Archive for the ‘Uganda – Peace School’ Category

Day #17 – Leaving Uganda

February 22, 2010 - 7:44 pm 1 Comment

January 7, 2010

As today is my last day in Uganda, I woke up early to pack my suitcase. Having bought a lot of beautiful crafts created from soapstone, I’m concerned that they will break in transit, as I do not have a very packed suitcase at all, especially after giving away a lot of my gifts. I’ll be holding some of the crafts in my carry-on, so hopefully I can arrive back in London with everything intact.

I didn’t spend a very long time at the Peace School, but I feel that even within three weeks, I’ve learned and absorbed so much about Ugandan culture, politics, food, development, education, infrastructure, and general way of life.

After packing, I ate a quick breakfast of samosas, bread, and crackers before starting on a series of instructional posters for Passy. Unlike in the USA where teachers can easily purchase pre-made posters, the teachers here have to create all their learning aids by hand. When we moved the Lower Campus, we ended up destroying many of these weathered posters, faded and fragile with years of use. Passy was clearly distressed over the amount of work required to recreate these posters – in the states, they would have long been replaced, but every bit of material is carefully salvaged and saved here.

I found the poster making rather soothing – with my handwriting and ability to write straight without lines, I forged ahead at top speed. Jia did some $50 drawings and interviews on her own, while I kept intently to my own task of completing the posters. Mukisa Isaac, a child we sponsor on Givology, happened to be around today, so we got some great footage of him and little Farook singing and dancing on camera!

By late afternoon, Joanita called me to put the finishing touches on the paint for the temporary sheds. At first, I didn’t know what to paint, but then I thought about Givology’s slogan, “Give to Learn, Learn to Give” and found it particularly suitable. The Peace School gives so many poor children the opportunity to learn – even if they can’t afford school fees. In turn, the hope is that when these children grow older, graduate, and find stable jobs, that they in turn give back to the community.

[Photo of Joanita and the boys with me in front of the words that I painted.]

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Charles and the laborers laughed at this phrase that I painted, jokingly informing me that, “To give, you must first have.” I retorted, however, that all of us have something to give – if not money or resources, then our time, skills, and passion for doing good. In addition, a person in need doesn’t have to give now, but can give later when his or her situation improves – to repay the kindness showed to him or her. I strongly believe that regardless of circumstances, everyone can share something with a family or individual less fortunate than him or her. If we all give at least as much as we take, then the world would be such a better place!

After painting, we took group photos of everyone. I know I will treasure these photos for a long time. In the last few hours before my departure, the conversations became very bittersweet as the kids kept on asking when I would return. Using the negative in their sentence construction, they kept on asking me plaintively, “I’ll never see you again?”

In my mind, I know that in all honesty, when I start my job in New York City, the chance to come back will be rare. Yet even if I do manage to return, years will likely pass. If I never return, in my mind, these kids will forever be locked in time, never aging or growing older. Five years later, cute little Irene will be fifteen years old and all the boys enrolled in university, if they can manage to afford it. Five years later, the Peace School will hopefully encompass all the current and adjacent land, and include a real library, computer lab, modern classrooms, and expanded facilities. We came at a critical crossroads – through our efforts, we determine the future.

I told the children that perhaps one day, not only will I visit them again, but they might be able to come see me in the USA! Nearly all of them told me that it was impossible. I kept repeating that the world is shrinking, but in the corner of my mind, I know that even though this has been so true for me, leaving the country is very difficult for all of them. Computers are very scarce and Internet so slow and expensive – the youth are constantly tantalized with Western culture and knowledge of modern innovations, yet simultaneously so alienated and distant. For example, the kids know the songs of Brandy, Alicia Keyes, and Beyonce, and they watch Prison Break, 24, and US movies, yet only have a rudimentary understanding of e-mail and Internet use. Though all the kids have expressed interest in computers and have taken computer classes, theoretical knowledge can’t substitute for practical experimentation. Even my typing seemed to amaze them.

[Below are some photos that I took with everyone before leaving.]

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I took lots of great photos with the kids – me at 23 years old somehow still fitting in (almost all the kids believed Jia and I were their age)! I got most of them to write me a message in my book. Before leaving for the airport, I got so many wonderful thank-you cards – Amina’s family gave me a traditional gossi (dress) for my mother, a form of Ugandan kimono and obi. Morris and Helen gave me a bag, while Charles gifted me with a friendship desk decoration. I was so touched! Parting is always such a sad moment, especially when accompanied with an implicit understanding that our next meeting may be years away. I will also miss Jia a lot – my other half and partner in this venture. Even though we first met in the airport, I feel that I’ve known her for so long, especially since we’ve shared so many transformative experiences together.

[Below is a photo of Jia and me together! Very rarely did we ever appear in photos together during this trip as we were so busy recording footage.]

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For the car trip back, grandmother Amina, Amina, Jia, Irene, Dama, Sula, Joanita, and Iria came along – basically the people I got to know very well during this trip. Jia and I chatted happily and regaled ourselves with our funny and dramatic moments (“What if I never wake up again?” Yes, Jia did say this at one point in time.)W When we arrived at Entebbe airport, I was greeted with the unfortunate news that my midnight flight was delayed three hours until 3:20 AM. As you can imagine, definitely not pleasant news.

Drifting in between sleep and consciousness, I write this last entry of my trip to Uganda. For me, my journey to the Peace School is a life changing experience that inspires me to do more, to work harder, and to strive to make a difference. Even if I never return to Uganda again, my heart remains with the school and the children that I met. It’s not often that one forges such deep bonds and then leaves knowing that these friends may very well disappear from one’s life, certainly a discomfiting thought.  Through Givology, I will push forward with our goal of raising 40 million shillings for the Peace School.  I have so much to be thankful for in my life. Alas, it’s the least I can do to work harder to grow and expand Givology to provide opportunities to children around the world.

Joyce here ends her Ugandan journal here.
January 8, 2010

Day #16 – Tying Up Loose Ends

February 18, 2010 - 6:12 pm 2 Comments

January 6, 2010

Today is my last full day in Uganda, and I have made a very packed list of “to-do” items before I go. For Givology, I still need to collect letters, an interview, and drawings from Irene, and Barbara. We still have a few interviews to complete, notably Joanita and Amina together. And, before I leave, I have to fulfill my promise of teaching the students here how to create a website. Everything takes longer in Uganda so I know that making very ambitious plans may not necessarily be feasible in execution, but as Confucius once said, “Aim high, achieve middle. Aim middle, achieve low.” So, of course, I’ll set my sights up high!

So many thoughts roil in my mind – stories of the people we met, troubles we encountered, the strong desire to continually do more, yet understanding more than ever the limitations that I face with resources, time, and agency. The Peace School does a lot of good in the community, but as we unwrap each layer with every day of our stay, we begin to realize the complexities of delivering quality education, prioritizing students given limited capacity, and balancing school and family interests. Notably, separating school and family presents a slew of challenges, as the Peace School is very much a family-run operation, with benefits and drawbacks.

This coming summer, I start working at Goldman Sachs in New York City – a completely different world from Peace School. Coming here is a reminder to not lose sight of the bigger picture, to understand that the value of money. One can easily spend $100 in New York City, nearly a paltry sum, but here, that amount of money can accomplish so much! I am so glad to be here because the experiences have transformed me – exposed to me the simple things that we take from granted, such as:

  • Cheap and clean water from the tap (Water is so expensive here and the family spends a lot of time boiling water to rid bacteria)
  • Streets that are paved and in good condition (Due to traffic, it takes two hours to get to the city center, even though the distance is not substantial. Getting to the village takes nearly an entire day given the unpaved, narrow dirt roads. No wonder everything here is so expensive – it is so difficult to transport goods from one area to the next)
  • Ability to go to high school for free (Here, the students pay about 400,000 shillings ($200 USD) three times a year, resulting in a cost of about $600USD per year. In perspective, this amount easily exceeds the earnings of many families.
  • Availability of a wide variety of food (The majority of the population relies on subsistence farming and consumes only what they can produce. Here, meat is considered a real luxury.)
  • The opportunity to travel and see so much more outside of your village and local community – for these kids, owning a passport is a dream
  • As a student, to concentrate on your students alone and not have to always worry about school fees and working to afford school
  • To have good quality education opportunities in government student schools. Although the Ugandan government adopted free primary education in theory, the poor quality of government-run schools disincentive attendance. The kids often tell me that in government-run schools, teachers often don’t show up, and if they do, they make the kids dig holes for them to assist with their own personal farming needs! (That’s why schools like the Peace School are very well-respected and needed in the community)
  • Obtaining good jobs and opportunities after graduating on the basis of merit, rather than nepotism and the power of your family relations
  • Ability to buy internet cards and electronics cheaply (Here, services are very cheap – human labor can be purchased for a very minimal cost, but anything imported – typically manufactured goods – are extremely expensive!)
  • Feeling connected to the world – to know the external world not only through television
  • To never worry about when to have the next meal
  • To have access to healthcare (The government’s AIDS policy has really made a tremendous difference, but the need for basic healthcare is so urgent, especially in the city slums and the villages. I’ve seen so many children plagued with permanent disabilities and ailments as a result of not being able to obtain immediate medical care for completely treatable conditions! For example, Grace who became deaf after her fever burned for weeks.)
  • To have government support for unemployment and other needs

The list goes on and on…I can’t even fathom writing down everything. More than anything, being here has taught me to appreciate life much more – some people go to Africa and come back disillusioned. For me, I feel even more motivated and empowered. Even in the village, where life is difficult, the children laugh, play games, and survive. Being here as broken down the barrier between “us” and “Other” and demystified our differences.

