- It has been almost a year since Irene Gleeson, the Australian philanthropist who devoted her life to the welfare of the children in northern Uganda died but her legacy is alive and well. The good work she started is still going on strong reports
By Isaac Baligema
When President Museveni posthumously awarded the late Irene Gleeson with a Golden Jubilee medal early this month during the Heroes Day celebrations in Mityana, the leaders and locals in northern Uganda were excited and commended the Head of State for recognizing their heroine.
Irene Gleeson, an Australian national who passed on in July last year, first visited Uganda in 1988 and was shocked at the drastic contrast between a Ugandan and an Australian child.
John Paul with Gleeson in November 2012
“I was just shocked because I saw malnourished children who slept on empty stomachs most of the times; I saw children who were blanketed with sorrow and hopelessness and above all, they lacked the very basic necessities in life; I asked
God to help me and address the imbalances between my grandchildren back in Australia and these innocent souls down here in Uganda,” Gleeson said in an exclusive interview with New Vision in September 2012.
Gleeson's last message before she departed is relayed to thousands of children
When she returned to Australia, Gleeson sold off all her property including her two beach houses and shipped her caravan to Mombasa, Kenya, where she drove it to Kampala.
From Kampala, she headed north up to Kitgum and parked her Caravan under an old Taramandi tree where she used to serve children most of whom were orphans and ex-child soldiers with food, taught them and offered them free medical treatment.
Gleeson, a teacher by professional, stood firm amidst the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgence although on many occasions, she was attacked in her Caravan by the rebels.
“I was determined because I put all my trust in God. I was here because he called me to be here; the children were leaving in fear. I would give them tablets for de-worming, Malaria and other diseases. I fed them and I taught how to write, read and sing,” said Gleeson.
Children receiving spiritual nourishment in the school's church
In 1991, she registered her Irene Gleeson Foundation (IGF) and opened up a primary school in the middle of Kitgum town but on many occasions, the rebels would attack and abduct children and make off with her property including the food in store.
Through support from her friends in Australia and the US, the organization grew big and soon, she opened up more schools in Kitgum and Lamwo districts - a vocational school, a community school, a community radio and the biggest church in northern Uganda with a seating capacity of more than 2,000 people.
Museveni posthumously honoured Gleeson on Heroes' Day
At the time of her death, Gleeson, who is commonly known as Mama Irene, was putting up a three-storey maternity hospital in Kitgum. The project is still unway today.
“The children did not only need education or good feeding, they needed spiritual nourishment as well. A lot had gone on in their short lives and they needed spiritual guidance. Many were forced to kill people including their own family members and parents; others were forced to eat human meat. Some girls were raped; their lives were broken up into pieces,” said Gleeson.
Gleeson feeding some of the children she looked after
Gleeson died aged 69 with her family surrounding her after battling cancer for years. A month to her death; she had an interaction on skype with the over 8,000 children who were under her care and her 400 staff.
“I will not be coming back and we shall never be together but we shall meet in a much better place! I just want you to work hard and reach your full potential in life; with the guidance of your teachers, I have no doubt you will make it. I love you all and goodbye,” said Gleeson in her last message to the children.
Irene Gleeson Foundation today
According to John Paul Kiffasi, the executive director of the Irene Gleeson Foundation, the management team is carrying on the spirit of Gleeson and is determined to push forward their founder’s vision.
“Before the death of Mama Irene, everyone in management knew his/her role and I can tell you that she left behind a strong management team which is determined to push forward her spirit and vision; the IGF Australia and the IGF USA teams are very supportive of IGF Uganda. The more than 6, 000 children we have in our four primary school and vocational school are headed for a brighter future,” Kiffasi notes.
The organization is putting final touches to the maternity hospital Gleeson was building at the time of her death and, according to Kiffasi, it should be complete by the end of this year.
The organisation is also putting up a poultry farm from where every child in the school will be served with an egg during breakfast every day.
“Our feeding programme will change when our poultry farm is in place because good feeding and education move hand in hand. An egg every day programme will start next. Already, some children in the nursery section are on the program and we already seeing the results,” says Trent Feunmayor, IGF’s development manager.
Leaders' take on Gleeson’s medal
Cpt. Santos Lapolo Oketch, the Kitgum Resident District Commissioner, who knew Gleeson for 20 years, commended President Museveni for recognizing her work and said that as leaders of the district, they will name a road after her in respect of her good deeds.
“The Golden Jubilee medal is not given anyhow and I want to commend the President for recognizing Gleeson as one of the national heroes. She was a selfless woman who fought for equality for all and she really addressed it very well! I am in extensive talks with my colleagues to name one of the district roads after her because she did a lot for this community,” says Lapolo.
Meanwhile, Mathew Ochen Akiya, the Lamwo District Chairman, said that the district will construct a monument and name a major hospital in the district after Gleeson in respect of her memory.
“She put up two schools here in Lamwo and with more than 2,000 pupils between them; they have the highest population of pupils in the district. Each school has a clinic and a borehole to provide medical services and safe water respectively to the pupils. The free meals in her schools have also attracted more pupils to school. So, she contributed to the development of both the education and health sectors in our district,” says Akiya.
To date, the IGF has drilled more than 30 boreholes for various villages in both Lamwo and Kitgum districts and many people can now access safe water.
The inaugural annual commemoration of Irene Gleeson
The organization is planning an inaugural annual commemoration to remember Gleeson a year after her death on July 21.
The President is expected to be the chief guest.
The mega event which will take place at Bomah grounds in Kitgum district is expected to attract more 50, 000 people according to Kiffasi.
“We expect friends and donors from Australia, US and Europe among other countries; pastors, businesspeople, politicians from Kampala as well and from other parts of the country will attend,” he says.
“But the Irene Gleeson week (a week before the event) will have a couple activities like basketball and football tournaments and a charity walk led by the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda throughout Kitgum town to raise money for the maternity hospital under construction and a gospel concert where several gospel music artistes will perform,” Kiffasi says.
Kiffasi appealed to Ugandans to also start sponsoring children in the foundation saying the future of the Ugandan children lies in the hands of Ugandans.
“Of the 6,000 children we have, only 2,000 are sponsored and 98% of sponsors are foreigners most of whom are not as rich as many Ugandans here! So, I appeal to Ugandans to start sponsoring and helping give a brighter future to our underprivileged children because their future is our responsibility,” says Kiffasi.
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Mama Irene: gone but not forgotten