The freedom fighter's son


The freedom fighter's son

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Derreck Kayongo, the firstborn son of a Ugandan freedom fighter, returned to his still struggling homeland ready to impress his father.

The younger Kayongo had become a newly minted American, happily living a comfortable life in Georgia. But as he flew into Kampala, Uganda’s capital and home to 1.7 million people, he was dismayed to see decrepit huts still crowded near the airport. Electricity in the city remained intermittent. Poverty and decay hung everywhere. The place of his birth, the one his father had helped ease back from genocide, had made little progress in nearly 30 years.

But Derreck had. Lean and tall, the former refugee kid who had witnessed human horrors no child could fathom had gone on to college and earned a graduate degree in the U.S. He was articulate. An impeccable dresser, ribbed by his friends for his whimsical style — suits of burnt orange, pink-and-white socks, scarves like brilliant flowers.

He had a young son and daughter and an accomplished wife, also from Uganda. Their home near Lawrenceville was safe from firing squads and marauding soldiers. Everything was clean. There were underground utilities, hoses on reels, sodded lawns and front-yard pansies. He had a job and a hefty salary with the nonprofit CARE. It was 2008 and his career trajectory was like the path of the jetliner that lifted him away from the Kampala airport years earlier.

And there was a BMW in his garage. 7 Series. Black outside; black interior. Used but loaded. He didn’t merely wash it; he polished it.

All this Kayongo tried to convey to his father. He wanted his dad to know he had made something of himself.

Thomas Kayongo looked closely at his 38-year-old son.

There is more to life than a BMW, he said.

Your life needs to mean more than it does now.

He tapped his son on the shoulder. I hope you know what I mean.

Derreck was devastated.

“What am I supposed to be?” he thought. “A miracle worker?”

Desperate to please his father, he mentioned the dream that had once consumed him. The idea had first come to him with stunning clarity 16 years earlier. But like many intentions of youth, it had faded with time. Now, he voiced the aspiration again: He would collect America’s used soap from hotel wastebaskets. He would clean it and carry it to Africa. With this treasure he would reduce the horrifying number of kids dying from diseases tied to unsanitary conditions.

The elder Kayongo’s response was simple: That’s good.

One hitch, Derreck thought to himself. How do you do something never done before?



Hotel-room epiphany

Derreck was 22 when he came to the U.S. He spent the first night in a small hotel in Philadelphia, where he was preparing to attend graduate school.

“There were three bars of soap — facial soap, hand-washing soap and body soap. I didn’t know what the difference was,” he says. “I put two bars of soap in my bag. I had never had facial soap before or hand-washing soap. When I came back that evening, they had replaced everything. I wondered, ‘What is going on?’”

This process repeated itself for three days before something dawned on him: “They are going to charge me for the soap!”

He confessed his crime to an amused concierge.

“He said, ‘It’s part of the hotel bill. And all Americans steal the soap.’ Then I asked him a critical question: ‘Do people take the partially used bar with them?’ He said, ‘No. We throw them away.’ I said, ‘What? That’s ridiculous! This hotel or every hotel in the U.S.?’ He said, ‘Every hotel in the U.S.’ I was shocked.”

Derreck has recounted this story countless times, in speeches before college students or pews of churchgoers, on CNN, on any stage or stoop. He usually renders it with infectious energy, his long fingers acting out each part as if he is handling imaginary soap.

This is his greatest strength: getting people inspired to see the bigger picture. Convincing them that even the little guy can do something big.

He tells listeners about the hundreds of millions of bars of used hotel soap thrown away each year in the United States. He tells them about the more than 2 million children who die each year from diseases that soap and simple hand washing could prevent. He tells them he once was a child without sufficient access to soap.

What he doesn’t tell them is how he returned to his hotel room that day after talking to the concierge, got down on his knees and sobbed.

“There was this guilt that I had left my folks back home and they are struggling. Why don’t we have these things? Why don’t we have peace and freedom?

“The biggest emotion I have even up to this day is guilt,” he says. “I’m enjoying all these things and my fellow countrymen are not.”

On that hotel room floor, Derreck saw the arc of his life to that point, ending with the unthinkable: Americans throwing away precious, life-saving soap.



A war-torn country

At first, Derreck’s youth in Kampala seemed idyllic. He had friends and the comfort of parents, a successful printer and seamstress. On TV, he enjoyed images from America like “Logan’s Run,” Mr. T and “Gunsmoke.”

