Two times a year I hold community meetings at S.O.U.L. in Bujagali Falls, Uganda. We started this in 2009, when S.O.U.L was born. My dad and I’s mission from day one was to partner with the people of Uganda, working together to better the community by sharing ideas and seeing how we can create positive villages for the country and generations to come. The Community Meeting is a time when the community comes together, sharing energy, ideas and a great spirit. People become inspired to help educate their children, work together, and learn about the successes of the community and the organization, as well as the upcoming plans for the year.
Preparation starts for the meeting two weeks before. The planning is enormous. Every official or leader needs a special invitation, printed and hand delivered (keep in mind that electricity is rare, and to print can take days). Tents and chairs need to be transported to S.O.U.L., budget for food made (S.O.U.L. provides food for all attendees), food bought in town in large quantities (picture 40 lbs of rice, etc), agenda created, guest speakers invited, announcement on local radio prepared, signs created and posted all over the area we work in, mobilizing with megaphones, special announcements by my dad and I, and speakers and microphones scheduled.
The attendance grows each year, so it’s always a challenge to predict for. As S.O.U.L. has become more recognized, people wait for this day for six months, even walking more than 7 miles one way to attend.
Margaret, one of our women from S.O.U.L.’s Get a Goat, Give a Goat program stated, “S.O.U.L. is different than all other organizations because they never turn anyone away. Involved or not in S.O.U.L., rich or poor, clean or dirty, S.O.U.L.’s door always remains open to any of us.”
The day starts at 6am. I am more exhausted than ever from the weeks prior to the event, having trained and orienting our new and amazing Project Manager, Steph. At 6:30am, I peak out the window and see lines of my favorite women entering S.O.U.L.’s compound. They have with them larger than life sauce pans and cooking pots on their head, banana leaves in their hands. They are escorted by children carrying ladles and stirrers taller than them, with hundreds of pieces of firewood to top it off.
Adrenaline kicks in, I put on my S.O.U.L. shirt and start the chaotic organizing and delegating. Jane (office manager) arrives at 7am, and the craziness begins. Tents are being built, chairs are being set up, women are cooking, staff are pouring into the S.O.U.L. Shack and everyone preparing their speeches. The music system arrives (microphones and speakers used for meeting, followed by 3-4 hours of dancing after the event closes). By 8am, hundreds of children pour in and start dancing to the local music. The meeting is set for 12pm, yet it’s hard to believe how everything will come together by then. On top of everything, we have a very big project day with our Fish Farms, so Steph and other staff are out in the field all morning.
By 2pm, there are more than 400 people and we begin. Safa, S.O.U.L.’s university student studying radio and mass communications, is the usual and amazing host. Each time he makes it more interesting. The agenda is prepared and extremely formal (typical for Uganda). The local leaders arrive from the village level, subcounty level and the district level (equivalent to city council). Each meeting we invite a guest of honor. In May, Musika Annet (who was completely blown away with the great work S.O.U.L does and is now a great friend), a woman representative and leader for the district level attended. This time we were hoping for the Woman Member of Parliment. This is particularly incredible for the local people as they never have opportunities to meet these government leaders, some of which they have voted into office themselves. And for S.O.U.L this is an incredible opportunity to become recognized by National Officials.
Honorable Nabirye Agnes arrives and the attendees all stand, clap and welcome her. Safa introduces her, as she traditionally dances down the aisle to her seat. The feeling for my dad and I was magical. In Uganda, it is almost impossible to get these ‘big’ people to come to such events, but it is become more of an honor for them to attend, than for us. By 3:30pm, hundreds more people of all ages pour in, bringing the total attendees to over 700.
I knew today was going to be a very special day. Every November is when S.O.U.L. accepts new students into the educational sponsorship program, and this year we were taking our largest number yet, 65 new students and 4 University students. November is also the month of our Preschool graduation which is included in the days events.
To date, there are only 2 university graduates EVER in the Bujagali/Kyabirwa area consisting of more than 4,000 people. Today, my dad and I announce the 4 students with this golden opportunity.
We recognize the 25 best students in S.O.U.L., handing out certificates and gifts for them. The speeches from the community leaders, parents and students begin and are truly heartwarming. It reassures my dad and I that we really are making a huge impact in the community each and everyday, and that lives are drastically impacted due to the work of S.O.U.L.
The preschoolers come out in a line dancing behind their teachers and everyone is in awe. This year we have 35 preschoolers graduating into primary school. Each year S.O.U.L. automatically accepts a few into S.O.U.L.’s sponsorship program bypassing the hundreds on the waiting list. This year we accepted 15 of them; both the parents and community are blown away. We call each of them up individually for their certificate while parents rush up to give their children gifts and jump in the photos with them. A beautiful thing to witness as one of our struggles is to get the parents more committed in their children’s education.
