm archipelago before returning to our Bermudian home for the last time.

So now is a time of reflection, of gathering our thoughts, of hypothesising about what the future might hold – something entirely out of our hands now – and, inevitably, packing up our home. To go where? That is still uncertain. What is absolutely certain, however, is that we are going to Uganda – together – in November. After five years of hearing stories about the village that stole my heart, it’s time for “Mr. Nathan” to meet his Ugandan family. Oh, and we thought we’d just throw a big, fat Ugandan wedding in there too. A date has been set – 24th November – the planning committee is underway, and family and friends are starting to book flights from around the world. Dominic and Rose have timed the date so that not only can the 638 KAASO students and 46 staff members attend, but also the majority of the 53 sponsor students, their families and those from the surrounding community. As the preparations get underway, Nath just watches me with a patient, albeit slightly terrified, smile, knowing how much this means to me but struggling to comprehend just how huge it is going to be. Even I have no real handle on how the day will unfold. When I ask Rose what exactly is going to happen at this wedding of ours, she simply laughs and asks, “But Madam Emma, you want to spoil the surprise??” No, no I don’t.

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A year of milestones

It seems hard to believe that two weeks ago I was still waking to the roosters at KAASO, and now I’m sitting on a glorious 22 degree winters day at Bermuda airport about to trade sunshine and palm trees for the snow and bright lights of New York City. The world and all its contrasts.

As sad as it was to leave my KAASO family, it has been amazing being reunited with my Bermuda family and sharing stories from the six weeks I spent in Uganda. The love, support, compassion and generosity has been overwhelming and I feel so grateful to be surrounded by such a loving community of people. The response I’ve had to the children’s crafts has been incredible and the Suubi Sanyu micro loan fund is so much better for it. Thank you so much to all those who have supported this enterprise – you are wonderful!

As the year comes to a close, I look back and think of how many milestones 2016 has held. Daddy-o rowed me down the aisle to marry the love of my life, thanks to Jennie’s guidance and unfailing belief I finished writing my book (yet to be published but that’s next year’s challenge!), I watched my love win a silver medal in Rio, I spent a year ‘living’ at the same address, together with Beau and Rebecca I delivered a school bus to KAASO, then proudly supported over 50 sponsored students and cheered on three Kiwi Sponsorships students on graduation day at KAASO. It sure has been a year to remember!

As I prepare to sign off for the holidays and enjoy some long-awaited R&R with Nath, I want to take a moment to thank you all for sharing this journey with me. For supporting me from near and far, for sponsoring piggeries and giving students the chance of an education, for donating to school buses, for listening to my stories time and time again, for designing countless logos (Claire!!), for encouraging me to keep going when times get hard and for making me feel endlessly loved and valued. I am so much better for having all of you – and everyone in my Ugandan village home – in my life.

I leave you with this gorgeous little KAASO Christmas video – thanks to Beau for putting it together. On behalf of the whole KAASO family, we wish you a very, very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

https://youtu.be/FodxJg1lPNU

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The children of KAASO with their new school bus

A 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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Inspired Magazine

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Feeling very honoured to have been profiled in the beautiful Inspired Magazine.

Emma Outteridge was standing in the Nice Opera House on the glittering French Riviera, champagne glass in hand, a little black dress adorning her svelte frame, and mingling with VIP guests of Louis Vuitton here to watch a yacht race for the world’s sailing elite. This young Kiwi woman was living the high-life, hobnobbing with European high society in her role as events manager for the luxury Louis Vuitton  label. Yet Emma’s mind was elsewhere – thousands of miles away in a remote poverty-stricken village in Uganda. Emma had just returned from six months’ volunteering in Uganda, and found herself smitten by the people, particularly the orphans at the village school.

While the people around her discussed yacht prices and champagne varieties, Emma’s mind wandered, her face warming into a smile as she recalled the Ugandan orphans – the wide smiles that flashed so readily upon their faces, their shining eyes and their thirst for education. She realised the recent end of her six-month volunteering stint didn’t have to mean the end of her relationship with the village. Since that day seven years ago, Emma has gone on to help dozens of orphaned children in the village to access the education they’d otherwise have been denied…

Click here to read the full article.

