As we woke up on day one, we couldn’t believe we were in Uganda again. After 2 years of unknowns, canceled flights, and two lockdowns from the pandemic, the US team had safely arrived back to our second home.
The week was full of very important meetings with the Hearts & Hope staff (US and Ugandan) and the staff from the Lutheran Church of Uganda (LCU). The LCU are charged with running the schools, implementing projects and, more importantly, sharing the love of Christ with our students. As Hearts & Hope continues to grow, It is always so vital to hear updates from the field and envision improvements for the coming year.
We also had a few days of village visits in between long meeting days. This refreshed our spirits as we were reminded of the “why” we were all here in the first place - the children. Our “why” was especially evident in the village of Butogonha.
Butogonha has been visited by Hearts & Hope many times in the past. In 2016, Hearts & Hope installed a clean water well for the community after visiting and seeing them gathering water from local ponds shared with livestock. We also visited them several times on mission trips and it was always a favorite village for the team members due to the incredible energy and hospitality shown to the teams. During the last mission trip we took there, in February 2020, the village and school had deteriorated as students could not even afford pencils and the structure had collapsed in a storm. One mission team member was devastated by what she witnessed and became determined to help this village in any way possible to get them back on their feet. It was discussed with the LCU that if this school was going to survive, it needed a solid permanent structure. The team member graciously agreed to fund this project. In partnership with Messiah Lutheran Church in Weldon Springs, MO, who further committed to sponsoring the children to go to the school, the village of Butogonha was instilled with hope for their future once again.
Flash forward to April 2021 and Hearts & Hope held 2 sponsorship drives at Messiah, hoping to get some of the very first kids sponsored. We were elated when in just 2 weekends, over 90 kids had been sponsored by members of the congregation at Messiah. Without the incredible hearts of the mission team member who funded the school and all the people who felt called to sponsor a child there, this village and school community would have been victims of poverty and ultimately met their demise.
With this fact ingrained in our minds, we visited the school last week to distribute sponsorship packets to the children there for the first time! We knew it would be an exciting day for everyone. What we didn’t anticipate, however, is the immense transformation we witnessed as soon as we pulled up to the school. The whole team simultaneously yelled “woooooow” as what once was a dilapidated, half fallen structure made of sticks, was now a brick structure with 3 classrooms for the nursery students and the completed foundation of the larger, primary school structures. In addition, from what was about 10 children present in 2020, came HUNDREDS of children and parents to celebrate the day and share gratitude for the school, singing and dancing loudly all the way.
To say we were moved is an understatement….but wait, it gets even BETTER!
After the sponsorship packet distribution was through for the 100 sponsored students, something amazing happened that made all of the team fill with emotions. It started with one, a child came up to a team member and gave her some eggs, as a thank you gift for her sponsorship. This often happens as the parents want to show their appreciation, and share some gifts, even with what little they have. It truly demonstrates how grateful these people are for the gift of education. While this might happen with one or two students, in Butogonha, the gifts never stopped! From the time packets were over until we boarded the bus to leave, we all received bag after bag of avocados, oranges, cabbage, corn, jack fruit, bananas, cassava, and even a live chicken! Boy do these children appreciate their sponsors! We were overwhelmed at their generosity and upon leaving the village, both our hearts and hands were quite literally FULL.
He lost his right eye due to a severe and untreated infection for which his family had no resources to handle. He is raised by a single mother who, after the eye was lost, did everything she could to pay for a prosthetic eye for her son to not be rejected by his peers. That eye, however, was cheaply created and did not fit properly.
This resulted in the prosthetic eye falling out, breaking, and the boy losing his hope of appearing "normal", after already losing his eyesight. Fast forward to November 2020, when our sponsorship coordinator reached out to us after visiting his home with more sad news - his other eye was now showing signs of serious infection spread from the previous socket, which never received the correct treatment. This meant he was in danger of complete blindness if left without help.
After working tooth and nail to pay for a prosthetic, the mother again was left with no money or confidence that she could help her son get the treatment he so desperately needed.