Minutes after this segment is over Annet (government official and last meetings Guest of Honor) pulls me into my room shortly before my dad’s speech. She presents me with a very special gift. This gift symbolizes respect and is the largest cultural honor anyone can ever receive. She pulls out a beautiful Goma (traditional Ugandan dress for women).
She says: ” You are truly Mama Africa. You represent the women of Uganda. You stand with them and you teach them. You don’t walk before them, or without them, you walk beside them.”
“You teach the children about education, you teach the fathers about the importance of being caring parents. You are changing lives everyday. You are Mama Africa.”
Honored, overwhelmed and teary eyed, she striped me down and dressed me in this incredible (but hot) 3 layer dress incredibly fast. Before I can blink, she pulls me outside in front of hundreds, dressed in the goma and the villagers go wild! Everyone creeps closer, cameras are flashing, people start dancing, as the music comes on. Everyone circles around me as the guest of honor and other officials start culturally dancing. They tie a scarf around me and I do my best attempt at local traditional dance, while trying to take it all in. I could not believe the crowd’s response. It was a complete whirlwind and luckily the entire event was being professionally video recorded because it all happened too fast.
Steph and Jenna gave great speeches to the community. It was a great opportunity for Steph to get used to public speaking because there is an opportunity and need every single day and being a S.O.U.L. representative we are always called to local events and meetings to speak. My dad and I are so used to it by now and truly embrace it. We love it and no longer have to prepare in advance, it just comes naturally, always trying to give inspiration stories to the community.
To break up the day, S.O.U.L. women and children put on beautiful African dance performances while the African drum created my favorite local beat. Shortly after, the guest of honor gave her speech to the crowd. Most people who attended the meeting voted for her, but for years since, they have never seen her in their community. People were smiling and memorized. She spoke to the community reiterating what my dad had preached about partnering with S.O.U.L., being involved in their children’s education, focusing on empowering our women, and reducing mother and infant mortality in the region. She then spoke to S.O.U.L. and stated:
“Jinja District and the people of Uganda are so fortunate to have an incredible organization like S.O.U.L.” She continued, “On behalf of the government of Uganda, we are with you, we will support you, and our doors will always be open to you!”
This signified a huge success. We have worked so hard for so many years and it now shows, we are really UNSTOPPABLE!
We saved the best for last. Towards the end of the meeting Jane announces the new students we are have accepted. My personal goal is that every single household in Bujagali Village bcomes a direct S.O.U.L. beneficiary while we are helping hundreds of others from surrounding villages (up to more than 10km away).
The drumroll begins and I announce the University students with the Guest of Honor, Honorable Agnes. All four of theses students were sponsored through secondary school and have earned the chance at further education. None of the students, or anyone in the audience had any idea who was chosen except for my dad, Jane and myself. We first announce one of my most favorite boys in the village, Muganda, who was also helping to host the meeting and was already on stage.
When he heard his name, his hands went to cover his face, tears started pouring from his eyes and his lower back bent down as he almost lowered down to his knees. His dad (my Ugandan father) ran up, shook our hands in complete shock, and hugged his son. Mama Muganda got through the crowd, bent down in front of us and whispered in my ear in broken English that “God will always reward my dad and I and the entire staff of S.O.U.L.” I get the chance to hug Muganda, and he held on for a long time. He could not believe this opportunity. He became completely “zero worded”.
Next, we announce Kaliphan, another great boy and close family member to S.O.U.L. Unfortunately he was in school and not at the meeting, but within seconds, his father, Salum, sprinted to the front, shook my hand, and got down on his knees before myself and the guest of Honor, Honorable Agnes, bowing endlessly while tears poured from his eyes.
I could NOT believe my eyes. To see a man bowing before a woman in Uganda is unheard of. Culturally, when a women passes or greets a man, she gets down to the knee level with her head below his, but never in my 4 years of experience in Uganda have I seen a Ugandan man bow before women. What a moment!
When David was announced, he found his way to the front with his mama and a huge smile on his face. Tears filled both parents eyes, while David hugged both my dad and I and told us that he promises to make us proud and the community as well. He said he is so grateful for his sponsor.
Lastly, we announced our first girl accepted into University. Her name is Olivia and an extremely special girl. She has 7 brothers and sisters, and lives with her mom. Her dad left her mom for another women (polygamist), so Olivia is the main caretaker. She gracefully comes to the front, hugs dad first, while the community is completely thrilled to see the first girl with the chance at University level education.
“When you educate a boy you educate an individual, but when you educate a girl, you educate the entire community” – Greg Morteson
The meeting concluded and the dancing began. I wait all year to dance to the traditional music I have learned over the years. The students, women and children let loose, smiles surround S.O.U.L., and we dance, sweat, jump until the music no longer plays.
Jenna, S.O.U.L’s Executive Director stated “This has been the second best day of my life.”
Written by S.O.U.L.’s Co-Founder & CEO, Brooke Stern