“Where I am from is a hard question, because I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but after about three months, war struck in my village. My family was forced to come to Uganda. We ended up at Kyangwali refugee camp in Western Uganda, and for more than 20 years, I have learned to call Kyangwali home. I am from a family of eight siblings, but we are now six. Three of us have been able to come to the US for studies. If there is one thing that has kept me going, it’s my mother- probably the most optimistic and hard working person I know. Even though she never went to school, she believed in the power of education. She helped me understand that beyond just achieving my dreams, education would allow me to inspire those around me.
Besides my mom, Joseph Munyambanza, my older brother was always ahead of me, and his presence left me no room for excuses. He was crushing it at every step and showing me the path. It started coming into me that I had to work hard in school, but it also goes back to why I believe that education is one of the biggest things that can prevent poverty and even lift up a community, a country, or Africa at large.
On the other hand, my dad, as the husband, was the one responsible for building houses. Being a boy, most of the time I found myself by his side, helping him with construction. Around the age of 10 or 12, I started to fall in love with construction, particularly housing. Around the same time, Joseph was traveling to the US for his undergraduate studies and I got a chance to travel to Kampala, the capital city. Coming from a village and then going to the capital city of Uganda, there was so much to explore and so much that amazed me.
In the refugee camp, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave refugees tents, made from bags from which they built their houses. I used to see the tents as the houses for refugees in the camp. I wondered if there was a way people could have better housing. In 2012, I thought I could try to build something that is similar to what I saw in the capital city.
I tried to come up with sketches, but it was very hard because I had to use poles and reeds, as well as nails and thatch. When I explained it to my dad, he said, “My son, I don’t think anyone can build a storey hut using our ordinary poles, reeds, nails and ropes; otherwise everyone around here would own one.” I felt heartbroken and every joint in my body froze at that moment. I wondered whether I would even be able to put it up without my dad’s help. Along the way, I was able to convince my best friends to help me and they joined, so it became four of us. Within two weeks, we had put up the building’s sketch. In just a period of two – three months, we were done with the house. Putting into practice what I had visualized a few years ago meant the whole world to me. Today my house stands as the tallest in my family’s courtyard, if not the whole neighborhood. Now in my village, when people are passing, they always ask, “Who built this house?” And my mom tells them, “It’s our young son who is at school right now.”
I do not know what the future holds, but I think the biggest dream is to own my construction company, that will build better and affordable homes for communities. I see myself probably going back to my refugee camp and constructing some good houses there. It’s something I think about everyday.
There are very many kids in my community who don’t have brothers like I did and I believe it’s my responsibility to inspire them.
If I can inspire one kid to believe in themselves, to understand that education and working hard is something that could save their future, it really matters to me. We are all young, bright stars, but when we’re not given these opportunities or a chance to live a good life, it’s a little bit hard to bring that star out of each one of us.”
Joel Baraka is a King Morgridge Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (’21). He majors in Civil Engineering and is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but was raised as a refugee in Uganda.