On June 21, I attended an African children’s choir performance in St. Catharines, Ontario. Bright costumes, energetic music and heart-wrenching testimonies by orphaned children taken in and educated by Watoto, an organization based in Uganda, combined to provide the audience with a memorable evening.
Later, I interviewed Moses Mukasa, 32, originally from Uganda and now living in Victoria, B.C., to learn more about Watoto, especially its educational component. Mukasa is Watoto’s Manager of Development & Partner Relations in Canada. He connects individuals, organizations, and partners to Watoto’s work in Africa.
What is Watoto, and how did it begin?
Watoto, which means “the children” in Swahili, is a holistic care program that was initiated in Uganda in 1994 as a response to the overwhelming number of orphaned and vulnerable children and women in Africa as a result of HIV/AIDS and war. The organization rescues individuals and raises them to become leaders in their chosen sphere of life so that in turn they will rebuild their nation. The Watoto model provides for physical care, medical intervention including HIV/AIDS treatment, both formal and technical education, counselling and emotional well-being, and moral and spiritual discipleship.
Having built an accountable, effective model over the last 20 years in Uganda, Watoto aims to replicate the model in other countries in Africa so as to fast track the rescue of orphaned and vulnerable children and women on the continent. The organization exists because friends, churches, other organizations and individuals have come alongside us in various ways to help continue the rescue of the most vulnerable children and women in Africa. Watoto is funded through child/mother sponsorships, volunteers who fund and help with the construction of various Watoto facilities, Watoto Children’s Choirs fund raising tours and donations from around the world.
How did God lead you to Watoto?
I grew up in a village in Eastern Uganda. In the early 1990s, HIV/AIDS hit Uganda badly. My first introduction to HIV/AIDS was when I was 10 years old. I nursed my sick uncle for 10 months until he died. AIDS surrounded my family. I lost many relatives, including my father. That devastated me, but it also drew me to Watoto. I knew that there were many children worse off than me and that some of them were being rescued by Watoto.
My connection to Watoto didn’t come about because I had something to offer or provide, but because of my need to be a friend in any way I possibly could. I got involved in various ways, like summer camps. That showed my profound yearning to change the world. I continue to connect people to the work being done in Africa. I believe that we are all connected in one way or another and all want the same thing — a better tomorrow. I am on this ongoing quest to bring people together. Hopefully, we will be one step closer to helping these vulnerable communities flourish.
What values and goals are foundational to Watoto?
Watoto exists to honour Christ and our trust is in God alone. We believe that all of life is a sacred act of worship. We value all people and recognize them as gifts. We aspire to build character, to maintain high integrity and morality and to aim for excellence by doing everything over and above the call of duty. We seek to maintain justice and to help the oppressed and we value an attitude of generosity.
How do typical Watoto schools function and what is their philosophy of education?
The Watoto schools follow the Ugandan national school curriculum. Watoto’s key mandate is to raise the next generation of African leaders by pursuing excellence in academic and practical skills and integrity in conduct and moral values, so that each child will become a responsible Christian and a productive citizen of the nation. Watoto builds its own schools in its own villages and finds qualified teachers to educate the children. We currently operate three primary schools, two secondary schools, and one vocational school and each is coeducational.
What specific qualities does Watoto look for in the teachers it hires?
We look for Christian teachers who have a passion for teaching, love children, understand that they will be working with the most vulnerable children and have a willingness to show patience and work collaboratively with the Watoto school community. Experience is key. Teachers must have at least two years of experience before we hire them.
Watoto has launched a program called “Keep a Girl in School.” What gender-specific factors make such a program essential?
Worldwide statistics show that, on average, 155 girls in every village in Africa have dropped out of school because they can’t afford sanitary napkins and underwear at the age of menstruation. “Keep a Girl in School” aims to reduce the primary school dropout rate and increase primary school exam completion among adolescent girls through the provision of sanitary napkins and hygiene supplies and character and life skills development. The program also sensitizes parents and other stakeholders on the benefits of girl-child education.
Does Watoto provide education for children with special needs?
We are planning to integrate some children with special needs in a Watoto school next year. We will include hearing-impaired and visually-impaired students and plan to have qualified and experienced special needs teachers in place to educate them.
We care for children with special needs mostly in the Watoto Babies’ Homes and village homes where children live with a house mother. Most children with special needs come to Watoto as infants abandoned by their families. We take them in and provide the necessary care to keep them healthy. We have staff who are trained in working with them on specific exercises to meet each of their unique needs and we have friends around the world who help sponsor them. This year, we are working with another organization in Uganda that has better facilities and care systems for children with special needs, and we hope to start transitioning the children to this organization.
As I mentioned earlier, I attended one of the Watoto Children’s Choir performances earlier this year. I learned that this choir was the 65th that had gone out worldwide since 1994. Tell us about the Watoto Children’s Choirs and what they try to accomplish.
The choirs travel internationally to help raise awareness and support for the plight of Africa’s orphans and vulnerable women. The performances are a soulful blend of native African rhythms, contemporary gospel music and ethnic dance. During their concerts, audiences are encouraged to partner with Watoto.
When the children are on the road with the choir for months at a time, how do they keep up with their education?
On every tour there are 10 adults — care givers and trained teachers — who take responsibility for home schooling the 22 children who are in the choir. One of these adults is the principal and heads up the entire educational department ensuring that the children get the best education they can while on the road. Specific days are allocated for school work and all of the children work hard to keep up with their school on the road. They spend time reading, writing, and at times even studying for upcoming exams.
How have Watoto students of all ages performed in national testing?
Watoto schools follow the national curriculum, which includes national testing at the end of elementary and high school. In the 2013, one hundred Watoto students from Suubi & Biira Village sat for their Ordinary Certificate of Education (UCE) national examinations. The Ordinary Level results for 2013 were above average and better than the previous year, seeing all students graduating to the higher secondary school level.
The Uganda Advanced Certificate in Education (UACE) is a national exam that allows students entry into university and other tertiary institutions. In December 2013, 62 Watoto students took the exam, two of whom excelled with distinctions. Our best students were Sophia Naggayi and Rubangakene Ronald. They are set to join one of Uganda’s top universities. Watoto will assist 47 students through university and other tertiary institutions. Watoto schools continue to offer practical and above-average education to vulnerable children, giving them the opportunity to excel in life.
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