Jackson Kaguri speaks to students at Nyaka (Photo by Lucy Steinitz)

Orphans and Education

On December 7th 2011, SLF hosted our first-ever national Telephone Town Hall, on the groundbreaking work being done by African grassroots organizations in the area of education and HIV/AIDS.  Jackson Kaguri , SLF FIeld Represenative Ky'okusinga Kirunga and SLF Executive Director Ilana Landsberg-Lewis answered the questions of Canadians from across the country about the importance of a holistic approach to education, and the special role it plays in the lives of girls.

Voices from the Frontlines, Issue 2

Welcome to Voices from the Frontlines, an update from the Stephen Lewis Foundation profiling grassroots African expertise in response to the AIDS pandemic.

This month, as children across Canada settle back into school, SLF Communications Officer Felicity Heyworth spoke with Jackson Kaguri, the founder and Executive Director of the Nyaka AIDS Foundation.

Nyaka is just one of many grassroots organizations across Africa doing groundbreaking work in orphan care and education. SLF has collaborated with Nyaka since 2004, making them one of our longest-standing partners in the struggle against the AIDS pandemic.

Nyaka has built and runs two primary schools in remote, rural southwestern Uganda: The Nyaka AIDS Orphans School in Kanungu District and The Kutamba AIDS Orphans School in Rukungiri District.

The schools offer free education to the poorest children in their communities – all of whom are orphans, and most of whom are cared for by grandmothers. Nyaka has introduced a series of community services and programmes – including farming, library services, health visits, water and sanitation, housing, and nutritional counselling and support – in the knowledge that children cannot thrive in a community that is struggling.

FH: What is the background to Nyaka? Why did you start it?

JK: I was born into a family of five children in rural Uganda. We were born to parents who never had a job, but who were determined to send us to school. They had to pay tuition and buy uniforms, pencils, books. So they sold chickens and goats and cows – and eventually part of our land. The five of us graduated, and I went to university in Uganda and then to Columbia University. In 1996, while I was at Columbia, my brother died of HIV/AIDS and I became guardian to his three children. That was the turning point. Parents send their children to school to get an education, have a good life, break the cycle of poverty and privation. But parents also send their children to school so they can come home and take care of them as they get older. With the death of my brother – and millions of working people like him – so many children have been left to grandparents, who no longer have chickens to sell to educate and support their grandchildren.

That is how it all begins. I started Nyaka to look after those children who didn’t have an uncle left behind to care for them.

FH: What are some of the unique aspects of educating children who have been orphaned?

JK: You are dealing with children who have experienced trauma. Imagine the five year old whose dad dies in her hands. And her mum dies two days later, also in her hands. And she has siblings and they now live alone. They walk an average of seven miles from school to an empty house. They have to find food and sleep in the darkness. The challenges are enormous. I spoke earlier about my childhood – yes, we had to walk a long time to get home from school, but we knew that mum was going to be home. Over two million children in Uganda come home to a house with no mum or dad.

These kids are walking to nothing. Or their grandmother at home might be so sick that they still feel the burden of taking care of another sick person who might die, like their parents died. Trauma and nightmares are the biggest challenges for these children.

FH: And what are some of the features you have in place for helping them work through that?

JK: We take a holistic approach. We could just teach them reading, science, math and social studies and be done. But they have unique challenges and so we had to come up with unique methods. We look at their feelings. We look at all the obstacles facing them.

Our area of Uganda is so fertile, and we can grow food. So we started a gardening programme, which has resulted in children eating two meals a day at school. And we have started a health care programme, unique and revolutionary in a Ugandan school. We have two nurses at Nyaka and one at Kutamba who are charged with treating children in school, but also do home-based care visits to reach grandmothers or other guardians. So kids who might miss school due to illness are able to attend all year round. If they have sore feet, they get them bandaged and can still walk to school. And the girl who would otherwise stay home because her grandmother is sick now comes to class.