I feel that Africa, in general, is so poorly understood; the media tends to cast the entire continent in perpetual crisis. We think of Somalia, Darfur, starving children with swollen bellies, and photos and videos of human suffering. Uganda is one of the poorest countries in Africa, clearly evident in the slums of the city and the squalor of the villages, but slowly, development occurs and the young generation grows up very hopeful of the future.

The world is definitely shrinking, boundaries, disappearing and eroding over time.

After a morning of just hanging around the classrooms and chatting with the boys about their life, the credit crisis, and their aspirations to leave Uganda, I asked them to write me a message in my journal so I can remember them. Time dulls memories, leaving only a faint impression as the years passed. With their messages to me in my journal, I will never forget this moment!

[Below are some scanned pictures of my journal of the messages that the children wrote for me!]

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Afterward, Jia and I did an interview with Amina (grandmother). Her story is extraordinary – she never completed any formal education, her parents died when she was very young so she worked as a maid and housekeeper for her older sister in exchange for food and housing. She married an equally poor and uneducated man, but he was very enterprising. Together with her husband, she built a large and successful household and portfolio of businesses and properties! In the beginning, Amina started selling samosas at the factory, and Joanita’s dad invested all their savings into a chain of butcher shops! By their last child, the family was securely middle-upper class with substantial property holdings. Joanita had told me that with her very father’s very unexpected passing, the family lost a lot of property and assets, contributing to the recent financial difficulties of the school.

Using the crops that she grows and the support she receives from Joanita and MaryLove abroad, Amina goes to the village and brings kids back to the Peace School. There aren’t enough resources and dormitory  beds to help every child in the village, so Amina goes to each family and asks them to select one or two kids in the family to send to the Peace School. (Can you imagine how difficult this decision must be for the parent – to prioritize their children!) One day, the vision is to expand the school such that all children from the village can come to the Peace School for free.

Some of the P7 kids, including two children sponsored by Givology, happened to be around so we collected some photos, pictures, and video. As Joanita and Iria did not return from town, Jia and I ate lunch with Lydia – motoke, rice, spaghetti, beef broth, and groundnut sauce with fish. The food here is very tasty even though the variety is limited; when I go back to Oxford, I know I will miss some of the dishes.

After lunch, we went to the classroom, where we found Sula. He showed us his journal, which made me inadvertently laugh very hard. I found the journal frank and refreshing, and it contained the hysterical incident of his P7 experiences that he recounted on the interview. As you can imagine, the story involved a girl =) I suppose the kids here tend to grow up much faster than in the states. Just by watching Isaac and Ibra, I could easily think that they were 5-6 years older than their actual ages. In contrast, they tend to think the opposite of me! I’m 23 years old, but all the kids think that I’m about 15 – their age.

[In the photo below, Sula shows us an interesting game with folding paper – a form of “active” origami in which the paper morphs from a T-shirt to a house to a slingshot, etc. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

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At this point, I felt antsy to do something physical and fun with the kids. Jia and I wanted to go running, so we changed and met Dama and the boys to go to the playing fields. Rounding up the boys took some time, so Jia and I had fun doing some stretching and warm-up exercises. The little kids seemed to enjoy emulating us, and laughed at our antics! Little Farook was particularly cute and endearing in his attempts to copy us!

We then ran to the playing field – Sula first, followed by me, and then Josh (even as a decently experienced runner, I can’t beat Sula’s really long legs…). Having not done very much strenuous physical exercise since coming to Uganda, I relished the opportunity to run and stretch my muscles. We started with two sets of relay races! All the locals watched in curiosity – two random Chinese girls joining in on the games.

After the races, Teacher Hasan led us into a circle and we did a bit of group exercise where each person would lead a set of movements. Some of the positions we were called on to do were rather interesting (a form of near contortion)! We then ran a lap around the field and walked back, happily chatting. We arrived back at 6:30 PM with plenty of light still left, so we played a bit of basketball keep-away. As expected, Isaac and Sula really dominated the game.

Iria and Joanita arrived back late tonight – they sent Amina to college and encountered various troubles with traffic and college housing. Consequently, we had a late dinner together before quickly clearing out the dining table so that I could give the Internet website creation tutorial that I promised the kids.

Computers fascinate the children here – they are always talking about the importance of computers and the Internet, regardless of their field and actual experience with technology. I suppose they see technology as the best way to connect to the external world and modernize. Josh was particularly keen, having sought me out every day. There was too much to cover in the short time I had before bedtime, but I did an overview of: 1) Givology, joycemeng.com (my personal site), Jia’s site as examples, 2) weebly, facebook, and wordpress (for easy online website creation), 3) html basics (NVu and Gimp the freeware of my choice for experimentation). Clearly, too much material for one session!

But the kids seemed to enjoy it – anything involving computers fascinates them. The Internet infrastructure in Uganda, however, is frightful. We connect using Joanita’s laptop and a dial-up USB modem, which is often too painfully slow that I give up surfing altogether. For reference, it takes about 6 minutes to load the simple version of my gmail inbox, and about 30 minutes to load a short 3-minute youtube video.

Before bed, I gave a gift to the family (separate from our contribution to the Peace School) to express my gratitude for their hospitality and care. Amina then gathered us all in the dining room and prayed for my safe journey back to Oxford and for God to help me achieve everything I set my heart on accomplishing. I didn’t understand a word as she spoke completely in Lagandan, but I appreciated the sentiment. Religion is very important to Amina and many of the people here – faith offers them hope and a respite from the troubles they encounter in daily life.

Tomorrow is my last day in Uganda – my trip passed so quickly, but the memories I’ve made and the work we accomplished will forever be indelible in my memory. Perhaps time will inevitably dull the immediacy of the experience, but I know I will forever treasure the lessons I’ve learned and the relationships that I’ve formed.

Day #15 – Arts and Crafts Village

February 8, 2010 - 7:34 pm 1 Comment

January 5, 2010

My trip to Uganda slowly draws to a close, and each day, I increasingly feel the pressure to complete all the work that I set out to do. I really hope that the drawings, letters, journals, photos, and videos that we collected can be assembled into something both simultaneously inspiring and profitable for the Peace School. Although Jia and I set the overall framework, in the end, we have very little control over the actual content – it all depends on the ideas and creativity of the young people we work with!

The day started very slow. I hung around the yard and watched the children play. The plan was to go shopping at the Arts and Crafts Village Complex near the National Theatre, and then head to the zoo. With all the complications of paying the roofer and painter, we didn’t head out until noon – nearly an entire morning had passed.

The Arts and Crafts Village was mainly a series of stylized outdoor huts in which individual vendors sold a large variety of goods. Bargaining is an essential part of standard protocol – overall, the goods were of decent quality, not necessarily the finest, but perfect for memorable keepsakes and gifts. To enjoy bargaining requires a certain personality and mentality that I lack, but despite my initial reservations, I managed to find a fair price for all my purchases.

I bought so many interesting items! As Joanita’s family covered all the costs of food and housing (a remarkably generous gesture for which I am deeply grateful), I had much money remaining from the 100 pounds that I exchanged to purchase beautiful traditional crafts. I admit, however, that I felt rather bad spending 65,000 shillings on two hand-carved wooden leopards and a Africa-shaped chess set when so many expenses and materials remain unpaid for the relocation and expansion of the Peace School. But a list of purchases include: 4 beautiful soapstone painted plates, 4 bean-shaped soap stone boxes, 1 ivory soapstone fish box, 1 wooden chess set, 1 large wooden hand-carved lion, 2 sets of soapstone coasters, and 1 snake-in-the-box trinket. I estimate that I spent about 150,000 shillings (about $75 USD) – not a paltry sum, but definitely exchanged for a large quantity of beautifully ornate handmade crafts. Now, I just hope that I won’t have any trouble bringing these gifts back to the United States!

We came back around 5 PM, in time for a very late lunch. After lunch, I forced myself to stay awake to take advantage of the last few hours of sunlight to carry out the remaining interviews. Jia felt somewhat sick still, so I did the interviews of Morris and Helen by myself. In particular, Morris was a very good spokesperson for the school, though I regretted not having a microphone to clear out all the background noise, but hopefully we can edit and clean up the material. (I’ll be posting some of these videos soon to my blog for your viewing!)

Then, Jia woke up and together, we did the interview of Isaac and Ibra. It was perhaps one of the most casual interviews we conducted, as both boys are very outgoing and highly engaged with western culture. Compared to the other boys, they really stand out in terms of their maturity, comfort with English, knowledge of American culture, and overtly teen behavior.

[Below is a picture of Isaac with his drawing of what he would buy with $50. Both him and his brother love art – Ibra aspires to one day go to art school, and upon graduation, start a gallery in Kampala featuring the work of orphaned children. All proceeds from the sale of the art would then go back to the orphans! Ibra is definitely very talented – he draws in a graphic novel style, with an alien twist. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

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I promised the kids that I would show them how to create a website – all of them are fascinated by computers and the internet. In fact, Isaac’s goal after graduating from high school is to start an Internet café. According to Bashir, internet access is expensive – about 500 shillings (~33 US cents) for 20 minutes. On appearance, this may seem like a paltry sum, but for the kids, 500 shillings is actually a lot of money. For reference, Zamu told me that for 500 shillings, you can get someone to come to your house for a personalized manicure and pedicure. From the games that we played and the interviews that we conducted, I know that none of the kids have ever owned 100,000 shillings ($50) at any given time in their life.

