KIHEFO promotes local initiated solutions to fight disease, ignorance and poverty in southwestern Uganda
“Hey – my friends!” Robert Byamugisha warmly enthuses to his KIHEFO colleagues every morning, greeting them with a wide smile and open arms.
Robert, or “Kakuru” as he’s commonly known in Kabale – a Rukiga name given to the first-born twin – is a community outreach and social worker at KIHEFO with a special knack for bringing light and laughter into a room.
Take a walk with Robert through town and you’ll begin to see that he has many, many friends in Kabale, Uganda – most likely owing to his kind, caring persona and his love to laugh with others and “make fun” as he says. It’s true that Robert has a unique way of making people, friends or strangers, feel good about themselves.
Perhaps it’s a part of what has made him so successful in his volunteer work with KIHEFO over the last ten years, mobilizing village groups and community institutions to promote health, sustainable agriculture, income-generation, and civic participation.
But that would be only a small way of understanding Robert’s story. After all, if you sit down with him and ask – “Robert, what’s your story?” he wouldn’t tell you only one, rather he’d tell you very many inspiring stories.
His story would go something like this…
“I Was Born in a Kitchen”
When Robert was a young child, his mother, Rose, and older sister, Edith, used to tell him the story of how he and his twin brother, Kato, were born.
On a Saturday, March 3, 1973, Robert’s mother, Rose, who was pregnant (though didn’t realize she was pregnant with twins) had been working all day in the fields. After finishing in her garden, Rose hiked through the rolling hills to reach her home in the village of Nyakiju, Muyumbu, and began preparing a meal in the kitchen for her seven children and husband. Suddenly, Rose felt labor pains.
“Come here!” she shouted to her eldest daughter, Edith, who came running and found her mother squatting down in the kitchen.
Edith was shocked to see a baby’s head between her mother’s legs. Quickly, Edith handed her mother a washing-basin, just as Kakuru – the first-born twin – slipped out into the world, cradled in his mothers’ hands. Unaware she was carrying twins, Rose was surprised when Kakuru’s brother, Kato, was also born.
Edith ran to seek the help of an older woman in the village, who came and began to wash Rose with herbal remedies, and take care of the new-born twin babies.
“My mother delivered all sixteen children from home…without ever going to the hospital,” Robert recalled.
Two weeks after their birth, Robert’s mother and sister had also told him about another story that nearly cost his life – one involving his father.
One evening, Robert’s father had come home from drinking maramba, the local brew made from sorghum, and after a fight escalated with Rose, he abruptly locked her out of the house and refused to let her enter. Inside the house was Robert and his brother, Kato, who were both crying and hungry to be breast-fed. Desperate, Rose sought the help of her friends and neighbors, who were eventually able to convince her husband to open the door for the sake of their new-born babies.
“When they told me that story when I was so young, I thought, ‘I will never drink alcohol!’” Robert exclaimed, “We grew up in hardship…my dad used to come home and beat my mother. He loved us children, but he was very hard on my mother.”
The Life-Long Road of Education
Robert began attending primary school in the village after his tenth birthday.
In those days, his parents (and many other people in the village) saw education as unimportant, but Robert fell in love with learning from his teachers and peers at school, and determined, made the 3 km walk, every morning to reach school. He would return home for lunch, then go back for afternoon classes – so he’d walk 12 km every day!
While Robert’s brother, Kato, dropped out in Primary 3 (grade three), Robert continued until Primary 7, the final year of elementary level – until his parents were no longer able to pay for his tuition and exams. Robert helped his neighbor, John Rwambuka, to take care of his cows, and when John (who was also a teacher) saw how well Robert was performing at school, he decided to pay for his education.
Robert was inspired by his teacher’s actions, and looked up to him greatly. After graduating from secondary school, he entered a teacher’s training college, and emerged as a enthusiastic primary school teacher. It was at college where he met his future wife, Happy Doreen, who was also studying to become a teacher.
After graduation, together, they began teaching at a primary school in Kabale town, where Robert saved his salary mpola mpola (little by little) to pay bride-price for Doreen’s hand in marriage. Robert and Doreen were united by their love for education, and agreed that they would continue to financially and emotionally support one another to continue their education.
