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Living alone on the streets of a violent African city, Byekwaso Francis learned early in life that the kindness of strangers can be the only key to survival. Now it’s payback time.

By Tom Kercheval

Byekwaso Lwasa Francis was born to farming peasants in the Ugandan village of Vvumba. The seventh of 10 children, his early childhood was spent in a countryside dotted not with serene livestock and abundant crops, but with emaciated cattle and the brutally murdered victims of one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators. There were no “carefree days of childhood” for him, no Huck Finn-esque adventures that would become the fond remembrances of adulthood. At age 8, he would find himself homeless and alone in the streets of an unfamiliar city, eating from garbage cans with countless other children facing the same dark, seemingly hopeless future.

But there was hope for Francis, and now, at the estimated age of 31 (more on that later), he has lived in America for over 20 years. His past has since provided him with many happier memories, among them a term as a SkillsUSA national postsecondary officer.

But after a mere few moments of listening to Francis recount his early days in Idi Amin’s Uganda, one realizes that his “distant past” is never very distant at all.

A horrifying early education

Francis’ parents were required to pay for their children’s education, and they could only afford to send one child to school at a time. However, his older sister, Kabaseke, had been fortunate enough to receive financial assistance for her schooling from a relative in the city of Kampala. So, at 16, Kabaseke left home and moved to the city, eventually securing a job at a shop and living alone in a small apartment upstairs. But her surroundings had become dangerous.

“She was scared of staying by herself,” Francis says, “so she asked my parents if I could go live with her. My dad reluctantly agreed, so I moved to the city with my sister.” Francis was 7 years old.

While living in Kampala, Francis began his own school career and began to settle into a routine with his sister — one that would be short-lived.

“My sister was a Christian,” Francis explains, “and during those days, Idi Amin was not in favor of Christians, so there was a lot of persecution. And then one day, I came back from school and she wasn’t there. A lot of people in the area all got picked up, herded on the truck and taken, so there were a whole bunch of kids coming home from school, and we had no clue. I’m coming home, and all I see are tire marks. And when you see those tire marks, you knew exactly what happened.”

Francis’ first instinct was to return to Vvumba, but by this time there were no buses traveling the unsafe city roads, and phones were as scarce as hope. Francis’ young mind could offer only one word of advice: “Run!”

“So I run for like 26 miles and I get lost,” he recalls. “I remember reaching a split in the road, and I couldn’t remember which way to go. I knew on one side was a huge jungle with animals in there and I was very scared. On the other side was this river, and I had seen dead bodies floating in it when I was once on the bus.”

Terrified and confused, Francis returned to Kampala, joining other children who had been left homeless that day.

“Finally, we decided that we needed to go to the marketplace to survive, scavenging out of trash cans to find something to eat,” he says. “And when we got there, there were a lot of other kids that were coming from the north, because there was a war going on and Idi Amin was killing people and his army was killing people, so there were displaced kids all over the city.”

A sense of grief felt far away

Shortly after Francis began his life on the streets, the war he refers to, between Uganda and nearby Tanzania, resulted in Amin’s exile and a new Ugandan government. Enter Kefa Sempangi, a man who would have a lasting effect on Francis’ life, as well as countless others.

Sempangi, a Christian minister, was exiled under the Amin regime but returned under the new government as the minister of rehabilitation, charged with removing the thousands of homeless children from the streets. To this end, he founded The African Foundation, an orphanage and service organization that still exists today.

Francis eventually found himself at this orphanage, along with 700 other young people. He was now off the streets and once again receiving an education, but he still faced a bleak future, all contact with his family lost.

Meanwhile, at Northlake Christian School in Covington, La., teacher David Diamond was trying to settle his unruly sixth-grade class by reading them a book called A Distant Grief. The book detailed the author’s personal tribulations under the Amin government and heartbreakingly illustrated the tragedy of Uganda’s homeless children.

Deeply moved by the book, the class arranged to fly the author, Sempangi, to the United States for a presentation at their school. Sempangi’s account of the unimaginable horrors so many Ugandan children endured led to two families offering to host two of the children featured in his book. Diamond would accompany Sempangi back to Uganda and would return to America with the two children.

As a child living on the streets of Uganda, “B” Francis prayed for clothes, a watch and the opportunity to travel overseas. With his American family, he got all that and more: bed sheets, drawers, clocks … “I’m like, ‘This is incredible, I’m in heaven!’ ’’ he remembers excitedly.

Once in Uganda, however, it was realized that one of those “children” was a child no longer, having reached an age which made getting a passport nearly impossible. So, with Sempangi’s help, Diamond began interviewing nearly 500 other children in an effort to select the recipient of the extra ticket to a new life.

