Robert Kakuru enters the airport in Kigali, Rwanda. He has traveled there from his home in Kabale, Uganda, to fly to Canada. He approaches the ticket counter emblazoned with the name of the airline company he has been instructed to approach. He produces the necessary documents and the agent behind the counter tags his luggage—a single backpack—and puts it onto the conveyor belt. Unfamiliar with the concept of checked luggage, Robert chases after it. The agent calls him back and assures him that he will be reunited with his bag in Canada, and despite feeling somewhat like he has been duped, Robert walks away with a boarding pass and a smile and hopes for the best.
It is a three-flight journey for Robert to Edmonton, Canada. Following his first flight—his first flight ever—he navigates the airport terminal in true rookie fashion, doing his best to decipher unfamiliar blue screens displaying flight schedule information. After the second flight, he contemplates the presence of the unfamiliar moving mats carrying people through the long stretches of corridor that he simply walks through. On the third leg of his journey, he braves the moving sidewalks (complete with unsuccessful dismount) and receives the kindness of a stranger for whom he carries luggage in exchange for an escort to the appropriate gate. Famished, Robert consumes his in-flight meal as if it may be his last; in reality, it is simply his first sustenance since taking off from African soil. He declined in-flight meals on the preceding two flights, unaware that the service was complimentary.
Although the seemingly ordinary travel experience boggled Robert’s mind, considering his background, he has by no means led a sheltered existence. Born one of sixteen children in a sub-Saharan African family of subsistence farmers, Robert is one of two siblings who are literate. Despite parents without means to pay for his education, he attended not only primary school and secondary school, but also teacher’s college, and he currently attends Kabale University. He has migrated from the mud walls of a tiny hut in his home village of Nyakiju to the concrete walls of his current home in the city of Kabale. A subsistence farmer turned community outreach worker, Robert has learned more, seen more, and experienced more in his 39 years than most of the young men he grew up with ever will. And certainly more than the women. But, by educating and empowering otherwise neglected subsistence farming communities to live a positive, economically productive and healthy life, Robert is trying to change that.
When I first meet Robert, it is at a dinner event put on by his host organization, Edmonton-based Change for Children Association (CFCA). He has just arrived from Uganda and having once visited there myself, I am eager to share my travel stories with him. I introduce myself to this stranger. Except, he is not a stranger. At least, he does not act like one. His trademark smile shows me that he is delighted to meet me, and although I am sure he has flashed this smile many times this night to others he has met before me, it comes across as nothing short of genuine.
By the end of our exchange, he hands me his card, and I know he is someone I want to meet again. His business card defines his role with the Uganda-based NGO, Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), as a Community Mobilizer/Educator. Although it fails to list optimist, inspiration, and role model as his credentials, in the weeks that follow this initial encounter, I learn that it most certainly should.
During his four-week visit to Canada, Robert, along with KIHEFO founder, Dr. Geoffrey Anguyo, tour Alberta speaking to schools and community groups about the challenges faced by people living in the Kigezi region of Uganda and sharing inspiring stories about small community development projects that make a big difference.
It is with Robert’s charming smile, complete with a hug (though I have only met him once before), that I am welcomed into the staff room at St. Angela’s Elementary School where he waits for the students to gather in the gymnasium for an assembly to hear from their Ugandan guests. Although this is one in a series of visits he has made to local schools, Robert’s excitement about the opportunity for cross-cultural exchange clearly has not waned. As we wait, he shares with me a picture book he has brought with him. I anticipate the photos before I even turn the pages. I know I will have seen these pictures before. We have all seen these pictures. We have seen the television ads depicting the harsh realities and frightening inevitabilities in developing countries. And we have, inevitably, seen what’s on the alternate channels.
But, I am wrong. Although the pictures do reveal images of rural villages and of the living conditions that distinctly distinguish developing countries from first world nations such as our own, with Robert as my guide, the pictures reveal real live people; people with whom Robert carries out his outreach work; people who are participating in the programs of a small grassroots organization dedicated to fighting poverty and ignorance and disease. The pictures also reveal smiles. “They are very poor,” he says, “but they are happy.”
