New life and hope when we all need it most

What a strange time we all find ourselves in. It’s been hard to know what to say, what to post, what to write, conscious as I am that we are all living this pandemic so differently – spread across the globe in different situations, juggling different worlds, all faced with diverse challenges and unknown future prospects. For some, it has been an immense struggle, battling with illnesses, uncertainty, a lack of childcare while working full-time, extreme lockdowns, families separated across borders and a lack of freedom and fresh air. For others, it’s been an almost tranquil time of togetherness, simple pleasures and making the most of what you have, not needing more than that. The contrast is marked.

For us as a family, I have felt incredibly fortunate to have been in New Zealand throughout this period – much as we miss our family across the Tasman and hope that we will be reunited before too long! In early March, we flew back into Auckland from Sydney, Nath’s first Sail GP event of the season complete, with a full programme of events mapped out around the world for the rest of the year. The day we landed, the global pandemic was declared and I must say, I was still largely ignorant of the scale with which this was about to affect our world. Until then, it had seemed something far away, unrelated to our itinerant travelling life which had been so full, even more so since the joyous arrival of Jack last January. But within a week of returning home, we were in self isolation and the day we were due to re-enter the world, New Zealand’s five week nation-wide Level 4 lockdown began.

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Pre-Covid days on the beach in Sydney

Guiltily, I quite enjoyed our time at home. Our wonderful friend Simon Gundry had supplied us with all the materials we needed to build garden beds and so we got to work in the late summer sun, building and planting and growing new life while Jack oversaw the process from his backyard swing, an online purchase which had mercifully arrived the morning before lockdown began. Nath and I spent hour upon hour discussing the global situation and wondering where it may lead, ruminating on how the situation would look with the benefit of hindsight in years to come and how our opinions would have changed by then. I am conscious that everyone has their own opinions on the situation – some very strong ones too – and these are obviously influenced greatly by people’s individual situations, but I will state that I think our prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is incredible and has managed the situation so well. I have felt overwhelmed with gratitude to have had such strong, clear, ethical leadership at this time where it would have be all too easy to rule with fear, false information, indecision or even oblivion as we have unfortunately seen unfold in other parts of the world. We have had the opposite here and I feel endlessly lucky for that.

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Nath putting our garden beds together

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Not sure the start of a five-week lockdown was the best time to reseed the lawn with a toddler who had just learned to walk, but that’s what we did!

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Happy Jack in his swing

Over the past few months, I have kept in close contact with Dominic and Rose in Uganda. KAASO – and all schools across Uganda – were closed down from Friday 20th March in a pre-emptive move to curb the spread of Covid-19 as Uganda had very low case numbers at the time. I couldn’t help but feel optimistic as Uganda has had highly infections diseases like Ebola and Marburg to deal with in the past and has always been very successful at containing any outbreaks. In spite of the school closure, Dominic and Rose’s spirits were high. With the students gone, they took the opportunity to work in the numerous school gardens and it has been a bumper season with crops growing in abundance. Elderly members of the community come to KAASO’s gates and receive food parcels from the school gardens as the school continues to try and help their people.

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Rose and her new matooke plantation

 

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Passy, one of the school matrons, tending to cabbages planted within the KAASO school grounds

In Uganda, I find that life is generally much harsher in the city than in rural settings where food grows in such abundance, but I have been heartened to receive messages from graduated Kiwi Sponsorships students in Kampala finding temporary work in spite of everything, making the most of this time while their workplaces or educational institutions have closed down. I delight in the messages I receive from Henry who, in typical Henry fashion, has been out in the community as part of an outreach team, distributing masks and hand sanitiser and helping educate people in remote areas about the dangers of Covid and the need for good hygiene and sanitation.

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Henry in a community marketplace educating people about Covid-19

Blog 7 Henry pinning up posters in the market

Henry sticking up educational posters

Blog 8 Henry in the microbiology lab at the hospital

Henry in the hospital microbiology lab with a colleague

Blog 9 Henry after a day's work

Henry after a day’s work

Another huge positive at KAASO has been that construction on our incredible two-storied school hall and classroom block has continued, with workers staying in the empty school dormitories and, while following social distancing, keeping up the momentum of their work. Funding has come almost entirely thanks to KATKiDS charity in Bermuda, led by my dear friend Rebecca Roberts who has worked tirelessly with Jennie Lee O’Donnell from KATKiDS to make this incredibly ambitious dream come true. It has been the most incredible partnership and, boosted also by a New Zealand Embassy Government grant, we have raised over $130,000 NZD – by far our greatest achievement ever! I am forever grateful to Rebecca, Jennie Lee, the NZ Embassy in Ethiopia and all who have supported us along the way. More updates to come on this!

