Archive for January, 2010

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!

Day #7 – Taking Inventory of the Lower Campus

January 23, 2010 - 10:19 am 1 Comment

December 28, 2009

I woke up today around 9 AM and ate a breakfast of bananas, nuts, and maize, and then sat on a mat on the porch to do some much needed economics studying. (Unfortunately, when I return to Oxford, I’ll have to take my economics midterm, worth 20% of my final grade!) The rain poured very heavily and we lost power in the house, but the light outside made studying under the covered porch perfect.

Jia woke up later, and feeling rather lethargic from doing so little exercise, I asked her to show me some Bikram yoga poses for fun. I never really understood yoga before, but after doing the standing, triangle, and sitting series, I now understand why yoga attracts so many followers. It creates flexibility, focus, and core strength by leveraging natural tension in stretching the body in opposite ways and in positions that require a lot of strength and concentration to maintain. As a rather inflexible person, I struggled quite a bit – I’m sure my awkward balancing acts amused Irene and Josh a lot. In stark contrast, Jia looked very elegant and relaxed.

Afterward, we waited until Joanita and Iria woke up to go to the Lower School Campus and take inventory of the assets for completion of the deed of reassignment. The Lower Campus is actually very close to the Upper Campus, and was the site of the original school that Joanita started more than fifteen years ago! Unlike the Upper Campus, where all the buildings are constructed of concrete and mortar, the classrooms of the Lower School are all temporary structures – dank wooden sheds that look severely weather eroded and rather tattered and beaten.  The school started 15 years ago, so you can imagine the state of disrepair of the sheds!
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[Above are some pictures of the lower school campus sheds. You can see Teacher Hasan in the second picture! he's a 23 year old teacher at the school, who has cultivated a love of art in many of his students. He lives at the Peace School is a favorite of the students!]

The Peace School had rented the land from an old woman, but when she passed away in September 2009, her son received ownership of the land and demanded that the Peace School leave immediately. Obviously, since term had already started, this wasn’t feasible, so the Peace School negotiated to move the eviction date to December 2009. The man grudgingly agreed, but mandated that in addition to the cost of rent, the Peace School had to pay for his own private apartment rent in Kampala for the months in between! (Ah, I suppose some people are rather unscrupulous…they don’t even bother taking into account the work and mission of the school.)

When I first visited the school, I was shocked at how cramped it felt! Joanita explained to us that the man – to incentive the school evacuation – had constructed a set of his own permanent private buildings all around the school. As a result, there was barely any space left for the play area, and the combination of the cramped grounds and disrepair made for a very sad site. I took the inventory, but frankly, the assets to salvage appeared rather downtrodden.

As an interjection, I discovered is that every material object here has a much longer expected useful life. Computers, cars, posters, etc. that would have long been discarded by their owners in the USA s are meticulously cared for in Uganda to maximize their utility. A lot of the goods sold on the streets are second-hand, imported from discarded goods from China, Dubai, Europe, and the USA, among other countries. In fact, almost all the taxis and mini-buses in circulation still had printed Chinese characters on their side – basically, the generation of old vehicles abandoned from decades past!

We then went back for lunch. Afterward, I chatted with Zamu (Marylove’s daughter, about 18 years of age) about life in Uganda, women’s rights, and AIDS policy, among other topics. At first, she was rather hostile, accusatory at first of all the splendors available in the USA, but she soon opened up and began sharing more of herself and life. Although the families can’t afford much in Kampala, the majority have access to a television through some way or another, and as a result, are very familiar with American pop culture. By watching all these American shows, many of them about the young, beautiful, wealthy, and extremely bored (EX: One Tree Hill, the O.C, etc.) Ugandans start believing erroneously that everyone in the USA lives swathed in riches. With no opportunity to travel and few interactions with tourists and outsiders, you can imagine how easy television can mislead the people.

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[Above is a picture of Zamu and me together. She’s really sweet and fun to be around! Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

Evidently, the Bbaale family had a terrible and costly experience with previous volunteers from last summer, and as a result, really worried that we would cause similar problems. I won’t go into the details about the behavior of the girls, but some of them worried the family greatly, didn’t follow through on their volunteering work, and created some tension in the community, which would explain Zamu’s initial distrust. Zamu is very much into fashion, clothing, and hip hop – not too different from many of the young people from the states! As she lives directly in the city on her own, she’s very cosmopolitan and savvy about pop culture (in fact, much more ahead of the times that me)!

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, but with a lot of necessary activity. Jia and I passed out the journals for our book project to the girls and explained the intent and details of the initiative. We also sorted through the photos and drawings from the village, played games with the children, and wrote our own journal entry as an example for the kids. We entitled the journal J^2 x J for Jia and Joyce’s Journal!

