Last Friday, Margaret Babirye Lwebuga was recognised at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT), Makerere University for her generous contribution to STEM education in Uganda. The Margaret Babirye Lwebuga Project” seeks to instill and disseminate a culture of sharing and continuing professional development for mathematics teachers in Uganda and other African countries as well as create a teaching methodology that prepares young people to thrive. Lwebuga has overcome economic hardships through commitment to hardwork and is now giving back to her country.
When Margaret Babirye Lwebuga exchanged marital vows with her husband in 1974, like many brides, she had dreams of raising a family and living happily ever after. Disaster however, struck the family when the family head, who was an accountant suddenly disappeared in the year 1979. Lwebuga reasons that the disappearance was probably due to the insurgency that existed in the country at that time. “My husband was never found,” she says sadly.
At the time of his disappearance, Lwebuga was about six months pregnant, which made the situation even more complicated.
“Life was never the same again for me and the children. Things became tough for us,’ she says.
She later gave birth a baby boy, her last born and fifth child. She embarked on the task of raising children as a single parent in an unstable economy and even less stable political climate. In order to make ends meet, Lwebuga says she did any work, that, at the end of the day put food on the table.
“I remember baking cakes back then. I would make the cake and take to another person to decorate it. There were moments I would also tailor clothes and sell them,” she shares.
One of her favourite activities to do during free time was evangelism where she preached the word of God to members of the community who did not mind sparing time to listen to her gospel.
When things got a little tougher back home, Lwebuga says her supportive father always chipped in to offer the family assistance. “He would send us food from the village with words of hope and encouragement. My father was my rock during those difficult times,” she says.
Desperate to fend for her children, Lwebuga visited different organisations asking for assistance. Some of the organisations she visited included Save the Children (Uganda), Africa Foundation, among others who offered help wherever they possibly could.
Amidst her continuous quest for assistance, Lwebuga one day met a warmhearted and loving American woman named Cindy who was in Uganda at the time.
‘I met Cindy through one of the organisations. I remember sitting down and revealing my problems to her which she listened to, very patiently. I did not even know how she could help but at that point I was relieved to have such a sympathetic listener,” Lwebuga recalls.
The mother of five says her life was never the same again after that conversation. “Cindy came through and started providing food, monetary assistance, and other requirements. She became the family’s major sponsor,” she reveals.
What was even more humbling was that Cindy later took some of Lwebuga’s children, two daughters, to America where they attained their high school and college education. Lwebuga remained in Uganda looking after the other three children.
Going to America
In 2002, Lwebuga received an invitation to attend one of her relatives’ wedding in the USA. In the USA, she reunited with her daughter who had since become a naturalised citizen. “My daughter asked me to stay a little longer in America after the wedding. When I accepted she started the legal process for me to become an American resident,” Lwebuga says.
Lwebuga’s first days in America were characterised by culture shock. She was surprised at the abundance of study and work opportunities and the generous wages.
“I was surprised by how different they did things from the way we do them here in Uganda. Everything from the food, weather and working conditions is different. For example, back here, you may work tirelessly hard and not be compensated accordingly for that effort. But in the USA, I discovered that you earn according to your effort and you get paid in time too,” she says.
Another difference that struck Lwebuga is the need for extensive documentation and some level of training for every job you do. Lwebuga’s decided to get a job looking after the elderly but first, she had to undergo training before getting considered for it.
“While there, you do not wake up one morning and starting doing things without being trained. Even if you want to be a cleaner, you have to first get the required training. Things are not like here back home where you hired relatives without the required qualifications,” she notes.
Lwebuga underwent a (certified nursing assistant) training course in that same year (2002) when she travelled to America. The two months’ course included a state examination which Lwebuga passed very well and was awarded a certificate. “These credential were very helpful in acquiring a work permit,” she says.
Immediately, she was recruited by an agency called House Works, which specialises in providing caregiving services to elderly people including around-the-clock assistance. The agency did a thorough background check on Lwebuga before recruiting her.
“The agency worked in such a way that if anyone or family was interested in hiring a professional caregiver to look after their elderly person, they would come to the agency which was partly responsible in allocating us to different respective homes,” she explains.
Lwebuga got chance to work in different homes.
“As a caregiver, I was primarily responsible for helping the elderly with limited mobility, ensuring they are comfortable, grooming them as well as making sure they ate their meals, among other things,” she says, adding, “One of the things I came to realise while caring for elderly people is that they are fragile beings who need the utmost care and attention. A caregiver has to be at most times gentle, attentive and patient with them.”
During most of the work, Lwebuga stayed at the residences of the elderly persons but when she was not on duty, she lived with her daughter.
Lwebuga’s loving touch
According to Marjorie Winter, 66, a retired mathematician, Lwebuga is a generous, selfless, humble and hardworking woman. It is for these reasons that Winter says she has remained good friends with Lwebuga. She first met Lwebuga back in 2015 when Lwebuga took care of her mother, Joan Batchelor. Batchelor was about 91 years old at the time and nearly bed ridden.
“My mother had tendencies of fighting everyone who tried looking after her, and, in the beginning, she gave Lwebuga quite a tough time. One time, she in fact threw a glass of orange juice at her. Lwebuga did not retaliate, but, rather embraced my mother and took great care of her,” Winter says.
Within a period of two months, Winter says Lwebuga had won her way into her mother’s heart.
“The two developed a strong friendship and bond,” she says.
Challenges of working abroad
Living and working abroad is not paradise as many people think. It comes with several challenges.
“There were moments I became very homesick missing my other children and other family members,” she says.
As a coping mechanism, she joined different Ugandan communities such as the Global Evangelical Church in Boston under the leadership of a Ugandan named John Baker Katende. For Lwebuga, the weather proved another challenge for her.
“Winter was too cold for me. Imagine covering up with your heaviest and warmest clothes but still feeling cold. The cold entered my bones. My fingers would remain frozen even after wearing thick gloves,” she says.
During her many years of working and living in America, Lwebuga has ensured to visit Uganda at least three times checking on the rest of her children and family members.
What is STEM?
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. The government has identified these subject areas as the most important ones for the future. It is predicted that almost all future jobs will require some STEM knowledge. The STEM subjects are closely related to each other at school and in tertiary training. For example, maths provides the foundation for studying physics, and physics provides the foundation for studying engineering. STEM subjects can lead to better paid, more secure jobs because there are skill shortages in related sectors such as IT, engineering and health. If a person does not want to work in a STEM area, studying STEM subjects will still develop important skills employers want, such as communication and thinking skills.