Marjorie Atuhuura on Helping the Less Fortunate

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Marjorie Atuhuura (MA) on Helping the Less Fortunate

RK: Hello Marjorie, it’s good hearing from you.

MA: Thank you Mr. Kabushenga for having me here.

RK: Where do you live?

MA: Currently in Mpigi.

RK: Is that where there is the Gejja Women Organization?

MA: Yes.

RK: We shall come back to that but first tell us, were you born with a helping hand?

MA: I don’t think so. I am lucky I grew up in a family where everyone was welcome.

RK: We are going to start with that. We need to know a bit about you. Tell us about your family.

MA: I was born to two school going children. My mother was 14 and my father 16.

RK: What! Why were they in a hurry?

MA: I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

RK: They didn’t consult you?

MA: I wish they had.

RK: Wait a minute. At the time you’re born both your parents were underage?

MA: Yes, they were.

RK: I am tempted to ask, how did this happen?

MA: They were in school. I think they were doing testing testing and I happened. Hahaha

RK:  If I am intruding into your private life please let me know. What happened to both of them when it became clear that you were arriving soon?

MA: My father, having been told that my mother was expecting me, said he was so young to be able to father a child. It was impossible. My mother went back to her parents who told her the only option they had was to keep me until birth. She had to take me to my family so she could return to school. And that is what happened.

RK: You know I am stunned. Completely. Majorine, you have such a powerful story. Even the way you arrived was in itself dramatic, do you realise that?

At 15, your mum takes you to your dad’s place?

MA: Not my dad’s place because no one knew where he was. Actually it started in the hospital. So my mum gave birth to me and there was my (paternal) grandfather who my mother’s parents handed me over to right in the hospital. 

RK: Wow! Marjorie, I have talked to so many people but this is one of the most fascinating stories at the beginning already. Even at the start of your life as saying girl, you had to go through challenges?

MA: True.

RK: So where did you end up?

MA: That was at my grandparents’ home in Luzira. From Mulago I was taken to Luzira and my mum was taken back to her home to continue with school.

RK: Good. So you’re basically raised by your grandparents?

MA: Yes

RK: How much did this beginning of your life shape you into the person you are now, with such a generous heart willing to sacrifice the best years of your life helping people who are disadvantaged?

MA: Well, it played a very big percentage. In between my story, at the age of 19, I also became pregnant.

RK: Okay, now we have to rewind. At what age did you start going to school?

MA: I started at the age of five. I was at Nakasero for one term. Then I moved. You know my story is so confusing. I stayed with a lot of people when I was young. At that time, I was staying with my uncle and they had to take me to Masindi. I started my primary school in Masindi and completed it there.

RK: Where did you go after?

MA: I went to Nyakasura School in Fort Portal. It was then that I met my father who now accepted me with my stepmom.

RK: What happened to him after you were born?

MA: He went back to school too. He is an engineer and also working.

RK: Then he takes over your schooling?

MA: Partly.

RK: What happened after that short time? By the way, I need to assure you Marjorie that one thing about our forum is that we protect our people so fiercely. People share their experiences so others can learn from them. So please feel confident that your story will be taken in good spirit and in good faith. Feel free to tell us what you want to. I just need to assure you.

MA: Thank you so much.

RK: So, after P7, what happened next?

MA: My father picked me up. That was 2005. He took me to Fort Portal to meet the rest of my relatives there. And he had another family with a child and my stepmother. At first everything was okay until towards the end of O’ Level when my stepmother thought I was becoming a problem to her family. Something that would later maybe affect her children.

My results came back and I had performed well with a first grade. I didn’t see myself continuing with school.

RK: Why?

MA: The inquisitive me had started asking what next. My aunties would come around and talk to my father to take me for a nursing course or something but there was nothing being done.

One morning I was given 30,000 to move from Fort Portal to my grandfather’s place in Matugga. He had since retired and settled there.

