11 am Saturday morning finds me at Bukasa trading Centre, bordering the affluent Muyenga neighborhood. The boda boda men are busy at the stage; the local women are occupied in their stalls selling charcoal, tomatoes, onions, and many other foodstuffs. I take shelter from the scorching sun under the shade as I wait for the girl that was sent to pick me up at the stage.
She arrives 15 minutes later, wearing a light green blouse over a grey skirt. She is sweating; it must be the January heat. Sabina Achola, as she introduces herself on the walk back home to meet aunt, tells me she will be joining Senior Six this year at St Noah Girls school.
But about four years ago, Achola would not have been so certain about her education. But about three years ago when she was in Senior Three, a special lady picked her from the village and brought her to the city to study.
Today, she does not have to worry much about her education beyond her performance. That special lady she refers to as mother is Beatrice Achieng Nas, who runs Pearl Community Education Foundation, a local NGO, of which Achola is a beneficiary, among many other girls.
Achieng has an office at home overlooking Lake Victoria in Bukasa, a Kampala surburb, from where she looks after these girls and also coordinates all her work. We find her seated in her freshly painted office in an adjacent structure next to her house.
She smiles briefly as she ushers me and shows me to a seat, before dismissing Achola.
Borrowing from her hollow past
Apart from sending the girls to school, she also spares time to counsel parents and teachers on how to handle teenage girls back home. She may be the director Pearl Community Education (PCE) Foundation today, but life was not a bed of roses.
Achieng was born to Alweny Nosiata and the late Lazarus Obbo in Kisoko, Tororo District. She grew up in rural Tororo in a polygamous family of 12 children, where her mother had got married at just 12 years of age.
Achieng narrates that she was forced to work in bars, at the risk of being raped by men who were suspected of being HIV positive who used to make a pass at her. “I would wake up at 5am to serve these old men alcohol and sleep at 3am after the last one has left,” she narrates.
“I worked to raise money to help me get through school. I decided to go back home and work in the garden with my mum. I managed to study up to Senior Four. I then sat home because there was no money to study,” she recalls.
But in 1999, a cousin told her about an American woman who was helping educate girls. “I wrote to her in October 1999, but she only replied in January 2000. She said she was willing to support me,” narrates a teary Achieng.
She joined City High School in Kampala in 2001 and had to walk over six kilometers to school every day from Bweyogerere where she was staying with her older brother.
“Soon my brother, who had just moved in with his girlfriend said I was an inconvenience and should leave his house,” she recalls.
Scraping together the little cash she had and favours here and there, Achieng rented a tiny room in Kireka, a Kampala suburb. “Sometimes, I would just drink water because there was not a penny left to buy food,” Achieng recounts.
Luckily, she passed and won a scholarship from the Carnegie Foundation to join Makerere University in 2004 to study Information Technology. “After one semester, someone lied to the organisation that I was from a well-off family and it stopped sponsoring me,” she narrates. She sought the assistance of her former sponsors who agreed to see her through University.
She joined Barclays Bank as a sales person in 2007 and went on to work there after graduating. After about three years, Achieng quit her job with Barclays and joined Build Africa as a communications officer. This gave her an opportunity to move around up country. It also gave her firsthand experience of the amount of suffering the rural girls were going through.
Pearl Community Education is born
In 2011, Achieng founded Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation through which she has helped rural girls from Tororo and Butaleja Districts, especially with education. Achieng has also lost seven brothers and two sisters to HIV/Aids, leaving her with 17 nieces to look after.
On January 1, 2012, Achieng posted on Facebook that her dream for the year would be to get mentors for her girls and it turned into a fully-fledged discussion and requests for mentorships. “I got many people commenting and encouraging me,” she reminiscences.
That same year, 2012, she went to the US for training under World Pulse, USTTI/USAID and IREX. All three different programs that took her to the US where she shared her life story growing up in poverty and her struggles with education. At the end of the conference, she had built a network of people who knew about her.
“In 2012 alone, we got about 40 girls writing to us requesting for assistance. We took on our first batch of girls and, with support from some friends in USA, we sent these girls to schools in Kampala such as St Noah, whose administration understands our slow payments sometimes. Some of these girls had never sat in a car in their life, many didn’t have shoes, others didn’t have beddings and if they had three pairs of panties, two were rugs,” she narrates.
Beyond the education benefit
But her mission was not just to see these girls go through school. Achieng embarked on a community programme aimed at improving the livelihoods of these girls.
“During holidays, the girls are engaged in different developmental projects like poultry, rural girl child mentorship, schools and community sensitisation, rural peer savings and loans, We work with their parents in Agriculture. We have a model garden where we graft fruits and generate seedlings, which are then distributed to different families to plant” she explains.
Betty Athieno, another beneficiary of the programme, has been able to start up a poultry project, under Achieng’s guidance. Achieng also says they have tackled the issue of teenage pregnancies through taking some of these girls for training, after which, they talk to their colleagues on the benefits of abstinence.
Strides and shortfalls
Many families have today approached her requesting that she take their daughters under her wing.
Today, with 103 girls and 5 boys signed under her organisation, she has had to set conditions one of which is not admitting girls from families that are known to be domestically violent in a bid to discourage the vice. “This has registered a big improvement in the communities in Tororo because the rule has silenced domestic violence in homes,” she says.
“PCE Foundation also distributes condoms to the boys and talks to the girls about abstinence and safe sex,” adds Achieng.
However, despite the strides they have achieved, Achieng says they have encountered a few challenges. “They receive an overwhelming number of applicants every year and yet they can only take on so many. “This is my biggest challenge because I receive over 1,000 applications and I’m broken that I cannot help all those girls in need,” she says.
Beatrice Achieng Nas was born on January 19, 1983. She has a young daughter, and is engaged to a Dutch, who stays abroad but is planning to permanently settle in Uganda.