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

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A hand up

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Children at KAASO eating jackfruit

At long last the rains have come, bring relief from the endless drought that has plagued the area. The land has been so parched, creating huge issues as crops dry up and food supplies become scarce. Thankfully, two nights ago, the heavens opened and everyone is rushing to the gardens – and out into the night as the rains bring flying ants which are hugely popular as fried snacks in Uganda. Beth and I have politely declined the handfuls of crunchy ants offered our way…

My trips back to Uganda are always shaped by the sponsor visits I plan out with Rose and the hilarious off-road adventures that follow as we bump our way around the district visiting the sponsored students in their villages, at their schools, universities and vocational courses. It has been incredible catching up with all the students and seeing their progress made over the past year since my last visit and what has blown me away the most has been visiting the students in their vocational courses – those who are able to follow through on their dreams thanks to the support of their sponsorships and mentorship from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme.

Last week, Rose and I drove out to Villa Maria Hospital, about 15 km north of Masaka where Juliet and Winnie, two sponsored students are in their first year of their two-and-a-half year nursing course. We found Juliet in the wards and she was so thrilled to find us there, proudly showing us around the hospital. Winnie was out in the fields doing community outreach through the hospital’s free child vaccine and adult HIV-testing programme so we sat under a tree with Juliet to catch up on her year. Just as we were finishing up, an ambulance pulled up and out jumped Winnie, back from the villages and she threw her arms around us in delight and we all had an amazing catch up.

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Winnie and Juliet

From there, we drove to another hospital where another sponsored student, Charles, is training to be a lab technician. We met with the head teacher who sang Charles’ praises, saying how well he was doing in his course and how proud he was of Charles, who couldn’t stop grinning.

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Charles and his head teacher

Our final stop was to Anthony, another of Charles’ sponsored classmates from KAASO who has almost completed his certificate in Journalism studies and is soon to start his diploma. I have never seen a student so excited to be studying, or so grateful to have the opportunity to do something that he would have had no chance to do without external support. Anthony’s dream for as long as he can remember is to become a broadcaster and, after my chats to his lecturer, it seems that Anthony is well on his way to fulfilling that dream. It was such a satisfying day for both me and Rose in that it really demonstrated that the programme is working. While we once sent students through to the end of secondary school, they now branch off after their fourth year of secondary to do vocational courses – meaning that by the end of their sponsorship, they have a qualification which enables them to get a job, to start earning money and to begin the road towards upgrading their studies further down the track. It’s very much a case of helping them to help themselves – “teach a man to fish,” Dominic keeps repeating with a grin.

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With Anthony and his broadcasting lecturer

If that wasn’t already satisfying enough, I had the pleasure of also visiting a bunch of our sponsored students in Mbarara – now graduated from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme and now walking on their own two feet. Both Henry and David are studying at universities, paying their fees through a combination of agricultural and entrepreneurial projects and family support – their families have all pulled together what they can to reward the efforts of the boys’ studies over the years and as a way to acknowledge the incredible support they have received from their sponsors over the past six years. Henry told us animatedly about his new hibiscus juice business which he has launched as a way to help support himself through university. It’s been a great success so far, with his juice selling out daily. Here’s to scaling up! I really couldn’t be prouder of what these students are doing.

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Mbarara sponsor student visit

It’s been wonderful having Beth share in the beautiful world of KAASO. Together we have travelled across the district visiting piggeries and sponsored students and Beth has quickly been adopted as the computer teacher at KAASO, educating teachers on how to use computers and taking on the mammoth task of helping Teacher Sarah input all the student fees data into Excel – a huge modernizing step from the hand-ruled notebook she has been using in the past.

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Beth and Rose en route to visit a community piggery project

It’s time to get back to the village – via the home of Brenda, a girl I first met in my P1 class in 2009 who has now just graduated from her final year of KAASO and will next year be joining secondary school. It never ceases to amaze me how much these children have grown up and how far they have come. I can’t wait to see where the next ten years will take us…

If anyone is interested in sponsoring a child, you can read more in the Kiwi Sponsorships section of this blog.