So I told my grandfather what had happened and he promised to find a way. I was able to join HSC in second term. I didn’t get the combination I really wanted to do. Growing up I wanted to be a lawyer. I was always inspired by women like Dr Miria Matembe. I wanted to be this powerful woman but I saw that blink. I was able to continue and complete my A’ Level in 2010.

Then more trouble began.

MA: Eh! What happened?

RK: My grandfather gives me transport to go back to Fort Portal that I have finished HSC and my father should begin planning to take me to university.  

RK: Your grandfather felt he had done his part.

MA: Yes. But he gave me enough money to take me and bring me back just in case. When I reached there, my father told me he didn’t have the money. My stepmother told me that was enough, I could as well start from there.

RK: Start from where? S6?

MA: Yes. I also didn’t know what to do. I came back and told my grandfather. But growing up at my grandfather’s place, it was an open place where everyone was welcome. I also never saw us buying food.

RK: How were you getting food?

MA: We had a farm along Semuto road. Once in a while we would go over to the farm and get food that would carry us through the week. The surplus would be given out or sold.

After S6, I got points that helped me to get government sponsorship but I was not able to take it up because it also came with requirements which I could not raise. I ended up missing the first semester and the spot itself in the long run. I was then taken to Kyambogo University but they did not have the course that I wanted to do. I could not be at the main campus so I was taken to a National Teachers College.

RK: Which one?

MA: In Kalilo

RK: How was Kalilo?

MA: I was the most frustrated human being but my father told me it’s just two years. “Go, when you finish, you can come back and do the law course.”  His money had really reduced. Being on government sponsorship at NTC was also a privilege.

RK: It’s better than nothing.

MA: Yes, I am proud to say that I am a teacher of English Language and Literature from Kyambogo University.

RK: What’s the connection between Kalilo and Kyambogo?

MA: Kalilo is affiliated to Kyambogo. So I got a diploma.

Back in school, I had a friend. We had grown up together and we thought one day we would get married because he had promised me that. So he invited me to his place of work in Masaka.

RK: How long had you known him?

MA: Since childhood. Even our families knew each other.

RK: In Matugga?

MA: Yes. So I arrived in Masaka to work with someone who had promised to marry me. But guess what? I got lugambo running in the organisation that he was getting married. He was the founder and CEO. He was getting funding from abroad and I was very excited. Few  months down the road, I heard that the boss was getting married.

RK: And you’re not the bride?

MA: No. So I asked him but he denied. Then a week later, the admin tells us they will be chopping our salary to fundraise for the boss’ wedding. But “as a bride to be” I had no idea.

RK: Wait a minute, when you go to Masaka, you go to work in that organisation but there were also the other arrangements from kukyaalo? Were you staying with him in the house?

MA: No. I grew up in a christian home where we were told to “keep each other” till marriage. That’s what I was doing. I didn’t know for him, he was doing something different.

So finally, a day came and there was an invitation card for staff to attend the boss’ wedding. What beat me is that the name of the bride on the card was not mine.

RK: Anhaa!

MA: Going up, I was asthmatic. This friend of mine always got me medicine for asthma. And there was this guy who used to deliver it to me. So when he came he told me my friend wanted to talk to me. There’s a place we used to meet at a church. He wanted to talk to me.

He tells me it’s true and the bride is someone else.

RK: And this is the person who told you to come to Masaka?

MA: Yes. I ask him why and he tells me of a family in the US that had always been funding the organisation and they asked him to marry their daughter and he didn’t know how to break it to me. It was their funding that was sustaining the organisation. That was all the explanation I got. I knew that was the end of me and I left devastated.

I was so angry and went back to my place. As I was entering the gate, I met with the guy who used to deliver the medicine to me. I asked him whether he knew about the marriage arrangements. And he said he knew but there was no way he would tell me. I entered my house with him and that was the time I broke my virginity.

RK: Oh!

MA: Weeks later I found out I was pregnant at 19.

RK: Wow!

MA: With my pregnancy, I had to leave the organisation in Masaka to go and look for  a teaching job. A friend connected me to a job at a school in Lugazi. No one at home knew exactly where I was. My grandfather had advised me to save part of my salary to cater for my future plans of going back to school.

