A soft heart for teenage mothers

Teenage mothers learn how to sew so that they can have a trade from which they can earn an income. Photo by Dominic Bukenya

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Inspiring change. Motherhood at a tender age is a daunting experience that not many recover from easily. However, Solome Nanvule did not let an unplanned pregnancy at 19 stand in the way of her aspiration. Not only did she go on to build a future for herself, but also reached out to fill the gap in the lives of many teenage girls who had faced the same predicament. Today her Pelletier Teenage Mothers Foundation is touching many lives.

Getting pregnant while a teenager should be one of the most traumatising experiences an average girl will ever go through, most especially when the pregnancy comes unexpectedly.

Solome Nanvule, 31, a resident of Nansana in Wakiso District appreciates the plight of teenage mothers, having been a teenage mother herself. She spends a big proportion of the money she earns from kyeyo in Canada on empowering and bettering the lives of teenage mothers back in Uganda.
Nanvule started a project in Nansana which she registered as Pelletier Teenage Mothers Foundation (PTMOF) in memory of her late benefactor, Fr Reinard Pelletier, a French-Canadian who paid her school fees from primary through to university.

“I met Fr Pelletier in 1986 when I was at St Theresa Mitala Maria Primary School. He was the parish priest of Mitala Maria, serving under the White Missionaries of Africa. He must have found me worth helping, given my poverty-stricken background,” she says.
Fr Pelletier had started an organisation at the parish called Excavellian Movement with Nanvule as the group leader. Her qualities became outstanding as a leader which prompted the Catholic Father to take keen interest in the young girl.

A rough childhood
Nanvule and her siblings were raised by a single mother, having been abandoned by their father. She and her siblings had to scavenge for food and would pick charcoal at Kasubi Market to survive at home.
She would use her pocket money from the priest to pay rent for her family, and supplement her siblings’ school fees.
“Father had enrolled me in the boarding section where I would get food and be cared for. I was, therefore, able to send some of my pocket money to my mother,” she says.

Fr Pelletier served in Uganda for 26 years before retiring back to Canada on account of failing health.
He returned to Uganda in August 2001 to identify some girls he could sponsor to travel to Canada for the World Youth Day celebrations, and Nanvule was first on his list. This was soon after she had completed her degree in education in 2001 from Makerere University. She completed her degree at 19, as she reveals that she skipped three classes in her primary school on account of her exceptional class performance that most teachers noticed.

Pregnant at 19
She was, however, pregnant by the time she went to Canada, giving birth after six months in early 2002. “Fr Pelletier did not know that I was pregnant. When I confided in my mother, she was furious and worried that the Father would cancel the trip to Canada if he discovered I was pregnant,” she narrates.

She left for Canada and never returned after the Youth Day event. In Toronto, Canada, she enrolled into the teen’s pregnancy programme as an immigrant. The Canadian government took good care of her, paying for her housing, food coupons, bus tickets, and according her free medical services until she gave birth in 2002. The government continued to support her and her baby until she found a job.

“I called Fr Pelletier who was then living in Montreal, Canada, to thank him for taking me to Canada. But, I also wanted to deliver to him the news of my pregnancy. So, I told him that I didn’t wish to return to Uganda because I was pregnant and, didn’t have a job.

All he said was that we needed to meet before he hang up the phone,” she recounts. “We finally met and had a father-daughter talk. He did not blame me for being pregnant, much as he was surprised.” After giving birth, Nanvule told him that she was going back home for a visit. “He requested me to visit some of the girls he had helped. When I got back, I got the bad news that the girls he used to help had dropped out of school and had become mothers. The caretakers of the girls were keeping the money leaving the girls to suffer and drop out of school.”

After seeing the crude life her fellow girls back home were going through as young mothers, and considering how she had been a teenage mother in Canada, Nanvule shared an idea with the Father upon her return to Canada of starting an organisation to empower teenage mothers. “Fr Pelletier gave me a go-ahead to use his name to register the organisation, and he also guided me on how to start the project,” she says.

State of teenage mothers in Wakiso
Wakiso District has an alarming rate of teenage mothers. According to the baseline study conducted by the District Community-Based Services Department in partnership with the Uganda Bureau of Statics (2002-2011), eight out of every 10 mothers in Wakiso are teenagers.
The district records show that 38 per cent of the children.

Starting the project

The project started in a friend’s garage in Nansana, Wakiso District. Nanvule picked five teenage mothers in Nansana and the organisation started teaching them how to make beads.

From the garage, she moved the project to a home in Nansana West Zone II, which she had built for her late mother.
The girls continued with their business of making beads, and they would soon include bakery and tailoring. They constructed a local bakery at the project site where they use firewood and briquettes. With the money she earns from kyeyo, Nanvule has bought sewing machines and salon equipment such as hair dryers, for the girls at the project site.

She isn’t bothered by the fact that she does not have donors to fund the project. “This is something I’m doing for the good of my community. I’m trying to help teenage mothers with or without financial help. If the donors come, I will appreciate their help,” she says.

Nanvule says more than 50 mothers have in the past two years benefited from the projects. Most of these, she says, are today doing private business as salon owners or operators of small bakeries.
Nanvule is at the moment aiming at acquiring five acres of land on which to build a big vocational institute, complete with housing facilities for young mothers and their children and a maternity centre.

Jessica Nakate, 18
My friend Nakelema brought me from Kiboga where I was struggling with my child, whose father had abandoned us and married another woman soon after I had given birth. I was living a traumatised life; without any help. My life has changed since I was brought to Ms Nanvule. Right now, I’m employed at a certain salon where I earn Shs7,000 a day.

Grace Kemirembe, 17
I am a student at Good Shepherd High School in Nansana. I live with my grandmother but I come here to learn how to plait hair. I’m not a teenage mother, though I find the skills offered here helpful to me. My aim is to learn these skills so that I can start earning money to supplement my school fees.

Zainah Nakalema , 19
I joined this place two years ago after giving birth at 17. The man who had impregnated me in Kiboga abandoned me and told me not to disturb him anymore. He even denied responsibility for the pregnancy. I headed for Kampala to look for a job. I didn’t have any relative in the city, so, I would sleep on the streets. With time, I moved to Nansana and by God’s grace, I encountered an old woman who took me in when I was pregnant. I stayed with that old woman till I gave birth to a baby boy. When my baby was three-months-old, a friend told me about Ms Nanvule’s organisation. I went there to find out how they could help me. I was immediately enrolled for their programmes, was counselled and reassured that I could live and take care of my child. Right now, I have spent two years here, and I have acquired skills to help me.