By Nigel M. Nassar
When a man leaves the comfort of his home and the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal to settle for cocktails of roadside chapatti, dust, and beans, otherwise known as kikomando in Ugandan lingo, you wonder what could be up.
In fact, you wonder even more when on top of all that, he also settles for other forms of bad cooking in bend-down eateries by the roadside, whose owners by the way insist on calling hotels.
When that same man leaves his sound and fuelled-up car behind and offers to walk a distance of 400km from Kabale to Mukono, braving the rain and sleeping in dingy motels, school dormitories, classrooms and churches, you know something is really up.
Time off for a fruity snack will sure replenish vital energy needed for the walk.
Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM) founder and executive director Kenneth Edmund Mugayehwenkyi, hitherto known by his fans as The Walking Man, didn’t only forfeit the above luxuries for the daunting walk, which kicked off on September 28, 2013.
He also left his wife Miriam and children behind, and is only keeping in touch with them by phone when he finds a good connection while on the walk, whose aim is to raise awareness about issues of the elderly, an age group ROTOM takes care of.
And on Friday October 04, the day the walk made its seventh day, a lid got lifted off a can of tinned worms, triggered by a chat about a woman we had met at Kibega 2 the day before, Thursday 03.
This woman, 47-year-old Mabel Kobugenyi, had stopped us at Kibega 2 trading centre and loaded praises on what a noble cause Kenneth The Walking Man was involved in. She had laid her hand on Kenneth and prayed for all 14 of us on the walk, sending us on a safe journey.
Mabel Kobugenyi left her business to take care of her ageing mother. Here, she prays for the walk's success.
Before that prayer she had told us the story of how she closed down her business in Kampala, just to return to the village at Kibega 2 and take care of her senile mother, 105-year-old Janet Njuguri, whom we had a glimpse off, and she clearly looked well taken care of.
“What you are doing for the elderly will replicate itself in you, your children and your children’s children. You shall never suffer in your old age, for all who have seen you walk all these miles just to provide for the grannies will provide for you. I heard on Radio West that you would be passing this village, so I waited here just to pray for you.
"May the lord guide you on this journey, and may you raise enough support to buy medical equipment for the senior citizens of this country,” the woman prayed.
ALL CLEAR: A police check to verify that The Walking Man had a police go-ahead to do the 400km walk.
In fact, this woman, away from the fact that The Walking Man and his 13 companions covered 20kms on Thursday, was the day’s highlight. The other highlight was that we spent the night at a motel with smelly water and towels in Sanga, Kiruhuura district.
It’s just that an update on these highlights didn’t come in readily, as the internet, and in fact telephone connectivity on this road, all suck (funny how the telecoms are always bragging that they have most of Uganda connected on data and voice).
An elderly woman under ROTOM opens a package while her grand children join in on the delight.
Any way, the following day, Friday, one of the walkers, an elderly woman under ROTOM’s care, brought back the Kibega 2 woman’s story, wishing aloud that she had a child or relative who would give up her business just to take care of her, and not wait for an NGO like ROTOM to pick her up from sheer loneliness and helplessness.
That brought to the fore a slew of issues:
One of the two elderly women on the walk took us down memory lane, about how the Ugandan social structure of yester-year was set around family and community, with the extended family weaving together a network of blood relations, in-laws and close friends, stuff that acted as a social insurance of some sort against disabilities of old age and the like.
The elderly feel a sense of belonging when they meet over ROTOM's bi-weekly fellowship, as the loneliness is cast away.
“But look, all that is dead today,” she said. “And with many of our children and grand children today moving to urban centres to make a living, they return to find us long dead in some isolated, wobbly hut.”
Poverty/grand children burden
It doesn't help that older persons are among the poorest in Uganda, with an estimated 64 per cent of them living on less than a dollar a day. They are unable to work and can’t afford basics like health, food, clothing, shelter and security.
Some are actually homeless, and with many having lost their children to HIV/AIDS, they take on a burden of caring for their orphaned grandchildren under extreme poverty, poor nutrition, poor health, and general physical weakness.
WATER FOR LIFE: The elderly have a burden of raising their orphaned grandchildren.
