Beatrice Achieng may not have had the money to touch lives of teenagers and teenage mothers, but she found those who could.
Today, over 100 girls and teenage mothers have a chance at a bright future because of her, writes Caroline Ariba
One quiet evening, six years ago, a 13-year-old girl living with her aunt, heard footsteps headed towards her room. Suddenly, the door flung open to reveal her aunt’s husband, bare-chested and charging towards her like a bull.
The weight of his body crashed her tiny frame, smothered her shrill voice, as he tore through her maiden innocence. She felt the icy pressing of the knife that would go through her tiny neck had she dared breath a word to anyone.
It was defilement; a cruelty plunged her into adolescent motherhood and shattered her dream for a bright future.
Three years later, her mother came speeding through the village’s path to find her in their smoke-filled kitchen that she
had since resigned to, awaiting marriage.
“You have to apply,” her mother said breathlessly, “You can go back to school, my daughter… yes!” she rejoiced.
The mothers of the beneficiaries rejoicing in Kisoko sub county on Women's Day
A woman was giving teenagers a chance at education with the aid of mentors abroad. However, the girl was hesitant; how dare she deserve such a chance, after all, she was a teenage mother living in the remote Kisoko village in Tororo district.
She was just another statistic in a country that, according to a UNFPA 2012 report, records up to 300,000 teenage pregnancies annually.
Indeed, how dare she dream, not in a country where of the 1.2 million pregnancies registered every year, teenagers take a
whopping 25%, as per the 2010 Uganda Population Secretariat report?
“Today, I am in Senior Three. I have a bright future,” Beatrice Auma, a student at St. Noa Girl’s School in Kampala, boasts.
She has none other than Beatrice Achieng to thank for that.
“I want to become an accountant, maybe I will become the Minister of Finance one day,” Auma adds.
Natalia Nyaburu, a Senior Six student at St. Noa Girl’s, says: “Had I continued walking the long distance to school on a hungry stomach, and struggling to raise fees, I might have ended up pregnant.”
Raising the sh79,000 for fees was a hurdle for Nyaburu’s elderly grandparents tasked with raising their orphaned grandchildren.
“My friends got pregnant and by the time I heard about Achieng’s programme, I too was about to give in to the pressure because of lack of fees,” Nyaburu recalls.
Many teenagers get pregnant and go for an unsafe abortion, which, according to the UNFPA 2012 report, is as high as 297,000 in Uganda annually. Of this, 140,000 occur in girls aged between 15 and 24 years.
Who is Achieng?
Achieng discussing girl child education at World Pulse office, Portland, Oregon
“That young lady is one of the rarest people we have in this country,” Kennedy Adhola, the resident district commissioner of Tororo district, asserts.
“Apart from sending the girls to school, she also spares time to counsel parents and teachers on how to handle teenage girls back home,” he adds.
Achieng may be the director Pearl Community Education (PCE) Foundation today, but life was not bed of roses. Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation is a non-government organisation formed in 2011.
It is currently operating in Tororo and Buteleja districts, but hopes to expand to the various impoverished communities throughout Uganda given funding.
Achieng was born to Alweny Nosiata and the late Lazarus Obbo in Kisoko, Tororo district. Achieng’s was a polygamous family. Her mother got married at 12 years of age.
At only 14, Achieng was forced into selling alcohol in makeshift bars to raise tuition fees.
She recalls that while working in the bars, men who were suspected to be HIVpositive would stalk her. Achieng was also a victim of domestic violence. She only made it after Becky Howard, an American and her family were moved by her determination.
“My husband and I came to know Achieng in 1999 through a medical mission trip to Uganda. She had suffered a tough
childhood, for example, she and her mother had to frequently hide from her abusive father,” Howard says.
They were impressed that in spite of this, Achieng was determined to get an education and so they offered to pay her fees in secondary school.
“It was still tough for her as we did not have much to send her beyond the basics,” Howard adds. Achieng joined City High School in Kampala and had to walk over six kilometres to school every day from Bweyogerere.
“Soon my brother, who had just moved in with his girlfriend said I was an inconvenience and should leave his house,” she
Scraping together the little cash she had and favours here and there, Achieng rented a tiny room in Kireka, a Kampala suburb. “Sometimes I would just drink water because there was not a penny left to buy food,” Achieng recalls painfully.