During the day, a few of the boys asked me to show them different functions of the Internet. Josh came first wanting to know how to use youtube to build a radio. Later, Isaac dropped by to find out how to use youtube to watch a recap of Arsenal v. Liverpool, the latter his favorite team. Unfortunately, even though I showed them how youtube works, the bandwidth was so low that each video couldn’t load properly. Given poor infrastructure, all internet connections tend to derive from a portable dial-up USB modem that leverages the rather slow wireless cell phone network. The older children are all extremely intrigued by technology – at their secondary schools, they probably have 1-2 shared internet stations so that everyone has a chance to try, but no one really has much time to explore and learn. An internet café not only has a rather slow connection, but costs about 500 shillings for 20 minutes (about 30 cents for 20 minutes or 90 cents for one hour), which is considered too expensive of an indulgence by many.

The most fascinating aspect to me is that the children here get exposed to so much American pop culture in our movies, TV, and other media. Most families can gather together to watch one small television that is communally shared.  For example, Zamu knows about Prison Break – a show I never watched before – and is completely up to date to the latest episode. As aforementioned, seeing all these American dramas and reality TV shows cultivates an expectation that everything portrayed on the screen is realistic, which definitely result in a lot of misconceptions. No wonder they expect Jia and me to have lots of money!

After a late dinner, I had a chance to present Givology formally to Joanita, Iria, Solomon, Charles, and Morris. I spoke slowly and highlighted our philosophy of micro-donations, accountability, and students helping students. It appeared that all the adults were very enthused by the idea, and surprised that a group of students could build such an organization! Charles, the highly capable brother of Joanita and former headmaster of the school, praised the idea as “genius” and wanted to find out how to register and get involved in Uganda. Well, Givology isn’t a genius idea. Rather, it’s just a meaningful personal commitment we all have to do as much as we can to support students and communities throughout the world.

During the night, I woke up with a series of bad itches (about 7 bites) on my back which I had scratched to the point of bleeding, so all in all, not my most restful sleep. Tomorrow, we have a VERY busy day ahead as we’ll be relocating the Lower Campus temporary sheds so I want to prepare myself. Our plan is rather ambitious: to take down every single one of the classrooms and assets (furniture, chalkboard, building materials salvageable, desks, benches, etc) in the Lower Campus and to move everything to the Upper Campus.

Day #6 – Visiting the Village Kyaggwe

January 22, 2010 - 4:59 pm 1 Comment

December 27, 2009

[Note: Be prepared for a very long entry. We took so many pictures and videos today! Photos are courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

Today we woke up very early to go the village of Kyaggwe, about 2.5 hours outside of Kampala. We all crammed into Abraham’s mini-bus and set off – Amina (grandmother), Joanita, Jia, Morris (the director of the Peace School), Solomon, Mariam, Amina (the younger), Charles, Iria, Abraham (the driver), and me. We barely fit in the vehicle, as four adults sat crammed in one row, yet managed to brave the bumpy and dusty journey. Along the central road connecting Uganda to Kenya, we passed the slums of Kampala, the industrial district (where Mukwano’s production occurs), the rainforest (which has shrunk considerably with development), and various road-side markets where farmers gathered to sell their produce. About 1.5 hours into the journey, we ventured off the paved path onto a dirt road, highly uneven and narrow. Frankly, I doubted that our ancient mini-bus – a public taxi that probably had already completed a few decades of service in China – would manage the challenging terrain. Yet, as a taxi driver, Abraham seemed to consider hurdling along the dirt roads simply a day’s normal work.

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[Above is a picture of some of the fields that we passed. When I asked Joanita whether the landscape at changed, she told me that development had really improved the entire area - before, there would be thick vegetation everywhere. Now, plantations have absorbed much of the land.]

We drove on the dirt road for an hour or so, passing huts and fields, the majority small plots of farmed land. Our first stop was the field inherited by Marylove, Joanita’s sister who resides in Richmond. A poor decision to sharecrop the land without oversight had cost the school a substantial amount of foregone revenue. When we walked through the fields along a narrow path carved out of the thick jungle-like vegetation, Joanita and Amina lamented the disarray of weeds and flora that had overtaken the land. We then made a second stop at the fields owned by grandmother, where she cultivates bean and maize to feed the children at the school. When I saw this second plot of land – immaculately cared for and at least an acre in size – I was truly astonished and humbled by how much work and love the old grandmother had single-handedly invested to support the school.

The level of poverty here is something I have never seen before. The huts are constructed of twigs and mud, with a thatched roof as cover. Due to limited capital to conduct large-scale agricultural production, the villagers rely on subsistence farming. The children who lived nearby were in equal states of deprivation. Clothing in tatters, dirt everywhere, barefoot, stunting due to malnutrition, and solemn faces (at least, at first). I saw children everywhere – all of a very young age, typically primary school. I also saw various elderly grandparents, stooped in their old age, but working hard nevertheless to tend the crops and animals. Strikingly, I met very few middle-aged adults, the result of AIDS, movement to the cities, and the accidents arising from village life.