They are happy despite having very little. They wish simply for enough. And it is people like Robert and organizations like KIHEFO that seek to make this wish a reality. Robert came to know Dr. Geoffrey Anguyo through community outreach work being done in his own village, with his own family—some of whom are HIV positive. And through KIHEFO, Robert has found his calling. In 2003, although working full-time as a teacher, he started volunteering with the organization. He visited rural communities, educating about HIV, agriculture practices, and malaria. Ultimately, he dedicated himself to KIHEFO full-time in 2008 when he was hired to lead the community mobilization and education efforts of the small organization. In this role, Robert continues to fight against the disease, the poverty, and the ignorance that he faced growing up. Robert’s goal is to educate. Even outside Uganda’s borders.
Robert stands before 300 elementary students in Edmonton, Alberta and puts the complex issues faced by developing countries into terms easily understood by the wiggly bodies and short attention spans that have gathered at St. Angela’s Elementary School: Geographically, Uganda fits three times inside the borders of Alberta; the population is roughly the same as Canada’s; dirty water makes people sick; and children don’t get enough food to eat.
This school, with its shiny gym floor, vast classrooms and stocked library is nothing like the rural school Robert attended in his youth where floors were dirt, classrooms were few, and books were scarce. Despite being vastly different from the schools he is accustomed to, he seems at ease here. His smile, charisma, and energy captivate the children. He is well-spoken and enthusiastic as he leads the kids in song and tells them stories about his home. There is an animated chorus of “Awww”s when he shows pictures of adorable mountain gorillas, a stunned chorus of “Whoa”s when he shows a picture of a malnourished fourteen-year old boy no bigger than the six-year-olds in the room, and a resounding “No!” when he asks with a smile if they like to visit the dentist. Robert’s smile reveals a mouth full of implausibly perfect, straight, white teeth despite having seen a dentist for the first time just last year when a Canadian dental brigade visited his region. In a region where the ratio of dentists is less than 1 in 2 million people, smiles like Robert’s are uncommon.
To this audience, Robert tells only briefly of illiteracy, disease, malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS—subjects devoted more time in presentations to older students—but I sense that the fervor with which he delivers his presentation nonetheless has more to do with his passion for tackling these very issues than with a fondness for mountain gorillas. Yet, he realizes that it is with these small children that education surrounding the idea of a global community begins. “It is these students who take the message to their parents and their friends about how it is good to share what they have with the rest of the world.”
He describes the three colours of the Ugandan flag: black represents the people of Uganda as a black nation; yellow represents Uganda’s abundant sunshine; and red, the universal colour of blood, represents the connection with all people of the world. A brotherhood. A global village. This is the message that Robert comes here to share.
This message resonates in Canadian schools as teachers who believe in social justice projects infuse global citizenship into the curriculum and seek to educate tomorrow’s leaders that we are one world. Despite globalization and technology that makes the world seemingly so small, bearing witness to Robert’s connection with Canadian students, I am confident that there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction. In person, I cannot change the channel. I do not want to.
Nicole Thomlinson, a teacher at St. Angela’s school, sees great value in having foreign visitors share their stories with students, especially visitors as charismatic as Robert. “When students can make a personal connection, it makes a lasting impression.” It is teachers such as Thomlinson who encourage students to be aware, who believe in opening the students up to the world, and who recognize that today’s boys and girls are the future. Says Thomlinson, “Exposing children to the realities of our world empowers them to take ownership of social issues and want to make a difference.” To the students at St. Angela’s, Robert is not only lively, but a real-life representation of the stories they’ve heard and of the reality that the world extends outside our borders.
In his closing remarks, Robert does not ask anything of the boys and girls gathered at this Canadian elementary school. He simply encourages them to appreciate what they have and, in doing so, recognize that others have very little. His suggestion is simple: If we work together, perhaps one day we will all have enough. Growing up, ‘enough’ was something that Robert’s family seldom experienced. There was not enough shelter to sleep under. There was not enough food to eat. There was not enough money to send the children to school. If it had not been for a generous community benefactor who saw potential in Robert and recognized his gift for interacting with people, Robert, like all but one of his 15 siblings, would not have even attended primary school. Having demonstrated an aptitude for learning, an uncle with the means of a teacher’s salary enabled him to attend High School outside the community. To attend Teacher’s College, Robert cleaned classrooms and performed janitorial services in exchange for tuition. Education was not simply a right for Robert, it was a privilege.