Sometimes I forget because to repair the school, fix the roof, install the solar upgrade, among other work, we have spent an extraordinary amount of money, at least 10 million shillings ($5,000). In the interview with Morris, of the ~225 kids who attend the Peace School, about half are on reduced or free tuition and the entire cost gap comes from: 1) Marylove and Joanita, 2) the chicken farm operated by the school, 3) Givology and AHEAD, 4) funds provided by the family through sale of agricultural goods and donated time as staff. A substantial portion of the costs are borne by the two sisters who live in Richmond. Joanita is not wealthy herself, but she has a lot of love and care such that she contributes as much as she can of her savings to run the school and sustain the family. Without her, Peace would have difficulty fulfilling its mission of targeting the neediest children, the ones least able to play.

In terms of priorities, the school needs: a library, a computer lab, permanent classrooms, and expanded dorms for the orphans to accommodate for more children. Alas, hopefully, some of our work at Givology can be used to fund these meaningful investments!

Day #14 – Peace School Students Visit

February 8, 2010 - 4:45 am 1 Comment

January 4, 2010

I woke up later than Jia today – the allergic reaction she had to the pineapple kept her awake all night. The swelling looked rather itchy and uncomfortable, but not dangerous, for which we were all very relieved. We ate a breakfast of samosas with a pea filling in preparation for a busy day working with the students from the Peace School who were called back to school from their vacation by Morris and Helen via radio for the sole purpose of spending a day with us!

The students started arriving at 10 AM – at first, in small numbers. To get them accustomed, I played a couple of games with Natasha and Shareen to show the other kids that I’m a friendly person – in no time, they joined in! Jia then came out and we began filming and carrying out the $50 campaign.

We countered many troubles today in the execution of the $50 campaign. First, some of the children got very intimidated in front of the camera because they weren’t given an opportunity to get accustomed to the equipment the beforehand. Second, too many of the adults and teachers were watching and barking out orders – the children tended to freeze up when this occurred, giving rather mechanical responses. Third, we felt very rushed the entire time, as we had very limited opportunity to warm up the students. The teachers would usher in the students that just arrived, and by 11 AM, they came in large groups. I wanted Isaac and Farook to play a game with the kids to keep them occupied, but they ended up just ordering the children around. For the most part, I felt very alone and time-strapped in trying to explain to the kids the project, taking down their name, age, and number, and preparing them for Jia’s video interview in the most natural way possible. We really did the best that we could under difficult circumstances, but even though we collected a substantial number of drawings from students and alumni, we had trouble with the quality of the video.

Jia, at this point, started feeling very unwell, understandable given that she had to smile and laugh despite her mouth hurting. So, I ran out into the courtyard and tried to play games with the kids. We started with two games that I knew – duck/duck/ goose and sharks and minnows. The kids seemed to enjoy the game, but I felt that the group was so large (probably about 50) that there wasn’t sufficient space to fully involve everyone. Thankfully, one of the teachers stepped in to help. We played capa (cat and mouse), and then a fun boys v. girls tug of war game, in which the girls won in a dramatic manner!

[Below is a video of “capa”. It’s very similar to duck, duck, goose, except that you don’t have to run in a circle, the mouse is everyone’s ally so he or she can weave in and out of the circle, while everyone tries to keep the cat away. The “tug of war” game was really fun because each side marches up to the other and declares war, and yells out a name of a child from the opposing team. Then, the selected child from each team walks up to the center and tries to pull the other child over midpoint line.]

Then, Joanita informed us that the children were hungry, so she wanted to hand out snacks. We told her that the $50 campaign and the snacks can be done simultaneously – in fact, we preferred the kids to be engaged in some type of activity rather than waiting around, as we only had limited sets of crayons and drawing space.

In general, Peace School students understand the question much better and have a clearer notation of what they want to buy, may it be dolls, biscuits, cars, houses, phones, laptops, etc. They also appeared much more confident in general with sufficient English comprehension, perhaps a fact of having received education. We didn’t get very much footage of the kids in a very relaxed, casual manner, but we did the best that we could under very constrained circumstances.

[Below is a picture of some kids showing off their drawings. Among the young kids, “biscuits” were a very popular answer, photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu. At first, I didn’t understand why they chose biscuits (cookies), but Joanita later informed me that biscuits are a luxury consumption item. In fact, when she first came to the USA, she couldn’t believe that people were eating cookies everywhere!]

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Notably, I had a chance to meet many of the Peace School students that we’ve sponsored on Givology! We recorded an interview with them, as well as collected a letter for posting on our site. These kids come from a diversity of backgrounds, but share a common passion for learning.

[Here is a picture of one of our sponsored Givology students writing a letter for Givology/ She’s very young, so struggled to think of what to write, so I told her that if she wanted, she could draw a picture instead. So, she drew a picture of a house for Givology!]

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We had a very late lunch, as we had to finish collecting all the drawings. Given the frenetic nature of the day, lunch had an uncharacteristically solemn atmosphere, as everyone felt exhausted. After lunch, Joanita handed out to the donated clothes, toys, and items given be a local church in Boston. Given the sheer number of kids, pandemonium resulted as the kids clamored to get the best gifts as possible, often hiding their first gift to a second one (alas, a form of cheating that I found distasteful). Even though I shot footage of the process, I don’t think that as a donor, I would have liked to see such a video, as the children appeared very pushy and the dissemination of the gifts very forceful.

[Below is a video of the kids saying thank you for their gifts]

We rested for a bit afterward – Jia was feeling particularly sick, so I wandered about the yard myself. As Medina and Passy had come to me asking for an interview, I used my own videocamera to record an interview with both. After a few hours had passed, I went inside and woke Jia up to complete our interview with Damalie. Afterward, Jia went back inside as I stayed outside with the kids. Barbara, Sharifah, and the kids were playing all sorts of games, from jump rope to a variation of dodgeball. Notably, none of these kids own prefabricated toys, so all these games involved a high degree of resourcefulness in building the necessary items from scraps. I joined in on the fun! At this point, Isaac, Sula, and Bashir arrived and asked whether I wanted to play basketball. At first they were dubious that I knew how to play (in fact, I do…), but it turned out to be very fun once we all got into it.

The night ended very uneventfully with a quiet dinner, a shower, and then sleep. Jia’s condition caused quite a concern, but frankly, a food allergy just needs some time to dissipate. I’m slowly realizing that my trip is coming to an end – being here, I enjoy myself so much that I know that when I leave, I will miss the community here tremendously. Not coming from a large family myself, I’m discovering the joys of having a really large extended family. Very rarely do you get to meet someone, learn a lot about them, and then leave with the realization that perhaps, you won’t ever see them again in your lifetime. Our two world collided for three weeks and then inevitably, they separate.

Day #13 – Youth Culture and Games

February 2, 2010 - 3:00 pm 1 Comment

January 3, 2010

Notwithstanding all the troubles with the Solar Company, we spent a good day filming, interview, and playing games with the kids. We first finished up inventorying our pictures for the $50 campaign and sorting through our schedule. Afterwards, we went outside to film the completed sheds. Truly, I am deeply impressed with the sheer speed of construction! As many of the posters got destroyed in the move, I will help with recreating them. Unlike classrooms in the US where printed learning aids can easily be bought, here, the teachers have to do everything themselves. I look forward to helping out!

[Here, the boys cut the painted wood planks into small pieces for us to bring back to the United States. If you contribute $5,000, you can own a piece of the school! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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Jia and I then completed the interview with Sula and Josh before going inside for lunch, a true feast today with beef, sweet potato, rice, spaghetti, beans, curried potatoes, and fresh pineapple. (Alas, fresh pineapple has caused Jia lots of trouble as she belatedly discovered a new allergy…)

We both wanted to sleep after lunch, but the teens found us and indicated that they wanted to play a game. Jia and I had come up with a combination of Truth or Dare / Never Ever to see if we can learn more about the older children in a relaxed setting – to get some footage we wouldn’t otherwise obtain in the formal interviews we conducted. With Isaac and Ibra around, both gregarious and extroverted boys, the game got off to a good start. Through the questions that were asked, we learned a lot about the children. For example, none of the children had ever left Uganda nor traveled by anything other than car. At some point, nearly all the children had been beaten in class by a teacher for misbehavior or academic mistakes. We used the “truth” questions to bring up difficult moral questions, from the stigma associated with AIDS to the role women play within society. The children and young people here are often very controlled by adults and demonstrate a great degree of deference, filial piety, and general obedience to authority. Life is a combination of work for the family, school, and a few hours of leisure, so the chance to see the kids in a completely relaxed setting yielded a lot of unique insights about their views on life and society. (Note: We caught everything on tape – when Jia finishes going through her countless hours of footage, we’ll start posting and sharing with comments!)

Unfortunately, the rest of the day was rather wasted. Given all the delays with the roofing and solar panels, Abraham and his daughters arrived around 4:30 PM, later than scheduled. By then, I already knew that our original plans to go Entebbe Zoo wouldn’t work, as it takes about 30 minutes to get there in itself. I felt regretful because it was Aisha’s birthday, and not only were we tagging along, but due to the delays we caused, the trip itself would be fruitless. As the optimist, Joanita insisted on still going with hopes that the zoo would still remain open.

