A Year On From Lockdown.
In March 2020 I led a team of volunteers out to visit the Kafunjo Community Project, a primary school, orphanage and agricultural project in Uganda. The trip was cut short by the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic. I have returned with a friend a year later to see what impact the global lockdown has had on the project and the people of Uganda.
I originally met Bruno Biryomumaisho in 2006 after a chance encounter at a roadside restaurant in the dusty border town of Kabale. At the time I was en route to visit the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south western corner of Uganda and had stopped for lunch at the Sky Blue Hotel, where a then 18 year old Bruno worked as a waiter.
Short in stature but big in personality, Bruno’s friendly and engaging manner made me realise he was a rather special kind of guy. We discussed our lives till then and our plans for the future and came to the realisation that we shared many similar ambitions. In a few minutes we had struck up a solid friendship and understanding that has lasted to this very day.
Since that first meeting Bruno and I kept in touch on line and over time we discussed various business and charitable ventures that we could work on together in Uganda. Bruno was initially looking for a road out of poverty to a life of purpose whilst I was looking to tie myself to Africa, a continent I had fallen in love with.
In 2013, 5 years on from our initial meeting, Bruno moved from Kabale to the village of Kafunjo in the neighbouring district of Ibanda, a scattering of mud brick dwellings within a landscape typical of rural Uganda.
When Bruno first arrived in Kafunjo, he witnessed a dire lack of educational opportunities for the village’s poorest children. Many were dressed in rags and showed signs of malnutrition and neglect. On closer investigation it became apparent many were orphans whose days passed without structure or purpose beyond the need to survive. Amongst the adults there were few employment opportunities forcing fragmented families to a scratch out an existence on subsistence agriculture. Reliant on the intermittent rains, poverty, disease and starvation were ever present threats that hovered over this community like a darkening cloud.
Bruno reached out to me via Facebook while I sat in my flat on one drizzly evening in Jersey and proposed the plan of setting up a community project in Kafunjo, with the initial aim of providing free food and education to Kafunjo’s poorest children. Bruno’s motivation was inspired by his own difficult childhood in Kabale and his determination that other children should not have to endure similar hardship. Encouraged by his persistence, passion and good heart, I set up a crowdfunding site on line and approached my friends and family to see if they would be willing to join me in supporting Bruno’s mission.
Facebook was our chosen platform to get the message out there and this proved very effective from the outset in building interest and support. After a few weeks we had attracted enough donations to purchase a dusty strip of land on the outskirts of Kafunjo where Bruno planned to build the first classroom.
Alongside his brother Robert, Bruno began the Herculean task of making the first 4,000 mud bricks required to construct a 2 classroom block whilst a steady stream of support from around the world grew. He was able to purchase some bags of maize flour and kidney beans to provide the children with basic nourishment in the form of the Ugandan staple, “Posho and Beans”, never neglecting to update our growing army of supporters via our Facebook page.
A few months later I returned to Uganda to visit Kafunjo for the first time and to see with my own eyes the progress that had been made on the classroom build. I arrived as the sun was setting and the surrounding landscape was cast in a golden light. The humble mud brick classroom block that our donations had helped to build stood before me and whilst it looked like so many other buildings in the region, the fact that it existed at all made it feel like a miracle. I peered through the doorway to see perhaps 60 children, all shapes and sizes, sat cross legged on the earth floor. Each head tilted towards the blackboard where a village elder scribbled in chalk. They were mesmerised. They were now on their learning journey and had found a route out of poverty.
8 years on from this visit and those children are now bright eyed, smartly dressed and well educated teenagers, some of whom are now in secondary school. We have since completed our primary school, a church and an orphanage all of which is nestled within 40 hectares of agricultural fields, with the capacity to provide free food and education to 350 children. We are presently midway through building a health clinic and a secondary school at the project.
In addition we have a fledgling tour company (Kafunjo Overland Safari’s) which prior to the pandemic provided unique visits for foreign guests which incorporate a stay at the project followed by excursions to nearby National Parks, allowing our visitors (and our children) to experience some of the countries most incredible scenery and beguiling wildlife. Our shared dreams were becoming a reality.
The March 2020 trip and the onset of the pandemic.
The team of volunteers who visited the project in March 2020.
In March 2020 I led a team of 10 adventurous islanders out to Kafunjo as part of a Kafunjo Overland Safari’s trip so they could experience the project first hand.
We were a cheerful and beady eyed bunch, keen to see the recent advances that had been made at the project whilst eager to lend a hand with the construction of “The Kafunjo Green School”, our planned secondary school that was in the process of being built.
In addition to volunteering at the project we were excited to have the chance of visiting some other incredible sights of Uganda, including the mountains gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park. It was our intention to take some of the children, alongside our guests, to visit these incredible species in their natural habitat. Great ape conservation has been a long term passion of mine and was the initial reason why I visited Uganda all those years ago and also why I decided to relocate to Jersey from my native Scotland, to work with the gorillas at Jersey Zoo.
A week or so into the trip, all was going well. The team of volunteers was getting on great and had been labouring hard alongside the staff of the project. I could see how much they were enjoying being part of the Kafunjo community.
Scrolling through our smartphones during brief breaks from work, we became aware of a fast developing story in the news about a new strain of influenza, originating in China, that was spreading around the globe at an unprecedented rate. At this stage none of us could foresee what an impact this story would have on our trip, the project or the wider world at large.