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The incredible KATKiDS School Hall and Classroom block at KAASO

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly international news reaches Uganda, a far cry from the isolation I felt when I first lived there in 2009. A mere few hours after it was announced that NZ would move back into Level 3 lockdown last week, I received a message from Dominic worried about the situation here as he had heard the news of our renewed lockdown. I assured him we were fine and I remain optimistic that the situation will be brought under control again here soon. As for what the long-term future holds, that of course remains a mystery but my instinct tells me we are on the right track and I am hopeful that we will soon go back to the levels of freedom we have been so fortunate to enjoy for the past few months.

I spoke to Dominic a couple of nights ago and listened with delight as he told me about the school’s new tomato and coffee gardens, the additional eucalyptus forest they have planted and the acres of sweet potatoes growing beneath the ground that will be used to feed the returning students – whenever schools reopen. Dominic is hopeful that they might be able to get in the third and final term of this year and said there is even talk of reducing the long Christmas holidays to just one week to squeeze in another term before March next year. We will see. But down the dusty dirt roads of Kabira, the overriding messages I continue to get are those of hope for the future – something that helps me to sleep at night!

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Workers tending to the tomatoes in one of the new school gardens

As the school hall continues to take shape, the cabbages grow around the school, the pigs produce piglets and the school cow has had its first calf, we are also growing here in NZ. Not only are our garden beds now full of plentiful herbs and leafy greens, there is new life growing within me – our second child, Jack’s affectionately nicknamed sibling, ‘Jill’ (whose sex we won’t find out!) is due on Christmas Day! So that’s keeping us busy here and makes me smile every time I rub my fast-expanding belly. In the same way KAASO is using this time to grow and produce as much as they can, for us, 2020 will not be a write-off but a time of new life. I’m also using the next few months to work on my book in the hope of finally bringing my manuscript to the page before you… Watch this space!

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My very happy boys after our first scan in May

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This is a strange time, but, as ever, I am optimistic we will get through it. Sending much love to you all far and wide. Stay safe, take care and, as has come to be NZ’s new catchphrase, be kind – the world has never needed kindness so much as now.

Em xxxxx

 

A profound influence

And then it was over. Five weeks, gone in a heartbeat, the days too quickly being swallowed by time and now I find myself winging my way northwards, to London, trading dirt paths for multi-lane roads, rows of banana palms for blocks of flats, equatorial heat for December cold. I love London but my heart is heavy. Leaving my Ugandan home hurts every time but somehow this time feels harder than other years. I think this has been the most incredible of all my trips, full to bursting with so many happy moments, with both families there to share in the joy and, finally, with my love at my side, walking beside me through the village he has heard so much about since the day we first met. Usually I am sad to leave but excited to be reunited with Nath but now, having had him in the village with me from the start, I wish I could have stayed so much longer. But time marches to the beat of its own drum, out of my hands, unwilling to be slowed. So here we are.

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There are so many moments from the past few weeks to write about, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I will do my “level best”. Thanks to a donation from Northbourne Park School in the UK, KAASO was able to buy a projector which meant we were able to screen the bus video to the children, reliving the joy of the day the bus drove into KAASO, as well as delighting the children with images of Bermuda – up till then, simply a name written on the side of their bus and now on their water tanks, a name that inspired fear of the mysterious Bermuda triangle, which the children were always terrified I’d disappear into. It was such a thrill watching their faces as they saw Beau’s amazing documentary for the first time, bringing a wave of emotions back over me, reliving that glorious day.

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We celebrated KAASO’s last day of the school year with the nursery children’s graduation ceremony. Nath, as the guest of honour, played the role of Chancellor, presenting certificates to each tiny pupil who will next year join Primary One, officially starting their primary education. The children were so excited to come up and shake Nath’s hand and pose for their photos, some with parents or guardians, others alone.

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As the ceremony ended, the school gates buzzed with motorbikes piled high with mattresses and metal suitcases, as the children went home for the holidays, leaving us with just a few dozen remaining pupils. As the younger children were leaving, the older ones were returning, the Kiwi Sponsorships students coming back from secondary school to KAASO to help out in the holidays, their way of giving back in thanks for the support the school has given them over the years. I was so happy to be reunited with my old friends, now growing up and transitioning from children to adults making their way in the world. It was busy and exciting and hectic trying to catch up with them all as they arrived en masse, eager to tell me about their year at school, especially the eleven Senior One students who started secondary this year. I lived their highs and lows, their challenges as they battled bouts of malaria, their excitement as they shared their highlights of their year – our wedding, school visiting days and tours, listened to their dreams of future plans and helped guide them in their projects for the holidays – piggeries, passionfruit gardens, matooke plantations and poultry projects.

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As my visits ran through the days and into the nights, Haylee was busy with Nurse Jackie and the remaining KAASO students making crafts for our Christmas market back in Australia. Nurse Jackie, in between looking after sick children in the school sick bay, has now made over 400 placemats and I’m so incredibly proud of her. It’s been a huge project and one I hope we can continue as they are just gorgeous – an idea inspired initially when I wanted a Ugandan touch at our NZ wedding so commissioned the students to make 150 placemats which proved to be a huge hit. We continued last year, selling them at a Bermudian Christmas market and now it’s Wangi’s turn! The secondary students also made Christmas stars and mobiles and now all our bags are full to bursting with beautiful Ugandan crafts. Watch this space for the Suubi Sanyu craft division!

