Rewriting the Future for a Boy in Uganda

When a new partnership empowers a church in Uganda to reach more children in a nearby slum, a boy’s grandmother sees it as a chance for him to break free from the cycle of poverty.

BY DONNA ATOLA, KENYA FIELD COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST
AND BONNIE WELLENSIEK, CHILD CHAMPION, U.S.A. | PHOTOS BY DONNA ATOLA


Mahad on registration day.

It’s Friday morning, and Asia is helping her 4-year-old grandson Mahad prepare for the day.

She carefully washes his face, cleans his yellow Crocs, and applies petroleum jelly to his smiley little face so it shines.

This is a special day for Mahad and his grandmother.

Olivia, a Child Champion from St. Stephen’s Church Kisugu, had approached Asia as she was roasting maize to sell by the roadside and told her about an expanded children’s program at the church. She invited Asia to bring Mahad to be registered at the church that Friday so that he could be sponsored.

A Champion Comes to Kanyogoga Slum

St. Stephen’s, a vibrant Anglican church in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda, has a long history of helping kids from the nearby Kanyogoga slum. And Olivia is a familiar face in the community. When she invited Asia to register Mahad, Asia took the news as a blessing, feeling that here was a chance for her grandson’s future to be changed.

On Mahad’s registration day, Olivia meets Asia and Mahad at their house to walk with them to the church. There’s no extra room in the house, so Olivia waits patiently outside the open door as Asia finishes getting Mahad ready.

Asia’s home is an 8-by-8-foot room added onto a building that looks like it was meant for commercial purposes. The faded writing on their door made of iron sheets and wood shows that the room was once a shop. The house has little privacy and no windows or other opening apart from the door.

Asia shares the space with three of her children who are still at home and three grandchildren she is raising, including Mahad, whose mother is away at vocational school learning hairdressing and whose father abandoned him.

It’s difficult for Asia’s whole family to fit in the tiny space. A bed is the only furniture in the house. At night, some of the children sleep on the bed while others sleep under the bed. Asia would like to provide a larger home for her family, but she barely makes enough money to buy food each day.

Like much of the world, Uganda is seeing a rapid increase in urbanization as people stream to the cities in search of opportunities and services unavailable in struggling rural areas. Many wind up eking out an existence in crowded slums like Kanyogoga with makeshift homes, high crime rates, and a dangerous lack of sanitation.

Kanyogoga slums.

The “Water Point,” or clean water tap, where residents of Kanyogoga slum collect water.

Kanyogoga slums.

Selling maize earns Asia a profit of just 80 cents daily to provide for her family. With the small amount of money she makes, Asia is only able to afford one meal per day — lunch — which is mostly beans and posho, a thick porridge made from corn flour.

Besides food expenses, Asia also struggles to pay her monthly rent, approximately $13, and school fees for the kids in her care. That’s why Mahad, despite being the age to start school, hasn’t yet been enrolled.

But on this Friday morning, things are about to change for Mahad.

A Walk Into Hope

 

When Mahad is ready, Asia takes his hand and they walk with Olivia over the packed, orange-colored earth through the narrow, litter-strewn passageways of the slum.

They duck under clotheslines and past skinny dogs napping. Waves of music come from tiny shops along the way. They pass women cooking over coal fires or doing laundry in buckets.

Everywhere there are children watching them with curious eyes.

Most families in Kanyogoga live in conditions similar to Asia’s. They collect their water in jerry cans from clean water taps in a central location, and the few public bathrooms in the slum not only charge for their use but are vastly inadequate for the population.

Along the way they see moms selling produce or other items, and Olivia knows that the women are at constant risk of being arrested for plying their small trade because they don’t have a vending license.

Children in school uniforms walk through the slum as well, but some of them are going in the opposite direction from the school. They have been sent home for lack of school fees.

This is Mahad’s world, and he walks quietly through it, secure in the presence of his grandmother and Olivia.

