The Drum – Bob Irwin

“I want to be a writer”, the shy girl explained, after I asked why she was eager to return to her studies, “and I like music and dancing”. I soon discovered young Grace, who I first mistook for being maybe 14 or 15, was in reality approaching her 18th birthday, had now finished her “O” level education (the equivalent of our high school), and was hoping to soon begin her “A” level (i.e. junior college) studies. But for the moment here at the Matugga Home she was helping mentor the younger girls.

“Music?” I asked. “Really!” “And what are you doing now with music?”

“I like to sing,” she replied, “and I like to play the drum.” “I play the drum when the girls dance.” “But we don’t have a drum here, so I play on a pail turned upside down.” “We are even giving a presentation in a few days.”

Images of a young girl pounding on a bucket while other girls jumped around filled my imagination. I had no idea how wrong this image would prove to be.

Being a musician myself (a talent now long dormant), I enjoy encouraging young aspirants whenever I can. On the bus trip back to our guest house that evening I hatched a plan to give Grace the opportunity to play on a real drum by the time the day of the presentation arrived. And sure enough, the very next day, despite a series of wonderfully African changed itineraries, missed opportunities, and unforeseen delays, the lovely Peace managed to get me a fine drum, a lovely African traditional drum, with a cowhide head secured with an intricate webbing of braided cord.

It has been rare in my life to see a young person’s eyes light up as did Grace’s the moment she realized the contents of the large white feed bag I offered to her as a “gift”. “For me?” she asked incredulously. “For us?” “For me and the other girls?” Her smile became even brighter as the realization sunk in.

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Two days later the day of the celebration arrived. And such a day it was. The children from the Matugga home and the Gateway Youth Ranch joined together for a day of festivities; speeches, singing, dancing and feasting. And to the surprise of us all, the shining star of the event was the very same Grace. The shy, quiet little flower blossomed before our eyes into a self-confident diva. First, she led the crowd in a spirited rendition of the Ugandan national anthem. A few minutes later, she launched into an original poem describing how poverty is sucking the life from Ugandan children.

The program continued with a fabulous break-dancing performance by the boys from the Amahoro Boys Home, and then it was back to our Grace, now leading a group of 10 other girls in a rousing line dance set to modern African music that she had choreographed herself and taught to the other girls. And finally, after yet another performance by the boys, came the crowning event. Grace, in yet another quick change of costume, appeared with her brand-new drum, and with a series of incredibly intricate rhythms, led her dance troupe in an obviously well-practiced routine. All we could say was “Who Knew!”

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I think Caleb summed it up best when he exclaimed to me later as we were discussing Grace: “I had no idea!”

I’d like to think the drum helped increase her self-confidence, but I know better. Grace would have shone even with just a bucket. It was just her time to shine. But maybe I’ll take credit for at least an extra beaming smile or two.

July 8th, Lauren

This was my first time to the Gateway Youth Ranch. The home for the boys used to be a rented building in a part of Kampala called Mengo, which, despite being close to the city, had a soccer field for the boys to play on. In the 4 years since my last visit to Uganda, the boys home had been moved to a new building a couple of hours out of the city. This location of the home gets the boys away from the vices in the city and allows them plenty of space to run free. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I first arrived at the Gateway Youth Ranch in Nakasongola. The happiness bubbled over as I sat with the kids, watching the performance. We were celebrating the completion of a new dining hall, and Caleb decided it would be great to bring the kids from Matugga together with the kids from Gateway. Seeing all of our children together was moving. To see how many children we support and to know that these children would be otherwise homeless inspires me to continue to contribute however I can. This is a mission that I can support with my whole heart.


We walked into the celebration with the sound of applause. This was uncomfortable because of the racial dynamics, particularly my desire to not be seen as “white saviors”. However it was meant to be a way of honoring us, so even though it was slightly uncomfortable, the sentiment was kind. We sat on one side of the dining hall while the community members sat in a section further away. Across the performance aisle was a section with all our kids. The group performing was lead in part by David, who was one of the kids that came through the Amahoro homes. He is now a skilled performer.

