Stories From Uganda: From the trauma of the 1970s to a better future for the children of Uganda

Bernard Masaba (54) is the Outreach Co-ordinator with Fields of Life, based at the headquarters in Kampala, Uganda. Bernard and I are the same age. He was one of eight children born to his parents, William and Susan.  When I was a child in West Belfast, Bernard was a boy in Mbale in Eastern Uganda. We both grew up during a turbulent time in the history of our countries. But Bernard’s story as a child during the time of Idi Amin puts many of the stories of Northern Ireland into perspective.

When I met Bernard in Kampala he shared his memories of the political turmoil, economic disintegration and insecurity in Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s. This had a huge impact on ordinary people’s lives. ‘We didn’t have anything in those years’, he told me, ‘There was no bread or sugar or soap.’

When I was getting my first job as a paperboy in Belfast, Bernard was facing much more danger in an effort to survive. In an attempt to find a source of income, as a boy he became involved in coffee smuggling. From Monday to Thursday he went to school, but on Fridays he carried 20 kg of coffee on his head on a dangerous trek through the mountains and across the border from Uganda into Kenya. The main danger was to be caught by Amin’s soldiers. They caught and killed some of Bernard’s friends. If the soldiers were on their track the children had to escape through the forests. Bernard told me about the time when he almost died after fleeing into the forest to escape from Amin’s army who were killing the smugglers they caught.

‘I walked through the forest for four days and four nights,’ he recalled. ‘In the end I couldn’t walk any more. I thought I was going to die. But then a stronger guy came along and carried me and my coffee and he saved my life. I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive. It was a tough life.’

But Bernard did survive. He completed his education and went to teacher training college and he has spent his life teaching and promoting education in Uganda.

Bernard married Miriam and they had six sons together. Sadly, Miriam died in 2012 and Bernard has had to continue to raise and educate his children on his own. It’s an indication of Bernard’s resilience that his eldest son has now graduated as a teacher, another son is a business graduate and another is studying as an engineer. His other three sons are still at school and the cost of raising them alone and paying school fees has not been easy. However, Bernard explained to me that once he has covered the costs of his own children he now supports the education of other children. He told me that he was inspired to do this by people in Northern Ireland who raise money to support children in Uganda. He said, ‘It’s so encouraging to see children’s lives transformed, from having their own shoes to having an education, thanks to the donors to Fields of Life.’

Stories From Uganda: Parents investing in the future of their children

When I was in Uganda I enjoyed meeting Stephen Tusilme and his wife Christine. They welcomed me into their home in the village of Busingiro in the Ibanda District of rural South West Uganda. Stephen told me the inspiring story of how a group of parents in the village are investing together in future of their children.

Stephen and Christine have seven children of their own and look after one orphan.  Stephen was born in Busingiro to his mother Faith and father Baziro. However, his early life was influenced by the history of Uganda. His mother’s first husband was among the Asians deported from Uganda by Idi Amin. When Stephen’s father then married another woman his mother gave her property to the sons of her first husband, leaving Stephen with nothing.

Stephen told me how he developed a strong desire to have a piece of land of his own to construct a temporary shelter so that he could marry and have a wife and children in his own property.  ‘When the passion developed,’ he said, ‘I started working on other people’s farms. When I earned some money I constructed a grass thatched house at my sister’s place. Then I started a business making and selling ropes and taking them to the market. I started making pancakes and baking bread as well, until I had earned enough money to marry my beautiful wife Christine.’

Stephen told me how he continued to develop various business enterprises, buying and selling maize and beans. He began to rent out other people’s land so that he could grow his farming business. Today he has ten acress of land with four cows producing 20 litres of milk per day, a small shop and two motorbikes that he hires out. As a result of his hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, Stephen has been able to educate his children through Ryamugwizi Primary School. One of his children, Patience is sponsored by Fields of Life.

Along with parents and guardians of other sponsored children at Ryamugwizi Primary School, Stephen established a SACCO (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization) so that they could sustain payment for their children’s education once their sponsorship by Fields of Life comes to an end. The twenty parents established the SAACO in 2015, and have made regular savings ever since, which the SACCO has invested successfully in maize. This has produced a very good return each year so that the members have been able to buy piglets and goats while continuing to grow the SACCO profits at the same time. Stephen even showed me the books!

It was inspiring to hear how this group of parents had come together to invest in the future of their children. I asked Stephen of their plans for the future and he said the parents group has three main goals:

  1. To develop members of the SACCO
  2. To sustain our school
  3. To continue to educate our children when sponsorship stops

‘When it grows to the next level,’ said Stephen, smiling broadly, ‘we will be able to provide a cow for each member. Then, if we can get some technical support and advice we can become a regional SACCO to help more people to reach their dreams.’