With the brickwork on the secondary school build complete, our collective optimism became tinged with concern as the news stories about the virus (now called COVID-19) continued unabated. Whole nations had begun to shut their borders to international travel to stave off its spread, pushing the world into an unprecedented lockdown.
Alarmed, 5 members of the team made a rush for the airport as one by one countries around the world closed their borders. The other 5 chose to test their luck and stay in Uganda a few days longer, the possibility of meeting wild gorillas a temptation to great to ignore.
A few days later, with the sense of panic around the world reaching fever pitch, our diminished group were nestled amongst a family of wild gorillas in the tranquil, mysterious forests of Bwindi, a moment we savoured, knowing that at that point in time we were some of the luckiest people on earth.
The spell cast by the experience of meeting gorillas broke sharply when we returned from our trek and heard the news that neighbouring Rwanda had closed its airport with the imminent threat that our point of departure would be next. Frantically we called our airlines and rescheduled our departing flight for the next morning and sped off on a white knuckle drive to the airport. We arrived in Entebbe just in time to board the last flight out of the country before Uganda followed the world into lockdown.
During the pandemic the project focussed on agriculture to ensure the long term food security for the project in uncertain times.
Back in Jersey I have had my own experience of living during a global pandemic. I have witnessed the closure of businesses, the division of families, the restriction of our freedoms and experienced the impact all of this has had on our collective mental health. Others have witnessed the loss of loved ones with many not having the chance to say goodbye.
Throughout this past year my mind was never far from Kafunjo and the community I left behind and I knew that someday, somehow I had to return.
Through my conversations with Bruno I was aware that the lockdown measures had taken a severe toll on the project and the surrounding community. For the first time since we began our mission almost a decade ago, it felt that the project and the lives of the children who rely upon it, was under threat.
The restrictions in response to the threat of the virus had forced all schools across Uganda to close, travel bans and stay at home orders had been put in place and oppressive laws had been passed to maintain order amongst an increasingly confused and desperate population. Costs of food, fuel and building materials had doubled putting further strain on our ability to fund the project and the economic situation of the country as a whole.
Under Bruno’s leadership and following a governmental decree, the project adapted to this new situation. All classroom teaching was halted and building projects suspended whilst most of the children (with the exception of the 120 who stay at our orphanage) returned to their homes. With vehicular travel banned, Bruno was forced to walk a gruelling 72km round trip each week so he could access donations from one of the few banks that remained open.
All the funding that was previously used to run the school, feed the children and pay the teachers was reallocated to ensure food security for those who remained. This included the purchase of more agricultural land and the stockpiling of foodstuffs such as maize flour and beans.
In the surrounding villages the situation became so desperate some families were forced to boil wild spear grass to eat while their children were sent out to collect flying ants and grasshoppers, anything to stave off hunger. On a continent where the majority are used to living on the edge of survival, the onset of the pandemic and the restrictions that came with it, had left many facing a desperation few of us in the west would understand.
Martin Renshaw (left) and Jonathan Stark (right) returned in March 2021 to help Bruno and support the project.
Now we are back, a year on and it is clear the spirit of Kafunjo has not just survived the pandemic but has flourished to become a true beacon of hope in the community. Bruno has gained the reputation as a true community leader, never turning away a child who appears at the project gates looking for food or shelter. Desperate villagers who have lost jobs and income are employed to work in our fields, ensuring longer term food security for the project in exchange for a small wage.
Despite this, the new world we now live in has put the project under severe financial strain. Bruno’s unfailing commitment to the community has saved the village from the more severe impacts of the global lockdown though this has meant that as his supporters we need to redouble our efforts in supporting his mission.
This is the purpose of our visit as we assist Bruno in promoting the work of the project to a wider audience through our social media channels whilst encouraging others to join our mission. We have been making films to showcase his work, helping to build a more coherent social media strategy whilst attracting support to complete some of the construction projects that have been left dormant for the past year. In addition, our child sponsorship programme, the backbone of our funding, has been refreshed, updated and hopefully improved.
We have recently reached our fund raising target to complete The Kafunjo Clinic and the builders are forging on as I write these words so that soon we will be able to offer free health care for the children of the project and the wider community at large.
With the clinic nearing completion we plan to refocus our efforts on completing The Kafunjo Green School, our very own secondary school, the construction of which was halted on our last visit. Our aim for “The Green School” is to not only provide secondary level education to our children but also to instil a sense of environmental stewardship in every student who passes through our gates. We hope to provide vocational training in ecotourism, agriculture and a variety of other trades ranging from hair dressing and tailoring to construction and metal fabrication, ensuring that every student, regardless of their interest, has a route into employment following graduation.
The completion of The Green School is becoming increasingly urgent as we realise the mounting costs required to pay for our own students who graduate past primary 7. In terms of keeping true to our mission (whilst bearing in mind our long term financial resilience) we believe having our own secondary school is essential as the project progresses.
The challenges ahead are great but over the 15 years since I first met Bruno, he has proven himself worthy of the task of leading the project, pushing it onwards despite any obstacles put in the way. I have watched with awe these past few weeks as he navigates through his day with a laugh and a smile. He is a community leader, a father to many, a farmer, a pastor, a teacher, “the fixer” and a true friend. His journey from the waiter I knew to the leader he now is, is perhaps one of the most remarkable human stories I know of.
I’ll leave you with one of Bruno’s frequent sayings which sums up his character and vision whilst also giving guidance to those who wonder where they should fit in this increasingly crazy world - “Change the world, don’t led the world change you.”