After the first performance, I asked Caleb if I could sit across the way and chance the hierarchy of our sitting arrangement. A cultural performance group performed songs and dance in distinct cultural customs, while the children in the homes also got a chance to perform. Grace read a poem, played a drum, and even graduated from sewing school. I was able to give the announcement for the sewing school that everyone who graduated was getting a sewing machine. Once this statement was translated into Luganda, a celebration broke out with a number of the women jumping up and down and calling out with joy and excitement.


A young man who I had found through the Africa Yoga Project came to the Youth Gateway Ranch to do yoga with the community. He went by three names: Mukisa, Jackson, and Scott. His friends called him Scott so I tried to follow suit. Though he arrived early in the day he had to wait until the very end to give his yoga class.

The vision of the Africa Yoga Project is to make yoga more accessible to communities throughout east Africa. They provide scholarships to train teachers in the area and then require these teacher to continue to teach free classes in the community every week. The Africa Yoga Project pays them a small stipend for every free class they teach. Mukisa told me that he likes to teach classes in the slums because he grew up in an environment like that and wanted to give back to these kids. His personal mission was to empower youth through movement and mindfulness and to make these services accessible to anyone.

The yoga class started with inviting everyone into a circle and doing a song and dance to get everyone on the same page. Then Mukisa transitioned into teaching standing poses while I buzzed around the circle offering supportive assists. Before Mukisa/Scott started teaching I made it clear that I wanted him to be in charge and I wanted to support him as best as I could. I loved all of the assists where I could hold someone’s hand. It was wonderful to see their faces light up as I affirmed that they were doing a wonderful job.


At the end of the day Mukisa offered to continue coming back to the Girls Home in Matugga and to continue to teach free dance or yoga classes to that community. Mukisa used to be dance performer and knew a number of people on the performance team at the celebration as well. He appeared to be keen on supporting the community on a regular basis.

The party ended down with hours of dancing. Betinah was my patient teacher and wanted to work with me as I learned a variety of dances to the Ugandan top 40. Eventually I had to step away as Gladys wanted to be held and I saw there was a lot of trash to be picked up. I taught young Gladys the importance of picking up plastic bottles and she cradled up to four in her tiny arms as I carried her to the trash can made of recycled bottles.

July 7th, Austin


In the morning, most of the group drove to Matugga to see the kids, however a few of the group members went to the Heifer office in Kampala to see how we might be able to work together. It was a very useful meeting and we are excited about partnering with Heifer and possibly peace corps in the future. The group at Matugga took care of a few patient follow ups, and had some time to hang out with the kids.

We also had a trainer from Days for Girls come out to the home to teach the girls how to sew the kits and to teach a lesson about women’s health. The instructor Joy did a beautiful job! More details are soon to come.


The group that was running errands in Kampala also bought 150 Mosquito nets, which we will distribute in Caleb’s village. While buying mosquito nets, Chris and Miriam happened to run into Gilbert. Gilbert used to live at the Amahoro home in Mengo, before the boys were moved out to Gateway. Gilbert is a very kind and bright young man who Chris and I became very good friends with when we met him a few years ago. It was great to see Gilbert, and it seems that he is doing very well. Ugandans like to look sharp, and Gilbert was wearing his very best clothes. To me he looked a little bit like the kid president who does the inspirational videos on Youtube. We went to lunch with Gilbert at Café Javas and then went to the bookstore at Acacia and picked up some Uganda curriculum information. After our late lunch, part of the group went to the craft market and Steve, Heather, Lauren and I went to the Baha’i house of worship. Even though we got to the temple a couple minutes after their closing time, we saw a few of the staff, and they let us walk up and check out the temple. Steve and Heather headed back to the guest house, and Lauren and I went to dinner with my host family. My host dad Sam and my host mom Rita were very happy to meet my sister and we had a lovely time. My host family has taught me a lot about Uganda and about the power of community, and it has been great to stay connected with them even after my study abroad program ended.

