A picture is worth a thousand words, Richard’s story is one of triumph, one that words and photos can only begin to encapsulate.
There are times, days and even seconds of your life that you never forget. Last Friday, when Richard accepted his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Busoga University in Iganga, is one of the those times. In fact, the affect of this moment will ripple down to his family; he is the first university graduate in his family. Also, to his village; he is the 7th degree holder in the village and lastly to SOUL, who is now privileged to have him working in the organization. It is SOUL’s mission to have Ugandans teaching Ugandans, so to have him back doing what he loves in his home village is an honor for us.
This is his story in 2599 words:
The Early Days
Richard was born December 5th, 1987, the first born of Nakato Jessica and Matambuze James. Like many in the village, he was born into rough circumstances. James didn’t work and rather considered his job to produce a large family, while Jessica had to support the family on her own. Without a job, she relied on cash crops and the small plots of land she had. Richard felt this burden early on and carried it as only a first child can.
Richard began his schooling at a local, government school where the students are many and the standard was low. Even at this young age, Richard was shown love and given guidance where it lacked at the home. Lagose, his English and Science teacher offered to coach him during the holidays saying, “You are like my son.” She saw how much his family struggled, so Lagose would bring him books, extra supplies and lunch when she could.
By the start of Primary 4, he began to really work for his education. In the morning, his mom would prepare food, the local plate of posho (mingled corn flour and water) and beans. Richard would carry the food on foot and sell it in town.
As Richard grew, the jobs evolved, and by Primary 6 and 7 he was selling fish that his mom would catch in the River Nile. He would often sell this after coming back from school, before household chores and doing any school work. The walk is 8 kilometers or about an hour away.
Richard wanted to continue his education and go to secondary school, but there was no money. His family was growing, eventually he had 8 siblings and with no other income than what they grew, it was merely impossible for his mother to support the family’s basic needs. His dad had no interest in education, never getting much education himself. He was more concerned about where his next drink was coming from.
During this time, Richard began selling tomatoes. He would gather them in a box, sell them, bring the money back to the farmer and in return he would get 1,000 per day. This would take place before going to school, starting as early as 5 am. He would repeat this after school.
A New Opportunity
Always looking for opportunities to pay school fees, he started selling banana leaves at 2,000 a bundle in town. This was also done before and after school. When not in class, each second of his day was dedicated to getting his school fees paid. One week he was unable to take the banana leaves to town and when he returned the next week, his usual buyer told him that they had found another supplier and would no longer buy from him. He returned home discouraged and announced it was time to find another option.
He decided to go further with agriculture, so they planted okra, cabbage, eggplant and other vegetables. One day on his way to buy some more seeds, he passed by the Cool Breeze Hotel in Jinja town. He was approached by a man who worked there who quickly brought him into the bathroom and asked if he would be willing to clean it. The man asked if he was a student, by this time he was in senior 2. The man said he wanted to help him with his school fees if he was willing to start immediately. Richard faced with a dilemma of not returning home for some time, decided to stay and start right then.
His job was to gather empty beer bottles during a concert that night; not a desirable job for the son a drunkard. More so, as a born again Christian, this type of work scared him and wasn’t a scene he wanted to be part of.
That night he slept outside with the security guard. The next morning he returned home to his mother who gave him the approval to continue this work. When he returned to the hotel the next day, the boss said it was a blessing he had met Richard because the cleaner had abruptly left and now there were an opening for his job. He was instructed to come every Friday evening and clean through Sunday night.
At the time he was going to a school because they had lower school fees: 26,000 ($10 US) per term. The standard of education was again low and the school collapsed within three years of operation. Fortunately, he was paid 7,000 ($2.70 US) per weekend so he was able to switch schools prior to the school closing its doors. By the end of senior 2, Richard enrolled himself into Trinity College, a school with a much better reputation.
Over the next couple of years he continued working at the hotel during the weekends and holidays. He would clean the compound, bathrooms, verandas and kitchen as many times during the day as needed until they were all clean, usually from 9 am up until midnight.
There was one incident that left him questioning his path and still haunts him today. While working on the weekends, Richard would sleep underneath one of the stairwells. One night he heard a knock at his door and found an Indian hotel guest standing in a towel. The guest said he wasn’t feeling well and asked for a massage. Richard said he didn’t know how to do such things and the guest said he could teach him. Richard uncomfortably complied for some time until he said he was tired and needed to go to bed. The guest then said Richard should ‘sleep on him.’ Given a moments time to react, Richard ran past the guest and hid himself in a dark conference room. Once he knew the guest was asleep, he ran outside to once again spend the night sleeping next the security guard.
After the holidays, he requested his money since it had not been negotiated beforehand. The boss said he had been so hard working that they would pay him 60,000 ($23 US) for his months work. Coincidently, Trinity’s school fees were exactly 60,000. During the next term he continued to work at the hotel, working in the early morning hours and then biking the 1 1/2 hours to school.
As a senior 4 (comparable to a senior in high school), school fees raised to 70,000 and he had to pay another 70,000 to register to take the national exams necessary to move on to senior 5 and 6 (mandatory for all students who want to go to university).
Richard says that, “God helped me,” at this point. He was asked to take on more work at the hotel, specifically to help assist in decorating for large parties. Each time he would be given an extra 5,000. By the end of the holiday time, he had enough money.
