Scovia Nassaazi today works as a research assistant at the International Centre for Child Health and Asset Development (ICHAD) after completing her Bachelor's Degree in Education at Mutesa I Royal University in 2016.
"It has been a long journey, and one that I never dreamed would get me to this level," she told Daily Monitor recently in her office in Masaka Town.
"I lost my father to HIV/Aids when I was in primary school and I worried about losing my mother and her support before I completed my education. However, in 2004, when I was in Primary Seven, at St Andrew's Primary School, we were told about a research project known as SUUBI Study which provided mentorship and counselling to children orphaned by Aids," Ms Nassaazi says.
Suubi is a Luganda word from hope. The SUUBI Study aimed at finding out if vulnerable children such as orphans could become more confident and get stronger hope in the future if through economic empowerment they were sure of completing their education.
"In the study we were not expected to get mere donations and hand-outs but rather we were told we had to work and contribute something ourselves towards our own welfare. We were invited along with our caretakers to become study participants in the study," she recounts.
Among the benefits on offer was helping the orphans build a saving culture. The study was led by Dr Fred Ssewamala, a professor at Columbia University, New York, in the USA.
"About half of the orphans that participated in the study were assisted to open bank accounts. I was among those who did so and every month we were expected to deposit some money on the account as savings. It was not easy for us because we did not have much in terms of assets beyond sugarcanes, some local chicken and perhaps fruits like avocado and jack-fruit that we could exchange for money sometimes. But the project officials insisted even small amounts of money could be saved. The idea was that any amount not exceeding twenty thousand which we saved, the SUUBI Project matched it with an equal amount," she says.
The savings were supposed to be used to pay school fees for those who chose to go to secondary school since back then it was not free.
Others who did not go to secondary school would use the money to start an enterprise or to go for vocational training. Different groups in the study programme would then be compared to see whether those who had saved were doing better in life compared to those that had not saved.
"My mother, Rosemary Nanganda, had taught me to look after pigs and she also made and sold pancakes for extra income. I would occasionally sell a piglet or two to raise some money that I saved in my bank account with Centenary Bank. I was to find that saved money useful in Senior Four at Matale Church of Uganda SecondarySchool following my mother's death," she recounts.
During the long vacation after she had sat her O level exams, Nassaazi lived with her grandfather at Kalagala Village near Kalisizo Town where she took up her late mother's small business of making pancakes. That helped her save enough money to buy school requirements for her A level studies at the same school.
She was determined to join University so she immediately after her A level exams went back to making pancakes and saving with Centenary Bank whatever little money she could.
She was later admitted to Mutesa I Royal University. While her grandfather helped with paying her tuition, it was from her savings that requirements such as a mattress and scholastic materials and money for her personal upkeep at the University came.
"It was during my university course that ICHAD offered me part-time employment as a student research assistant. That offer increased my opportunities for saving money and greatly reduced my grandmother's burden of paying my tuition. Although I have completed my first degree course I still value the habit of saving and I believe it is a habit I will keep all my life," she points out.
ICHAD has since 2004 been coordinating a number of studies led by Professor Ssewamala as economic empowering interventions for AIDS affected children in Uganda. They include SUUBI Study, SEED (Saving for Education and Entrepreneurship Development), SUUBI Maka, Bridges to the Future, and SUUBI Adherence.
Another former SUUBI Study participant, Wilberforce Tumwesige, used his savings to pay his tuition fees at Mutesa I Rayal University where he earned his Bachelor's Degree in Social Work. He has recently won a scholarship to do a Master's Degree at Washington University in St Louis.
Many orphans and other vulnerable children face big challenges to get school requirements and other items due to financial limitations which usually force them to drop out of school.
Where charitable organizations and individuals intervene by donating to such children, they never try to help them to become self-reliant. The welfare therefore, tends to end when the donations are tapped off, a situation which Prof Fred Ssewamala of Columbia University School of Social Work and Director of International Centre for Child Health and Asset Development (ICHAD) is intent on ending.
"The orphans should be trained to make a contribution towards their welfare and educational needs through work and saving no matter how modest the savings may be," he says.
"When the head of a poor household decides to reserve some beans and to keep them for a few weeks before eating them, it is in itself a form of saving. Poor people also save in their own way even if what they sometimes save is not in cash form. If the children can be assisted to set up small income generating activities in their homes such as vegetable growing or rearing local chicken or whatever other such small activities, the children can make some contribution towards purchasing their school requirements through personal savings.
They will be less likely to drop out of school or to get into sexually risky behaviour. For every one, of us saving must be looked at as a responsibility like paying a bill and not just keeping aside money left over as excess. Saving is a sacrifice we must all make and the children, including orphans, have got to learn this at an early age," he says.
He was speaking in Masaka Town last Friday during the function at which he announced the results of a five-year-study known as Bridges to the Future (2012-2016) conducted among 1410 AIDS affected primary school children from 48 schools in the districts of Masaka, Rakai, Lwengo, and Kalungu. He was the Principal Investigator of the study whose results announcement ceremony attracted district Chief Administrative Officers, District Education Officers, primary school headmasters/headmistresses, local district leaders and religious leaders.
The Bridges Study (Bridges to the Future Study) helped some of the orphans (research participants) to open up bank accounts in Centenary Bank, Diamond Trust Bank and Kakuuto Micro-Finance where they were encouraged to regularly deposit their savings. Whenever the child made any deposit on his or her account, (up to an equivalent of 20,000/= a month), the Bridges Study matched the savings by depositing an equal amount onto the account. For some of them, the Bridges Study deposited twice as much as the orphans saved. Although the accounts belonged to the children, and indeed were in the children's names, which was intended to give the children themselves a sense of ownership of the accounts, their care-takers were also signatories to the accounts.
However they were not allowed to withdraw the money without the signature of the child. The accounts belonged to the participants, but since they were minors at the time of accounts opening, their guardians were also signatories on the accounts.
"We encouraged them to only withdraw money for education or starting up income generating activities after informing us. The money deposited by the Bridges Study was what we called a mirror account. This mirror account could not be accessed by study participants and their guardians unless it was for approved use, like education and income generating activities."
The orphans and their caretakers were given training in money generating activities of their choice. The majority chose agricultural enterprises like pig and chicken rearing as well as crop production.
Mr Abel Mwebembezi, Director of Reach the Youth-Uganda, who supervised the study participants' income generating activities said that most of the participants were able to earn at least thirty thousand shillings every month.
The study results indicated that 30% of children who did not receive financial empowerment were able to join secondary school compared to 44% who were engaged in saving. The study also revealed that 54% of children who were not saving dropped out of primary school.
Masaka Municipality Mayor, Godfrey Kayemba Afaayo praised the study for not only instilling a saving culture among the youth but also securing their future since according to him saving is the based method of getting capital for investment. Masaka Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Hood Sseremba, described the study as an eye opener to the local leaders who should begin promoting the saving culture among orphans after equipping them with the needed skills for generating income. Father Joseph Kato, Masaka Diocesan Assistant
Education Secretary said the study had proved that vulnerable children needed skills more than mere donations.
"Masaka Diocese has been taking care of orphans in a different way but this study has taught us something new which we ought to consider doing as well." Kalungu District Education Officer, Hezilon Kayinga, said saving must be strongly emphasized in the entire primary education system not only for orphaned or vulnerable children but for every child in the country since everybody needs to form the habit.