In 2002, just months to their wedding, Kyomuhendo’s then fiancée Francis Ssuubi was arrested and sent on remand to Luzira Maximum Prison for a crime he did not commit. By some luck, his case did not take long to be decided in court and so after 68 grueling days in prison, his lawyers were able to prove his innocence and he was freed.
As a bride-to-be, the psychological suffering that she went through during her partner’s imprisonment gnawed at her soul even after his release. It was a traumatic time that she could never have prepared for. Even when her fiancée came back home, she could not shake it off. Her Christian faith had been awakened.
Ssuubi wanted to reach out to prisoners and offer a helping hand to those they left behind. And so for the remaining months of 2002 and the whole of 2003, Ssuubi and her husband visited prisoners at Luzira regularly, first those that he had interacted with while there, and then later, any other prisoners who wanted someone to talk to for encouragement.
Start of outreach
Initially, the prisoners did not want to talk. They did not believe anyone was interested in them so they held back. Eventually, after hearing Ssuubi’s story, prisoners started sharing their stories. It was haunting how worried most of them were about the welfare of their children.
Mostdid not even have a way of knowing how the children were doing because no family or friend was visiting them in prison. If only someone could give them assurances that their children were okay!
And so, during the Christmas period of 2003, Kyomuhendo and her husband as a newlywed couple followed directions to prisoners’ homes and delivered Christmas gifts.
“I can vividly recall my first experience tracing these families, and the joy and love that the children welcomed us with. It was and still remains incomparable,” says Kyomuhendo.
These visits would turn out to be as distressing as they were uplifting. The children were more often than not neglected by their extended families. While the courts of law had handed down judgment to their parents for the crimes they had committed, the society back home was not any kinder. The children were in rags, terribly malnourished, and sick. The older family members, mostly wives and grandmothers lived off handouts or toiled in neighbour’s gardens for the family’s super.
They were shunned by the community and discriminated against for their parents’ crime. “As we sought out more and more families of inmates, we often found their family houses falling apart. The children were living in squalor and some spouses had jumped ship. All these experiences greatly compelled and convicted us to do something more enduring. There was a need and no one was meeting it. We couldn’t bring ourselves to stop,” says Ssuubi.
And so in 2005, using their savings, Ssuubi and her husband registered Wells of Hope ministries (WOH) as a Community Based Organisation (CBO) and the rest is history. It would be an organisation that would seek out prisoners’ families; providing education to their children and supporting livelihood programmes for the mothers and wives of inmates.
Currently, with prayers and the support from both local and international funders, Wells of Hope provides free education for children with a parent in prison in schools they have built over the years, both primary and secondary.
The special schools have a total of 143 children from the level of Primary One to Senior Four, for now. The organisation provides counselling for inmates living with HIV/Aids and helps them with nutritional supplements on top of engaging the families and communities from which the prisoners come.
“We also help spouses and mothers of inmates to access finance from village banks to grow their businesses, for most of them have since become breadwinners. We also train them in income-generating activities,” she says.
It has been a journey paved with sacrifice for Ssuubi and family. Since the birth of Wells of Hope in 2005, she has had to let go of a number of jobs and opportunities just so she could focus on growing the ministry and the quality of services that the organisation offers. For 13 years, the meagre funding could not afford both of them salaries and to say things have been tough is an understatement. The limitations in budgets have made it hard for them to reach more prisoners countrywide and this pains the couple.
More often than not, the bigger the challenges, the greater the turning point in life. And for Wells of Hope, that turning point came in December 2011. Then, the charity organisation could no longer afford the rent for their premises in Nansana Wakiso. That was after several years of occupying them.
“We already had 73 children with a parent in prison under our education and support care programme. This pushed my husband to fundraise for a piece of land on which we could build a school. Luckily, we were able to buy 10 acres at Kyajjinja, Semuto, Nakaseke District, 37 miles from Kampala. Here we built the residences of children (Hope village) together with a primary school (Wells of Hope Junior School).”
Ssuubi has founded the Enyunyuzi Children’s Choir to provide therapy for the children through music, dance and drama, and raises awareness about the plight of children with a parent in prison.
Personal and professional background
Ellen Eva Kyomuhendo Ssuubi hails from Kihande, Masindi District. She is a social worker by profession, with a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from Makerere University Kampala. She is a children and youth counsellor, a farmer and businesswoman. She started out her work life as a stenographer with Civil Aviation Authority from the early 90’s till 1999 and then moved to become an administrator for an advertising firm before moving to to FAULU Uganda (now Opportunity Bank) and Women’s Hospital International, Bukoto, as a social worker and counsellor until she started looking after inmates’ families.
Wells of Hope is determined to grow enough finances to help them meet needs of more inmates’ families across Uganda. They also plan on building a vocational school, a research centre and community health facilities. All these would improve the organisation’s ability to rehabilitate more and more families of inmates and help the surrounding communities within their service points.