After her father’s death in 2012, Sarah Kitakule felt compelled to honour his legacy. She knew it was his commitment to a strong education that had guided her and her siblings to their successful lives. Combined with her work in the development field for the past 25 years – currently as a Women Entrepreneurship Adviser for CARE International, supporting vulnerable women and those in poverty-stricken situations to start small businesses to sustain themselves – Kitakule had seen firsthand how education could transform lives.
With that as their guiding force, Kitakule and her siblings launched The Kitakule Foundation, which would aid the Ugandan community in Busesa, where her own family came from. With no outside funding, except for a small building provided by their mother, they established a medical building and a library. “One has to start with whatever resources they have, no need to have a perfect start,” realised Kitakule. But soon the building was growing too small as the numbers of community members increased every weekend. She once again listened and heard the call — “One has to start with whatever resources they have, no need to have a perfect start” — as her guiding force. This time, Kitakule made the self-described “drastic decision” to sell her flat to invest the money in starting the construction of the new library building. And while she must continue to work her day job while seeing the library project through, Kitakule say she’s never regretted that life changing decision.
In a recent conversation with Aspire Editor Gayle Jo Carter, Kitakule spoke with us on the library’s progress, what she’s learned on this journey and how, yes, right now, we can all start to make a difference. Excerpts below:
Q. What are the difficulties of creating this library?
“We have some books that are donated but it’s challenging because while the books are available, it’s quite expensive to transport them from America or the U.K. We want to see how we can increase the number of computers we have so we can depend more on digital resources, services other than physical books.
We did some research and a lot of the kids, they can’t read English. They haven’t been trained in phonics. A major challenge is being able to get some volunteers to move this programme forward. If the kids can’t read, then the speed at which they use the library slows down. Right now, the librarians teach the kids, but they have no formal training. So the speed can be slow. I really want the kids to learn how to read [even some of the 16- and 17-year-olds can’t do so] and speedily, because the research shows if they can’t comprehend what they are reading then it becomes very difficult for them to compete at a national level with their counterparts from urban centers. So far, I have not been successful in identifying or getting people to respond to my request for volunteers.
Also challenging is getting resources to complete the surroundings. Some of these kids have never known what it is to be in a nice play area. I’d like to develop a nice play area within the library environment. It is a challenge, of course, to complete it to good standards. Right now all we have is some balls. They do get out and play with the balls in the compound, but I think we need more than that.
We don’t have enough computers to go around. Right now, we have 3 PCs and we recently got a donation of 2 laptops, so that’s all we have. And yet the secondary schools around us do not have any computer labs and they are required to do exams in computer science. Computer science is a compulsory subject, but can you imagine studying computer science as a theory when you don’t actually have any computers? At one of the schools, the teacher had only one old laptop. How can that kind of student be able to compete? This library, if equipped with enough computers, can be used by surrounding schools to teach the children.
Power is expensive so we had to install solar power which is not sufficient at the moment and we shall need to expand this in order to provide a safe place for older children who may wish to study at night.
We also need to improve our sanitation. We want to put up modern toilets and showers. Some of these kids have to travel long distances to collect water. So we thought if we built some modern showers and toilets, the kids would be free to use the facility. We have a big roof which we can use for rain water harvesting and then pump water and channel it to the showers but this requires resources which we are yet to get.”
"Motivating others to do something about their own lives is a passion of mine, making sure communities have information to help them empower themselves, encouraging many to do something with their lives and the few resources they have access to."
Q. Before you started building the library, you were already helping the community. What were you doing?
“I have always looked after members of my immediate and extended family. I have supported the education of a number of children who are not biologically mine; I have been an active advocate for gender equality, lobbying for changes in laws and regulations affecting women and girls; and I have volunteered on several boards of organisations committed to alleviating poverty. Motivating others to do something about their own lives is a passion of mine, making sure communities have information to help them empower themselves, encouraging many to do something with their lives and the few resources they have access to.”
Q. How did you find the courage to tackle this project? What advice do you have for other women who want to take on a project in their own lives?
“To me, the desire to see these children’s lives change and for them to have access to opportunities that I and my siblings have been able to have has inspired me to do something. To say, ‘I can’t sit around and wait for the donations to come in. What can I do with what I have?’ It’s the same thinking with my siblings, ‘We don’t really have much but what can we sacrifice of ourselves and be able to share with the community?’ You don’t really have to have everything that you need. You can start somewhere and continue along the journey. When I thought about that, I knew I had to start somewhere and not worry about where the resources are going to come from. We need to use the little we are able to get.
I knew very well that if it had not been for the education of me and my siblings, we’d probably be in the same boat with many of these kids that we are supporting.”
Q. What were your greatest fears taking on this challenge? How do you get past them?
“Those times happen when I feel I’m going to be ashamed. When I think people are going to look at this and think, ‘Who do they think they are that this will happen?’ Especially when you send out a call for contributions or resources and nobody responds, or one or two people respond and all you get is $50.