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[Above are some pictures of the huts and the children that we walked past.]

Sickness and death exist as a very normal aspect of daily life. The fact that one woman in the village was killed by a crocodile and another beheaded by a machete due to a jealous spat with another woman (this murder conducted in front of the child, who now refuses to speak, likely from the shock) was treated as normal news and mixed casually in the chatter with Joanita and the family.

We went to a clearing in the village, where the expectant adults and children gathered, waiting for us. As the Bbaale family is recognized within the village for their work at the Peace School and their contributions to support the village (ex: construction of a communal kitchen, provision of food during a bad harvest, offering of land free of rent to a family in need), the entire village came to greet us in excitement, especially in light of Joanita’s return after so many years! Many of the boarding students at the Peace School come from this village and return during their holiday break, so Jia and I really looked forward to having a chance to visit these children in their home environment.

[Here’s a video that I took of all the villagers introducing themselves in the beginning, when we first met everyone in the clearing.]

As a development economist, I generally find the idea of handing out free gifts and goods rather distasteful as it cultivates a mentality of dependency, rather than invest in a sustainable future. Since Joanita had gotten suitcases of donations from various local churches, however, we had plenty of Christmas gifts to give out.  To allocate the gifts equitably, Joanita and Iria – in a rather regimented fashion – told the kids stand in a line to receive the candy, stockings, toothbrushes, soap, and clothing. At first, it felt very patronizing – those who “have” ordering the “have nots” about in the allocation of goods, but then I realized that with all the children clamoring for their share, there was no other better way to handle the process. I’m hoping that with the funds we raise on Givology, at least some can be reinvested in the village to guarantee sustained income and to open new markets. The infrastructure is so poor that the villagers are in essence “trapped” – they can’t leave to sell their goods as they own no vehicle to take them to the nearest trading post, and they produce only just enough to survive.

Clearly, just handing out items won’t help the village achieve sustainable development in the long run, and one can even argue that the expectation of gifts in the future may corrode incentives and distort local markets. This village, however, has its own productive activities and our Christmas gift surprise is very much a one-team special treatment, far from a cycle expected to continue. According to Joanita, this village rarely gets outside visitors – the last time occurred two years ago, when a team of doctors came to offer free health services and check-ups for a day (and never since returned). Frankly, Joanita, Jia, Iria, and I are here just for some holiday cheer and to give the kids a break from daily routine and the opportunity to play games and make art. Even throughout the day, the villagers kept on expressing their hopes that we’d come back to play with the kids again – I suppose they found our presence very novel and amusing.

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[Morris and Iria hand out the Christmas gifts to the children.]

Before I go into the details of the day, I want to write a little bit about the lives of the children. Very few of the villagers speak English, so I want to caveat my conclusions with the disclaimer that these are mainly my personal observations and the insights I pick up from Joanita when she translates.

As children are expected to contribute to family income, they truly work very hard. Social tradition dictates deference to adults, so the children tend to be very obedient and solemn. When we first arrived, the children sat with their mothers and/or grandparents in a very serious fashion – no expression on their faces, unlike the children of the Peace School complex, who are generally very friendly and outgoing. The parents and adults very strictly instruct the children, and they comply.

Just to test the water, I made some goofy faces to see how they would respond – almost instantly, they all laughed! (Jia and I had a working arrangement in which I would pretty much make a fool of myself so that she could capture some much more natural and relaxed footage of the children.) With us smiling and cajoling the children with games and activities, the children began to loosen up.

[Jump rope definitely helped a lot! Morris had brought one from the school, and as you can see, the kids are really delighted to play]

I couldn’t get over the fact at how small these children were for their age, some with serious medical conditions due to inadequate care. For example, Grace who is deaf and mute because she had a high fever that went untreated (she attends the Peace School), a dear little boy who suffered severe burns that healed poorly, another boy who was cross-eyed and had severe vision impairments…and frankly, just so many fragile looking children, healthy enough but without fully adequate nutrition.  As I discussed earlier, we saw lots of children and old grandparents, but not much of the generation in between – all women, no men around at all.

Yet, despite all the challenges, children – in the end – are still children, who enjoy games and playing! To loosen up the kids, I introduced the game of sharks and minnows. As very few of the children could speak English, we needed Amina to communicate for us, but inevitably, some key instructions were lost in translation. The game started off well, with the children laughing excitably, but we stopped early because some o the kids fell down and started crying, and because one kid who was “caught” by me started crying because she thought she was in trouble. (Actually, I was just very unlucky because had recently witnessed the murder of her mother, and was still in a very sensitive and scared state) In general, the interference of the parents and adults tended to cause the children to freeze up (I heard loud instructions in Luganda, so I assume the adults were telling off the children for some misbehavior), so we really tried our best to relax them before starting on the art activities in order to elicit the most natural and creative response.