We arrived at the zoo and discovered that 1) we only had one hour remaining to see the animals, 2) admission was 5,000 for Ugandans ($2.50 USD) and 20,000  ($10 USD) for Jia and me. Somehow, even though Iria is clearly not Ugandan in her manner of speech and dress, she passed visual inspection for being “Ugandan”. The group decided it wasn’t worth it (as I originally suspected before we even left), so we left with the purpose of going to a beach resort. We drove around, attempting to find a suitable location, but Joanita decided each time that the entrance fees were too expensive. In the end, we went to the shore of Lake Victoria and watched the sunset.

Lake Victoria is vast, and as it was Sunday, we saw many families and children playing along the shore, enjoying a respite from daily work. At a minimal cost of 1,000 shillings per person (50 cents), we got on a highly battered, ancient row boat. I swear, part of the boat was likely held together only be duct tape! Amina and Joanita were too scared to go onto the boat, though I couldn’t find anything remotely unsafe – even if the boat capsized, we’d still easily manage to go back to shore. Because dusk heralds in mosquitoes, however, we had to leave before the sky got completely dark.

[Below are some pictures of everyone at Lake Victoria, enjoying the beautiful sunset and the refreshing weather…at least before the arrival of the mosquitos.]

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At Lake Victoria, Amina showed me her schedule of school fees, and on the ride back, I spent some time asking the girls about their schooling, tuition fees, and their family chicken operation. I had already promised a fundraiser for Amina when I get back to Oxford. Although I understand the high education expenses her family faces, I also do feel that as part of the Bbaale family, she has a strong family support network to help her through difficult times – a luxury not available to so many children in the village. Nevertheless, I am not one to renege on my promise, and will definitely follow through on a Uganda-themed fundraiser at Oxford!

We encountered bad traffic on the way back so we arrived home at 9:00 PM, much later than anticipated! I’ve discovered that in Ugandan life, a lot of time can be wasted in doing very simple things as a result of infrastructure problems. In budgeting time for activities, one must take a very conservative approach with the expectation that simple tasks – such as going to the city to pick up a few groceries – can cost at few hours! By now, I’ve gotten used to the frustrations and delays. At first, I found it difficult to reverse my natural tendency for impatience (at school, I control my time very tightly and expect almost instant gratification), but I’ve adjusted.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of youth culture in Uganda is the odd combination of knowing, but not having. The young kids here all surprised me in their knowledge of American pop culture. They have watched One Tree Hill, can breakdance and freestyle rap, imitate Michael Jackson, and listen to Beyonce and Alicia Keyes. Yet simultaneously, they live in a world completely different from our own. Imagine watching soap operas about the rich, beautiful, and bored of American society, yet barely eking by and struggling to afford tuition, food, and shelter. To know what wealth can afford, but to not have any discretionary income beyond basic necessities. To know about the power of computers and the Internet from a theoretical perspective through school, but finding the 500 shilling (20 cents) charge per twenty minutes at the Internet café too expensive.

In many ways, the globalization of media and television creates a situation akin to enjoying a large feast in front of a hungry man. In contrast, the kids in the village do not know and do not have – they are much poorer, but they also have less of a relative reference of their own poverty for comparison. In many ways, not knowing about the outside world makes them feel less deprived…and, potentially happier. I caught this sentiment in the games that we played, when Elijah asked some very pointed and bitter “Never Ever” questions regarding possessing items and traveling. From their questions, the kids expected Jia and I to own multiple houses and cars!

We ate dinner in contemplative silence before heading to bed. Tomorrow will be a particularly busy day with all the current students of the Peace School coming to campus, along with former alumni. We’ll spend a day collecting more drawings, interviewing the children and teachers, and documenting the impact of the Peace School.

Day #12 – Exploring Makindye

February 1, 2010 - 3:55 pm 1 Comment

January 2, 2010

Today, I spent a peaceful morning and afternoon in Makindye, doing interviews of the children, planning the use of my remaining time, and for the first time, exploring the area beyond the gates of the Peace School. In the morning, after breakfast, I interviewed Farook and Bashir – we got some really great friendship footage as they shared stories of growing up together. Afterward, I spent some time playing with the children – Natasha, Shareen, and Shanelle are back from visiting Helen’s side of the family.

At this time, Joanita and Iria returned from the city after exchanging money and buying groceries. We greeted them before they departed a second time, and got permission to leave the compound to visit the American Club. Joanita is very protective, so I assured her that we’d take some of the older children with us. A week ago, Zamu had eagerly mentioned the nearby American club (the location of the former American embassy) and its recreational delights, so Jia and I wanted to scope out the place and see whether we could treat the kids to a day of fun and relaxation as a gift. But when we were greeted by the hostile grounds guard who demanded our passports harshly, but treated the Americans entering and exiting so good-naturedly, I began to doubt. As Americans, Jia and I were given a tour of the club – yes, there was a swimming pool, tennis court, gym, soccer field, lounge, etc, but I didn’t see anything particularly special or worthwhile. In addition, once I entered the club and saw all the Americans lounging idly, I thought to myself, “How awful to enter a country and isolate yourself from the local people of your host country!”

Zamu had really wanted to go, as she read about the club in various magazines, but we couldn’t justify the cost for membership. To bring the kids, we needed to pay $20 for our own membership, and then an additional 8,500 shillings per guest ($5 USD) – by Ugandan standards, an exorbitant and unjustifiable charge!

Rather than turn back, Jia and I enjoyed the opportunity to walk with the older children around the village. Isaac and Ibra, the sons of Charles, had come today. Both boys appear to be much more worldly than the others – Jia later told me that they did freestyle rap effortlessly and spoke in the slang of American teenagers to the point at which she felt confused as to where she was located! With Farook, Isaac, Josh, and Bashir, we took a tour of the local community, visiting the boy’s favorite video game store, clothing boutique, and the communal playing field often utilized by the Peace School for recreation.

[Photo of the older children and me walking outside of the Peace School Gates. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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Along the way, we passed the civilian court, marshal’s court, local market, police station, and Josh’s school! I enjoyed the walk thoroughly – even though we’ve spent so much time here at the Peace School, we didn’t have a chance to explore the vicinity by foot. I find walking very refreshing, but our hosts often try and take us everywhere by car, believing it to be our preference. (On an amusing note, Ugandans walk very slowly so all the teens laughed at how quickly Jia and I walked.)

We got back, rested and planned the execution of our projects, and waited for Joanita and Iria to come back for lunch. After lunch, I felt rather soporific so I originally intended to laze outside and cherish an indolent moment. With Barbara, Sharifah, and all the little kids (Shareen, Natasha, and little Farook) playing, however, I soon found myself: 1) sprinting all over the grounds throwing seeds at the kids in a game of tag-dodgeball, 2) acting as a human swing set that the kids climbed all over, 3) teaching the kids Egyptian Ratscrew, 4) setting up a game of sharks and minnows and running after the kids, 5) holding a weathered broom up  as a game of limbo for the children (Sharifah is very flexible!)…and basically racking my brain for every playground game that I could remember from my own childhood, while purposely excluding some of my more dangerous favorites.

The sheds, at this point, began to resemble actual complete fixtures. Overall, I am truly impressed with the speed of the work, especially since the majority of the labor comes from the boys, none over 17 years of age. The energy of the children astounds me, especially little Farook. He speeds around the grounds like a hyperactive bee, zigzagging everywhere!

[Video of the second day of construction of the temporary sheds!]

Jia and I took footage of the games and also of the kids playing. When we discovered that the kids got very shy on camera, Jia thought of an innovative way to help them relax for the interview. She would play rock, paper, and scissors with the kids, and the winner gets to ask a question. The effect made me laugh so hard, and we got some great moments on camera! We then called some of the older boys together for an interview, Josh and Sula together.

Oh my! This was the interview that neither Jia nor I believed could happen! First, even when I fed softball questions to get the kids to warm up, I got back astoundingly frank and personal answers. Second, I couldn’t believe that Sula – who we perceived to be very serious and reserved – to admit to some of the stories that he shared! I think Jia found my surprised look amusing. I suppose in retrospect, everything he said was typical of a 16 year old boy, but to make certain admissions on camera requires a great deal of comfort. And most surprisingly, Sula of all people shared these gossipy anecdotes! I found it all very amusing, goes to show that we’re trusted enough to hear the real stories and break through the platitudes.

Josh provided a much more measured account of his life. According to him, he came from the village in fifth grade, not knowing a single word of English and performing very poorly in school. Yet, with quality instruction at Peace, he managed to learn English very quickly. Josh appears shy and reserved at first, but he’s actually very sociable and curious.

We ate a late dinner, but the ambiance was tense since Abraham went to fetch grandmother from a funeral 3.5 hours away, but had gotten lost since the man who went with him (who supposedly knew the directions) had no clue how to navigate. During this time, grandmother had already come back from the village by taxi, and was feeling ill from the uncomfortable ride. In general, getting things done in Uganda can be frustrating – there is always so much time wasted in miscommunication, misunderstandings, and additional transactional delays due to infrastructure problems.

