At just six Gideon Kaenage was forced to eat from garbage bins to survive while living on the streets of Uganda after both his parents died, now he is working to save as many children as he can from the same fate.
Gideon sold his car and the land he planned to build a house on to start a school for orphans.
He is visiting Australia this month, including spending two weeks in Warrnambool at King’s College, to learn about how students are educated in Australia.
Gideon left to fend for himself after his mother died of AIDS. His father, an alcoholic who he never really knew, passed away soon after.
With no relatives to take Gideon and his three siblings in, the children were forced out of the home their parents had been renting.
“I had no where to go because they were renting a small room in the suburbs of Kampala, so we were driven out of the house,” he said.
His older sister, who was 15, got married and took in his two-year-old brother. His four-year-old sister went to live with another family as a house helper.
With little money, his older sister couldn’t afford to take him in as well, so Gideon had no option but to live on the streets for the next six years.
“It was quite hard,” he said.
“I was eating from the garbage and living on the street.
“Sometimes we’d hide ourselves in sacks, sometimes in concrete houses, sometimes culverts.
I was eating from the garbage and living on the street. Sometimes we’d hide ourselves in sacks, sometimes in concrete houses, sometimes culvertsGideon Kabenge
“That’s how we would spend our days.
“It was hard because I was not used to that and I didn’t go there intentionally.”
He was not alone. There were many orphans living on the streets, some even younger than him.
Most of those living on the streets were aged between five and 20 years old.
Growing up on the streets could be dangerous for children, he said, with many recruited to join gangs.
“It was by the grace of God that I was never given the opportunity to choose a life of crime," he said.
While on the streets he was found by a church who was running a program to feed homeless children.
They were able get him to school, but were only able to fund his education until he finished primary school at age 14.
Then he was on his own again.
But by then he was able to rent a tin shack which cost US$5 a month.
He paid his own way through secondary school by getting work cleaning city channels and picking up garbage from the market.
But the work only covered half of what he needed. A talented singer, he was about to get a scholarship to help fund the rest of his education.
When he finished high school he went on to study teaching and began working in a primary school.
After growing up with nothing, Gideon worked hard to make himself financially secure.
He purchased a block of land where he planned to build a house, and bought another block of land where he planned to farm it and grow food.
But when 10 years ago he became the pastor of a church in an area that had a growing number of homeless children, he was confronted with his own past.
“Everyday I would look at these children and began re-living the desperation I sustained during my childhood,” he said.
“I knew what loss and hunger felt like.”
His church soon started providing food and shelter for the underprivileged and scholastic support, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that if he was going to make a real difference to the lives of those orphans he would have to do more.
Gideon, who is now married with three young children of his own and another on the way, decided to take a leap of faith.
With 16 orphans also now living in his house, he sold the block of land that he’d set aside to build a home for his family, along with the family car, to build a school for the orphans.
He used his own money, along with a loan he’d taken out, to build a school on the block of land he’d set aside to grow food.
Now in its second year, the Ararat Christian School has 135 students, 32 of them orphans.
He said the AIDS epidemic in Uganda had left many children orphaned.
The school is 30 minutes away from where Gideon lives, and to get there he has to take public transport because he still hasn’t been able to replace the family car.
He said each of the school’s teachers took home three of the orphans to live with them at houses he rents for them.
“We call them parent-teachers because they literally have to take their work home with them.” he said.
A teacher’s salary in Uganda was about US$100 a month, but it cost the school four times that to feed its 32 orphans every month.
Gideon admits the school can’t always afford three meals a day. “Most of the time it’s only breakfast which is a cup of porridge, and lunch,” he said.
He said the school relied on donations to run, his own church unable to bear all the costs.
When he decided to take on the school project, Gideon admits he didn’t tell some people.
“Those who don’t have the passion for it, they look at it as stupidity,” he said.
“Now that I have a family I have a big conviction to see that my family, my children do not face what I faced because when I think about it, it is painful.”
Gideon met King’s College principal Allister Rouse at a school conference last year and the pair struck up a friendship.
“I heard the story and thought we just have so much in Australia,” Mr Rouse said. “We have so much in our schools, what could we do to help.”
He said he spoke to the college’s leadership team about the Uganda school and they were keen to help. King’s College has paid $3000 to have electricity connected to the school. He said he hoped he would be able to one day take teachers from King’s College to Uganda to help.
The school has also collected old mobile phones which the Ugandan principal will take back for his teachers to use.
Mr Rouse said King’s students were moved by Gideon’s story. “I think we have learnt just as much from his humility than he’s learnt from us,” he said. “The way he’s been able to sacrifice.”