For all the three months I taught at the school, they never paid me. They were very generous to give me UGX 50,000 in a khaki envelope.

RK: Eh! I am lost for words. Meanwhile you are pregnant?

MA: Yes. So I packed all my belongings and went back to Matuga. I grew up referring to my grandparents as mum and dad. My mum saw I had changed and asked what was going on. I told her the truth. She sent me to dad. I had to find a way of breaking the news. I told him the truth. I read disappointment in his eyes. I could not stand staying in that house any longer. The next morning I packed my little belongings and left.

RK: To where now?

MA: I think I have always had luck on my side. A friend told me of an organisation in Mpigi that was looking for facilitators to empower young girls to do things that they love doing. Off to Mpigi, 4 months pregnant. There I was to earn UGX 375,000. I rented a small room and started life. I had promised myself not to abort. To carry through and give birth to my baby.

While in Mpigi, I would go out to talk to women on how to take care of a pregnancy and I developed a bond with them. I was young and I needed a motherly figure in my life having gone away from home.

It was from this that the birth of Gejja Women Foundation started. So I realised that I had gone to school and I needed to help these women better their lives. So I would call them to sit under a tree once a week and they would share with me their dreams, challenges and aspirations. I  realised they were actually good with crafts.

Women who have not had a chance to go to school have talents but they are hidden. They don’t get opportunities to showcase their talents. I asked them to make crafts and give them to me. I would be selling them in Kampala. Then reality struck, two months down the road, there was no sale not even of a mat.

RK: That’s how markets are.

MA: But you have women who are expecting payments. They would come and cry to me to  help them sort out their financial problems. I realised that was not working and in 2016, I joined a mentorship program where I was assigned a mentor who walked with me.

The women’s crafts became Gejja Women Crafts. But later, we realised we could do more than crafts. In 2016,  a girl came to my house one night. Her father wanted to marry her off so he could get free alcohol every evening.

RK: Free alcohol in exchange for his daughter?

MA: Yes. She told me she wanted to stay in school. There I was with my child.

RK: How old was your child at the time?

MA: Just 3 or 4 months. I told that girl to stay with me. I took her on and she even continued with school. I am proud to say, Prossy completed her S4 and there are many more of those girls who came after her.

RK: How old was she when she came to you?

MA: 13.

RK: Oh dear!

What happened to the organisation you were working for?

MA: No. That organisation (Social Innovation Academy) empowers youth to unleash their potential in Mpigi. It was from that, that Gejja was born.

RK: You said something about these other girls, what were their problems?

MA: Like I told you, we wanted to restructure Gejja, so Prossy was the one who gave birth to the education support program for girls that wanted to continue with school but their families couldnt support them.

Way back in my S2, my stepmother told my father that I would never amount to anything. They would rather send me for marriage. I know what it means to be sent for marriage when you are not ready.

One evening I was with Prossy in our room and I saw her fidgeting. She had a piece of roasted banana leaves. I don’t know whether people here are familiar with roasted banana leaves. I asked her what it was for and she told me it’s what her mother taught her to use for her periods. 

You know I thought I was the only one with problems but that made me sad. I didn’t sleep that night. In the morning, I went to my mentor who I asked to give me UGX 60,000. I went to Owino Market and bought materials which I used to make reusable sanitary pads which I gave to Prossy.

I had been able to see Prossy but how many other Prossys were out there and needed help? That is what led to “Safe Girls Reusable Sanitary Pads”. We started that in 2017. We want girls not to be ashamed of having periods.

In 2017, one of my women of the crafts lost a child, her house collapsed on the child. I had a  friend from Europe who asked how she could be of help. In a week’s time, she had sent money to reconstruct the woman’s house.  After the house, the European friend asked how she could help me more. So I told her that my dream is to have a home, a centre where women can come to unleash their potential. She told me to look for the land and in 2018 October, we bought our first 10 acres where we are building the Gejja Women Centre.

RK: Wow! All this from someone who had been given UGX 50K as a salary for three months?

MA: Yes.

