In 2009 Kiwi expat author Emma Blackman found herself volunteering at a primary school for orphans in a small rural village in Uganda, and what started as a six month stint turned into a life-long love affair. Emma spoke to Kea about travelling the world and her experiences with the Kabira Adult Attention and School for Orphans.
You’ve grown up traveling the world – what inspired you to journey to Uganda specifically, and can you tell us a little about that initial experience?
I was fortunate to be born to two intrepid parents who decided that having a baby on a 32-foot yacht in the Pacific Islands and sailing home to NZ when I was just 6 months old was a good idea. From there, my childhood was full of adventure and I was lucky to travel to a lot of fascinating places growing up. My dream of volunteering in Africa however, didn’t really take hold until I was at university in Wellington. The more I learned about the world, the more I realised how lucky I had been. What struck me most was that through no good-doing of my own I had had the privilege of growing up in New Zealand while around the world people struggled simply to feed their families and stay alive. A simple accident of birth. I became fixed on this concept, this accident of birth; I had done nothing special to deserve being born into a Kiwi family, so felt the least I could do was volunteer my time and efforts to help those not so fortunate.
During my university holidays I was working on the ski fields of Aspen, Colorado and went to see a film, not realising it would change my life completely. By the end of the film, Hotel Rwanda, I would never see the world in the same way again. I was deeply troubled by the genocide, the sickening inhumanity as a population was decimated, but even worse was the fact that the international community stood by and watched. And it had happened in my lifetime and I was blissfully unaware. I was only 11 years old during the 1994 genocide but it highlighted the good fortune I had had while children across the world were ruthlessly murdered and it struck a chord.
With Cherie Broome and Kirsty Simons, two fellow Kiwis, I took off in 2009 for 6 months to volunteer in a remote village in rural Uganda at a primary school for children orphaned by AIDS. We were all city girls and Uganda was a total shock to the system but it was surprisingly easy to live without electricity or running water in a tiny village far from home. I had never been anywhere so overwhelmingly different but we were warmly welcomed into the community and became part of the family of Dominic and Rose, the inspiring Ugandan couple who first began the school in 1999.
Our six months were not without their ups and downs as riots rocked the nation, a rebel group began violent activity in our nearby area, malaria was rife and the failing rains caused food shortages. But we lived to tell the tale and more than anything, my memories of that first trip are of overwhelming laughter, simple pleasures and the feeling of being part of something truly incredible.
People often used to ask me if I was going to Uganda to teach. ‘No,’ I would reply, ‘I’m going to learn.’ That was the attitude I went with and that belief was firmly solidified in the village. To this day, I have never heard so much laughter, seen such wide smiles and been treated to such genuine hospitality and warmth. People in the village have very little, but they have a community that works together with an unfailing spirit, and that is all they need.
Tell us a little about KAASO and the projects you have been working on in Uganda and what the impact of this work has been? How can people help or get involved?
St Paul KAASO (Kabira Adult Attention and School for Orphans) is a primary school that was established by Dominic and Rose Mukwaya in 1999. The Rakai District in southern Uganda had been hard hit by the AIDS epidemic and there were many children left orphaned by the disease. Beginning with just 12 young orphans who slept in Dominic and Rose’s own house, by the end of the first year there were 49 children. The school roll grew exponentially over the years, taking on both orphans and children whose parents could afford to pay school fees which supplemented those unable to pay. Today the school educates 600 children every year, around 350 of which board at the school.
In 2009, Cherie, Kirsty and I launched a fundraiser to build a dormitory named Kiwi House. The dorm was opened in October 2009 and is now home to 100 girls. We also secured a grant from the Rotary Club of East Coast Bays on Auckland’s North Shore to establish a library and computer lab at the school which is fully functioning today, a place where teachers and volunteers run computer classes and students have access to picture books, text books and other educational materials.
As the school year came to a close, I discovered that many of the children finishing primary school were not going to be able to continue on to secondary school and the thought of these incredibly talented 12- and 13-year olds dropping out of school disturbed me greatly. I began the Kiwi Sponsorships program with just one boy, Henry, who I sponsored with my parents and sent out an appeal to family and friends to help. The response was overwhelming and today we have 20 children sponsored through secondary school every year.
Since leaving the village in October 2009, I have returned every year since 2011 to visit the sponsor children and to oversee the various projects I remain involved with at the school. I spearheaded a second major fundraiser which saw the construction of Mark House, another dormitory which houses 80 boys. I have also helped to fund and run a poultry project which provides eggs to supplement the children’s diet and helps generate income for the school. Last year Dominic was invited to present at an educational conference and workshop in the USA and I assisted in funding and organising his trip to California as well as his return to Florida this year to complete an international leadership forum.