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With Henry outside his university hostel

 

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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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

 

Shined with Kiwi Shoe Polish

When I first came to KAASO in 2009, I had no idea where my journey would lead. I hoped my time in the village would change me and the way I viewed the world, but I could never have imagined how great the impact it would have, that it would change not only the way I saw the world, but my place in it. KAASO has now become a huge part of who I am and I just love these trips back to my village home.

As many of you know, the Kiwi Sponsorships programme I have been running for the past six years all started with Henry, an irresistible little boy with a huge smile and even bigger dreams. He had more than enough determination to make those dreams come true, but not the funds. My parents and I stepped in to help him and the Kiwi Sponsorships was born. Other friends and family members soon joined and, over the years, as I find myself unable to stop talking about KAASO, even more people have joined in to support those students unable to continue onto secondary school. There are now have 32 students who are receiving an education thanks to that love and care.

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It is easy to feel in life that we are just one small drop in a great ocean of need and what can one person possibly do? My time at KAASO has taught me that we can do more than we realize, not just by financially supporting a student but, most importantly, by believing in them. Many of the children here come from families ripped apart by AIDS, poverty and incredibly difficult circumstances. Yesterday I visited a girl whose father was shot dead on the side of the road when she was still in her mother’s womb, another whose father was killed in a motor accident when she was just two months old and whose mother, unable to cope, abandoned the girl with her elderly grandmother. There are so many difficult stories, sometimes it’s hard to take. But in spite of their challenging situations, these children still have spirit. They have determination and drive and the will to make something of themselves. They finish primary school fired up and ready to take on the world. However, without the benefit of KAASO’s incredible system of free primary schooling, their dreams of further education are quickly cut short.

So I can only imagine how it must feel for such children to then find out that someone across the world, someone they have never laid eyes on, has offered to help them, to believe in them, to support them through their schooling so that they can have the opportunity so many of us take for granted. An education. It’s overwhelming seeing what the promise of an education brings to the children here, the look of disbelief on their faces when they learn that someone they have never met believes in them and is giving them the chance to learn. It is humbling in the extreme. No wonder my time at KAASO is so incredibly emotional but so immensely satisfying.

On Tuesday, we celebrated our first Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation ceremony. We first met with all the sponsor students in our annual sponsorship meeting, run by our Chairperson, Henry. He thanked me for coming back every year, explaining that it was so much more than just the financial support, it was the hours and hours we spent talking together, discussing futures and believing in them. “That shows it is love, it is care, it is endless support.” We met with the parents and guardians of the sponsored students, mostly elderly jajjas – grandmothers with faces weathered by age and responsibility – and Dominic gave an inspiring speech about how when the three Kiwi Girls – Cherie, Kirsty and I – first came to KAASO, all anyone knew of the word “Kiwi” in Uganda was Kiwi Shoe polish. Over the years, they have come to learn that a Kiwi is so much more than a kind of shoe polish. “But,” Dominic said with his cheeky grin, “in a way, Madam Emma is like Kiwi shoe polish. She has really polished KAASO!”

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After the meeting and a huge feast for lunch, I stood, bursting with pride as our graduation ceremony got underway. Courtney, the wonderful fellow Kiwi volunteer at KAASO, had decorated Kiwi House with the children, just as Cherie had done so six years earlier for the opening of Kiwi House. Now I watched as eight of our students were celebrated for their achievements over the six years of their sponsorship. Four students have now finished Senior Six, their final year of secondary school, and another four have graduated from two-year vocational courses following Senior Four – two nurses and two vets-in-training. After the speeches, I was called to the verandah of Kiwi House dressed, somewhat hilariously, in a graduation gown, where I read the names of each student to an audience of parents, guardians, community members and children. As each child came to the stage, Dominic presented them with a graduation certificate while Rose pinned their GRADUATE sashes to the happy students. As I hugged each one tightly, I thought I might explode with happiness.

The day ended with a disco, typically upbeat Ugandan music blaring from a borrowed sound system and as I danced amongst the students, now as tall as me, I thought back on when I had first met them as young 12-year olds and Dominic’s words from his rousing graduation speech rang in my ears:

“This school began in 1999 and we had little. Henry was in our first grass-thatched classroom as a tiny small boy and one day during the rainy season it collapsed on top of him. The whole village came to help rescue Henry and his fellow students. Today, that same small boy is graduating. We first saw these students when they were small, small insects. And now they are big elephants. We congratulate them!”