At 10 PM, the family convened for a meeting about the future of the Peace School, as some decisions to scale up and expand the school would uproot existing processes and power structures. As the school is a family-run operation, scaling up requires upsetting the current modus operandi, which simultaneously pleases and displeases different members of the family.  You can imagine the level of tension and concern! As Jia and I now sleep in the living room, separated from the dining room by only a curtain, we heard the heated discussion very clearly. There are definitely a lot of competing interests of the school, even among the family. Everyone has good intentions, but a different vision on how matters ought to be handled. Somehow, eventually, I managed to fall asleep despite the loud meeting, which lasted at least a few hours.

Day #11 – Ushering in 2010

January 28, 2010 - 7:02 pm 1 Comment

January 1, 2010

With today, I now have fully lived through two complete decades – the 1990s and the 2000s. Alas, how quickly time flies! I still remember the extreme (and unwarranted) anxiety surrounding Y2K. How far we’ve progressed since then!

I woke up early today at 7:15 AM to the clamorous banging of the roofers. By then, everyone in the household was already busy working, as always. They must think us very lazy for lounging until late morning, typically until 10 AM. I tend to wake up earlier than the rest of our team of four, but still substantially later than the household members. According to the boys, secondary school starts bright and early at 4 AM, so they are highly accustomed to waking up and working on very limited sleep.

In a unique way, each family member contributes to the expansion of the Peace School. Charles and Solomon (Joanita’s brothers) volunteer their time and construction expertise – although neither have much money to invest in the school, they offer their energy and labor in assistance. Abraham, despite all the financial troubles at home, has worked hard as the deliveryman, ferrying people and supplies between town and the school to facilitate construction. Jia handles the creative side of documenting the trip, while I’ve concentrated on the written record through this blog. And of course, Givology and the Task Force in Richmond have worked really hard to raise funding to make the vision a reality! Without the money to sustain the operations, growing the school would constitute nothing but a pipe dream.

After breakfast, Jia and I spent some time walking around and taking photos of the Peace School complex and the boys working hard to build the temporary sheds. The plan is to fully complete the temporary classrooms in two days, and then spend a few months designing and constructing the permanent buildings in time for the next academic year (roughly June-July). I agree with Joanita and Iria’s perspective that the permanent buildings should not be rushed, and ought to be built with longer term objectives in mind.

When I visited the back part of the campus, where the temporary sheds were being built, I was astounded by how much had already been complete since the morning! Not a bit of material was wasted – all the wood planks and poles that were salvageable from the original buildings were reused once again. By mid morning, the first temporary shed was already nearly complete!

[Below is a video showing the progress of the construction of the temporary sheds. I was really impressed by the speed of the work – with the help of the boys, the hired contractor was able to complete his task very quickly and at minimal cost.]

Afterward, we went inside and spent some time brainstorming ideas and sorting through our notes. As today is January first, I basically only have one week left before I leave. I know I will miss everyone tremendously – it’s hard to explain, but within a very short amount of time, I somehow cultivated so many meaningful relationships. What better way to usher in 2010 – a new year – than making new friends and trying our best to make a difference!

Even when I don’t intend to, I sometimes find myself slipping into a routine of student life and losing sight of the larger picture. With exams, problem sets, conference calls, and lectures on my mind, I often worry about rather trivial things and obsess over small hiccups that interrupt my plans. Each day here at the Peace School reminds me of what is important in life – family, friends, and the simple pleasure of living as fully as possible each day. City life is complex and often materialistic, but having many possessions doesn’t substitute for real experiences, adventures, and the chance to creatively commit to a cause. With the short time we spend on this earth, I think it’s important to recognize that material accumulation can never compensate for the happiness derived from experimenting, learning, and spending time with family and friends.

Right before lunch, catastrophe struck. A very heavy rain blanketed Makindye village and the roofers had just exposed the ceiling of a good portion of the house, including the area right over Jia’s and my room. Unlike typical afternoons, the rain today came down particularly hard in extremely violent bursts. The roofers, rather than rushing to cover the exposed ceiling with a tarp, decided to descend from the roof and wait. As a result, the exposed ceiling started to leak heavily.

When the first drops began to fall, I rushed anxiously into our room and saw the water come through our ceiling. As we have our precious electronic equipment and files in our room, I called Jia over urgently, and we managed to save everything in time before the rain got so heavy that water surged from the cracks and pooled in our room.

The family seemed very embarrassed about the situation despite my assurances that everything was alright as none of our equipment or artwork got wet, as we retrieved everything in time. Solomon’s room, however, was completely devastated. As a consequence of the roofer’s laziness and poor decision to expose the roof (despite Solomon’s warning about the impending rain), mildew and rot can easily form on the now damp old ceiling, potentially resulting in a cave-in.

Iria was enraged – she yelled at the roofers for their negligence, but given language and cultural barriers, they just laughed, which only infuriated her even more (and rightfully so)! Hence, lunch – cooked by Lydia – was a rather tense affair. Joanita had a perplexed, solemn look on her face and kept uncharacteristically quiet as Iria verbally expressed her anger.

Abraham then arrived to pick us up to go to his house, as scheduled. The 45 minute drive was pleasant, but as he lives in the rural area outside of Kampala, the roads got increasingly worse as we drove. When we finally arrived, I admit I was surprised to see such a beautiful home, in light of all the discussion with Joanita and Amina about the family’s financial troubles. They have a carefully maintained property, the result of the hard work of the three sisters (Amina, Mariam, and Aisha) and the great industriousness of their mother. In Uganda, women traditionally handle agriculture – that’s why, according to Joanita, the women work so much harder than the men. The front lawn of the house had papaya trees, mango trees, maize, and other Ugandan food staples. When we walked to the back, we saw cassava, banana trees, sweet potato plants, plaintain trees, and jackfruit trees, all carefully planted and growing magnificently. As the area of the land is rather substantial, I was so surprised to hear that Amina’s mother did the majority of the work herself – the amount produced could easily feed the family and generate a healthy amount of marketable surplus.

[Below is a picture of Amina’s mother – she is truly a remarkable woman for cultivating a love of learning in her children despite her own limited education, and for doing a tremendous amount of work to sustain the family. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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When we went inside, I was really impressed with the building. Abraham fired the bricks himself and built the house three of his friends. The living room is furnished tastefully with plush carpet, a high ceiling, cabinets, and elegant furniture and decorations, including a chandelier, sculptures, and a proper English tea set. In fact, the living room easily exceeded two times the size of my own living room in Northern Virginia! Everyone was really well dressed for our visit, and the girls proudly showed me their rooms. Most notably, we then went into the courtyard where we saw all the chickens that they care for – the primary income for the household.

The girls and their mother care for the chickens, which are separated by stage of life. It takes about five months for a chick to enter into the egg laying and profitable phase of 1.5 years. When the hens live past their prime, Abraham sells them for meat. During the initial life phase, the chicks very delicate and require a lot of intensive care, else they get sick and die very easily. Abraham had built a substantial number of chicken enclosures, all in all, he probably had about 1,000 chickens at different life stages.

[Below is a picture of the family together. What a wonderful family! They are all very close, and support each other wholeheartedly. When you enter their house, you get a very warm feeling. When Jia took this picture, I think they all felt a bit shy. From left to right: Aisha, Amina, Mariam, Amina's Mother, Abraham. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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Earlier, I had given a presentation on Givology to Abraham, and he expressed a strong interest in getting his daughters registered. He told Joanita that a great number of his profitable egg-laying chickens had died due to the purchase of poor quality feed from an unscrupulous vendor. At first, I really wanted to help, especially since Amina had come to me in tears, but despite everything, I felt torn about the best way to use and allocate Givology money. I don’t doubt that since the girls attend the best secondary schools in Uganda (all are very smart and scored near the top in the national exam) and that Amina goes to university (costing $3,500 per year) that the costs of education are very high for the family and difficult to afford, especially since the three girls board at their respective schools and have to pay very high tuition fees. Unfortunately, secondary education in Uganda costs families quite a bit! Nevertheless, despite the higher education expenses the family confronts, they also live substantially more comfortably than the children and families that we met in the village.

On the flip side, the girls are really gifted and bright – Aisha was head girl at Peace School, Mariam achieved five distinctions in the national exams, scoring as one of the best in the entire country, and Amina aspires to practice human rights law. All three girls study really hard and have substantial, yet achievable goals – I have no doubt in my mind that if they graduate, they will not only find jobs for themselves, but also create jobs and opportunities for others and contribute back to their community. For example, Aisha wants to be a neurosurgeon – certainly, a lofty objective, but for her, definitely within her grasp if she works hard. She attends one of the best schools in Uganda, does very well, loves the sciences, and has a very clear idea of what she needs to do in order to reach her goal. Yet, even though their school fees are expensive, I feel like $50 USD can do so much for the children in the village, who have so little, not even a concrete house to live in.

I really struggle sometimes because despite my best intentions to contribute as much as possible, I realize that I must prioritize given limited resources. However, how does one ever prioritize one life over another? Since families don’t have access to education loans to allow them to meet the tuition payment deadlines, if Abraham doesn’t scramble and pull on his connections to get enough money on time, then his daughters can’t return to school. In all honesty, I don’t know what to do. I am uncomfortable with raising thousands of dollars to afford college tuition for a relatively better-off family, especially after visiting the village. But at the same time, Abraham’s daughters really have a bright future ahead and without a substantial amount of funding, they won’t be able to continue on.

