Assisting others may not make you a better person, Richard Kiwanuka says. But the former refugee who once needed support himself has found that it gives you a more meaningful life.
Text and photo: Teresa Grøtan
Many Norwegians are familiar with the Kiwanuka’s story. He was 16 years old when he arrived in the country alone, cold and bloody one winter’s day in 1995 after fleeing from Uganda.
Placed in a reception centre in Bergen with other underage asylum-seekers, he was in a bad way – ill and depressed. After a few months of learning Norwegian, however, he began collecting money to create a Ugandan children’s home.
Eighteen years have now passed since Kiwanuka founded his first aid project. The original scheme has grown into two homes for 400 children, a school, a mentor programme and scholarships.
The latest extension, in collaboration with the Kavli Trust, is adult education. In Bergen, meanwhile, he does work on integration – particularly through sport.
Did you always know that you wanted to help others?
No, the idea came to me during my flight from Uganda. My childhood there, when I had friends and family around me, was secure and I didn’t think about others. After I had fled and lost my whole family, my thoughts turned to the two million children who have no parents.
How soon after you arrived in Norway did you begin to help?
As soon as I’d finished learning Norwegian and was attending upper secondary school, I sent my grant money to Uganda. My diet may have included a lot of spaghetti and tinned sardines, but I was very happy.
How did it feel the first time you saw it was possible to assist Ugandan children?
I began to forget my own problems, that I’d lost my own parents. I have been given a lot. That’s strengthened me internally. I can’t quite describe me.
Can you explain a little about your flight from Uganda?
I was at school when my father was killed, and got a message telling me not to go home in case I suffered the same fate. My aunt saved my life.
I think she paid a man to help me. Everything happened suddenly, nothing was planned. I came here to Norway with no clothes, nothing. All I remember is that we walked for a long time in the dark. I had no idea where we were going. We drove, we walked, we sat on a lorry, a minibus and a bus as we travelled through Kenya.
I was put on a flight to Norway. When I landed, I was worn out. I had a notepad I continued to write on, thinking it might become a book some time.
Why was your father killed?
Dad was a businessman, a lorry owner who bought food for onward sale. We also had a number of plantations where we grew crops. I’m not sure, but I think he sold provisions to the opposition.
Although he didn’t support the government, he was a businessman without any political involvement other than being concerned about children’s rights.
So you’re not sure why they killed him?
It’s difficult to say whether he was killed by the government or the opposition. I’d be cautious about speculating. I just don’t know.
What family do you have left?
My closest relative was my aunt, who died last year. Her child is still in Uganda.
But otherwise you’ve got nobody?
I’ve got a big family! There’s the children’s home with 400 residents and there’s about 700 kids in the slum who get food and an education from us. I can say I’ve got a big family in Uganda.
You’ve received support from the Kavli Trust for vocational training. Can you say a bit about the project on giving young people a brighter future?
Fifty-one per cent of Ugandans are below the age of 19. What if everyone who’s unemployed and uneducated could learn a practical trade, I thought. I want young people to have a better tomorrow.
How far has the project got?
We’ve established a dressmaking workshop with 50 sewing machines. The trainees do one year of intensive training, and can take the machine with them when they finish. When you’ve got your own sewing machine, you can get a very long way.
But the market will surely be saturated after a while? Everyone can’t make a living from sewing?
This project aims to get young people to think differently. It’s intended to lead them out of the slum and their poverty. They’ll discover more opportunities. They repay the cost of the sewing machine by making school uniforms which we buy and sell on.
What about cobbler training?
We’ve bought machines. The project kicked off in December 2015, when the first 10 trainees started. We’ve recruited seven of them from the slums, two from the children’s home and one from the neighbourhood.
Support from the Kavli Trust means we’re helping the kids the whole way. We don’t stop halfway. We’re helping to build Uganda. We equip them to look after their own children again.
How did you first come into contact with the trust?
I’d tried once before, without success. But I sent general manager Inger Elise Iversen some information last year about the organisation and myself. As a result, I had a meeting with Iversen and was able to present my project before submitting an application. The trust is an important sponsor. I also have backing from Marianne Rieber and financier Torstein Tvenge, while Norwegian professional boxer Cecilia Brækhus is our goodwill ambassador.
You came here as a refugee and are now helping many. How have you managed to accomplish this?
My friends, my family and my identity were in Uganda. I lost it all. When I reached Norway, I couldn’t sleep at night, I screamed, I ran out.
I didn’t get much help. Of the three other unaccompanied asylum-seekers I lived with, one has died from an overdose and the other two are in and out of prison.
What saved my life was sport. I became involved in a boxing environment, and recovered my appetite and my ability to sleep. I managed to realise that I couldn’t change what had happened, but could do something about what was to come. Nobody can help everyone, but everyone can help someone.
Richard Kiwanuka with one of the pupils he has supported since she lived at the children’s home. She has now graduated from university.