Stephen and Christine are typical of so many of the people I met in Uganda. They are very grateful for the support of people from other countries such as the Fields of Life child sponsors from Northern Ireland, but they are determined to build self reliance and to sustain their families and schools for themselves. It was privilege to meet Stephen and Christine and to hear yet another inspiring story from Uganda.

Stories From Uganda: A Dedicated Teacher

Beatrice Kebirungi (58) has been a teacher at Ryamugwizi Primary School in rural South West Uganda since the earliest days of the school. For twenty five years, her dedication to the children in the school and her commitment to the people of her local community have never wavered. This is another inspiring story from Uganda.

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Beatrice qualified as a Grade 3 teacher in 1993 and has been teaching ever since. When Ryamugwizi Primary School was first opened by the church it was a private school with no government funding. Beatrice told me that she often worked without pay in those early years. Eventually in 2004 the government began to support the school with some teacher salaries.

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As the school continued to grow, in 2007 the government provided some further support with a small building of classrooms and salaries for more teachers. In the same year Beatrice decided to go back to study to qualify as an Upper Grade teacher.

Beatrice explained how the school really began to develop and grow when the  REAP Project and Fields of Life began to support it in 2014. This included the construction of ‘a wonderful building’ with new classrooms, pit latrines, a kitchen and a rain water harvesting system.

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Today the school continues to grow and develop. Beatrice smiles when she says, ‘Now we have classrooms and I get a salary!’

This year the REAP Project added a staff accommodation block for teachers to live on site, to increase their time spent at school and to attract the best teachers.

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I asked Beatrice about all the changes she has been through in the school in the last twenty years. She replied, ‘The school enrolment is increasing, we have water, we are attracting very good teachers and academic performance in improving. I am proud of our pupils. Some of our past pupils are doing very well.’

39558336770_20a9f1061a_oBeatrice is married and has five children. Since she began receiving a government salary she has been investing her income in her family and in the local community.

‘I’ve had to look after my five children and their education,’ she said (two of her children are now at university), ‘and I’ve built a small home and managed to buy some land to develop projects.’

Beatrice has developed two hectares of land with coffee and banana plantations. She has built a house for commercial rental and premises for her son to operate a retail business. I asked her why she was investing in this way. ‘It’s for the future of my children,’ she said, ‘I have future plans for four hectares of land and I would love to rear cattle.’

I found it inspiring to hear that after years of not being guaranteed a teacher’s salary, when Beatrice began to earn a regular income, she looked outward, with an entrepreneurial spirit and invested in development projects in her local community.

On the day Beatrice welcomed the REAP Project team into her home I asked about her hopes for the future of the school. She did not hesitate to reply.

‘I want us to continue to improve the standards, to start a boarding section for children who live further away, as this will enable children to study for longer and improve their academic performance. A boarding section will also bring income into the school to help subsidise the children from lower income families.’

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‘I come from here,’ said Beatrice, ‘and I want to be a role model for the children, especially the girls. I tell them stories of how I have persisted to stay with them. I want to inspire them to be like me and more.’

I have no doubt that Beatrice Kebirungi will continue to teach and inspire the children at Ryamugwizi Primary School for many years to come.

Stories from Uganda: An inspiring single mother in rural Uganda

This is the story of Alice Bamacungura, a sixty four year old woman with a passion for nurturing children.

Alice grew up in a single parent family in the Bushenyi District of Western Uganda. After her parents’ divorce she lived with her father until marrying Wilson and moving to the village of Busingiro (where I have been hearing the stories of local people during my visit to Uganda this week). She depends on the natural spring well that that I wrote about here).

Alice had five children, but two of her children died and her husband abandoned the family and went to live in Kampala in the 1980s. ‘He left us thirty years ago,’ she says, ‘and he never showed up again.’ In the years that followed Alice struggled with the loss of her children and with a serious illness but she was determined to earn enough money to raise her remaining children on her own. She tells me that she used to grow crops and when the crop was planted and growing she would go and dig in other people’s fields so that she would have enough income for her family. The house her husband had built fell down and so she started to work for others and to save money in the local SACCO. Eventually she earned enough money to build a small home and today she also has 2.5 acres of land.

Unfortunately when her children were young she could not raise enough money to pay for school fees and instead Alice taught them skills to help them to get a job. Her daughter, Scovia took a course in hairdressing and now runs her own hair salon. Her daughter, Jenessca is now a business woman, selling footwear in the local markets and her son, Dezi has become a well known local artist, singer and drummer.

