By Dianne Sivulka
On September 10, 2019, we landed at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda for what would be a life-changing experience for my family and me. Nearing the end of a three-country tour on behalf of a global non-profit that I was working for at the time, Uganda was soon to be the shining star on our journey. It's no wonder Uganda is called the "Pearl of Africa" and known as the friendliest country on the continent. It's no secret that visitors to Uganda want to visit again and again.
This land-locked country, located on the equator, has a tropical climate covered by lush landscape and spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities. But we would soon find out that an exceptional school and community center located about four hours from the airport would be the part of Uganda that would capture our hearts so securely.
Once we cleared customs, presenting our yellow fever cards, we made our way out into the balmy afternoon heat. We spotted two friendly faces holding a sign with my name on it. Arthur and Ibra welcomed us with big smiles. We followed them to the 4x4 vehicle and made our way out of the city and toward Masaka, where we would spend our first night. Of course, we stopped at the equator, where we sampled the hand-made samosas and watched a demonstration of swirling water. Did you know that the water will swirl in the opposite direction depending on whether you stand north or south of the equator?
The following day we drove into the Rakai District and arrived at the Kibaale Community Centre. This rural area of Uganda sits near the border with Tanzania. In the late '70s, there was a conflict between Uganda and Tanzania, which left this region of Uganda particularly impoverished. The Rakai District is also widely regarded as the birthplace of the HIV epidemic that has ripped through Uganda.
Jeff and Shannon Dyck, the directors of the Kibaale Community Centre, greeted us when we arrived. Kibaale has been their family's home for more than a decade. We had talked several times on the phone before our arrival, but now meeting them in person felt like we were reunited with long-time friends.
We got settled into the comfortable guest cottages located on the grounds. Our family stayed in a two-room bungalow equipped with a queen-sized bed in one room, two sets of bunk beds in the second room, and a private bathroom. Just outside our bungalow was a community area for guests that included an outdoor eating pavilion, a fire pit, and a welcome center equipped with couches, games, and snacks available throughout the day.
Then we set out for a walking tour of the campus, learning about their programs and impact. Since 1993, the Kibaale Community Centre has been transforming lives by providing healthcare, development resources, and a quality Christian education to vulnerable community members. The school has over 1500 students that range from nursery school age to primary and secondary. Four vocational high schools are also located on the campus and are preparing students to have the means to support themselves and their families. Students are chosen from the most disadvantaged homes in a region.
That evening we sat down to a family-style dinner in the outdoor pavilion. The conversation lasted late into the evening as we all got to know each other better. Hearing the stories of lives changed was incredible, not just for one person but for generations. We knew we were witnessing something sustainable and regenerative. The value of an education cannot be understated. Education can be the catalyst for change in a world where generational poverty keeps people in darkness and without an avenue for opportunity.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the Kibaale Community Center's success was hearing the stories from the people we met. Let me tell you the story of Arthur and Ibra, the young men in the first photo with our son Joseph. These men are graduates themselves of the Kibaale Community Centre. Born into extreme poverty, they were invited to attend Kibaale and began nursery school at the age of five. After graduation, Arthur went on to study at a university in Kenya where he received a business degree. He is now back at Kibaale where he oversees business training and development and a micro-loan program. Ibra went to university in Uganda studying hospitality and today oversees guest services at Kibaale. Their stories are not unique. We met many professionals who work at Kibaale today who were former students themselves. For example, several doctors and nurses at the health clinic (that treats 17,000 people each year) are former students. Social workers and members of the teaching staff are also former students. Today, Kibaale graduates serve as influential professionals across the country of Uganda.
On the second day of our visit, we went out into the community. We walked through the Kibaale town and sampled some of the local foods.
Our favorite was the chapati, a flatbread cooked on a metal plate right in front of you. It literally melted in our mouths, and we could have easily eaten a stack of them! These roadside stands are also known for the rolex. Similar to a vegetable omelet, cooked eggs, tomatoes, and onions are rolled into the chapati like a tortilla. Delicious!
We drove further out into the countryside and visited the locations where clean water wells have been installed. In addition, we visited families who have students enrolled in the Kibaale schools and delivered food parcels. After spending the first 24-hours on the well-manicured grounds of the Kibaale Community Centre, now seeing the rest of the Rakai District helped put the need into perspective.
Most people in this area live very poorly in houses made of mud and sticks, without electricity or running water. They have limited diets of potatoes and grains that they grow. They collect their water in jerry cans and might have to walk an hour or more to get to it. They are illiterate and without the possibility of changing much about their lives. And that is why the Kibaale Community Centre has been so important in this area. These parents and grandparents know that their children and grandchildren have the opportunity for something better than they did.
One of the ways that the Kibaale Community Centre is able to make this impact is by connecting people around the world with students. They pair individuals and families with a Kibaale student through a sponsorship program. And now I get to tell you about our favorite part of our stay in Uganda; meeting Agnes and Joshua.
We have participated in sponsorship programs for many years but have never had the opportunity to meet a child we sponsor in person. Sitting together and asking questions like, "What are your favorite subjects in school?" or "What do you want to do when you grow up?" feels very different in person than it does in a letter. The facial expressions, the sound of a voice, and the giggles are tangibly etched into our memories.
Visiting their homes and meeting their families provides an ever-present mental picture each time we pray for them or write to them. We spent the better part of the day with Agnes and Joshua and we didn't want the day to end.
The third day of our visit was spent doing more community visits, meeting with social workers to further understand the school's impact in the community and lots of soccer. Lots and lots of soccer.
The vision of Kibaale is that a quality Christian education can end the cycle of poverty. They desire to see the students who pass through their schools today become the strong and ethical leaders of Uganda tomorrow. And it's happening!
We had come to the last day of our visit, and it was time to head back to the airport. Of course, saying goodbye is never easy. Jeff and Shannon and their family, Agnes and Joshua, Arthur and Ibra, and countless others... all left an impression on our hearts.
Spending time at a place like this is a perfect picture of what Travel on Purpose is all about. Through travel, we had the opportunity to go and see. With open hearts, eyes and ears ready to learn, we got to see first-hand what God is doing in one corner of the world. We saw great need and were able to understand how it is being met. We got to sit with people and hear their stories of transformation. We got to celebrate with others about the goodness of God.
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
If you would like to visit the Kibaale Community Centre, we invite you to join us in June 2022. Read about the Travel on Purpose group trip here.