Changing lives in Uganda
Fiona Beckerlegge spent six years helping Bermuda's children thrive.
As a community physiotherapist for the Department of Health, she visited the island's primary schools to assess students' motor skills and muscle development and assist those with disabilities.
But she always knew there were children in greater need of her help and expertise, and when an opportunity arose to utilise her skills in Uganda, she couldn't say no.
From initially helping one desperate family, she has gone on to help fund, launch and run the Kyaninga Child Development Centre.
It provides free and vital occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy to poverty-stricken children.
Ms Beckerlegge's incredible journey began in 2013.
A couple in the East African nation, Steve and Asha Williams, appealed through a professional physiotherapy organisation for someone to help their son. Sidney, who was then 2, had severe epilepsy and development problems.
“They were struggling to get any help here [in Fort Portal, in the Kabarole district of western Uganda],” Ms Beckerlegge said. “Asha would have to travel five hours to the capital, Kampala, and back every couple of weeks so he could see a physiotherapist, which is also expensive.”
The couple had just opened their business, the Kyaninga Lodge tourist resort, and could not move closer to the capital. Ms Beckerlegge, from England, responded to their appeal and arrived in October 2013, originally intending to stay for six months.
“They offered me room and board to come out and work with Sidney, they couldn't afford to pay me,” she said. “He made really great progress and soon lots of other people were asking if I'd see their kids. I also started volunteering at a local orphanage, where they had several kids with disabilities.”
Ms Beckerlegge and the Williams family quickly saw the need for her services and were keen to open an assessment, treatment, education and support facility for children with disabilities, to enable them to lead more independent lives and also support their families and carers. After ploughing in $5,000 each, Kyaninga Child Development Centre was born. Additional financial support soon came in from the Accomplish Trust, a British charity that provides grants to organisations in Africa who work with children with disabilities, as well as donations from the public and local organisations.
Ms Beckerlegge knew they could never charge people who needed the centre's help. The cost of travel to hospital and treatment there is too expensive for most families in the district, where the average monthly salary is about 300,000 shillings — less than $90. Ms Beckerlegge said even this low amount was a fairly high average income for Uganda, as the district takes in doctors, government officials, bank staff and private schoolteachers. Most of the families she helps are subsistence farmers.
“The bus fare to the hospital in Kampala is about 25,000 shillings ($7.40) each way and can take between six and eight hours,” she said. “Then you have to pay about 70,000 shillings ($20.75) for a therapy session. Most people can't afford that, most families are living in extreme poverty in mud huts. They are subsistence farmers who grow enough to feed their families and an animal.
“Disability in Uganda is considered a curse, witchcraft or a punishment from God. The mothers are usually blamed and fathers will leave because they think the disability is due to something the mother did wrong, so there are a lot of single mothers with no income trying to raise disabled children.
“The hospital usually tells parents to buy a CP chair, a wooden chair that givens more support than a regular one, but these are expensive at 90,000 shillings ($26.70), and that there's nothing else they can do. But all the kids we've seen are making progress. One example is a little boy called Peter, who is 8 and came to us last June. He couldn't sit or stand and spent his time lying on a mat in the corner of the house.
“He had been a healthy boy but suffered cerebral malaria at the age of 5 and started having seizures. I saw him every week, sometimes twice a week, and every time there was improvement. He started to sit and walk, take an interest in toys. He can now feed and dress himself and loves running around and playing on the trampoline. The speech therapist is using pictures to help him communicate as he still can't talk. But he can show when he is hungry and thirsty or needs something.
“It's made a huge difference to his life and that of his family. His mum keeps thanking us for giving her son back to her. She never thought he would be able to do anything but now she has all these dreams for him again.”
Ms Beckerlegge says her team “cannot promise we can fix everything” but do their best to help children develop as much as they can. The team travels around the district to see families, often at schools, community centres and orphanages. Demand is high: the 2014 census showed that 12.5 per cent of Uganda's population of 34.6 million had a disability.
“Some families will travel two hours to get to us,” she said. “Parents walk for hours to bring their children to us. Last year we saw 187 children. This year so far we've seen another 125 on top of that.
“We've also increased our team to seven, including me, offering physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. We also have a nurse. It's still a labour of love for me — I still don't get a salary but the centre can now afford a small stipend to cover my living costs.”
Steve and Asha serve as directors and community outreach staff. They are also helping to organise the Running the Rift Marathon in November — all of the funds will go to the Kyaninga Child Development Centre.
“Triathlons are held in Fort Portal so the idea of a marathon seemed like another step,” Ms Beckerlegge said. “There will be a full marathon, a half-marathon and a 10k. We're hoping to get 300 runners and have already had 50 sign up from overseas. We're reaching out to local running clubs, too.
“It's being held in the rainy season so the temperature will be cooler, mid-70F. It could be muddy though and it's mostly on stunning trails rather than tarmac. It'll be through stunning scenery. I'll probably do the 10k but the marathon will be too much!”
Ms Beckerlegge is hoping the marathon will become an annual event that will help support the centre, which relies on donations.
“We want to be more sustainable and expand to help more children,” she said. “That's my dream.”
• For more information about Kyaninga Child Development Centre, visit http://kyaningacdc.org. You can also donate on their website: just $30 will pay for foot splints, while $45 will cover an assessment or follow-up session. Volunteers are also needed. You can also find the centre on Facebook: Kyaninga Child Development Centre
The inaugural fundraising event for the centre will feature one of the most naturally beautiful racecourses in the world.
You’ll be running on dirt trails northwest of Fort Portal, through villages and trading centres; you won’t find better cheerleaders than the local children who will come running out of their homes and schools to wave and clap.
Once the terrain opens up, you’ll see the Rwenzori Mountains, the Rift Valley and the vast Lake Albert.
There will be challenges in the form of hills and the 1,500 metre altitude, but it looks set to be the experience of a lifetime for runners of all levels.
The race itself will be on Saturday, November 5, but organisers have laid out a five-day African adventure for entrants, with lots of activities and sightseeing and activities, including a chimpanzee safari. Various accommodations are available.
• For more information, visit www.runningtheriftmarathon.com