Dominic and Rose have seen and done a lot of things. Every year, they give over 600 children the gift of education at KAASO, the school they created 18 years ago. They have raised seven children of their own as well as mentoring and supporting hundreds of others. Their Empowerment Group enables members of the local community to feed their families and educate their children through microloans projects, piggeries, poultry farms and adult education. Both Dominic and Rose have travelled around their region and their country, inspiring others to give more, help more, be more. But, born and raised in Uganda, opportunities to travel abroad were about as common as flying pigs in the local piggery.
In June of this year, that changed.
Thanks to a school partnership established by Lizzie Hulton-Harrop between KAASO and Northbourne Park, a primary school in the UK, Dominic and Rose’s dreams of travelling overseas together came true. Last year, Lizzie and two teachers from Northbourne made the trip to KAASO to begin the partnership, and Dominic and Rose’s trip to the UK this year was to help further the work begun.
For Rose it was her first time on a plane, with the exception of a short trip to Tanzania when she was a teenager. Dominic had been twice to the US at the invitation of the National Educator Program of America, first in 2013 to present at an educational conference in California, and again in 2014 to complete the second part of the two-part workshop he had begun in Florida the previous year.
So he was the kafulu, the expert, seated next to Rose as they flew to the land of so many volunteers they had welcomed into their home over the years.
They were met in London’s Gatwick by Lizzie and her mother and driven to Northbourne Park School (NPS) in Kent, not far from the famous white cliffs of Dover. There, they spent a week living with Sebastian Rees, the school’s headmaster, and his wife Gillian, in their home within the school grounds. NPS is housed in a beautiful old building dating back to the early 19th century and is home to both boarders and day scholars, around 120 students in total from the UK and around Europe. It was ironic timing to be building a close partnership between two far-flung nations at a time when the UK was so dramatically exiting the European Union. Dominic and Rose actually landed in London the morning the Brexit results were announced and I was relieved to hear that they were warmly welcomed into the country, in spite of Britain’s frustrating backwards step towards separatism.
Dominic and Rose spent a phenomenal week at NPS with the students and teachers, studying different educational techniques, visiting the homes of some students and enjoying the school’s end-of-term festivities. I arrived from Bermuda full of anticipation to see Dominic and Rose – the first time we had ever met outside of Uganda. Pulling up outside the impressive school grounds, I entered the old stone buildings and reported in with the school receptionist, explaining I was there to see Dominic and Rose from Uganda. Before I had a chance to say anything else, she smiled knowingly and told me to follow her. She led me to the school staff room where Dominic and Rose were seated, casually chatting with the other teachers as naturally as if they’d been there their whole lives. They launched themselves at me with huge warm Ugandan hugs then proceeded to introduce me as one of their family to all their new best friends. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, thinking how in less than a week, they had already forged such strong bonds with everyone here, and the respect and admiration the teachers had for them was evident. My visit also gave me the chance to finally meet Lizzie, with whom I had been corresponding for years but never actually met face to face. We had worked together closely for months to make this trip a reality and it was amazing at last to be standing here with Dominic and Rose and to feel that all that hard work was worth every second.
It was the end of the school year and all the parents, teachers and students gathered into a marquee for the final Speech Day. We were seated as guests of honour in the front row and Sebastian, the headmaster, gave a moving speech about how much they had learned from Dominic and Rose over the past week. He invited them on stage to receive gifts of farewell, voicing his excitement for this long and prosperous partnership. I loved that the emphasis was on how much NPS had learned from Dominic and Rose’s visit; people often assume – wrongly – that developing nations have the most to learn from the West while I feel strongly that there are equal lessons to be learned on both sides.
Following the speeches, everyone mixed and mingled over cucumber sandwiches and cream scones and I got the chance to meet some of the families, students and teachers who had been touched by Dominic and Rose’s visit. So many people came up to me, saying how honoured they were to have spent time with this inspiring couple and a little girl attached herself to Rose and refused to let go, explaining that they shared the same name so were “kind of like sisters.”
When the time came to leave, I watched Dominic and Rose bid farewell to each of their new friends and thought about how amazing it was to have arrived at the end of their brief stay and to bear witness to the impressions the had made on this close-knit but outward-looking community in such a short space of time. NPS has students from all over Europe and their inspiring headmaster emphasised the bonds forged over the years between the UK and its European neighbours, assuring those gathered that, no matter what, those friendships, relationships and prosperous bonds would continue.
We were dropped off at the local train station and as I stood waiting on the platform with Dominic and Rose for our train to London, I realised that they were staring at the tracks in wonder.
“How does this work?” Rose asked quietly and I looked at her as the realisation dawned – this was their first time on a train. I explained the process and then delighted the rest of the journey as they marvelled at the passing scenery, commenting on the different farming techniques, the crops grown, the animals they saw, all the while Dominic whooping with excitement every time we went through a tunnel.
“Rose! We are under the ground!” he kept saying with his irresistible grin.
Arriving in Kings Cross St Pancras at rush hour on a Friday night was hectic to stay the least. Dominic and Rose experienced their first escalators, first elevator and first turnstiles all in the space of a few minutes. And then suddenly, we were outside, the buildings of London towering over us, my two Ugandan friends gaping in wonder.
It was a strange feeling in the days that followed to be leading rather than being led. Rose and Dominic have – and always will be – my guides to all facets of life in Uganda, guiding me not just geographically but emotionally and culturally, helping me navigate my way through unknown territory. But suddenly, I was the guide. It was a strange role reversal.
