Five and a half years ago, I boarded a flight to Uganda. For all the political histories and journalists’ accounts of Africa I’d read, I knew nothing could prepare me for what awaited me and I did my best to keep my imagination from running wild. My ears were ringing with warnings from people urging me to be careful – I was going to Africa, a continent synonymous with civil wars, deadly diseases, hungry mosquitoes and child soldiers. I pushed those thoughts aside and did my best to adopt an open heart and mind to help see me through the next six months. With two fellow Kiwis, I was to be volunteering at St Paul KAASO a primary school for orphans in Kabira, a tiny rural village in southern Central Uganda. Tumbling off the plane, we were met, to our relief, by the wide smile of Dominic Mukwaya, the Director of KAASO. It was to be the start of an enduring friendship.
We were welcomed into the school and community with open arms and made to feel like family by Dominic and his wife Rose. Together, they had established KAASO in 1999 in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis which was ravaging the region, leaving thousands of children orphaned and families devastated as elderly grandparents struggled to look after dozens of orphaned grandchildren. Taking 12 orphans into their own home, Dominic and Rose taught classes in a single thatched hut which fell down continuously in the rainy season. Resources were limited but they were determined to continue and by the end of that first year, the school roll had expanded to 49 children. And it was not only orphans turning up at the school gates – parents hearing of the high teaching standard at KAASO and fed up with the government schools’ inadequacies were bringing their children to KAASO, offering to pay school fees. Thus began a carefully balanced system of juggling, whereby some children paid school fees, offsetting those that could not afford to pay – with a whole raft between them paying small sums and making up the rest in avocados, chickens, carpentry services or pails of milk.
Today, thanks to this extraordinary system and the dedication of Dominic and Rose and their hardworking staff, 600 children receive an education every year at KAASO. Over half of these children board at the school and the others walk for miles from the surrounding villages. In 2009, my friends and I fundraised to build a dormitory to help accommodate the ever-growing school population. Kiwi House now stands proudly, home to 100 girls. We also established a library and computer lab for the school and community where the children now take computer classes and have access to text books, novels and picture books.
What started as a one-off journey has become a lifelong love affair and I now return to the village every year. I continue to run fundraisers through my network of supporters, building a boys’ dormitory that sleeps 80 children, constructing local teacher housing and funding an income-generating poultry project. Realising that many of the hugely talented children leaving KAASO would be unable to receive a decent secondary education, I established the Kiwi Sponsorship program in 2009, which sees 20 students through secondary school every year.
People used to ask if I went to Uganda to teach and I would smile and shake my head. If they could see what I see every time I return to the village, if they could witness the incredible determination of these children, if they could taste their hunger for knowledge, their ability to succeed against all odds, they would realise that I do not go to teach, but to learn.
Sure, I have taught English in classrooms with no doors or windows which flood during the rainy season; I have run countless music sessions in the shade of banana palms; I wrote, orchestrated and put on a school show for the crowds who came from far and wide to see the KAASO children perform. But I am the one who has been enriched by the community at KAASO, who has been taught to appreciate the simple pleasures in life and to take nothing for a granted – a smile, a song, a meal.
This time in two weeks I will be on a plane, heading back to Uganda for the fifth time. I am taking with me a friend and filmmaker who is going to help me to put together a short film series to bring the KAASO story and its characters to life and I can’t wait. It feels surreal looking out my window in San Francisco across a city awakening, thinking that soon I will be waking to the sound of roosters crowing and children laughing as they race through the school gates in the pre-dawn. The contrast is marked. And yet nothing feels so right as each time I find myself bouncing back down that dusty, dirt road, back to my Ugandan family, my East African home.
Emma Blackman is an author, philanthropist and Event Manager for the Louis Vuitton Cup. Follow the ongoing story of her work in Uganda at www.ileftmyheartinuganda.com and on Facebook. Photo by Hans Duursma.