Finally, they come to the church, a bright space with sunny lawns. A place where Mahad can feel at home with Olivia by his side.

Asia smiles watching Olivia swoop Mahad up in her arms.

Mahad is now all smiles as Olivia sets him down and takes his hand. With her other arm around his grandmother, Olivia leads them to chairs under a canopy where they can wait with other families to be registered into OneChild’s sponsorship program.

Child Champion Olivia (center) receives Mahad and his grandma Asia (left, in pink) on registration day.

A Day of New Beginnings

This registration day is just as special for the congregation of St. Stephan’s Church as it is for Mahad.

For years, members of the church have courageously gone into the nearby community to help kids and families with education, vocational training, and basic needs. But the church could only support a limited number of kids from the community.

Now, through a new partnership with OneChild and an Anglican church in Louisianna, St. Stephen’s Church Kisugu is opening a Hope Center ministering to many more kids like Mahad.

This project means a lot to us,” says the Rev. Fredrick Jackson Baalwa, Vicar of St. Stephen’s Kisugu. “This project will help us to minister holistically and deal with the helplessness of the slum area in our community.”

Not only are children from the slum arriving this morning to be registered at the Hope Center, but Child Champions at St. Stephen’s are learning to use a new OneChild-supported app called Bridgely that will enable them to connect directly with the sponsors of the children they serve.

The Bridgely platform has been designed with Mahad, and thousands of children like him, in mind. Sponsors in the U.S. and Child Champions at St. Stephen’s can use the app to quickly send photos and videos to one another. Mahad’s sponsor will be able to encourage him with notes that Olivia can read to him, and Olivia can send videos and other messages from Mahad to his sponsor. These kinds of updates used to be sent in printed letters that would take months to arrive. Child Champions at St. Stephen’s are excited that the app will help them streamline outdated processes and save on everything from translation to postage so that more funds get directly to the children.

Children being registered on the Bridgely app

Children being registered on the Bridgely app.

Mahad and other children registered on the app are an integral part of the birth of a whole new app-based community — a “Cause Community” that stretches from Uganda to Louisiana. A community made up of Child Champions from St. Stephen’s church, sponsors, and others — all united in their love for these little ones.

Mahad’s Moment

Mahad is the first child to be registered through the Bridgely app at his new Hope Center.

Olivia makes a welcome video that will be uploaded to the app so that an American in St. Stephen’s Cause Community can choose Mahad to sponsor. Mahad sits in a plastic chair next to Olivia, who encourages him to introduce himself, while another Child Champion films them in the app.

Shyly, Mahad speaks in a barely audible voice. Olivia smiles and translates for the short video clip.

The rest of the children will be registered in the same way on this day. And now people in this Bridgely Cause Community who have decided to sponsor a child will see more than printed photos of children waiting for a sponsor. Through these video clips, they will meet moving, giggling children like Mahad — a little boy with a shining face and a shy smile, swinging his feet in a pair of yellow Crocs. They will hear the voices of the kids and their Child Champions.

For the champions, this empowers them,” says Rev. Baalwa. “It makes them more effective in their ministry, and they reach more children. To the children, it raises their hope for a better future for the family, for the individuals, and for the community.”

The Courage to Hope

Yet, as amazing as this use of technology is, what Mahad’s grandmother sees is much bigger.

With Mahad in the program, Asia has gained the courage to believe that her grandson’s future is being rewritten.

“I was unable to register him for school, but I am so happy that someone is willing to walk this journey with me,” she says.

Mahad doesn’t know yet what he wants to be when he grows up, but his grandmother believes that with the opportunity to enroll in school soon, he will have the chance to dream. Asia, who was never able to attend school, believes education can help bring hope to Mahad.

For now, Mahad loves playing football with his best friend Valen. At home he helps with house chores like arranging dishes and loves shopping for his grandmother.

Asia’s hope for Mahad is that he can become the light of their family.

“I hope that he will study and become a successful boy who will bring hope and help to his siblings, his mom, and me,” Asia says with a smile.