Just like all of our prior experiences, the kids start off really shy and then they open up. They feared the camera at first (though they were all intensely curious), but by the end, everyone wanted their picture taken and were smiling, laughing, and making each other laugh for us!

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[Above are some pictures of me with the kids. I really enjoyed spending time with them – even though we couldn’t communicate in words, somehow we managed to convey a lot to each other nevertheless.]

Jia and I set to work on the $50 campaign. Immediately, we had to modify our original plan because the children have no concept of money or value. Life very much revolves around subsistence farming, and there are very few markets around. At first, I was really concerned that the entire project would fail because the 1) the kids didn’t like talking and sharing information about themselves (even in Luganda Amina had trouble speaking with them), 2) the adults told the kids what to draw (which defeats the purpose of finding out the kid’s actual desire), 3) the adults forced the kids to line up and pay attention to us (which felt very unnatural…as each had to wait their turn to take a photo, receive a piece of paper, and crayons, but we managed to circumvent all these problems with some creative adaptation and some kindhearted assistance from Abraham, Amina, and Charles.  Soon, the kids began to open up and relax, and we got some great material. Jia and I managed to create a workflow where Abraham would gently entreat the kids as to what they wanted to draw, and I would then hand out paper and crayons. Afterward, when they finished, Amina recorded the details and Jia took a picture of the kids with their drawings.

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[Here are a few of the kids with their drawings! As you can see, the child in the background of the second picture was making a face, trying to get us to laugh! I’ll share my observations about the content at a later time.]

We’re hoping to showcase all the drawings in an online exhibition, as well as an actual exhibition in New York City! I have lots of interesting observations of the entire process and the content that we collected, but I will try to restrain myself and save these for the launch of our exhibition!

The children really had a blast seeing themselves on camera and in Jia’s camcorder. By the end, they were jovially playing, having fun, and making each other smile on the camera. “Seca” means smile in Luganda– I must have used this phrase at least a thousand times today! The children are all so beautiful and charming – as you can below, pictures are worth a thousand words.

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[Photos of the children that we met, and the children working on their drawings. Special thanks to Jia for taking such amazing footage and capturing so many magical moments.]

In addition to the children, the adults clamored to get their photos taken. I suppose we handled the demand for photos gracefully enough, but I admit it sometimes felt overwhelming as there were just so many people to satisfy!

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[Above are some group photos of everyone together!]

We left the village around 3 PM. I actually found it very difficult to leave – the kids kept on waving bye to us; I truly wanted to stay and spend more time to them. Having spent hours working under the direct sun to collect the campaign drawings and take footage of the kids and families, however, Jia and I felt kind of dehydrated and exhausted. On the drive back, we passed some beautiful sights –green fields bright against an open blue sky. In addition, we drove past the start of the Nile in Jinja!

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[Uganda is such a beautiful country. Above are some photos of the fields and the start of the Nile, while passing by car!]

When we merged back onto the main road, we drove past market stalls where women sold fruits, roasted meats, and vegetables. At 5:30 PM, when the smells of freshly roasted food greeted me, I realized belatedly that since departing in the morning, I didn’t use the bathroom nor eat food. I barely drank water too so in all actuality, I felt kind of dehydrated. Regardless of physical exhaustion, however, I arrived home really motivated and inspired. In so many ways, today really opened my eyes and showed me that even though so much need exists, every little bit makes a difference.

During dinner, we had an important discussion about accountability in using funds. This issue is of particular importance to us at Givology because we need to ensure that our partners follow through in their commitment to spend funding in the way they indicated.

No NGO is perfect, but during my time here, although I know there are some problems and gaps in resources, I feel truly and passionately committed to the Peace School cause. Each day, I get even more fired up to do more, as I meet more people and demonstrably see the impact. My heart shatters into a thousand pieces every day when I hear the stories of the children and witness their problems, but there is a powerful sense of hope beneath it all. Going to the village clearly showed me that indeed, it is truly an impossible, Sisyphean task to provide for and save everyone, but something as simple as sharing laughter and activities together can make a difference.

One life at a time, one step at a time.

Each day has so much more significance here than months of poring over statistics and detailed information about poverty assessment data sets in my Economics for Development course, where each life is nothing more than one line in the STATA data repository. I am but one person, but being here has shown me that so much needs to be done, and despite my limited resources, I can contribute at least my own small part.

We all truly can.

