Updated: Oct 16, 2020
She had big, curious eyes, a torn shirt and one slipper at her feet.
Unlike other kids in this remote village of rural Uganda, she was not scared of the strange, weird-looking man entering her home. Even though she did not speak English, we started connecting through a smile and a camera.
The girl was brilliant, funny, and intelligent.
Her name was SHANITA.
She reminded me of my nephews and nieces, who are around the same age.
In that moment, I thought about their life expectancy; the education and training they will receive over their years; the classes and enrichment that will form the foundation of their lives; or the basic fact that they have a tap with running water, which will forever keep flowing.
I have no idea what they will grow up to be - not because the future is unpredictable - but because they can be whatever they choose. However, here in this tiny rural village, the future is set for so many.
Without education or an abundance of miracles, the chances of breaking the cycle of poverty are close to none. This same reality applies to hundreds of millions of children around the world. It is much easier to deny this when you don't have to see it, but I've seen it first hand - and seen a hell of a lot it.
Although I have no children of my own; whenever I meet a child in a dire situation that defies comprehension - I fall into a pit of compassion. I’ve tried in the past to ignore this, to forget, and to move on...it’s never worked.
It simply isn’t in my nature to do so.
It is not who I am.
And more importantly, it is who I am afraid of becoming; a person of indifference and apathy.
As I walked out of Shanita's village towards the vehicle, I decided in my heart to take action.
But I wasn't sure how.
Suddenly a man from the village approached me, and with broken English tried to ask me something. I wondered what he was trying to communicate to me, and quickly realized that it was about his daughter, Shanita.
I greeted him with how sharp and smart Shanita was, and he kindly smiled. He asked me - through a friend who translated - for my help to send her to school.
I agreed immediately, and was thrilled to assist. Sponsoring a child’s education is common practice in Uganda. A week later, after my filming was over, I returned to the village to find out that Shanita was not going to school.
The money I gave to her family had been used for something else, and the embarrassment amongst her family was evident. I didn't waste my time on judgment or frustration. I shook it off and offered my help again.
But this time, like anything important in life, I took matters to my own hands. I consulted with local friends, and together, we decided to start the school registration process ourselves.
We visited schools and chose one not far from her village. I paid a registration fee through the mail, paid the school fees directly to the school, and bought Shanita her school uniform along with a list of other school requirements.
I learned along the way how simple, possible and inexpensive this process actually was.
On my last day, I returned for a brief visit to Shanita's village with a friend as my translator.
Together, we let Shanita’s parents know that she was enrolled in school for a year. If she continues to go to school, I promised to fund her studies indefinitely. I wanted it to be made clear - this was not charity but a partnership, and the ball was now firmly in their court.
With that, I left Uganda.
Almost four years have passed since that last conversation and Shanita hasn’t missed a day of school. Success! Within a year, she ascended to the top-class level for her age and speaks fluent English.
Shanita truly is a little genius.
Now every time I'm in Uganda, I visit her family. Despite our challenging first interaction, they have come to know me much beyond my color or western wallet. In return, I have come to know them beyond their economic status.
We become closer with every visit.
Shanita’s schooling provides far beyond education. She also receives hot meals and medical assistance at school.
This has provided her parents with more time and energy to strengthen their financial situation. Her father has since been issued a driver's license and begun working a stable job.
On one visit, I found out that Shafik - Shanita's brother - had just turned five and could be enrolled to go to school. However, his parents did not feel comfortable asking me for additional help. But I knew they wanted him to get the same opportunities as Shanita.
I called one of my best friends, told him the story, and asked if he and his wife were interested in funding Shafik's studies.
For scale - one month's rent for my small apartment in Brighton costs more than all the money that was invested in this story!
It amazed me to see just what a little help can do when effectively directed. No NGO, no workforce, no fancy offices or logos...just friendship, the best of intentions and a modest amount of money.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time documenting some of the darkest corners of the world. I have accompanied various humanitarian organizations and learnt about effective assistance, rehabilitation, and development. Every journey has allowed me to become more versed in people and aid.
Through these opportunities, I have had the great fortune of shedding light on and illuminating a portrait of humanity; telling stories of the unheard and unseen, and expressing their concerns amidst crisis to people like you.
I’ve also gotten to know myself in the process, sharpening my purpose in life while hoping to one day find an organization I truly relate to and join its cause. Yet the more I advance in the world of development, the more I read and experience - the more criticism I seem to have for how the privileged world does aid.
But, through my work with a variety of organizations, I have gathered years of learning from their success and failures. I have also collected wisdom and insights from hundreds of interviews conducted with people who continue to live out crisis and live their lives heroically, against all odds, under indescribable conditions.
With all that in mind, and together with my dear friend Shiri - who shares similar frustrations, hands-on experience, and motivation - we founded SHANITA.ORG
SHANITA.ORG represents a humanitarian movement that works to strengthen education and development through grassroots entrepreneurship.
Sounds BIG I know.
But it’s not about the size of our impact.
We don't want to change the world through facebook posts. We are focusing on changing the world of one child at a time, through a long-term plan for growth.
Our venture is not about pity, misery or superiority - but equality.
This is underpinned by a simple belief: That every child deserves the same minimal opportunities we had as a children.
SHANITA.ORG is not a substitute for my craft.
This is merely a way for me to give back to the same communities who have given me so much over the years.
50% of my photography sales go back to where they came from, helping the children I meet on my travels who remain locked in a cycle of povery.
What do we do?
We support, establish, and promote education through partnerships with local entrepreneurs who share the same passion and believe that education is a fundamental right for every child, regardless of color, race, religion, or gender.
We build schools in rural areas that are difficult to access.
We subsidise scholarships for disadvantaged students providing them with their immediate physical and mental needs. This includes a safe and secure place to learn, nutritious meals, and appropriate medical assistance.
We facilitate intergenerational development programs in which the student's family and wider community also receive social support. This helps improve their quality of life through local and professional assistance in various areas, including - clean water infrastructure, agriculture, health, hygiene, and home economics.
We serve children. Not donors, not religion, not gold, not pride.
What don't we do?
We do not operate with middlemen or foreign volunteers but directly with the local workforce, educators and schools —providing jobs not robbing them.
We do not spend money on inflated expenses like rented office space or fancy hotels. We do not earn salaries. For the first years of activity, the entire team is committed to volunteering while every penny goes toward creating action.
Instead of investing time on thank you letters we show our contributors exactly where their money is and who is benefiting from it - a name of a person not the name of a country.
We have no desire to replace or compete with other organizations. We will work with or where other NGO’s do not dare work. There, children who need help but have been missed by other organizations will receive the support they deserve.
If you are interested in knowing more, getting in touch or contributing to the cause -
I would love to hear from you.