 

As the crafts took shape inside, so did the pathways outside, as Nath and his team of Kiwi Sponsorship boys pushed wheelbarrows of earth around the school, creating trenches, drains and pebbled paths to stop the chronic dust from overtaking, dust that turns to mud in the rainy season and makes moving around the school a challenge. After a solid week of 12-hour days of hard labour, the boys proudly laid the final paving stones outside Dominic and Rose’s house and the KAASO Pathways & Drainage project part one was completed – a huge achievement! Dominic laughed that no one had ever seen such a hard-working muzungu in the district – and Nath sure has the blisters to prove it. The boys were paid one soda a day but no one complained – it’s their way of appreciating the support they’re receiving in their education and doing their bit to help KAASO keep moving forward.

For seven weeks now, KAASO has not had to pump water once, the school now being sustained by the tanks from the Bermuda Water Project – four x 20,000 litre concrete tanks and a 10,000 litre plastic tank ensuring that no drops of precious rainwater are wasted. People from all around the community are coming to admire the system and Dominic can’t stop beaming.

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Our final night at KAASO, we had the most beautiful farewell party sitting out under the stars while the students sang and danced for us and the teachers gave moving tributes and expressed their immense gratitude for the work done over the past month. It was hard to stop the tears from falling listening to their heartfelt words and when Nurse Jackie lead the students in singing ‘Leaving on Jet Plane,’ a song I taught them in 2009, I gave up trying to stop the tears. But Dominic has an uncanny way of making me switch from tears to laughter in a matter of seconds and soon we were all up dancing, upbeat Congolese melodies ringing out in the starry night. The pathways complete, Nath’s final legacy was building a fire pit up outside Dominic and Rose’s house, and the party was soon transplanted to the fireside. Thus I found myself that final night sitting by the roaring flames grinning from ear to ear as the teachers and matrons danced, and I caught up with Brenda, my little friend from Primary One in 2009, now at secondary school, 15 years old and almost as tall as me. She laughed back at the days when she barely spoke English and I used to call when I was away from KAASO and Rose would put her on the phone to talk to me and all she could say was ‘yes’ – and now here we were talking about her future plans of becoming a nurse, the songs she loves to write and sing, and sharing her dreams of all she hopes to do in her life. Like a proud mother, I just shake my head in wonder and marvel at the journey I have taken.

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In his speech at our wedding, Nath thanked Dominic and Rose for all the love and kindness they have shown me, pointing out that I met the two of them and everyone at KAASO before I met him and it really brought home to me the profound influence that KAASO has had on my life. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t come to KAASO with Cherie and Kirsty back in 2009. I can’t even imagine it. KAASO has shaped me in so many ways and I am who I am today because of this beautiful village community. So even though my heart still feels heavy as I fly away from my Ugandan home, I can be nothing but grateful for having found KAASO – and being able to share it with those I love most.

Till next time…

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My big fat Ugandan wedding – and other stories…

 

My trips to Uganda are always incredibly busy but I think this one has to take the cake. Somehow I didn’t quite get my head around how manic it would be juggling my 56 sponsor visits, the official opening of the Bermuda Water Project, the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, starting up a placemat and crafts business, going through all the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund projects, celebrating our very own Ugandan wedding and hosting 10 muzungus (Swahili for white people – literally means ‘one who wanders aimlessly’ after the early missionaries in Africa!) in the volunteer house… Throw in a safari, the nursery students’ graduation, an accounting workshop, a day at the lakeshore for the teachers’ annual staff party and a visit to a local coffee producer, and there hasn’t been much time to breathe! But I can’t help but love every second.

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As I write, Nath is outside with a team of Kiwi Sponsorship boys building much-needed pathways through the school, stopping the students from skidding through pools of mud when the rainy season hits with force and preventing the waves of dust that billow through the dry season. Work is also underway on a netball field thanks to funds from St Paul in Australia – Nath’s old school where his mum works – as well as the St Paul Australia/St Paul Uganda garden. Other donations are going to construct a latrine and changing room for the teachers – for 18 years, the teachers have shared the children’s pit latrines and it’s about time they had a toilet of their own. These are just some of the many projects on KAASO’s priority list that are being tackled and, as always, the vision of the school continues to blow me away.