From everyone at KAASO, thanks so much to our family of sponsors. You are changing lives, giving hope, and raising elephants.

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It’s time to row inland

What an incredible whirlwind the past year has been. As most of you know, over summer in Wangi, Nath proposed with a handmade ring of sailing rope at the dinner table with both sets of parents watching on in speechless delight. We resumed our colourful magical mystery tour around the globe, hopping from 49er regattas to America’s Cup events before packing our life into a container and setting up camp in Bermuda. In the midst of it all, I did an incredibly enlightening writing course at UCLA where I met my inspiring mentor, Jennie, and, after working from satellite desks around the globe all year, last week I finished my manuscript while bobbing on a houseboat in Buenos Aires. It seemed only appropriate – it’s certainly been a year full of adventures.

Houseboat living was a hilarious juggling act. It turned out our floating homes were actually on an island up a river which meant that Nath and Goobs would go by RIB to the sailing club each morning while Claire and I rowed our tippy little dinghy around the marina in search of wifi to upload Claire’s graphic designs and my latest writing submissions. Thunder and lightning storms, torrential rain and power outages made some days more challenging than others, particularly when we lost water for three days but, as I keep reminding Nath, it’s all just practice for when we sail off into the sunset and cruise around the world together. He just smiles. One day, I will to teach him the pleasure of sailing slowly. But in the meantime, with the Olympics and the Cup just over the horizon, I’m happy for him to keep sailing as fast as he can!

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Yesterday evening, Nath and I farewelled our little houseboat, stacked my tower of exploding bags into the dinghy (plus a violin – thanks Alex, young Mark will be over the moon!!) and paddled ashore. We boarded separate flights headed in opposite directions and now it’s time for this girl to row inland. Thus I find myself on my own in the hazy midst of a two-day journey that will take me from a river in Argentina to a village in Uganda.

But I won’t be alone for long. Tomorrow I will be stepping into the customs hall of Entebbe Airport where the immigration officers are going to be baffled by not just one but now two Blackmen in Uganda – five minutes after I land, so does my brother. I can’t wait to share the incredible world of KAASO with Nicko who has been hearing about Uganda for so long and now he’s joining me on my annual pilgrimage back to the village. A huge thank you to Nicko not only for having the faith to follow me down the red dirt road – something I hope many more of you will do one day – but also for patiently receiving the bombardment of parcels from sponsors that I have been directing his way. Gifts for the children now take up 28 of his 30 kilo baggage allowance leaving him not a lot of space for his own clothes or belongings. That’s dedication. Luckily it’s warm on the equator.

This, my sixth trip back to Uganda, is a particularly special one. Six and a half years ago, I first tumbled onto African soil, wide-eyed, green, naïve, hopeful and full of aspirations to save the world. I quickly worked out the whole world might be a bit ambitious but I had to at least do something. Then I met Henry. He was twelve-years old, he had a smile as wide as the Sahara and enormous dreams to match. He wanted to go to secondary school. Thanks to mama and daddy-o, that dream has come true for Henry. And thanks to my other amazing sponsors, there are another 31 children able to continue their education. As I write, Henry and the original five sponsor students of 2009 are about to graduate from six years of secondary school. Nicko and I will be there to celebrate this incredible achievement and I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.

For those of you who have followed my trips since day one, a heartfelt thanks for your continuing support. Every single word of encouragement, every message, every conversation has spurred me on, enabling me to do what I do and I’m forever grateful for that. For those who are just joining the journey now, welcome. I hope you will enjoy being carried through the villages in my dusty backpack as much as I love sharing this adventure with you all.

The Story of the Kiwi Sponsorships

At KAASO in December 2013 with some of the girls from the Kiwi Sponsorships

At KAASO in December 2013 with some of the girls from the Kiwi Sponsorships

The Kiwi Sponsorships have become a huge part of my life and occupy a very special place in my heart and soul. It occurred to me recently that many of you may not know how it was that this programme came about or exactly what it is so, on this quiet spring afternoon in San Francisco, I thought I would share the story with you.

