As large parts of the world reach toward life beyond lockdown, a forgotten group of children stuck on a remote island off of Uganda are fighting to survive.
It’s a blindly sunny day in Busagazi, a parish in Uganda. Rising water levels, a frequent side effect of the climate crisis, have cut the island — and all of the people who live there — off from mainland Uganda. Children play in burnt orange plains, running in and out of windowless buildings. Among them are six-year-old Bashir Sentamu, 7-year-old Wilson Kapimpini, 10-year-old Anisha Namuleme, seven-year-old Innocent Mugabi and 8-year-old Yokosani Maiso. They are together because they can’t go home to their parents. They’re orphans. Their parents died from AIDS or drowned in the lake they work in. Those whose parents are alive still can’t go and stay with them, because they struggle to feed themselves — let alone another hungry mouth. These children have lived together at their local community school, since birth, learning English and Maths and helping to grow vegetables in their garden.
Usually, 500 children attend the school. Now, just 100 remain — those who are orphaned or those who were dropped off by parents out of pure desperate necessity. The necessity has been exaggerated as the majority of people on the island make their money from fishing on the lake; which has now been closed by the government.
Before the virus made its way to Busagazi, a team of volunteers worked hard to provide the children with food, water, soap and sugar, a place to sleep… basic essentials alongside a registered education that they wouldn’t usually have access to. The lockdown has thrown this relative security into jeopardy, as access to food and medication is severely restricted, and the prices rise to double their usual. The lives of these 100 children have been put in danger. The geographical location of the island attracts Tsetse flies, a parasite that transmits various diseases, one of the most dangerous being the sleeping sickness. Usually, locals could use a boat to fetch emergency supplies from the town of Buikwe, but the government enforced lockdown has made that method of transport illegal. These children are now faced with the unimaginable pain of not knowing when their next meal is coming, or whether life-saving medication will arrive. Currently, five children at the school are ill with malaria. Thankfully, they aren’t alone. Solomon Mwebya is by their side, attempting to ride his motorbike through the lake to keep the children alive.
“The situation is so bad,” he tells me. “Food has run out. I need money before I head to the island on Friday.”
Solomon has worked at the school since 2015. Born in Uganda, Solomon moved to the UK in 2003 to raise money for orphaned and destitute children. Over the next ten years, he split his time between Uganda and the UK. He studied for a Diploma in Christian Theology, has mentored young children and worked on a cultural exchange programme with Kingston School, before joining the British Army. After a successful six years of training, Solomon furthered his education with a Diploma in Arts and Humanities followed by a degree in Politics and International Relations. In amongst all this, he worked in data engineering, cabling and networking — and even spent some time playing semi-pro soccer in the US. His CV is vast and varied, but it's his unwavering care for vulnerable people that is palpable and enduring. He decided to leave all the privileges he had behind in the UK and move to this small island to be a voice for children and elderly people. “I saw many care homes in the UK where the elderly were well looked after and I decided to do what I can to see that in rural areas that are abandoned,” he tells me over a video call, backed with a strikingly blue sky. “My parents never had so much money. So as a child, my education was sponsored,” he explains. “I realised that if a child has the chance to education he has much better opportunities in life.” Motivated by this realisation, Solomon founded the NGO ‘Hearts and Hands Development Association’ in 2017.
I listen to children chattering happily in the background of my call with Solomon and laugh at the occasional call of a Rooster, but I know things are far from idyllic. The school is incredibly basic and lacks the vital infrastructure needed to keep the children safe. They don’t have a proper toilet or access to running water, so they’re having to break lockdown rules just to collect water from the lake; a place where deadly mosquitos and crocodiles live. Their closest medical facility is on the mainland. The dormitories are windowless. So when it rains, the rising lake enters the buildings. A recent downpour flooded the boys’ dormitory, soaking into the sleeping mats. The boys dragged them outside to dry in the sun, a respite that remains only as long as the rain stays away.
In response to such bad living conditions coupled with the threat of Covid-19, the team found foster families for as many children as they could. Solomon’s energy is now focused on raising money to send to the foster families, who can’t cope with the burden, and in keeping the remaining children happy and healthy. “This lockdown has had a huge impact on everything,” he tells me, explaining that 2 of the 12 volunteer teachers left because they couldn’t cope with the urgency of the situation. “I’m relying on donations to make sure there’s enough food for the kids. We had to find various means to do things cheaper, such as growing our own food and using corn to grind into flour.” This is so pressing because, Solomon explains, grocery store owners have hiked up the prices of food since lockdown was announced. On May 26, restrictions started to lift. But it will take a while for the benefits to reach rural areas. President Yoweri Museveni has announced that public transport will still be closed until June 4. The only benefactors right now are shops and restaurants reopening, and private cars taking to the roads.
For a man caring for sick, vulnerable children trapped on an island during a global pandemic, Solomon is surprisingly hopeful. The responsibility he feels for these children is instantly obvious. He tells me that in-between leading basic lessons to keep their minds active (any proper structure and the school would be breaking lockdown rules), he is gathering them for words of encouragement. “The morale is low,” he explains. “They are tired of being stuck here. So I have to tell them to hang on, that this will be over before they know it.”
When it is over, Solomon has grand plans for the school. With funding, he plans to build proper accommodation and classrooms. He wants to set up a fish, cattle and chicken farm so the school can be completely self-sufficient when the donations dry up. He wants to dig a water well and buy some land to grow coffee. He wants a 4x4 so he can take the kids to the mainland, and materials to build a proper medical facility and toilet on the site. He also wants to pay the teachers a salary — something that costs only £10 — because he is scared they will leave as soon as anybody else offers them money. As my mind fills with visions of a sustainable, solid school in a remote part of Uganda, Solomon brings me crashing back to the reality of the present day.
“It’s the uncertainty that’s scaring us. They don’t know how long they have to wait for food and medication,” he explains. “My fear is failing to meet their basic needs because they completely rely on me. Without that, nothing else matters.”
You can donate to the school here. If you know you can spare just a few pound or dollars, this could literally save a child’s life. Even £20 can buy food and malaria medication that these children desperately need. The geographical lottery of where you were born shouldn’t determine whether you live or die.