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Unsung Heroes

The Pursuit of Happiness

She smiles because she has known and felt the pain. She laughs a hearty laugh because she’s not new to sorrow. She is a champion ready to narrate the story of her life. This is a tale of a secondary school teacher who has lived amidst alcoholism for over three decades but made it out smiling with the love of her five children.

Suzan (not real name) was born in Kabale in 1963 as the last child of eight children. Despite his illiteracy, Susan’s father was one of the richest men in a 100 ft radius. He owned forests, land, plantations and the biggest asset of them all, an industrious mind which he fortunately transferred onto his children, one of the lucky ones being Suzan.

“It was a family of hard workers” she says. From her tone, you can tell her journey has been full of trials and tribulations. “In a time where female education was not as prioritized as male education, few of my sisters managed to go make it to school”. Her other sisters, she says lived the cliché that was a 16th century African woman.

Bare children, grow them and wait on their husbands. Suzan wanted none of this. She craved an independence that this life couldn’t offer her. She wanted to be educated and to bring her parents much joy and happiness. Only her father didn’t see it that way. School wasn’t her priority.

Through hardship and strain, she eventually made it to Makerere University, at a time of prestige and graduated with a degree of education in the year 1988. She left with her transcript and two babies. A boy and a girl. The joys of her life. She loved her man and above all, she loved her children.

She loved her job and her life was good. Despite having such, The world wasn’t. It was just all about being the target of so much hatred, jealousy and antagonism from relatives. For most did not appreciate the man she had brought home, and most of the others were jealous that she had not lived down to their expectations. . She was living the Kampala dream.

“I met Jim when i was eighteen years old in my final year of secondary school”. Susan narrates like a young lady in love.  “He taught literature and English. A very handsome man, brilliant, well-spoken and extremely chivalrous. Unlike the rest of the arrogant and intimidating teaching staff, Jim was kind, patient and excellent at his job which he executed with utmost passion”. Soon after she had finished her secondary education, their affair ensued. He was loving, he was kind and generous.

The most amazing person she had ever known. When she had their first child two years later, he was more hands on than even she was. He was perfect. He had no flaw… oh she was enchanted! Three years later she had another child, a boy. He was elated and life was beautiful. She worked hard, voluntarily counselling with TASO at Rubaga Hospital and at the same time, teaching Geography and History at Mengo Secondary School trying to make the perfect home for her husband and her two little angels. He worked even harder teaching and pursuing his higher education. They were not rich. Not even close. But they were happy.

“What began as an outburst of anger turned into a pattern of abuse”. She recalls. Suzan cannot clearly point out the day the sun set on her marital bliss, but the details are vivid in her mind. Sometime in the late 1990’s, all hell broke loose. What started out as a little insult and rude answer to an honest question turned to huge fight that lasted hours and sometimes days, to physical violence that involved shoving, hitting and more hitting. That wasn’t enough. Emotional violence ensued. Insults on her, insults on her fidelity. Torments on her background, her education, her physical appearance and everything she was. There were those days.

Where her precious Jim had been taken over by something else. She did not know what it was. She was in shock. After almost a decade of happiness, she had forgotten what it meant to be sad. She wept. Now she knew. And she was scared. Jim had developed an alter ego. Alcohol was the catalyst for his alter ego. And he was losing control over it.

Charming and angelic by day, violent, abusive and bitter by night. He would apologize. Make up for it. After all, even Paul was once Saul. She was quick to forgive. She knew the man she had married. He wasn’t this monster that would come out at night. She wept. She forgave. She forgot. Until the next time. He was sorry. She wept. She forgave She forgot. Until the next time.

Ten years later, several fights later, several threats of divorce later, several jobs, moves, embarrassments and tears, 3 children later, Suzan worked hard, she prided herself in being the best mother for her children, and even better wife for her husband. Jim worked hard too.

He was a perfect father. But that wasn’t enough for alcohol still had control of his mind. He drunk and lost his mind. He had good and bad days. His children, 3 daughters and 2 sons adored him. He adored them. He adored the bottle too. Suzan still wept.

