By Omari Jinaki
S.O.U.L. Foundation Board Member and Student Sponsor
I called every education-focused non-profit organization working in Uganda that I could find. Literally. After scouring the internet, I talked with and met every Executive Director and told them my background, ambitions, and ideas for contribution. I also asked them about their goals, methodologies, and means of demonstrating success. After narrowing it down to the organizations with the most compelling missions and results, I easily chose S.O.U.L. Foundation as the premiere organization in Uganda with which to devote my time. S.O.U.L.'s model requires the community to invest financially, mentally, and emotionally in bettering their futures, which is crucial to developing a mindset of self-perpetuated growth.
One of the first ways in which I got involved with S.O.U.L.'s work was by sponsoring a 21-year-old Ugandan secondary (high school) student named Kafumufu Joseph. I chose to sponsor an older student because I wanted to be able to develop a meaningful relationship with that student that would be helpful to him or her as he or she transitioned to adulthood. The cost of Kafumufu's school fees was less than what most people would spend on a night out, about the same as what one would spend on a cab from Midtown to Brooklyn, and just above what I spend for lunch on any given day. But for Kafumufu and his family, school fees are a huge expense equivalent to what his mom pays for rent each month. In fact, Kafumufu did not begin kindergarten until he was 9 years old because his father couldn't afford school fees; luckily, his mother and aunt were able to be supportive of him beginning his education, though he continued to struggle and he sometimes repeated or missed years of school over time.
For a year prior to my visit to Uganda, Kafumufu and I exchanged letters and videos. He taught me key phrases in his native tongue, and I sent him duplicates of books that we would read simultaneously and discuss. Connecting with my student from across continents amped up my desire to live and understand his and his family's lives – to be able to look each other in the eyes and empathetically share our lives.
I made the trip to visit Kafumufu the following year and was ecstatic to see that, though he'd had a tumultuous ride through secondary school, he courageously pressed ahead through graduation. We hosted an epic graduation party outside of his family's home that drew over 200 guests. That night, Kafumufu called me "father" for the first time. I knew that I had touched him and that we would be able to have a lifelong connection. Even though I am only 11 years older than him, I became a father figure to him, and this is one of the proudest roles in my life.
Kafumufu has since gone on to begin college at Kampala International University, one of the top ten universities in Uganda. I was an am continually anxious about how he will deal with the challenges of moving from a village – with no electricity, locks on doors, or public transportation – to a major city. However, Kafumufu continues to impress me with his tenacity and strong backbone. During my most recent trip, he invited me to stay with him and his roommate in his eight foot by eight foot dorm; we slept on the floor and bathed with buckets of water in concrete latrines that doubled as urinals. It was eye-opening for me to step into his day-to-day world, and I gained so much respect for his headstrong attitude. In spite of living every day in what anyone would consider tough conditions, Kafumufu never complains; he diligently tackles his work, seeks out mentors, studies, and attends classes every day. He is a leader among his peers. I am awed by and proud of his "keep your head up and rise" approach to life.
Over time, my dedication to S.O.U.L. Foundation has expanded naturally. From the first minute I spent in Uganda I was compelled to share the magic of S.O.U.L. Though creating personal videos set to music that showcase S.O.U.L.'s work, helping with a series of New York fundraisers for the organization, and working with S.O.U.L. staff to develop a blossoming, self-sustaining mentorship program for secondary students, my connection to S.O.U.L. has bloomed. This work has allowed me to bring the energy and love of Uganda back to the United States and share it around the world. In 2016, I was ecstatic to take my role with S.O.U.L. to a new level by joining its Board of Directors. I am fulfilled by seeing S.O.U.L.'s grander impact, which extends far beyond the student sponsorship program. I am committed to ensuring that S.O.U.L. maximizes its potential impact and optimizes its growth as it expands across Uganda and beyond.
Stay tuned for part 3 of Omari's journey!