By Nigel Nassar
No, he’s not crazy, that he is sure of. Last Saturday September 28, Kenneth Edmund Mugayehwenkyi, 45, embarked on a really ambitious journey – a walk of 400km, all for the love of the elderly.
If you talk miles, that’s a whooping 249 of them. Now that puts him across as crazy, doesn’t it? Well, at least everyone he has told about his mission seems to go like, “Are you crazy?”
But no amount of thinking Mugayehwenkyi crazy will coax him out of this, for it’s geared towards the welfare of the elderly, whom his heart bleeds for, as they are usually the written-off lot.
In fact, he is doing the walk under his mission organisation Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM), which looks out for the elderly, meeting their needs.
So, when the clock struck 9:00am last Saturday, Mugayehwenkyi, the organisation’s founder and executive director, started walking, a journey that entails reflecting on his organisation’s journey so far, and praying.
Having set off at the ROTOM Outreach Centre in Muhanga, Kabale district, Mugayehwenkyi will trek on for an estimated 19 days until he reaches Mukono, having covered at least 16kms per day, if all goes as planned.
He is expected to arrive at the ROTOM head office in Mukono at least two days to October 19, when ROTOM will be commemorating 10 years serving the country’s senior citizens. The celebrations happen to be timely, as October happens to be the official month for the elderly.
Away from being one of the 10-year commemorative activities of the day, the walk, according to Mugayehwenkyi, aims at demonstrating the organisation’s dedication and commitment to serving older persons, raising awareness about their plight, and raising funds for medical equipment for the organisation’s health centres, dedicated to offering medical help to the elderly.
“Equipping the health centres with specific older people’s medical paraphernalia is really important, as Uganda’s health sector doesn’t specifically cater for specialized help for the elderly,” says Mugayehwenkyi.
And that’s not all the motivation behind this walk. “See, from the time I founded ROTOM in 2003, it is as if nature has been conspiring for things to move in the right direction, with many helping us sustain the lives of the elderly. As a result we have reached milestone after another. So, on this walk, I will be praying not only for the elderly, but also for whoever has helped us in whatever way. That’s my only way of giving back to the many people around the world who have been so good to us,” says Mugayehwenkyi.
“I invite you to join me by praying, walking with me, or organizing a walk or other activity for the elderly in your community. You can also sponsor me or another person to walk. You can contribute finances or products to the celebration event, or even attend in person and celebrate with us at ROTOM on October 19. Any will do,” adds Mugayehwenkyi, who feels upbeat for the walk and has been covering more than 20km since setting off on Saturday.
He has for the last six months been training in preparation for the walk, covering at least 40km in his thrice-a-week sessions.
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the humanitarian, a father of four boys and a girl, has been out there on the road with his walking stick and backpack containing first aid kit, a raincoat, water, a banana, an egg and a few pieces of bread.
“I feel fit. I should be able to complete the 400kms without difficulty,” he says.
So, before sending him mail asking to join him on the road, have in mind that your next step might have to be a bit of training. You can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org, or look up reachonetouchoneministries on Facebook to join the walk in any way you deem fit, even by leaving an encouraging message on their Facebook as you follow the walk.
Mugayehwenkyi and the elderly
Mugayehwenkyi’s vision for the elderly occurred to him on a break back home in Uganda from a study and work stint in Canada and the US. He had traveled to the west after his Social Sciences degree from Makerere University and master’s from Uganda Management Institute, among his many qualifications. In the U.S, he had landed a job working with a children reformatory centre on a five-year contract.
“I had served just two years when I returned home to process travel documents for my children to join me. While at Bajjo village in Seeta, Mukono, my wife Miriam motioned me towards an elderly woman, Elizabeth Kiryokya, who, in her isolation, lived with her two grandchildren, left behind by their deceased parents after they succumbed to HIV.
They lived in a shack that could collapse on them anytime, and with all her children dead, the two little girls were her only company, and caretakers. Right there, in December 2002, I saw the needs of poor senior citizens in my country in a new and intense way. I saw loneliness, extreme poverty, a burden of grand children, disease and hopelessness. That moment touched and changed my life,” recalls Mugyehwenkyi.