But the atmosphere changed. Dictator Idi Amin’s brutal reign was ending in bloody fighting. Store shelves grew barren. It became difficult to find commodities such as sugar or salt or soap. When they were available, the prices were astronomical. Neighbors would borrow soap from one another. Derreck, unable to wash his hands, would suffer numerous bouts of diarrhea.

When he did have soap, it was no longer the mainstream, sweet-smelling bars he had been accustomed to such as Lifebuoy and Imperial Leather. Instead it was strange, industrial soaps that came in long bars and caused his skin to break out in a rash, leaving small white discolorations that remain on his legs today. As soap grew harder to find, Derreck’s father learned how to make it from a friend. On the kitchen floor of their apartment, Derreck would watch his father mix together lye, dye and perfume, filling their home with the scent of roses and lilies. Thomas Kayongo sold some bars to close friends, always fearful he would be discovered and killed by government soldiers.

Kampala grew more dangerous. The family began to hear gunshots and people screaming as they were attacked in their homes. Armed men blocked roads. Walking home from school when he was 10, Derreck saw a dead body lying in the street. No one came to pick it up. One day during class, his teacher called him to the front of the room.

Derreck, she said, your father has been kidnapped.

A crowd gathered at their home. Perhaps a ransom had been paid; Derreck isn’t sure. But that night a man pulled up on a motorbike and dropped off Derreck’s father.

“I think that was the first time I saw my dad cry.”

Early one morning, soldiers stormed through the family’s apartment building, hustling all the residents outside.

His panicked parents grabbed his hands and those of his siblings. They were corralled in the street with hundreds of others. The soldiers, apparently looking for someone, shot three bystanders in the crowd before a scared young man in tattered clothes stepped forward to confess. Derreck saw a soldier shoot him in the head at point blank range.

His mother and two sisters fled to Kenya soon after. Within two years, Derreck followed. But the events were a turning point for his father.

“Enough is enough,” Thomas Kayongo remembers thinking. “I had to take up arms... I went to the bush and started fighting to get rid of the bad regime that was killing people.”

In time, he would become a decorated fighter, and when Uganda eventually stabilized, he won election to parliament and was named a leader in the security hierarchy. He remains a presidential adviser in Uganda to this day.

But Derreck landed on a different path in Kenya. As a child, with his family torn across two countries and without the comforts he had once enjoyed, he was adrift. Solace came from an American missionary. Marge Campbell had left the U.S. and her native Pittsburgh to tend children in Kenya left homeless by war. She found ways to give them hope. Seeing a bounty of self confidence in Derreck, she invited him to give a sermon, and she cast him in Christmas plays.

Over and over, Marge told him the same thing: He had much to offer and give back.



Failure to launch

After his aha moment in that Philadelphia hotel, Derreck called his father in Uganda to share his life-changing idea.

“He was like, ‘Really? Seriously?” Derreck recalls.

His father was a politician by then, and he expected his son to return to Uganda and help him lead the country.

We need people who can take this country forward. That had been Derreck’s plan, too.

“My dad was an orator. My dad can sell you anything. I had that in my DNA. I was going to be a great politician. I loved the idea of power and influence.”

But all that changed with three little bars of soap. Derreck was convinced he had found his new purpose in life. In grad school, he looked up all he could find on how to recycle soap, which was essentially nothing. He saw no model to help guide him. How would a guy with no financial resources, no understanding of the manufacturing business or the export business or the nonprofit world pull this off?

His wife, Sarah — who he’d met in Kenya and also went to grad school in Philadelphia —  questioned his dream.

“To me, it was a grand idea and that’s why I was a skeptic,” she says. “I didn’t think we had enough resources in terms of manpower and finances. I would always say, ‘How are you going to do everything?’”

Derreck figured he first needed to learn American culture and develop an understanding of nonprofits by working for some.

He landed jobs with Amnesty International, American Friends Service Committee and, eventually, CARE. He moved to Atlanta and worked as a regional staffer. He learned how to build a network of contacts — something he had witnessed his father do. And along the way, he built a good life for himself and his family, which now included two children. In 2005, he became a U.S. citizen.

Some nights he would remind Sarah of the soap idea.

We need to do this, he would say.

Then do it, she would reply.

Well, I don’t feel I’m ready yet.

When he talked on the phone to his father in Uganda, Thomas Kayongo would ask how the soap idea was progressing.

I’m still learning, Derreck would say.

You know, Derreck, you can learn forever, his father said. You’ve got to start.

But Derreck feared failure. And he had been seduced by the allure of a comfortable American life and a drive to ascend the career ladder. His income was growing. He imagined someday leading all of CARE.

