Ruth Kendegye Ndyabahika is the founder of Grace Villas in Kabale Town. She proudly identified herself as a Mukiga by tribe found in southwestern Uganda. She is from the Musigi clan. She was named Ruth, after the loyal biblical character. Her grandmother named her Kendegye which means “of an airplane” because she was pregnant with her on her maiden flight to the USA. Ndyabahika is a family name.
How would you describe yourself to a stranger?
A happy person – grounded in my own spirituality, rooted in my family, and very loyal to those I love. I am drawn to people who are kind, creative and driven. I like doing things well.
I guess this means I’m sort of a perfectionist, except for keeping time. But I’m working on it. I don’t conform. If I think something is cool, then it is – whether it’s trending or not. And I love nature.
What was the motivation behind starting Grace Villa in Kabale?
In the heart of every child is a hunger for a home, belonging, safety and community. Not only for food, money, or a place to sleep. Grace Villa is a loving home and safe space for vulnerable girls.
The Grace Villa story started with a documentary. One evening I watched “Invisible Children”, a heart wrenching documentary that depicts the atrocities carried out by a terrorist against his own people, using kids as child soldiers and “wives”.
And this was happening in my own country, Uganda. I was gutted. The next day I managed to get in touch with the people who made the film. They were advocates. I wasn’t born with courage.
In fact, I hated and still get shaky right before I speak in public. But before long even though I was still in school, I became a child advocate – raising awareness and action on the situation in Northern Uganda.
We visited Senators, universities, churches, even Oprah! This communal lobbying had an impact on US policy towards the LRA crisis, most notably President Obama signing the “LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act” in 2009.
That huge moment shifted my world. I found myself participating more and more in development and leadership in the African diaspora community. Then during holidays in Uganda, I would visit and volunteer at CBO’s and orphanages.
3 years after watching the documentary, I moved to the hills of Kabale to found a home for vulnerable girls. What started off as a simple space has grown into a multifaceted foundation that harnesses the synergies of like-minded individuals and organizations to rescue, care for and empower over 200 vulnerable and marginalized children, and the community. I named it Grace after my mum Rev Canon Grace.
How personally important is the notion of ‘we rise by lifting others’ to you?
This is our ethos as Grace Villa! Grace Villa runs on community. This journey has taught me in so many fantastic ways that God truly does go extra for little children, and He does this through angels disguised as regular folk.
We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the amazing people who we call the Grace Villa family that surround and lift us up each day. One of the radical ways we fundraise is through domestic tourism.
These trips bring people together from all walks of life in adventure and competition as we discover some of the most beautiful yet under-discovered corners of Uganda. There is always an extreme adventure like a mountain climb involved.
We chose mountains for their symbolism. Each climb symbolizes and raises awareness for the mountains/hardships that marginalized girls struggle through each day.
In 2016, we set off on our first. 40+ people joined us on a 3-day road trip as we set off to peak Mount Muhabura in Kisoro. We created tee-shirts for the event, with the words “We Rise By Lifting Others” written across the front.
At the end a reward is given, not to the one that peaked first, but to the one who best exemplified our ethos as they climbed.
Tell us about Grace Villa’s impact and success story…
Grace Villa exists as a safe space, and nurturing home. Our goal is to remove barriers, rebuild lives and create lifelong opportunities. All our school-age children are enrolled in school. Just this week we got the exciting news that one of our girls topped Kabale Primary School with a 7 in PLE exams!
An educated girl is less likely to succumb to an early marriage. She is empowered, wiser, healthier, has greater choice and control over her destiny, and can help to shift norms around the value of girls in the community.
Because these future women of ours will need to have economic security, we train them in different income generating programs: tailoring, mat making, baking, photography, even traditional dancing which is a popular one.
These not only empower the girls, but also help generate some income for our home. We train girls in competitive sports such as our 3-time district championship winning soccer team, tennis, lacrosse, and volleyball.
We teach them their rights and equip them to express themselves through our very active clubs like Debate club, Film school, Writers Club and Book Club. And we enrol our girls in Financial Literacy classes.
We realized that sometimes the child that we are advising to study harder or think outside the box first needs a meal to keep her alive. One out of every 5 children here in Kabale goes to bed hungry each night.
The dangers of hunger are terrible, with desperation for food even leading to crime, and young girls succumbing to relationships in exchange for food. So, we started Wateeka food program, which provides a free nutritious school lunch to the neediest children in our community.
