Meeting Sam: A Journey to the Source

Source of the Nile

I am back in Jinja – the source of the Nile.  From here it snakes up Uganda through the Sudan, joins up with the Blue Nile crossing Egypt and finally pours into the Mediterranean. This is also where Idi Amin threw in the corpses when he went on a rampage against the Indians in the 1970’s.   They say that’s why there are so many Marabous; surreal! — Enormous storks with scavenging beaks, long shriveled necks and balding heads just lounging atop the trees, feasting around garbage dumps, sweeping down from rooftops with their giant black wings extended like some omen and multiplying in plain sight.   It is as if elephants suddenly began to fly along 5th Avenue and no one batted an eye.   

Marabous around Jinja

“What was that word you said?” Sam leans over from the passenger seat.

 “Dali-esque.” I reply. “I can’t believe these creatures in the middle of the streets. It is like I am in a Dali painting.”  

 He bursts out laughing.  Sam Tushabe is my friend — an easy mannered, round shaped Ugandan with a perfect set of teeth eager to march out every time he smiles, and who is happy to break into a hearty laugh at the slightest encouragement. He puts one hand on his chest, throws back his head and belts out an infectious laugh that comes in installments – as if the more he thinks about it, the funnier it gets.  Recently, he has taken up wearing a hat.  It suits him. He cocks it just so, head inclined, large African toes sticking out of his sandals – he peers out quietly, multitasking on his two phones and networking with the hundreds of supporters and friends he has met along the way. Thank goodness for them 3G apples!       

Moses is Sam’s driver — skinny guy with a fringe beard and a cap. He says his mother chose the name because it was an important one.  Not like the one his father wanted — ‘Steven’. 
“Steven?! No. You look much more like a Moses to me.”  I assure him.  
”I know!” he beams, glancing quickly at the back seat as he rumbles over a pothole. “People tell me that all the time.”  He says it the same way my Persian friends do when someone compares them to ‘Italians’.

He turns into a dirt road alive with the morning bustle interrupting the cackle of a large rooster who runs across for dear life as Moses parts the way.   Fruit vendors, rickety wooden shacks selling first world disposables and second hand consumables line the narrow street. Assorted kids, some half naked others in faded mismatch, run behind the car and wave furiously as we pull into a small compound. A flock of small children in bright yellow suddenly spills out.   They all want to shake hands and take a picture, each pushing the other with their school satchels to be in front. They almost knock me over. They are irresistible and I oblige as best as I can.   Inside — a room full of women – 20 or so — each with a sowing machine sitting in rows, like a class room.  They bolt up instantly as we walk in and begin clapping in rhythm.   The teacher looks a bit like Cesaria Evora, only thinner. She sits at a slightly larger desk stacked with samples – shirts, shorts etc…   

 This is one of Sam’s projects – an empowerment center for single women.  So many single women heading households full of orphans; so many orphans on their own heading household – orphans of parents, victims of AIDS.   

Empowerment Group

Sam Tushabe

I first met Sam in a Masters program at the American University in Washington DC.  He posted his graduation picture online – cap, gown – the works; clasping his diploma in front of the School of International Service. Knowing his story now makes it all the more remarkable for all the stars that had to be aligned to make the improbable possible.  

We are touring his projects in a minivan bearing his logo – it is a map of Africa with the letters: AOET – It stands for Action for Empowerment.  I know. The “O” doesn’t quite figure but the energy of the circle does!  

 Sam’s father disappeared long before, like so many fathers in Africa. His mother carried water for pennies and sold fire wood sitting on the side of the road.

“We had nothing — nothing!”  He shakes his head. She died of AIDS when Sam was only 13.     

“The last year of her life all I did was turn her in bed — and then turn her again. She was in so much pain.” He said all the friends from his generation are also gone, as well as his sister.   This is devastation on the scale of the Genocide that took place next door in Rwanda, except that HIV/AIDS took their lives slowly, painfully and over many years sucking every family resource on its way.    At the height of the crisis Uganda had almost 40% infection rate before Museveni mobilized a national campaign. Over two million orphans were left behind; many of them also infected with AIDS. 


“Making coffins was profitable business here.”  Says Sam.  

I count: eleven graves in the back yard at one house.  Here lays the brother; the father; the mother; daughters one by one – leaving behind only a ragged grandmother with one surviving daughter and eight barefoot children  — many of them HIV positive.  


“Oh Moses!”  I beg our Moses as I stand in respect, “We need a miracle here?” 



Namokose Suleina lives with seven children, only two of them biological.  Her husband died of AIDS and she gradually inherited child after child as their parents perished.  AOET provides them with schooling, food, supplies and free health care. She is a graduate of the women’s center and has been given a sowing machine as a start up kit and a contract to make school uniforms for AOET. That is how he completes the circle — the “O” in the AOET.   She wants Sam to run for President.  

 Sitting under the tree and surrounded by her extended family she goes on and on about Sam’s organization.  I don’t understand Luganda – but her smiling face, arms that keep coming together in an embrace and the word AOET…AOET need little translation.     