PS – Irene was feeling really sick today from her medicine so she’ll be visiting the hospital tomorrow. What a heartbreaking transformation from garrulous and [;ayful to listless and quiet. I really do hope she gets better.

The smiles and laughter of the children will be forever imprinted in my memory.

Day #5: Supplies and a Campaign Workplan

January 21, 2010 - 4:27 pm 1 Comment

December 26, 2009

Today, Jia and I spent a very productive morning figuring out what project we want to do with the kids that can be used as a campaign back at home. Sometimes I feel very helpless because as a student, I have so little money that I can give myself, yet I’ve seen the immense need. So, we’re trying really hard to brainstorm ways we can raise funding and awareness in the USA using the work and footage that we capture in Uganda. As a graduate of art school and advertising professional, Jia has proposed some truly innovative and refreshing ways to use the children’s art as a medium of expression in a coordinated campaign.

As a really general summary, we set a target of raising $20,000 for the Peace School through two different initiatives. First, we planned a “What would you buy with 100,000 shillings ($50)?” drawing campaign with 200 kids to raise $10,000. Second, we want to publish a book with the personal stories, art, and photos documenting the lives of some of the young people we have met here.

[On a side note, in my previous post with the two videos of the Peace School, I mentioned that the children really loved to see themselves on camera. Here’s a photo of the children playing with Jia’s equipment! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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To purchase supplies, we went into town and found a supply shop. As it is Boxing Day, only a few stories were open. To accomplish our project, we bought some cardstock, yarn, and A3 drawing paper. The experience was really stressful – I intrinsically dislike bargaining, the mixture of Luganda and English confused me greatly in the negotiation of the prices, and the crammed space of the shop felt suffocating. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to buy in the store – given the very limited selection and even more limited space, we had to select on the basis of our eyes, rather than actually browsing the materials. All in all, we spent 500,000 shillings (about $27) for not too many supplies. Our hosts expressed dismay at the prices, as the proprietor definitely overcharged us, but alas, there’s little we could do rectify the situation and precious time had already been wasted. (It takes about 1.5 hours to get to the city with the traffic, even if the distance is not far!)

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[Jia took some really interesting photos of some of the signs that we see when driving in the city. Rather than printed signs and graphics, everything was hand-painted, but with exact precision to mimic all the relevant logos and trademarks. The above sign relating to fair elections was particularly intriguing. All photos courtesy of: Jiashan Wu]

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[Alas, Obama greets us right outside of the Peace School Complex. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

The entire experience left an acrid taste in my mouth, but a tasty lunch followed by downtime and games with the children soon restored me to my normal mood. I’ll provide more details about our specific projects later, but we’ll be using the supplies to create a fundraising campaign in which each student draws what he or she would want to buy with 100,000 shillings (approximately $50), and then we’ll give every donor who contributes $50 to the Peace School the student’s original drawing, a photo of the child, and his or her story. In addition, we’re using the A3 paper and the yarn to sew handmade journals to distribute to the kids, along with disposable cameras, for the book project.

Today, Amina wasn’t feeling well so we spent a day with a her sisters, Aisha and Mariam. Both girls are really smart and engaged with the world, and share a lot of the same mannerisms of Amina! The sisters made many beautiful friendship bracelets while Jia and I finished binding the books. (Well, more like Jia binding the books in a wonderfully dexterous manner, while I struggled to disassemble the A3 books by peeling off glue with my fingernails.) For the rest of the afternoon and evening, Jia and I set a work-plan and framework for completing the two projects, along with a list of footage and interviews needed for a documentary we intend to film. We really have an ambitious schedule ahead to make the best use of our time here!

Tomorrow, we leave Makindye village (the location of the school in the suburbs of Kampala) to the village of Chaguey, far in the remote rural villages. Some of the boarding students at the Peace School come from Chaguey, substantially poorer than their counterparts in the city. I’m really looking forward to this trip, as I’ll see a part of Uganda and the Peace School I haven’t yet seen. As the kids are all on their summer break (winter = summer in the southern hemisphere), we’ll have a chance to visit these students in their home village.

The one comment I’d like to make is that I appreciate the kindness of the Bbaale family so greatly, and worry consistently about troubling them. Each day, we have the best foods to eat and can eat to satiation, drink bottled water, and live in the main house. Members of the family actually gave up their beds to make space for us. Sometimes this hospitality feels overwhelming, as the children and the household handle all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I am deeply grateful, but I honestly feel very bad for not contributing to the work – alas, I have consistently offered my help, but my hosts are too gracious to accept.