Henry at KAASO in 2009

Henry at KAASO in 2009

In 2009 I met a remarkable boy called Henry. He was incredibly intelligent, falling over himself to be helpful, seriously determined and respected by teachers and students alike. He was in his final year of primary school and had just turned 13 years old. Henry came to me with a letter in July of 2009 asking me to sponsor him through his secondary education as his father had died and his mother could not afford the fees. At the time, I was an unemployed volunteer who had no idea where her next income was coming from. I sadly explained to Henry that I could not help him.

As the year went by and the Primary Leaving Examinations approached, I began to wonder what would become of this extraordinary young man the following year. Would he attend one of the government secondary schools where you’d be lucky to find a book and a desk? Would he stay at home to help his mother work in the fields? Would he simply fade out of my consciousness as I left the African continent? Eventually I decided that none of these were acceptable.

The Kiwi Sponsorships started with Henry in late 2009 and the growth has been overwhelming. In 2010, Henry’s first year of secondary school, he was joined by six other students whom I had found sponsors for. My return visit to KAASO in 2011 brought with it five new sponsors. By 2014, twelve sponsored students had become 22 students. This year, the programme will put 25 students through secondary schools around Uganda, with another five children sponsored at KAASO Primary School.

Last December's Sponsorship Meeting at KAASO

Last December’s Sponsorship Meeting at KAASO

Marvin, in his second year of sponsorship, gifting us a jackfruit to say thank you

Marvin, in his second year of sponsorship, gifting us a jackfruit to say thank you

I have been truly blown away the response I get when I talk about this programme, the love and support that flows from people I meet around the world. I have always been involved in the world of international sailing events and many of the people I have met at these events around the globe are now helping to fund these bright young students through school in Uganda. It is such a buzz for me to share their stories with their sponsors and to bring these two such disparate worlds together. My sponsor base consists not only of those from the sailing world, but also a loyal collection of family, friends and fellow volunteers.

One of my most recent sponsors I have never even met but she contacted me via this blog which a mutual friend had put her onto. It makes me so happy to think that this can be a vehicle to help spread the stories of my amazing little friends in Uganda with a wider audience.

My last transfer of school fees is winging its way through cyberspace as we speak which will put this year’s group through another year. These remarkable students are so determined to succeed in spite of their difficult circumstances and it’s a joy to watch them grow. Thanks to your support, the next generation of nurses, plumbers, vets, doctors, teachers, journalists, accountants and entrepreneurs is being formed. It is a privilege to share this journey with you all.

Our up-and-coming nurses at Rakai Community School of Nursing, December 2014

Our up-and-coming nurses at Rakai Community School of Nursing, December 2014

And rain will make the tomatoes grow

Time in Uganda is a funny thing. While a single day can seem to span for a week with so much happening and so much to get your head around, somehow a week can pass in a day, leaving you wishing there was more time. This time two weeks ago I was arriving in the village; in just one week I will be on a plane home. I wish there was more time but I am ever grateful for my annual visits, especially this one which made me realise with newfound intensity just how much I value my time in Uganda.

Last Sunday was KAASO’s Speech Day which was a huge celebration marking the end of the school year, combined with the graduation of the gorgeous nursery children who are now promoted to Primary One.

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It was a moving day, with children of all ages performing before their parents and guardians, singing, dancing, drumming, moving and shaking. I was so proud watching them all, those I first met almost six years ago, now all grown up. Brenda did an incredible job of her performance and received a huge reception from the crowd.

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Dominic gave a heartfelt speech thanking me for all I had done for KAASO and I was humbled by the gratitude and kindness that flooded my way from everyone I met. I still marvel at how far this school has come over the past few years and how lucky I feel to have stumbled across this very special little corner of the world, nestled in a tiny village amidst banana palms and mango trees.

Speech Day ended with a disco which saw people from 3 to 93 up dancing in the school’s front courtyard. We were hugely fortunate that the rains held off as we’re in the midst of the rainy season and the previous day had seen the most torrential downpour I’ve ever experience in Uganda with pounding rains turning dust to mud, flowing in rivers through the school for hours. I can’t help but smile as I write, as the thumping music from a nearby bar pounds out “I bless the rains down in Africa.”

