Greetings from Uganda!
After three long years away, it was so good to be back. I arrived to a full welcoming committee at Entebbe airport led by Dominic, Rose and Henry along with a bunch of the Kiwi Sponsorships students, now graduated and working in the city.
We made our way to our leafy guest house where we spent the next two days joyfully catching up with our students – once hopeful young children, now strong and independent graduates making their way in the world. It was such a thrill for me to hear of their successes and to know that what we are doing is really making a tangible difference in their lives. We now have qualified nurses working in clinics and owning their own drug shops, clinical officers running medical centres, business graduates working in insurance firms, plumbers and electricians, pharmacists, lab technicians, tailors and teachers inspiring the next generation. It’s humbling to see the impact of our work and to feel the ripples flow as these students now help to support their younger siblings and families back in their villages. It was an incredibly heartening way to begin my journey.
We began the long drive south, across the equator and into Kyotera district to where the tar seal gives way to the dirt road. I was so thrilled that Rebecca Roberts and Jennie Lee O’Donnell from Bermuda were joining me on this trip with a very special mission. We drove into the school gates to the pounding of drums and feet, the whole school singing, dancing and stomping as the red dust rose and they welcomed us into the school. We were engulfed by huge hugs and enveloped by love and smiles as we made our way across the threshold and into the folds of my home away from home. Tears flowed as the overwhelming realisation hit me that, despite years of border closures and draconian lockdowns, I had made it back to my Ugandan family at last.
It was an incredibly full two weeks. The highlight was celebrating the official opening of the KATKiDS Main Hall & Classroom block, a project I had been working on with Rebecca and Jennie Lee for the last four years. This two-storied building houses a main hall with a capacity of 1,000 people downstairs, with three classrooms and two offices upstairs. It is a mammoth structure that truly needs to be seen to be believed – it towers over the school and is a shining symbol of how far KAASO has come since the early days of a single grass thatched hut housing a dozen young orphans. The only thing bigger than the hall was Dominic’s smile, beaming with pride as the festivities unfolded. All 707 KAASO students were there, along with around 500 parents and guardians and community members who had all come share in the success of the school. It was a magical day of dancing, singing, celebrations, speeches and ribbon cutting, one etched in my memory forever.
The project was a team effort, but the biggest thanks definitely go to KATKiDS, a registered Bermudian charity led by Jennie Lee who worked tirelessly together with the unstoppable Rebecca, fundraising the bulk of the funds to make this dream come true. Additional funding came via a grant from the NZ Embassy Fund in Addis Ababa which I got through the help of my friends and KAASO volunteers Anna Shattky and Johnny Stokes. The local community also pulled together to fundraise and contribute to the building, and you could see their great pride in what had been achieved. From the early foundations to the final coat of paint, every step was led by Derrick Bwanika, an impressive engineer whose came through the KAASO family, and Dominic himself oversaw the entire process. KATKiDS, Dominic and Derrick were all a dream to work with, carefully managing the budget and ensuring the structure would be enduring and strong enough to last a lifetime.
As always, nothing at KAASO ever serves just one purpose. At its simplest level, the KATKiDS Main Hall is a resource to the school, enabling all 707 children and 57 staff members to fit in one place, but it’s also a symbol of development in the area. More fee-paying parents are now wanting their children to enrol at KAASO, local authorities and MPs are bringing visitors to see what can be achieved in a poor rural village when the leaders are honest and trustworthy, Derrick the head engineer has secured multiple large contracts thanks to the success of his work, and, my favourite benefit – hope. Dominic and Rose have cleverly put the upper classes – Primary Five, Six & Seven – in the three upstairs classrooms as an aspirational goal for the children – if they stay in school long enough, they literally get to rise up and look down on how far they have come. Before the KATKiDS Main Hall, most of the children had never been upstairs in their lives. Watching them walk up the ramp grinning to their classes on the upper floor each day was a joy to behold.
