By Annika McGinnis
It was almost lunchtime at Kyambogo Primary School in central Kampala, and 11 children in light blue uniforms sat outside in a circle, listening attentively to a smiling man who gestured earnestly before them.
“You cannot achieve when you have not failed. Hard work pays,” said the man, Vincent Asiimwe, a community support worker at the Ugandan NGO Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative.
“The future is in children- invest in them,” read a sign tacked to a nearby tree.
The students were about to take an end-of-term exam, but for many, the test was the least of their worries. The 11 youth were among 17 at the primary school that Reach Out Mbuya supports year-round with school fees. The program’s point of entry? Either the children themselves or their parents or guardians were HIV-positive, with many also facing a slew of socioeconomic challenges ranging from lack of food or a a safe home to domestic violence and child abuse.
From April to June 2016, Reach Out Mbuya paid school fees for 1,242 children in Kampala and Luweero Districts – more than half of who were girls – who would have been unable to attend school without the financial support. Each term, ROM staff members visit the sponsored children at their schools to track their academic performance, discuss their progress with their teachers, and counsel them in groups and individually.
On Thursday, 18th August, Asiimwe encouraged the sponsored children at Kyambogo Primary to live with perseverance and positivity, despite their challenges. Even if ROM was no longer able to pay their school fees, they should “remain confident,” work hard, and use the opportunities they had been given to build a better future, Asiimwe told the students.
“You are learning how to live,” Asiimwe said. “For instance, you slept hungry, and you said you’re not going back to school because of that. Instead, say let me go to school, but with the hope that maybe mommy and daddy didn’t raise enough money for food yesterday, but today, I’m sure they will provide food.”
To those children who lacked positive role models, either because they had lost their parents or their guardians were too sick, poor or busy to care adequately for them, ROM staff members acted as those important figures. Some orphans even lived on their own, without any adult caretaker, said Mark Okello, a ROM community facilitator.
One girl quietly admitted that her mother had called her a “mistake,” but Asiimwe tried to explain to her the reasons behind the remark.
“When she said it was a mistake, that means she was not ready for you,” he told the girl. “But God does things on his own time. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean.”
“You’re a blessing – be proud of that,” he assured the children.
Along with monitoring the children’s academic performance, ROM’s biannual school visits are critical for assessing the students’ psychosocial and economic needs, including the status of their health, nutrition, and web of social relationships, as well as whether they were vulnerable to abuse or exploitation and in need of legal protection.
For instance, sometimes a child could not concentrate in school because he or she hadn’t eaten in days. On Wednesday, ROM will provide food for those children. For children without sturdy shoes, ROM recently distributed shoes that were paid for by the France-based association Sid’Ecole and the California-based Reach Out Student Education Fund (ROSE). ROM has also held educational sessions on preventing HIV/AIDS and ending child and teenage pregnancies.
Between April and June, ROM supported 2,276 orphans and vulnerable children with health services, 647 with food security and nutritional support, 2 with shelter, and 2,392 with legal support and child protection services.
On Thursday, a 22-year-old ROM volunteer, Enock Kanene, sat in the primary school’s grassy courtyard with Nadunga Sharifah, a child sponsored by Reach Out Mbuya. Both of her parents were HIV-positive. Her father worked in a construction site, and her mother raised a little money selling food to university students and construction workers. Still, with a combined salary of just 70,000 UGX a month, the couple was barely able to feed their three children and pay rent for their one-room wooden house. There was nothing left over for school fees.
But with ROM’s seven years of education support for their daughter, Nadunga Sharifah was scoring above average in her studies and was on track for university. Her last report card showed her ranked 6th out of 120 students in her class.
“She shows interest in studies, advised to always aim higher,” her teacher had noted on her report.
Her counselor’s schooling had also been paid for by ROM throughout his childhood. On track to graduate from university next year in guidance and counseling, Kanene aspired to use his life to help other vulnerable children succeed.
“I’m a winner – a winner who does the same things as other people, but I do them differently,” Kanene said. “I have a changed mind and a changed brain. I’m living a changed life.”