Greetings to you all,
Six weeks have flown by in a heartbeat. Six full, intense, emotional, incredible and impactful weeks and now I find myself getting ready for the final leg of this long journey back to my island home. Saying goodbye is never easy but it is not ‘weraba’ – goodbye – it’s ‘tulaba gane’ – see you later.
Last weekend will forever be imprinted on my mind – a reunion, a meeting, a graduation, and a celebration of how far we have come since 2009. On Saturday, the school gates were in constant motion as a steady stream of sponsored students flowed in. Last year, at our inaugural Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, I provided the feast. This year, after talking to Rose, I worked out that guardians were not only capable of contributing something from their farms and gardens towards the meal, they also wanted to. So children arrived with bunches of matooke strapped to the back of bicycles, chickens tucked under their arms, baskets of avocadoes and pineapples balanced on their heads – their contributions towards the graduation lunch.
That evening we had the annual Kiwi Sponsorships Committee meeting where Rose and I addressed over 30 gathered sponsor students and I couldn’t help catching my breath as I looked around the room, linking in my mind each child with their sponsor, thinking of the difference we were all making together in these eager young students’ lives. One very important part of the Kiwi Sponsorships is the mentorship aspect – not just from Rose, Dominic and me but also from within the group of sponsored students who can look up to their peers. So, after Rose and I had spoken, each of the students got up to voice their thanks and to share with the others their experiences. It really was a joy to hear. Anthony rejoiced that his dreams had come true now that he was studying journalism. Brian – usually so very shy – stood up to state that “in life, everyone has luck but for me my luck is KAASO as they are the ones to have helped me to succeed.” Violah, one of the students going into Senior Four advised the younger students: “You should have drams. If you don’t know where you are going, every road will lead you another way.” Emma, a young new sponsored boy (yup, Emma’s a boys name in Uganda), gratefully thanked KAASO for letting him finish his schooling even though his father could not pay fees and he would normally have had to drop out.
The students’ words moved me greatly, but I could never have prepared myself for the emotional overload of the parents and guardians’ meeting the following morning, the day of the graduation. Many of the sponsored students are looked after by elderly jajjas – grandparents – their creased faces deeply weathered by years of sustenance farming and enduring unfathomable tragedies as they watched their own children fall victim to HIV/AIDS, motor accidents and other mysterious illnesses usually diagnosed simply as ‘headache’.
Dominic gave an opening address then suggested each guardian stand up and introduce themselves and let everyone know which child was theirs. A seemingly simple task. Jajja Bruno (parents and grandparents in Uganda are commonly referred to by their children’s names so my own mama would be Mama Emma) stood up and told the story of first bringing Bruno to KAASO, never imagining he would be able to get such a good education after her daughter, Bruno’s mother, abandoned him as an 8-month old baby. Bruno has only seen his mother once since then (when she came back to dump his little sister Maria in a swamp) and he has never met his father. Then there was Jajja Violah, who broke down in sobs telling the story of how her beloved son, Steven, had died so tragically of liver disease and how she had feared that would be the end of his four children’s schooling but KAASO had taken them in and now the two eldest were being supported by the Kiwi Sponsorships. Mama Phionah wept tears of joy at the relief that her daughter was being sponsored, saying that after her husband’s death she had thought it would also be the end of her children’s education as she would be unable to pay school fees as a solo sustenance farmer. Jajja Marvin mourned the loss of her son and his wife, whose lives were both cut tragically short by HIV/AIDS, emotionally expressing her incredible gratitude for Marvin’s education but tearfully concluding that his HIV positive brother, Arthur, was seriously ill. Alice, Charles’ aunt, spoke on behalf of her family, sharing their relief that Charles would receive the education he deserved after his father, Alice’s brother died so suddenly leaving Charles in the hands of his aunt and elderly Rwandan jajja who had walked to Uganda decades earlier with her herd of cattle to escape the genocide. These were just a few of the over 30 stories that were shared that morning. Emotions were running so high that half way through the room, Dominic – ever the teacher – got us all to stand up and sing a gospel song to help release some of the emotion that was threatening to overtake us all. The stories continued and I openly wept as jajjas knelt at my feet, launched themselves at me in hugs, all the while Rose faithfully translating each and every word for me. I am constantly floored by her ability to hear such stories with compassion and love but to hold it together and be strong for those that need her unbreakable strength. “We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” she told me back in 2009 when I was first faced with a list of 18 students needing sponsorships and the realization that I would not be able to find sponsors for each and every one. She simply reminded me to focus on those I could help. She has helped keep me together through situations that I thought might break me and I’m forever grateful to her for that. So when it came my turn to speak, to attempt to put into words my enormous gratitude to Rose for all she has done and continues to do for these students, the entire community – and for me – I broke down. Which, so beautifully, resulted in me being engulfed by a cascade of warm arms as jajjas came to hold me as my tears fell. Rose then took me in her own arms, thanked me for my words and told me how much she loved me. I needed a thousand of Dominic’s gospel songs to shake off the emotion of that one!
Lunch provided a welcome break and I made my way around Freedom Square, beaming, as groups of children excitedly tucked into their mountains of matooke, potatoes, beans, pumpkin, chicken and, their favourite food – rice. “Madam Emma, you come and we share,” rang out across the school, the Ugandan tradition of sharing all you have never ceasing to humble me further. “Oh no, please! I have my own meal but thank you so, so much,” I would reply and watch their disapproving frowns that I wouldn’t come and take some of the best meal they would have all year.