KAASO is an incredibly special place that gets under your skin in a way I never thought possible. There are many ways you can help to support the school from sponsoring a child, to donating towards construction projects to actually volunteering yourself. I set up a blog featuring all my stories from the past five years volunteering in Uganda in an attempt to raise awareness of KAASO and its incredible story – www.ileftmyheartinuganda.com. There I have outlined further ways people can help but it’s not just about donating, it’s also about simply being aware of a world beyond our own, living with open eyes and being grateful for the incredible start in life we have as Kiwis.
You’re putting together your first book which recalls some of the incredible stories and experiences you’ve had since traveling to Uganda. Can you tell us a little about it?
I have always loved to write and am forever trying to capture the world I see around me on paper. I used to tell people I was going to write my memoirs and they laughed at me when I was in my early 20s, asking how could I already have enough life experience to fill a book? I shelved the idea and continued to write simply for myself but the minute I landed in Uganda, I knew I had found a story that needed to be told. Sitting up late listening to Dominic and Rose speak of the early days of KAASO teaching from a single thatched hut, singing with the children in their mud-brick classrooms, meeting elders in the village who had lived through Idi Amin’s regime and survived the civil war, getting to know the way the village community worked, the idea for a book began to take shape.
I’d read so many books about Africa from hardened war-correspondents but I wanted to share a more human perspective of Africa, of stories from a small village where three Kiwi girls were welcomed as family, to show ‘Africa’ is not one place to be painted by the same brush, not a place of constantly starving children, war and conflict zones, disease and suffering, but also somewhere with a phenomenal spirit, full of laughter, joy and love.
I took a year and a half out of my usual world of working on international sailing events to write. The juxtaposition between organising black-tie gala dinners and wading through my dust-streaked diaries from Uganda was marked but I have always been one for contrasts and I thrived on the challenge. My first draft complete, I took a two-year hiatus from writing to take up my role as Event Manager for the Louis Vuitton Cup at the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. It has been a long journey but I am at last in the throes of finishing the final draft of my manuscript. I am now hoping to find a publisher so that I can share my story and hopefully bring the incredible world I found down a red dirt road to a wider audience. It’s not an easy task but it’s something I am immensely passionate about so I will persevere to see this story told.
With all your travel, how do you stay connected to New Zealand? Do you still call NZ home?
Absolutely, it doesn’t matter how many oceans come between us, NZ will always be my home. In a funny way, it’s like Uganda – it gets under your skin. I left NZ to move to Spain to work for Louis Vuitton on the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007 in Valencia and have been travelling the world working on sailing events ever since but I still call NZ home. It’s where my family is, my childhood memories are and I will forever be going back. There’s something about NZ that you carry within you wherever you go.
I am incredibly proud to be a Kiwi and love bumping into other Kiwis around the world, usually people doing amazing things. I feel that we are always ready to try new things, to launch into new adventures and we like to give as much of ourselves as possible. I love that there is ‘Kiwi House’ in a corner of rural Uganda and any Kiwi volunteers that travel through Uganda will unexpectedly stumble upon another little corner of home. The girls that live in Kiwi House all refer to themselves as ‘the Kiwi Girls’ and all sign off their letters with little hand-drawn pictures of kiwis which always makes me smile.
As a result of your experiences in Africa and traveling the world, do you have any advice for other wanderlust Kiwis?
Go, see, experience, taste and explore as much as possible. We are incredibly lucky to call NZ home but I learned in Uganda that to be able to travel, to experience other cultures and visit other places is an incredible privilege that not many people around the world have and one we should make the most of. Kiwis have a real ability to move between worlds and I think the reason we are so well-received overseas is largely due to our open-minded attitude and our desire to immerse ourselves in a culture and to learn to feel at home wherever we go.
I would encourage people to explore somewhere truly different – in this world of globalisation, there are few places you go that are really, truly like no other and Uganda shifted my sense of ‘normal’. Everything was redefined, nothing could be taken for granted. I had to learn to wash clothes again, to bathe in a bucket of pond water, to get my head around a culture so far removed from anything I had ever experienced. It was the most challenging but ultimately the most rewarding thing I have ever done and I cannot recommend it more highly.
Find your ‘Uganda’ and take the plunge – you won’t regret it.