Hearts & Hope promised to do all we could to save his vision and eradicate this infection once and for all. Thanks to some charitable donors, we were able to raise funds for his medical treatment in a matter of minutes. In addition, the donations allowed for the purchase of a new and professionally produced prosthetic eye, along with glasses to improve his remaining vision. Muzafaru can now go to school with his head held high and can participate in his studies fully with his improved eyesight. We are so beyond grateful for those who gave to this cause for the sake of this young boy's future. It is inspiring to witness people come together and support the needs of a fellow human 8,000 miles away - truly this is the human family in action.
If interested in helping future emergent cases like his, you can donate to our medical fund here
As many of our supporters know, Hearts & Hope partners with the Lutheran Church of Uganda (LCU). The LCU staff governs and runs the schools we build in Uganda. In addition to supplying food and hygiene materials to our sponsored students, Hearts & Hope came together with the LCU, along with a few other US-based organizations partnered with the LCU, to assist in distributing the needed supplies to other local, suffering church & community members. We were recently given a report by Bishop Charles Bameka, head of the LCU, about COVID in Uganda and many stories detailing the daily struggles faced during the lockdown. School closures, lack of virus PPE, and increased violence among women/girls were just some of the hardships Bishop described. The top and most devastating struggle, however, was and still is, lack of food.
Loneliness has been a common affliction during these months of increased isolation and fear. To compound that with worry about when you and your children will eat again is nearly unimaginable. We are so happy that the LCU was able to bring these essential supplies along with much-needed hope to many of these people through these distributions.
Hearts & Hope is very grateful to everyone who donated to our COVID campaign and to the LCU staff for distributing the supplies to these needy people in the communities. The pain that COVID has caused both economically and physically can only be remedied when people, even from across the globe, come to the assistance of our neighbors with the greatest burden on their shoulders. We look forward to healing in Uganda and the rest of the world as we continue to fight this virus and its effects together, as a family of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Many of the little souls selected for the sponsorship program have similar, though nonetheless heartbreaking stories of a life destined to peasantry and struggling daily for basic necessities. Sometimes, however, we come across a unique story and a child whose hardships and prospects at life seem even more devastating.
James is a 10-year-old boy who lives in Nakabango. Last November, during our leadership trip we had the pleasure of meeting him. As soon as we met him, he told us his story as he was peeking up through the school window trying to get our attention.
He said, "My name is James, I want a sponsor. My dad is dead, my mom is dead. My dad was shot. Please, I want to be sponsored."
Usually, children are shy and interact with a simple smile from afar or just holding our hands without much verbal communication. James, however, was extremely talkative and had one main request, "I want to have a sponsor". Oftentimes, students will tell us this after we have passed out sponsorship packets and they see the goodies all their fellow students receive. This trip though was mainly for staff meetings and there were no special gifts given to the sponsored kids. James wanted to go to school purely because he loved learning and this love he had was being threatened by poverty. Even the headteacher told us he was quite the nuisance as he frequently came knocking on his office door asking about sponsorship. It turned out he had been enrolled before but was frequently sent home because the grandmother couldn't afford his fees for schooling. Eventually, that meant he would be sent home for good and this bright, outgoing boy wouldn't have a chance. That day in the village I promised him I would try my best to find him a sponsor to support his schooling.
James was determined though, and when we visited Nakabango again in February he sat inside with the sponsored kids, waiting for his packet. When he was inevitably kicked out he came directly up to me and said, "You promised me a sponsor!". I knew I wasn't leaving that day without fulfilling that promise. I told the mission trip team about him and immediately they took action and about 5 minutes later, we were able to tell James his wish had finally come true - he was sponsored! He could return to school and would no longer have to worry about being sent away.
James' determination was an inspiring reminder that no matter the hardships we face in life, perseverance, faith, courage, and a little bit of charm will help overcome any obstacle. I don't quite know what the future holds for James, but I do know that he's a fighter and I cannot wait to see who he becomes.