I checked them in to their hotel at the bottom of my brother’s Farringdon street and gently explained how to use the shower, the soap dispenser, and the key cards, all of which caused a great deal of hilarity. That night, we dined with a group of past volunteers at a local restaurant and Dominic and Rose’s faces lit up to find themselves reunited with so many old friends from around the world, all of whom had gathered to see them. Some volunteers had travelled from around the UK, Rachel had flown in from Berlin and Cherie had come all the way from New Zealand to coincide with this visit from our Ugandan family.
The following day, I sat with Dominic and Rose in a local café for our annual run-through of KAASO’s priority list. This meeting has always taken place at the KAASO dining room table so it felt rather surreal to be sitting in a London café talking over scrambled eggs and lattes about the latest happenings at KAASO, but they just took it in their stride and I was transported back to my village home as they talked. It was with great pride that I recounted the story of how we were able to raise enough money to buy a school bus for KAASO thanks to my friends in Bermuda (the full school bus story to come soon). They were overwhelmed with gratitude and we excitedly made plans for the arrival of the bus later this year.
We jumped on board a red double-decker bus (another first) and I loved watching their faces as the world flew by at eye level out the window. We had just settled in when we were abruptly told to get off the bus just before Picadilly Circus and when I questioned the driver he explained that the roads were blocked and we could go no further.
Not understanding, I led Dominic and Rose through the streets towards our destination and suddenly it all became clear – we had landed bang, smack in the middle of London’s highly-charged anti-Brexit rally. For half an hour we walked backwards against a sea of thousands who angrily protested the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Well-accustomed to crowds and chaos, Dominic simply turned to me with a grin and asked, “Whose side are we on? Are we with the protesters?” Dominic was thrilled when I nodded my agreement, and proceeded to punch his fist into the air in solidarity as he walked, joining in the chorus of dissent. I couldn’t help but laugh and think back on my last trip to Uganda in which we had so often found ourselves in political rallies leading up to the Ugandan elections. Dominic and Rose were no stranger to people taking to the streets.
We finally made it to Hyde Park Corner where we met Teressa Macbeth, who has been sponsoring Violah, one of the Kiwi Sponsorships students, with her husband Jono for the last three years. It was a beautiful catch up and I loved watching these two worlds unite, having heard so much about the other. Teressa listened intently as Dominic and Rose shared the tragic story of Violah’s family and I felt so grateful that together we would enable Violah to get the education she deserved.
After lunch, the three of us sat on a sunny park bench in Hyde Park to continue our discussion of the latest priorities at KAASO. I jotted notes in between Dominic and Rose’s questions about the swans and paddle boats on the lake, the motorised golf-carts collecting rubbish and, my favourite question from Rose, “How do these people not have to work?” Sure, it was a Saturday but not many in Uganda have the luxury of spending a day lying in a park sipping Pimms and reading the newspaper.
We had another wonderful evening with a collection of volunteers at a French restaurant in Angel and I couldn’t help but smile looking down the long table, thinking how amazing it was that the thing that united us all was a tiny village in Uganda and here we were sharing stories over sauvignon blanc in London.
The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the much-anticipated meeting of Dominic and Rose and Nathan. For three years this trio has been hearing about each other, already considering themselves family, but on Sunday 3rd July 2016, my dream finally came true. Nathan flew all the way from Bermuda for one day to meet them and nothing could have meant more to me. Watching Dominic and Rose embrace him as a long lost family member is an image that will stay with me forever. The four of us walked to a nearby café where we met my brother, Nick, and his girlfriend Grace for brunch. Nick had already met Dominic and Rose, having spent two weeks with me in Uganda last year but it was also the first time for them to meet Grace and over brunch, Rose gave a moving speech about how the full Blackman family was finally united.
During Nick’s visit to Uganda, the preparations for this UK adventure had already been underway and Nick had joked that if Dominic and Rose ever did make it to the London, he would take them on an open top bus tour. And that’s just what we did. Sunday Funday was spent together with Cherie and her boyfriend, Fraser, hopping on and off an open top red London bus, seeing the sights of the city.
We lit candles in St Pauls Cathedral (which Dominic and Rose were thrilled about St Paul is the patron saint of KAASO), picnicked in front of Buckingham Palace, had a whirlwind shopping stop on Oxford St, drove over Tower Bridge, marvelled at the London Eye (“There are PEOPLE in those things?” Rose asked me, shaking her head. “Oh no, no, no please!” she laughed when Dominic suggested we try) and ended up back in King’s Cross for a farewell dinner.
It was an emotional farewell that night as Dominic and Rose were leaving early the next morning to go to Belfast to meet with Share Uganda, a Northern Irish charity that helps with medical projects at KAASO and the surrounding community. As I said my goodbyes, I thought back on a moment during the weekend, when I had found Rose staring into space. I asked her what she was thinking and she looked at me and said, quite simply, “I am wondering, ‘Who am I? Who am I to deserve such a thing?’ These things we have been reading about in books and films – and now they are just there! Eh, it is all beyond belief.”
I reminded her that there were no two people on the planet that deserved this trip more than they did and that they would carry this within them forever, the ripples flowing out on their return to Uganda. The stories they would share, the lessons they had learned, the cultural exchange they experienced would slowly spread throughout their community, helping to bring two worlds together and reminding children everywhere that anything truly is possible.
Northbourne Park School: www.northbournepark.com
The Northbourne Park/KAASO Partnership: www.nopakaasoschools.wix.com/2015
Share Uganda: www.shareuganda.co.uk