Sunday was a travel day for our little group. We headed into Kampala (Uganda’s capital) in the morning to meet up with Idah Mukuka. Idah is one of the Foundation’s two full-time field representatives. She is in Uganda visiting current and prospective SLF projects. (Those of you who’ve read Stephanie Nolen’s book 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa might recognize Idah’s name – she was one of the people featured in the book).
We convinced Idah to join us on our journey to Jinja, a few hours’ drive from Kampala. Jinja is a bustling town located on the shores of Lake Victoria, at the source of the river Nile. It is a popular adventure travel destination, judging by the numerous spots advertising bungee jumping, white-water rafting and kayaking. We’ll be staying in Jinja for a number of days to visit two projects funded by the Stephen Lewis Foundation: Phoebe Education Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO) and St. Francis Health Care Services.
Thomas and I spent Sunday afternoon doing an interview and a series of video messages with Stephen – we hope to roll them out over the coming months on our website, along with the feature stories we’re filming on this trip. Later in the evening, we had a lovely group dinner that also included James, our driver, and Justine, one of PEFO’s founders, who told us more about the organization and his own life story. In short: PEFO was started by three brothers – Justine is the eldest. When they were young, they lost their mother (Phoebe) to AIDS. They received support a Dutch missionary, who paid their school fees and ensured that they had food, clothing and the basic necessities. They all excelled at their studies – after finishing secondary school, they went on to university abroad. Although they could have easily stayed in Europe and built a life there, the brothers instead chose to return home to Uganda, so that they could help other orphan children to fulfill their potential.
On Monday morning, we made our way to PEFO’s new offices on the outskirts of Jinja. Justine introduced the staff and told us more about PEFO’s extensive programming for local grandmothers and the children in their care. PEFO currently supports more than 200 grandmothers, providing support to granny groups, food from community gardens, pigs and other income-generating supports, as well as school fees (including secondary school fees, in some cases), uniforms, supplies, and meals for more than 100 children.
Many of the grandmothers live in very difficult conditions — one grandmother we visited had a house leaning sharply to one side, with holes in the mud walls and little protection from the elements. In these cases, Justine argues, housing is a health issue. Many grandmothers have fallen ill because their homes collect stagnant water and breed mosquitoes, or their medication is ruined by flooding, or the few clothes and bedding that they possess are moldy from the dampness. Recently, the Foundation purchased a brick-making machines for PEFO, so that the organization can create its own bricks and build houses for the grandmothers who are most in need of adequate shelter. The machine serves two purposes – not only does it provide a quick and inexpensive way to obtain building materials, but it also serves as a vocational training program for older children, helping them to learn a trade and giving them the skills to earn a living. I asked Justine how they decide which grandmothers receive new houses, given the vast needs of the community. The grannies meet and decide who among them has the greatest need – since it is a collective decision, there is little jealousy when one grandmother receives a new home.
We visited the brick-making machine and saw the rock being crushed into dust and re-packed as sturdy earth bricks – it was quite amazing to see. The machine can produce up to 3,000 bricks a day at full capacity. Justine hopes that in addition to providing much-needed housing for the grannies, it will also serve as a way to generate income for the organization.
A bit further down the road, we walked through PEFO’s massive organic gardens. They’ve been growing spinach, onions, chives and other vegetables to help feed the community and generate some income. They’ve been helping grandmothers set up their own kitchen gardens and have even come up with an ingenious way to grow vegetables in a large feed-bag. PEFO makes their own organic pesticides (using hot chilies, among other things!) and creates their own compost and fertilizer for the gardens. PEFO’s farm school is another form of vocational training – they train youth from the community on appropriate technologies and farming techniques, and give them an opportunity to apprentice on the organization’s farm. They’ve been experimenting with innovative irrigation techniques, using water from their own 100-foot well to water the soil. While at the farm, Aissatou tried her hand at filling a bucket of water from the well — it took a few more people to help lift it!
As we moved from site to site, we were amazed at all of the things that PEFO is doing to raise money for the organization and provide sustainable sources of food and income for the communities they serve. Their piggery, which now has upwards of 100 pigs, has been a major source of income for the grannies. After much experimenting, PEFO now raises piglets until they are grown, and gives them to grandmothers in the community to breed. The grandmothers sell the piglets to earn an income on the side, and retain their initial pig for breeding. PEFO has recently acquired a cow and hopes to develop another source of income through raising cattle.
We went to the home of Jaliya, one of the grannies supported by PEFO. When the group of Canadian grandmothers visited PEFO last year, they helped to build a new house for Jaliya, to replace the dilapidated shack she had been living in before. Justin told us that Jaliya’s home has become a kind of meeting place for the community – she is now regarded as a ‘rich woman’ because she has such sturdy lodgings. It was wonderful to see the beaming smile on her face as she showed us through the rooms of her home. It is clear that in Jaliya’s life, PEFO has made an enormous difference.
We moved on to Tolophina’s house. PEFO’s builders are constructing a new home for her next to her run-down mud shack – it is set to be completed later this week. Idah, Aissatou and James tried their hand at construction, adding a layer of bricks onto the top wall. It is hard to overstate how the new house will improve Tolophina’s living conditions, particularly as she cares for several grandchildren under the age of five.
With Tolophina and Jaliya in tow, we headed to a large meeting of grandmothers and young people. The grannies gave us a joyous welcome, and we danced in a large group. The grannies thought my dancing was hilarious – which, I’m sure, it was. They wrapped scarves around our waists and demonstrated the impressive hip gyrations endemic to Uganda.
We watched as young people from PEFO’s Windows of Hope program performed. Windows of Hope is an after-school programme geared towards helping children and youth to build their self-esteem, leadership skills and form a sense of community through music and drama. It was exciting to see such a confident group of bright young boys and girls singing their hearts out. They performed a number of songs, including several about how AIDS has affected their lives. PEFO has also started a brass band with local youth, and the musicians (mainly boys about 17-19) showed off their skills by playing both the Ugandan national anthem and O Canada. We were all impressed.
One by one, the groups of grandmothers got up to sing and dance and to tell their stories. When they asked the grannies to demonstrate (by show of hands) whose grandchildren received school fees from PEFO, all of them raised their hands and cheered. It was remarkable to think of the impact that this organization has had in just a few short years.
At the end of the grannies’ testimonies, they all lined up and presented us (Stephen and Aissatou) with a series of gifts. I remember hearing Halifax granny Kathy Reid speak about how she had been given a gift of four eggs while in Uganda, and how she had never given or received a gift so precious in her life. Her story resonated deeply with me as we accepted gifts of eggs, mangoes, papayas, beans, pineapple from each grandmother — these simple but heartfelt gifts were extremely moving. It’s hard to imagine having so little and giving so generously of what you have. It was a humbling experience.
For me, PEFO is a perfect example of what Turning the Tide is all about – real changes in the quality of life for communities affected by the pandemic. Their ingenuity and their commitment to bettering the lives of children and grandmothers affected by AIDS is truly something to behold.