Helping other people is my calling- Kisirisa

Some of the students show off their work to Muhammed Kisirisa at Action for Fundamental Change and Development in Bwaise. PHOTO BY MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

TRIUMPHANT. Muhammed Kisirisa, alias Slum ambassador, is a 2017 winner of the Young Achievers Awards. The 31-year-old is co-founder and CEO of Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD). He talked to DESIRE MBABAALI about his life journey in Bwaise.

One spots brown roofs weighed down by age and rust. One after another. You walk through the mostly dump pathways that double as compounds, jumping sewer gutters, stray dogs dotted and many jolly toddlers running around. At almost every turn is someone kneading dough, frying chapatti and one serving kikomando (chapatti and beans) to a group of men. Welcome to Lufula Zone, Bwaise II Parish in Kampala.

The journey of Muhammed Kisirisa. Kisirisa is conversational but soft spoken. He sighs, pauses for half a minute and we seat to talk about his life.
“I am from a Muslim family of more than 15 children. The kind of family where you wake up, greet your parents, take tea, and rush to school. Then return home in time to wash your uniform, do housework and by 7pm, you read books before watching TV,” he recalls. “I was small, shy, and I wasn’t as bright throughout my education.”

He attended Lynette Primary School, Bwaise Kazo.
“Before Primary seven vacation in 2000, my parents discussed whether I should stay in school or not. My father said he didn’t have enough money to support all of us,” says Kisirisa.

During vacation, he went to Kiboga District, their ancestral home. The then 12-year-old then started figuring how to return to Bwaise two weeks after school had resumed.
“I refused to eat and my grandmother took me back home,” he recalls, adding that his father then said he did not have enough money to support all the children. “I realised that things were serious.”

Fending for self
“All I did was housework but in our neighbourhood, Lufula Women’s group opened a tap opposite Eden Service Park. They needed someone to manage operations and collect money at the tap. I asked for the job and got it. They were paying me Shs30,000 per month. For me, that was a lot of money,” he laughs.

With time he started fetching water for people at Shs200 and Shs300 went on to help with house chores at Shs1,000 and collecting garbage at Shs500. Kisirisa would later at Shs2,000 help with shopping for groceries for different families from the market. Next to the tap was a welding shop and soon, he helped them paint their window frames at Shs500 and door frames at Shs1,000. He needed more money and he got a gig at the nearby soda depot. He loaded and off-loaded crates of soda and earned two bottles of soda, which he would keep until he made a crate and sell it off.

“I saved my money in a piggy bank to raise Shs145,000 for school fees. As others went for third term, I joined Homeland Integrated Senior Secondary School. The school admitted one at any time of the term and no one would repeat a class regardless of their grades,” he points out.
“My aim was to catch up with my classmates from primary school. I wanted to blend in even if I had to copy notes for two months to catch up with others.”

But this also meant leaving his full time tap job. He then ventured into collecting scrap.
“A kilogramme of steel cost between Shs1,200 and Shs1,500. From school, I would dash home, put off my uniform, carry my sack on the back and scavenge for scrap. I would sleep late, doze in class and often miss class as I had to look for fees. But I was managing. This earned me nicknames but I didn’t take it seriously because everyone had something to be teased about. I didn’t have a girlfriend to laugh at me,” Kisirisa says.

He joined Bilal Islamic School for A-Level. “I was neither average nor a failure. I passed with my 30s and 40s, but at least I knew English,” he says, adding, “Throughout high school, I realised my thinking was better than my peers. I acted more maturely. I also started thinking that school wasn’t my thing.”

Helping others
His love for helping others dates as back to Senior Four vacation. “I started designing forms for ‘Sponsor a child’ looking for sponsors online for other children. I had volunteered to mop and organise an Internet café in return for time on the computer in the evening and at the weekend. I wrote 15 profiles for children seeking sponsors for them in vain,” he recalls.

From his peanuts savings, Kisirisa would help. “I knew how hard go-back-to-school time was, I started buying books and pens for them. I thought helping others was my calling,” he says.

