Jan 19, 2008 UG Uganda

How does a 48 year old widow in Uganda with no job, no savings, very little education, and no business training provide for regina.jpgeleven orphans, ranging in age from 9 to 17?

One answer is to take out a US $180 micro-loan from BRAC Uganda and work very hard to establish and operate two successful small businesses.

The story of how Bayiyana Regina came to be the sole supporter of eleven orphans is both a tragic commentary on life and death in Uganda and an inspirational tale of sacrifice and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Regina and her husband had eleven children. They lived a modest but relatively secure life based on his salary as a primary school teacher. Then in 1987 her husband developed a “headache that lasted three days, and he died”, according to Regina. She was left with no savings, no pension and only a small, one room mud brick home located in a swampy flood plain in Bwaise, Uganda, a northern suburb of Kampala, the capital city.

Since then, seven of her eleven children have died; two from AIDS and the remaining five “fell sick” from unspecified illnesses. Of the surviving children, one is “missing”, two are “just around”, and one is a student at Makerere University, Uganda’s leading university.

The eleven orphans in Regina’s care are all family members. Some are her grandchildren, where both parents died of AIDS, and some are the orphaned grandchildren of her deceased brother. She looks after seven boys and four girls.

When I asked Regina about the worst day in her life, she paused and replied it was the day her brother went off to work and never returned. He died on the job. Regina counted on her brother. He lived nearby in a small, half-finished two room home. He and Regina relied on each other for mutual support. The day he died, Regina knew she would provide for his orphans as well as her own.

Regina’s greatest hope in life is that her son will graduate from university and get a good paying job to help support the children. Until then, she works extra long hours to contribute to his tuition. When school is not in session he returns home to work hard like his mother, performing casual labor such as delivering water and doing other peoples’ laundry.

Regina is a very serious person. As I interviewed her following her weekly BRAC group meeting she seldom smiled and never laughed. When I asked her what she does for enjoyment, she replied she “sleeps”.

All this changed as we walked down the soggy lane approaching her modest house. Her orphans ran to be at her side. The first to arrive was Marvin, a young boy who was injured in a fire. He has burns on his arms and legs and about half of his left foot is missing. None of that seems to bother Marvin. He wore a constant smile on his face and he was the first to reach his grandmother. She handed him her bag, which he proudly carried for her. I sensed Marvin occupies a special place in Regina’s heart.

reginas-orphans.jpgAs the children grouped around us, Regina’s stoic composure softened. She smiled and hugged her orphans. They obviously worship her and she relishes their company and devotion.

Regina’s microfinance group was formed less than a year ago. It consists of five sub-groups containing five members each. At their first meeting, the 25 group members elected Regina as their group leader for a two year term.

Regina’s primary business is selling roasted chicken. She buys live chickens during the day, kills and cleans them, and then roasts the birds in a charcoal fueled oven and sells them on the covered sidewalk in the commercial center of Bwaise. She starts selling roasted chicken at about 6 pm. Her first customers are commuters returning home from work. Her next customers are revelers leaving bars in the area. Regina stays on the job until the last roasted chicken is sold, sometime well after midnight.

She shops hard during the day to locate plump birds, paying between 4,000-4,500 shillings each. After roasting and cutting the chickens into pieces, she is able to sell one chicken for 5,900 shillings. She sells six chickens a day Monday-Thursday and seven chickens each day on Friday-Sunday. Her average weekly gross profit from selling roasted chickens is 75,000 shillings, before subtracting fixed costs such as charcoal fuel. This is approximately US $45.50 per week.

One of the threats to Regina’s business is not being able to obtain a reliable daily supply of live chickens. At certain times of the year, especially around holidays, chickens are in short supply.

To even out her cash flow and to guarantee a minimum income, Regina opened a second business of selling fresh water from a water company tap located on her property. She borrowed 300,000 shillings (about US $ 180) from BRAC. With the proceeds of her loan she was able to have the water tap installed as well as replenish working capital in her chicken roasting business. Regina estimates she generates 6,000-10,000 shillings ($3.60-$6.00) profit per week selling clean water to neighbors who do not have a water tap.

The profit from her water business is small but very important. With responsibility for feeding and caring for eleven orphans, earning cash money every day is essential. If the chicken roasting business fails to meet her family needs, she can count on cash income from the water tap.

The daily diet in Regina’s home consists primarily of starches such as posho (made from corn flour), matoke (banana based), potatoes, and cassava. The children wear second hand clothing purchased at Kampala’s sprawling St. Balikuddembe market for 2,000 to 5,000 shillings ($1.20-$3.00).

reginas-house.jpgSome of the orphans sleep with Regina in her one room house. The balance sleep in one room of her brother’s former home, under the supervision of Stephen, an extremely polite teenage grandson who is Regina’s “right hand man” in the family.

Regina’s greatest challenge is paying school fees for the children. Uganda has universal primary education which theoretically provides free schooling for children from Primary 1 through Primary 7 grades. It doesn’t really work out that way. First, additional fees such as uniform fees, book fees, and teacher’s transportation fees are often imposed at public schools. Second, public primary schools are not always available. In Regina’s parish there is only one public primary school and 10 private schools. Finally, the quality of public school education is widely perceived to be sub-standard. The majority of students in the Kampala area attend private schools.

One private school a short distance from Regina’s home charges about 25,000 shillings ($15) per term for a primary level student. Tuition is higher for secondary grades. There are three terms per year.

With a monthly family income of only about $65, it is easy to see how school fees take a large percentage of her household budget.

Regina is a determined woman. She has never been late on a weekly loan payment. She spoke to her credit officer and branch manager about taking out a larger loan when the first loan is paid off. With the additional capital she could raise up a small portion of her swampy land to build a poultry house. Rearing her own chickens will improve profitability by lowering her cost of goods as well as insuring a supply of birds year round.

She has also considered borrowing money to finish the second room of her brother’s house and renting it out. She figures the rental income will repay the loan and eventually contribute to family income.

When I asked Regina what would happen to the children if she was not there, she looked at me through sad eyes and said they would be on the street.

As I bid good bye, I was filled with profound respect and admiration for this saintly grandmother. Impulsively, I bent down to kiss her on the cheek. The children howled in delight and shock at the sight of a tall blond stranger kissing their grandmother in public.

The meaning of my kiss was to let her know that she is not alone. She has the respect of her grandchildren, her neighbors, her peers in the BRAC group, her BRAC credit officer, her BRAC branch manager, the social lenders at Kiva.org who supply funds to BRAC, and at least one American businessman who stands in awe of her unselfish determination.

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