If you're interested in changing the life of a child like James, consider sponsoring through Hearts & Hope here!
“Count your blessings” - It’s a phrase which we’ve all undoubtedly repeated to ourselves from time to time when we’re feeling a little down. At Hearts & Hope we see and hear many stories that strongly solidify this concept. With over 900 sponsored students spread across some of the most disadvantaged parts of Uganda, it’s unfortunately easy to come across children suffering from ailments that are highly preventable in other parts of the Westernized world. Examples ranging from cases of Typhoid caught from unclean water sources, or Malaria, which is the leading cause of death in Uganda. To say we are used to students needing medical care for malaria complications is an unfortunate truth. Yet, occasionally we come across other woes that these children endure which shakes us to the core and intensifies our motivation to provide means for a better future for them.
One recent example of this is of a small boy in Kamuli village named Gerald. He is seven years old and lives with his grandmother after both parents abandoned him and his siblings. After we were sent photos of the students receiving their portions of the food distribution, we noticed something was obviously wrong with sweet Gerald’s face. His eye was very swollen and we were concerned with what could’ve caused this ailment and whether he had been treated. We were told that a rat bit his face at nighttime which caused an infection around the bite near his eye. The majority of the children in our program sleep on mattresses very low to the ground, or they sleep on bamboo type mats directly on the ground. This, partnered with the rural environments their house structures are located in (near small farms, plots of land with crops), puts the children at higher risk for animal bites in their sleep.
We were relieved to be informed a few days later that he was taken to a clinic and was undergoing treatment for the infection. It is slowly healing and Gerald can now see through both eyes.
This is yet another reminder that there are humans, children even, in this world suffering in ways that we may not necessarily ever grasp. To go to sleep at night with the fear that a rat may bite you while you dream is not the ideal bedtime we envision for a 7-year-old. This however is the reality for many children in Uganda. We do, on the other hand, envision a better future for children like Gerald through the gift of education and we ask for prayers for all of our sponsored students whose current circumstances may hinder their hope of a better tomorrow. Through it all, we pray they can be comforted by the knowledge that they are deeply loved by God and with him all things are possible.
Last month, thanks to the generous help of hundreds of our supporters, we were able to distribute food & hygiene supplies to our over 900 sponsored students. Our local Ugandan staff and LCU leaders worked diligently and handed out a month's worth of food supplies to each student. While we were hopeful the lockdown in Uganda would be lifted after that month, we were also preparing for the next step in case it was extended. While restrictions across the US have been loosening over the past couple of weeks, Uganda remains under lockdown with continued rules limiting the ability of the public to return to their normal work lives, mainly due to restrictions on transport. While private vehicles are now allowed back on the road, with only up to 3 passengers, public transport - the main use of travel by the majority of the country - is currently still banned.
This meant the students we sponsor and their families were again at risk of hunger with the supplies from last month quickly running out. Because the initial response to our COVID-19 food campaign was so great, we had the means to complete a second round of food distribution to each student. The staff and LCU had worked through the kinks of the first round and perfected the process, making the ease of the food handout even smoother. Each student received the same sack of maize (corn) flour, used to make the staple posho dish, as well as pinto beans. This round they also received salt and another large bar of soap for their hygiene needs.
As the country moves to ease their lockdown restrictions, they stand at 413 confirmed cases of COVID-19, mainly from truck drivers and their contacts, and zero deaths from the virus. The president will be addressing the country this first week of June to update on any further lifted lockdown conditions. The Government also plans on distributing free masks to all citizens in the country. Thereafter, no one will be allowed to appear in public places without wearing a mask. This will in theory help stop the spread as businesses, markets and schools open back up.
While Uganda makes baby steps to cautiously return to "normal" life, we will continue to monitor the status of the communities and students we serve. We tremendously thank everyone who has supported our COVID-19 campaign thus far and we ask for continued thoughts & prayers over this next month as Ugandans adjust to challenges in a post-lockdown life.