During the Covid pandemic, Wateeka temporarily evolved, expanding beyond the single child to delivering food, soap, and seeds to their families, as well as sanitary products and educational packages to our Grace Villa girls.
After living in a rented home for 7 years, Grace Villa bought a beautiful home for the children on Makanga hill. We call it our miracle home because the money was raised in 3 months as a collective effort of concerned individuals, and friends – a powerful representation of the power of harnessing community to bring about waves of change.
All that we do is powered by people who reach out to help after seeing our girls dance on stage, or reading our posts on Facebook, or hearing about us through a friend, or reading about us in an article such as this one.
What is that one story of a girl that has touched you most?
Our children are brought to us by the police, probation office and concerned community leaders…rescued from tough situations. Such as Kirabo. Right from the day she was brought to us, Kirabo has been prayerful, respectful, hard working at home and in school.
She decided to go into student leadership when she was in high school O-Level – which we strongly encourage in our home and went on to be elected Health Minister in A-Level, at Immaculate Heart Girls Nyakibale.
We were very proud. In Senior 6, she did so well in her finals that she was one of the best in Rukungiri District. In January this year, she got accepted at African Leadership University (ALU) in Mauritius, on full scholarship.
Even there, feedback has been really good, with her raising the Uganda flag high by excelling academically. Brave girl didn’t just stop there. She went for the office of school Vice President – in this her 1st year no less – and won!
During her long vacation she worked at our coffee shop Kwanzi, & we attribute a lot of its success to her customer service & passion to make it succeed. If you ever visited, I’m sure you attest to this. With the pocket money she got doing all this, Kirabo chose to put one of her little cousins back in school after he had dropped out because his family couldn’t afford the school fees. She still supports him till today with the allowance that she gets from school.
What brings you alive?
Challenges and adventure. I get upset and spurred into action by unfairness.
How does Grace Villa connect with travel and tourism?
The pandemic has created more responsible travellers who seek out authentic and ethical experiences. They ask: How can I contribute to the community of my destination in a meaningful way?
How can my shilling or dollar do the best (or the least eco-harm). As Grace Villa, we are well plugged into the area’s tourism value chain and provide an authentic, meaningful experience to the international and local tourists through our popular traditional dance troupe, the local mats that we weave, the quality products we make out of kitenge under our brand Kikazi, and our bakery.
We also once had the popular Kwanzi, in the middle of Kabale town – a wonderful concept with a cafe, a Bakiga cultural museum carefully curated by the late historian Omugurusi Karwemera, a book exchange, gift shop and accommodation options all under one roof. Every purchase made went towards sustaining Grace Villa. Unfortunately, we struggled during the first COVID lockdown, then completely shut down. And then there are our Grace Villa adventures. While trying to figure out clever ways to fundraise, I came up with the idea of taking people – including our Grace Villa children – on extreme fundraising adventures, using the same concept as a charity walk or run.
One year we took 45 people to Kidepo to climb Mt Morungole. The year before that, we climbed Mt Muhabura in Kisoro with 50 plus people. Another year, we trekked over 30km from one end of Bwindi impenetrable forest to the other.
For 4 days and 3 nights, we become one with nature. People who join us for these expeditions end up falling in love with the natural world, and we believe that they will pass this gift on and on.
Nurturing an appreciation for nature, starting with kids, is a fundamental that will safeguard our wildlife and environment. Our simple actions today will have consequences on the preservation of the landscapes and landmarks we love so dearly for generations to come.
What reasons would you give a traveller to visit your region of Kigezi?
Right from the moment you start ascending into our hills, it hits you. Refreshing weather, terraced hills and mountain ranges that look like a painting, lava dammed lakes like Bunyonyi, islands, caves, good people, beautiful villages, many really good hotels and lodges, fresh food, and good times.
And then there’s the wildlife in our national parks, from the endangered mountain gorilla to exciting avian species and a prehistoric impenetrable forest that boasts prehistoric trees like ebony and mahogany. All these come together to make Kigezi a perfect destination for vacationing and exploring new cultures and a fascinating history.
What is the last travel and tourism destination you’ve been to and would happily return?
Definitely Kidepo Valley National Park. I was awed by the unexpected wild beauty of this place. “Possibly the most picturesque park in Africa,” CNN Travel called it. It’s like a scene out of those exotic movies set in Africa that we used to watch.
I even found myself looking for a khaki dress, safari boots and bandanna to tie around my neck. When the sun reaches its peak, there is a clarity to the light that makes it possible to see over great distances, and in incredible detail.
