US-born Ugandan Ruth Bahika packed over 20 years of life in the USA in boxes and moved back home to Kabale, Uganda permanently. Her goal was to provide 'a new home for girls'. There were several details to attend to before Grace Villa eventually opened its doors this January in a rented space on Makanga hill in Kabale.
In May, there were eight girls in residence and 22 girls supported outside Grace Villa, within their primary home environment. On July 4th, Grace Villa posted on its Facebook page: "She knocked at our Grace Villa gate this morning at 7:15a.m. She lives 2 hours away. Came walking...yet can barely walk. She's reached her wit's end (...) So she came in search of help for her four grandkids who she's been looking after for 7 years since their parents died. How could we say no?" The post is accompanied by a picture of an old lady walking away on a dusty road, bent over a walking stick.
The home is very beautiful. The walls of the dining area are painted in a bright yellow and those of the adjoining living room red. Ruth recounts a friend humorous reaction to the colors. He asked, "What is this? Shell Petrol station?" The walls are filled with artwork from Ruth's Boston home and an amazingly large collection of ceramic soup bowls. "I used to entertain people a lot in Boston," she explains. Most of her other things are still in transit, packed into boxes and on a ship somewhere between the two continents, North America and Africa.
The girls move into Grace Villa when there is absolute need. For one, her father is dead and her mother is HIV-positive and bi-polar. Another was living on the street. In such cases, Ruth makes the decision to take on the girl. However, she wants them to each have a life as ideal as possible so when their mothers are alive and capable of taking care of them, she offers support to the family within that home environment.
The name, Grace Villa, Ruth says was inspired by her mother's name. Her mother is Rev. Canon Grace Ndyabahika, one of the first three women to be ordained as priests in the Anglican communion in all of Africa. Watching the two women, the reverend in her black blouse with priest's collar and the younger version of her, in a yellow dress and red earrings, is like looking at a pulsating energy ball of love that is at once calming as it is invigorating. After an eight-hour journey from the city to Kabale, Rev. Ndyabahika is tired but she chats and asks after the girls as Ruth fusses about tea and snacks, while the girls are outside playing. The two exchange family updates and eventually, the tea is ready. Before she eats, she calls to Ruth and says, "Katushabe". [Let us pray]. Ruth moves to the table, then the reverend starts to sing, "Thank you God for the world so sweet..." Ruth is startled, probably because this is a prayer usually sang before food by children but all the little girls are outside, playing. She giggles and joins in. "Thank you God for the food we eat, thank you God for the birds that fly. Thank you God for everything. Amen." It is a moment that encapsulates everything that Ruth holds dear: gratitude, God, and family.
Ruth is a child psychologist. She studied Early Childhood Development and Psychology at Wheelock College, Massachusetts. Away from Grace Villa, she teaches psychology at Kabale University. Most other lecturers will shrug off the revelation that none of their students have email addresses. If they were to try, they would probably simply advise the students to get on the internet and proceed to work without requiring email access. Ruth, on the other hand, is horrified by the idea that her students will be left behind by the rest of the world. After class, she uses her iPhone and gets an email address for each one of the 22 students. She stayed in class for over an hour after her class session that day. “They said they were afraid to go into the computer rooms,” she sighs about the intimidation that students that came from the lesser exposed parts of Kigezi when they encountered the other world.
In many ways, Ruth is “the other world”. Born in the U.S where her parents were in university, Ruth, the second of three children, attended school on Uganda, Kenya, U.K and U.S.A. Both of her parents are Anglican priests and wherever they went on pastoral assignments or for further studies, the children tagged along. With a lot of exposure to the western world, this girl-child activist represents the world of pronounced “r”s, of internet and of several things that may intimidate social statuses in a community. What she does with her “other world” makes all the difference. She refuses to let it be “other” and instead brings higher expectations from her experiences, settling for only the best for the girls.
Michelle Obama once said, "I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them." The spiritual and financial support Ruth provides to the girls in her community is woman activism at its most crucial stage. Girls grow to be women. Girls that are educated and loved grow to be phenomenal women like Ruth and Michelle.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles