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