At eight years old, Richmond was scampering up moving trucks to steal bananas for his family. Food was precious and he risked a lot to get it. He and his family lived in Naguru, one of Uganda’s largest slums. Life was desperate.
Richmond’s father had been murdered in front of his mother. He says his mother never recovered. “In some ways, I had lost both my mother and father in one day,” he said.
From that day, Richmond’s life changed. His mother could not work – most days she was bedridden. “There was nothing coming in,” he says. They moved to the slum, into one room with a tin roof that didn’t keep out the rain.
It didn’t take long for him and his five siblings to drop out of school. They spent their time on the street, where Richmond says they were exposed to the horrors of the slum. “There was violence and child abuse, drunkenness and sickness,” said Richmond.
Soon, his mother told them there was no more money for food.
“Life became extremely difficult. We learned how to find food from gardens or rubbish. Some days were harder than others. Some days, there was no food to find.”
Richmond’s mother, in desperation and tears, shared her family’s plight with a friend. who told her about a local church programme that could help.
“She found Compassion,” says Richmond. A Compassion worker visited Richmond’s family in their slum home, took their details and asked them to pray.
“We weren’t a church-going family. We didn’t understand prayer. But it kept hope alive for us. The worker told us that if someone decided to sponsor us, they would let us know. And so we waited, and hoped, for rescue to come.”
Three months later, the same Compassion worker visited again. Richmond had been sponsored.
“I cannot find the words to describe the dancing that filled our home at that news. A 15-year-old girl called Heather had decided to help. It felt like the days of desperation were over.”
On Richmond’s first day as a Compassion-sponsored child, he arrived at the local church to receive his mosquito net and a letter from his sponsor.
The mosquito net was to help protect him from malaria, a disease intensely feared in the slums. “When the rains come, parents hold tight to their children,” says Richmond. “The rains bring disease.”
But it was his sponsor’s letters that Richmond counts as some of his most treasured possessions, even today at 34. Richmond’s sponsor, Heather, wrote to him three times a year.
“I had thought of myself as hopeless; like no one cared to know my name. But her letters made me feel like I was worth something. They are one of the most precious things I have in my life.”
Richmond was able to go back to school. His family received supplementary food and Richmond could be a child again.
“You can’t be a child on the street. You have to survive, you have to fight. You have to think beyond your years. There is no time to play. But now, I had the chance to play again; a chance for other people to take care of me. That was when healing began.”
Richmond found Jesus through the Compassion programme. He made weekly visits to the local church as part of the programme and the local pastor – Pastor Peter – became his mentor. “He was the father I never had,” says Richmond.
One day in June 1996, Pastor Peter was telling the children about Joseph.
“I was sitting in the front row, and Pastor Peter was standing beside me, looking out at the children behind. He rested his hand on my shoulder as he spoke about how Joseph went through difficulties but God used that difficulty to position him as a leader. He said Jesus was the greater Joseph, and that we need Jesus. I realised that God helped Joseph and that I needed Jesus. I was one of the first to put up my hand to receive Jesus that day. I was 14 years old.”
Richmond thrived at school and had a gift for leadership. After high school, he was part of Compassion’s leadership development programme, which gave him the opportunity to study at university. He chose accounting and graduated with honours at the top of his class.
Richmond didn’t forget the faith he found at that local church with Pastor Peter. He became a leader at the same church where he gave his life to Christ. It was there that he developed a passion for equipping other pastors struggling in ministry through lack of theological training. He too wanted to receive Bible training, and he received a scholarship – again through Compassion – to study at a Bible college in the US.
When Richmond returned to Uganda after his studies, he started the Pastors Discipleship Network. Today, the network has over 4000 pastors across East Africa, a ministry spilling out of Uganda to impact South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya.
“I’m so excited to see the transformation that is happening in the lives of thousands because of the opportunities the Lord has given me,” he says.
Richmond says it’s hard to believe that he was that child on the street, stealing bananas.
“I know that as a child, desperate and forgotten on the street, all this would not have been possible, except for one 15-year-old girl who set my life in motion. She prayed for me. She loved me.”
Through Heather, God rewrote Richmond’s story. And now, he rewrites the story of others through Richmond.
Richmond Wandera is visiting Australia with Compassion this month. Find out more here.
* This story was originally published in Eternity’s February newspaper as a sponsored charity feature. But we thought it was an encouraging story to share online too.More