 

 

 

 

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

Guest Post: The Starfish Story by Jessie Craven-Francis

Three months ago, I was hugely inspired by a conversation I had with a friend called Jessie. I was in Rio at the time in the lead up to the Olympic Games at which my husband was competing and life was all about sailing and sports. However, for a couple of hours one July afternoon, I was transported back to my village world during a Skype conversation with Jessie. Now back in the UK, Jessie shared with me the amazing updates from her recent trip to Uganda. I listened with a smile to her stories, her words reminding me so much of my own Ugandan experiences, but what struck a chord most was her talking about the ‘Starfish Story’ – a story so reminiscent of the motto of KAASO’s co-founder, Rose: “We can’t do everything, but we can do something.” I have just completed a memoir about this very issue – the fact that we so often feel paralaysed by inaction, the problems of the world seeming too big, unsurmountable, beyond us. However, for each and every person, a single act can make a huge difference. That was the case with me and Henry. And the same goes for Jessie. I invite you to read on and challenge you not to feel inspired…

Emma xxx

 

jessie-on-a-bodaI’m Jessie, a physiotherapist from the U.K. and this is my first ever blog. It’s taken a while for me to write but here goes… So why the ‘Starfish’ story? Well, it reflects some of what Uganda taught me. The main lesson – you can’t help everyone but we can all help someone.

The ‘Starfish’ story I know goes like this… There was a young girl walking along a beach with her mother and there were hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand. ‘What will happen to these star fish?’ asked the child. ‘Sadly,’ said her mother, ‘without the sea they will die.’ So the little girl started to pick up starfish as she walked along, throwing them back into the sea. Her mother said, ‘You can’t make a difference sweetheart, there are just too many of them.’ The little girl picked up another one and as she threw it back into the sea she looked up at her mother and said, ‘I can make a difference to that one!’

This story has always stuck with me and often helped me on crazy days at work or in life when I feel like I’m treading water and helping no one. On those days I take a deep breath and tell myself… One person at a time, the starfish effect!

UGANDA: Africa for me had always seemed a magical place I wanted to one day visit. I thought and daydreamed that maybe one day I could go and help a country that always seemed to be developing but, at the same time, struggling when I saw the images coming through on TV. Like many of us, I have limited funds so can’t address all the needs of a world that is crying out for help. It’s so easy to sit on a comfy sofa, feel sympathetic – and then hopelessly overwhelmed – and say to ourselves frankly, ‘What can I do?’ I’d donate £5 or £10 and hope it got to that kid with the sad eyes that desperately needed a hug, some love, some hope, all the things you can’t give from the comfort of your home.

Then, two years ago, I was asked to lead a team of sixteen-year-old boys who wanted to volunteer at a school in Uganda. I was super nervous, but I agreed to go. The boys raised money and, together with my parents, we ran a fund-raiser that got us all out there. So as soon as the boys finished their GCSEs, off we went, five boys and me to a rural school in the outback of Uganda. I had no idea what to expect – none of us did.jessie-the-boys

The first thing I discovered when we arrived was that Africa is not at all like what you see on the charity programmes. This was the first shock. Uganda is a very green and beautiful country, dusty from a lack of tarmac on the roads but so full of colour, life and beauty. The cities are crazy and full of life with everything from shanty towns to exclusive shopping centres. The rural areas are green and very beautiful. Not surprisingly, the sanitation isn’t great and while it’s not that hot, it is incredibly humid, which means the mozzies love the place. But overall, my first impression of Uganda was that it was an incredible country.

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Our first challenge: of the 12 charity bags and 6 personal bags we had checked in, only two arrived which meant we had no clothes other than the ones we had on (and a few we later bought) for ten days. Needless to say, this was not part of the plan and it definitely made things slightly more interesting for the first week or so, however, this did not stop the boys getting involved with school life, and me getting involved with the small medical centre on the school grounds.

Towards the end of our stay, while the boys were playing sport with the kids during break time, I noticed one of the young boys sitting out. He was a good footballer and was normally one of the first to be out playing football so I was surprised to see him sitting on the side of the field. I went to check he was okay and he told me he was fine, he just had a sore foot. I hadn’t noticed him limping but I simply nodded and was about to leave him when I noticed his finger – it was raw. I asked him what happened but he refused to tell me until eventually, with the help of Jude, the school nurse, we managed to get the truth out of him. His answer literally stopped me in my tracks.