However, this remarkable woman did not stop after raising her own children. Today she has five more children living with her that she looks after. Some of them are attending Ryamugwizi Primary School (the school being supported by the REAP Project). She tells me she has taken in these children because they have been abandoned and were not being looked after. She says, ‘Even at my age I still go to work in other people’s fields to make enough money to raise these children. Living a single life is not easy!’ After struggling to raising her own children alone Alice, at the age of sixty four, is still out in the fields digging the soil, to give other children a good start in life.

‘I have a passion for nurturing children,’ she says, ‘and children come and stay at my home’ She explains, ‘I didn’t get a chance to study or go to school, so I want to see children pass through school and get an education. Without skills and education, children cannot survive life.’

I ask Alice where her strength and resilience come from and she talks humbly about her faith in God. ‘God is the source of everything’, she says, ‘I cast all my burdens upon God.’

I ask Alice about her hopes for the future. She tells me that she wants to see the children she raises getting good qualifications and becoming a teacher or a nurse. She says she hopes the children she has raised will remember her and perhaps support her when she is elderly.  She would like to have a proper door and windows in her house. ‘I pray that if I live long enough, God will allow me to finish my house with a metallic door and windows, and I will forget the bad experiences of the past.’

It was a privilege to meet Alice. Her hard work, resilience and faith and her love and commitment to children is truly inspiring. I hope she lives a long and happy life and that her hopes for the future will be realised.

Stories from Uganda: Discovering treasures in the slums of Kampala

Today I visited the Kosovo slum in Kampala. It’s the poorest community I have ever seen and on the surface it seems like a hopeless place. However this afternoon I listened to the stories of some of the most inspiring people I have ever met and I discovered treasures in the slums of Kampala.

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In the coming days I’ll be sharing the stories of local people who are committed to creating positive change in their communities. Today I want to start with Pastor Deo M. Mwanje of Word of Life Community Church who runs the Treasured Kids School, kindergarten, community development and social enterprise projects in the middle of the Kosovo Slum.

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Meeting with Pastor Deo at Treasured Kids Primary School in the Kosovo slum in Kampala

Pastor Deo grew up as a street kid himself. His mother came to Uganda as a refugee during the first genocide in Rwanda and met Deo’s father at a bar where she worked. His parents were divorced when he was 9 years old and from the age of 10 Deo went to four different schools. He moved to a different school, between five and ten miles from his home, every year because he was unable to pay the debt incurred after one year of education. At the age of 14 he got a job with accommodation but after two years he remained unpaid and finally he was thrown out on the street. Deo discovered that he had to be tough to survive on the streets and ultimately ended up in prison. When he was released from prison he hit a low point in his life and became suicidal. The transformation of his life began when he met a missionary who took him under his wing. Pastor Deo talks movingly about how he found new faith and hope for the future. He trained as an evangelist, studied theology and ended up in the Kosovo slum, which was nicknamed after Kosovo in the Balkans because of the similar levels of violence experienced there in the 1990s. Pastor Deo started the church with just three people and it has grown ever since under his leadership.

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Pastor Deo with his daughter Amanda

In those days the site of the school was a garbage dump where street kids foraged through the rubbish looking for something to eat. He recalled his own experience on the streets and remembered, ‘When I was on the streets I was a troublemaker to everyone but I was a treasure to God’ He looked at the children in the dump and saw them as treasured human beings and had the vision to start a school for them. With support from Fields of Life, the Treasured Kids Primary School was established and since then it has grown and developed into a range of education and community projects. The school has educated many children from the slum to give them a better future including one of Uganda’s most successful singers Levixone Lala.

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I was particularly impressed with the SACCO project which is a community bank that seeks to eradicate poverty through developing a saving and investment culture.  It reminded me of a Credit Union in Northern Ireland. Members of the SACCO can secure low interest loans for small businesses and job creation. Pastor Deo explained that this was a model of empowerment and development for people living in the slums, and was more effective in changing the community than simply giving people charity aid.

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Pastor Deo’s next dream is to build a Technical School in the slum so that young people can  gain vocational skills and then start their own business with a loan from the SACCO.

I was inspired by Pastor Deo’s story.  He sees himself as a pastor to the slum rather than a pastor to the church. He prioritises the huge social needs in the local community. ‘We love God by loving people’ he says. ‘We serve God by serving people’. I was moved by his vision and commitment and his view of the poorest people in the poorest communities in one of the poorest countries in the world, as treasures.

Tomorrow I’ll share the stories of two remarkable young men I met in the Kosovo slum.