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In the midst of the dancing, the school year officially ended and the children started to flood out of the school gates with their mattresses, metal suitcases and worldly belongings on their heads. I tried to farewell everyone but it was overwhelming trying to take in the mass exodus of over 500 children who marched like ants out the school gates, spreading out across the country for the holidays with parents, grandparents and distant relatives.

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The consolation of all these departing children is the return of the sponsor children and every day it seems I am met with another flying hug from a newly returned secondary student. The children I met in 2009 are now 18 and 19-year olds who dwarf me and have matured into a bunch of incredible young adults. I went to Masaka on Friday to pick up Henry and David from school and beamed with pride as these two handsome young men in crisp white shirts and ties showed me around their school, grinning as they explained their responsibility to set an example for the younger children as they are now the ‘elders’ and role models of the school – next year is their last year of secondary school before they will head out into the world.

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It makes me so immensely proud to see all these grown up students back at KAASO, helping around the school and guiding and inspiring the younger children. I have been meeting with each of the sponsor students, catching up on their year, hearing of their hopes and dreams and what they hope to become given the incredible boost they have had by being sponsored through secondary school. I listen to their dreams of becoming doctors, vets, pharmacists, nurses, businessmen… Most importantly, what has impressed me this time is that these students have grasped the concept that their sponsorships are not everlasting but amazing head starts in life which they must not take for granted. Those that are approaching the end of their studies are mapping out their next paths, working out how they can cultivate gardens and set up poultry projects and get jobs to help support themselves and their families and fund the next stages of their lives. It has been so heartening to meet with them all and to feel the overflowing gratitude towards their sponsors that pours from each and every one. I started this project five years ago, having no idea where it would lead, never imagining I would now have over 20 children being given the simplest gift of all, one we so often take for granted – an education.

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While sitting with one of the sponsor students last week, a new idea was born, one I hope will set a precedent and be the start of something truly incredible. He was explaining to me that he wanted to create his own tomato garden in the holidays which he could harvest before going back to school in early March. He lost both of his parents and in the holidays stays with his grandmother not far from KAASO in her small mud-brick hut where she takes care of half a dozen other orphaned grandchildren. He explained to me that his grandmother had a plot of land she was willing to give him for the project, all he lacked was the initial capital to get his tomatoes in the ground. Sitting together on the floor of my room, I listened intently as this 18-year old boy carefully explained the process of creating a tomato garden, the materials required and the costs involved. I was well and truly impressed. I gave him a blank sheet of paper and told him that if he could come back to me with a detailed budget and plan as to how he would achieve his goal, I would lend him the money. He looked at me in shock, clarified that I was serious, thanked me profusely and disappeared. Two hours later, he was back, budget in hand. Under the supervision of Teacher Sarah, the project is now underway and it’s something I hope will be the first of many such student-driven initiatives. It’s incredible what can be achieved with a whole lot of determination and a little bit of capital. He has been busy slashing the land with a machete and purchasing seedlings and manure and when I went to visit the land one evening he just smiled at me and said, “Madame Emma, thank you so much. Really, I am appreciating so much.” I can’t wait for the first bite of juicy tomato when I return next year.

With another volunteer at KAASO and a couple of others we picked up along the way, I ventured west to Queen Elizabeth park. I had never been to the Western Region and was amazed at the contrast in scenery. While Kabira overflows with green banana palms, fertile crops and striking red earth, Queen Elizabeth was a dry savannah with the spectacular Mt Rwenzori rising in the background, lakes George and Edward glistening in the sun and on the distant horizon, the hazy mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We followed packs of lions, were chased by territorial bull elephants, trekked chimpanzees through the rainforest and dined in the light of paraffin lanterns under the stars. It was amazing to see another part of Uganda and the vast diversity of this country, smaller than New Zealand in landmass but with a population almost 10 times our 4 million people.