True to their word, Robert first completed a university diploma in English and Music, and after, Doreen graduated with a diploma in English and Swahili. Even after Robert and Doreen had three children – Doris, Norman and Daniela – they continued on. Robert recently graduated from Kabale University with a Degree in Social Work and Administration, while Doreen is about to go for a Degree in Languages.
“To me, education has contributed greatly to my life,” Robert enthused.
Clearly, he has passed this important message along to his three children, who are all doing well at school. His oldest daughter, Doris, twelve years, recently pointed to the Ugandan parliamentary Speaker of the House who was on television and said:
“Dad, I want to be like her.”
Fighting Against the Spread of HIV/AIDS with KIHEFO
In 2002, Robert first met Dr. Geoffrey Anguyo, who had recently founded the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO) and had begun a campaign of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS which had affected many lives in the region.
Robert began to volunteer with KIHEFO as a community member. But suddenly his volunteer work hit home in a very personal way.
Gradually, Robert’s twin brother, Kato, began to develop the signs and symptoms of HIV, and so immediately, Robert brought him to KIHEFO’s HIV/AIDS Clinic where he tested positive for HIV. Robert recalled how Dr. Anguyo began to counsel Kato, and help him adhere to drug treatment to improve his condition.
“[Dr. Anguyo] restored the life of my brother who was about to die,” Robert said.
Kato’s turn-around in health convinced Robert to “join KIHEFO” and continue volunteering for the following seven years to help others who had also been affected by HIV and needed counseling and support.
In 2009, when KIHEFO began to work with Change for Children Association, a Canadian non-profit organization, Dr. Anguyo formally hired Robert as a Community Mobilizer and Educator with their Agro-Innovation program, which saw Robert interacting with hundreds of community members to establish revolving loan micro-credit groups, and help groups to walk themselves out of poverty.
Robert Goes to Canada – Not Once, but Twice!
Ask Robert to tell you the story of the first time he flew to Canada, and – prepare yourself for a very long and very entertaining story!
Indeed, Robert had the opportunity in October 2012 to visit Canada as a spokesperson and advocate for KIHEFO’s mission to fight disease, poverty and ignorance in southwestern Uganda. He visited secondary and post-secondary schools, spoke with community groups, churches, and told many stories about the day to day reality for children and families living in Uganda.
Robert loved his first visit to Canada (despite experiencing “snow” for the first time!) so much that he agreed to return, alongside KIHEFO’s Kyampeire Carol, recently on September 21, 2013, where they are currently touring schools, community groups, churches, and sharing important information about KIHEFO’s work.
Before his departure, when asked ‘What do you hope to share with Canadians?’ he responded with a big grin and said:
“One – is to tell people of Canada that Uganda has different tribes, just like Canada has different immigrants. Two – the foods that are grown in Canada and Uganda are the same, for instance, we also grow wheat! I want to tell people that life here [in Uganda] is somehow related to theirs…
And three…People think “Malaria welcomes you!” as soon as you enter Africa. But as Ugandans, we want to tell people, “we’re ready to learn, to come out of poverty.”
No doubt, as Robert’s story is published on KIHEFO’s blog, he’s at a school or community centre, sharing these important points with Canadians.
Working & Learning for a Better Uganda
When Robert “Kakuru” Byamugisha returns to Uganda from Canada later this month, he’s going to have his hands full with many great community projects and initiatives.
Today – Robert not only works with KIHEFO, but he also is the President of the Kick Corruption Out of Kigezi (KICK), a member of the National NGO Forum, and the President of Student Alumni at Kabale University.
His community service aims at mobilizing Ugandans to recognize their rights, and build their capacity to work together for lobbying the government to improve healthcare, education, infrastructure, economic opportunities, and social services.
At home, he and his wife, Doreen, continue to work hard for the well-being of their family while helping their three children to have success with their studies.
“It’s been our aim,” Robert explained, “to raise a family of good education.”
Indeed, Robert and Doreen’s children have had amazing role models as parents. When he returns, Robert will also embark on his Master’s in Public Administration at Kabale University, alongside Doreen who will begin a Degree in Languages.
Their children Doris, Norman and Daniela want to, one day, become a Speaker of Parliament, an engineer and a nurse.
In Robert’s family, the mangoes don’t fall far from the mango tree.
Learn more about KIHEFO and how you can become involved today – click here.