To help with the grief and trauma, we use music, art and drama as therapy. Children sing and use arts, music, poems, writing, play and acting. They are able to cope by expressing what they are dealing with. They write memory books with their grandmothers and learn what their mum and dad liked. These are some of the unique ways we work. And we continue to learn every day.

FH: What are some of the impediments to education that are specific to girls?

JK: You have a huge issue when a girl hits puberty. As soon as her period begins, there’s no more schooling. Women and girls use plant leaves as sanitary products, and a girl is not going to walk 10 miles and get to school leaking and with all the discomfort of it. So the girl drops out of school as soon as puberty begins. Nyaka provides sanitary products to all girls, and so that problem is solved for our students, but we need to extend this service to all schools.

We have also constructed a clean water project for the entire village. This solves the problem of illnesses caused by unclean water, and it also saves all the time girls used to spend fetching water. They used to spend two hours in the morning fetching water and then walk 10 miles to school. Now, girls come to school early!

FH: You are hoping to open a secondary school in Nyaka village. What are some of the challenges that your students face when they move to secondary school in the public system?

JK: The children at Nyaka have been cared for and supported. Their teachers love them, they are fed two times a day, they are encouraged to do their best, their opinions are heard, they are empowered to do more and learn more. When they go away to secondary school, and nobody cares for them and loves them, they just sit in class and do their work. They go to their new teachers and say “grandma is sick and I need this” or “I can’t afford my fees because of that” and no one is listening.  The care is cut right out. They are not prepared for the loneliness.

We believe if there is a secondary school in their community, and it is run by our organization, they will take the same values they learn in primary school into the secondary school level.

FH: Where do you hope to see Nyaka in 10 years?

JK: Our motto for Nyaka’s 10th anniversary was “Celebrating the past, and soaring into the future.” Some of our first students are now graduating from secondary school. We want to see more children get into the workforce, more children taking on responsibility and becoming global citizens. We also want to see the children starting to speak for themselves. We want them to tell their own stories.  

The Stephen Lewis Foundation has worked with Nyaka since 2004. SLF has partnered with Nyaka to:

  • The Nyaka Anti-AIDS Club, which works in the community teaching AIDS awareness and breaking stigma through performance and music.
  • The Nyaka Grannies Project, which helps local grandmothers through support groups, parenting classes, income-generating activities, community gardens, and the provision of gardening tools and seeds. The network currently consists of 91 Granny Self-Help Groups for over 5,600 grandmothers.
  • Adult education and literacy programmes, and workshops for grandmother group leaders in counselling techniques and life-skills training.
  • Support and salary costs for the Blue Lupin Library, a five-room centre offering books, newspapers, educational toys, computers, and reading and meeting rooms. (Initial set-up and building costs were provided by Toronto’s Blue Lupin Foundation.)
  • The construction of 130 new houses – as well as latrines and kitchens to support hygiene and safety in existing houses – for grandmothers and the orphans in their care.
  • Home healthcare visits by doctors and school nurses to grandmothers, siblings, caregivers, and extended family members, including voluntary HIV testing and counselling.
  • The provision of two meals a day for students, teachers and staff.
  • Salaries for the headmaster, teachers, choir leader, and support staff; and funds for the improvement of school infrastructure, including painting all classrooms and building separate boys’ and girls’ washrooms.
  • The purchase of school supplies including uniforms, chalk, pencils, textbooks and notebooks.

Jackson Kaguri’s book about Nyaka, A School For My Village: A promise to the orphans of Nyaka (formerly entitled The Price of Stones) has recently come out in paperback. You can also learn more about Nyaka from their website, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Click here to read our Fall 2010 issue of Grassroots newsletter, which features an article on Girls, AIDS and Education.



Press Release: Report of the African Grandmothers Tribunal released for World AIDS Day November 29, 2013


Overduin: Standing with the grandmothers September 18, 2013

Mia Overduin, Ottawa Citizen

Upcoming Events

Rideau Grandmothers Shepherd's Funraiser September 30, 2014

Ottawa, Ontario

Harambee Calendar 2014 October 1, 2014

Lethbridge, Alberta