Our Ugandan wedding was only 10 days ago but I have to pinch myself to believe it actually happened. Of course I knew that it was going to be huge but it’s another thing to actually experience the full weight of the love of a school, a village and a community. The day started at 6:30am, in the dark, being told it was time for me to leave to get ready – had I bathed? I was still in bed but jumped out and tried to quickly prepare myself for what was about to be one of the biggest days of my life. Mama, Jas and Haylee came with me to the local Bridal Salon in Kyotera where absolute hilarity ensued as they tried to work out how to style my hair – no one had ever worked with Western hair before, never mind long blonde locks – most African women wear synthetic weaves. Haylee fortunately stepped in to help create the bun required to prop up my (compulsory) crown and veil. Being sewn into my enormous princess dress, having high heels strapped to my feet and jewels bedazzling my neck will forever be etched in my memory – not to mention the moment we all stepped out onto the main street of Kyotera which didn’t know what had it hit it – a giant muzungu meringue with a team of hot pink bridesmaids (I love that Haylee’s first time as a bridesmaid was in Uganda!) and two muzungu mothers in satin gomesi, the traditional Baganda dress. We certainly caused a stir! We drove through the streets of Kyotera to the home of a parent from KAASO who hosted us for a wedding breakfast of beans, rice, chapatti and spaghetti. An hour and a half late, the boys joined us, inverting the tradition of the bride being the one to keep the groom waiting… We had a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it photo shoot in the back streets of Kyotera before starting our police-led convoy through the town, Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ blaring as our 25 car convoy hooted and bounced its way through the pouring rain, creating a spectacle I don’t think will ever be forgotten in Kyotera.

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Arriving at KAASO, all 600 children along with hundreds of parents and people from the local community were standing in the rain waiting to welcome us, chanting and singing our arrival. We performed the traditional Baganda wedding ritual whereby Nathan has to offer a cock (a rooster!) to Nick, the muko – brother in law – at which point Nick must decide if Nathan’s cock is big enough to trade for his sister… Needless to say there were plenty of laughs! The day continued with speeches, traditional dancing, a song from Brenda which she had written for me, a beautiful tribute from Kim with the Primary Five students, an insane procession of gifts and no less than three outfit changes – from my huge Murial’s Wedding-style white dress to the traditional gomesi to my final ‘party dress’ made by an old student of KAASO who is now a fashion designer in Kampala. I never could have imagined when I first came here that one day I’d be back marrying the love of my life (again) with my entire family there to witness. Beau was a legend, capturing it all and I’m sure there will be a rather entertaining video to come… To top it all off, Ugandan TV was also there and last week, our wedding featured on the national news!

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We barely had time to recover from the wedding celebrations before it was time for the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, celebrating two of our nurses – Irene and Teddy – as well as Brian who has completed his secondary school. The day began, as always, with a meeting of the sponsor students who all began by introducing themselves and sharing their dreams of what they hope to become – young doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, accountants, plumbers and businessmen in the making. It always makes me so proud to listen to the students inspiring each other, encouraging their fellow students in reaching their dreams. The guardians’ meeting is always one of the highlights of my trip, while being one of the biggest heartbreaks. I struggle to get through my speech each time as I am floored by the humility, strength and gratitude of these guardians, many of whom are elderly jajjas, grandmothers. Having my family there to bear witness to it all was especially moving for me as I am so often overwhelmed by trying to take it all in alone. The graduation ceremony that followed was a time of festivity, laughter and dance as we celebrated our three students who have now completed their education – and thus ending their 6-year Kiwi Sponsorships. That now takes us up to a total of 13 graduated students, all of whom are now making their way in the world in various vocations around Uganda – nurses, vets, pharmacists, plumbers and lab technicians. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a child, you can find more information about it on our website at KAASO Kiwi Sponsorships or contact me directly – I have a list of 11 students who won’t make it to secondary school next year without help so any new sponsors are highly welcome!

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Time is spinning way too fast and while we have already been here a month, it has passed in a heartbeat. With less than a week to go, I wish I could slow down the clock. I love my Ugandan family with all my heart and I love even more that my three families are now joined. When people around the world ask what I do, I always smile and simply say, “KAASO.” It is the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine doing and everyday I feel grateful to have left my heart in this magical little corner of the world.

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The swinging pendulum of village life

Sitting at my little desk, clean and fresh after my evening bucket bathe, listening to the children out the window singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – a song that has never gotten old since my first trip in 2009. Now each generation teaches the new one the songs we sang and I’m forever smiling as I listen to the songs of my childhood wafting through the school.

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The past ten days have flown by in a rush of excitement, colour, laughter and whirling dust and I already feel myself wishing time could slow down. But as surely as the rains continue to fall, the days march on.

We arrived last Monday to an exceptionally overwhelming welcome – and that’s saying something for Uganda. Dominic and Rose had driven up to Kampala to meet us and drove us down to the village. I had warned Nath of the reception that was likely to be waiting for us at school, but I was totally unprepared to find that the welcome extended to the main road, some 10km from KAASO itself. Teacher Sarah and a busload of children were at the turn off from the main road onto the dirt road singing and dancing, beating drums and shaking shakers. Through the darkness, they launched themselves at us in welcome and then proceeded to escort us thorough the villages back to KAASO, the children hanging out the windows singing and cheering as we drove, the teachers jumping out in every village to do a celebration dance and announce our arrival as we passed. Pulling into the school gates, the entire school was waiting to meet us, leading us down to the main hall where the festivities continued with speeches, traditional dances and musical performances. As if they had read the email I wrote on the eve of our arrival, they all said time and time again that we should feel at home – for we had, in fact, come home. They told Nath that this was my home so it was now also his and he should “feel free”. It certainly was a night to remember.