RK: So after buying the land, what happened next?

MA: We were able to build some structures and also have a farm there.

RK: What’s on the farm?

MA: We have vegetables, bananas, sugarcanes, yams and fruits of different types.

RK: Do you sell them?

MA: Yes. The women actually manage them for their economic independence.

RK: How about the crafts people?

MA: Gejja is now structured in 4. We have;

1.       The education support program

2.       The safe girl reusable pad

3.       Women start-ups- where women run their own business. This is where the crafts are

4.       Permaculture

RK: Basically what started as a  traumatic situation of a woman losing a child and Prossy’s situation has ended up giving birth to Gejja Women Centre. Help me understand, in very simple language but clear detail, when you talk about marginalised rural women, what kind of problems does empowerment help to sort out.

MA: A voice.

RK: Why is a voice necessary?

MA: First of all, I am not one of the people who went for  a bachelor’s degree. When you tell people that you don’t have a degree in a room, there’s a way they look at you. Imagine a rural woman who never completed primary 3. Will she be given a platform to air out her view?

RK: That’s what I want to hear, how does that play out in the communities now? How are these people disadvantaged by the lack of a voice?

MA: When you don’t have a voice, you have no say and no one will think you have anything important to talk about. No one will give you their time unless you stand out as an extraordinary woman or girl who does not want to be stepped on. We have a few of those.

When girls are forced into marriage, their dreams are completely shattered from day one.  Then the organisation goes back on the ground and looks for this particular girl or woman trying to bring back her voice. I am sure we can have a country where empowerment is vital for both the educated and uneducated.

RK: Voice is number one, what are the problems that rural women face?

MA: They don’t have economic independence. Imagine someone has to wait for their husband who is a peasant in someone’s farm to earn maybe UGX 7,000 per day. That same amount has to contribute to food, rent and school fees. Basics like a sanitary pad then become a luxury. But if you give a woman economic independence, there will be a balance in the family.

RK: Right, your model at Gejja, what are things you are doing to create this empowerment? How is it structured?

MA: We give priority to women like 100% in a business. 40% is yours as an individual. 40% is injected back into the business and 10% is for saving and 10% is for Gejja.

We have the adult education scheme where we train these women the basics of communicating, how to sell. We have a community library which has been very helpful to the girls especially during this time when schools are closed.

We intend to take these women out for forums where they can be exposed instead of taking me Majorine who is not going to be a real hands-on farmer, that women will benefit more.

RK: How have you dealt with a backlash given that you are operating in a partrical society? How have you dealt with them?

MA: Here in Africa, standing out as a girl to also be where I am today has not been an easy task. There are places you reach and the other gender ask why you? Like the time I stood up for Prossy, I met a lot of resistance. At the end of the day, this is what positions you to be better.

We are trying to work and liaise with the leaders coming from the community leaders first. I am happy to say that the local council in the village where Gejja is knows everything. People are opening up.

RK: What are the typical challenges that come at you?

MA: My girl will not go back to school yet. This girl is under sponsorship and when you ask why they tell you, no one in this family has gone beyond P7.  Even before a girl starts her periods, someone tells you they are going to send the girls for marriage. Or in the case of women giving birth, a woman will come and tell you she is tired of giving birth every year. When you talk about family planning, they can’t even bring it up with their husbands in conversation. It has to be a long talk with the authorities involved.

RK: Who are these authorities?

MA: If it fails between Gejja and I, we bring in local councils. Should that fail, we go to the Mpigi Police. There are also organisations working in such sectors. When we organise talks about family planning we also invite the men. But I know it’s not easy like that.

RK: One of the things that has become a bigger problem is teenage pregnancies because of the school lockdown. How hard have you been hit by this challenge?

MA: Some of the girls in our program have given birth in this period.

RK: How old?

MA: 16 and 17.

RK: What are the circumstances leading to this situation happening?

