Leah Pauline went to Uganda in the summer of 2008 planning to teach kids for three months and return home to continue her studies in Spanish and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Instead, her life took an unexpected detour.
Leah grew up with a heart for Africa, but her desire to visit Uganda, specifically, piqued after she saw Invisible Children, a documentary film about Ugandan children struggling to avoid being abducted for use as soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
So when Leah’s sister Andrea arranged to go to Africa for the summer in 2008, Leah decided to go, too. The Pauline sisters and their friend Sally Carlson signed on with Experimental Learning International to live and volunteer in Iganga, Uganda, for three months.
Leah, then 19, spent her mornings teaching; Andrea, 21, a business major at CU-Boulder, worked in microfinance; and Sally, 22, volunteered at a local hospital. In the afternoons, they toured different orphanages in the area. One orphanage in particular, caught their attention.
“I could not believe the conditions [there],” Leah says. “The kids were really suffering. One hundred fifty-two kids living in three pretty small rooms. Dirt floors. No beds or blankets. It rains a lot there, and so when it rained the floors became mud. The kids had skin rashes. Some girls had STDs from being raped. The orphanage was located in an alley in the middle of town and people would come and taunt the kids because there were no doors. The latrines were overflowing.”
After the three friends took it all in, they returned to their guest home, prayed and brainstormed.
“The kids…I felt like they were saying, ‘I’m hungry. I’m sick. Are you going to leave us too?’” Leah recalled. “So many [volunteers] had before, and the kids were still there suffering…We started thinking about working with the orphanage somehow. But we were afraid of corruption and not knowing who to trust, [so] we decided to start our own.”
“Sunshine” is born
During their time in Iganga the three American women had made friends with Owiny Morris, who lived across the street from their host family and grew up in an orphanage, and his best friend, Isabirye Haril Kazindra. That bond proved instrumental in their massive new undertaking. Without Morris and Haril, both in their early 20s, the Americans never would have been able to navigate Uganda’s bureaucracy or accomplish the countless details necessary to start an orphanage from scratch. “We looked for buildings to buy. Morris and Haril translated for us. We found some vacant school buildings and rented them.”
Leah, Andrea and Sally used to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to the kids when they visited the old orphanage, so when they were considering a name for their new orphanage, they decided on “Musana,” which means “sunshine” in the local Ugandan dialect.
Sally and Leah returned home at the end of the summer to raise money for Musana, and Andrea postponed her studies so she could stay and direct Musana with Morris and Haril. By September and October, 80 kids had moved from the old orphanage where they had no beds to Musana, where they all had beds.
Musana, Summer 2010
Today, Andrea continues to serve as Musana’s executive director, and run Musana along with Morris and Haril. She is the only non-Ugandan out of 21 staff who work full-time at Musana, which is home to 80 children, ages 3-14, with another 90 attending the school Musana established in 2009.
Musana has eight dairy goats and one dairy cow, and grows corn, beans and vegetables on 15 acres of land it owns just outside Iganga. It has living quarters for the farm workers who manage its crops. It has a chicken coup large enough to hold 120 birds to provide eggs and meat. Musana hopes to eventually have beds for 120-150 children, and be able to send at least two children a year to high school. Word is also spreading about Musana through a local restaurant it opened in Iganga.
Musana teaches kids self-sustainability through hands-on arts and crafts, tailoring, food- and juice-making, and agriculture. Kids at Musana also do morning and evening devotions, sing songs of worship and pray together.
‘The kids have beds now’
Leah, Andrea and Sally plan to eventually leave Musana completely in the hands of Ugandans like Morris and Haril, who currently help them manage life at Musana.
“What we’re really aiming for with Musana is making it self-sustaining, get real trustworthy staff and leave it with them, find people with good hearts that want to help,” Leah said. But as Musana’s website confirms, finding “a staff that has the children’s best interest at heart” has been a challenge.
Though Musana’s founders have yet to reach their ultimate goal of making the orphanage self-sustainable, Leah said she already feels successful in this endeavor. “The kids have beds now. They’re getting an education, a good education…The ultimate goal is to help create a better community, so they won’t need us anymore. Success is to work ourselves out of a job, and then maybe do it again.”
‘We felt called to love these special kids’
Faith played a big role in Leah’s, Andrea’s, and Sally’s desire to help the kids who had been living in the midst of such terrible conditions. Not surprisingly, even while she worked toward her degree, Leah’s mind and heart were often 8,700 miles away. (She just graduated from CU and is finishing her final few credits before heading to Uganda later this summer!)
“We felt called to love these special kids just like Jesus did,” Leah said. “Doing the work of God is a big sacrifice, but at the same time you do what feels good. It’s definitely hard. I don’t feel like a normal college student. It’s hard to see my friends go through their lives without worrying about 120 kids in Uganda.”
“But I feel blessed,” Leah said. “I have more purpose in my life. Sally and Andrea feel the same way. Andrea has sacrificed a lot. We just felt called to this. We believed that it could actually be done, and anything was possible.”