Uganda: Part Two
Yesterday I wrote Part One of a blog series on my recent trip to Uganda, and today I would like to share a bit about how I found myself standing on a remote hilltop in Karukoba village in the first place.
It all came down to honeybees.
As the LWB Board began discussing where we would take our programs to help more children, we began to clearly see that while we understand the complexities of working in China backwards and forwards, we had a lot to learn about orphan and vulnerable child programs in other countries. And every individual country of course has its own needs, challenges and laws in place, so I had a whole lot of research to do.
I spoke with dozens of people working in countries around the world, and I have to say there are incredible initiatives going on globally, with local citizens starting grassroots projects to help children in their communities. As we talked, repeatedly they would bring up the issue of sustainability, and how foreign NGOs needed to brainstorm better with community leaders on real and lasting solutions to local problems, versus having a “one size fits all” approach which often happens when we go in with purely Western thoughts. So we decided that one of the most effective ways we could transition to other countries was by finding local people on the ground who were already “change makers,” but who often didn’t have the resources to make their dreams a full reality.
And that’s when I heard about a young man named Mbinenemukama Innocent (he says he has the longest name in Africa) and his village honeybee project. Innocent had grown up in a family who had devoted their lives to helping those in need, including taking in orphaned children to foster as their own. Innocent had registered a small charity in Uganda (KYMDP) two years ago with four main mission objectives:
1. To empower children with education to fight ignorance, illiteracy, and poverty.
2. To provide quality care for orphans and vulnerable children.
3. To create public awareness on child education and fight against child labor.
4. To provide a nutritional diet to malnourished children to live a better health.
Those sound a lot like LWB’s goals as well, don’t they?
One of the ways Innocent was trying to accomplish this mission was by setting up beehives on his father’s land. He would then harvest the honey and sell it to fund projects for the children in his village. From the first time I spoke with Innocent, he talked about sustainability, and whether we could work together to put projects into place which would serve the children long-term. It was exciting to think that with projects like a $20 investment for a log beehive, income could be generated for years to come to help children attend school, while the bees would also help with pollination in the area for better harvests. This was a new way of looking at possible projects that our Board found very exciting.
And so it was from a simple honeybee that I found myself standing in a small wooden schoolhouse in Innocent’s village, getting ready to read the book Rainbow Fish to 53 small children.
This little village school has been in place for just six months, and it has quickly become a community center where everyone gathers. Currently the children have no desks, no chairs, no books, and they often sit for lessons on the dusty dirt floor (which turns to mud during the rainy season). And yet even in these most meager of surroundings, their enthusiastic joy of learning caused my heart to ache. Education is the only way any of these bright and beautiful children will ever be able to overcome their current poverty, and so this tiny schoolhouse has become a symbol of hope for the entire village. My mind was spinning with what could be accomplished with a permanent schoolhouse, an actual floor, desks, bookshelves, and more.
I should mention that we had wired ahead the funding needed for all of the children to get their own school uniform and a pair of shoes. In Uganda, having a uniform is a source of great pride for a family, as it shows their child is becoming educated. I looked at all of the beautiful faces in front of me, in their little green sweaters, and I saw so clearly the amazing potential inside each of them. Without an education, I knew many would grow up doing hard manual labor in the fields, but the exciting thought crossed my mind that through schooling, any of them could become a teacher, a doctor, or an engineer.
Isn’t unlimited potential an awesome thing?
I hoped they would enjoy the lesson I had prepared, and so I began to read. The children don’t speak English yet, but Innocent’s wife did the translation for me, and it was wonderful to see every eye glued to the beautiful pages of the storybook, with paintings of creatures they had never seen before.
Then it was time for a math activity, and I had brought mini Goldfish crackers to sort and count by color, to keep with the “under the sea” theme. I quickly realized the error of this decision however, since 1) no one had a desk so everyone had to try and sort in their scrunched laps while sitting shoulder to shoulder, and 2) bringing salty crackers to children who don’t have water to drink wasn’t a well thought-out plan.
Thankfully Innocent saved the day by changing the counting and sorting activity into a simple “pick up a green fish and eat it!” game, which the hungry children immediately got behind.
Within ten minutes they had mastered “orange, red, yellow, and green” in English like pros.
For the art portion of the day, I had brought materials for every child to make their very own rainbow fish, and this was an activity they all truly enjoyed. Few of them had ever colored with crayons before, but the teacher explained that one of the goals was to stay inside the black lines, and wow did they listen!
Because there wasn’t enough floor space inside the small school, half of the children went outside to color on a tarp while the other half remained in the classroom.
Every child took their time and created their own unique piece of art, and I love watching them all share the different colors so that everyone could make a rainbow.
Then of course they all wanted to have a photo of themselves showing their masterpieces off, which I was happy to oblige!
One of the most important parts of this village school program is the hot lunch which the small children receive daily, as for many of them, it is their only meal of the day. Innocent was very honest with me, however, that he never knows if he will have enough funds for the next week’s food. On this day, the children got a plate of beans and posho (corn meal), which they eagerly ate with their hands.
No one wasted any of the food put before them, and I couldn’t help but think of the many times I would visit my kids’ school cafeteria for lunch, and half of the children I saw were throwing away most of what was on their tray, uneaten. Today I watched as even the tiniest student (two year old James), ate every single scrap on his plate.
We weighed and measured all of the children in the school while we were there, and sadly, many of them are far below where they should be on the growth chart. I am hopeful that with an improved school nutrition program, which would incorporate milk, protein, and fruit, in addition to the staples of beans and rice, we can help many of these beautiful children gain maximum health.
As my time as teacher came to an end, I realized that in just 24 hours, the children from this village (whom before had been just a simple list of names and ages in an excel sheet) had now transformed in my mind forever into living, breathing wonders.
Now I knew their faces and their stories, and my heart was burdened by the challenges they face each day. I looked at petite little Doris across the room, who walks with such elegance and grace she appears to somehow float across the dusty ground.
I locked eyes with three year old Unique, who tragically became an orphan this year and who has the softest, sweetest little voice you have to lean towards to hear.
I shared a smile with seven year old Julius, who I’m convinced has the best dance moves of any child in Uganda (can’t wait to share his video tomorrow) and who was my constant shadow during the day, wondering what magical item I would pull out of my red LWB bag next.
Each child I met in this village has their entire future still in front of them, but they face challenges my own children couldn’t fully comprehend. And yet despite feeling real hunger almost daily, despite going to a school without books or a desk, and despite having to gather water and firewood each day for hours on end…their eyes and hearts still remain hopeful.
What could they attain if they had proper educational resources available to them?
How much more could they accomplish if they were able to fill their empty tummies with a simple breakfast each morning?
How very much I want to learn the answers to those questions.
Tomorrow I want to share with you about the very real issue of water, as I am still trying to wrap my mind around what it fully means to live without it. For as long as anyone can remember in this village, it has been their most critical challenge.