It is estimated that more than 800,000 of the over 2.1 million orphans in Uganda are under the care of their helpless grandparents.
At ROTOM alone, each of the over 700 senior citizens under their care is responsible for an estimated average of three orphaned grandchildren, the reason they rolled out a programme to take care of grand children as well.
In fact, the two teenagers on this walk, 17-year-old Miria Niwendisiima and Evas Aharimpisa are some of those on the programme.
While we were still on the issue of grand children, the other elderly woman on the walk, one I realised has been popping pills since we started walking a week ago, said to me: “Son, issues of older persons are countless. See these pills I keep swallowing by the day? Well, a man in my village raped me and infected me with HIV/AIDS.
One of the elders under ROTOM pauses for a phone media interview.
"ROTOM people picked me up from near death, so I am on this walk to give praise to the Lord, and thank Him for Kenneth. Regardless of his insisting that I ride in the emergency vehicle with the nurse, I am not going to set foot in that car.”
Her eyes were teary, and I didn’t add a word. But that is a story for another day, as I am still convincing her to tell it for this platform and get a bit of relief in sharing, as she says she has been to hell and back, before finding a family in ROTOM, which guarantees her bi-weekly visits, food, medical care and fellowship with her fellow senior citizens.
So, back to the disease issue, our elderly are afflicted by a host of diseases that have weakened their older bodies.
PLEASED TO MEET YOU: An elderly woman happy to meet ROTOM founder Kenneth Edmund Mugayehwemkyi.
“Since they lack money, yet our health system doesn’t offer specialized medical help, they do not access the medical attention needed. They have no transport to the public health facilities that are on average five miles away.
"Ultimately, they resort to medicating themselves with herbs, some of which are some times harmful,” says Kabale area ROTOM Programme Manager Erican Turyahama, who is also accompanying his boss on the walk.
The same HIV Positive elderly woman is currently embroiled in a land wrangle with a relative, who, she says, is intent on grabbing the land she insists she has legitimate rights over. Which ushered in another issue.
17-year-old Miria Niwendisiima and Evas Aharimpisa, both on the walk, are some of those on the grandchildren programme.
Property dispute pressures
See, in many a Ugandan tradition, the elderly, long before they breathe their last, are expected to give out their property to their children. We are talking land, livestock, buildings, name it.
“Short of that, they are subjected to threats and all sorts of physical and psychological torture by their children or property hungry relatives.
"Where they have passed on ownership of such property to another party, that has caused them to be neglected, so they end up suffering with hunger, sickness, psychological torture, and at times die suddenly,” says Kenneth The Walking Man.
Kennneth is in his 10-year experience serving older persons has dealt with similar cases.
Kenneth shares his contact with clergymen at All Saints, Mbarara, shortly before embarking on the day's walk last Wednesday.
And with huge psychological stress exerted unto them by the loss of their loved ones, including own children and contemporaries with whom they shared on this and that, the resultant feeling of abandonment, lack of care and no one to talk to often leads to delinquency and hopelessness in the poor souls.
“Traditionally, they talked with their children and grandchildren, who gave them hope, hence serving as therapy. Now with their own children deceased and grandchildren eyeing them for help, which they cannot offer, they live in desperation.
.... and he mingles with them here.
"That is what ROTOM is here to bridge, and I request whoever can to support this cause, as it is geared towards ensuring older persons live dignified and fulfilled lives,” urges The Walking Man, who, on Friday, the day we discussed all these issues, felt more inspired and did 30kms from Sanga in Kiruhuura district to Lyantonde, and on Saturday did 20kms from Lyantonde to Kyazanga.
The Sunday October 6 schedule put him at Mbirizi, 17kms from Kyazanga, which altogether put distance covered at 204kms.
Logistics assistant Jeremiah Nyabenda sometimes takes a nap in the car trailing the walkers.
Having painstakingly walked through such issues affecting the elderly, with the elderly themselves, I am convinced The Walking Man’s reasons to forfeit his luxuries for this walk are justified. And I am going to stay on this walk, giving you more updates and any upcoming features.