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: 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.