Noelina Nakagwa was born physically-handicapped, so she crawls . Howe ver , even in her conditio n and without a pro per so urce of income, she opened up a home to hel p other nee dy peo ple with disabili ties , Andrew Masinde wri tes
When she is seated, it is hard to tell she is physically handicapped. The excitement of seeing new people propels her to struggle to move and welcome them, but she pants heavily. Noelina Nakagwa was born with a physical disability; her legs are crippled, so she crawls. However, amidst all the struggles, Nakagwa bursts into tears of joy, saying: “I am happy to see you. It is rare to get visitors here on a Sunday.”
She is welcoming guests from the Rotary Club Kampala Central, who have come to donate items to a home she set up in Bukulula on Kampala- Masaka highway, 20km to Masaka town. Nakagwa is a mother to 59 vulnerable children. More than half of the children she takes care of have hearing and speech impairments, while others are blind, are physically handicapped or are orphans.
Who is Nakagwa?
She was born in 1982 in a family of 15 children in Masaka. She dropped out of school in Senior Two.“Many times I had to visit a muyunzi (local physiotherapist) because my father believed I would walk one day. My siblings had to take me there after helping me get to school.
I felt I was burdening them, so I quit school,” Nakagwa says. At 17 years, she went to live with a nun in Kitovu Hospital, Masaka, where she learnt how to use a sewing machine and make tablecloths. She lived there for two years.
In 2003, Nakagwa decided to join Namirembe School for the Deaf in Kampala. She paid the fees with the money from her sewing machine and selling food. Her father died in 2004, but her mother is bedridden. Nakagwa takes care of her.
How she started the home
“In 1998, I heard about a girl with a mental disorder from a middle-income family, who was treated like an outcast. Her family confined her in the backyard. I took her into confi ned her in the backyard. I took her into my house and I shared my bed with her. I taught her tailoring and other skills,” Nakagwa says. The girl now works at a crafts shop in Kampala. Nakagwa later found many other children with disabilities in the neighbourhood and took them in.
The community also started bringing other children to her. “I welcomed them and shared the little I had with them. As the numbers grew, I had to look for means to feed them. I would move from home-to-home asking for food, clothes and other items,” Nakagwa says. Her husband left her after the number of children grew at the home.She decided to stay single.
Meeting the children’s needs
In 2000, the number of children was too big to fi t in Nakagwa’s house, so she set up an orphanage. Another hurdle Nakagwa had to jump was communicating with the deaf children. She enrolled for a two-month sign language course at the Uganda National Association of the Deaf.
Later, Nakagwa took a course in sign language to counsel children with disabilities. The course was also sponsored. When children who are under her care fall sick, she takes them to Mulago Hospital.Nakagwa has helped many children who have had surgery get back on their feet as she is there to nurse them during the recovery process. She has adopted many children with unique problems, one of them a blind girl who also suffers from epilepsy.
According to Nakagwa, the girl lived with her grandmother where she was sexually abused by men and she is still traumatised. “When one gives her, say, soda or cake, she asks: ‘What should I do now? Should I put off my clothes?’ She believes someone cannot give without expecting anything in return. I have tried to change her mindset,” Nakagwa says. Nakagwa takes the children to nearby schools.
However, most of them, because of their disabilities, are not given enough attention in school. She also cannot afford to take the deaf and dumb to schools with special needs programmes as they are expensive. Children who are HIV-positive receive ARVs from TASO.
However, Nakagwa counsels all the children on responsible living. “Even children with disabilities have sexual feelings, so I counsel them about sex. So far none of my children have made irresponsible decisions and they respect each other as brothers and sisters,” Nakagwa says.
Nakagwa says feeding a family of 59 is diffi cult. “I used to rent land where I would grow food, but after one or two seasons, the owners would take it back. Sometimes our food would be stolen.” A few years ago, she also saw a need to start income-generating activities for the orphanage.
She used the money from the sale of food to buy raw materials like timber and reeds for carpentry and craftsmaking, respectively. Nakagwa sourced the tools for use in the carpentry shed from the local council chairman and organisations in the area. Many of the children had also failed to complete their studies due to their disabilities, so she took them to vocational schools, where they learnt carpentry. Six of the deaf boys have certifi cates in carpentry.
They found employment in workshops, but they were each paid only sh500 per day. Most carpenters considered sh500 a fair wage for 12 hours’ work because they assumed the deaf boys did not need the money. To overcome this challenge, Nakagwa set up a carpentry workshop at the home where the young men can sell the furniture they make. “I get people to offer free training to those who want to make crafts,” Nakagwa says.
Many non-government organisations have also helped meet the education and food bills in the home. One NGO built for them a bigger home as the old one was too small, and they also donated a water tank. Nakagwa, however, says the numbers of children are big for the three small rooms. “What is living room space in the day is turned into a dormitory at night,” Nakagwa says. The house was divided into two wings, one for boy and the other for girls. The adults sleep in the boys’ quarters that also act as a kitchen.
Words of wisdom
Nakagwa advises persons with disabilities never to despise themselves. “We are also human beings; we should be proud of ourselves. Young women should look at themselves as treasures and not sacrifi ce their lives for cheap material items and later regret their decisions.”
The deaf and dumb in a capentry workshop at Nakagwas home. Photos by Andrew Masinde
WH AT O T H E R S S AY A B O U T N A K AGWA
Maria Nakanwagi, a resident of Bukulula, says she has never seen anyone as motherly as Nakagwa. “I wish the Government lessens her burden, especially since she is a person with disabilities,” she says.
Joseph Kajozi, another resident, says before Nakagwa started helping the children, there were many cases of child abuse, especially of those with disabilities. “God bless Nakagwa because of the work she does despite her physical disability. The Government should support people like her.”
Charles Muyanja, the LC2 chairman of the area, says Nakagwa is a blessing to the community. “I admire the way she works, her love for children with disabilities and how she fights to see that the children are safe. Although she has a big number of children under her care, you can never find her complaining that she cannot afford to look after them,” he says. Muyanja adds that all disabled persons should emulate her. “They should never undermine themselves