Photos from each village's distributions
Letter writing - perhaps an old fashioned art that is more nostalgic of a simpler time than is practical. However, when it comes to interacting with your sponsored student, it is one of the most valuable gifts you could give. These students crave communication from their sponsors. To them, their sponsor represents happiness, hope, and most importantly love. To know that someone very far away from them loves them enough to support their education is wonderful, but to receive confirmation of that by a letter written by that very person is priceless!
It may seem intimidating to think about writing to a child you've never met, don't personally know, and who may not understand everything about your culture. Nonetheless, this child appreciates every word and there are many people around who can help translate if the child is very young. Oftentimes, you will notice (especially with older students) that whatever you write to them gets mentioned back when they return with a letter. For instance, you might mention your dog Max and your sponsored student will frequently ask about how Max is doing. Getting to know you helps them stay connected to the blessing that is a sponsored education and reminds them that though they may face many hardships in their daily life, often fueled by poverty, they are no less important and worth the time to put pen to paper and share your love.
Majorine is one of our primary sponsorship coordinators and during this break from life normality her job is extending way beyond her job description. Maj handles the coordination of a special type of sponsorship for a young boy from Butangala named Pius. Pius is a 10-year-old boy who is hearing impaired and unable to fully speak. His sponsor is supporting his education in a special school for the deaf in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, where he is thriving.
When schools temporarily closed due to COVID-19, Maj went to gather Pius to take him back home to his village where he resides with his grandmother and 6 other people with disabilities. He lives in the village of Butangala which is about a 3-4 hour taxi ride away from his school. However, upon getting Pius, the government announced a shut down of the roads and banned all public transport. This left Pius stranded and Maj to care for him during this quarantine as she lives in Kampala near his school and was able to get to her home before the total lock down began.
Fortunately for Pius, who at home is often sent out to beg for food to eat and doesn’t get much devoted attention, this was a huge blessing as he now has regular food, shelter, and most importantly – a loving caretaker. As for Maj, she shared that her family treats Pius like a prince and enjoys his company tremendously. His smile is contagious and he makes every day meaningful. Even better is Maj and Pius set up a routine where she helps with his school lessons and his speaking skills are improving day by day. They also have leisure time where Pius enjoys watching cartoons and playing games, a rare commodity for this special boy.
It is so comforting to know that our sponsored students in Uganda have our staff who see them all as family members and would give anything for them, jumping in to help them in the face of a global pandemic. We thank our sponsors who support vulnerable children in Uganda like Pius. We thank our staff in Uganda who are so dedicated to the well-being of each student. Lastly, we thank God for giving us this positive story of love and unity in an otherwise unclear and low-spirited time.
While COVID-19 has been a challenge for many around the world, it has quickly become a crisis in Uganda. The entire country has been on a restrictive lockdown since March 30th, which prohibited private/public transport, closed all schools, eliminated gatherings of any kind, and imposed a strict curfew. Thanks to your support, the quick action of our local staff, and our partnership with the LCU leaders, we funded & delivered hygiene products and a COVID-19 education program to each community right before the lockdown began.
On April 14th, the president extended this lockdown for another 3 weeks and many Ugandans now find themselves in a desperate state.
We have previously shared concerns from our staff about the communities we partner with and how many families lack access to food. Many of the student’s parents are peasant farmers and work in other people’s gardens for a small daily wage. Unfortunately, the owners of these gardens are not hiring day laborers due to the lockdown. With our students already being the most vulnerable in their communities, this elimination of their daily income has been devastating. Furthermore, with school closures, the daily meal that many of our sponsored students counted on is no longer accessible.
The extension of the lockdown means the situation for these families and their children will only worsen with each passing day as their already depleted reserve of food disappears. Many of the students are already in a malnourished state which means getting them and their families access to food has urgently become our top priority. With the extended lockdown, special authorization from the government is required for trucks to travel on the roads. Fortunately, the LCU has been given this authorization in order to provide aid to their communities.
