Jeanette and I first visited Bubebbere at the end of 2002. Although we were assured that it was little more than an hour’s drive from the capital, Kampala, it was like entering a world apart in the middle of nowhere. In those days, the way (you could hardly call it a road) was virtually impassable and truly was (and still is) a road to nowhere as it terminates in the small trading centre on the far banks of Lake Victoria.
Our visit was during the school holidays but it was nevertheless a joyful experience with children coming along to receive their exam results and be awarded their end-of-year prizes. The top of each class, gymnastic champions and so on were awarded two biscuits as their reward; runners-up were only given one! The children sang, danced and performed for us, but it was obvious that there was a real need to do something very urgently to give these youngsters a chance in life.
But where could they find somebody prepared to devote his life to giving them that chance? Enter the stage – George Senyonga.
George was born in Bubebbere, but he was only 18 months old when the family moved to Kampala. In due course he was able to start his education. It is a sad fact – but not an uncommon one in Uganda – that his school career did not last long. Part way through his primary school years, the money for his fees dried up. By then, he was going on 14 years old and was forced to earn his own living. He started as a domestic houseboy, then he fetched and carried water for building projects. Because he lacked literacy skills, he had to take whatever work was available: domestic, acting as a porter, making bricks.
But George is nothing if not determined and he used his small earnings and initiative to attend literacy lessons at the YMCA.
His persistence paid off after he took a job repairing shoes at the Nateete shop of a wealthy businessman. When this employer died, and as a sign of his respect, he left the plot of land to George who did not hesitate to take full advantage, using it to sell a range of products; at first foodstuffs and watches; later on electrical goods.
However life did not go smoothly even then. In the turbulent years prior to the advent of the current President, Yoweri Museveni, his stock was regularly looted, often by the security forces nominally there to protect him. Each time he was knocked down, he got up and started again. Eventually the country became more stable and his business went from strength to strength.
He married Berna who has ever since been a constant support to him. At the height of his business success, he had his electrical shop, a small supermarket and he imported used cars from Dubai.
But George is not the kind of man to sit back and relax on the fruits of his labours. He knew that the village of his birth was still suffering from extreme poverty which meant that the children there were unable to go to school. He was determined to do something about it. He raised enough money to start a nursery school some fifteen years ago. That was the beginning of Little Angels at Bubebbere.
George had a dream and that did not make things easy for his own family. On paper he and Berna were not badly off (by Ugandan standards), but this did not bring comfort to his immediate family as he was also caring for his extended family, putting the children of his brothers, aunts and uncles through their education. He was the bread-winner for the whole clan. This meant of course that his own sons and daughters were not always offered a well-balanced diet, nor did they enjoy a single holiday. This was not because the money was unavailable, but because George saw the suffering and needs of the children in the village communities as no different from those of his own flesh and blood. Their needs were often put before those of his own children.
Soon after our first visit, he made the decision to found a second school at Bulumbu, up the road from Bubebbere, together with a simple church (he is a pentecostal pastor). Why on earth would he want to take such a risk when he was struggling to make the first one permanently viable? Quite simply, he believed that he had no choice; 6 kms was just too far to expect nursery age children to walk to school in their bare feet; especially during the “rains” when the tracks became almost impassable and the youngsters lacked any rainwear.
When we next visited Uganda in 2005, we were taken to have a look at a piece of undeveloped bush-land at Nsaggu. This was where, he told us, he was going to build his secondary school so that the village children would have the chance to benefit from the next stage in the educational cycle. It was another dream; one which I could not see coming to fruition for many years to come. How wrong I was!
Our next visit was in 2008; and what did we find at Nsaggu? An already functioning secondary school. How on earth had he managed to get so far in such a short time? And where did the funds come from? I still find it amazing when I contemplate what he did. George was so determined to make this dream come true that he had sold all of his businesses and used the proceeds to make it happen. At that stage he had nothing left but his own home.
There is still an enormous amount to do, and I know that there have been occasions when he has been tempted to give up. It speaks volumes for his courage and determination that he has not done so.
People regularly ask why I am prepared to work so hard to try to make these distant schools a viable long-term success. It is quite simply because whatever I do in terms of effort, George and Berna do the same and more, and in very difficult circumstances. I have told people so very often: I get exhausted just watching George. He never stops.