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I travelled to Kampala yesterday, bumping into Kim along the way and we caught up on the progress of her malnutrition ward and the gardens she uses to feed her young patients during the crowded bus trip north. Dominic met me off the bus and together we met with solar companies in Kampala. Tomorrow morning I will travel alongside a solar technician back to the village as co-pilot in the truck of Solar Energy for Africa, hopefully one step closer to getting the solar system sorted. I had a lovely to catch up with John, a Kiwi friend who moved here in 2009, and his gorgeous two-year old daughter and have enjoyed staying with my dear friends Sonia and Paul, who I first met in 2009. AFRIpads, their business of washable sanitary pads has gone from strength to strength and is now helping girls not only in Uganda but in refugee camps and disaster areas around the world to cope with their monthly periods.

Every time I come to Uganda, I learn more and more about this country, its people, culture and life in the village. It’s a world of contrasts, a world that is deafening and peaceful, frantic and slow, contradictory and yet somehow, somehow, things make sense.

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Guest Post: KAASO through the eyes of Spanish volunteer Lara Briz

One of the greatest things about being a KAASO volunteer is the incredible community of past volunteers you meet around the world. Volunteers returning from KAASO get in touch with each other to share stories, brainstorm ideas and to keep the spirit of KAASO alive. There’s a real sense of being part of something amazing.

This latest post was written by Lara Briz, a Spanish volunteer who recently went back to KAASO for the second time. It shares her emotions in going back as well as describing the great new initiative she set up as an alternative to traditional child sponsorship.

Read on and enjoy!

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In the summer of 2014 I went back to Uganda. It was my second time there and it felt completely different to when I arrived the first time. I felt more confident and was looking forward to seeing how things had changed over the last two years. Arriving in Entebbe, the first thing I saw when walking out of the terminal was Dominic’s face, standing out from the other faces and signs waiting for people at the airport gate. The welcome and friendly look on his face made me realise I was truly back at KAASO.

Coming back to a place you already know is always a bit dangerous. You can find that things have changed a lot since the last time and be disappointed. You can also discover that people have changed and the place doesn’t make you feel at home anymore. My first days at the school proved to me that was not the case at all. I started to see lots of familiar faces, and some new ones. After two days, I was again part of the KAASO community and so happy to be back. Children are always curious when a new “muzungu” is around. This can sometimes be a bit intimidating, dozens of little faces looking at you every move you make, but to my surprise, I realised that I had missed it!

During those first days I talked to Dominic a lot about how the school was right now, what they had achieved since my last visit, and the problems they were dealing with these days. I was impressed by all the new things going on at the school. There were a couple of new water tanks donated by some amazing people from Canada, new pineapple crops were growing near the school, there was a new henhouse that incorporated eggs into the children’s diet, and many more inspiring new developments. I am always impressed when I read about what Dominic and Rose do, but seeing it with my own eyes made me feel really proud of them.

Unfortunately, not everything was going so well. They were having big problems trying to feed all the children. In the beginning when KAASO first started, there were only about 30 children. Nowadays, there are more than 600 and around one sixth of them are sponsored by the school, which means that with the fees of some, they have to maintain and feed all the children, pay the teachers, fund the materials, and keep the school running. Thanks to the crops they had planted, the situation was slightly improved, but still they had to find a way to get enough food for everybody and some months it was really difficult and incredibly stressful for them.

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Because of the difficulty in funding the school from the contributions of a few, some of the volunteers and I had been trying to find sponsors for some of these children at KAASO who cannot pay. But again this has its challenges. Sponsorship is a long-term commitment and after some bad experiences with sponsors dropping out, we came to the conclusion that it is better to have no sponsorships than to have failed sponsorships. It is very damaging to the children to have a sponsor that starts and then stops, leaving them wondering what they did wrong.

Before this second trip to Uganda, I had collected some money from friends in Europe and wanted to use it to help mitigate this problem but I didn’t know how. After a couple of days at KAASO I decided the best thing I could do with the funds I had raised was to approach the problem but from a different perspective. Instead of finding somebody to pay a child’s fees, I could try to make the child’s family able to pay the fees themselves. I talked to Rose about it, and we sat and discussed it for a long time, brainstorming the best ways to help these families. As always, Rose never ceased to amaze me. Her intelligence and understanding of both Ugandan and “European” behaviors and feelings is just amazing.