Cause alcohol derailed each and every aspect of their lives. For a man of his means, they lacked development, they were merely getting by. But she couldn’t live like that. She made the decision to focus on her children and their livelihood. She wouldn’t let her husband’s inadequacies control their lives. She would live.

Loan after loan, she paid school fees, paid tuition and gave her children the best life she could. Jim worked hard, he provided as much as he was able to. And as far as the bottle took him. Suzan diligently created friendships with heads of schools, matrons and teachers so her children could live comfortably at school as she fought the battles at home. She supplemented their school education with her own. Coached in algebra and geography. Did homework and made sure her children were never lazy.

“Jim gave into alcohol completely and his body became a host of so many illnesses and he ailed so much that work became an option to him”. Suzan stated in a melancholic tone. But never once did she complain or pawn her children on other relatives like she had seen several people do over the years. On the few occasions that she felt defeated, she turned to God. Ignored the village gossip, the bitterness that years of verbal and emotional abuse had created and chose to live happily and raise happy children, despite the scars from their father.

Now she sits at home on her freshly mowed lawn, surrounded by books and papers to grade, with nothing in the air but the sound of birds, content and elated. Blissful like she was 30 years ago. Her children, all graduated, some married and some parents too. She spends her days mostly alone, in her vegetable garden looking forward to those days her children come around to visit.

“I have no regrets in life because am now a victor”. Susan says with a smile of a champion. “My beautiful babies have all grown into respectable men and women. Even when i was down, i never gave up because i knew suffering was temporary. I  go to church every Sunday to thank the good Lord for how far he He has brought me. I still work hard teaching thrice a week at Kitante Hill School and keeping my home as homely and comfortable for me and my children when they do come back home to visit me.”



Collective Good

He Grew Up in Bwaise Slum. Today, Kisirisa has Educated and Empowered Young People like Him

Muhammed most commonly known as Slum Ambassador, was born and raised in Bwaise, the most deprived and perhaps largest slum area in Kampala. At the tender age of 11, he found his first job as a tap water operator. He would also carry water and pick garbage from people’s homes. On some occasions he would sell metal scrap all in an attempt to get an education, put clothes on his back and get something to eat.

“I picked interest in Computers when I was 25 years and began to teach myself at various internet cafes. I focused on creating profiles for HIV orphans and trying to see if I could link them up with potential sponsors for fees and assistance.” Mohammed says

Later, in 2009, together with 3 other young people, he formed Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD) a community based organization set out to transform Kampala’s poorest areas by empowering the young people, children and women through health, education and economic empowerment programs like vocational and entrepreneurship training.

A vocational training for youth underway at AFFCAD. (Photo by AFFCAD)

Since its establishment, AFFCAD’s primary focus was supporting orphans and vulnerable children and making awareness on health issues including HIV/AIDS awareness and adolescent sexual reproductive health. In June 2011 they established a community nursery and primary school called Excel Education Center that supports 200 children from Bwaise slums.

Todate, it has graduated 1,047 youth. This equates to a completion rate of 90%. Of those who have graduated 697 are female and 350 are male.

“AFFCAD’s Youth economic empowerment program provides the hands on skills that enable the disadvantaged youth in Kampala’s slums to transit from lives of crime and poverty to lives of productive occupation. “ He explains.

Through AFFCAD’s Bwaise Business and Vocational Institute, the targeted youth between 16-25 years participate in a 6 month vocational training program in applicable skills like Computer Graphics Design, Photography and Videography, Cookery and Bakery, Tailoring and Fashion design, Electronic installation, Hairdressing and Cosmetology, Decoration and Ushering among others.

Women during a graduation after completing the Women Business and Financial Access course (Photo by AFFCAD)

“As part of the program, the Youth are also equipped with entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, soft and hard skills for career and professional development (How to Make it in the Contemporary Business World) and they Youth take on one month internships at the end of the training to expose them to working environments.” Muhammed explains.

In addition, the project also provides IT Training to the youth on how to strategically use ICT (including internet, social media, Web 2.0 and mobile technology) to market and sustain their business ventures.