In true Ugandan fashion, our world quickly plummeted from a great high to a terrible low. On the way down from Kampala, we had stopped into a clinic to visit the father of Juliet, one of our beautiful sponsored students, who had collapsed the previous day and was on oxygen, struggling to breathe. Juliet’s mother and brothers were at his bedside while Juliet, was away at her nursing school. We left the clinic around 7pm on Monday evening. Nine hours later, Juliet’s father was dead. We all went to the burial where there were close to five hundred people all mourning the loss of this great man. Many of the students from the Kiwi Sponsorships were there in support of Juliet and it was bittersweet to finally introduce Nath to Henry and so many others he had heard about for years, while trying to also be there a heartbroken Juliet. Antonio, Juliet’s father, while unable to pay school fees for his children, had instead supported the school in a self-taught engineering capacity, pumping water from the pond and running the school’s maize mill. He will be sadly missed.

The pendulum swung the next day when we all headed into Kyotera, to the grounds of the newly formed Kyotera District, a breakaway from Rakai District, where we were to meet not one, but two African presidents. Uganda’s President Museveni was coming to Kyotera with President Magufuli of Tanzania in celebration of a new oil pipeline due to run the length of Uganda and down into Tanzania. While the idea of ripping up the land in Uganda to run an oil pipeline to Tanzania somewhat terrifies me, the chance to watch KAASO perform before two African leaders was too much of a draw card to keep me away. We arrived diligently at 9am for the function, only to wait another 8 hours before the presidents pulled in on their armed convoy. During that time, we witnessed several school performances, endured ear-drum bursting “background” music and watched in wonder as a road was built through the mud from that morning’s rains to ensure the presidents’ cars didn’t get stuck in the bog. Finally, at 5pm, police cars came screaming across the newly-laid gravel road and behind them, the two presidents stood waving out of their open topped armed 4WDs and took their seats on their red-carpeted floor under their decorated tent. It definitely was a sight to be seen. In spite of my skepticism at how this new pipeline was possibly going to benefit the local people, I couldn’t help but get swept away watching the KAASO students perform for the presidents. They were the only school to do so and the thousand-plus crowd cheered them on, seriously impressed. After performing, the children got to meet the presidents and both Rose and I had tears streaming down our faces like proud mothers as we watched our students shake hands with the presidents. To think that this school began 18 years ago in a grass-thatched hut to help young orphans get the chance of an education and now they were the only school chosen in the whole district to perform before their nation’s 31-year leader. How far they have come.

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The water project is now complete and it’s just amazing to watch as the daily rains come pounding down and the water flows satisfyingly from the roof into the gutters and is then channeled down into the waiting tanks. Since the project was completed, KAASO has not had to pump water once from the pond, saving over 300,000 Ugandan shillings (close to USD$100) in less than three weeks. I’m so grateful to all those who played their part in making this happen. I’ll be sending more photos and a full report later!

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Image 16-11-17 at 9.23 AM (1)My sponsor visits have started I have been catching up with students at KAASO and across the country, hearing their stories and news from this past year. My heart was full to bursting as I saw Caroline off on her way to nursing school, one of my original Kiwi Sponsorships students who failed her Senior Five year in the days before we had students branch off to vocational courses after Senior Four. Caroline pulled herself together and not only went on to pass her Senior Six final exams but also got accepted into nursing school. She’s on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor and I couldn’t be prouder. Today we drove inland along bumpy dusty roads to visit both Teddy and Irene, two of our nurses who will be graduating next Sunday, the completion of four years of secondary studies and two-and-a-half year nursing certificates. They are now making their own way in the world and it’s such a joy to watch these students take their futures into their own hands.

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Nath and I sat with Rose and Teacher Gerald yesterday to talk through the progress of the Suubi Sanyu fund and I was absolutely blown away. Over 15 loans have been taken so far and almost all of them paid off on time. There have been loans to grow maize, to hire a sound system for a Christmas party, to start up a chapatti business, to create a piggery, to plant a passion fruit garden, even to buy a fridge for the new KAASO canteen. For all those who bought the beautiful African-fabric placemats last year, I’m happy to announce that Nurse Jackie has already made close to 200 place mats, which I’ll be bringing home to sell. Seeing the determination in these students’ eyes is so immensely satisfying and I can’t wait to see the fund continue to grow and inspire these budding entrepreneurs.