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[Here’s a picture of the mosquito net that we sleep under. The one phrase in Luganda that I’ve retained is “Nakowa Enseli” (wrong spelling), which translates loosely to “I hate mosquitoes”. Despite all my precautions, I’ve still gotten tons of mosquito bites – seems like they are very good at picking out fresh blood. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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[Here’s a picture of Medina, Joanita’s eldest sister, in the kitchen. Medina is really kind and truly hospitable – she takes good care of everyone in the household! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Two Short Videos

January 21, 2010 - 7:49 am 2 Comments

Just wanted to add in two short videos recorded on Christmas Eve to supplement some of my earlier posts. All videos were taken by Jiashan Wu, my other half during the Uganda trip! Thank you Jia for recording such wonderful footage and helping document the impact of the Peace School!

Video #1: Irene, Natasha, and Shareen sing and dance on Christmas Eve. The kids were really fascinated with Jia’s camcorder and tripod, and relished the chance to perform and use the microphone. Generally, all the kids we met were hesitant at first to be on camera, but soon afterward, curiosity and interest supplanted any initial reservation. In fact, at the end of our trip, the kids clamored to use the equipment themselves to take footage of us!

Video #2: Playing “Lost Message in Pocket” (See the post about Christmas Eve). This game was really fun – the way it works is that a child tosses a scrap pebble over her shoulder, and whoever is closest hides it. Then, the child returns to the center of the circle, sings the song, and then tries to figure out who was closest to the pebble. Once the right child is found, a game of tag occurs! I kept on getting the words to the song wrong, to the amusement of the children.

Day #4: Christmas

January 20, 2010 - 12:26 pm 1 Comment

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas! We woke up bright and early at 6:00 AM to attend the local Born-Again Christian service at 7 AM at Prayer Palace. The people of Uganda are generally very religious – as a predominantly Christian country, there are churches all over Kampala, nearly all of them of the “Born Again” (Pentecostal) denomination. The service was very different from anything I have ever experienced – everyone gathered under a large covered shed with space for about 500, and for the first hour, the congregation sang songs (no need to sing in tune or along with the words – pretty much, the songs gave free license to everyone to make as much noise and movement as desired). The songs are very modern, set to the orchestration of drums, keyboard, and a group of back-up dancers. Amina (grandmother) is very spiritual – we were one of the first to arrive because she didn’t want to miss anything.

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[Picture of Christmas Service at Prayer Palace. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Amina is truly very sweet and loving – even at her age, she never stops working. In fact, she singlehandedly plants and cultivates crops to feed the students of the school on a large plot of land she owns far in the country. She also takes care of the Irene and all the other HIV+ orphans of the school, making sure that each and every child takes their medicine correctly and visits the free clinic on a regular basis. Although she herself is Christian, the Peace School openly welcomes children of every different religious and ethnic background, and does not discriminate. Our church attendance constituted a very much a personal, family affair.

Everyone came to church dressed in their finest for Christmas service – lots of shiny traditional clothing, but also fancy gowns of every type. The Pentecostal church emphasizes God’s unique ability to reward his devout worshippers financially. As you can imagine, in many developing countries, this form of Christianity grounded in material affirmation in this current life, rather than rewards for faith in the afterlife, has attracted a substantial following. In stark contrast to Anglican formality, as evident in the stodgy services at Oxford I’ve become accustomed to, Pentecostalism is very much grounded in a charismatic preacher and the communion of worship. The service was very much a mixture of Lugandan, the main language of the Bagandan tribe, and English, so I admit I didn’t fully follow everything. Then again, speaking in tongues constituted a portion of the impassioned pastor’s speech, so perhaps I wasn’t meant to have understood!

Afterward, we went back to the house to chat with the kids before lunch. Elijah and I had a long conversation bout the Ugandan education system and the challenges he faces. Elijah is the son of Medina, and according to Joanita, has excelled in his classes. He just finished the national high school examinations and is anxiously awaiting his results to see whether he qualifies for a national university.

We then ate a tasty traditional Christmas meal around noon – chicken, cabbage, rice, potatoes, beans, and spaghetti. The dishes were very similar to the food we eat on a daily basis, but with greater variety normally unavailable. As the staple food is “matoke” (steamed mashed plantain), rice and spaghetti are considered luxury items reserved for special occasions. I probably ate too much for my own good, but I was so hungry from waking up so early in the morning.

Afterward, I spent some time informally chatting with the older boys, all about secondary school age (14-16 years old) – Bashir, a boy from next door, Josh, a friendly boy from the village who resides at the Peace School during holidays, Isaac, a rather quiet boy who aspires to be an artist, and Farook, the son of Solomon and brother of Sharifah. There are so many people around that I often lose track of the different family connections. Many of these boys are orphans or from single-parent households, loosely related to the Bbaale family through various distant connections. Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing because everyone considers each other “brother” and “sister”, regardless of whether they are actually related!

