Mirembe Youth Development Project
As a teenager she was a brilliant student, excelling in mathematics. At a time when she ranked 8th out of 160 students, her uncle refused to allow her to enroll in the next higher grade level, where she hoped to become a medical doctor. Florence still remembers his words, “She is a girl, and girls just get pregnant anyway”. The uncle decided she would train to be a primary school teacher, which required much less education.
Florence enrolled in primary school teacher training, where, not surprisingly, she finished at the top of her class. She subsequently taught at two of the leading primary schools in Kampala. After a number of years, Florence wished to move up to high school but she lacked the requisite degree. Undeterred, Florence studied the four year curriculum in her free time and passed the qualifying exams without ever entering a classroom. Later, she earned a degree in Management with honors through correspondence from Cambridge University.
Florence founded Mirembe School in response to a 1996 study entitled “Why girls drop out of school and defilement of adolescent girls”. In the course of our interview, the term defilement was used to variously describe the rape of young girls by a brother, a father, and a teacher.
The goal of Mirembe School is to equip youth with developmental education for employment and life skills for survival. The students are almost exclusively girls from age 15-19 who have dropped out of school due to pregnancy and have been ostracized by their parents and family.
Florence and her small staff train the girls to be nursery school teachers, tailors, craft makers, or elementary school teachers (if they have enough formal education). In Uganda, nursery school teachers are given lodging and allowed to bring their children to school, which is an important benefit for these destitute young mothers.
Her belief is that no youth is a failure. She provides counseling as well as training. She promotes sexual abstinence to reduce pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Students are given information to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease. Florence works hard to restore their spiritual and traditional values.
Florence will not reject a young girl, no matter what her ability to pay. Even though Mirembe charges far less tuition than other programs such as the YMCA/YWCA, most of her girls cannot afford to pay. If she is lucky, monthly tuition from current and former students covers the rent.
The remainder of school overhead is paid by Florence out of her paycheck. She works as a contract social worker for the office of the wife of the President of Uganda. Florence conducts seminars and trains teenage counselors to conduct “peer to peer” counseling of other teenagers.
This week, Florence paid the final installment on a $1200 loan from Kiva through Share an Opportunity Microfinance Ltd. She borrowed the money to purchase a desktop computer, scanner and copier. The loan payment came out of her paycheck earned the previous week.
Florence reported the computer has been very important to the school. She not only trains students on it, but she also uses it to scan photos and print teaching materials; services which were previously outsourced at a high cost.
Florence has written a book, The Joy of Parenting, the first copy of which was typed, scanned and printed on the new computer. She hopes to publish 3,000-4,000 copies of the book with the help of the Children’s Writers Association. She will keep 1,000 copies for the school and sell the balance to generate income.
Florence will not abandon her students. Once, when money was tight, and she was considering closing the school, students came to her home tearfully begging her to continue. She looked me in the eye and said “I can’t stop now”.
Since its inception, the Mirembe School has graduated 500 girls, many of whom call Florence “mother”.
When I asked her what he dream in life is, she replied a bigger school, with no rent, in a quiet area where more girls can be nurtured and trained.
Her challenges are a steadily growing flock of defiled girls, the monthly rent check, a need for more counselors to share her emotional burden, and finding financial partners and supporters.
In her personal life, Florence has corrected the inequities of her own childhood. She is one of 13 children in a polygamous marriage involving 2 wives. Her mother, who was the second wife, was dropped. Florence was sent away to live with her father’s father, a tribal chieftain in northern Uganda.
Florence is happily married to her husband of 25 years, a university professor in electrical engineering. Of their five children, the oldest boy is an engineer and the oldest girl, who inherited her mother’s love of mathematics, studies statistics at Makerere University, Uganda’s leading university. The younger children are in high school.
As I said goodbye to Florence, my impression of this soft spoken woman with a soft spot in her heart for defenseless young girls is that she is as tough as nails. Somehow, some way, Florence will find a way to make the Mirembe Youth Development Project and the Mirembe School continue. This is not a woman who takes no for an answer.
Florence Kaluuba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.