July 6th, Austin

We made our way through the traffic of Kampala, and over to the Matugga home. Chris and I left the guest house early to drive to Mulago to pick up Hepatitis vaccines for the children at Matugga and at Gateway. Various sources in the global health literature cite Hepatitis B prevalence in Uganda at about 10%. It is particularly high in Northern Uganda, specifically Karamoja. Peace, one of the head mentors at Amahoro suggested we do Hepatitis B vaccines for the kids, and we decided it was something worth doing. We are working with a Ugandan doctor, Justine Mpanga, who will help us administer the second and third doses of the vaccine. When we arrived at Matugga, we began to set up our medical clinic. Soon we were seeing patients and administering vaccinations.

Two friends of mine from YCHCI, Josephine and Livingstone, helped to run the HIV testing and counseling and also worked as translators. It was great to have their help, and I believe that having someone that is trained in HIV counseling, and who speaks their native language was a major improvement for our HIV testing process. We also had rapid diagnostic tests for Malaria, which was a major improvement for our clinics. We saw a variety of patients and all of the doctors, therapists, nurse and students in the group were busy making the clinic go smoothly. Just before lunch, a music and drama group from The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) arrived at the home. TASO is the largest organization working against HIV/AIDS in Uganda. They have branches all over Uganda, and their branch in Kampala is called TASO Mulago. They provide various medical services, and also focus on health education. Most TASO branches, including TASO Mulago, have music and drama groups made up of people living with HIV/AIDS and they travel to communities to educate others about HIV/AIDS and how to combat this disease.

I had the pleasure of working with the TASO music group two years ago when I was doing research with the School for International Training. The group performs songs with health messages in Luganda and English, and they do drumming and dancing, as well as testimonies were a group member shares their story of acquiring HIV and how they are doing now. Gertrude, who became a friend of mine when I worked with the music group two years ago, shared her testimony and it was powerful. It was a sad story, but it became triumphant when she told us that she has two children who are HIV negative, and that they are at the top of their class. The music group also performed a skit which taught about the importance of disclosing your HIV status to your partners. The children and community members excited and entertained, and I think they learned a good bit too!

After TASO finished, we did the end of our medical clinic. As always, the end of the day came sooner than we wanted it to, but we rode back to Kampala knowing that we had provided a valuable service for the children and the community.


July 6th, Jan Lee

Being 75 years old is challenging in all culture.  However, being 75 years old in Uganda and having a chronic disability, presents with unique challenges. Henry and I meet one afternoon walking back from the Amahoro goat barn.  Henry was standing atop a roadside berm with his two very short home fabricated canes attempting to carry a bundle of 10′ long sticks used as fuel for cooking.  Fearing his possible demise attempting to descend the steep berm with his sticks, I offered to help him carry his bundle of sticks. Being a proud Ugandan man, his initial response was negative.  However, with reflection, he reconsidered and everyone was soon safely standing on the packed rugged roadway.  Following along carrying his bundle of sticks, his difficulty in walking was immediately apparent.  His walking was with  major discrepancy in the lengths of his legs.  The left leg was approximately 4″ too short. As a physical therapist, knowing the sequelae of such a mobility deficient in a rural village in Uganda, I invited him to the community outreach health clinic being held in one day’s time. Henry nodded in understanding, his bundle of sticks were left at the base of his tree.

Fortuitous to Henry’s needs for safer mobility, at a local street market, a pair of African canes caught my eye.  With quick negotiation, the merchant was carefully wrapping the new canes in the finest of Ugandan newspaper.  Proudly clutching my new find, I rejoined the Amahoro crew for the day’s duties.

The next day shone bright.  Not knowing if Henry would appear at the community medical clinic, the anticipation if he would accept my gift to him, we set off for the community of Matugga and the community medical clinic.  Shortly after arrival, Henry came walking up the steep ramp to the clinic.  My heart soared with joy! With warm greetings of welcome, Henry settled  into a chair for a much needed rest having walked from his home to the clinic. Anxious to offer my gift to him, I gently placed the prized, newspaper clad canes on his lap.  He readily tugged at the newspaper exposing the two African style, hand carved wood canes.  Tears of joy immediately weld up and overflowed his eyes. My heart leapt for joy! Soon Henry was motoring along with his new canes standing tall, proud Ugandan man.  Henry sat so proudly throughout the festivities of the day, enjoyed lunch with everyone.  As the day wound down, Henry decided to begin his journey home.  Not sure of his safety walking home with his new canes, he accepted my offer to walk with him to his home. He walked so proudly down the rugged road to his home, striding long and strong.  He walked twice as fast and now stood nearly erect.  Upon arrival at his home, he proudly showed off his garden and his hand constructed brick house.  He immediately sat on his favorite stoop cuddling his new canes.

In my 45 years as a Physical Therapist, I have never been more proud of changing a special life for long term safety in mobility.  Henry’s melt your heart smile will always be in my heart.

July 5th, Kisenyi and Nsambya: Lauren

When we went into the slums, it was raining softly. It had been raining very hard over lunch, so the windy trails through the housing in the slums were washed out and muddy. We gathered under a shelter where many of the boys were crowded together and patiently waiting. Coach, the mentor from Amahoro that organizes the project, initiated the process with a thorough call and response. This got everyone paying attention and on the same wave length—everyone that we could. Some of the boys had glassy eyes.

We proceeded to give out worming pills and serve meals to the boys who patiently waited. Once we fed all the boys that are directly supported by Coach, we could provide food to everyone who was hanging around the outside of the tent. The Amahoro Children and Community Team works to provide 3 meals a week to 50-100 kids, and it was such an honor that the boys recognized and respected our service. They sat patiently and thanked us graciously. After the food had been consumed some of the boys more openly exposed their drug use, revealing their bottles with glue or “jet fuel,” which is the rampant drug in the slums.

A couple of rows over in the slums, at the Diamond Project house, 19 women lived in a house with 7 children. They only had one bed which was smaller than a queen size. The house was around an 8 by 7 foot space. The ACCT has worked to provide housing to these women, and birth control. We met the women and the babies that were in the home at the moment, but most of them were out because recently one of the women had just passed away. This woman had a C section a few months ago, and the operation wasn’t done well, and she acquired an infection which became fatal. Life in Kisenyi is not forgiving.

After visiting Kisenyi we went to the Nsambya Babies home. This is a home for orphans and vulnerable children between the ages of 0 and 4. It is a beautiful place with some really sweet babies. We are strengthening our relationship with the Nsambya Babies home, and we are looking forward to having our own babies home someday.IMG_5423FullSizeRender (14)

As we reviewed our day over dinner, our conversation turned from merriment to a meeting. We were in the “higher end” of the slums today, where we met people in situations that broke our hearts. Two of the boys in the slums were more familiar than anyone we hoped to see—Marvin and Abdul spent 6 years with the Amahoro home. They had been resettled with their mother who had said they were going to live in a rural area outside of Kampala. However, Marvin, Abdul and their mother ended up back in Kisenyi, staying at the Diamond project room. The goal of the Amahoro Home is to rescue and rehabilitate, and resettle. We work to take in children who need a safe home and then set them up for a nurturing childhood and a successful life.