Our staff has been working over the last few days to identify the neediest families in each community. We have identified several students and families that are in desperate need of support. Here are just two examples from our Primary Sponsorship Coordinators, Maj & Joel:
Hearts & Hope has always been an organization that supports in multiple ways in these communities, with a focus on providing education as a foundation for future success in life and an escape from poverty. However, the poverty that our students find themselves in, when combined with the harsh reality of government-enforced lockdown forces us to shift our focus in this crisis – we urgently have to get food to these kids.
This is where we need YOUR help.
You have all been so generous and gracious to these kids in supporting their educations and beyond. We now ask for you to consider giving to our COVID-19 fund so we can provide food to these families who are in the midst of a living nightmare, desperate for some hope. They need you now more than ever. While we recognize that everyone is struggling in many different ways, we only ask for you to consider helping or spreading the word on this urgent need.
In Uganda, the towns and streets are among the busiest of places I've ever seen. As I sit here at home imagining it now I can so clearly envision the dozens of cars, bikes and motorcycle taxis (aka boda bodas) whizzing past a multitude of people walking, visiting with friends, selling goods, and shopping for their everyday essentials.
As of today, conversely, the streets are an unfamiliar and empty sight.
Amidst the 14-day lock-down that President Museveni ordered, life is more challenging for Ugandans in both the large cities and rural villages. We asked our local staff living in Kampala (the capital city) and the town of Jinja (near many of our partnered villages) to explain how this lock-down has impacted their daily routines.
Mariah, one of our Primary Sponsorship Coordinators, explained how awful the situation was - especially for pregnant women. She and her sister (who is 35 weeks pregnant) both had to walk 3 hours in order to find a market open to purchase food. As the restrictions continue and get stricter, whatever small supplies they happened to have at home - which is very little when compared to many of us in the US - now have to be restocked. They live each day with the uncertainty of knowing when the restrictions will be loosened up or if they’ll become stricter. The greatest fear for her family and many others is that when a woman goes into labor, there is no transport available to take them to the hospital for a safe delivery. Ambulances are few and far between and many have to be bribed in order for them to help you. It would appear that in this time of disarray, desperate people are putting their morals aside in the short term in order to ensure their well-being remains intact.
Majorine, another one of our Primary Sponsorship Coordinators, explained that the people are banned from moving around, even walking outside for leisure, yet they were not given enough time to prepare and purchase food or other supplies. This leaves the citizens in a food crisis as the majority work hand-to-mouth daily. To make matters worse, people who work in the marketplaces are not allowed to go back home until the 14-day lock-down is over - essentially a quarantine at their places of work. This means that many sellers are left to sleep with their crops and goods on the streets.
“We also have a curfew,“ she explained. “Everyone has to be in their house by 7 pm and the army is strictly enforcing the curfew.” While the president recently declared during his address to the country for the police and army to refrain from physically attacking people, many are still being treated in the hospitals because they have been hit.
Because many people are lacking food to eat, the government has started giving out posho (a dish made from cornmeal) and beans. However, not all districts and homes are getting the supplies. The primary focus has been to distribute these supplies to the urban suburbs of Kampala which holds many vulnerable families; outlying villages have not received anything yet.
Mariah further voiced her concern to us by saying, “My heart is with the families in our Hearts & Hope villages who live in rented houses with no gardens to grow food for home consumption. Some parents in these villages depend on casual laboring each day and the people who are supposed to pay them for their services are no longer working. This means they can’t earn money to buy food for their families. Moreover, those with gardens of food can’t share much with others because they’re afraid of running out of food."
In Uganda, it seems lives could be impacted highly by the effects of this lock-down even MORE than the spread of COVID-19 itself. Hearts & Hope will continue to gather information on ways we can help those in our communities who are most susceptible to a food shortage.
We also continue to pray for all those who are struggling to provide for their families in the US and who share in this distress. Lastly, we remain hopeful in the future and we put our trust in God during this Easter season that this cup will pass us soon and we will become even more appreciative of the little pleasures in daily life that we once took for granted.
Hearts & Hope is a nonprofit organization focused on unlocking the potential of people in Uganda through relationships with people in the US.