Each year AFFCAD runs The Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, to support the business ideas developed by the youth in the program, a mentoring session and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship boot camp. Every Friday, AFFCAD invites successful youth and other leaders to motivate and inspire our youth.

Muhammad standing next to one of the entrances at AFFCAD. (Internet photo)

AFFCAD runs the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, 15 winners have received micro start up grants between $1500 to $2500 to develop their business ideas, a mentoring session, and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship Boot Camp.

In August 2017, Muhammad received the 2017 Young Achievers Award for Social Entrepreneurship in recognition for his work with AFFCAD.

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Unsung Heroes

Being HIV Positive, Diagnosed with Cancer & Tuberculosis Has not stopped this Superwoman From Looking After 150 Kids in Slums

“A strong woman doesn’t give up even though her heart may feel heavy. She courageously takes one more step, then another and then another.” –Anonymous

Stella Airoldi first met Susan laker in 2009 when she first came to Uganda while doing research about post war victims and witnesses.

“I visited her house, where she was living with her 3 teenage kids. Back then I was 24 years old and Susan 26 years, so just two years older than me.  But her kids were already 9,10 and 13 years old.” Stella says.

Because Susan got pregnant for the first time when she was only 13, her kids didn’t go to school and neither did she. A soldier was responsible for her first pregnancy while she was living in a military barracks which by then, was the only safe place for her to go to escape the insurgency caused by the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.

“Getting pregnant when I was 13 years old was so traumatizing. I lost my childhood life. I wasn’t able to go to school which made me lost my hope for living a good future. I hated my parents for forcing me in to early marriage, my growth was totally destroyed and I segregated myself from people because I felt inferior.”- Susan notes.

Susan with some of the beneficiaries of 22STARS. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

When Susan was 15 years old, she conceived again but got a miscarriage when she received a message notifying her that her uncles, nieces, a brother and sister had been mutilated and killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

“I was shocked and lost the pregnancy. After a few months, I conceived again and gave birth to a second child at the age of 16 and when the baby was 6 months, the father died and since I had nowhere to get financial help from, I was forced to  remarry another soldier from the barracks to get protection and when I was 19 I gave birth to the third child.” Susan says

In 2007, her husband was deployed to Somalia on a peacekeeping and never returned, a thing that left Susan very frustrated. It was shortly after that, that she found out that she was HIV positive, had cancer and Tuberculosis (TB). It was not until an organization called Reach Out Mbuya came to her rescue that she was able to start cancer chemotherapy and TB drugs for six months and now am on ARVs treatment for life.

She then fled with all her children to Kampala which were (and still remain) her main reason and motivation to keep going in life. Her kids were tested negative and she wanted them to go to school. She started making jewellery, which initially her kids would sell in the streets.

Susan and some of her children (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

“It was then my pastor introduced me to Stella. I was making paper beads jewellery and Stella decided to buy me jewellery on a yearly basis. At the end of 2012 when she came back to Uganda to see how I was doing, she was surprised to learn that I was going back to school by myself and I had improved.” Susan notes.

Susan has been able to buy land and built a bigger house for her family. She completed high school and did a couple of short courses to improve her skills and knowledge for example a  certificate in Clearing, Forwarding and Shipping management, Certificate in Electronics, Certificate in Counseling People Living with HIV/AIDS.

“At first, all my friends and family thought I was completely crazy starting with women who cannot read and write and I cannot even communicate with. So true, things didn’t go that smooth the first 2 years. So end of 2014 I came back to Kampala and since 2015 I am here myself 2 to 3 times a year and things improved a lot.”- Stella says.

Stella (left) and Susan during one of the jewellery making sessions (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Susan is now managing the whole team of at 22STARS jewellery that comprises of over 20 women and supporting 150 children in slums. Thanks to recurring monthly donations, she (Susan) has been cooking in Acholi Quarter every Sunday since October 2016 ( so more than 14 months!) with the help of other 22STARS group members. The group started back then to cook for 50 kids and that is now 150. They get a hot meal with either fish or meat.