Brenda McDonald, an international volunteer and Robert’s home-host during his Canadian visit considers it a privilege to have gotten to know Robert. In Uganda, as together they approached otherwise neglected communities and villages, she watched as faces lit up at the sight of him, as children ran out to greet him, and as people listened intently to what he had to say. “He has a real gift for connecting with people and, it is genuine. He really does care about people. He’s not just asking the questions. He’s feeling the responses.” He’s feeling the responses and working together with the people they come from. He is not giving handouts or one-time assistance. He keeps coming back.
“We must work together to develop,” says Robert. This is his philosophy. “If we empower them, these people are ready to work and develop themselves.” In Robert’s line of work, sometimes working together means educating about disease. Sometimes it means setting up micro-credit loans, and sometimes it means establishing a revolving community goat project. It always means finding out what’s important to the people and creating sustainable solutions.
Some of the villagers he visits have never been outside of their own village. They’ve never been to a city. They’ve never been inside an automobile. They’ve never seen a computer. Having once thought that everyone in the world lived the way he lived, Robert has been in their shoes. He understands that the farmer who digs an acre of land using his hands cannot possibly comprehend the existence of a tractor. It was not until being educated and observing with his own eyes that he truly understood that some people do have more. That he truly understood the world’s disparity. “Someone who digs an acre of land using hands and someone who uses a tractor, you cannot contribute equally to this world.”
This notion is solidified as Robert visits Canada and it becomes obvious to him that despite rising out of poverty in his own country, he is still poor by Canadian standards. Hailing from a country where one million children have been orphaned due to AIDS, where lack of access to healthcare is common, and where malnutrition and poverty are prevalent, Robert’s visit to Canada is a tread through unfamiliar territory.
The shelves of McDonald’s walk-in pantry are filled with options to accommodate her house guest, but Robert’s jaw drops upon entering, and he is overwhelmed by the choices. Even in the city where he lives, Robert has a backyard garden where he grows staples including potatoes and beans, and simply supplements his family’s diet with goods purchased at the market. McDonald’s efforts to make Robert feel comfortable leave her, at times, feeling uncomfortable herself, as she gleans the perspective of someone who is not accustomed to roaming the aisles of a grocery store. Someone who is not accustomed to having eighteen kinds of cereal to choose from or to picking through mountains of produce to select only the very best to take home. Someone who is not accustomed to ‘enough.’
I, too, become acutely aware of excess as I spend time with Robert. Outside of schools, most of the gatherings Robert attends are centered around food or a meal, as is our North American custom. Accustomed to eating twice a day for the purpose of satisfying his hunger, Robert is fascinated by the way we eat and drink simply as a way of socializing, at our propensity to eat just for the sake of eating. The houses that he is welcomed into during home visits are spacious, sometimes only two people in a whole house, he notes, a concept foreign to a man whose entire family could not sit for a meal in the same house, let alone the same room.
In Uganda, Robert routinely visits far-flung communities, some reachable only by foot. In his youth, he walked eight kilometers twice a day to attend High School, and given the lack of roads in some regions, walking in Uganda is simply a necessity. Here, Robert travels to his engagements exclusively by car, and our dependence on automobiles is unfamiliar to him. Even more surprising to Robert, is that people actually obey the rules of the road.
Despite the differences between our countries and the vast resources available to Canadians, Robert holds no resentment. Instead, he expresses a renewed enthusiasm for affecting positive change upon his return to Uganda. “Coming here gives us a lot of energy, a lot of hope… It encourages us to go back and tell people that they can work and live in a world where you can spend a month without the electricity being off, with enough water…The life you live here gives us a challenge to improve our communities.” Robert acknowledges that change is slow, but he is optimistic. “This generation may not come to that but the next generation can work towards that.”
Before wrapping me in a farewell hug and bestowing upon me an open-ended invitation to visit him some day, I can’t resist the temptation to ask Robert what he thinks of the excess he has witnessed in Canada. He flashes me his trademark smile and says simply, “I think that you have more than enough.”
I think that he is right.
~ Nicole Farn is a volunteer and and Change for Children Board member. she is also an emerging writer, seasoned traveler and professional engineer.
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