When opportunity knocks: The story so far

During November last (2015) Ursula and I went on a trip to Uganda as part of a trip organised by World Vision for those who were sponsoring children with World Vision. We were given an opportunity to visit a young man we have sponsored for around 10 years as well as to visit farms, schools, savings clubs and medical facilities which formed part of their Area Development Plans in two regions in Uganda. The poverty in the rural areas was severe and made a lasting impression on us. We were brought to a rural village called Tiira which was located not far from the border town of Busia, part of which is Uganda and the other part in Kenya. There we were introduced to young man called Wmima John Kennedy, who had been helped by World Vision in being trained as a mechanic and who was now training a group of youths to be mechanics also. He repairs Buda Buda taxi motorbikes and has a small shed where he stores spare parts for the motorbikes. He gave us a short talk about himself and how World Vision had helped him. Personally, we both felt that he was both articulate and smart with a good command of the English language and could see him having a relatively bright future in his Village. His business had a sign outside his shed which showed that the name of his business was Faith’s Automobile Garage. Faith we discovered was the name of his four year old daughter. He had another younger daughter aged two called Joan. His wife’s name was Hellen.

Wmima John Kennedy

Wmima John Kennedy

While we were there I went to look at the inside of his workshop which was about the size of a small Barna shed and to ask him some questions about his work. Meanwhile Ursula had gone across to the opposite side of the road and was approached by a woman with three children who asked her for some money to help her children. Ursula was moved by the obvious plight of the woman and her family and relayed the woman’s story to me as we began to get back on our 22 seater bus. Ursula had no money on her and was mindful of World Vision not to do this as it was against their philosophy. Ursula felt she had let the woman and her children down.

When we returned home Ursula was still upset by the fact that she failed to help the woman in need of food for her children. By some act of fate or coincidence, when I connected to my Facebook page the day after I returned home there was a Facebook friend request from John Kennedy, the owner of Faith’s Automobile Garage. He had been looking for some contact with someone from the developed world that might be able to provide some assistance for his village. He had searched Facebook to see if any of the people on the visitor’s sheet he had been supplied with as part of our visit and send FB friend requests to any of us had Facebook accounts. Ursula asked me to accept his FB friendship request and once accepted to get in touch and having given him the best description we could of the family who had asked for help,to see if he could locate her .

After a couple of days he sent us a photograph of the family he discovered living not too far from him and whom the mother had told him she had asked for help. Ursula who is a visual person, instantly recognised the family in the photograph as being the one she had met.

Now the problem was to find how we could get some help to this woman in the quickest timeframe. The village does not have regular street names and even if they had, post is not delivered to them. I discovered that I could send money to Wmima John Kennedy through Western Union and we sent him €100 to provide assistance to the family. He used about €60 to buy two changes of clothes for the mother and her three children, a couple of blankets, some nutritious bars and a big bag of maize which is part of the stable diet of people in the village. We agreed that he would give the family the remainder of the money in instalments over the next four weeks. We have continued with John Kennedy’s help to support this first family.

We then started an intense bout of FB messaging between myself and John over the succeeding days, weeks and months as we both sought to get a better understanding of each other’s hopes and dreams along with an understanding of both our cultures.

As it happened, I was supposed to retire on November 30th, and I had publically pledged some 5 years ago o do voluntary work once I retired. Here was a volunteer opportunity where I could be master of my destiny .With the enthusiastic cooperation of my wife Ursula this was the stimulus for us to set up a registered company called Opportunity Knox Charity. This was accomplished on December 22nd 2015. This would give us an opportunity to help the people in Africa, and in the initial instance to help those in the village of Tiira not far from the town of Busia. We decided to concentrate on one village so that our efforts would have a visible effect on the lives of those living in one village. There are sufficient really poor families in the village to occupy us for the foreseeable future. Next we had to come up with an unique selling point of this company. Having listened to the views of neighbours and friends, that we would cover 100% of all administration costs associated with the company business in both Ireland and Uganda. This also would mean that all travel expenses incurred by us in travelling to Uganda to monitor the company business would be covered from our own donations to the Company. When I retired we donated an initial sum of €10,000 from my Gratuity to the company. We used a play on our name and the 1970s TV talent show hosted by Hughie Green and called the company Opportunity Knox. This was also a nickname that was sometimes used by my students when I taught and was also the title of my speech that won me the honour of representing Ireland and Britain at the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking which was held in Phoenix, Arizona in August 1981.

We talked to many people since November that thought our unique selling point, that 100% of people’s gifts or donations would be applied directly to children by paying their education fees and additionally where necessary to provide practical and visible support to their families, would influence the generosity of many people to support us that might not be inclined to support larger national charities where there was no certainty about how their donations would be used. We planned to visit Tiira in November 2016, but decided that to capitalise on people’s goodwill we should go out there in April 2016 so that we could be very familiar with the plight of the villagers and have more precise details on the village and on the children and families that most needed our immediate support.

We booked our flights to leave Ireland on April 19th and to return on April 29th. As part of the visit we had agreed to provide two days of Training for an established charity in Busia called Seeds of Hope for International Missionaries in Uganda (Shim-U).