The bosses daughter, who was usually in South Africa, happened to be around during this time and they became friends. She asked Richard how much he was making and after hearing the amount, went straight to her dad and requested he get paid more for all of his hard work. He was given 10,000 more which made his earning 70,000. He would be able to take the national exam.
If he wasn’t able to join advanced level (senior 5 and 6), his back up was to teach primary education, but he deeply yearned to continue studying. Things at home were still unstable, there was no peace. His dad would even chase the children away at times.
But despite all of this, Richard was able to find himself landing jobs. A mzungu (white/westerner) who lived close by offered him 50,000 ($19 US) to water his trees. He never forgot to be grateful for these times when work would somehow find him.
A Fresh Light
Richard went back to the Mzungu that had helped him out some years ago. He pleaded for any chance to get money. He had nothing to offer him but he new about a non-profit called Soft Power that may be able to give him a job. Soft Power offered him a job building schools about an hour away from the village.
The next weekend, he made a visit to SOUL Foundation in the village as he had heard about it from friends. He met Brooke (CEO/co-founder) in the office and narrated his life’s story to her. He asked if it was possible to get help as so many other students had received from them. At this time, SOUL had not started to support university students, but she offered him the chance to volunteer.
She asked what he was interested in and he said his love was teaching. He could help advise students during the evenings and weekends and still go to work for Soft Power during the day. Brooke soon left back for the states, but called him first, asking him not to leave his students. She asked that he teach them whenever he could. She gave him her number in America and told him to call if he ever had any issues.
While Richard was doing both, he rented a bike for 4,500 ($1.70 US). He would leave from work at 5 pm and ride an hour to SOUL to teach. He would teach until 9 pm then spend the night at home. Early in the morning he would return to the village of Wansimba and repeat.
When Brooke returned to Uganda, she called him to SOUL. She inquired about how he was feeling about everything and whether we have enjoying the work and what SOUL meant to him. She announced that there were some very special visitors coming that he would meet on Thursday.
These visitors were Danielle and Eric Young (Brooke’s friends, SOUL volunteers, turned enthusiast, turned Board of Directors). Both witnessed Richard teaching over the next couple of days and invited him to SOUL’s bi-annual general meeting. Before the meeting began, another volunteer pulled him aside and asked how Richard was feeling. Not know the context, but being excited about attending the meeting, he said he was happy. The volunteer said that he had a secret to tell. Richard was going to be sponsored! Richard began to cry since this came as a total surprise.
SOUL was going to sponsor him and it was announced at the meeting. Danielle gave him a big hug and said that she wanted him to be in class on Monday since University had begun the week before. She had seen something in him and knew it needed to be developed. Richard was off to University!
Campus Boy and the Friends that Followed
Danielle and Brooke wanted to make sure he had support at school and luckily Richard had a brother who already attended Busoga University. In part with SOUL’s mission for partnerships, SOUL paid for the school fees if he was able to pay 500,000. Randomly, that Sunday, his mom had sold a plot of land and received 400,000 for it. The timing couldn’t have been better and she handed to over to Richard to use towards school. He explained the situation to SOUL and he was graciously given the difference. The total for his tuition was 1,105,000 ($425 US).
When he went to school, he banked the money to find that he had 180,000 ($69 US) left over. Without hesitation he brought it back to SOUL. Danielle had never witnessed such an act by another Ugandan. She admired his strong and pure heart. Danielle and Brooke wanted to help him further so they asked what other fees were required for school. SOUL added on money for meals, accommodation, photocopying and other research.
The only thing he was missing to be the perfect student was a laptop, which he was also given during his second semester.
During the holidays of his second year, a volunteer named Jill came to the village. She had heard about Richard from other volunteers in SOUL. They spent much time together in the three weeks she stayed in Bujagali. They took many walks down to the river as Richard shared his stories with her.
Jill was blown away by Richard and his story and passed this along to her mother, Christine. Christine felt so connected to Richard through these stories that she wanted to support him through University, Richard now had an individual sponsor! Christine is unable to travel now but was so touched by her daughter’s stories. She did not complete university herself but was fortunate with work and wanted to put her money towards helping others succeed. Richard and Christine have been in weekly contact ever since.
. . .
That is how Richard found himself, in cap and gown, accepting a Bachelor’s Degree in Education. It has been a long and challenging road, but Richard knows these experiences have shaped him for the better. He now deeply feels the desire to help others like others have helped him. He also has many ideas for his future including marrying someone who is also educated and hard working. He wants to provide for his family in a way that he never experienced. He doesn’t want his family to suffer the way that he did.
There is a common thread between all these connecting experiences. Richard’s character has pulled him forward during ongoing times of hardship. It was his constant in an otherwise tumultuous upbringing. It is his character that connects him to people that gave him a hand, saw his potential and provided him with care.
The human spirit is strong and at times we aren’t sure why are we being tested in the way we are. All we can do is keep going forward, just has Richard has done and will continue to do, one step at a time towards our goals and dreams.
I admire Richard for all this he is. He is a beautiful example of what is possible when you stay focused and positive, not letting yourself be discouraged by obstacles.
To all of those who helped him along the way: Lagose his primary school teacher, the kindness of a bosses daughter, softness of a house maid, generosity of some very special mzungus. Each gift or struggle provided a lesson or showed him the value in helping others. A very big thank you to Christine and Jill for sharing Richard’s story and supporting him to this point. You along with some very other special people have enabled him graduate and you are part of his success! Without each of these connections he literally would not be here today.
Bowing to the kindness of others!