Friday, February 24, 2012

Agape of Hope - empowering female youth

Tailoring class at Agape of Hope

Agape (meaning “love” and pronounced as aagaapay) of Hope is an indigenous non-governmental organization in Kasese. The organization was founded in 2005 to empower female youth with skills and knowledge to uplift themselves from poverty and destitution.

Elias Bwambale, a teacher in his 40s, is the key organizer of Agape of Hope. He was appalled by the plight of young women, victims of economic and social forces. In depicting the issues of female youth, he points out that:

· 25% of the female youth by the age of 14-19 years become sexually active due to lack of sex education and redundancy.
· 40% of the female adolescents are either raped, defiled or have early marriages.
· 70% of the women by the age of 19-22 become pregnant and end up being single mothers.
· About 50% of the female youth are involved with multiple partners exposing themselves to HIV/AIDS and other STDS.
· Unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions sometimes causing death are on increase.
· Rampant infringement of female rights terms of sexual violation and other health related problems cause infertility due to STDs, mental illness and other substance abuse.

He also points out the causes:

· Peer group pressures
· Lack of proper parenting
· Broken cultural identity/background
· Poverty
· Migrations due to insecurity caused by violent conflicts
· Idleness.
· Ignorance and a lack of awareness
· Some societies encourage early marriages

Currently, Agape of Hope has registered ten young women, six of whom are single mothers. With its extremely limited resources, the organization conducts education and training in reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and human rights, and, vocational skills training in tailoring.

Education classes are held every Friday, sometimes with a speaker from outside. As well, talks are given at the churches on Sundays to raise community awareness and garner support.

Tailoring classes are ongoing and held every day led by a teacher with 30 years experience. Women come to the class with their young ones and let them loose to play outside. Because of a lack of space, cutting of material is done in the open behind the small facility. There are only four sewing machines, so, the women take shifts. Training lasts from eight months to a year and upon completing their training, the women are encouraged and supported in finding work or become self-employed as tailors. Five women are already working for themselves and are making a living.

Elias teaches in a private school for two hours every day and spends most of the rest of his day looking after the affairs of Agape of Hope. Edith, 20-years old, helps him in this work. There is a board of directors of seven committed individuals who have been contributing to meet rental for the cramped three-room house on the outskirts of Kasese town and running expenses. This barely keeps the organization afloat. To compensate the tailoring teacher, each woman contributes 20,000 shillings (less than $10), and 5,000 shillings for registration. But, a lack of financial resources is hampering the progress of Agape of Hope, and the organization is unable to help many more young women or to acquire more sewing machines or to undertake other activities for them. Still, with undiminished commitment and enthusiasm, Elias and members of Agape’s board continue their efforts to mobilize support.

Agape of Hope, P.O.Box 427, Kasese, Uganda (E-mail:

Teacher and a student with her baby

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Namande, Ronald and Rose

Four-month old Namande Rhodha was a perfectly healthy baby until she caught meningitis. Her parents, Ronald and Rose, took her to the hospital, one of the best in the country. When they brought her home, Namande had a damaged brain and had lost her eye sight and hearing. To this day, they have no idea of what kind of treatment the hospital gave to their daughter to cause such extreme disabilities.

Today, Namande is nine. All these years, Ronald and Rose have been experiencing a prolonged night mare. They have four other children, two are older than Namande and two are younger. They live in Luwero, a small town west of Kasese. To sustain a family of seven has been difficult, so, the matter of paying for specialized treatment and care for Namande has been out of the question. Often, there were tensions between the parents each blaming the other for bringing on this curse. Then there were all kinds of advisors giving all kinds of ideas. Some people urged them to go to a witch doctor. Others advised them to lock up the child in the house. A few folks even advised Ronald to leave Rose and let her care for Namande and the family.

Ronald and Rose paid no heed to these advisors and stuck together. Despite a constant struggle, they continued to look after their daughter as best as they could. But, communication with their daughter has been their biggest challenge. Namande has no language skills or comprehension of sign language. She cries when she is hungry and that is a signal to feed her. Family members have found similar ways to engage in minimal communication with Namande. They have also started learning and using tactile language. But, engaging Namande in conversation remains their major problem.

At first, Rose stayed at home to care for Namande. When the older children were able to bath, feed, change and look after Namande’s daily needs, Rose started attending their small family business. But, she keeps going back and forth from home to business throughout the day to ensure Namande is looked after.

Ronald is on the board of the Uganda Association of Parents with Deaf-Blind Children. Working with this organization has meant a lot. As Ronald told me, before joining the board, they thought that they were the only unfortunate couple who had a child with such severe disabilities. At the association’s meetings, they learned that there were other parents with similar, and even worse challenges. Ronald also advocates and lobbies on behalf of parents. He hopes that the association will be able to secure greater support from various levels of government so that one day, Namande’s care can be improved and, if possible, she can be treated.

This is the second such case I have encountered in last two weeks. I have asked around about what recourse, if any, do parents have in such situations. I understand that there are laws in Uganda for parents to take action against a hospital or a medical practitioner. But, many people, especially those like Rose and Ronald, who live in small towns and villages are either not aware of these laws or do not have the time and money for legal action which can be very long and expensive. So, they simply accept their situation and try to cope with it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Savings and Loan Association

I attended a meeting last week of a self-help group in Muhokya sub-county, approximately 20 kms from Kasese town. Its formal name is Muhokya Abalema Tweyambe Group and it is organized on the model of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA).

The purpose of VSLAs is to financially help the poor in the developing world. However, a VSLA does not receive any external capital to give as credit to its members like a typical micro credit institution which gives out credits. A VSLA, on the other hand, begins by emphasizing and getting groups members to save first. Their group savings go into a common fund out of which loans are advanced to members based on the criteria agreed by the group.