We looked on this trip as an opportunity to get to know John and his family better and to get to know the Village and its people. John and Harry had exchanged thousands of Facebook messages in the period between November 2015 and April 2016 but were anxious to meet each other to see if they could get on as well in reality as in the virtual world of social media. We arrived in Entebbe Airport in Uganda on Wednesday April 20th where we were met by John and Hellen Kennedy and their two beautiful daughters Faith and Joan. They took us by Taxi to Busia where we were booked in to the la Palm Hotel. This was a five hour journey.

We awoke bright and early the next morning after a good night’s sleep and were greeted at 8.00 a.m. by John Kennedy and transported by Taxi to his village of Tiira. John was busy putting the finishing touches to his new house which was scheduled to be opened, as is the tradition, by a religious service on the following. John explained that he was setting aside one room which he would use as his office for the various bodies he volunteers with as well as a place for doing his voluntary work with Opportunity Knox. Many of his family visited and were introduced to us as we sat in the shade outside his new home. We met his mother and his grandmother as well as his uncle’s and their children. We visited some of their homes as well as meeting the family we had been supporting since November last.

It was obvious that John, who is aged 30 years, is well respected in his village and is seen as a leader in development activities that benefit his community. We were more than a bit uncomfortable of the tradition of all of the women and children genuflecting and kneeling in front of us as they shook our hands. But this is their custom especially when greeting a man and greeting white people. By the end of the week we managed to get them to break with tradition when greeting us because, as we explained to them our belief that we are all equal as human beings and also the colour of our skin was purely an accident of birth that we had born in a different country from them. What took us by surprise was the number of children all around the place who were not in school and how interested they were in hanging around and hanging off us once they had investigated and were happy with us as white people. They were fascinated by the hair on the back of my hands and on my arms and were constantly stroking it. They became regulars around John’s house for the coming week and there were always at least four catching each hand as we walked around the village. Before we headed back to the Hotel in the evening we went to a parish hall in Busia to see the venue where we would be providing the training on Friday and Saturday for Shim-U. It was obvious that the facilities were basic and there would be a lot of distractions all around us competing with us for the attention of the
participants during the two days while we were providing the Training.

The training is Interpersonal Communication on Friday and on Subjective Well-Being on Saturday went really well for the 20 people who attended. We covered how to write and deliver a Presentation on Friday along with covering the skills involved in Active Listening. All of this was new to them and they had never realised that they could learn skills that would enable to better listeners and all the differences that that would make in their daily activities at work, home or play! On the Saturday we covered the ideas of Professor Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology, especially introducing them to PERMA which is his formula for happiness or what he calls Subjective Well-Being. As there were three Pastors and a Bishop in the audience I was unsure how these new ideas would be received by them. I needn’t have worried. The material was well received by all present. They were most delighted with getting their Certificate of Participation for their two days in attendance.

Sunday was an unusual day for us. John had arranged for us to visit three churches that were having services that day. These were and Anglican Church, a Catholic Church and a Pentecostal Church. Vibrant music and singing by choirs and the congregations were the order of the day. These rural families have a great devotion to their religious practices and it givesthem meaning and purpose to their lives. Both Ursula and I addressed all three congregations, introduced ourselves, and told them the purpose of our visit. We made donations to all three Churches and said we would be around the village until later in the week and they were most welcome to meet them. We explained that we were not representatives of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) and that we wanted to gift support to families and to schools who needed support. There are 30 different languages spoken in Uganda and John told us that he was able to communicate in 18 of those languages, hence he was in big demand to provide training in Farming methods and other areas of activity of a number of Charities.

Then it was back to the official opening of John’s house. There was a walk led by a couple of Pastors all around the outside of the house as we sang hymns and then the official cutting of the tape and the subsequent ceremony conducted inside the house by them. This involved various readings from the Gospels and reflections on them, all carried out in a language we didn’t understand, probably Swahili. English is the official language of Uganda and now English is taught in the Primary Schools. A cake was then cut and distributed to all inside the house and those sitting patiently outside. There were many mothers and children participating in the cooking and eating outside with just a few men being there. Polygamous relationships are still a part of life for some families and in many cases the women have to take over 100% the care of their children. We gave out balloons to the children and they had great fun blowing them up and chasing them around the garden. Despite the very poor circumstances of mothers and children they all have such happy dispositions in the midst of such adversity.

We spent most of our time on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday visiting poor families that John had researched as possibly being in need of support. In most cases the families live in mud huts with grass roofs which hare classed as temporary homes. But in reality these will be their permanent homes for their entire lives. In many cases there were holes in the roof allowing rain to come in where the children slept. We were humbled and privileged to be allowed into these homes to assess their living conditions and what their pressing needs were. We were embarrassed as we asked, using John as our interpreter, what their most pressing physical needs were. I felt that they felt ashamed of their poverty, which they have very little control over, as they revealed the extent of their needs. We learned an awful lot about day to day life as we progressed through our visits to the families John Kennedy had chosen for us to visit. We thought at some stages that we couldn’t meet any other family that was as poor as the one we had just visited when we visited another family to find that they were even poorer than any of the previous families we had visited. We were not prepared for the level of poverty when we visited people’s homes. In most cases they are spotlessly clean but just contained a single bed behind a curtain with their clothes hanging from a line.

