Uganda: Bethany Village
by Brenda and Jason Sommer
There are some places that just capture you. There are some people who draw you close and make your connection to Christ and life, stronger. There are some experiences that bring you to new depth, in your commitment to the gift of love.
In December 2013, we left Gabba boat dock for the first time. We had traveled a bit, and already had a growing love for Africa. Heading away from the busyness of Kampala (the capital), I was excited to see more. I quietly contemplated what an amazing thing it was to be traveling by wooden power boat across Lake Victoria, to this place that I had anticipated with joy and wonder for so many months. As we arrived to the shoreline at Bethany Village – a crowd of children, waited excitedly. Their beautiful smiling brown eyes and pearly white grins, their dirty feet and stretched out clothes, draping from bare shoulders, clothes stained by the bustling activity of being a child along these red dirt roads. For me, this was the purest picture of joy that I’d ever seen. They didn’t know us, but their cheers and smiles were like those of family, welcoming us home. I was instantly filled with joy and overwhelmed with gratitude.
Some of our greeters were from Bethany Village and others were from the surrounding villages. Bethany Village is a place of safety and refuge for the children who live here, along with many others. While eight house-mothers and a small handful of staff care for the 130+ children that officially reside here, they find ways to share the little that they have, by outreach and ministry to the surrounding communities and fishing villages.
During this visit we were immersed in the community. We worshiped together. Worked together. We shared life and stories, we laughed we cried. We shared dreams and hopes for the future – ours and theirs. We experienced the incredible work ethics of the young people, local volunteers and African Renewal Ministries (ARMS) staff. We worked side by side to improve the land and complete the Fish Farm Project. We taught skills like welding, masonry and aquaponics, and began to hear more and more distinctly, about the need for skills training, and more of these kinds of project opportunities.
Moses, who oversees this community, has a vision for Bethany. He wants to find ways to equip these young people with practical skills that they can develop, utilize and eventually teach to more young people. At 18, the Ugandan government enforces orphanages to “exit” young people, who have “aged out” of the current programs. It doesn’t matter that they have no where to go, with no jobs and no marketable skills. (Bethany Village is often the only home and family that they know.) They leave with a rolled up mattress, a few dollars and an unstable future, where they must provide for themselves.
Twenty of the young people that met us at the dock that first day, were in this situation. After they helped us carry our things up the big hill to our temporary home… they walked back down the hill, said their goodbyes, got onto that same boat that we arrived on and headed to the Kampala – where their untold futures would begin.(We were unaware at the time, but now refuse to forget it.)
We completed our project and far too soon, it was time to go. Reflecting in amazement, at how this community embraced us and the Fish Farm project. What we considered a small contribution they did not. We had found a home, on the other side of the world, and we left our friends without making “promises of our return”, but inside we carried an intense and motivating curiosity that asked the question “What more can we do?”.
As God so often does, He had ignited this passion for the people of Bethany Village, in others. Once we returned home, God began to connect the dots.
A few of us met for coffee and discovered just how similarly God had created our visions, and in November of 2014, we merged our God developed passions and returned to Uganda with clear intention: to research skills training within the country, study what’s working and what is not, and to meet with ARMS and the leaders of Bethany Village to create a plan for implementing a Skill Development Program there. While there, we managed to converge our money to buy 2 sewing machines for Bethany Village and a small amount of training time with a local seamstress. It was all we had, and we were eager to see what could develop from such a seemingly small gift. Throughout the next year, an action plan was formed for the first stages of formal Skills Training at Bethany Village.
In November 2015, eight women boarded a plane and I once again found myself in this place of refuge and hope. We retrofitted an old building, into a sewing training room, improved the electricity, providing new lighting and outlets, repaired the doors and windows to secure the building, purchased tables, chairs, and a cabinet to adequately contain and preserve the 6 months of sewing supplies and fabric.
We hired two local women, a house mother and young lady that was soon to be “exiting” Bethany Village, and provided a small salary for the next 12 months, so they could develop this training program and teach these eager and worthy students. In the next three weeks, we spent time working though the details of how to sustain this project/training. God used donations, personal skills and passions, and all of the prayers of those that had gone before, to cultivate a beautiful new garden of opportunity.
The training program is currently hosting 3-4 classes every week.
With over 90% of Uganda’s population unemployed, there is a deep need to create a skill base for young people. International Aid to Uganda has helped to provide college educations to young people, but with the countries 40,000 college graduates, they find less than 8,000 new jobs in their fields of study each year. This imbalance has led to frustration among the local people, government and Aid organizations. This key issue often leads Ugandan young people to leave their country, forced to take jobs elsewhere, when faced with no job opportunities in their homelands. It has tragic results for those that cannot sustain and provide for themselves. Self-employment opportunities and skills training provide additional income to the employed, household income for mothers caring for families at home, and creates quality workmanship, to develop stronger community infrastructure. By developing skills – we enable people to provide for themselves and give them the skills and confidence that are valuable in every community.
We create hope and ownership of their individual and community destinies. Hope is the most powerful of all motivators. Bethany Village has evolved into an incredible place of refuge. These 130+ children have lost parents and other family members to AIDS, sickness, drugs, alcohol, violence, neglect, poverty and starvation. They have experienced lives where loss, is the common denominator, and yet Hope, is the most prevalent theme.
It doesn’t stop here. All that has been done is incredible, but there is more to do. We want to continue to encourage and come alongside these amazing people as they steward the responsibilities of caring for and teaching young people. This coming June, team will be going back to Bethany Village, Uganda to press on towards the goal. They will bring encouragement, a replenishment of sewing supplies and materials, and will provide opportunities to advance the level of professionalism and skills at Bethany. We also plan to integrate accounting and business management skills into the curriculum, to further enable success for the future of Uganda’s next generations.
Sometimes God grows our passions. He cultivates new blooms, that compel us; to go. to do. Our goal is simple, to offer hope and opportunity.