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[All the boys dressed in the University of Richmond shirts given to them by Joanita and Iria. From Left to Right: Isaac, Sula (tall one), Bashir, Josh, Elijah, and Farook. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Christmas is a big deal because for once, the family rests and the children play rather than contributing to the housework. Joanita and I handed out our gifts today. Joanita had clothes and so many supplies for all the children, while I had some shiny wrapped gifts for grandmother, Medina,  Joanita, and supposedly the “best behaved” children (Joanita’s recommended way of allocating, as I didn’t bring enough for everyone). Honestly, I didn’t realize how many children stick around the Peace School during Christmas vacation, else I would be better prepared! I reserved a gift for Barbara, who we support on Givology, but gave out a railroad calendar to Sula, a very bright and hardworking boy and Christmas tumblers to Elijah.

Jia and I then led the kids through some games. In particular, the game of charades resulted in cheerful hilarity as the kids typically put down very simple words and were unused to acting, though everyone enjoyed the antics greatly. Then, given that I had given all the children a shared gift of a large poster paint set, we all started painting, to the children’s delight. Jia brought a pop-up Christmas book about the “Night Before Christmas”, which she handed to Elijah to read to all the children. All the kids, especially the little ones, became enraptured with the simple story.

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[Picture of the Farook and Bashir playing checkers on the board they created. The games that the young people came up with really fascinated Jia and me. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

I suppose the gifts that Jia and I were not necessarily the most utilitarian items. Joanita, on the other hand, came prepared with everything from toothbrushes to deodorant. I suppose we came with more of the “luxury/discretionary” items, such as an artist’s pad, Christmas stockings, paint, and flavored tea. But I suppose discretionary expenditures make holiday gifts special – rather than items of need, the kids get to enjoy simple toys they want.

The drawings the children came up with were all very good! The majority of the kids painted landscapes or copied images, but there was a definite love and enthusiasm of art. After painting,  we played some really fun games with the children – card games (I learned lots of fun tricks from Bashir!), number games (Sula is very good at math and showed us some really interesting math tricks and number puzzles that he came up with himself), checkers (bottlecaps on a cardboard piece the kids made themselves), and tick-tac-toe (the Ugandan way with different rules).

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[Dama shows off her painting of a tree. She’s definitely really talented! I found Dama extremely thoughtful - she had such an extraordinary elegance in everything that she did. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

While organizing the painting, I felt a bit like a real teacher. In light of my chosen field (financial economics), teaching probably is a career choice I’ve never before considered, but while showing the kids new games and activities, I found the experience really rewarding. I do, however, feel bad because we made a relatively large mess and although the kids and I were having fun, everyone tomorrow would have a ot of work to maintain the property! Medina (the eldest of Amina’s daughters) and the womenfolk constantly clean, cook, and wash, and the boys help out with all the chores.

By now, the sky had gotten dark. Little Farook, a little orphaned boy no more than ten years old, and Dama, recently graduated from secondary school, came at the end to paint, having only just finished their chores. I suppose I have a few observations to make about the social microcosm of the Peace School. The natural social order tends to go from oldest to youngest, direct children of the living Bbaale family to the children of the deceased Bbaale family, and then finally, the orphans. Little Farook is so small for a ten year old – he continually smiles and speaks very limited English. Unlike gregarious and outgoing Shanelle, Morris and Helen’s 3.5 year old daughter (who insists she is five), Little Farook is much shyer around strangers. I gave Farook my journal and he drew a really realistic picture of a helicopter in it, as his dream is to fly planes around the world.

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[Picture of Little Farook doing some of the washing around the Peace School complex. One of these days, I’ll scan in some of the drawings that the children created in my journal! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Listening to stories, I’m slowly picking up on different tidbits of the more complex nature and history of the Peace School. Joanita’s father, a very enterprising, hardworking, and kindhearted man, had built up a chain of businesses and accumulated land, but with is sudden and unexpected passing just a few years prior, the family lost a lot of assets as people took advantage of the situation and stole a lot of the property. Even now, the school is still sorting through all the details, which has certainly destabilized the sustainable revenue sources formerly available. As her father had been in fine health and the stroke completely unanticipated, there was very limited written record of all the property and assets.

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[Picture of the school yard – the murals painted on the classroom walls are all so cheery. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

The financial need is just so great. Yesterday night, right before dinner, Amina (the aspiring human rights lawyer currently in her first year of college, one of the first graduates of the Peace School) came up to me as for financial assistance to pay her school fees. I wanted nothing more than to help her, but unlike fees for primary and secondary school, tuition comes out to be about one million shillings a semester (About $700 USD). Even I wanted to help, raising about $1,500 to get her through the year, that would not be enough for all four years of the law program. Having heard the story of how her father’s chickens suddenly died due to the purchase of poor feed, her sisters currently dropping out of school and pursuing self study as they have no funds to take the examinations to pass to the next year, and Amina teetering on the edge of not being able to continue school, I wished more than anything that I could help. But even though I am from the US, I suppose it’s hard for the local people to recognize that I’m still a student myself and that despite all the glamorous images of the US in movies and TV shows, not everyone is automatically wealthy with unlimited resources. Compared to some of the orphans and the children from the distant rural villages, Amina and her sisters are relatively better off, but the need is still really great.