With no clear resolution in mind, I came to the following conclusion. First, I will hold a fundraiser for Amina when I get back to Oxford to raise a few hundred pounds so that the family can meet the tuition payment deadline on January 22nd. This funding, however, will remain separate from the funding that we raise online through Givology. Second, rather than deciding for myself whether Abraham’s daughters in secondary school should be featured on Givology, I’ll leave that final choice up to Joanita. As the founder of the school and Givology’s main contact, she should have the final say in choosing funding priorities, with the recognition that each dollar ought to be used to generate the greatest amount of impact.

When we got back to the Peace School, it was already late. To Jia and my great surprise, our beds had been moved to the living room and everything arranged wonderfully! My insides melted as I profusely thanked Madina for all the trouble that we caused. We then ate a tasty dinner cooked by Lydia, and went to bed.

I spent all night reflecting over the nature of human relations. Everyone here is a striver, a manifestation of mankind’s natural instinct to survive and take advantage of opportunities that arise. After the Givology presentation, so many of the children and adults have come up to me privately to ask whether either they or their children could be sponsored. I treasure the stories that they share with me, but I don’t speak Lagandan, so I wonder if I’m only capturing part of the complex picture. It’s not that everyone intentionally attempts to mislead me into thinking their socioeconomic situation is worse than actuality, but I empathize with the rational, instinctual drive to make the most of interacting with foreigners.

More generally, as child grows up, he or she develops a deeper understanding of the complexities of society, recognizing that not all intentions are pure, even those that appear superficially innocuous or friendly. In many ways, poverty accelerates this process as material deprivation forces people to find ways to secure resources for survival. Under dire circumstances, people resort to unethical means without questioning – not realizing that in the process, they compromise their own dignity and humanity. I remember that gruesome moment in Slumdog Millionaire when some unscrupulous men picked up orphans on the street, taught them how to sing while providing them food and shelter, and then upon gaining the children’s trust and love, knocked them out with chloroform and disabled them (breaking their limbs, blinding them, etc.). Then, these children were sent out on the street to beg, with all their earnings collected at the end of the day. Horrified, I asked Shaan if such a horrible profession existed, and he told me it was very common.

I wish the world were straightforward, honest, and direct, but this is not the case. Yet, if one lives life always suspecting and distrusting others and worrying about being taken advantage of, life becomes meaningless. My resolution? To treat people genuinely and kindly simply because it makes one’s perception of the world so much brighter, and the experience of living much richer and happier. This doesn’t mean willful ignorance or blindness, but just a general faith in mankind and a belief that kindness given foments kindness in turn.  Indeed, such is the formula for a long and happy life!

P.S – I wrote my New Year Resolutions today, but I’ll be keeping that list private! Looking over last year’s resolutions, I achieved nearly my entire list. What better way to usher in a New Year than by setting fresh goals!

Day #10 – Catharsis on New Year’s Eve

January 26, 2010 - 7:16 pm 1 Comment

December 31, 2009

New Year’s Eve greeted me abruptly with an over-exuberant rooster’s crow, a cacophony created by the roofers working directly above my bedroom, and the tones of Jia’s alarm, akin to the sounds of forging metal. New Year’s Eve has special personal significance – 2009 marked many milestones, including the completion of my Economics for Development degree at Oxford University, Givology breaking $50,000 and 1,000 registered donors, YouthBank’s launch, and a full time job offer to start summer 2010.

After a simple breakfast of bananas, apples, and mangoes, we went to town to exchange some money and pick up additional iron sheets for the roof. When we returned, Joanita was greeted with the unfortunate news that the roofers needed additional materials and iron slats for the corners. In order for the solar panels to be upgraded, the roof needs to be complete, so everyone was scrambling for money to be able to afford the materials. As a side note, all imported products – manufactured goods and building materials – cost substantially more in Uganda in the United States. Although a haircut costs 2,000 shillings (about $1 USD), iron sheets and concrete can easily cost 3x more! Alas, I’m experiencing for myself the economic theories I learned about last year – non-tradeable goods are extremely expensive, but all tradeable manufactures approach world prices.

[Below is a picture of the roofers at work, with many of the boys volunteering their labor to minimize the labor costs. In general, given the recent relocation of the Lower Campus, the main campus is now filled with lots of building materials. Second picture courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

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Because the man from Uganda Solar was paid upfront, he keeps on finding ways to increase the cost. In fact, getting him to show up at all has been a challenge! Doing business in Uganda is very frustrating – the negotiations are tedious and contracts extremely difficult to enforce. (Alas, I now understand why so much of economics focuses on contract design, information asymmetry, and incentives!) According to the children, corruption is endemic so every transaction has so many additional embedded costs. For example, Sula told me even though college scholarships exist, you have to bribe the committee to obtain them or be related to an important government official. Even then, the scholarships remain highly costly, as you have to commit 10 years to government service while receiving a reduced salary. In addition, given the importance of family relations and the Ugandan equivalent of “guan xi”, one often times have to tiptoe around issues to not offend. Because of the frustration involved in getting even simple things done, I wonder how Joanita and Iria can keep themselves together in light of so many hold-ups and delays. Iria is truly a blessing for the Peace School – she’s organized, detail-focused, practical, highly effective, and calm in the face of fire. Without Iria, Joanita would get over-stressed!

I admit that today was not the best of days – after returning with the iron sheets, we left for town again to pick up toilet paper and disposable cameras to supplement the ones that Lydia brought from London for us. Going shopping would at first appear to be an easy task, but with traffic and the all the complications of the city, the process took about five hours and culminated in a near emotional breakdown.

First, the disposable cameras were incredibly difficult to find. We went to so many shops without avail. Joanita offered to inquire the price as the mere appearance of Jia and me results in a steep price hike. But as Joanita hadn’t been in Uganda for ten years, she had trouble communicating. With traffic exacerbating the heat of the afternoon, we spent thirty minutes just trying to go two blocks. Abraham had the car and circled when we negotiated the price of the disposable camera, which came to be about 25,000 shillings (about ~15 dollars). Although rather expensive by US standards, I suppose this was a fair price given the transport costs of imports, but it hardly seemed reasonable. Joanita, Iria, and I viewed the purchase as superfluous (as we could just provide the kids with our own digital cameras), but Jia was adamant since she had a very specific vision in mind and claimed that disposable cameras produced a unique effect. Given the time constraints, however, we just purchased one of the cameras and left in a sour, acrid manner.

The weather was extremely hot (near suffocating), and the bustle and mass confusion of the city overwhelming from my point of view. As we are guests of the Peace School, Joanita and Abraham didn’t want to deny us the purchase of cameras. Nevertheless, given the problems that we encountered, I felt extremely bad troubling Joanita further, but dissuading Jia proved to be very difficult. As a result, I ended up being sandwiched in between – all parties discontent. To make matters worse, a policeman entered Abraham’s car after catching him make an illegal turn while he was circling around waiting for us, and demanded a bribe. Abraham managed to get around the problem by making a personal appeal and offering to drop the policeman off at a convenient location, but the experience further augmented the tension in the van. Jia likewise felt cheated and dissatisfied with everyone’s lack of support for her vision and the rather high price that we had to pay, the result of a rushed and failed negotiation. Tempers flared. I expressed to Jia my concern of troubling everyone, especially since our hosts wouldn’t refuse our request. Jia retorted that I had escalated stress by pushing her, while Joanita and Iria expressed disbelief at the amount of money we spent. I suppose that since Joanita and Iria had handled many business negotiations and contracts for the Peace School, our disposable camera purchase appeared to be a frivolous indulgence. When $50 USD is sufficient to construct all three temporary sheds for the Peace School, it’s hard to justify $30 for just two measly cameras! Plus, with all the cameras floating around (albeit all digital), buying additional cameras probably didn’t make a lot of sense. To make matters worse, we already had spent a lot of time, meaning that urgent priorities had to be pushed back.

Abraham then drove us to a supermarket complex, where we bought toilet paper. Jia and I split the cost for a refillable film camera for about $17 USD. We then browsed the traditional crafts sold at the adjacent store and picked up a large tub of ice cream for the family.  (Evidently, Madina and Amina (grandmother) crave ice cream!) At this time, I felt very drained – although I’ve gotten used to being hungry all the time because we keep a very brisk schedule that often doesn’t accommodate normal dining hours, today was substantially worse than any other day because I ate breakfast really early, forgot to take my malaria pills, and remembered to take them only later in the afternoon, but on an empty stomach. We arrived home at 5:15 PM for lunch –by then, I felt exhausted, weak, and completely deflated.

My stomach felt really bad while I was eating lunch (probably because I didn’t take my malaria pills with much food today), but it was really hard to control my intake of food as I felt so hungry. Some people can skip meals easily, but I have a lot of trouble. I ended up getting sick, and then running off to the bedroom crying in shame for: 1) complaining to everyone how hungry I was – a rather petulant and whiny request earlier in the car, 2) knowing that here in Uganda, so many people miss meals and never have the chance to eat their fill –sometimes for days and weeks at end – yet, I threw a fit over one missed lunch! And once I started bawling, it was hard to stop – guilt for causing a lot of trouble and making people concerned, pent-up stress from the journey to the city and being caught between two different groups, and frankly, the sadness I felt for meeting so many people who I really want to help more than anything, but realized I couldn’t. After hearing so many stories from the orphans, the children, and the villagers I met, I had too much emotion suppressed inside, and once I opened the valve, all the sentiments erupted violently.