The graduation ceremony itself was beautiful. I couldn’t stop grinning as I watched our graduates sitting excitedly waiting for their moment to shine. As well as the three Kiwi Sponsorships graduates, we were also celebrating Phionah, Dominic and Rose’s eldest daughter who had completed her last year of high school, along with Nurse Shiba, who has been sponsored through her Diploma in Clinical Medicine by Share Uganda, a Northern Irish charity that has done so much for KAASO from a medical standpoint over the years.
The graduation began with Justine, one of the very first Kiwi Sponsorships students that I took on at the end of 2009 thanks to the support of Di and Ross Warring, friends of my dear friends Don and Gendy. Justine has completed her Certificate in Nursing which enables her to now work in clinics and hospitals around Uganda. Her plan is to work for a few years to save money and then eventually go back to school to upgrade her certificate to a diploma. I can’t wait for that second wave of graduations!
Next was Damian, who I also first met in 2009 when he was in Primary Six. I have always had a soft spot for Damian, who has the world’s widest smile and a heart of gold. It was Damian who first gave me the idea for the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund when he came to me requesting support for the tomato garden he wanted to grow on his grandmother’s land. The project had its ups and downs and wasn’t ultimately as profitable as he’d hoped but that just made him even more determined than ever. I went to visit Damian at his vocational plumbing school this year and the teachers couldn’t stop singing his praises – his attitude, his academics, his approach to his studies were all exemplary. I couldn’t have been prouder. Huge thanks to Sarah and Matt Mackenzie for all the love and support you’ve shown Damian over the years!
Finally, we celebrated Caroline. Matt Lansdown took on Caroline at the end of 2009 and while Caroline has not had an easy road, ultimately her story was the one that made me proudest on graduation day. Caroline’s dream has always been to become a nurse but this was before I knew what I know now about the importance of branching off for vocational courses after Senior Four so I encouraged her to continue to Senior Five. Unfortunately, at the end of 2014, I was devastated to learn that Caroline had failed Senior Five. I’d never experienced that before and didn’t know what to do. How could I ask Matt to pay for her to repeat her year? That wasn’t part of the deal. I felt sick. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I had Rose, my rock, my navigator. She called a meeting with Caroline and her incredible mother and together we agreed, at Caroline’s insistence that she would repeat Senior Five – and pass this time. Matt very kindly agreed to pay half her fees and Caroline put her head down and worked harder than she’s ever worked for the last two years and passed both Senior Five and Six. To say I was proud to shake her hand on graduation day was an understatement.
Caroline’s graduation in itself would have already been huge enough but the story gets better. Inspired by the help that Caroline had been given by perfect strangers, Mama Caroline decided to start her own school, a mini version of KAASO in her own home village to help those who would be unable to get an education otherwise. “You came all this way not knowing any of us and helped us – strangers to you! So I thought, ‘why should I not do the same?’ And so I created this small school. Things are very basic but we are trying. I think that’s good enough, not so?” The ripples are flowing and it never ceases to amaze me the wave of support I’ve been riding the past seven years. I truly couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling way to spend my days.
After Damian’s tomato garden lit the spark for creating a student microloan fund in 2013, I came back and spent hours discussing the idea with Nath and together we decided to launch the Suubi Sanyu fund in 2014, a fund from which students can draw loans to help get their dreams off the ground – or in the ground as the case may be! Last year saw the ‘soft launch’ of the project with three students starting with brick making, nursery beds and cabbage gardens. The brick project unfortunately was a big struggle with the rains coming with a vengeance the day after the bricks had been fired, revealing that the soil the boys had used had too much sand in it. The whole lot was lost. It was a big blow for the students – and the fund – but fortunately, thanks to the generosity of Donna White, Nath’s Australian Sailing physio, who gave her 18-year old son a donation to the Suubi Sanyu fund for Christmas that year, the fund – and the students – bounced back. Currently, the Suubi Sanyu fund is financing piggery projects, passionfruit gardens, jewellery making projects, a roadside chapatti business as well as beautiful place mats and Christmas decorations the children have been busily making over the past six weeks. I couldn’t be prouder of what these children are achieving and I’d also like to add a huge thanks to Claire for designing our amazing logo!
There is still much to do and the coming months will involve hours of follow ups from my trip, but for now it’s time to get back to my ever-patient husband without whom none of this would be possible. Nath, thank you so much for all your support, for letting me fly, for being there every step of the way to bounce ideas off, to pour my heart out to, for wiping away my tears of heartbreak and sharing in my tears of joy, for reminding me of the way forward when I get lost and for being the rock upon which I stand. My load is definitely lighter thanks to you. I cannot wait for next year when Nath and I will go to KAASO together and he will finally get to meet all these characters in the stories he’s been hearing about for so long. The school, the village, the community are planning a big, fat Ugandan wedding for us and it’s going to be epic! Charles’ jajja has donated one of the bulls she walked to Uganda with from Rwanda, Jajja Violah has donated the ‘sacred cock’ (in the Baganda culture, the groom must give a rooster to his brother in law – Nicko, better free your calendar!) and Mama Caroline has offered to cover the costs of the traditional Ugandan gomesi wedding dress being made for me. It’s definitely going to be a day for the memory bank!
A final thank you to you all for the messages of love, support and encouragement. I couldn’t do any of this without my amazing cast of supporters and I only wish you could each experience just a moment of the gratitude that I am floored by each time I go back to Uganda. There’s certainly enough to carry me around the world and back.