We chose five families to help, most of them run by widows. Economic opportunities are extremely limited for rural women in Uganda and women generally have fewer assets than men and limited opportunities to make money. They have difficulty gaining access to the credit they need to set up small businesses that generate income, so they are constrained to remain at home and depend on their husbands. But when they lose their husbands, the situation becomes incredibly tough since they have no opportunities to make money, and no man to provide for them and their family.

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From all the possible businesses, Rose advised that pigs were the most profitable. So we started to plan.

During the next few days, we visited many such families and discussed their issues. Rose helped translate to them what we wanted to do and while I didn’t understand their Luganda answers, words weren’t really necessary; their faces spoke for themselves. They were so happy to hear the good news! As Rose explained to me, in Uganda it is rude if you visit somebody and don’t receive a gift for your visit, and I certainly experienced this. After several days of visiting, we had been given so many fruit baskets!

Busy days followed as we bought all the required materials and hired workers, trying to ensure we stayed in budget. We designed what we considered the best sty, both economical and functional, using sand, rocks and cement for the floor, poles and wooden planks raised around the perimeter and covered by a zinc roof. We bought two pigs for each woman, one male and one female, as well as feed and vaccinations for at least the first year. After that time, all going well, the projects should become self-sustaining.

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Let me introduce the wonderful women who participated in the project:

Madam Nasiwa Bena

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She is 78-years old and lives in a mud-brick house next to KAASO. She was the only one to whom we decided not to give pigs as it wasn’t the best way for her to make money due to her age. She used to make mats when she could save enough money to buy the materials, so instead we bought enough dye and material so that she could make plenty of mats. Hopefully the sale of her mats will generate enough for her to buy new materials and the balance help support her family.

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She has 10 sons and grandsons and one of her daughters who lives with her suffers mental illness and cannot do any work. After spending many days with her during my stay in Uganda, I was so impressed by her determination and strength. It’s hard to believe she is 78-years old.

Madam Nakalema Angelina

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She is 60 years old and lives in a small mud-brick house in the forest. Most of her sons died from HIV, so now she has to take care of many grandsons, some of them also suffering from HIV. I can still hear her wonderful laugh and happiness. The first time I met her, after leaving the house, Rose and I were walking back through the forest when one of her sons came to ask us to stop and wait. Next thing, Angelina appeared with baskets of peanuts, delicious mangos and other fruits. I almost cried – there is so much we can learn from the Ugandan people….

Madam Nakitto Teopista

She is 34 years old. Three years ago, her husband died in a boda boda (motorbike) accident, leaving her alone with three children. After this, her husband’s family took everything from her, including the ownership of her pigs. She continued to take care of them and received a small amount of money from her husband’s family for doing so.

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Now, with this project, she will have her own sty and won’t have to depend on anyone else. As well as her piggery project, she also works as a seamstress to help feed her children.

Mr and Mrs Kabuule

I had met Mr. Kabuule the first time I visited Uganda as he used to help organise meetings of the Empowerment Group. He was a small man but so kind and friendly, I couldn’t imagine that he was suffering from a terrible disease that prevents him from working or doing almost anything that requires any kind of strength. This congenital disease also affected his grandfather and his father. This time I met the rest of his family and he was very happy that his was one of the families chosen for the project. In this picture is Madam Kabuule having a meeting with Rose in our Ugandan ‘office’.

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Nakuya Harriet

Harriet is the fifth woman we chose for our project. She is a widow who lives next to KAASO and who used to help clean houses around the village. We built her a sty and you can see here how proud and happy she is!

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My time in Uganda was just incredible. It is crazy how much you can achieve with just a little bit of money. You can change a woman’s life, and therefore a family’s life. You can give them a future, making them feel proud of themselves, not dependent on anybody but themselves. I admire Ugandan women so much and I am sad that it is so difficult for them to gain access to the credit they need to set up a business.

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None of this would have been possible without the donations of generous people and friends who trusted me with this new initiative. To all of them, thank you so much. And of course thank you to Rose, Dominic and their son Derrick, whose time, intelligence and efforts are what made all of this happen.

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‘My very nearby sister’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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