A highlight of my visit to Uganda and Rwanda in 2019 was a reunion with Saidi, recently returned from Japan with his doctorate!
Saidi was the first student to be sponsored by teachers and students at William Morris Sixth Form after his father died and his family could no longer afford the fees at Kigezi High School. He became a trailblazer for the sponsorship programme which led to the founding of All Our Children as a registered charity.
Nominated for sponsorship by Phil Linsdell, a teacher who had completed two years of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) in Kigezi High School before coming to work at William Morris Sixth Form, Saidi was a serious and able school student with high aims. It is shocking to think that he may have had to leave school if it had not been for sponsorship. He would probably have joined the legions of young Ugandans whose family circumstances change and whose education either stops or extends over many years while they and their families desperately try to find the money for school fees.
Having successfully completed his A levels, Saidi went to Makerere University in the capital, Kampala, to study Agriculture. After gaining his bachelor’s degree, he began working in the science department of a university in neighbouring Rwanda. Saidi’s family are of Tutsi heritage and originally from Rwanda. His grandparents fled to Uganda in 1958 to escape violent Hutu-Tutsi conflict, but the family has now returned to live in post-genocide Rwanda.
At the university, Saidi was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to study for a master’s degree in a university in Japan. He applied and was successful. I admired him enormously for his bravery in accepting this offer, especially as he had just got married. Initially he travelled to Japan alone, but was later joined by his wife, Zainab. At least then the two of them could face together the challenge of coping with a culture and language which could hardly have been more different than what they had known so far in Uganda!
Saidi’s research for his master’s degree focused on the growing of rice. He must have impressed his Japanese professors as he was offered the opportunity to remain in Japan and do a PhD, again on rice growing. I met him on the one brief visit he made to Uganda during the years in Japan and was struck by his determination and perseverance when he was obviously feeling very homesick. What was clear was that his firm intention was to return to Africa and to use his knowledge and experience to support farming in Uganda and Rwanda.
And that is what Dr Saidi Mbarakh is now doing! Father of a boy of five years old and a twin boy and girl of just over one year old, all born in Japan, he has returned to the North of Rwanda as a lecturer in the Crop Science Department of the College of Agriculture of the University of Rwanda. Here he is lecturing on cereal production for smallholders in cooperatives, including rice, which the Rwandan government has designated as a priority crop for their marshlands.
They grow a variety with good yield and resistance to diseases but lacking in some qualities which makes it less attractive than imported varieties. Saidi’s mission is to develop an aromatic variety through breeding (not genetic manipulation) which the local people could sell at a higher price.
Saidi describes his time in Japan as the toughest in his life but a beneficial learning experience for the rest of his life: “I have learned to be patient and feel that nobody can make me angry. I was told things that were hurtful by my supervisor but I now understand this was not intentional” and “I have developed the good Japanese traits of really hard work, time keeping, proper record keeping, and now I expect the same from my students here”.
Saidi is a truly inspirational young man and a credit to his school, universities and those who contributed to his sponsorship when it really mattered to keep him in education.