Saved by a sponsor

SUCCESS STORY: A child sponsorship programme gave Lillian Nakabiri a chance at a better life.
SUCCESS STORY: A child sponsorship programme gave Lillian Nakabiri a chance at a better life.

Lillian Nakabiri has no memory of her parents.

Her mother died when she was two months old and shortly afterwards her father was kidnapped while serving in the army.

He had multiple wives, a common practice in Uganda, and so one of her "stepmothers" became responsible for her.

"We grew up in so much poverty. We lacked almost everything. We used to not eat most of the time," the 31-year-old says.

She and her siblings raided neighbours' gardens for scraps to eat or to steal sugarcane.

By the time she was 7 she could carry a 20-litre jerry can of water on her head for 8 kilometres, which was the distance from the nearest river to her home. It was necessary if she wanted clean water to drink.

Malaria was a constant threat because the family didn't have nets to guard against mosquitoes that carry the disease.

"I used to blame God for taking my parents away, for not loving me, and for every year losing my siblings to disease.

"We would get sick over and over.

"Many of the times we would shiver on verandas when we were sick and there was no money for medicine."

Her brother took her to register for support from a partnership project run by Tear Fund and Compassion when she was 9.

"There were so many children and all of them looked very miserable."

She was given a piece of chocolate to get her to smile for the photo that would be sent to her new sponsors.

"I didn't smile much as a child. There are not many things that will make a hungry child smile,"she says.

On Sunday she gave a presentation in Epsom as part of her visit to New Zealand to promote child sponsorship.

"Your life is so much like heaven here. To some it's shocking or it's strange that these things are happening around the world, but this is the world we live in - we are not equal," she says.

Her visit coincides with the release of a review of child sponsorship by American economist Bruce Wydick.

It's the first independent review and shows that the programme run by Compassion and Tear Fund significantly improves the life outcomes of impoverished children and their families.

Miss Nakabiri was sponsored by a woman called Rosemary, who she now refers to as her mother.

Surviving poverty wasn't Miss Nakabiri's only struggle and the letters of support she got from Rosemary helped her get through. At 16 her family tried to force her into marriage, but she had other ideas.

"I wanted to make it. I didn't want Rosemary to feel bad that I didn't make it."

Women are often seen as a source of income in Uganda because of the dowry that generally precedes marriage so her disappointed family threw her out.

Miss Nakabiri at one point contemplated suicide.

Help from Rosemary and Compassion meant she eventually gained a masters degree in international relations and diplomatic studies, as well as a separate leadership qualification.

Today she works for the same child sponsorship project that helped her and is considered a leader in her family and community.

"I've supported them so much and they depend on me," she says.

"They always check with me when they're making decisions. I used to be the ignored person, but now they always ask my for my advice.

"If someone hadn't picked me out for sponsorship, my life would have been a mess."

Central Leader