22STARS is a team of artisans made up by strong women living in the slums of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda making jewellery for a living. The platform is giving women in slum areas like Susan to sell their jewellery on the international market and earn a living, and in addition war running small social programs on the ground.

“Our choice for environmentally friendly products is a very conscious one. By using 100% recycled paper, the jewellery you wear does not only look good, but it also feels good. Our beads are hand made from paper and varnished with natural products.  This makes each peace uniquely different, lightweight and waterproof.” Stella says.

Some of the 22STARS women that make jewellery (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

22STARS also uses education and entrepreneurship to empower children and their families to rise above poverty by creating long-term sponsorships for children in Uganda, and also run several community development initiatives including a nutrition program, basic needs program, small business training and micro loans program and our holistic educational program with extra-curricular activities.

“Without the help of Susan this all would not have been possible. As she knows how it feels like to sit in the stone quarry with your kids, crashing stones all day, not being able to send them to school, she is pushing very hard to help all the families over there to send their kids to school. She is so amazing how she is managing everything. Susan is a true superstar and really the strongest woman I ever met.” Stella concludes.

Stella and Susan at the 22STARS office. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

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Uganda Innovates

Athieno Mary Lucinda is changing girls’ lives one sanitary pad at a time

She stood up in class, her classmates laughed at her. The boys said that she had slaughtered a chicken. They made fun of her for a long time. She couldn’t afford sanitary towels, the anxiety of the monthly period coupled with the embarrassment she had faced which would have destroyed her self-esteem as a young girl instead stirred her resolve.

Meet Athieno Mary Lucinda a YALI fellow, the founder of Eco-Pads a social enterprise dedicated to the production and distribution of reusable pads and environmentally friendly to girls in Uganda.

“That experience kept me wondering what I would ever do to save a girl the embarrassment I had gone through. While at university, I went to volunteer with Kadama Widows Association where I am the Executive Director now and as I interacted with the girls, they had similar challenges. I then started saving part of my stipend to make the pads and that was my aha moment.” Lucinda says.

The sanitary pads are distributed to young women in rural Uganda. These Eco-pads are Menstrual Kits that are made from very high performance fabric and provide comfort and supper protection for a period up to 12 months.

“The Eco-pads project started in 2008 as a local thing trying to just help girls in the community. In 2014 we realized we can improve on quality and start selling for sustainability and we have been growing daily from just the local community to many parts of the country with over 20 full time  and 35 part time employees.”

“I am most proud of last year when we reached 50,000 girls with Eco-Pads, the feedback from the girls attending school daily is heart-filling. The involvement of parents and the whole community in the cause is great. We have reached over 75,000 community members on Menstruation being an issue and how they support. Mentored over 10,000 girls” Lucinda says.

There are challenges that are still to be overcome. Being a local product, Lucinda’s biggest challenge has been in marketing and getting the product to be known, convincing the clients that it is a good product since it is new. The very first money that they used was grant money that they used to buy equipment and set up and buy some few materials.

Despite the challenges, she has mentors that encourage her when things are going down hill. my “Atuki Turner the ED of Mifumi, Tracey the founder of glad rags U.S, Mary Mosinghi the ED of KwaAfrica. They remaind me that I need to remain a learner and humble in whatever I do.”

At the heart of this project is the desire by Eco pads that every girl child remains in school. Eco-pads give affordable sanitary pads for girls, because many miss out of school during their menstruation. They are competing against appalling statistics 80% of Girls in Uganda are absent from school during their periods. 70% of female students reported difficulty of attending class attentively due to menstrual related problems. 90% of the poor women and girls do not use (off-the-shelf) sanitary pads, but instead improvise with unsanitary materials. Prior to their first period only 51% of girls had knowledge of menstruation and its management

“We educate girls on MHM, conduct mentorship sessions and educate the parents and teachers on the need to support girl child. We shall continue to do something regardless of the tide. One sanitary pad at a time.” Lucinda says

lucinda-1 lucinda




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