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Every day I’m here, I feel a sense of urgency to do more, to see more, to help more and to learn more. Nath and I have spent countless hours discussing the school’s ever-growing vision and priority list and the scope is huge. But it’s so exciting to be part of something where a little goes such a long way and where everything is so greatly appreciated. It’s humbling to play a small role in that, and endlessly satisfying to watch the school go from strength to strength.

We have shared some wonderful evenings up KAASO hill with Kim and are looking forward to catching up with John and Mirriam in Kampala this weekend. I love my huge Ugandan family and am so incredibly excited to share it with my Kiwi and Aussie families. Next time I write, the volunteer house will be full to bursting with 10 muzungus…. I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope with all the love and excitement of next Friday’s wedding without bursting but I will do my “level best”.

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As Close to Coming Home

On a plane bound for Uganda, I sit reflecting on the journey that got me to this point.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I left Uganda for the first time. I had just spent six months in the village of Kabira living at a school called KAASO and, while I knew that something unbelievably special had happened, I didn’t realise that the entire course of my life had forever changed. I had no idea that eight years later I’d be headed back to Uganda for my eight visit – with my husband at my side. I could never have imagined that the village would be planning a Ugandan wedding for us, that both of our families would be flying from all corners of the globe to be there for that most humbling, most incredible day. And yet, here I am. Here we are.

Eight years ago, I left KAASO with a promise to sponsor a boy called Henry. A few other wonderful souls had also agreed to sponsor children that, without support, would not have made it past primary school and onto secondary school. I was filled with hope and optimism that we could make a difference in the lives of these few children. Within a couple of months of my return from Uganda that first time, all seven children I hoped to find sponsors for were supported. I didn’t realise that this was to be the start of the Kiwi Sponsorships, a programme that today helps 55 children – now young adults – to have the chance of an education. Nine of those students have since graduated and later this month we will celebrate the graduations of three more. We are making progress and, slowly but surely, changing lives.

Eight years ago, there was no such thing as the Suubi Sanyu Fund. I had sat through countless meetings of the Women’s Empowerment Group – now the KAASO Empowerment Group – which enables members to access the microloan fund that has so helped the community that surrounds KAASO. I had witnessed the phenomenal impact this fund was having on the lives of adults in the area. And as I watched the children from the Kiwi Sponsorships become teenagers and then grow taller than me, I realised that they too needed access to capital, a chance to get ahead. Together with Nath, we created a fund that now enables KAASO students and graduates to get loans that would have previously been unavailable to them. It’s a source of great pride to see these young entrepreneurs take their futures into their own hands and I can’t wait to tour the various projects this fund has enabled – and to show Nath what the vision we dreamed up together has helped to create.

Eight years ago, I decided to write a book. Across the dust-strewn pages of dozens of notebooks, I scrawled stories, thoughts, observations and countless words of wisdom spoken by Dominic, Rose and the other inspiring people I met in the village, ideas I hoped to one day share with a wider audience. Multiple drafts, rewrites, days, months and years later, my manuscript is now finished and I hope with all my heart I will soon find the right agent and then publisher who shares my passion for this story so I can bring it to the world.

Eight years ago, I didn’t know the boy sitting next to me. It would be another two and a half years after leaving the village before he walked onto the rooftop of a Newport hotel in Rhode Island and changed my life. It still feels surreal that now, one year and eight months after daddy-o rowed me ashore in the Bay of Islands to marry the boy of my dreams, I am about to repeat that experience – minus the boat, the beach, the ukulele orchestra and the naked people (yes, we got married somewhat unintentionally on a nudist beach…!). While our ‘real’ wedding has already taken place – as Nath keeps reminding me – the wedding that is about to take place is just as special to me. Not many people are fortunate enough to have the incredible honour of having a wedding thrown for them – not to mention one in a village a world and a half from home. We haven’t even touched down on African soil and yet I already feel it in my bones, in my heart, this overwhelming sense of anticipation and humbling gratitude, which creates tears of excitement that keep threatening to spill from my eyes.

Eight years ago I left Uganda at the end of my first African journey. Since then, I have lived the life of a continent-hopping nomad, calling many places home along the way. It’s an adventure for sure, but sometimes it’s hard to define ‘home’ when your horizons are forever changing. But one thing is for sure – returning to my Ugandan family with my husband at my side, soon to be joined by my Kiwi and Aussie families, is as close to coming home as it gets. It seems that now, more than ever, the words I read at our wedding in New Zealand last year ring true:

“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.”

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Inspired by Bermuda, underway in Uganda – KAASO’s new water harvesting system

I often find myself trying to explain why a Kiwi girl married to an Aussie living in Bermuda thinks there are parallels between the international sailing community and a rural village community in Uganda. It all seems a bit improbable. … Continue reading

Back in the world again

And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s September. All my best intentions and New Year’s resolutions to keep in touch more, to write more, to share more stories seem to have gone by the wayside. But yesterday, while cruising with Nath through Ely’s Harbour, brainstorming book proposals and future plans, he reminded me that it’s never too late to get back in touch with the world. So here I am.

