A Message for Orphans: “We can be anything… The sky can be the limit”
Today, on our last day in Jinja, Thomas and I returned to PEFO to interview Justine Ojambo, one of the organization’s founders.
Justine, 36, grew up in the small rural village of Buhehe in eastern Uganda, the eldest of three brothers. The family grew up poor, often going without food or other basic necessities. Despite the hardships they faced, the boys’ mother always wanted them to go to school. “My mother, even if she never went to school, she was a strong believer in education. She used to tell me, ‘You have to go to school. When you go to school, you can be anybody,’” said Justine. At primary school, Justine excelled at his studies. But when it came time to move to secondary school, there wasn’t enough money to pay school fees, let alone the costs of books, uniforms and transportation. Justine sought the assistance of a Dutch missionary, who paid for him and his brothers to complete their education. He did so well in secondary school that he earned a government scholarship when he went to university.
Although his education and his connections abroad could have easily led him to work in Europe, Justine felt called to return home and work with women and children in rural communities. He had not forgotten his mother and the struggles that they had faced as a family growing up. He went on to help found the Organization for Rural Development, a Jinja-based non-profit organization that assists women by helping them access microfinance and start their own small businesses. He found the work rewarding, but couldn’t help but notice the vast needs of the orphaned and vulnerable children he encountered in the community .”Inside these children, I would see myself,” he said. “The challenges they were facing – these were the same challenges that I faced as a child.”
In 2003, along with brothers Richard and Robert, Justine founded the Phoebe Educational Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO), to help children in the community who faced the same kinds of challenges they had faced in losing their parents to AIDS. PEFO takes its name from Justine’s mother, Phoebe, who was an important influence on their lives. “My mother was a very generous person,” said Justine. “She always told me, ‘Justine, you must learn to share, you must learn to love people, you must always learn to give what you have.’ I am what I am because of the impact she had on me. As we serve others, we are remembering her.”
PEFO has developed a number of programmes to assist orphans and their caretakers, ranging from paying school fees and providing scholastic materials, to providing after-school programmes to build children’s self-esteem, to empowering their grandmothers and caretakers by giving them to income-generating activities like raising pigs, and access to small loans. “We want the children to live in a good environment, so that when they go to school, they are able to concentrate and get good results.”
“It is very amazing to see how community-driven interventions can make miracles,” says Justine. “When I went into the communities to work with the grannies, I went not to solve problems, but to learn from them – to start with what they have. I go to the communities to see how we can work together and make the world a better place. We have a saying in our local language that ‘He who puts on the shoes knows where it pinches most.’ And I use that philosophy – the grannies may have problems, the communities may have problems, but they must be the ones to make situations better. For us – for me and and for PEFO – we are just there as facilitators. And we have seen this come true: grannies and orphans have done a lot – they have turned their lives [around]. Despite their problems, they are hopeful and they are determined to succeed.”
PEFO is currently working with over 200 grannies and is supporting over 300 orphans and vulnerable children. “Of course, the need is great – every day, we have orphans and grandmothers coming to the office because they know that we support [those communities]. We want to see what works – we work with small numbers. Once we see what works, we can replicate the programmes in other communities.”
“The message I have for orphans and vulnerable children – in Uganda, especially – those that have lost their parents to AIDS. I would like to give them hope that losing a parent to AIDS is not the end of the world,” says Justine. “I am one person who believes that we can always succeed no matter what background we come from, no matter what situation. As long as we are focused and we know what we want. This is the message that I want to give to other children – that when we are focused, we have the opportunity to go to school, we can be anything. We can be important people. The sky can be the limit.”