Luckily, she passed and won a scholarship from the Carnegie Foundation to join Makerere University. After one semester, someone lied to the organisation that I was from a well-off family and it stopped sponsoring me,” she narrates
Achieng sought the help of the Howards and luckily they agreed to pay her tuition fees in university. “After I graduated, I worked with Barclays Bank, and later joined Build Africa, a nongovernment organisation, where I learnt a lot,” she says.
A dream is born
Achieng’s dream was to make a difference in society; little did she know it would start from home. “I lost seven brothers and two sisters mostly to HIV/AIDS. My mother had to fend for 16 orphans single-handedly!” she says.
Achieng went online and started looking for sponsors to pay for the education of the children her siblings had left behind.
“Although it was hard, I managed to get for the children in secondary school some,” she says.
As Achieng sat home, she thought if she could get sponsors for her family, why wouldn’t she do the same for her community? She then asked those helping her nieces and nephews to help out or spread the word of her work.
On January 1, 2012, Achieng posted on Facebook that her dream for the year would be to get mentors for her girls and it turned into a fully-fledged discussion and requests for mentorships.
Today, girls from villages in Tororo and Butaleja districts are benefitting from this initiative.
Keeping the dream alive
“By this time Achieng and I had become close and I told her that if she was to receive any funds from individuals for her project she would need a good business plan and be transparent in how she used the money,” Howard says.
And as Howard predicted, Achieng’s transparency has won her mentors.
“I support her efforts through monthly financial help to PCE Foundation. This is where my money and interest can help achieve the greatest goals,” Shelby Young, a mentor and sponsor of some of the girls says. “She has a proven record of identifying needs, understanding underlying causes and implications, setting goals and consistently meeting them,” she adds.
Nigel Koolik from Australia says he started working with Achieng nearly two years ago and is glad he did. “It seemed to be more than child sponsorship and gave us an opportunity to work directly with a student. Achieng is committed to achieving her goals and is working extremely hard for the ongoing development of Uganda,” he says.
Jimmy Lutaaya, the head teacher St. Noa Girl’s School, says: “Achieng is a committed parent in our school. Although she has many girls here, she will never say she is tired when we call her.” The tuition he says is always paid on time and in case of any delays, she explains why.
Tackling teenage pregnancies
Rose Nyadoi, a beneficiary, believes she is a champion of the struggle against teenage pregnancy. “In December during holidays, we are trained on how to talk to at least 20 girls on teenage pregnancy and tell them the benefits of abstinence from sex,” Nyadoi says.
Catherine Nyakecho, another beneficiary, speaks with the expertise of a counsellor. “In case I get pregnant, who will look after my child if my parents cannot even take care of me?” she wonders.
Constance Auma, another beneficiary of PCE Foundations, boasts: “Those village boys and their gifts are not of my class, not anymore!”
On top of disseminating information, Achieng’s PCE Foundation distributes condoms to the boys and talks to the girls about abstinence and safe sex.
“I have helped over 100 girls in boarding schools in the city so that they can get exposure and go back and be the light in their various villages,” Achieng says humbly. The girls are in St. Noa Girls, Standard High and St. Benedict, all in Kampala.
“For the girls, without sponsors, I have enrolled them in the local cheaper secondary schools as I look for mentors for them,” she says.
Joseph Njwaya, a parent in Kisoko living with HIV, is eternally gratefully for the help PCE Foundation granted his daughter a year ago when he was teetering on the brink of death.
“I could not raise fees when I was down and Achieng helped my daughter, Aboth, go to school. She is now in St. Noa,” he says.
Achieng has also managed to attract up to 29 volunteers to come from Europe to counsel the girls and encourage the teenage mothers to return to school.
Because of the strides she has made towards girl-child Education, many have thought Achieng might be vying for a political position, a thing the 31-year-old has no interest in.
“I have no interest in poliotics; I am a community-driven person struggling to see change in the lives of the people at the grassroots,” she affirms.
“I do not have an office. I work from the sitting room of my rented room and from our compound in the village,” she says.
But the biggest of her challenges is that she receives over 1,000 applications and is broken that she cannot help all those girls in dire need.