My last post, A Year of Milestones, summed up 2016 and all that it was. 2017 has been similarly epic, but also interspersed with the moments of calm and reflection that come from (finally) having your own space in the world, a place to rest your travelling shoes. From January until July, with the exception of a brief Easter trip to Newport, RI, we went almost half a year without getting on a plane, a record for us given the past four years of frenetic travel. It was such bliss to have a home of our own, a fixed, immovable place on a far-flung island, one that has come to mean the world to us. The people we have met, the opportunities we have had and that breath-catching view that never ceases to fill me with joy – Bermuda, we will miss you.

The America’s Cup came and went like a hurricane. After over three years of trying to convince people that being married to Nath did not compromise my ability to work on the Cup, I finally got a job. I spent the event period running the Longtail Lounge, a corporate hospitality lounge filled with Bermudians and international guests who came to fill themselves with Moët and gasp at the flying rocket ships that sailed before them. I put together a team of fabulous girls, friends old and new, and together with Mark and Ben, the Longtail Legends rocked the Cup village.

Being part of Artemis Racing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so immensely proud of Nath and the entire team for what they managed to achieve – from where they started to where they ended up was a phenomenal leap. To me, most importantly, was also how they did it – the spirit, the sense of family, the determination and the refusal to give up right to the very end was extraordinary. “We are Artemis,” is a cry that will echo in my ears for many, many years to come.

Nath and I left Bermuda two weeks after the Cup ended for a whirlwind month around Europe – Nath competing in the moths, flying at a thousand miles around Lake Garda, a huge contrast to cruising with my parents along the south of France on their new boat, Sojourn II, Nath learning how to sail slowly. A brief stopover in England, sharing stories with friends and family before heading on to Sweden to celebrate the wedding of Nath’s teammate and his gorgeous bride on the Stockholm archipelago before returning to our Bermudian home for the last time.

So now is a time of reflection, of gathering our thoughts, of hypothesising about what the future might hold – something entirely out of our hands now – and, inevitably, packing up our home. To go where? That is still uncertain. What is absolutely certain, however, is that we are going to Uganda – together – in November. After five years of hearing stories about the village that stole my heart, it’s time for “Mr. Nathan” to meet his Ugandan family. Oh, and we thought we’d just throw a big, fat Ugandan wedding in there too. A date has been set – 24th November – the planning committee is underway, and family and friends are starting to book flights from around the world. Dominic and Rose have timed the date so that not only can the 638 KAASO students and 46 staff members attend, but also the majority of the 53 sponsor students, their families and those from the surrounding community. As the preparations get underway, Nath just watches me with a patient, albeit slightly terrified, smile, knowing how much this means to me but struggling to comprehend just how huge it is going to be. Even I have no real handle on how the day will unfold. When I ask Rose what exactly is going to happen at this wedding of ours, she simply laughs and asks, “But Madam Emma, you want to spoil the surprise??” No, no I don’t.

A community growing stronger

Greetings from the village where the rains are thundering gloriously and the banana palms are lapping up the drops,

So much has happened since I last wrote – it seems a lifetime can happen in just two weeks here. We celebrated the nursery students’ graduation and end of the school year at KAASO, as the students packed their metal suitcases and rolled their mattress in preparation for their departure.

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Emirinah graduating from nursery to Primary One

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Students heading home for the holidays

It is a time of rocketing highs and lows as some children are reunited with their parents while others stand tearfully waiting for those who never come. By the end of the day, over 100 of our 638 students still remained at school, glumly kicking around trying to work out why no one came for them.

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A very happy little girl being picked up by her father

That number has slowly dwindled and now there are only around 20 for whom KAASO will remain their home for the holidays. The school bus transported a bunch of Tanzanian students back to the border and yesterday the bus departed on its first official charter – rented by a group of teachers going to a function in Eastern Uganda. It’s being put to good use!

Around this time last year, I sent an email requesting support for community piggeries. In addition to the Kiwi Sponsorships programme I created to help students finishing KAASO get through secondary school, I also witnessed the need for assistance for families with children still studying at KAASO, those struggling to pay school fees. So, following up on the great work started by a Spanish volunteer, Lara Briz, I launched an appeal for a community piggery initiative. The response was staggering and we got sixteen piggeries – which meant that sixteen families would receive assistance and a chance to help themselves to pay their children’s fees.

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A family supported by the piggery project initiative

Yesterday, Rose , Teacher Gerald (who has been helping to oversee all the piggery projects) and I completed the last four visits. Fifteen piggeries visited (the last one was apparently “too far” – considering one of yesterday’s visits was almost a two hour drive away, I’d hate to see what “too far” really meant), fifteen families helped and dozens of pigs growing stronger each day. It was astounding to see what a couple of rusted iron sheets, a few logs nailed together over a concrete slab and two grunting pigs can do for a family here.