There might be a coffee table and chairs in about 50% of the homes. The children, of which there were 4 to 6 on average slepton an uncomfortable papyrus “mattress” put down at night. The children had no blankets to cover them in most cases. We learned that all children who attend primary school have to pay fees for tuition, tests, and final year-end examinations in all schools both public and private. In public schools the class size can be up to around 125pupils. The class sizes in private schools would be somewhere 60 and 80 pupils. The private schools were more results orientated and more desirable to the parents. There was not a great difference in cost between both, but as most of the poorest families did not have the ability to pay the fees for the public schools, they therefore could not afford the private schools. Children are constantly sent home from schools and told not to return until they could bring their fees. Difficult choices have to be made by parents if they cannot afford to send all their children to school. There is also the cost of uniforms and copies and pens to be covered too. In some families boys are favoured ahead of girls. When girls reach 12 to 14 years of age they tend to drop out as they cannot afford the price of sanitary towels in addition to not having any reasonably private latrines.

Families were very modest in their requests for support. We agreed how many mattresses and blankets that each family needed and then moved on to whether they needed help with food supplies. Many of their children walked a couple of Kilometres to school and started school without any breakfast. Most walked hone at lunchtime and many got nothing to eat. They walked home in the evening and in most cases there was something to eat as an evening meal. The situation was marginally better where the mother or father owned a small plot of land where they could set crops and produce their own food. Some of these families were with careful planting during two growing seasons (they live on the equator) able to have enough produce to sell to others and used this money for school fees and for clothes. Many families do not own such a plot and so the only alternative is for the mother to go and “dig” for other families and hope they would get produce to feed their children or earn a very small amount of money to buy food with. For these families any type of meat or fish was a luxury they could not afford. Most families can be fed on a daily allowance of around 1 euro per day. School fees are around 20 euro per term (60 euro per year) which includes uniform, a copy book and pencil. Some schools provide a lunch which costs an additional 25 euro per year. These do not appear to be large sums to us, but when you can feed your family on around 7 euro per week, you can see that having to pay to educate four to six children is a next to impossible financial burden to bear formany families. After bedding and food their next expressed wish was to be able to get help with this huge burden to them of paying their children’s education fees.

As a result of these visits, we chose an initial 20 families that we considered really needed our support just to continue to survive. 23 mattresses and 50 blankets were given to these families. A small table and 2 plastic chairs were purchased for 3 families. An arrangement was made with seven families to provide a bag of porridge each week if they agreed to get up and cook it for their children as a breakfast before the set off for school each day. John Kennedy spoke to these mothers and fathers and impressed the need for them to keep working hard so that they would be able to continue to survive if our aid eventually falls short of what is needed. We in turn gave our words to these families that we would not forget them when we returned to Ireland, but that we would work tirelessly to try and raise funds through our friends to help continue this aid to them for as long as we are able to raise it. We also visited the local public primary school, which ahs over 1250 pupils attending it. They didn’t have access to crayons so we donated 250 packs of 12 crayons, so that each child in Primary 1 would have the ability to use a bit of colour in their schoolwork. Students in Primary 5 onwards need a mathematical set comprising of a ruler, compass and protractor and the purchase of this equipment proves a problem in most families. We purchased 250 mathematical sets and donated them to the school for the 250 pupils in Primary 5 grade. Another thing we observed was that due to the difficulty in paying school fees and the added feature of not being able to progress from one grade to the next with passing the end of year examination was that some classes where the most common age was, say 12 years, had some much older pupils, say up to 18 years in the same class. We offered to return and do training for the 16 teachers in the school during the month of December, while they are on their summer holidays and this offer was greeted with a great willingness and eagerness to attend and participate.

We met and played with many children who hung around John’s house while we were there. Whether it was the novelty of the sight of two white people, or it was the distribution of balloons and smarties, or the games Ursula played with them, or just sitting on our laps seeking warmth, comfort or falling asleep as they won over our hearts and minds. We didn’t see even one cuddly toy, doll, or toy tractors or trucks as we would have expected. Ursula and I decided to give the young children of the village a gift of a children’s playground. We believe that children need to have fun and enjoyment in their lives, especially at a young age. John Kennedy has purchased and installed the playground equipment already and is overseeing the erection of a security fence around it. This will ensure that the equipment is not abused and will last for a considerable period of time into the future.

Now we are back in the land of plenty and we need to follow up on our promise to raise adequate funds to fulfil the promises we made. You will realise from above that a contribution of 5 euro per month will make a huge difference to the lives of these families, while a contribution of 10 euro per month would help educate a whole family of 4 to 6 children. I have never asked anyone to buy a single raffle ticket in my life as it embarrasses me to so, but in this case I have to bite the bullet and put the
care of these families above any embarrassment or discomfort that fundraising brings up for me.