The first question that comes to mind when you hear about her work is what is the link? Is she married to a Somali, is she of Somali descent, did her paths cross with a Somali somewhere in a way that lit a passion to help in her heart? This is about Gloria Ekemu, a Ugandan, who is neither of the above.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
By CHRISTINE W. WANJALA
Until last year, her connection to the war ravaged horn of Africa was as remote as that of the majority of Ugandans, through the various bulletins on the television, telling of yet suicide bombs or progress of the he African Union Mission in Somalia Amisom) soldiers and the frequently highlighted plight of the civilians.
Today, Ms Ekemu runs an organisation that seeks to restore healing to the country, Hope In Life International (Hili), with a focus on women and children. The areas she aims to leave an impact are nutrition and sanitation.
Her work involves flying to the country for two weeks every month to work in the Internally Displaced Persons in Somalia –taking milk for the women and children and training the communities on proper sanitation. She spends her time in Uganda fundraising from friends.
So what inspired the 28-year-old to work in a country where even military personnel fear to tread?
“I noticed, for the longest time, the continued suffering of those trapped in the war zone that is Somalia and after a while, became interested in what was being done to alleviate their suffering,” she explains. After months of research she realised that even with the now prevailing peace in major parts of the country, there was genuine need to rebuild and heal, and foreign aid, most of which was just “dumped”, was not geared at doing these things.
“I started thinking about what I could do for those very real women and children who are no different from our own women and children here,” says Ms Ekemu. What she decided to do was quit her job, and start up the organisation. After getting her parents, and fiancé on board, Hili was born.
Her first stop was the Somali Embassy here, which welcomed her idea and introduced her to relevant authorities in Mogadishu .Then she sought out the leaders of the Amisom mission, to discuss security and the company was off to a running start.
“I took out my savings and used them to buy milk and other items my research had indicated were needed and made my first trip there.” In little under a year in which it has been in existence, Hili has reached over 2,500 women and children in two IDP camps; Karibu in Mogadishu and Dangwal in the outlying Abdul-Aziz district.
“Being God fearing and sharing others were lessons deeply inculcated in us as we grew up,” says Ekemu, who sees her charitable spirit as a direct result of these lessons. “My parents taught us you cannot give milk to a kitten when your neighbour’s child is starving,” she says.
Besides being a dedicated Christian —she says everything she does is for God—Ms Ekemu is also a pan Africanist at heart. She believes we are all children of the same land and most of all of one God. “It doesn’t matter if one is Christian, Muslim or traditionalist,” she explains.
In her opinion, a human in need is just that, human, and kindness breaks down, language race, creed and tribal barriers.
The whole-hearted reception by the Muslim Somalis to her work only serves to affirm her convictions. “They become excited when we work with them, and the leaders are more than willing to facilitate our work,” she says, adding that one of the biggest triumphs of the work is seeing how happy the people are to see a fellow black African coming over to offer a helping hand.
Working with the vulnerable of the still struggling nation has roused the interest of the countries high and mighty. “We caught the attention of the minister for women and now work closely with her ministry. We also have built rapport with Amisom leaders, who support our work by ferrying our cargo for free.
But the progress doesn’t come without challenges.
“I was humble enough to start with the little I had but with the overwhelming need on the ground, Hili is usually on a shoestring budget,” Ms Ekemu states.
She also says she sometimes encounters negative attitude when fundraising as people question why she chose Somalia, and fail to see the need to support her cause. “There are plenty of needy women and children right here in Uganda,” they say. To them, Ms Ekemu says there are many organisations working to help but very few have ventured into Somalia yet the need is even bigger.
But a few challenges here and there will not slow her down or stop her. “I think you only live once and in that lifetime you have a chance to make your life worthwhile. I found my purpose about the time I started Hili,” she says.
Even security concerns, which inevitably come up every time she mentions working in Somalia, do not faze her. “I do not think too much about the risks. What I enjoy is seeing people happy and stomachs full,” she says in a determined voice.
In the short time she has worked in Somalia, Ms Ekemu says she has picked priceless lessons on humanity, like the resilience of the human spirit, evident in the way the Somali people are rebuilding their city and country plus the way women are confident about a better day for their children.
But the most profound lesson, she said, is on the magnitude of people's needs. “For instance, we realised you can’t give clothes to hungry people in the name of help or just dump powder milk without knowing whether these people have clean water to mix the milk with,” she shared.
Ms Ekemu has no illusions about the path she has chosen, but she is dead set on seeing a difference. Because of this, she spends as much time working on the ground as she does formulating ways to support her cause. Currently, she is supported by two churches, and while this helps, a lot more is needed, if she is going to see the project “10,000 litres of milk for Somalia”, she is planning, come to fruition. But whatever she has to do, she is determined to see brighter, happier, more empowered women in Somalia, as well as happy healthy children.
“We must do our bit in helping Africa, instead of just waiting around for aid,” she concludes.