Raised on the tenacity of her mother; a God-fearing womxn who held onto the lapels of life and worked tooth and nail to provide for her children, this young womxn holds dear the conviction that it is her mother’s faith that brought her thus far. When one of life’s tides hit her childhood and completely changed everything she knew before, leaving her once middle-class family in disarray, her mother took the reins – and with her grace and immovable belief in the power of prayer – brought all her children, especially Karen, along the same path.
“Church is pretty much how I’ve been brought up. To love God, worship God; to believe in God.” The family always had a praise and worship session which they referred to as “family altar.” “We sang songs, read from the Bible and prayed everyday before we went to bed.” This practice, she attributes to keeping her siblings grounded when things got tough and they struggled, without an explanation of where their father was. “We would move from place to place, school to school. I learnt many local languages including Lugisu and Luganda, because at some point we lived in Mbale and then later in Seeta, Mukono.” The frequent moving was to seek the next survival opportunity – for her it also meant that she was never in one place long enough to settle in and have a sense of home. A factor which perhaps contributed to her introverted personality. “But we saw how my mum’s faith held her up. Her prayers always came to fruition. So we held onto that hope.”
The team leader of the Angaza Literacy Program, a project of the youth-led, 40 days over 40 smiles philanthropic foundation in Uganda, Karen Ihimbazwe Amanyire is a contemplative individual whose knack for accountability is uncompromising. At Quentin Junior School, Kibuli where we meet on a hot Saturday afternoon, she takes a quick roll call of all the volunteers of the program and the schools they’re to teach on that day. She has just been out printing more teaching material, which she now distributes to them. She mentions that she must run to another school and teach there.
The program beneficiaries are children in primary school, who are at the learning stage where the pace for comprehension is set. The choice of schools is those whose teaching staff is most likely overwhelmed by the numbers; or not in reach of adequate teaching resources. “With our lesson plans, we are looking at an experiential kind of learning to jog their thinking, allow them exercise their reasoning capacity and apply or contextualize what they learnt when they return home.”
At Boston Junior, the other school located in Makindye, one of Kampala’s hills, we walk into a classroom full of visibly tired kids. It’s 2 pm. Their fellow pupils from other classes are getting onto the bus, heading home. This is one of the classes that is scheduled to receive the Angaza learning. I sit at what appears to be the teacher’s desk at the back of the classroom. Karen stands before the class, some kids start to speak inaudibly. She greets them with the cheer of a kindergarten teacher. Some recall her name, others just whisper: 4040. “We stand straight and speak up, ok?” She is prompting one of the boys whose name we can barely hear during introductions. The whole class giggles.
As she introduces a passage on the topic of wellness to previously exhausted pupils who are now shooting their arms up for a chance to answer a question and laughing through the lesson, it is not hard to understand how Ihimbazwe has been at Angaza for 3 years, and project head for 2 and a half years now. She fits right into the role of not just a teacher, but a teacher who kids identify with. The program which runs every Friday for 6 weeks during the school term is conducted with the help of volunteers who often apply to a call on social media.
Karen has teaching experience from the Straight Talk Foundation with which she volunteered first. I am curious whether the other volunteers have teaching experience. “They do not have to have taught before,” she tells me. “We have a short training with the school term plan which is quite easy and provide them with the teaching material which we have earlier sat down with educators and curriculum experts to develop.”
Karen has volunteered all her adult life. Something which she says she would choose again over a structured paying job. She wants to do even better at it and keep sharing knowledge. So what motivates her to keep at it? “First of all, if I cannot afford it, I do not need it. More importantly, I am always driven towards making life better for everyone. It is my calling.” She is quick to add that she often has a little money for basic needs; from stipends she gets from other volunteer work, her older sister, as well as small writing and training gigs.
What colleagues say:
When she is not volunteering, Karen joins a dance group of young people, Storm Riders, whose focus she says is to impact the world through dance and the love of Christ. The group celebrated their 10 year anniversary last year with a theater dance production, in which Karen took a central choreography role.
Michael Kaizire, a young man with whom Karen dances says that she approaches life with fierce hope and love. “Karen happens to have danced with us for about 7 years now and she is sort of our glue and sanity check. Her love and passion for young people is felt in every moment spent around her.” He adds that Karen’s creativity and hard work is an inspiration for all of them.
Esther Kalenzi, founder of the charity 40 days over 40 smiles, under which the Angaza Program runs describes Karen as, “a great blend of: headstrong, passionate, quirky, self-motivated and unapologetic.” She adds that Karen is a powerhouse who will always try different possible solutions before succumbing to the various curve balls that inevitably come her way – an aspect Kalenzi attributes to why she has comfortably taken a back seat and let Karen run the Angaza show for years.
Gloria Mbabazi is Angaza’s volunteer who has served as long as Karen has. How would Gloria describe her team leader? “Indefatigable.” She adds that when you watch Karen race from school to school, and see the results of that effort, it makes you believe in something. “We ought not fear for the children’s education because people like Karen still fight fiercely to protect it.”
On navigating the patriarchy:
Ihimbazwe is keen on defining who she is for herself. “I know that I am able to learn and accomplish as much as I set out to do,” she says. But adds that even then, she finds that as a womxn, she is expected to constantly prove herself, which is exhausting. Nonetheless, she continues to push herself and other womxn to think beyond the boundaries within which they have been defined. “Often I find myself in spaces where I am the only womxn and wonder how many more out there with skills could have been there too.” Is there progression at all? Karen says that while she sees a shift, it is still disproportionate to the depth of the patriarchy. “Many womxn are still held in stereotypical bondage. Breaking that conditioning, I feel, is something that’s going to take a supernatural force.”