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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An inspiring new initiative from the Kiwi sponsor students

When I was in Uganda last December, Rose came up with the brilliant idea of holding meetings with the sponsored students every school holidays. We would form a committee run by the students themselves who would then organise meetings to discuss the term, to collaborate on ideas and initiatives and to ensure that letters were being regularly written to their sponsors.

I loved the idea and we used the Christmas party we were hosting for the sponsor students (funded by one of our generous sponsors) as an opportunity to introduce the concept to the students and appoint a committee. They voted on the various positions and Henry was appointed Chairperson, Stellah the Vice Chairperson, David the Mobilizer and Juliet the Secretary. Everyone was very excited about the idea and I left in December feeling inspired by this new initiative.

Last Friday, the inaugural meeting was held at Zaake Secondary School. Fifteen of our eighteen sponsor students were in attendance and the meeting was overseen by Rose but run by the student committee. Juliet and Henry complied the minutes from the meeting and a bundle of letters are now winging their way to be distributed to the sponsors of these remarkable teenagers. I couldn’t be prouder – this is an amazing example of what can be achieved when Rose’s wisdom is combined with the energy of motivated young students. A perfect demonstration of how powerful and effective it is when change comes from within.

To all those who are part of the Kiwi Sponsorships – webale nyo for your hard work and I look forward to receiving the minutes from the next meeting!

Minutes from KAASO Sponsorship Meeting 10th May 2014

Attendance of Kiwi Sponsorship Meeting 10th May 2014

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From left to right: Back row – Charles, Henry, David, Stellah, Winnie. Front row – Zakia, Teddy, Stephen, Juliet

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Kibone Winnie, newly sponsored this year by Don & Gendy Macalister after her past sponsor dropped off. She is in her third year of high school and one day hopes to become a doctor.

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Gimbo Jackline & Ssemunywa Henry Rogers. Jackie is in her second year of nursing sponsored by Share Uganda. Henry’s fifth year of high school is being funded this year by the scholarship he won from St Thomas University of Minnesota. My parents and I continue to help with his requirements and extras.

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Kasujja Bruno is in his second year of secondary school at Zaake. He is sponsored by a past volunteer, Justin Vigar and his parents.

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Alinitwe Violah & Estukia Munjera. Violah is Stellah’s elder sister and is in her second year of nursing, sponsored by John Clarke. Munjera is in her first year of veterinary studies, sponsored by Margaret Koski, Judy Blackman, Shelley Duncan & Catherine Smith.

 

 

Humbled

The heavens finally opened, bringing thunderous rain tumbling from the sky and everyone is rejoicing. Since morning, the school has been a hive of activity with children and adults alike running around positioning strategic tubs, buckets and jerry cans to savour every magical drop. A river of muddy water is running through the school, bringing justification to the bridge that otherwise does nothing but span the dusty earth that takes me from my room to Dominic and Rose’s house.

The week since I last wrote has been a roller coaster of emotions, of highs of lows, of heartbreak and happiness. And above all, I have never felt so humbled in all my life. One of the main reasons I wanted to come back this year (other than the fact that these visits have turned into annual pilgrimages) was to visit all of the sponsor children as the first wave finished up their fourth year of secondary school and it’s time to start thinking about their futures. Many children leave secondary school after their fourth year to pursue more vocational courses which helps to speed up their education and get them out in the workforce earning money sooner so that they can support themselves or their families or both. The amazing thing about this year’s visits has been that because the school term has ended, I am visiting each of them at their homes in their villages, meeting their families, and consequentially feeling the full weight of their gratitude for the first time.

My first visit was with David, a boy whom we met in his final year of primary school in 2009. I’ve visited David several times at his secondary school and he is one of those boys who is always smiling, always upbeat and positive. I had no idea what to expect from meeting his family when Rose and I jumped on the back of a boda, the motorcycle taxis used for transport here. We rode over dirt roads for about half an hour before pulling up outside the crumbling mud hut that housed David and what remained of his family.

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Dreams take flight

From my open window I look across the rooftops of Saint Germain in Paris, my bags packed beside me, ready to jump on this afternoon’s flight to San Francisco and the start of yet another chapter on this wild and wonderful journey. My well-loved backpack looks slightly out of context in my clean, white hotel room and while I managed to wash the dust off both my clothes and my feet, there is a kind of dust that remains within and cannot be washed off.

Uganda was, quite simply, magic. The very first time I went it felt like I was stepping off the beaten track, light years from my known world and everything was new and different and challenging and we spent our days grappling to understand our brave new world. My return last year with my parents I approached with curiosity – unsure whether I would have to acclimatise all over again or if it would feel natural to be back. Fortunately it was the latter and it was such an incredible thrill to watch my parents wholeheartedly embrace village life, which had come to feel strangely familiar to me.

This trip I didn’t know what to think. I knew it wouldn’t be the overwhelming head spin of the first time but I still wasn’t sure whether after a year away and the huge contrast with my life in Europe, adjusting to the village would be a challenge. From the minute I stepped off the plane and spotted Dominic’s beaming face through the crowd, it felt as normal as if I was arriving at Auckland airport. During the trip down to KAASO we chatted like old mates and it wasn’t until we pulled into the school gates to find a throng of children screaming my arrival home and Cherie and Kirsty standing there as if 2009 were yesterday, that the tears started to fall.

