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Nearly two decades ago, Krista Seibert was on a run along the Olentangy Trail when she passed a runner. That runner, Solomon Ssenyange, didn't like being passed by a woman. He shifted gears, matching Krista's pace. Krista pressed on. Sol hung close.
"Sol had just moved here, having grown up in a small village in Uganda," Krista says. "He wasn't used to women passing him. This was culturally unacceptable where he came from. He stuck on my shoulder and wouldn’t let go."
The two ran together for miles - and as unlikely as it may seem, that was the beginning of an incredible friendship between the two runners.
"Little did I know," says Krista, "but that run paved a way for Sol and I to work together to serve others from his country, combining our passion for running along with a deep need, educating women."
Sol had come to Canada as a refugee, and he had thrived, earning a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Alberta. When Sol - now Dr. Ssenyange - met Krista, he was completing his post-doctoral studies at The Ohio State University. The two kept in touch, even after he left Columbus.
As Sol's successes grew, he looked for ways to give back to others in his home country, to provide greater opportunities. After talking with Krista, a vision began to form.
That vision centered on female education and empowerment. On academics and athletics.
We'll get to the details on all that in a moment. First, some stats and background information to illustrate the importance of the cause.
The United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI) reported that more than 700,000 girls in Uganda between the ages of 6 to 12 have never attended school.
Poverty is the largest contributor to low standards in girls’ education in Uganda. Though education is free, school supplies and uniforms are not. Because of this, when faced with either sending a son or a daughter to school, a son’s education is often prioritized.
Due to the high poverty rates, girls are also expected to work as a way to increase the family’s income. The Global Partnership for Education reported that especially in rural areas, local traditions dictate that girls can be married in exchange for a dowry, a sum of money given to the daughter’s family as payment. This dowry lasts the family several years. Often girls ages 11 and up are exchanged. They can be exchanged into stranger's hands, being placed in dangerous situations.
Providing a young girl with an education removes her from the threat of being sold or married at a young age, keeps her from a life of hardship, addiction, disease and poverty and provides her endless opportunities - opportunities that we expect in America. It costs $1,500 USD to educate, clothe, provide lodging, bedding, food, books and all provisions for a full school year.
It's a simple idea. Fund the education of girls in Bukomero, Uganda. Add a fitness component to their education, providing them with the running shoes to do so. Provide an opportunity.
The Columbus Running Company hosts a youth running club here in Ohio called the Grasshoppers. Krista came to us, proposing a "Uganda Grasshoppers." Right there, the Grasshoppers Uganda Project was born from the work that Krista and Sol were doing.
In 2019, the two of them travelled to Bukomero to provide educational funding to five initial students and to provide shoes for the community.
In Krista's own words, here's the story of her first visit to Uganda:
"The village I visited is called Bukomero. It is 60 miles Northeast of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. It is a rural village, lush with deep green. There is one main road that is traveled by cars and people on foot.
"As we entered the village school we were greeted by energetic kids with GIANT smiles. Students respectfully responded to the principal in unison, greeting us in English. They were able to identify where Ohio was. They were very shy, bashful, giggling at what they saw. Many of them had never seen a Muzungu (white person). Some were even afraid to touch our skin.
"When I visited Bukomera, I met Winnie, Sheira, Goldina, Ruth, and Monica. These are the girls that were chosen to be given a year of education as opposed to a dowry. They are between 12 and 14. I knew they would be given a healthier life for both them, their current family, and their future family.
"Advice I met from a town leader was, “success is only meaningful when you can walk into a room and know YOU made a difference is someone’s life.” When I walked into the small room to meet these 5 girls and their mothers, I have never felt such success. Winning marathons, qualifying for races, all the things I used to think would define my success seemed such a waste of my energy.
"Winnie wants to be a shop owner, Seira wants to be a librarian, Goldina wants to be a teacher, Ruth and Monica want to be doctors. We can help them change their lives by giving them an education and a future.
"When they were asked their goals, they were so shy, in disbelief that they would not have to marry, or leave their family and be taken far away. Their mothers didn’t speak English, but cried many tears through their hugs to me. One said through an interpreter later in the week when I saw her in the village, “I am illiterate, but my daughter will be able to have her dreams.” She cried and cried."
Five students have a year of academic funding. A community has been provided with a first delivery of shoes and more. These are small steps, but they are progress towards the greater vision that Sol and Krista share.
Want to learn more? Krista will be at CRC group runs to talk over the program this winter. You can chat with her after the 8am group runs in Westerville (Saturday, January 25) or Dublin (Saturday, February 1).