With over 90 students now in the Kiwi Sponsorships, my days were certainly full! We travelled north and south to visit Rebecca’s two sponsor students – both studying nursing from different schools across the district, and it was wonderful to see them reunited after five years since Rebecca’s last visit for my Ugandan wedding. Jennie Lee has also come on board the Kiwi Sponsorships and is now the proud sponsor of a set of twins from Eastern Uganda, both incredibly talented musicians who are on music bursaries at KAASO but whom, without support, wouldn’t make it to secondary school next year. Rose and I clocked up many miles visiting students old and new at their home villages, schools and vocational institutes. I was so relieved to find that the general vibe was overwhelmingly positive and that, in spite of the challenges of lockdown and two years of school closures with no access to online learning, the students had made the most of the situation and spent the time working in their family gardens, supporting their parents, grandparents and guardians around the house and having faith that they would be able to complete their educations eventually. They were all so thrilled to be studying again and so very grateful for the support that enabled them to go back to school at a time when families across the country are struggling to find school fees. One heartbreaking day, we had been visiting a group of our nursing students at their institute and as we drove out, we saw a group of girls walking out the front gates and down the road with their bags. I asked why they were going home when it was still the middle of term and Rose sadly replied that they had been sent home for not paying fees. For our Kiwi Sponsorships students, knowing that they will never be sent away for fees means they can concentrate on their studies without the all-consuming stress of being sent home at any minute. If anyone is interested in joining the Kiwi Sponsorships, there are still students on my list in need of support so please get in touch.
Henry spent my first week with us at KAASO, taking annual from his job at the Uganda Viral Research Institute. He is truly something else. Each time I go back to Uganda, I wonder if it’s possible to be any prouder of him and then I already am and then I see him again and my admiration grows. My 12-year old boy from the village is certainly a huge success – and I’m not talking about his education and job, it’s the way he still comes to KAASO and does all he can to help around the school – everything from helping me manage the Kiwi Sponsorships to teaching computer classes to giving impromptu speeches to inspire the young students to washing Dominic’s too car. Nothing is too much for him. He works tirelessly with Rose to keep the Kiwi Sponsorships family together, meeting up with them, calling them and holding meetings to help guide and counsel them on their journeys. He really is a shining star.
Another incredible success story is Brenda, my little friend from Primary One back in 2009 who, in the time I have known her, has lost both of her parents and her beloved jajja (grandmother) and yet who always approaches life with a smile and is now a beautiful, independent young lady. It was with huge pride I was able to give Brenda a copy of my book, full of photos of her and for her to read her own story in print. Brenda is now studying Tailoring and Fashion Design and LOVING it! My suitcases are full to bursting with all the beautiful placemats, tablecloths, and napkins she has made for me to sell to help her continue towards her dream of one day establishing her own fashion and design business. I’ll be posting photos if anyone is keen for any of her gorgeous products!
I was given the most beautiful send off by the students as I left KAASO and while it’s never easy to leave, I know I will be back. Looking back on the last two weeks, my heart soars and my cheeks ache from smiling from all the beautiful reunions I have had – Anthony the journalist and entrepreneur running his own computer workshops, Lilian now a teacher at KAASO, Marvin the electrician working in Kampala, Teddy the aspiring TV and radio presenter, Phionah the lawyer who has just sat her bar exams, Ritah the theatre nurse in training, multiple other nurses and midwives, Sharon the budding agriculturalist, over 30 secondary students and so many others. I continue to be inspired by my amazing friend Kim who came out from the Netherlands to volunteer at KAASO 15 years ago and never left. She now lives down the road in the village and has set up a project to take care of abused and abandoned children, adopting three girls of her own and establishing a malnutrition ward in the local clinic while also running a farm to produce food to feed the children in the clinic. She is an inspiration! Together with Rose we shared beautiful evenings up KAASO Hill, watching the sun set over the hills while the full moon rose over the banana plantations behind. My final night was spent with my dear friends Sonia and Paul who have also lived in Uganda the last 15 years running AfriPads, an impressive social enterprise that empowers girls with washable sanitary pads to help keep them in school. Seeing Sonia & Paul and their gorgeous little girls made me so excited to bring my own boys with me to Uganda – I have made many promises to many children that next time Jack, Charlie and Nath are coming so I’m not sure I’ll be allowed back in the country without them!
So now I begin my journey home with a full heart, dusty feet, a head spinning with so many wonderful stories – and a growing excitement for the moment I will hold my boys in my arms again. Nath has done an incredible job of holding the fort with huge support from both of our mamas and our amazing nanny Phoebe, all of whom have made my trip possible. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped with my boys while I was away, I know it wasn’t always easy! I’m feeling so full of love from everyone in my Ugandan family, and now all I want is to get home and be engulfed by hugs from my Kiwi (and Aussie!) family.
Till we meet again Uganda – I can’t wait to bring my two worlds together next time.