You can be scared. You can feel that the vision you have is beyond the resources or beyond what you’re able to achieve. But at end of day, when you see the faces of those kids and you hear stories of appreciation from parents and you hear stories of improvements in their studies, that gives you the energy to continue.
We’ve now opened up a health clinic for children where we have 3 health workers, 2 nurses, one clinical worker and a visiting doctor, all financed from our personal resources. We only charge approximately $2 for a patient to be treated. We have to subsidise because most of the parents cannot afford to pay. The key question is: How do we improve the health of the children, especially those who come to the library?
We want to do a lot of preventive awareness among the parents to reduce incidence of disease in our community where the children actually come from. The main things that affect the children are malnutrition and malaria, both of which are really preventable. We do hope this clinic will be a link to the mothers. We are hoping to establish a database – my brother is working on this – where we can track the improvement of the growth of the children, especially those who are part of our reading programme. If we can save a life of a child who visits the clinic when she’s suffering from acute malaria – where she’s been trying to self-medicate – and you see this child come back to life, it gives you the energy to say, ‘I will continue this journey, irrespective of the fear that I have. I have to do it anyway.’ That’s been wonderful.”
Q. Did your dad have a life philosophy that guided you on this journey?
“My dad always said, ‘I have nothing that I have to leave you but I have invested everything I had in your education and I need you to use that. When all else fails, at least, you’ll have your brain working through the knowledge you have gained through your education.’ Whenever I remember that, it keeps me going. I know that if it wasn’t for the fact that he invested in my education, maybe I wouldn’t be what I am now. That keeps me going. It also enables me to share my story with the rest of the kids and to tell their parents that it may be tough for them and they may have to make sacrifices for their children, but in the end, they will enjoy the fruits of their labour. And that the sacrifices they will have to make, if they persist, just like my dad did and my mum, who is still alive, they will have a lot to reap from this. It keeps me going.”
Children Learning at The Kitakule Foundation & Library | Image Courtesy of The Kitakule Foundation
Q. Any other inspirations that sustain?
“My inspirations have mainly come from my experiences because I have lived a life which from the time that I was young had a lot of challenges. In order for us to get where we are, my experiences as a professional woman, as a child growing up in a community where not many people valued the education of a girl but being able to excel from that community and move on to great heights and being able to work internationally. I have read some books, like The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People just to understand and be able to improve the way I approach things. I have also attended some training with inspirational speakers on how best to tell my story because I want to use it to motivate other people.”
Q. What are your top tips for women in taking on a big challenge?
“I would tell them, ‘Be confident. Be able to stand up for your rights.’ I would also tell them to build themselves up, learn skills that are going to propel them forward but also to use whatever skills they already have to move forward.
Each one of us has a gift that we need to use. So how do you actually identify what your gift is and use that gift for the good of humanity but also for your own development? If you have a gift, normally you can recognise this, you know your strengths, even your friends will tell you your strengths. How do you use that for the betterment of the community and to be able to think about others, not to be selfish?
I’ll always encourage women to be able to promote others even as you go up the ladder. Make sure that you carry some women with you, carry some young people with you. When you do that you get a greater fulfilment in life than just being individualistic.
I do encourage women to get an education, educate your children. There’s never an end to getting an education, to learning and there’s different ways to learning, you don’t have to be in a classroom. I do tell the women, even the rural women, once we have computers, watch a YouTube video and you can learn about something. You can learn better farm methods, how to feed your children. These days, there are a whole lot of ways of learning – for empowering themselves – other than in a classroom. I always tell women to take learning as an extremely important thing if you’re going to empower yourself as a woman.”
Q. How much should women care or think they can be involved with social issues outside of their own country?
“Women should really care about social issues because the world is becoming a globalised village. We need to care about what is happening beyond our own community because we know that as women, we are highly impacted by some of the social and cultural norms. Therefore, maybe women are not able to empower themselves simply because of the cultural and social norms. As much as we are fighting for our rights in our community, we should also care about other women who might not have a voice outside their communities, that we are able raise these issues that are affecting them as women.
We need all women to be able to get empowered as we represent more than 50% of the global world. We cannot leave other people behind. Some of those 50% are not able to speak for themselves, so we need to be able to raise our voices and speak on behalf of not only women in our community but beyond that, so people are aware of the kind of issues women are facing. Issues that are preventing them from getting empowered.”
Q. What do you tell women who are facing opposition from men in trying to reach their goals?
“There’s a lot of cultural/social norms, issues that tend to make men not believe in women and they will put you down. They will focus on your outside beauty rather than what than what you are trying to say. They don’t want to listen. You have to be able to rise above that.
It’s very important to engage with men because for some, all that they know is that they are supposed to be above women. They’ve never really understood why equality is important to their own development, to the household dynamics. I stand up, whether it’s among young women or among young girls or young boys, and I tell them the importance of equality, the importance of promoting equality and that some of the cultural and social norms were created actually to perpetuate laws that are not conducive for the empowerment of women.
