Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi with grandmothers at ROTOM in Uganda (Photo by Laura Delaney)

Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi

Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM), Uganda

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

In this issue, Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi, the Director of Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM) in Uganda, explores the hurdles faced by girls and grandmothers due to the devastating impacts of gender inequality, and the incredible strides they have made in their lives and their communities.

My name is Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi. I am the Director of ROTOM, an organization reaching out to grandmothers and the children in their care in Uganda.

Since we started working with older people six years ago, I have learned that the grandmothers are holding together our communities. This is a time when HIV/AIDS and wars, especially in northern Uganda, have taken away the middle generation of men and women and left grandmothers with so many orphans to look after. Grandmothers have risen to the occasion and provided food, provided shelter, provided parenting, provided love and care, provided education – anything a child needs – amidst the difficulty.

Five years ago, we met the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It was a turning point for our organization because we’d never had money from a [foundation] donor – only from some individuals. I found the Foundation to be different. From the outset, the Foundation told me, “We are going to be in partnership. And because we want to partner with you, from stage to stage, we want to hear from each other and learn from each other and listen to each other.”


Grandmothers and other community members lay bricks for ROTOM's Grandmothers Outreach Centre. The Outreach Centre was built with funds from the Stephen Lewis Foundation. (Photo by Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi.)

I think that the relationship with the Foundation (which supports our grandmothers project, builds houses for grandmothers with HIV/AIDS orphans, and also helps them to get access to medical care and income generation) is great. Our work has been growing from year to year, and now we can see ourselves not only meeting immediate needs but enabling the grandmothers to raise income and to meet their needs for now and for the future.

You know, the biggest need is creating awareness among the communities about the needs of older people and their grandchildren, and creating a mass of people who are willing to support them in what they fight for.

Our communities – especially rural communities – do not regard women and children in the same way they do men. And when this happens, and HIV/AIDS comes into the mix, then they face more problems. Imagine a scenario where women are seen as objects and men can use them – then the rate of HIV infection runs faster...it’s like a wildfire.

But also, access to health care is difficult, and women are not equal in accessing health services because they don’t have the cash, they don’t have the property, they don’t have the means to get there. The means seem to be always ahead of them.


A grandmother supported by ROTOM. (Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF.)

For me as a man, it’s challenging, to see that as men, we should be caring for our mothers and sisters, but we don’t – we seem always to want to put them to the side. So, HIV/AIDS is a problem, but it comes amidst many other problems – the attitude towards women and poverty. And that makes it more complicated to fight.

I’ve seen a big change in the few years I’ve worked with grandmothers. I see them now rising up and learning about HIV/AIDS, how to raise children who have been affected by HIV/AIDS, and how to educate their grandchildren about how to protect themselves against AIDS. The grandmothers are no longer feeling helpless, they are no longer feeling lonely, and they are not giving up. They are willing to fight on and make sure their grandchildren’s needs are met – it’s a change.


Grandmothers and their grandchildren at ROTOM. (Photo by Linda Hallet.)

But most importantly is the education we provide for the grandchildren. When we give girls skills, and they are able to earn an income on their own, then we know that these girls will not be taken advantage of by men. And when girls are not taken advantage of by men, then the rate of HIV/AIDS infection goes down.

See, the problem is that girls have emotional, physical and financial needs, and when older men who have a little bit of money come into the picture, a girl is so vulnerable. I’ll give an example of a girl, Medeas, who is now able to earn money because she has tailoring skills, and she can help her sisters go to school. Because she has her income, she does not have to give in to someone who would give her something to eat or a little bit of money. For me, that is turning the tide against AIDS.


(Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF.)

We sent two grandmothers to the African Grandmother’s Gathering in Swaziland in 2010. The whole journey – thinking about leaving Uganda, going to the airport, being on the plane and meeting others – was just a wonderful experience for them. It’s one of those things that happens once in a lifetime – it makes them happy, makes them look forward to life, and makes them want life and deserve to have more life. And when someone can experience that change in their life, it’s important and it’s very good.

But most importantly, they walked side-by-side with Canadian grandmothers, they walked side-by-side with African grandmothers. They shared their challenges, and they learned from other grandmothers the challenges they face. They shared ideas on how they can meet those challenges, and how they can face them.

By the time they came back to Uganda, they were energized, they felt somebody else cared about them, they felt strong to push on. They came back and told other grandmothers in Uganda, “This is possible. We can change things. We have others fighting with us and we are not finished. The fight is big, but we are able because we are not alone.”


Kenneth dances with grandmothers supported by ROTOM. (Photo by Laura Delaney.)

That’s what’s different about partnering with the Foundation – it’s all about the connection between the Foundation and the people. They share with us, they see what we do, they encourage us. And we are not alone.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi
Founder and Executive Director, ROTOM


Interview with Kenneth

News

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

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Overduin: Standing with the grandmothers September 18, 2013

Mia Overduin, Ottawa Citizen

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