‘It’s from the rats,’ he said, ‘they come into the dorm at night and bite on our fingers and feet.’

I was so shocked. I asked why he hadn’t told someone. Jude gently explained that the boys didn’t want to get into trouble as the school is supposed to be a girl’s school and the boys are there mostly because they are siblings of orphaned girls with nowhere else to go so the Sisters who run the school have taken them in. The dormitory was a tiny, dark room with little comfort and in the rains it sometimes flooded. When the rats came in, they didn’t tell anyone for fear of being kicked out of the school.

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I sat with him while Nurse Jude patched him up, then I went to explain to the boys I was with what was happening in the boys’ dorm. They were hugely upset to discover this and after some serious discussions about the situation, we made a decision: we would build a new dorm for the boys. Before leaving Uganda, we helped clean out the boys’ existing dorm and laid rat deterrent. We promised we would return.

Two years later, the boys had completed their ‘A’ Levels and managed to raise £8,000 which they sent over to the school to get construction underway. In July 2016, we all went back out to Uganda to paint the new dormitory and be there for when the young boys moved into their new home. It was an incredible moment and I am truly grateful to have been on this journey over the past two years. I am so proud of these five eighteen-year-old boys and the sustainable difference they have made to the school and the boys that currently live there. I hope this experience has inspired the boys in the dormitory and the girls of the school as well.

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Nurse Jude was also waiting for us when we returned to Uganda and on this second trip, I learned more about his story. Jude is from a local family and was trained as an assistant nurse. He was employed by the school nurse but only qualified as an assistant nurse due to lack of funding. I thought back on the Starfish Story, and decided that this was one person I could help. With the assistance of friends and family, I am now funding him to become a fully trained nurse so he can further help his local community. There is a shortage of nurses and he is hoping to work at his local medical centre, the Busembatia Grade 4 Health Centre, once fully trained in a few years.

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What Uganda taught me: There is a fragile balance in Uganda. On a basic level, most people we came across seemed to be doing well – they had food, great community spirit and clean water. Although life was simple and in no way easy, everyone wore huge smiles, no one complained, people were not starving and, on the most part, they were in good health – a far cry from what is portrayed on TV. However, when you look closer, you do see the problems that poverty brings –  one mosquito bite and a child dies in its parents’ arms, unable to get to a medical centre that could provide free treatment if only they had the transport to get there. The failure of a single crop can mean the loss of a nutritional source, leading to malnutrition and illness. And yet the strength of the communities in the rural areas is inspiring.

The problems and fragilities in Uganda are huge and if you focus on the big picture, all you see is what you can’t do. Life can be overwhelming and complicated, however, if you keep things simple and look at the individuals around you, you realise that there are small things that can make a big difference. If we take a deep breath, find someone we trust and invest our efforts in small projects, we can lay a foundation so the people we help can then move on and help others. As in the Star Fish story, you can’t always help everyone, but if you can help and inspire the right people, then you can create a circle of goodwill that inspires the next generation and flows like ripples across a lake when you drop a stone.

Uganda taught me you can help people one by one, and that looking up and out, not down and in is the best way to help each other in this world.

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

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

In June of this year, that changed.

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

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

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

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

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The selfie Rose sent me from their flight to Dubai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rose and Rose

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

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Dominic and Rose with headmaster Sebastian and his wife, Gillian

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

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

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

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Rose and a very happy Dominic on the train to London

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

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Outside Kings Cross St Pancras Station

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

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Dominic loved the escalators!

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

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

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

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My first KAASO meeting to be held in a London cafe 

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

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In Picadilly Circus

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

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Dominic embracing the Brexit rally

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

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With Teressa at Hyde Park

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

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

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

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

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Nathan with Dominic and Rose at last

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

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

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

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With Dominic on the stairs of St Paul’s Cathedral

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Rose and the London Eye

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Nathan and Dominic passing Westminster

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

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After our picnic in St James’s Park

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One very happy gang of bus tourers!

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

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

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Till next time! xxxx

Northbourne Park School: www.northbournepark.com

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

Share Uganda: www.shareuganda.co.uk

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