In the middle of my private breakdown, Joanita knocked on my door to get me to introduce Givology to the remaining adults who missed the first talk – Abraham (Amina’s dad and our driver), Passy (the headmistress of the Lower School), Madina (the head of the household), Lydia, and Helen. I dried my tears, washed my face, and put on a smile to deliver the presentation. Overall, it seemed that my discussion of Givology was received very well! When taking pictures, Jia admitted that she couldn’t even tell that just a few minutes earlier, I had been in emotional distress! I suppose that once I got started sharing the concept and vision behind Givology, I felt much better – perhaps an empirical testament to Nicholas Kristof’s claim that commitment to a cause engenders true happiness. In my case, verbally reaffirming the purpose behind my visit acted as a salve to the tribulations of the day, soothing away my problems.

After the adult’s presentation, I made a presentation about Givology to all the children on the front porch. I figured that they at least deserve to know why two girls are always running around asking to take pictures and video, and requesting everyone to draw and write! I think the kids were impressed by the concept and execution of Givology – more than anything, the fact that students roughly their age could start an organization and build a website (technology in general fascinates the teens). Afterward, many of them came up to me privately to ask follow-up questions – how we maintain accountability in the use of money, how they can register, how to start a chapter and take part in the organization, and most commonly, how they can be sponsored.

[Below are some pictures of my presentation about Givology – it was really gratifying to be able to share our vision. We really want to do as much as we can in support! Photos courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

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Sula pulled Jia and me aside to share his story. Having graduated as one of the top students at the Peace School and not paying once cent of tuition, he went on one of the best boarding secondary schools in Uganda, which costs about 400,000 shillings a semester for 3 semesters (about 1.2 milion per year, roughly $650). His father died, leaving five children, and his mother remains in the village, pretty much defenseless and unable to provide for the family. So, he came to live with his grandmother at the Peace School, who pays all his fees. As his sister works at the school and cut a deal with the director, he only needs to pay half of the total cost, but the remaining balance is certainly no paltry sum and requires a lot of financial resources that he doesn’t have available! Hence, whether he misses a term is entirely contingent on his grandmother’s decision. So, he told me that in order to make her happy, he does a lot of work in repayment – he pushes himself really hard to do as many chores as possible and volunteer his labor and time so that he can go back to school. Having seen Sula on the roof with the roofers, washing clothes, taking the most difficult tasks when pulling down the Lower Campus, and always helping out Madina in the care of the household, I now better understand his motivation for working so hard. In speaking to me earlier, Iria was very right in describing the structure of relations – to earn their tuition fees, food, and housing, the boys manage the work.

[Below is a picture of Sula – he towers over the rest of the boys! At first, he appears very quiet and serious, but you soon discover that he has a quirky sense of humor. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

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Josh chimed in that Amina (grandmother) also pays his fees, roughly 200,000 per semester (600,000 shillings per year, roughly $325). His fees are somewhat lower because his school is walking distance from the Peace School complex so he doesn’t need to pay additional boarding costs. After hearing these stories, my admiration for Amina grew even further (frankly, at this point, I didn’t think it was possible to have my awe of grandmother to increase!). She raises money for the operation of the school AND sends the promising orphans to secondary school. In so many different ways, she is the heart of the entire Peace community.

Afterward, we all came inside to chat and rest. Jia showed Ellijah and Farook Photoshop, and I took a brief nap to relax myself. After a quick shower (I’m getting good at using a bucket!), came dinner – matoke, chicken curry, cassava, fresh eggs, and rice. Iria and Joanita then had a frank conversation with me about the short-term and medium-term challenges facing the Peace School, which I really appreciated. Although the school has been successful for the last 15 years, in order to bring the school to new heights and substantially expand the scale, an overhaul of the current modus operandi is required. As one can imagine, people often fear change. I’m really happy that Iria and the Task Force are on board to support Joanita and the school – they already have an action plan set in place, a powerfull vision to motivate the decisions, and the (wo)manpower to execute.

That evening, we waited until midnight to stand alongside the classrooms and watch the fireworks from a distance. Although the fireworks were very small compared to the expansive nighttime sky, the novelty of the display really enraptured the children. In particular, the young children became very hyper, especially little Farook. Excited by the atmosphere of anticipation, he ran around the front yard at great speed, pretending to be a small airplane! His high-pitched screams and antics were extraordinarily cute – imagine an Energizer bunny on hyper speed or a chipmunk on caffeine and sugar! I learned a little bit of Luganda (and then promptly forgot)…such is the memory of a 23 year old.

Most notably, as a New Year’s present, Joanita connected me to mom, dad, and Grace! Just hearing their voices for a couple of minutes made me feel so happy – warm inside to know that continents and an ocean away, we are all thinking of each other and anticipating collectively more adventures and milestones for 2010.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Day #9 – Collecting Stories

January 26, 2010 - 3:43 am 1 Comment

December 30, 2009

Today, Jia and I woke up much later than usual – by 10 AM, the entire Peace School complex was already bustling with activity. The day was much hotter than usual and the sun and heat felt very suffocating, yet the boys were already hard at work tearing down the cement blocks near the bathroom of the Upper Campus to make space for the temporary sheds. The roofers continued their work, creating a large cacophony. Yet, somehow, I managed to sleep through all the commotion!

After breakfast, to help Passy, I worked with Amina and Sharifah on sorting through all the books that we brought back from Lower Campus and cleaning them. As I went through the books, I was generally surprised by the amount of dust, the fact that many of the books were decades old and near tatters, and that a good percentage of the collection consisted of a disparate assembly of odd material, such as UNICEF brochures, magazines, ancient science textbooks from the US in the 1970s, and random religious pamphlets. The school would certainly benefit from a library, a catalogue system, and a replenished set of books! The school doesn’t throw anything away so I saw the detailed handwritten lesson plans of the teachers, administrative records, student workbooks, and graded monthly reports. In fact, Amina found Josie’s (Joanita’s daughter) old workbook from nearly a decade ago!

[Below is a video of some of the books that we transported from the Lower School Office. I’m thinking of organizing a book drive of sorts so that we can improve the collection of books available. I think building a library is essential for the school’s expansion – right now, there’s no real space to store the books so that teachers and children can easily access them. Given limited resources, so many children have to share a rather tiny and incomplete collection.]

After sorting through the books, we had lunch, consisting of cassava, beans, sweet potato, and papaya. I found the food very tasty and fresh – I finally satiated my curiosity of finding out what cassava tasted like. After lunch, Jia and I set up a work station in one of the classrooms – slowly, the children came in out of curiosity. We filmed the $50 project with the children on the video-camera, and handed out booklets and disposable videocameras for our book project. Overall, we enjoyed a very lighthearted, relaxed afternoon – the children really took pleasure in coloring, dancing, chatting, and singing, so we got a lot of very natural footage.

Notably, we had a very long and meaningful conversation with Bashir and Farook, best friends since elementary school.  Bashir has surmounted so many difficulties – he got sick as a young age, resulting in his physical disability and stunting. When his father passed away in 1992, he helped earn income for his household by scrapping by and doing informal resale of electronics and items. His father had owned a rather successful enterprise, but with his death, his mother and brothers soon found themselves battling in court for years for a rightful claim to the estate, which had been taken back by his father’s family.

[Here’s a photo of Bashir and Farook together!]

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Farook and Bashir make an odd but complimentary pair – one tall, the other short, one gregarious, the other laconic, one very world weary, the other very innocent, but they nevertheless complement each other wonderfully – two sides of the same coin. Bashir, slightly ostracized from his family, views the Peace School complex as his home and spends nearly all his days with us. Having grown up in a nuclear family of four, I am not accustomed to having so many people around, but I find it really fun – there is such an overwhelming feeling of warmth and community.

As the sky got darker, the games got sillier. Jia and I got the children to dance and sing on camera, which easily devolved into humorous antics. Farook sang and danced to the songs on his cell phone, Isaac did a hilarious rap, Amina showcases her best dance moves, and Dama and Sharifah performed some popular songs. Jia filmed all these droll antics, capturing the children in a very natural manner. The children – even the serious ones like Dama, Sherifah, and Sula – laughed a lot. When we got a sudden power outage, we all shared brain teasers and played shadow puppets. (Jia took some great footage –we’ll be uploading some longer clips for all of you at a later date!)

The most interesting brain teaser I heard was: three people stand on one side of a bridge crossing a ravine – the first seeks, walks, and then crosses the bridge. The second sees, does not walk, yet crosses. The third does not see, does not walk, but crosses. Who are these three people? The answer was: a pregnant woman carrying a child on her back and a child in her womb.

As a 23 year old, I admit that I sometimes feel a bit out of place, given that the 15-18 year old teens seem to think that I’m roughly their age (but in reality, I’m old enough to be their teacher). Regardless, I’m really having a good time – despite the cultural and background differences, we share a lot of the same interests and aspirations. Being here makes me happy because somehow I always feel really welcomed and included, as if I belong. At Oxford, I sometimes feel very polite and old – cordial to my classmates and colleagues, expected to dutifully meet expectations as a Masters student of Financial Economics at the business school. Here, I can relax and be myself – serious with my work and intention to help everyone, but lighthearted in my demeanor.