Back in the U.S, much as he had mobilized money from friends, built a house for the old woman and taken her grandchildren back to school, Mugayehwenkyi stayed restless.
“I didn’t have peace until October 2003, when after prayer and encouragement from friends at my church, I left my job and returned home to start what is today 10-year-old ROTOM,” he adds.
An 83-year-old widow sorts greens at her home. Elderly women and men often suffer negligence.
Upon return from abroad, Mugayehwenkyi started by hanging out with the elderly Elizabeth at the house he had helped build for her. Next to join them was Naome, an elderly friend of Elizabeth’s, whose reason for visiting was to drop off the potato and banana peels she collected for Elizabeth’s pig.
Somehow, word kept spreading about a young man who visited Naome and Elizabeth, buying them lunch and sharing conversations about the future, spirituality, and also meeting their medical needs.
As a result, more elderly people around Mukono thronged Elizabeth’s house. At the end of the day, the conversations, prayer and meal they shared got them out of their isolation, and they no longer felt neglected.
When Mugayehwenkyi’s mother visited him in Mukono, she left converted. Back home at Muhanga village in Kabale, where Mugayehwenkyi was born, his mother started convening the elderly, facilitated by Mugayehwenkyi to feed them, visit their homes and keep them interested in the weekly fellowship meetings.
“With guidance from my friend Kenneth Kataryeba, Gwen Kahler in the U.S and others, we turned this into a sponsorship programme, my in-law Dorcus Mugarura suggesting the name ROTOM. My friends at church in the U.S collected money towards the cause, and soon we were running a real organisation, with frequent fellowships and visits to the elderly, helped by a team of volunteers who believed in the cause, earning peanuts.”
Today, ROTOM, which has gone international, is a fully-fledged non-governmental Christian organisation reaching out to over 700 vulnerable older persons aged 60 and above, as well as taking care of the elderly persons’ grandchildren and some HIV/AIDS-positive widows. Anyone, regardless of religion, sex or any other denominations, is served.
These programmes run in the operational districts of Mukono and Kabale, where the older persons are helped access medical care, safe housing, improved hygiene, food, income, as well as emotional and spiritual support.
All these they get at no cost as long as they are registered with the organisation, whose headquarters enjoy a serene seating on an expansive three-acre piece of land, three kilometers from Mukono town on Kayunga Road.
And the beneficiaries? Well, they are all praises. “I would be dead if it wasn’t for ROTOM picking me up,” says 83-year-old Safiinah Nalubega, who has been under ROTOM’s care for five years.
“They found me at a stone quarry in Kiwala, Mukono, cracking stones to sell for peanuts. Landlords kept throwing me out of their houses and embarrassing me. Now I have an own brick house, water tank, inside bathroom, toilet, all from ROTOM.”
Eighty-year-old Gabriel Mangeni, who is blind, and his 65-year-old wife Juliana Bafakulera, have also been under ROTOM’s care for five years.
“We had refused to sign up thinking they were the usual government officials who kept registering us in the past for benefits that never came. But the ROTOM field officers insisted. We have never looked back since.
"We had even forgotten about prayer, but those people rekindled that in us and now we feel more at peace with God. We can’t start enumerating what ROTOM has done for us, they are countless,” says Mangeni, adding that he, the wife and grandchildren owe all to ROTOM.
All the other elderly people I visited had one thing in common – that if it were not for ROTOM, they would be dead.
With so many people praying for Mugayehwenkyi and his initiative, it is not surprising the big strides they are taking. With a programme supporting the grandchildren of the senior citizens already picking steam as a core arm, the strides get bigger by the day.
Also, the Kabale Outreach Centre at Muhanga has a functional health centre dedicated to seniors. Plus, a state-of-the-art one is nearing completion at the headquarters in Mukono. Here, I found ROTOM partner Linda Hallett from Canada, who helps with fundraising, helping the team furnish the health centre with modern hospital equipment she had delivered, courtesy of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Canadian Grandmothers.
It is this health centre, and the one in Kabale, that the proceeds from Mugayehwenkyi’s walk will help equip. Keep an eye on this website for updates on the walk by our writer Nigel Nassar, who is doing the charity walk with the team.