I’m really happy that the Task Force started at the University of Richmond will help with the raising, transfer, and monitoring of funds. Iria is really organized and methodical, gung-ho in her conviction and not letting details slip through. And Joanita is the kind-hearted visionary who breathes life into the school. I suppose one trouble the school currently faces is that because Amina (grandmother) is so kind-hearted, a lot of people often take advantage of her goodwill and utilize and misappropriate the family’s resources, which leaves less available for the school, as the family finances the gap in school operating costs. But with the task force in place, an action plan to resolve these problems has been set into motion!  No operation is ever perfect, but I’m deeply impressed with the immense love, dedication, and commitment of the entire family and Peace School community.

I suppose more than anything, this is a Christmas that I will long remember – a Christmas less about receiving gifts and indulging in conspicuous consumption and pre-fabricated entertainment, rather, a wholesome experience with family. I suppose the kids here appreciate and take pleasure in simple games and activities a lot more – one paint set can occupy a everyone for hours! As much as I am enjoying myself here, however, I do miss my own family at home. I can imagine Grace, mom, and dad waking up bright and early to peer under the Christmas tree for Santa’s yearly letter, our tradition, and a day of family activities and winter fun. Despite the summer weather, being here at the Peace School reminds me of what makes Christmas special – there’s truly a great joy in giving and sharing, an ineffable happiness from just spending time together.

Day #3: Christmas Eve at the Peace School

January 19, 2010 - 10:13 am 2 Comments

December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve today! I woke up early at 8:30 AM and ate some Ugandan brown bread with bananas and dry roasted peanuts. Rather than go to town, we spent a complete day at the Peace School, playing with the kids and taking more photos and videos.

One of the favorite games the children play is called “cigarette”. Basically, you go around a circle and chant, “cigarette, cigarette, how many cigarettes does your father smoke in one day?” Then, a number is named and a count-down to elimination, until the last remaining child chases all the others in a game of tag.

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[Photo of the children playing “lost message from pocket”. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

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[Photo of the children playing “cigarette”. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Today was a rather cool day in temperature, so I enjoyed running around and playing with the children. Jia, ever the professional, recorded a lot of great footage of the school and the students.

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[Photo of Jia and Irene playing on the porch]

Early afternoon, a man from Ugandan Solar came to discuss an upgrade of the current system. I’m happy to see how powerful and useful solar energy can be – a reliable source of energy to generate light in all the classrooms. The solar man showed us the different components – inverter to convert DC to AC for use, the control system to prevent discharging and overcharging, the batteries to store up to 14V (for future net metering), and of course, the solar panels, designed to last a minimum of 25 years. As a form of pre-paid energy, Solar requires a rather substantial up-front cost.

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[Photo of the solar control box. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]

Afterward, we had lunch around 3 PM and watched a video of the school, taken during the summer with the University of Richmond volunteers worked as volunteers. One serious conversation Joanita and I had was about AIDS. Evidently Irene is HIV positive, which I completely didn’t know about, especially since she appeared very energetic and lively. When she stopped taking her ARVs (her grandmother would give them to her, but she would hide them and refuse to eat them), she became very sick. Bother of her parents passed away from AIDS, and she was born with the condition. She’s such a sweet, kind girl – a little bit of a natural born performer. This morning, she made me a fan and a friendship bracelet.

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[Picture of Irene braiding a friendship bracelet. She didn't have any tape to hold the string still, so she comissioned the help of little Farook]

I wouldn’t have been able to tell at all that she was sick. I guess a lot of experience here has been just that – all the kids smile a lot and play, but each face a lot of difficulties that they courageously surmount, hardships that many kids in other countries can’t even imagine! One astounding realization is that sickness and death play much more of a role in daily life than in ours – in many ways, this epiphany is truly humbling.

I guess jet lag finally caught up with me, so I took a much needed nap. Joanita, Jia, Iria, and I then took inventory of all the assets at the Upper Campus, as needed by the lawyer. We walked around the campus and discussed was to expand the school and best utilize the space.

Christmas Eve here is all about family and being together – spiritual celebration, no material exchange. We had a special meal of rice and chicken for dinner, and then afterward, I helped Joanita sort through all the clothing, supplies, and gifts that we bought for the children of the school and for the children of the village that we’ll soon be visiting in a couple of days!