Joanita and the family takes such good care of us – for the short duration of this trip, I really do feel as if I’m included as part of the family. And as I’ve seen from the children who reside on the campus – some who are related to the Bbaale family, yet many others who are not – the Peace School creates this strong sense of belonging in many of its students. There is no formality between the “institution” and the people (alas, I think of Oxford and its traditions) – rather, the Peace School’s heart and identity is very much embedded in how personal the schooling experience truly is! Not being able to go home for Christmas makes me very homesick, but I’m able to diminish the pangs of longing with the happiness of sharing so many wonderful memories with a large extended family. Each day, I discover something new about each person. For example, Farook likes to joke (though he appears very serious at first), Bashir is gregarious and a great source of information about the town, Sula is very smart and gifted with numbers and math, Dama possesses great intensity and determination, Zamu follows fashion and trends, Sharifah is everyone’s little sister, Josh is very measured and persistent, while Isaac – though shy – is simultaneously rather goofy. Natasha, Shanelle, and Shareen are very much inseparable (imagine the Three Amigos), and Irene is a loving, sweet girl who tends to get along better with the adults and enjoy her own individual games. Similar to Amina, his cousin, Elijah is very serious and never stops thinking philosophically and conceptually about difficult social issues.

I really do hope the $50 campaign and the book project work out. There is very little control that we exercise over the content – fundamentally, what makes the campaign interesting are the ideas and inspirations of the children.

Around 10 PM, we all gathered to eat dinner. I didn’t help with the leveling work today, but we did take a lot of great footage throughout the day and added at least thirty drawings to our portfolio for the $50 campaign. Tomorrow, we go to town to pick up some supplies and continue on our work.

Day #8 – Tearing Down the Lower Campus

January 24, 2010 - 3:38 pm 2 Comments

December 29, 2009

Each day now hurtles by at lightening speed – as I grow accustomed to Uganda and have become very close to the Bbaale family and the Peace School community, I find greater meaning and purpose in the cause. When I started Givology, I really wanted to do my best to help my fellow students because education changed my life. But, I had very limited experience in visiting schools in developing countries. My motivation came from a theoretical and principled reason, not from concrete experience. Some people who go and volunteer with international non-profits often end up feeling somewhat disillusioned, but in my case, I am now even more inspired!

We woke up very early at 6:40 AM to dress in work clothes and visit the Lower Campus of the Peace School to tear down the temporary buildings and relocate all assets and salvageable building materials to the Upper Campus. The plan is to take down everything in the Lower Campus in one day, erect temporary sheds in two days at the Upper Campus, sort through all the books and materials for appropriate re-categorization before the start of term on February 1st, and set in motion longer term plans for the design and construction of permanent buildings at the end of the school year. Joanita, Iria, Jia, Passy (the headmistress of the Lower Campus), and I went with the majority of the children – Sula, Mehta (the brother of Teacher Hassan), Teacher Hassan, Josh, Isaac, Elijah, Bashir, Charles, Farook, Sharifah (Farook’s sister). When we arrived, we started tearing down the wooden classrooms as Jia taped – the boys seemed to know exactly what they needed to do, and Charles set about building a ladder from a beam that he took down from the classroom!

[Below is a video where I explain the basics of the work we intended to carry out. You can see some footage of the interior of the classrooms and the very limited furniture and space available for the students.]

[Video of Charles putting together the ladder with Joanita. When I think of my own father, a feat such as this would be rather impossible – in the USA, we’re just too used to having all our tools and materials pre-fabricated for us.]

Then, with the ladder complete, Charles, Mehta, and Sula climbed to the roof of the buildings and began taking down the metal sheeting and beams. While watching them from the ground, I kept on worrying for their safety! Their position on the roof looked rather precarious, especially since the sheds are about 15 years old, weakened by erosion and time. Yet, three large grown men could sit on top to perform the duty of tearing the sheds apart! If they fell or if the structure collapsed as they worked (imagine a game of jenga), then we would have experienced a great calamity.

[Below is a video of the boys efficiently tearing down the classrooms – I guess for them, such work is treated as routine, but in general, I was really impressed and amazed at all their practical building knowledge.]

The work was very tiring – I consider myself relatively fit and strong, but the moving of the wooden planks and beans proved very difficult. The boys are all rather skinny and none too much taller than me, other than Sula, but they managed with great ease. As Jia, Farook, and I worked on digging out the cement blocks securing the swing set, Farook laughed at our poor hoeing and shoveling skills, asking us dubiously whether we ever had the experience of digging holes to plant crops! Three times a year, usually during the break, the children go to the village fields to help plant crops to feed the school children.

All the boys were highly familiar with the process of taking down the house – as a result, we managed to complete the majority of the work by 11:30 AM!

[Below are some photos taken during the process. We have so many more to share that we'll be posting later! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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But the devil, of course, lies in the details. I worked with Joanita and Passy, the headmistress of the Lower Campus, to pack up the office. As the office was very poorly ventilated, the dank weather of the rainy season created a lot of dust. A lot of the books and supplies available were clearly not used because they weren’t properly categorized or stored. The books often mildly wet, with large amounts of dust collecting on their covers and in between the pages. One of our hopes at Givology is to fund a library for the Peace School – the books need protection and a much larger space would really help the school administration properly categorize and store the books so teachers and students can access them much easier!

Most of the books were from the 1980s or even 1970s – donated books from US classrooms that had long been abandoned. Most meaningfully, I found the budget records, original student work, and teacher plans from more than a decade ago, when Joanita first started the school. As Joanita carefully dusted and packed the books (each book was treated with a great degree of loving care), she told me that so many memories came back. In fact, the boys who helped us with the work today were all alumni of the first class of students under Joanita’s tutelage!

I asked the boys whether they felt sad tearing down the school that they first went to – most expressed some sense of nostalgia. Indeed, they were melancholic over the loss of their school – Peace Primary remains one of the happiest memories that they had when tuition was completely free, play opportunities plentiful, and the teachers loving and caring. Yet, all of them expressed some optimism that the new permanent building on the Upper Campus would be even better.

[Elijah and Zamu share some of their favorite memories of the school, including the swing set in the front that Jia and I helped dig out!]

The boys were extremely efficient in bringing the materials back to the house and sorting them. The work definitely required a lot of effort, and you could see the different personalities based on their style of tackling the challenge at hand. I really tried my best, and filmed a lot of the work in progress to provide some footage for all of you, our supporters. While we were willing to rush and complete quickly the tear down and construction of the temporary sheds on the Upper Campus in time for the start of term on February 1st, Joanita and the Peace School Task Force were adamant that the design and construction of the permanent buildings be conducted with great diligence and attention to detail at no rush. Before the end of our trip, Joanita and the Task Force wanted negotiate the purchase of the land to the Upper Campus to expand further, as well as hire and contract with a construction team to build the permanent buildings.

Before I describe the evening, I wanted to take some time to discuss the last few moments before we left the Lower Campus. Joanita was very emotional as it was her first memory of the Peace School, when it was nothing more than an operation started on her front porch. When the relocation was complete, I ask the Joanita, Passy, and the kids to introduce themselves and share some of their favorite Peace School memories, as you can see in the video below.

[Above is a video of the alumni introducing themselves and sharing their fondest recollections of the Peace School. In many ways, we had come full circle – the alumni who benefited as the first class came back to help the Peace School tear down the very classrooms in which they started their education. I found the irony very beautiful – as the alumni described playing on the swing set, the care of their teachers, speech day, I could hear their nostalgia and wistfulness.]

We went back late around 5:30 PM to eat lunch – by then, I was famished. But we made sure that before we left, we had fully cleared out the entire area, leaving nothing behind. We even took back bricks and bags of dirt from the Lower Campus! The work was really hard, but rewarding – Jia took complete footage for the entire duration, and I’ll be posting that sometime later. Below are some photos that Jia took of the process in stages.

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On a side note, somehow, the people here don’t seem to get hungry – they work very hard, don’t eat snacks, but somehow, never complain. The children are generally very obedient and help the adults as commanded. As you can imagine, this level of alacrity in work and understanding of household order is noticeably missing in many American families.

After lunch, I took a long nap, while trying to ignore the roofing man working. The entire day made me tired and revealed a lot about the character of the people of the school. Joanita is very hardworking and practical, while Charles, the former headmaster, is incredibly capable (he can build houses, ladders, do almost everything…). And each of the boys played their part in heavy lifting and transport of the materials, with Sula and Mehta leading the take-down efforts. Very few shirked on their efforts, and even the smaller and weaker ambitiously helped out. The neighbors surrounding the school were very curious as to the cause of the commotion – with lots of children standing around watching, Joanita managed to successfully co-opt one of the older boys to assist!

That evening, Jia and I worked on collecting the material and organizing our photos and projects. I suggested that we could bring home some of the scrap pieces of painted wood from the  school and give them to donors who donate more than $5,000. While I’m here, I want to find as many ways to raise funding as possible! Below is a photo of some of these wood pieces that we hope to cut up. (Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.)

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Very late at night, we piled into two vans to pick up Lydia at Entebbe Airport. Lydia resides in North London is one of Joanita’s sisters. I found her very pleasant, but she seemed to differ from Joanita and the other family members in not being highly involved with the Peace School. After dinner, I thought it would be a nice gesture to give Amina (grandmother) a back massage – I couldn’t communicate very well with her, but I figure that it should help relieve some of her persistent back pain. Remembering that day in the village where she proudly showed us her fields and all the corn that she planted (must have been at least 1-2 acres), I am truly amazed that she’s capable of such level of strenuous activity without further hurting herself.

Well, all in all, a good day’s worth of work and effort!