As Uganda celebrates 51 years of Independence, I look back and realise that there is much to celebrate. It has nothing to do with the economy or governance. Instead it has a lot to do with the youth of the nation that make us proud of being Ugandan. Such unique, gifted and talented people are like Esther Kalenzi. Now, it has taken me about 6months to get this interview done. That is how busy this lady is. If you are in Ugandan twitter-sphere, you should have come across hashtags like #HoopsforGrace, #breakfastwiththekids and now more recently #buyabrick. There is a lady behind all this. I have known Esther for about 6 years having met her at University where we both studied Mass Communication. She now runs a Charity called 40 days over 40 smiles that has soon grown to huge leaps. The current campaign is aimed at building a structure for an orphanage and using the hashtag #buyabrick and #buyabagofcement, they are raising support for the project. The support has been overwhelming so far, an indication that great initiatives when driven by the right motive are able to succeed.
Esther is a little shy but she has a big heart. There is gentleness and a calmness about her that speaks volumes. For someone to drive a campaign, you would think that they are the loud extroverted type: but she is not. Underneath all that is a desire to help the vulnerable children of Uganda: she shares her story with Youthhubafrica Correspondent for Uganda, Ruth Aine:
Q: How did this start?
40 days over 40 smiles started on February 27th, 2012.
I woke up one morning thinking about how Easter would be fabulous with the love of family around. Then a thought hit me that some children have no family at all.
I wanted to bring the joy of Jesus’ death and resurrection to them too. I thought if we all saved up or made a few sacrifices during lent, we would have so much to give.
I opened a facebook page without telling anyone, neither family nor friends. I just simply added those friends I thought would support such an idea. There was no dialogue exchanged, nothing!
I thought we would go to several orphanages but I did not even know which ones. Suddenly, it all fell in place. People were calling, delivering clothes, toys, shoes and sending money to my phone.
By the end of the 40 days of lent, I had a garage full of stuff and 3.1 million shillings to spend on two orphanages. I was both humbled and overwhelmed.
Q: What were your plans when this was starting out?
I simply wanted to make vulnerable children happy on Easter since most people think of these initiatives over Christmas. Also, I really wanted to make a difference.
Q: What have you accomplished so far?
Oh my! Well, we have managed to improve the lives of no less than 300 children. We have also created awareness about the plight of the vulnerable child.
On top of all this, we have given the youth who are part of this initiative a chance to make a difference in their lives and those of people around them.
Talk about the events you hold: How much energy goes into them…> How much have you raised so far.
The events, well we have had mostly sports events. These have been basketball and soccer events. The basketball games are dubbed “Hoops for Grace.” We let players contribute 10,000 UGX each and then have a small entrance fee of 3,000sh. While there, there is a lot of entertainment food and drinks.
We have also held a charity bazaar once, last year on August 4th. It was the first of its kind. We are planning for another in November and hopefully it shall become an annual event. Last year we raised 5 million shillings from it which was great mostly because it was something that had not been done before and we had invested so much time and resources to make it work.
The events take a lot of sweat, arguments and sleepless nights. When people ask us when the next event shall be held immediately after we have had one, we just smile while dying inside. They are so hectic and take a great deal of patience and hard work for months.
Since our inception we have raised over 60 million and still going strong.
Q:How many people are you: that meet up and plan?
About 15-20 of us are available to meet and plan although this number can go up or down depending on circumstances.
We have met once every week for about 19 months. It is so surreal.
Q: Are you a registered entity?
Yes, we are registered as “Forty days over Forty Smiles Foundation” We kept the name. It is long but it holds special meaning to us.
Q:I am interested with the continuity of this: Where do you see yourselves in about 2 to 3 years? Will you take on another orphanage?
We have worked with two orphanages so far and intend to work with many more vulnerable children.
We shall probably be working with our fourth home in three years. On addition, we shall build the capacity of 40-40 as a professional organisation and encourage several stake holders to partner with us so we can have the Uganda we dream of made by us.
I am sure that this started more like an act of passion. You saw these babies and your heart went out to them, now it has grown: How are you managing? Is it still driven by passion or have you incorporated professionals that help with business plans, accountants to manage the finances etc..
This is a good question.
Lucky for us, we have proficient individuals among us who have taken the load off us. We do source outside help when it gets complex. We are also forming an advisory council that has several professionals, especially those that have been involved in similar programmes.
In future, when we have developed more capacity, we shall hire individuals who are ‘neutral’ and not as close to the cause as we are to be full time employees.
Q: Greatest challenges and how you overcame them.
We have often had limited resources both in terms of man power and resources. This makes the few that are available wear out easily and since it is all voluntary, there are few ways in which you can make this better. However, I have been blessed with an amazing team and although we get these issues from time to time, we somehow bounce back 🙂
We have worked with individuals who are unscrupulous and sometimes not straight forward. This makes you lose trust in individuals and second guess yourself. Nonetheless, there are few things as invaluable as a clear conscience and being driven with passion that is genuine. After all these experiences you simply remind yourself that you are stronger and wiser thanks to them.
And the sweetest victories….
Letters from the kids showing appreciation, a hug or simple smile when they have had a piece of cake or even running around with them like you have no care in the world, a pat on the back from individuals both young and old who are not quite sure how we manage. Uhm what else, there are so many! The awesome bonds that I have managed to make, build and maintain.
I would talk about the attention we are getting but attention is not worth much if it does not come with change. So instead I will ‘brag’ about the thousands of people whom we have reached that are now change agents and ready to join us when we call on them. Priceless, just priceless!
Q: Word of advice to people that have a passion and want to pursue it.
What can I say? I am a living example. I had a dream and now it is not mine any more. It is ‘our’ dream. Take the first step and begin. It will not be easy, it might seem impossible but you only have one life, and it is yours to define. Do what you love and if you do it well, others will take notice and join you. Whether it is as an athlete, musician, chef or you make the best ‘kabalagala.’[Pancakes made out of sweet bananas and cassava flour]. Follow your dream and fulfil the destiny that is yours.
Any awards/ recognitions yet?
We have no awards yet but watch this space J
From the Youth Hub Team ; We wish you all the best Esther and your team. Thank you for leading by example and being the change in the community
* All pictures used are the property of property of 40 days over 40smiles initiative and used with their kind permission
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