Everything is a sort of beige colour – with wild grass and acacia trees stretching in a haze of sunlight and sand. We did sunrise breakfasts sitting atop Lions Rock, and sundowners sitting around campfires.
We drove to the Narus valley, a place rich with wildlife. Huge huge herd of buffalo, chubby zebra’s swinging their hips, lions, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, eland and more.
If you’re lucky, you’ll even spot the elusive cheetah itself. One afternoon we spread a picnic lunch in the hot sands of the seasonally dried up Kidepo River, surrounded by Borassus Palm trees which looked very out of place.
I found out why. This is an elephant migration route. Elephants “plant” the seeds of digested fruits by pooping as they walk. Lol. These germinate and grow into a line of trees that mark their migration path! Very cool fact.
Another cool thing is the Kidepo river. When in season it is so strong that it washes away anything that crosses its path. Then in the dry season it completely disappears and leaves behind a long, wide sandy beach. It was all unforgettable.
What do you love and practice about your native culture?
I grew up very aware and proud that I’m a Musigi from both Kinkiizi and Kyanamira. So much so that I am an active member of our cultural organization, the International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB).
In Boston I was the chapter Chairperson. I eventually stood for Deputy Secretary of the apex/umbrella organization and won. Then I became the 1st and youngest ICOB female President. My love for our native culture is reflected in the way we are raising the kids at Grace Villa, because knowledge and pride in one’s own history, culture and language form a healthy self-image and identity.
Our girls are good cooks of all our local foods, and our local drink Obushera. They weave our local Kikiga mats out of papyrus reeds, a dying traditional art that used to be passed down through generations.
They learnt traditional dances from all around Uganda and are now so good that they are hired to perform at weddings at Kabale’s premier hotels and have even danced for King Oyo of Tooro and the President of Uganda.
What traditional meal can you meticulously fix?
In Boston I was famous for my roasts and muchomo. But I guess that doesn’t fall in the traditional category. Our Kikiga traditional meals aren’t exactly intricate or complicated. We do a lot of wholesome steamed food, like eshwiga (greens) on top of starches like pumpkin or potatoes. And Oburo served it in a little basket.
What do you dream of at this point in your life?
Like any business, especially a creative one, we must keep reinventing ourselves to stay relevant, considering the contextual changes and increasing challenges such as those brought about by the COVID pandemic, and the kids growing older. I dream of a Grace Villa Innovation Hub.
It will hold our library, classroom for online classes, tailoring room, photo studio and editing room, dance studio, kitchen/bakery/coffeeshop, computer lab, woodwork-shop, community room and dance studio with a performance space and stage.
The hub will scale up our existing vocational training and participation in online education and will train and employ the women with whom our external children are placed, will promote community tourism, and much more.
What was lifelike for you growing up?
Happy, carefree, and nomadic (true to my name Kendegye). The life of a clergy persons’ family is like that of an army child. You go where your bishop sends you. Our bishop secured scholarships for my parents and sent them to the USA for further education, then to Scotland, then back home to Kabale to work, followed by Nairobi, Kampala, Kabale then Kampala again.
The result: I went to different schools in each one of these places. Seven high schools and four high schools. Interestingly, this barely affected my academics, except for subjects like Geography.
I eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts where I studied then worked for over 2 decades. I didn’t mind at all because I always had my family. And this made us very close.
My parents and siblings are still my best friends and my happy place. I’m good at the art of making friends (a developed survival tactic), and I embrace and easily adapt to new environments.
When have you been happiest in your life, and what was the reason?
I’m happiest when I’m around my family. Both my biological family…and my Grace Villa family.
When you are away from your homeland, what do you miss most about it?
When I was younger, I missed the village. I have all these lovely memories of family holidays together. Life was always exciting & spontaneous with my parents – Rev Canon James and Rev Canon Grace Ndyabahika.
My dad would see us yawning after a lunch of tough well exercised local chicken and say, “Jump in the car Basigi mwe!” His love word for us his kids was “Musigi”- our clan.
Then he’d take us panning for gold in one of the rivers, or he would drive us through Queen Elizabeth National Park, which was about an hour away, to see the wild animals like lions and giraffes.
Basically, he took us on Game Drives before we even knew that Game Drives were a thing. As I grew older, I missed simple things like waking up to roosters crowing, birds singing, light streaming in through my mosquito net.
And then the weather, and fresh food like pawpaw, real avocados, whole fried tilapia, posho and sweet potatoes. Even the bananas and eggs taste different here. But most of all I missed my family, and easy hanging out with friends. Uganda is plain fun.