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The pride in each family we visited was evident as they showed us their project, and the way it was integrated into their gardens, using the manure to help fertilise their banana and coffee plantations. Parents spoke of teaching their children about rearing pigs and excitedly outlined their plans for expansion. Most of the pigs are now 5 months old and at 9 months will be able to start “producing” piglets which can then be sold to help parents pay their children’s school fees. Each of the recipients of each piggery farm were carefully chosen by Rose based on those she believed would best be able to make the project work, taking into consideration those who were capable of doing the work (many families here are headed by elderly jajjas – grandparents – whose children have either died or abandoned their young children, a frighteningly popular trend that never ceases to astound me).

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A family supported by a piggery project

The chosen families were then brought together for a community meeting here at KAASO where the project was explained to them and they all agreed that the main focus would be to use the profits to pay school fees with the profits as soon as it was feasible. A local vet explained how best to care for their pigs and provided each project with the necessary vaccinations and deworming pills. The funds supplied by each donor covered not only the construction of the pig stys and purchase of a male and female pig for each project, but also this medical treatment, feeds for the first nine months and the supervision of Teacher Gerald who travels on the back of a motorbike to each project once a month to offer guidance and support. It’s incredible what $200 can achieve. A huge thanks to all those who got behind this project – individual stories and photos from each project to come!

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Rose and Teacher Gerald – the piggery team!

Last weekend, I drove to Kampala with Beth, Rose and a carload of tiny children heading home for the holidays. The journey was, as always, rather eventful with the 4 hour trip taking over 10 hours thanks to another run-out-of-petrol incident (the fuel gage on Dominic’s car doesn’t work when you’re on dirt roads which is a challenge when you live a 20 minute drive down a long dirt road…) and the gear shaft blowing up and needing to be replaced. Fortunately for us, in true Ugandan fashion, having just driven for an hour over atrocious dirt tracks after a piggery visit, we conveniently broke down in a roadside trading centre right in front of a local mechanic who happened to be hanging on the side of the road. By the time we finally pulled into Kampala at 9pm, having handed over our little passengers and Rose to Rose’s brother, Beth and I were exhausted and I was more than a little frazzled – Kampala driving at night feels like driving through Space Mountain at Disneyland, with full-beam lights, trucks, motorbikes, people and fully-loaded bicycles coming at you from all angles. Needless to say, arriving to a home-cooked dinner and a bottle of red wine at John and Mirriam’s house was absolute bliss. I love my Ugandan home-away-from-home and that I can walk into a house in Kampala and have little Laria come flying at me, welcoming home her Auntie Em. Each year she gets a little taller, a little wiser and a little more irresistible.

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Rose, Teacher Sarah, Beth and Dominic say farewell

Our time in Kampala was filled to the brim, visiting schools, sponsored students, craft markets (getting ideas with Rose about new projects for the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund – full story to come next email!) and then saying goodbye to Beth. It was amazing to have her here and to share this KAASO world with a good friend. Thanks Beth for not just talking about it but for actually coming and for doing so with all your heart and soul. KAASO is forever grateful – as I am.

Each of my annual visits to Uganda seems to get busier and busier as I take on more and more and the support grows. Since arriving here, I have had some wonderful new sponsors come on board, giving seven students the chance to begin secondary school next year, in addition to the 34 students already sponsored. Along with our 6 – soon to be 9 – graduates, it certainly keeps us all busy here! I never could have imagined when I first came here that seven years later we’d have grown so much and have come so far. Thank you all for sharing this journey and being a part of the KAASO family from all your corners of the world. I am incredibly proud to know that so many people near and far now know the KAASO name and are helping to spread the web of support, pushing the school forward, giving children hope for the future and helping a community grow stronger.

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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

 

Inspired Magazine

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Feeling very honoured to have been profiled in the beautiful Inspired Magazine.

Emma Outteridge was standing in the Nice Opera House on the glittering French Riviera, champagne glass in hand, a little black dress adorning her svelte frame, and mingling with VIP guests of Louis Vuitton here to watch a yacht race for the world’s sailing elite. This young Kiwi woman was living the high-life, hobnobbing with European high society in her role as events manager for the luxury Louis Vuitton  label. Yet Emma’s mind was elsewhere – thousands of miles away in a remote poverty-stricken village in Uganda. Emma had just returned from six months’ volunteering in Uganda, and found herself smitten by the people, particularly the orphans at the village school.

While the people around her discussed yacht prices and champagne varieties, Emma’s mind wandered, her face warming into a smile as she recalled the Ugandan orphans – the wide smiles that flashed so readily upon their faces, their shining eyes and their thirst for education. She realised the recent end of her six-month volunteering stint didn’t have to mean the end of her relationship with the village. Since that day seven years ago, Emma has gone on to help dozens of orphaned children in the village to access the education they’d otherwise have been denied…

Click here to read the full article.