This is a story of bravery, grit, perseverance and ultimately, fulfillment. Antoinette’s story is a lot different from the ordinary. It’s about a life that began, experienced, travailed and prevailed.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1991, Antoinette experienced first-hand the rigors of life. At age six she was forced to leave the country with her family; to flee the peril which was fast drowning her community. The Congo war was so severe that people died in their thousands every day. Human flesh became food for dogs, families were torn apart and dreams died the same way.
“I was born and grew up in the Congo. I had a father and mother, five sisters, and one brother. When I was six years old war started in our country, the region where I lived was affected greatly. It is very sad that the war was not between soldiers; instead civilians were killed according to one’s tribe. Civilians were killed like animals, they were shot and tortured………….. I was very young when this was happening and did not see people playing or enjoying life, instead I saw people doing evil things – this affected me very much.” She said in her letter to people Weaver.org.
She eventually settled in Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Western Uganda with her six siblings. Their father had been killed by rebels and their helpless mother could hardly get herself together to narrate the horrifying story.
“In 1997 we were refugees in the Kisoro district, the United Nations sent us to the Kyangwali settlement. In Kyangwali my Mother, siblings, and the orphans of my uncles starved. Because of the lack of food and poor treatment one sister died, my Mother became very sick and is still very weak. Mother and I started to clear bushes to build a house, men usually do this kind of work but since our men had been killed we did it. My weak Mom and I constructed a house; the house would fall and had to be rebuilt time and again. Life was very hard and a second sister became sick and passed away. We remained three sisters and one young brother.”
Life at the camp was nothing to be desired, it was almost impossible for the young girl to get used to the environment at the camp because there were very many people from different countries and they spoke different languages. It was nothing like the usual. However, by age eight, Antoinette had made a few friends who would gladly share her burdens. She also started walking to school with them, a past time she enjoyed greatly, but which eventually sparked something unique within her.
“But I fell in love with school and started demanding for books from mum. However, she had no job and thus could not buy me books. I was in Primary One by then and I had to ask for books and pencils from my friends.”
They went to Kinakitake Primary School which was about two kilometres away from her home. Soon Antionette became an academic force to be reckoned with; her exceptional academic skill was commended by her teachers. But then, there was a major challenge constantly staring the young school girl in the face. She lacked basic scholastic materials; she could not afford school books and uniform.
But amidst the gnawing hardship, Antoinette kept hope alive and continued to work hard at her studies as she was always in the first position in class.
Soon she became an academic evangelist and a role model to her siblings, her performance in class and the way she talked about school cajoled her siblings who started following her to school.
“However they needed books which mum would not buy. So I would go and dig and earn Shs200. I would use that money to buy a 32 page book and a pencil. I would tear pages out of the book and cut the pencil into four pieces then distribute them amongst the four of us,” she explains with a smile.
I have actually come to the understanding in life that our strength is not in what we say, but in what we do. And if you ask me, I would say that this young girl had an unbeatable strength.
Antoinette endured years of lack but she soon realized that a few pages and a piece of pencil were not enough to sustain her academic ambition. So after Primary Four, at the age of 12, she had no choice but to drop out of school. It was a terribly difficult time for her, but then, she didn’t throw in the towel and lament about her woes, instead she thought of a way out.
“I could not continue with school because I had no uniform and no books. I decided to sit at home for one year. But I was thinking of a solution for my problem because I did not want to be like other girls who resorted to marriage after they had failed to continue with their studies.” She says.
During her stay at home, she took up menial jobs. She would tend people’s gardens and care for their houses. That way, she was able to raise some money with which she bought scholastic materials and then went back to school in 2004 for her Primary Five.
But the money could only sustain her for a short while, by the time she joined Primary Six, the money was finished. She resolved that the only way to solve the problem was to go back to work and as always, her unquenchable thirst for knowledge drove her all the way. She recounts sadly;
“During my first term in Primary Six I had no books so I stayed home for three weeks. During those weeks, I was looking for work. The only work I got was to sweep some one’s compound. At the end, they paid me Shs2,200.”
Now with this money the young change maker could return to school, but then she realised that if she uses the money to purchase school supplies, she would run out in a short while. She discovered that the genius in her had a more profitable suggestion. Instead of spending the money, she invested it.
“I used that money to buy sugarcane from farmers and sold it. Within a month, I had made a profit of Shs25,600.” She continued investing the money by buying beans and maize from farmers and selling it. While she went to school, her mother helped her sell the products. By 2006, she had made enough money and thus could afford scholastic materials for the four of them and also buy food for the family.
The genius didn’t stop there, in fact, that was the pointer to her dream. She started raising money with the aim of helping other young girls rise from the crippling deprivation that was gradually becoming a way of life.
Antoinette Furaha took the initiative and went into the community and taught a group of 10 girls how they could become like her. However, they did not have capital, so she gave each one of them one dollar (Shs2,560). “With this money they were able to start a similar business like mine. I also employed some others to be selling the commodities I was buying from farmers.” Such is a heart as pure as gold.
This allowed her to go to school and still maintain her business. She completed her Primary Leaving Exams with 13 aggregates and was admitted at St. Andrea Kahwezi College in Hoima Town. It’s no wonder a writer once said that it is actually in giving oneself that a person lives.
Antoinette’s initiative attracted the attention of a huge number of women in her community, especially widows and upon her mother’s request, she educated them on how to start up small businesses.
First, she started with a group of less than 10 women but currently, she has more than 60 widows. She has also helped more than 50 girls go back to school through her project. A clear selfless service to humanity.
In 2005, she joined the COBURWAS International Youth Organisation, an entrepreneurial organisation of youths in Africa, where she was taught fine entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
With these skills, she was able to raise a significant amount of money in 2009 with which she bought a grinding machine.
Her project, Kyangwali Women’s Micro Credit, is a minor credit service company which aims to invest in and encourage refugee women in Uganda.
Her company provides financial assistance by loaning money to women, so that they can have better lives. She provides loans of up to Shs100,000 and asks for the money to be returned within a year with an interest of Shs20,000. Her program has helped many widows in the area and several young girls return to school.
“From the profits I got from the grinding machine, I opened up a microfinance organisation, Women’s Micro-Credit Kyangwali in the camp.”
The 22-year old, who currently resides in Uganda, was 2nd Runner Up for the Anzisha Prize, an award created by the African Leadership Academy and the MasterCard Foundation to honor young African entrepreneurs.