by Kinjal Shah

This article first appeared in Journeys Fall 2017.  

Uganda. One country. 36 million people. Of which 18 million are below 15 years.

“Education for children from where I come from is a matter of life and death,” says Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, Founder and CEO of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project.

Born and raised in Uganda in a tiny village called Nyakagyezi, Kaguri grew up during the 1970s in Idi Amin’s time. His parents never went to school, but invested in sending all five children to school by buying one pencil and breaking it into five pieces. Equipped with food and one-fifth of a pencil, the children would walk 15 miles to and back from the nearest school to receive an education.

Kaguri finished high school exams in the top one percent of the nation. This earned him a scholarship at Makerere University in Uganda. Even so, his sisters were made to stop their education at high school and forced to get married so their bride price could fund Kaguri’s education. This was a heavy burden for a seventeen-year-old to carry.

Kaguri soon earned another scholarship to Columbia University in New York to study social science. In the cold winter of 1994, Kaguri set foot in the United States of America wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, dress pants, and flip flops. Having never left Uganda before this, all he knew of New York was its location on the world map.

At Columbia University, Kaguri studied social science and would often sneak into the law school—a subject he wanted to master but was unable to as the scholarship money sponsored a social sciences degree. It was during this time that a professor spoke about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Seated there timidly, Kaguri heard him talk about how every human being anywhere in the world has a right to education, how every woman and child is equal, and how everyone has a right to healthcare. Unbelievable! Kaguri figured something was not right. “Either people in my village are not human beings or this man is wrong,” he thought. He was asked to write a paper and present it to the professor in the next class.

Kaguri poured his heart out and presented the facts exactly as he had seen them all these years—children who drop out of school because they were unable to afford school fees, women who were beaten by their husbands and still had to cook for them and have sex with them, girls who dropped out of school at puberty because they had no sanitary products, failed exams, and were forced to marry. When he submitted the paper, he was asked to add in notes and references.

Kaguri interviewed his mother, his sisters, and people he knew and resubmitted his paper. The professor quoted the paper verbatim and sent it to Columbia University Law School, after which Kaguri was allowed to study National Human Rights Law. Eventually, he did attain a law degree.

In 1996, his brother’s failing health led him to turn down a job at the United Nations, and move back to Uganda where he looked after his brother for the last two weeks of his life. Taking care of his newly orphaned nephews and nieces shed light on a bigger problem. There was not a single family in Nyakagyezi that was not impacted by HIV/AIDS, leading to an increasing number of children whose parents had died of disease and were left without a caretaker. That is when he started thinking of building a smaller school for orphaned children. The seed had been planted.

It led to the creation of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project—a community-based organization that utilizes a unique holistic approach to not only combat hunger, illness, and poverty, but also to educate children, create financial independence, and empower girls and women.

Kaguri built a small school in a unique way. The Nyaka schools do not just educate the children. They feed them two meals a day, provide medical care, place them with grandmothers, and build clean water systems so the whole community can benefit. The organization introduced solar power so children can read books even at night, and built libraries so that they have access to books.

Nearly 800 kids attend three schools that the organization runs. The first class will finish their college education in 2018. The schools use a human rights best holistic approach providing at least five basic needs: education, food, shelter, healthcare, and employment.

In 2007, the organization started The Granny Project with 53 grandmothers, empowering the unsung heroes who sustain the community. Today more than 7,000 grandmothers in 98 granny groups raise 43,000 orphan children, share their skills, give emotional support, and support themselves through entrepreneurship ventures.

Today, Kaguri is married with four children—three girls and a boy—and stays in Michigan, US. Often, his children travel with him back to Uganda, so they understand who they are and where they come from. Kaguri has since paid for his sisters to study education and business management. He remains grateful for their sacrifice.

From living the American dream to facing Uganda’s HIV/AIDS pandemic, Kaguri’s work has admirers in humanitarian circles all over the world, including the United Nations. He received the 2015 Waislitz Global Citizen Award, was named a 2012 CNN Hero, is recognized in Time Magazine’s Power of One series, is a Ted Talks participant, and has authored five books including A School For My Village.

Kaguri travels the world, speaking to children in Australia, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, and around the US. He often shares pictures of his experiences and travels with the kids in Uganda, who don’t quite understand how the world works. The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project takes leads from every corner of the world and applies them locally so that the community may thrive.

At SAS, Kaguri inspired students and parents by sharing his own journey about building a life and a career of serving others. He addressed local and global issues like poverty eradication, help for the disabled and ill, education for all, his environmental worldview, as well as his position on environmental ethics.

According to Martha Began, co-advisor of the SAS Executive Service Council and Global Issues Network, “Mr. Kaguri’s life story added vibrancy to the pallet of SAS student experiences that develop skills, traits, and dispositions to become exemplary global citizens.” Listening to his story firsthand and watching Cornerstone—an inspiring documentary about his journey—offered new perspectives and enlightened many hearts and minds.

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