One of the children — Joel went to America with Sam.   He left a cripple and came back walking.   They could not believe it.  Shakira is the youngest – perhaps nine or ten and both of her parents died of AIDS. She sings and dances for us.   

When his mother passed, Sam resorted to the only thing he knew – carrying water and selling firewood.  He saved his pennies in a box. His mother had made him promise on her death bed he would go to school.


“But how was I going to go to school at 13, if I had not been able to go when she was alive?”  Still — he kept on saving until he had enough.  

“It took two and a half hours to get to school each way.  I walked part of the way – then ran part of the way.”  He was so much older they called him grandpa! He didn’t care. He got top marks and soon he was ready for high school.


“But this one was a boarding school. Every child had to bring his own mattress and there was no way I could afford one.”  He begged the school master to admit him anyway. He slept on the floor. Sam studied during the day, cleaned classrooms after school and learnt other skills to pay his way.  He says in life you have to work for everything.  

“Even by African standards my mother did the lowest job, but I never saw her beg. It was just not an option.”    

As Sam pushed ahead, the universe opened doors and his stars slowly aligned. He got a job in a local NGO, then applied and was admitted to the University of Kampala.  

Then something incredible happened.  One night in Nairobi he saw a six year old girl on the streets, rummaging through garbage.


“First I thought she was crazy.  Or disturbed.   But when I looked closer I noticed there was nothing wrong with her.  She was just hungry and lonely. I started to cry.  I thought — a six year old alone going through the trash – no child should be living like that.” That night something shifted in Sam.  

Three weeks later he met an old woman who had taken in eight children whose parents had died of AIDS.  She had just come across a ninth abandoned child and was desperate to give it away because she did not have the means.  That day Sam sponsored his first child and in the next few years he took on more children.  By 1999 he was taking care of 20 orphans on his own, supporting them through odd jobs and painting souvenirs at tourist points.  He had found his life’s calling.


In 1999 AOET was born and by 2001 Sam had 140 children under his wings – the first 60 funded entirely by his paintings.    

“I would stand at the source of the Nile where Speke stood and paint the landscape.   Tourists loved it. I painted through the night.”


Today he operates in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia. He has built health clinics, schools, women’s vocational training and empowerment centers.  His clinics are stocked when government facilities are empty and his primary school ranks 10th among 500 in his district.  He provides school lunch – often a child’s only meal in a day; and shuttle transportation so no child has to go through what he did. He has over a thousand children and hundreds of women in his programs and the whole town knows him. He is the real deal – I call him “Uncle Sam”, I agree with Namokose. He should run for office.      

“No.  I do more good this way.” He says after he stops laughing. 

Unlike so many in the aid “business” with large overheads or bloated bureaucracies, Sam’s projects are all substance.  He draws a meager salary, drives an old car and expects ‘heart’ from his team.  No air conditioned land cruisers or fancy offices for this bunch.  I wondered about a strange contraption standing in the school yard next to an unfinished wing. 

”Oh, that is a brick making device.  We discovered we could save 40% on the construction cost if we could make the bricks ourselves.”

He spends endless days and nights driving across many lands, telling his story to whoever will listen so that he can do more for his children.


“I want to do big things for my country.” He says.   “The biggest tragedy is not to be able to dream. That is what is wrong with my continent. We have forgotten how to dream.” 

One more thing: he has divested himself of a veto, his organization is decentralized and managed by consensus – how is that for breaking stereotypes in Africa. 

I ask the women I have met to close their eyes and tell me how they see the future.   Invariably they speak of a hopeful future for their children but fear the rising food prices. 

I ask the children he has sponsored what they wish to be when they grow up and it does not surprise me to hear that so many want to be nurses or doctors.  They all speak English. Mary wants to be a surgeon; Emmanuel an accountant; Vincent a bank manager, his brother a water engineer – a reflection of the realities on the ground – disease; poverty and lack of infrastructure.


Immaculate and her Children


 Abel wants to be a pilot. “I want to drive the President.”   I assume he means Museveni.

“I hate to break the news,” I tease him, “but he probably already has a pilot who ‘drives’ him, but you never know.  He may fire the other guy and take you on.” 

Akello also wants to be a doctor. She writes her name for me with her left hand: Akello Mercy. She is beautiful – perhaps twelve or thirteen – a perfect juicy face with shaved head, raised cheeks and a smile that would bring out the sun.


“She’s left handed;” Moses whispers the obvious in my ear.   

“Did you know President Obama is also left handed?” I ask; then realize she doesn’t need Obama for inspiration. Sam is setting the example here.


Later I thought about Sam’s comment. Perhaps this is the reason one forgets to dream.  It is the loss of hope. Hope — that elusive commodity that fuels all things alive. 


They say when Pandora opened the box, she let out all the woes of the world – hope is the one thing that remained intact so that man could go on living.  

…and this is Sam’s gift to his children – the gift of hope.