“I wanted to compete in the marketplace. I wanted to get a 401(k),” he says. “We had made new friends. We had become Americans. And we had totally forgotten — I forgot — about global soap.”

Then one day Marge Campbell, the missionary from his youth, visited the Kayongos’ Gwinnett County home. She had returned from Africa, where she had spent a lifetime in squalor helping homeless children. She did not tell Derreck she was dying of cancer; she would live only a few months longer. But what she did say, haunted him.

Derreck, don’t forget why you are here. Don’t forget to do something meaningful.



Time for action

Then came Derreck’s visit to Uganda — his first in nearly six years — and the fateful walk with his father.  

Thomas Kayongo was growing impatient with his son’s preoccupation with material possessions.

“I told him about my personal sacrifice to fight for our country against dictators like Idi Amin, and the joy I had from doing that,” says Thomas Kayongo, recalling that day. “I wanted my son to ... live a life of impact and not fancy cars.”

When Derreck returned to Atlanta, he told his wife it was time: He would recycle soap.

Sarah agreed to help, but she also peppered him with challenges. How will you get the hotels to give you the soap? How will you clean the soap? He would spend the night thinking of the answers, then share them with her each morning.

Meanwhile, he was warming up for his most important pitch. Through CARE, he had met Vicki Gordon, a recently retired executive with InterContinental Hotels Group. She could provide access to 4,500 hotels globally, including brands such as Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites. Derreck asked her to meet him at an Alpharetta Starbucks.

“Geez, I just retired. Why am I meeting people at 9 o’clock in the morning?” Gordon recalls thinking at the time.

Seated at a table in the busy coffee shop, Derreck took out a pen and a napkin, and sketched out the broad framework of his idea.

You know those little bars of soap that are in the guest rooms? Derreck asked. What happens to them after somebody stays one night?

They get thrown away, Gordon said.

What if we could collect the soap and somehow sanitize it and make it into new bars of soap and give it away?

Gordon was stunned.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, how did I never think of that? It was such a simple idea. I thought this is something that could be really good for humanity, but it also could be really good for the hotel industry. They are being held accountable to be more sustainable. I went from being retired for about six months to all of a sudden plunging into this global soap thing with Derreck.”

She arranged for Derreck to speak to a meeting of Buckhead hoteliers, and they immediately signed on.



Road to success

Convinced he needed to make a change — both symbolic and practical — Derreck sold his BMW. A Ford Explorer, he reasoned, would work better for carrying bags of used soap. When he went to pick up his first load from the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead, he was astounded by what they had gathered in a month. The few kitchen trash bags he’d brought for the job were laughable: He faced a bin containing 1,000 pounds of soap. Industrial-strength bags stuffed with the load filled every space in his SUV. Little soaps spilled out into the vehicle’s interior as he drove home.

With Sarah’s help, Derreck began making trips not only to Buckhead, but to hotels throughout Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. He would work at CARE during the day, then work his soap project on nights and weekends.

Their bounty filled the Kayongo’s unfinished basement, where Derreck would experiment with processing techniques.

He bought a big slow cooker to boil the soap, then he pressed the melted goop through a PVC pipe to cool. The next morning when he rushed down to see his finished creation, he discovered the soap had shriveled into off-white femur-shaped objects that wouldn’t do. It was important to Derreck the soaps be professional looking, not like those crudely made industrial-looking bars he received in his youth. He began exploring other processes and wound up pulling $15,000 from his 401(k) to buy a used soap-making machine he lugged home in his Explorer from South Carolina.

Meanwhile, Vicki Gordon helped recruit skilled people to serve on the board of the new organization, now called the Global Soap Project. The people she found gave not only time and crucial expertise in areas like law and public relations, but also money. They matched Derreck’s contribution to help buy the $30,000 soap-making machine.

Eventually the bags and boxes of used soap began to take over the Kayongo household. Sarah told Derreck to find another option, which turned out to be donated space in Norcross. The organization was picking up speed, Derreck left CARE to focus on the project and soon nonprofit organizations brought in armies of volunteers to help out. With potato peelers, they would scrape the surface of the used soaps to prepare them for processing.

The process today is fairly simple. Soap is shipped to the Norcross site where it’s dried, sorted by color and scraped clean by hand. From there it’s run through a beef grinder and then re-hydrated in a retrofitted concrete mixer. The resulting mixture goes into a soap-making machine, which vacuums out air, compacts the mixture, filters out impurities, then heats and molds the product into foot-long bars, which are hand-cut. Samples are tested for pathogens.