Two of the boys who left the home to be reunited with their mother in the community ended up back in the slums. We met them today. Their mother brought them back to the slums where she now works in prostitution. “It feels like we’ve done 6 years of work for 0,” Caleb said. The slums are one of poorest places in the country, where the waste water runs down the middle of the walkways and the effects of drugs and prostitution were visible even during our short visit. Hearing Caleb’s thought of doing 6 years for 0 ignited a discussion about the ACCT’s involvement in the big picture. Ginger pointed out that we can look at the two kids who came back to the slums and focus on them. Or we can focus on the large number of kids who have rehabilitated successfully. Miriam, one of the mentors at Amahoro, estimated that 20 children are successfully settled each year.

To create lasting change, you cannot change just one part of the cycle. The Amahoro Children and Community Team has a focus on helping three homes for children in Uganda: The Matugga Home for Girls, The Youth Gateway Ranch Home for Boys, and the Buwala home, which located outside of Jinja near the Nile. Caleb Rukundo is the “father” to the homeless children at Matugga and the Ranch, while his friends Paul and Rose are the parents to the children at Buwala. Matugga and The Ranch fall under the umbrella of Caleb’s organization, Amahoro Children’s Home, while all three homes are part of the efforts that the Amahoro Children’s Community Team is working on, as well as some projects in the slums.


July 3rd and July 4th, The Awaited Arrival: Austin

In the afternoon of July 3rd the group finally arrived in Uganda. Though they were a bit tired from the journey, I could see excitement in their eyes as we regrouped in the parking lot of the Entebbe airport. I arrived about a month before the group. After graduating from William and Mary in the middle of May, I went with the choir from William & Mary to South Africa. We visited various parts of South Africa, learning, visiting the sites, and singing concerts. On May 31st I arrived in Uganda and spent the next 15 days helping out at the Matugga home, the Gateway Youth Ranch, and the Buwala home. I had the pleasure of introducing my good friend Lindsey to the children and ACCT’s projects in Uganda. She loved the kids and the programs we are working on. We taught school lessons with the kids, and worked on other projects around the homes. We also spent time just hanging out with the kids and building relationships. It is important that our work in Uganda is based in close partnership and relationship with the people we are trying to serve.

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I was also able to pick up a bunch of supplies for the children’s homes. We helped to purchase 40 mosquito nets for Buwala, and 25 mosquito nets for Matugga, a variety of school supplies for Buwala because their supply was running a little low, some toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, some towels, bed sheets and mattresses. I asked Paul what happened to the handwashing stations we had left with them last year, he said the nozzle for two of the water jugs were broken and they were saving the 3rd one for special occasions. Though I appreciated Paul’s planning for the future, handwashing should not be something reserved for special occasions. It needs to be something that happens multiple times everyday. Lindsey and I took the water jugs into Jinja and got them repaired. It only cost a few dollars.

After working at the three children’s homes for a few weeks, I spent two weeks volunteering for the Youth and Community Health Counseling Initiative (YCHCI), a community based organization in Kawempe, which is focused on educating communities about health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS. I did some mosquito net distribution, home visits where we were doing malnutrition screening and health education, and an outreach to a secondary school where I taught a lesson about sanitation and hygiene.

On Monday morning, I had a meeting with Victoria from the Child’s I Foundation. The Child’s I Foundation is an NGO that focuses on foster care and reunifying orphans and vulnerable children with a family member who can take care of them. It was a very useful meeting. We talked about what the Child’s I Foundation does, and how we might be able to partner with them. Someday it seems that we could improve our reunification programs with Amahoro by hiring a trained social worker who would focus on reunification programs. After the meeting, I drove to the airport to meet the team. We crammed all of our bags and ourselves into the bus. It was a tight fit, but we made it work. We dropped of our things at the Entebbe Guest House and then went to the botanical gardens in Entebbe. The gardens have a lot of beautiful old growth trees, and lush green plants. We had a lovely dinner prepared by Chef Steven, a friend from our time in Uganda last year, who is also an exceptional chef. We spent the rest of the evening organizing medicines for our upcoming medical clinics. I knew it was going to be a good team because they were willing to work on the first night, even after a really long journey from the US.