MA: The girls got pregnant when they were with their relatives. I guess it is also reluctance in the family upbringing. There is when a situation becomes too much for you and you just give up. There are families that are in abject poverty. As girls, we are deceived a lot many times. So if at your home you didn’t have dinner but there is this man who is going to give you 2K for a rolex, and he is a boda rider. You keep on weighing whether to take the money and sleep with the man or go back home and sleep on an empty stomach.

RK: Could there be encouragement from these relatives that the girl at an early age becomes the source of income?

MA: Parents tell their daughters to cling on boda boda riders because for them, they have a job. If you go in with him, you are assured of food on a daily basis. One of our girls told me her sister used to send milk here for this man. Then it became expensive for her to afford. She had to push the young girl to the milkman so they could get free milk. It is just petty stuff that leads our girls into these situations.

RK: Wow! How widespread is this problem?

MA: It’s across the country. Two weeks ago, I was in Yumbe District in a refugee camp. The same problems you are going to find in Mpigi, you are going to find in Yumbe. As for the refugee girls, the story is different. They lack the most basic needs. UNHCR comes once a month and they give them pads twice a year. When you give a girl pads for an issue that happens twelve times a year, on a weekly basis of 4 to 5 days moreover they are disposable. So why wouldn’t that girl find a guy who will be able to step in and do that role.

Or worse, when you become pregnant for nine months you won’t have the periods.

RK: It’s hardly a solution. It’s jumping from a frying pan to fire.

MA: For that time, the girl believes it’s the solution. For nine months, she won’t be having her periods. They forget that there are consequences of raising that baby and also keeping the pregnancy safe. At that moment, that is their truth.

RK: What do you do with the refugees?

MA: When we started producing the safe girls sanitary pads, I thought by giving out pads, I would be helping but realised it was not sustainable. If I give you reusable pads today, after one year, you will be back to begging and waiting for someone to give you because you were not empowered.

RK: If handouts are not the solution, how do you empower the women and girls? What is the solution?

MA: The solution is giving people skills.

RK: How do you achieve that as Gejja?

MA: I also want to make money by selling the pads, but for social impact. I need to go to those communities/ the refugee communities and train these girls on how to make these pads. You never know what they will be tomorrow when they are well learned. They are going to become the next production centre in their region. And that means, I will not be moving from Mpigi to Kotido to send there pads because they will have a centre where they can produce them from.

RK: So your argument is in your interventions to help marginalised people, handouts are not really the long term answer. They may solve the problem in the short term but they cannot help in the long term.

I want to take you back to your past, when you reflect on what you know now and your own circumstances of your life, how much of that shaped you?

QN: How do you help with communities where water and soap are scarce?

MA: In our list, we have two reusable pads, one cotton knicker and one piece of soap. A storage bag and a user booklet. The soap will not last long. And maybe the knicker might need to be changed after some time but in bidi bidi, there is access to water. This is not something you are going to use every day.

One challenge I have seen with vulnerable communities is that they are committed to their past. I will make a product like this and still someone will prefer to use the rudimentary methods that they are accustomed to. There is a need to empower them.

QN: How does she deal with stakeholders?

MA: One thing that is becoming good for Gejja, they will appreciate. The benefit is theirs. Team building is hard but achievable at the end of the day.

Eve: Marjorie, have you looked at other options of skilling women other than the ones you currently have?

MA: My dream is to one day sit back in the audience and watch a girl from Gejja pitch their ideas or enterprise.  We are not looking at the usual things of making liquid soap. These women have passions of their own. It would really make me very proud to have these women have their own innovations addressed.

Moses: From your story what are those two things you would tell someone who has had a similar experience as yours but has not been able to rise up like you have? What words were you telling yourself?

MA: I always told myself that my mother gave birth to me when she was 14, I don’t want to give birth at the same age. I never grew up with a mother and father so I never experienced that parental love. I want my children to experience parental love.

I have not achieved a lot in education, I want another girl to attain her education and complete it. How that feels, I want to feel it when I reach that level. Most times, everyone has their story and they want to become better.  

RK: It’s been a pleasure having you on the show today Majo, thank you for allowing us to learn from your experience.

MA: Thank you Mr Kabushenga for this wonderful opportunity.

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