Francis refers to what happened next as “a God thing,” believing it was an answer to a prayer he’d meekly offered shortly before Diamond’s arrival. In the prayer, Francis asked God for “a lot of clothes, a watch and the opportunity to travel overseas.” He was not on the list to meet Diamond, but he dropped by Sempangi’s home coincidentally at the same time that the American was conducting interviews. “So I see this white guy,” Francis says, “and I say, ‘Muzungu, Muzungu,’ which is what we called the white person. And I was really excited to see this guy, so somehow he started inquiring about me.”

It was hard for case workers to recount much of Francis’ story, as they had only sketchy details about his background, and the boy, being so young, was not able to fully explain what had happened to him or provide information about his family’s whereabouts. In fact, when asked for his birthday, Francis made up a date; he had no record of his true birth date, nor could he remember being told what it was. (The fabricated date is still the birthday Francis goes by. His true date of birth remains a mystery.)

Diamond was captivated by the young boy, perhaps seeing a potential that Francis himself could not at this point even imagine. With a passport secured and ticket in hand, Francis, along with another Ugandan boy, was off to the United States. And no one from his immediate family even knew he’d left.

The path to becoming an American

To call the introduction to this next phase of his life a culture shock would be like calling the Grand Canyon “big.”

The charge of that shock began when Francis reached his first airport in Brussels. “I had never been on an escalator,” he remembers, “and so I remember watching this thing go so fast and crying. I’m looking all over, things are huge, all these white people, I’m getting scared.”

Francis survived his first escalator encounter, and, after a grueling 40-hour trip, finally found himself in America, face to face with the people he’d eventually call his parents: Robert and Becky Gilbert.

Things weren’t exactly smooth during their first meeting, especially when the Gilberts offered him his first hot dog — he thought it was a real dog and cried —but upon arriving at his new home, Francis slowly began to warm to his new environment.

“I got this incredible room, there’s bed sheets, there are drawers, there are clocks,” he remembers excitedly, “and I’m like, ‘This is incredible, I’m in heaven!’ ”

The following years were spent unraveling the mysteries of American culture, learning English, making new friends and growing to love his host family, including new brothers David and John.

There was also a return visit to Uganda, which saw Francis reunite with his birth family. Kabaseke had been one of the fortunate few who had been released from prison just before the customary sentence of beheading was carried out. The reunion was joyous but bittersweet. Francis was different now. He was an American.

A new source of care and dedication

The Gilberts eventually moved to Oklahoma and, after high school, Francis enrolled in the construction trades program at Tulsa Technology Center. It was the launching point of yet another life-altering experience.

“That’s when I joined SkillsUSA,” he says. “I was drawn to construction, so I studied the construction trades for two years, then after that I studied cabinetmaking, and then every year I’d compete in those categories. And the more I won, the more opportunities they gave me, like scholarships.”

Francis credits SkillsUSA with “helping me plug up holes in my character,” and throughout his time at the center, he was consistently impressed by the selfless care and dedication that his teachers and fellow students showed him. “They invested in me,” he says. “They wanted to see me successful.”

Through SkillsUSA, the theme of giving of oneself to benefit another was beginning to resonate with Francis as he began to fully comprehend what the selfless acts of others had meant to his life. The realization sparked a new passion that has yet to be doused. “When all those people invest in your life, all you want to do is just give it back,” he says.

Francis, now known affectionately as “B” to his friends and co-workers, followed that instinct to serve by becoming SkillsUSA’s national postsecondary president in 1999, an experience he calls “the culminating event of my time as a SkillsUSA member.”

Today, he works as a program developer for SkillsUSA’s office in Kansas City, Mo. He still loves construction — and still develops and uses his skills — but claims nothing can match the satisfaction of helping others, a satisfaction he’s able to realize daily through his continued association with SkillsUSA.

Tributes, testaments and truths

Francis’ birth father recently passed away, as well as two of his sisters. He continues to help his family as best he can and hopes to one day bring his youngest sister to the United States. But ongoing communication is extremely difficult. His mother has to be transported into the city to use a phone, and sister Kabaseke lives a transient existence, haunted by her experiences in prison that she still talks little about.

The wounds left by Amin’s legacy will never fully heal, but Francis’ life is a tribute to his family, a testament to the power of survival and to the truth that the strength of that power often depends on the kindness of strangers.

“SkillsUSA relates to this in many ways,” he says, “because there are a lot of people that invest their time and effort and finances because they believe that what SkillsUSA is doing makes a difference in people’s lives. I know it made a difference in my life. Because someone took a chance to invest in me, I’m now able to take a chance investing in others. So it’s always important that the human race continues to invest in others. Whether the return is known or not known, there is always a return.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Fall 2002 | Volume 37, No. 1
Copyright ©2002 SkillsUSA. All rights reserved.

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