The Muhokya group was organized by the Kasese District Union of Persons with Disabilities (KADUPEDI) in October last year. Its membership includes both, persons with disabilities (PWDs) and able-bodied individuals. Of its 28 members, 14 are PWDs (8 men and 6 women) and the other 14 are able-bodied.

The group received some seed funding from external sources in order to get organized and group members received training from Mirambo Barnabas, an experienced facilitator of VSLAs whom I have known for two years. He has facilitated establishment of several VSLA groups and he attends group meetings to help them with unexpected issues and to guide them in the right direction. However, all decisions are made by the group which has an elected chairperson and treasurer. The group meets at 3:00pm in the afternoon of every Thursday, but, it being the cotton-picking season, these days attendance is not always full. Yesterday, there were 25 members in attendance.

Financial management of the group is simple. Each member contributes a minimum of 1,000 Uganda shillings each week in the savings fund. Those who can afford to contribute more may do so, but, to ensure that no member dominates the group, there is a limit of 5,000 shillings per week per member. Each thousand shillings is equivalent to a share. There is a group record book in which all transactions are recorded by the treasurer and there is also an individual record book for each member in which their savings and loans are recorded and verified by the treasurer with a rubber stamp.

As for the loans, the group reviews each request and decides on which request to accept. The two main criteria are: how well has the member served the group and what is purpose for which the loan is requested. Most of the loans are advanced for starting a new business or expanding an existing business or for investing in farming. At the end of each month, if a member earns enough income, he/she may pay back the loan. If not, they pay an interest of 10%, the rate that has been agreed to by the group. So far, 13 loans totaling approximately 260,000 shillings have been advanced.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the groups’ financial management is their system of banking. Instead of depositing funds in a commercial bank, they store all their funds in a small steel box. The box has three locks and three different individuals keep the key for each lock. So, one member cannot open the box by her/himself. And, the box is always opened at a meeting in presence of everyone. At yesterday’s meeting, after opening the box, the treasurer tallied the funds in the box with the record book and sorted out a couple of minor discrepancies.

After a few other formal matters including the election of a new chairperson, the meeting adjourned around 4 p.m.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

RAPCD - a haven for children with disabilities

On entering the plot, I was surrounded by several enthusiastic children all wanting to shake my hand. Most of them welcomed me in sign language while others did it with courtesies y. They all looked happy and their enthusiasm was infectious. I was on the premises of the Rwenzori Association of Parents of Children with Disabilities, RAPCD, pronounced as “wrap- seed”. In addition to helping parents, RAPCD provides schooling and residence to disabled children themselves.

As I wrote in my blog of November 24th, 2010, the founder of RAPCD, Maali Wilson, was inspired by his eldest son who was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy. He founded the organization in 2007. At first, RAPCD shared office accommodation with another organization until it acquired a plot of land on the outskirts of Kasese in 2009.

In three short years since moving on its own plot, RAPCD has made phenomenal progress. In November 2010, it accommodated 15 children with disabilities. Today, there are 38 children - 34 hearing-impaired and 4 vision-impaired. Most of them live the institute’s dormitory on site and attend classes conducted by six full-time teachers. At present, RAPCD provides instructions from Primary Level 1 to 4. RAPCD also has other support staff like those who help in the kitchen

Beatrice is a staff member whose job is to reach out to the parents of these children. One of the biggest challenges faced by children with disabilities is the negative attitude of parents. Many parents simply do not see much value in paying attention to the needs of disabled children. Some of them do not even let them out of the home because of shame or fear. Others do not wish to spend time, money and effort on a disabled child who is not likely to become a productive member of the family. So, Beatrice tries to change the behaviour and attitude of these parents towards their disabled children. It’s an uphill task.

Like many other NGOs, RAPCD finds itself always looking for resources for texts, tools, equipment and facilities for teaching. But even with its limited resources, RAPCD has been quite ingenious in meeting its needs. For examp0le, because of limited classroom facility, one bigger room has been partitioned and classes are held simultaneously for students at two levels. One class is conducted in sign language for hearing-impaired students while the other class is held for the rest of the students. Sign language instructions are quiet. So, the two classes continue instructions without disturbing each other.

There is a fee of 60,000 shillings, about $30, for each child for a three-month term. The fee includes living accommodation, teaching facility, plus three meals daily. Not all parents are able to pay the fees, and, in such cases, RAPCD shows some flexibility and reduces or waives the fee.

Where does Maali find resources to maintain such a facility? RAPCD does not have financial support from any local, national or international agency or from any level of government. But, he has a very supportive group of friends and well-wishers who give cash and in-kind contributions like bricks and mortar and paints and labour for constructions of buildings. In addition, Maali has an extensive network of individuals in Europe, North America and elsewhere through his Church. He constantly nurtures his network and in turn, individuals in the network support RAPCD in a variety of ways by donating cash or by giving books, Braille machines, a laptop and a camera.

Maali has ambitious plans. He wants to establish a rehab centre for children born with congenital disabilities. With prompt medical attention, many of these disabilities can be treated. He also wants to acquire RAPCD’s own transport, buy additional land, build a self-contained hostel/guest house, retain an occupational therapist and buy a piece of land specifically to grow fruits and vegetables and raise poultry and cattle. With his tenacity and hard work, I have no doubt that Maali will meet his goals.

As I walked around RAPCD’s grounds, I was struck by how happy the children looked. They were full of enthusiasm and energy. They come from families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty and negative attitude of many parents make life of these disabled children extremely difficult at home. In contrast, at RAPCD, they receive plenty of care and love. Seeing these children in their red uniforms jumping and playing and laughing was a treat.