Ida Horner, 49, sits at the Inyamat Restaurant at the Capital Mall supermarket in Ntinda. Wearing a light white cotton blouse, Horner has presence. She is soft spoken but this does not dim out her strong conviction about her personal mission: Preventing young girls from getting married for the sake of it and not having financial independence because they do not have the skills they can take to the market.
Having lived abroad for more than 25 years, Horner has been coming to Uganda several times. Originally it was to visit family but now she mostly comes to oversee the community work projects she runs.
How the seed was planted
A 2006 visit to Kabale nudged at Ida Horner’s heart and triggered in her a desire to do something. As a Ugandan living in the United Kingdom, she had worked with London’s poor, providing affordable housing. So when visiting relatives in Kabale, the level of poverty she witnessed challenged her to use the skills she had acquired working with London’s underclass, to change and empower the people she had seen.
Horner did not want to join the normal aid bandwagon but rather preferred to offer trade opportunities for the women she had met. On return to the UK, she started Ethnic Supplies, an online enterprise that sells Ugandan crafts to the international market.
A surprise call from Ann McCarthy, who after reading an article about Horner’s work, called for a meeting to discuss a collaboration and about her project in Ruhanga.
“Ann told me about the work she was doing in Ruhanga,” Horner says.
She was charmed by McCarthy and saw potential for a partnership. She later travelled to Uganda again and went to Ruhanga, where she had a meeting with the local people.
“I went and met some of the local people,” she says. “We had a village meeting to discuss the issues in the village and what their priorities were.”
At the community meeting, Horner says, the women asked for access to clean water, while the men requested for a nursery school to be built.
“Those were to be our priorities; Build a nursery school and fundraise for clean water,” she says.
On return to the United Kingdom, Horner and McCarthy registered with the charity commission, Let Them Help Themselves Out of Poverty.
Horner embarked on a vigorous fundraising strategy.
“I invited a few other Ugandans I knew and other friends. We raised £5,000 (Shs21m) to start with, and we built a community centre,” Horner says. “Another room was a computer room, where the teenage boys interacted with the older people, who could use computers. We finished the nursery school in 2009.”
In order to make the project sustainable and have a stable source of income, McCarthy registered the charity with the GAP year companies, who send volunteers to the developing world to work on voluntary projects. Horner explains that volunteers pay a fee to volunteer on projects, and this is the money that enables organisations like hers, to operate sustainably.
“Money paid was given to us,” she says, “and it grew from a nursery school to a primary school now called Ruhanga Community Development School.”
These earnings, Horner says, also made it possible to construct more housing to accommodate more volunteers and saw an increase in enrolment of students.
“That side of the project grew. Money from more volunteers was invested in building more bandas to have more volunteers.” In addition, she adds, “we hired staff, and today have 500 children from the initial eight students.”
Horner and McCarthy raised more money to supply 250 mosquito nets after a government scheme did not cover everyone in the village.
They later turned the focus on raising money for clean water for the village. The bulk of the money, Horner says, came from the volunteer fees. In addition, one volunteer, on return to the UK told his employer about the need for clean water.
Horner says friends in the UK organised sponsored walks, which also raised money for the projects. She also got online donations from friends and colleagues. As a result, the children attending the school pay very little, and there is also a sponsorship scheme to cater for the very poor families, she adds. Horner says the local people manage the scholarship selection process and are able to determine who is most deserving of the scholarship. The school runs up to Primary Six.
Horner also enters for competitions and has won grants from organisations like Hastoe Housing Association.
A strange resistance from the community
Horner contracted a local engineer who created 30 water taps in the community.
At the launch of the clean water project, Horner explained to the community, that they would have to maintain the water.
“I suggested that each tap have a woman in charge of it, so that the people that use it would contribute to a sinking fund, money [which] can be used to carry out any sort of repairs as they happen,” she says.
On a return visit in 2011, Horner was both surprised and saddened, to learn that the people had rejected using the clean water.
“When I returned in 2011, the village people had refused and preferred to go back to collecting the dirty water from the [same] source animals use. I was gutted,” she says. “We had gone on the walk to where they collect water. It was a two- hour walk.”
At the time of the interview, Horner says, she has spoken to the local leaders who were to have a community meeting to discuss the way forward. She is optimistic that the community will welcome suggestions from the community leaders.
Horner prefers working on one project from start to finish, before proceeding to the next. With the installment of the water project, she turned her focus to teenage girls at Team College Ruhanga, the local secondary school.
She met with the headmaster, George Karamira, to discuss what initiatives she could start in the school.
While the discussions were ongoing, she learnt about a bicycle project in Kisoro.
“Someone sent me a link about a bicycle initiaive in Kisoro that was run by local women. They had learnt how to ride, repair and hire out bicycles to tourists going to see gorillas,” she says. “I sent the clip to the headmaster about it to see if it would work in his community. He was excited.”
She contacted her community of online friends, and an American friend paid for a tool kit and money to pay an instructor. The students have already started earning from their new skills.
“By the end of last year,” she says, “the girls had started to repair bicycles and ride, and would make an income, buy sanitary towels, supplement their parents’ income and school fees.”
The enthusiasm the girls showed for the bicycle project, inspired Horner to fundraise for funds to set up a workshop.
She looks at it as a partnership and plans to expand it to mentoring classes.
“They will take in paying customers and later teach other youngsters in the village,” she says. “They will charge anyone they teach so that the initiative is self-sustaining and any profits will be split between the project and girls.”
The other side of the workshop, Horner says, will have a sewing room. The organisation has sewing machines that have been in storage. The girls will be taught to make re-usable sanitary towel as well. This initiative, Horner says, arose from a needs assessment where the girls requested for sanitary towels. Horner brought fabric samples and delegated the in-house tailor to make up some samples for the girls to experiment. If the results are positive, she says, the project will be turned into a commercial venture.
Horner is interested in working with the girls because they are more disadvantaged and giving them vocational survival skills is one way to ensure that they have a financially independent life.
“The prospects look grim for a village girl with very little education heading into the city or Kampala,” she says. “We have people with degrees riding boda-bodas, so what are the chances of people with no degrees? This means that even if these girls dropped out of school, they would have a skill.”
Someone to give us a break
Born of a mixed heritage - a Muganda father and a Mutooro mother, Horner feels wholly Ugandan. It is for this reason that the bulk of her work has been in Kabale and Ruhanga, and not limited to her parents’ villages.
“You need to look out for people that are less privileged that you are,” she says. “It does not matter that I am from this tribe.”
She boasts of different networks, which the communities she works with may not have access to.
“I do not have much money myself. I have access to networks of friends and well-wishers, and the communities can never access the networks I have. It does not matter that I am not related to them and not of the same tribe. I am in a privileged position.”
Horner is driven by the little changes and the differences her small contributions make to people’s lives. She wonders what her life would be like today if people in her life had never reached out to her.
“We all need someone to give us a break. We need someone to give us a small push. Sharing our success stories might push some of the girls to do it do,” she says.