But there were stumbles along the way. The first soap-making machine worked poorly. The initial product didn’t look good. And it became apparent that despite Derreck’s vision, production smarts and enthusiasm, he had crucial gaps in his ability to run a growing organization.

“When it came to calling a board meeting, sharing information, financials, keeping the records ... it became too much,” he says. The board decided it was time to bring in a professional executive director.

“It became a relief,” Derreck says. “I was stressed.”

Meanwhile, the organization was courting Hilton Worldwide for a big donation that would help increase production.

Derreck got a call from Gordon with the news.

Are you sitting down? she asked.

Hilton Worldwide had agreed to donate $1.3 million.

Derreck was moved to tears.

“I knew that would put us on a path to success,” he says.

The story of the Global Soap Project was spreading quickly, helped in part by the inspiring story of the former Ugandan refugee finding life-saving value in what Americans throw away. In 2011, Derreck was named a top 10 CNN Hero, an honor recognizing people who have changed the world.

His father was impressed. “I saw a vision that would bring about impact on millions of lives. It’s wonderful when a child listens to their parent and follows through with that advice. Derreck did on that day, and I was very happy.”

This year alone, the Global Soap Project is expected to deliver 1.5 million bars of soap to people in need, many of them children. It has shipped soap to 32 countries with help from more than 12,000 volunteers, who have helped scrape, sort and box bars.



Father and son

On a remote expanse of western Kenya, Derreck escorted the Global Soap Project’s first delivery to an orphanage in 2010. The children, many dressed in tatters, lined up to greet him and his 5,000 bars of sweet-smelling soap. Yellow, green, blue and white bars — some from the fancy hotels of Buckhead. The children savored the aromas and chose their favorite colors. Derreck told them about how the soap had been prepared for them by volunteers in America who loved them.

Later he called his father from Kenya to tell him of this first delivery.

“Shock was my first reaction because I saw my son implement a vision,” says Thomas Kayongo. “I was a bit disappointed later that it wasn’t Uganda as his first destiny, but I also understood that Kenya made a lot of sense to him, given he was brought up there.”

For Derreck, that first delivery was a long time coming, but he finally understood what his father and Marge had been telling him all those years. He now knew the satisfaction of making personal sacrifices for the good of others. At times, he walked hunched over from all the soap he carried. He gave up some of his retirement savings to launch the project. His long work hours meant missing out on family time. But one of his greatest sources of joy is the chain of people who touch the soap — from those in America who scrape it clean to those who wash with it in Africa.

“It connects all of us,” Derreck says.

Global Soap Project has far outgrown one man’s vision. Derreck still serves on the board and raises funds for it, but his work on the professional lecture circuit occupies much of his time now. He talks to business groups about innovation, to church groups about the impact of missionaries, to college students about the power of education.

Derreck would like his father to come see the soap operation in Norcross.

“Every child wants to show their parents that they lived up to their expectations,” he says.

Thomas Kayongo, who doesn’t travel much these days, says he will visit in due time.

“What is important is not so much seeing the physical aspect of the vision, but for me what is important is that Derreck did arrive at the destination of his life’s work. That is what I need to know.”

Derreck has a need of his own. About his father, he craves to know: “Is he proud of me?”

Thomas Kayongo grew up in a culture in which dads don’t share their emotions, Derreck says. But a son still waits for the words.

I’m always searching for inspiring local entrepreneurs to write about for my Secrets of Success column in the Sunday Business section. That’s how I met Derreck Kayongo. I was so taken by his words, I read aloud my interview transcript to my kids. Their amazed reaction confirmed what I had begun to suspect: Derreck’s story is a Personal Journey. His saga holds universal truths for people who dream big in a tough world, and it was a story that needed more time and space to tell. In reporting this story, I had several in-depth — and sometimes tearful — conversations with Derreck and people close to him in both North America and Africa. Phone and email conversations with his father, Thomas Kayongo, were especially challenging because of Uganda’s spotty communications system. I also spent time at Global Soap Project in Norcross, where I witnessed the volunteer manpower that fuels the operation. It is an inspiring story of perseverance and the rewards that come from helping others.

Matt Kempner

About the reporter

Matt Kempner has shared his fascination with news and telling people’s stories at newspapers in Maryland and Georgia, including the last 21 years as a reporter and editor with the AJC. Along the way he’s interviewed soldiers, professional jousters, oystermen, football stars, chicken plant workers, Fortune 500 CEOs, farmers, suburban activists, people grieving near Ground Zero after 9/11 and entrepreneurs dreaming big dreams.

About the photographer

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 11 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session,  the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Next week: Author and playwright Pearl Cleage doesn’t hold back in her new memoir.

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