By Martin Kanyegirire and Agencies
In 2006, an 11-year-old boy walked 50km for three days after hearing over the radio about a free school that had been started in a distant village.
This was in Nyakagyezi in Kanungu district. Owing to the boy’s determination, a primary school was set up near his home in 2007. This is the story of two primary schools linked to one man, whose passion to help orphans get an education has earned him local and international recognition.
The Price of Stones: Building a School for My Village presents simply Jackson Kaguri’s story. It is a gripping memoir by Jackson Kaguri, the CNN Hero for 2012.
CNN heroes are people who are recognised for making extraordinary humanitarian contribution. Kaguri was chosen the 2012 CNN Hero for his tireless efforts to give children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Uganda an education through two model primary schools; Nyaka and Kutamba primary schools under the Nyaka AIDS Project.
Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Kaguri’s friend, lauds him for returning to his roots and using his contacts in the US to spur development in his home area.
“Kaguri has identified himself with the social and economic problems of his home country. Setting up an educational infrastructure and workforce using his own resources to benefit communities is a good example we should emulate,” remarks Rugunda, also the information and communications technology minister.
Kaguri is a perfect example of a success story in an African village. Born in the same remote part of western Uganda, the 41-year-old studied and works in the US. He is married to an American woman. Kaguri had saved $5,000 (sh12.4m) as a down payment on a house he wanted to buy in Indiana, but on a trip to his home village with his wife in 2001, he was besieged by old women asking him to help take care of their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren.
Kaguri meets the grandmothers who look after the orphans
“The next morning, I was overwhelmed by the number of grandmothers, who had gathered at home asking me to help their grandchildren,” Kaguri told CNN.
The Kaguris decided to divert all the $5,000 to build a free primary school for the orphans in the village.
Kaguri knew he would have to pay for everything, including teachers’ salaries, supplies and a nurse. But he also knew how to source labour. He acquired two acres of land and, with the help of the locals, he built Nyaka Primary School. “Everyone in the community who had asked me for help or money, we gave them a hoe so they could help in the building of the school,” he said.
When the school officially opened on January 2, 2003, 56 AIDS-orphaned children enrolled. In due course, it was noticed that most of the children would sleep in class because they were hungry. So the school started giving the pupils two meals a day. It also opened a clinic on the premises.
Eventually, attendance improved. Meanwhile, Kaguri continued to raise money for the project, while he worked full time in the US. Later, he learnt of a child who had walked over 30km to attend the school. This got him to start another school; Kutamba Primary School in Nyakishenyi village.
Today, there are over 587 students in both schools, from pre-school through to Primary Seven. All of them receive free education and healthcare. Nearly all of them have lost either one or both parents to AIDS.
The issue of educating children orphaned by AIDS hits close to home for Kaguri. He lost his brother, one of his sisters and a three-year-old nephew to the disease.
Most of the orphans are left to their grandparents. In fact, Kaguri estimates that about 65% of the pupils at Nyaka Primary School are raised by their grannies.
Jackie Bemanya of the Mulago-Mbarara Teaching Hospital joint AIDS programme and a keen observer of Kaguri’s work commends Kaguri’s spirit.
“Kaguri has dipped his hands where the rest haven’t. If every Ugandan emulated what he does, those affected by HIV would be more hopeful about their future,” she said.
In 2008, Kaguri started a programme that offers support and education to over 5,000 grandmothers who are raising the orphans.
“In Uganda, HIV/AIDS came striking like a machete in a cornfield, killing men and women, leaving 1.2 million children orphaned.” In the absence of parents, it was the country’s grandmothers who filled the gap.
“These are elderly women whose own children died, leaving orphans behind. Some of them help up to 14 grandchildren,” he said.
“These are women who have seen me grow up in the village. They had carried me when I was hurt and prayed for me when I was away studying. What was I supposed to do?” Kaguri told CNN. The programme also teaches the women practical lifeskills, offers advice on parenting, grief management, basic medical care, gardening and business development.
Also, the students’ grandparents are given hygiene training and grants to construct bathrooms and kitchens in their homes.
Besides, Kaguri has helped set up a clean water system to benefit the entire village. The 41-year-old did not stop at that.
He started Nyaka School Blue Lupin Public Library in 2010 to encourage the culture of literacy in Nyakagyezi and the entire western Uganda. “Many people look at the problem and the big numbers and are overwhelmed, but I don’t,” Kaguri told Time Magazine.
The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project is an initiative of Scientific Technology and Sustainable Agricultural Development, Inc, a non-profit non-governmental organisation registered in the State of Indiana, USA.