I tell them that collectively we should be able to advocate that these laws and social norms and cultural norms be changed. But you will find that men will always try to put you down, even in places of work, so my role is to encourage women to be confident and to stand up for their rights. Whatever it is they are experiencing, it should not deter them from pursuing their dreams.”
"You can be scared. You can feel that the vision you have is beyond the resources or beyond what you’re able to achieve. But at end of day, when you see the faces of those kids, and you hear stories of appreciation from parents, and you hear stories of improvements in their studies, that gives you the energy to continue."
Q. What do you say to the men to convince them to treat women equally?
“I say to them, ‘Do you have any daughters? Do you have any sisters? Do you have any women you are close to you?’ I always ask them the questions: ‘How would you feel if your daughter was violated by her husband? How would you feel if your daughter was not able to go to school simply because she’s a woman? How would you feel if is she was not able to get go to school simply because she’s a girl? How would you feel?’ When you appeal to their personal conscience, then it becomes much easier to have a conversation. When you start from premise of: how does this affect you personally? When they look at it personally, then it’s easier for them to look at it collectively as part of society. I have found that more successful than if you just stand up there and say, ‘Women deserve equality.’ It’s easier if you appeal to their personal conscience.”
Q. Why is equality important? What do women bring when they are able?
“Women bring their experiences to the table. They tell stories of what has happened to them, they tell stories of resilience, how they have been able to overcome. Women are very resilient, women bring stories that encourage one another to say, “If I made it through this, you can also make it through’.
But also as women what we have gone through, the bad experiences we have gone through, we need to make sure they are not perpetrated into the future so that our children and grandchildren will have a better life, that they will operate in an environment that promotes equality and realises and recognises the role of women.
As women, we have a lot to contribute, so how can we overcome the issues that we face currently? Just like the women of old fought for the right of women to vote, the right for women in some countries to decide how many children they can have, the right to our bodies and so on, we need to continue fighting. I’m very passionate about women’s economic empowerment and education. We need to say that women are equal, that they have equal rights to have assets and resources that will help economically empower themselves. This is a song we should sing until we achieve this right into the future.”
Q. What happens when girls are educated? Why is this so important?
“Women are the ones that can change the world. It’s very important because when you educate a girl child, you are educating the community. You are changing the lives of the children that this girl is going to have. You’re giving her the right to make decisions concerning herself. You’re giving her the right to understand her rights, to understand she should not just sit there and be violated by people. If numbers of women are aware and are willing to stand up for the rest of them that are powerless then I think we’ll be able to change the world. If most of the women are educated and are then able to be empowered, can you imagine what will happen in the world?”
Q. What are the benefits of personal development and networking/Aspire events?
“When you go to those kind of events, it energises you because you meet all sorts of women who are trying to do so many things. It was very inspiring to meet likeminded women who are trying to make a change. I also learned a lot about organising myself, refocusing myself, planning, engaging, and learning to have resilience and to never give up.
You hear all sorts of stories about women who have managed to make a difference during these events It has been very inspiring to hear from Sam [Aspire founder/CEO Dr. Sam Collins] and her guidance, and her more organised way of dealing with issues and fulfilling your purpose. I keep referring back to my notes even when I’m feeling discouraged and say ‘Yeah, yeah, I need to continue because there is very little you can do as a family. You need to dream beyond what a family can do, you need to encourage yourself as much as you have to be encouraged by others, so I refer back to my notes. I still have contacts, I refer back to the LinkedIn groups. You hear stories, it continues to encourage me.”
Q. What most makes you happy?
“I love speaking to the women and motivating them and speaking to these children and motivating them. What makes me really happy is when I see the smiles, when I see the change in these children’s lives who were unable to read and now can read to me in English. A woman being able to say, ‘Oh, I am actually feeling motivated. I’m starting a small business because now I’m encouraged. I have the information that I need. I’m empowered to stand up for my rights, to not to be abused by a man. I’m empowered to bring my children here to educate them.’ That really motivates me and makes me happy, that keeps a smile on my face. If I’m interacting with the people I’m focusing on, it makes me completely motivated.”
Q. Then it’s all worthwhile, the sacrifices you made?
“I rarely think about the sacrifices that I have had to make. I know that they’re very small compared to the impact it’s going to make. I see it’s going to change families, a village, a district. So to me it’s very little sacrifice in terms of the results.”
Q. In 10 years, what do you hope the future looks like?
“I’m hoping that whatever we are doing can be sustainable and it doesn’t have to depend on us. Even when we are gone, the legacy will remain and the Foundation will continue to support the improvement of the quality of education and empowerment of women.
Hopefully, we are thinking of social enterprise to be able to support activities of the Foundation, to help it be sustainable. We are trying to think through that. I am hoping this will grow into something much bigger, where the community is empowered, where the kids can even go to school. My vision is to be able to grow a school from this group of children that come to this library. Also, my dream is to have a mobile library that can go into the communities that are very far from where we are located so that other children will benefit from this. Hopefully, it’s possible that I can be managing this full time so I can deliver this at the level of what I want it to be.”
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