Ruth Ndyabahika signed an agreement with Festo Karwemera yesterday, officially making her Grace Villa the new tenant of the Bakiga cultural museum and backpacker hostel. Edirisa has already handed over the keys of this property in the middle of Kabale Town.
Who is Ruth and why was she Edirisa’s preferred successor?
You might have noticed her among the judges of the Silverchef cooking competition, and as a participant of our May familiarisation trek through Bwindi. But do you know she is also one of the highlighted few in the the award-winning Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook?
Let us see what her profile says…
Ruth Ndyabahika had made it. A citizen of both Uganda and America, she was a successful freelance child psychologist in the Boston area. Then she saw a video and threw everything away.
Eight years before Kony 2012, a notorious video that upset Uganda with its portrayal of the situation in the north of the country, the same people made Invisible Children. This documentary showed the night commuters, kids who needed to leave their villages every night to avoid rebel abduction.
A Mormon friend brought the DVD to a movie night that Ruth was hosting. She was taken aback by how moved she was. She had never volunteered before but now she got completely involved. She became one of the East Coast representatives of the Invisible Children organisation, helped organise charity walks, lobbied from Boston to the Capitol Hill and began to regularly visit northern Uganda.
“It was very empowering to see that you, as an individual, can actually make a difference. I found Ugandan orphanages to volunteer in and discovered that helping makes me happy,” remembers Ruth.
Soon her work in Boston became unfulfilling. She couldn’t empathise with her clients anymore, there was no spark.
In 2011 she offered to host Vashtina, a young Ugandan girl who was sent to Boston by Nyaka School, for skin grafting after she had burned herself with a paraffin lamp. “It was a learning experience for me too. I had never lived with somebody who spoke only Rukiga and was from deep in the village,” says Ruth. During the following months she observed Vashtina’s remarkable transformation from a shy rural girl who always looked down at her feet into a self-confident personality who loved to read.
That was the final push. Ruth decided to return home to Kabale, and work with orphaned and vulnerable girls. In 2012 she used her own savings to establish Grace Villa, a sanctuary in a rented house on Makanga Hill. She describes it as “a loving home with a guardian who really cares for you, believes in you. Even if we change the future of just two girls, it will be worth it.”
To raise well-rounded girls with open minds, she needs to begin with rather fundamental things, like assuring children that it is fine to express themselves; they think it is rude to speak up to adults and particularly to say “no, thank you”. She has to bring in role models, successful Ugandans who look and talk like them, to show them that local people can make it, and can care too. “Vashtina used to light up when white people came for a visit; because Ugandans rarely brought her gifts unlike the Bazungu who came to engage with her and brought all kinds of stuff,” explains Ruth.
There are 18 girls currently staying at Grace Villa, aged 6-19, and 107 more children are sponsored. Special activities run by Ugandan and international volunteers bring them all together; programmes such as baking courses, computer training, a sleep-over camp and a football clinic. One of the supporters, Susan Smith from Harvard University, has donated 14 tablets, while Ugandan Nicholas Rwendeire donated a brand new monitor and PC for teaching IT skills. They have a flourishing tailoring program and have built a kitchen at a nearby school to provide 50 of the most vulnerable kids with free lunch.
Among needy children in Kabale, who are being offered various “projects” by all kinds of charitable organisations, Grace Villa is appreciated as one of the good ones. No wonder. Would you rather spend your Saturday playing with a tablet computer or praying the whole day, as another charity demands?
Religion at Grace Villa isn’t shoved in your face. Still, it is very much there, providing the foundation of love.
Ruth’s father was the late Professor Rev Canon James Ndyabahika while her mother is Canon Grace N. Ndyabahika, one of the first three ordained Ugandan women in the Anglican Church. Ruth remembers always finding her father reading in his library when she woke up scared from nightmares as a little girl, a very reassuring experience.
She remembers growing up thinking she was wonderful, because her mother kept telling her so. “I grew up content, completely loved, and that affects your outlook on life. I want to give this to our girls”.
She was raised accepting and respecting all religions, in a home where all classes were treated equally. Her mother supported colouring outside the lines and was an overwhelming source of peace.
Ruth was never taught how to ask for help. “I die a little every time I ask,” she confesses.
Don’t wait for her!
Photo: Brenda Phillips, Jiro Ose, Ruth Ndyabahika’s family archives