“Before I even sat my last paper at Senior Six, I was already organising blood donation drives, cleaning campaigns, and volunteering with Vision for Sustainable Development for more than a year. But I still profiled children and organised events to fundraise for scholastic materials. At that time, I didn’t know concepts such as report writing and project proposals but I knew letter writing which came in handy,” he explains.

Starting out
After organising a fundraiser for Kumi people in 2009, it dawned on him that his people in Bwaise faced the same challenges. Instead of organising another fundraiser, with his colleagues; Richard Kafuma, Jaffer Nyombi Tazan and Brian Mugagga, they decided to start a foundation Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD).

“We didn’t have any experience running organisations but we learnt on the job. After a month, we had registered. My mum had a shop and after sharing our idea she gave us the space and some of her furniture. We got furniture from family and friends and we painted it. In one month our office was complete,” he narrates.

Next was programming their activities.
“We started registering orphans. We partnered with Working to Empower from Canada,” he relishes.
The partner supported 20 of the 200 registered children. Kisirisa and his friends got the idea of starting a primary school in the community running from kindergarten to Primary Five to offer free education.
“We didn’t forecast hardships because of our passion. We organised work camps and volunteers from different countries came. We built the first block of classes and the following year completed the other block. We struggled with the school, financially but the slum tours by people who came to visit us was our major source of funds. With this, we paid our dues such as rent and teachers,” he recalls.

Turning point
From 2009 to 2013, the organisation had never received any grants.
“In 2012, we started connecting with the US Embassy in Kampala. A friend we were working closely with forwarded our email to the US contact and I received an email inviting me to the US Embassy for a meeting. There, we found an expert in development and fundraising. When I saw her talking to us, I envisioned myself doing the things she did. My going to the embassy for that meeting was a dream come true,” says Kisirisa.

In 2013, they were selected for an annual programme to do a project. “Dan Travis, the public affairs officer, US Embassy, Kampala loved coming to Bwaise. He said, ‘I like you people because you are doing something for your community. You are not asking for funds. Ever since I started coming here, you have never sent a proposal or an email asking for funds. I liked you because you don’t need my help to do this.’

Later on, he gave them funds and they started a free vocational training school in Bwaise. In August 2013, they moved into their first office.

Today and impact
Currently, the school has about 330 students and a new branch opened in Kisenyi last year and it has 205 students. They offer more than 12 vocational programmes in both institutes. Last year, they were able to buy land and construct classes for a primary school with funds from Hewlet, Fonthill, Waterloo and other funders. The primary school (from Kindergarten to Primary Three, has 100 children. Eighty of these study for free.

“But we are going to build another block and hopefully by 2020, we are targeting more than 300 children to benefit, up to Primary Seven. Over time, 400 pupils have gone through the primary school,” he says.

With support from the US government, 557 graduated from the vocational school in 2013. In 2014, 445 students with help from the Polish government graduated. In 2015, with no sponsor, a fees programme was introduced and only 40 students graduated. In 2016, the European Union, came on board to offer funding for students, so when they enrol, they give them full bursaries.

“Graduates write business plans, we select the best business and give them capital in terms of equipment worth Shs3.5 or Shs4m, rent for three months and a business license for a year and a bit of branding, plus six months of training in business. So far, 250 people have benefited. We are targeting 1,000 people with start-up capital by end of 2019,” Kisirisa explains.
They also have a women’s Sacco under the EU arrangement with 100women currently saving and borrowing money.

Quick notes
Kisirisa Typical day: I am a workaholic, I get to work by 6.30am or 7am. Eighty per cent of my work is AFFCAD. I am always thinking what next: which partner or funder to approach. When I don’t have much work I leave around 5.30pm. I watch a film every day. Unless I have much work, then I will go with my computer back at home and work.

Away from work: I love comedy and travelling. I mostly travel for business, but now I travel for a little pleasure. I like to check out new places and hangouts. I play football, I do film and photography. I have been behind some famous music videos.

What inspires him: The stories of beneficiaries and how their life has been transformed through our work, plus other young people that do the same work as we do.

2013: First young African to win the Muhammad Ali humanitarian award. It was his first time to go to the US.
2016: Commonwealth in excellence development work as an African regional finalist.
2017: Young Achiever’s Award.