On Tuesday, we stopped by an agricultural store for some things for the goats, and then went to the Days for Girls office in Kampala where we introduced ourselves and our work with the Amahoro Children’s Homes. It was a very fruitful introduction, and they agreed to come out to Matugga and Buwala to teach the girls about women’s health and how to sew the feminine hygiene kits.

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We spent the rest of the day at the Matugga home, and we toured the new school, went down to the goats, and spent time hanging out with the kids. Some of the children had made posters and drawings about the 4th of July. It was fun to celebrate this holiday with them. The new school is amazing and it will be beautiful when it is finished. We have some major details to work out for the school, but I am excited for this new project!

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In the evening, several of us went to the Rotary meeting in Wobulenzi, a town just north of Kampala. The rotary meeting was different than any that we had experienced before. Ugandans like celebrations and formality and acronyms. The guest of honor was the bishop of Kasana-Luweero diocese. At the meeting they were inducting a new president for the next year. Traditional Ugandan culture is fairly patriarchal, so it was wonderful and slightly unusual that the new president was a woman. We enjoyed the meeting a hope that we can strengthen our partnership with Rotary International.

July 2nd: Travel Day, Lauren

Throughout the flight and during our time in the airport, I took note of the changes that were occurring around me. The landscape outside the plane was quite varied over the course of our flight. Just before I flew over the Arabian Gulf I saw incredible folds in the earth that reminded me of the Grand Canyon. The flight attendants wore beautiful head scarves.

Throughout the flight and during our time in the airport, I took note of the changes that were occurring around me. The landscape outside the plane was quite varied over the course of our flight. Just before I flew over the Arabian Gulf I saw incredible folds in the earth that reminded me of the Grand Canyon. The flight attendants wore beautiful head scarves. The number of women wearing the hijab had increased in frequency from what I normally see in Boston as well, and I noticed variation, such as the niqāb that covers the face as well. One woman, wearing an all-black niqāb, only had a small slit for her eyes. She sat in a wheelchair on the shuttle and when she stretched out her feet I noticed she was wearing pink, sparkly sketchers. My mother, Lorie, noted the gliding, graceful way that women appear to walk when they are draped with cloth from head to toe.

At the airport in Dubai, I settled for navigating myself to the hotel shuttle and gluing my attention to the window throughout the ride. The first thing that struck me was how hot it was in the moment that I stepped out of the airport (a humid 35 degrees Celsius). The first word that came to me when I thought of the heat was “oppressive” and I couldn’t help but think of how privileged I was. I only had to walk in the heat for several seconds while I transitioned from one air conditioned location to another. I thought of the many many buildings the plane flew over as we descended into Dubai and wondered how many of them had air conditioning or any of the comforts I still catch myself taking for granted.

It is wrong however, to assume that everyone in Dubai lacks air conditioning and privilege. Such general statements are frequently wrong. Dubai is a very rich city, and it takes pride in its word class airport and sky scrapers. The Burj Khalifa (160 floors high) was poking through the hazy clouds as my flight descended into Dubai. It glowed orange and pink against a barely blue sky.

From this vantage point, whether it’s flying into Dubai on a world class airplane or sitting in an air-conditioned hotel with a luxury pool, I am starkly aware of my privilege as a white American. I truly believe that we must acknowledge where we come from to make any progress. It is my goal to recognize and own my privilege to better serve my community. And in these weeks, I will give my best effort at contributing to a community in Uganda. This is my third trip to Uganda, and the connections between my company and the community in Kampala have stood for almost a decade. I pledge to not only give but to ask what is needed. I pledge to not exploit stereotypes of poverty and to be vigilant about the white savior complex. I pledge to tell my life story and own where I come from, even it is makes me feel guilty. I pledge to use this guilt to better understand the people around me, and the power that we have as well as the limitation. I pledge to use my life experiences to educate and empower the people around me. I pledge to remain critical of the process so that the results can be accessible sustainable for those we come to serve.