Two and half weeks is but a heartbeat in a place where so much happens in a day, where you want to find out every detail of every project that has developed since you left, where every conversation leaves you inspired to do more and where every second spent with the children leaves you grinning from ear to ear. This trip was a time of reconnecting. Of visiting old friends, of reviving once again our faith in the fact that KAASO truly is an incredible project and that, with barely any money, Dominic and Rose somehow manage to perform miracles to keep this school running. And the success of the school has been spilling out into the community who now have access to the library and computer lab that we built in 2009 which, thanks to the generosity of family, friends and workmates, is slowly filling with books and computers. Beyond our wildest dreams.

In my short time back in Uganda, I navigated countless atrocious roads to visit all thirteen children being sponsored through secondary school. With me at the wheel and Rose as my guide and copilot, we ran out of petrol, ended up wedged in potholes that seemed sure to devour us, got lost countless times, were refused entry into a school due to the fact that I was wearing long, baggy pants (rather than a skirt like a proper female) and ended up doing exactly what I had vowed to avoid – driving at night in a country where no one knows lights can be dimmed from full beam and everyone prefers to use your side of the road – particularly trucks. There was a lot of time spent in the ditch! But we survived the various journeys and the love, hope and overwhelming gratitude I felt from the children was worth every steering-wheel-gripping second.

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Off the beaten track

There is dust that won’t wash off, there are smiles that won’t fade, there is laughter that won’t be silenced and time that won’t slow down. In a place where everything happens slowly, my time in Uganda went all too quickly and before I knew it I was being rocketed from the dusty roads of the village to the sandy freeways of the desert wondering if it was all just a dream. In a way it was.

In Uganda you feel as if you have lived a thousand days in one and by the time you crawl into the cocoon of your mosquito net each night, the morning seems like a distant memory. The days are so full and phenomenal that your head is constantly spinning. On this visit to Uganda, Rose took it upon herself to show me the world beyond KAASO, straying seriously off the beaten track, wandering down every vaguely trodden path in the village, visiting over twenty households from the Empowerment Group, meeting pigs, chickens, goats and cows, traipsing through banana plantations, admiring expertly crafted woven mats and baskets, and meeting hundreds of extended family members from 9 days to 90 years old. It was an intense but incredible experience.

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When I was last at KAASO in 2009, the Empowerment Group was little more than a chance for the women to gather and chat through the evening while weaving mats and rolling magazine beads. It’s amazing the changes that have taken place over the last two years. The group is now well organised, motivated, determined and ultimately empowered. Their microloans project is thriving and helping solo mothers to send their children to school and feed their families. I felt humbled to be so warmly welcomed into their mud and thatch homes and embarrassed by their generosity as we were showered with gifts of avocados, melons, pineapples, cassava, matooke and even a feisty rooster which Rose carried for the rest of the day flung over her shoulder. I kept my distance behind while its eyes watched me the whole way home. That night we feasted on chicken. Life is immediate in the village.

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Out of Africa

It is the beginning of the end. I am now in Kampala on the start of my long journey ‘home’. Home being London for 48 hours then the south of France where I will be working on the Louis Vuitton Trophy for three intense weeks before crossing the Atlantic on the good ship Sojourn… Nothing seems quite real and my head is spinning trying to comprehend the fact that I have, after six incredible months, left KAASO and will soon be out of Africa. Half a year seemed like such a long time from the outset and there were definitely times when it felt like time was standing still – when you’re tired, when you’re scared, when there are bats in your room, when the pump is broken and you have no water, when the solar power dies yet again and you’re sitting in darkness… But these last few days have flown by so quickly and now I’m left wondering where the time has gone. I will soon be sitting on a plane wondering if this was all a dream, knowing that I will never fully be able to comprehend all that has happened, all I have seen and done and been fortunate enough to have been a part of for the last six months. It’s overwhelming.

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This last week has been an extended farewell, a week of finality – final classes, final songs, final hugs, final smiles, final meals, final bucket bathes, final discos, final KAASO hill evenings, final goodbyes and, inevitably, final tears. It’s so difficult leaving such a special place not knowing when I will be back, not knowing when I will see these gorgeous little faces again. But one thing that has emerged over the past months is that there is no way I cannot return. Somehow, I will find a way to get back to this incredible world. I don’t think I could live here forever – I have missed the sea, missed family and friends, drinkable wine, food other than matooke and beans and I am a beach girl at heart – but Uganda will forever be a part of me, part of my history and a part of my soul and the idea of walking away forever is incomprehensible. So I will be back, this much I know. The ‘how’ will follow…

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Before leaving, I spent as much time as possible with the children, in classes and around the school, trying to make the most of my final days with them and making sure these memories were etched in my mind forever.

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The teachers tried to explain to the younger children that we were leaving and would not be coming back (for now) but I don’t quite think they understood. The older children certainly did though and we received floods of letters and notes asking us not to go and telling us that they will never forget us. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to leave.

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