Archive for February, 2010

Givology and the Oxford International Festival 2010!

February 27, 2010 - 3:12 pm 1 Comment

The Oxford Givology chapter organized a stand at the Oxford International Festival today– although we were the only charity among the sea of cultural societies, the event was a huge success! To raise funding for the Peace School, we cooked traditional Ugandan food, displayed pictures and crafts, and handed out brochures about Givology.

To prepare, I spent all night yesterday putting together our decorations, banner, and dishes. With Shaan, I cooked massive quantities of food! Even though I ended the night around 2 AM and then woke up at 6 AM to put the finishing touches on the food, the satisfaction of having a well-run stand and meeting lots of interested students and townsfolk made the sacrifice of sleep very worthwhile! I admit, having never cooked any of these traditional Ugandan dishes before, I was petrified of messing up the flavors, especially since we have to make bulk portions to feed 60-70 people!  With Shaan offering his sous chef support, we managed to make: 1) Chicken Curry, 2) Bean Stew, 3) Banana Custard, 4) Sim-Sim Cookies, and 5) Fried Rice. Alas, I never imagined how tiring deboning a chicken can be, or mashing 50 bananas together!

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to stew the curries. Without the help of Alex, Can, Khushbu, and Farrell, it would have been impossible to set up our stand. Braving the rain and the challenge of carrying seven large pots and pans, we managed to get to the Exam Schools and set up our stand. Alex printed a lot of great flyers for the events to hand out, and together, we served the food and talked about Givology and the Peace School to everyone.

Below are two youtube videos that highlight our work!

We made approximately 160 pounds (roughly 275 dollars), or about 100 pounds ($170 dollars) net of costs. Even though it’s not a substantial sum of money, the amount of exposure and show of support we received felt really amazing. As the CEO of Givology, I’m often involved in the strategic side of the organization. Yet, to have the opportunity to organize and carry out a microfundraiser is just as meaningful – to interact with people and to share our vision and mission!

And here are a few photos of the prep process- I tried my best to make a banner that resembled our logo, all with a set of acrylic paints and cotton roll-up canvas in my dorm room!

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Special thanks once again to (in no particular order):

  • Shaan: For cooking, emotional support, and taking half of the painful de-boning work! For putting up with me when I was going through my “freak out” phase on Friday night.
  • Alex: For being such a great spokeswoman of Givology (I swear, I feel like Alex can do everything and sell anything!), carrying large amounts of groceries and pans back and forth (Alex and me – two girls, none over 5’4, yet managing to carry loads fit for a camel), printing all our brochures, and of course, leading the Givology initiative at Oxford
  • Can: For her positive, “can-do” attitude, and much appreciated assistance in carrying our dishes, serving all our customers, helping us fulfill our ushering duties, flagging down all attendees to hand out our flyers, and for being such a wonderful Givology volunteer!
  • Khushbu: For her steadfast help in setting up and manning the stand, for being the first customer =) [the first sale is always the hardest!], and for her calm and rational logic in the face of pressure, including flagging down the *very late* taxi man!
  • Farrell:  For finding us forks and cups at the very last minute, handling all the details that we forgot, being supper supportive of Givology Oxford (and pulling all his friends to buy food from us!) Without Farrell, there would be no way for us to serve all the food that we made!

Week 6 already?

February 23, 2010 - 3:19 pm 1 Comment

Having finally completed my Ugandan blog, I now turn to my actual life at Oxford. A lot has transpired over the past few weeks – admittedly, Hillary term in the MFE is known for being one of the most intense. Each week, we seem to have some important graded assignment to hand in. Personally, I don’t mind at all – having to complete assignments helps keep me on track with learning the material.

Notably, I celebrated Chinese New Year in high style on the 14th of February! Not being able to go home to my mother’s tasty dumplings, I managed to find alternative activities here at Oxford, including taking a class to paint shrimp in the style of Qi Baishi at the Ashmolean Museum, visiting George the Fourth’s Oriental Pleasure Palace at Brighton, and sampling tasty food at Michael’s Kitchen.

Brighton, a seaside resort about one hour south of London, was truly a wonderful escape! Although parts of the boardwalk resembled Atlantic City (a grayer, colder version), the quaint shops in the narrow streets of the Lanes and the lavish, ostentatious palace really tantalizes the imagination and senses. Below are some photos of Brighton! One of my goals this year is to take many more day trips in the UK – York is next on my target list, while Wales and Scotland uncharted territory I intend to explore.

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Notably, as our ice hockey varsity game against Cambridge is approaching this Sunday, I’ve been going to many practices and training. Regrettably, our team hasn’t won a game in three years (a trend I’m hoping will reverse during this very critical match), but we still have a lot of fun together. As the Varsity game this year will take place in our home rink, perhaps the home team advantage of a cheering, supportive crowd can help us break our losing streak. I often find that we outplay our opponents, but fail to convert all our scoring chances into actual goals. Alas, why is the back of the net so hard to find?

The MFE course is overall going well. I really enjoy my classes this term, particularly economics. We had a MFE Chinese New Year party last Tuesday at Sojo – a great time for everyone to enjoy a banquet on Said’s tab.

Givology is also going well. We launched our “50 Campaign Exhibition” website, which you can view by clicking the link. As we’re scheduling the date of launch to be March 26, you can imagine the amount of work spent to ensure the success and impact of the exhibition! We’re selling 163 original drawings and portraits for $50 to support the Peace School – the efforts of Jia and my work in Uganda. Truly, I’m extremely excited, yet incredibly nervous about the outcome of this event!

Below is a screenshot of the site – click the picture to jump to our site!

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Day #17 – Leaving Uganda

February 22, 2010 - 7:44 pm 1 Comment

January 7, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day #16 – Tying Up Loose Ends

February 18, 2010 - 6:12 pm 2 Comments

January 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day #15 – Arts and Crafts Village

February 8, 2010 - 7:34 pm 1 Comment

January 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day #14 – Peace School Students Visit

February 8, 2010 - 4:45 am 1 Comment

January 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day #13 – Youth Culture and Games

February 2, 2010 - 3:00 pm 1 Comment

January 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kicking off Hillary Term

February 1, 2010 - 8:07 pm 1 Comment

In posting each day about my trip to Uganda, I’m very behind on all that has transpired in real time – my life at Oxford. As a very quick update, when I got back from Uganda, I basically had 24 hours to unpack and then repack for an ice hockey tour in France and Switzerland. While competing against Courchevel, Mirabel, and Grenoble (marketed as a game of France vs. England), we had a chance to ski in the French Alps and enjoy a lot of high quality team-bonding time in a luxurious chalet. I admit that during Michaelmas term, my attendance to ice hockey slipped quite a bit as Givology and adjusting to the MFE subsumed a lot of my life, but as the Varsity game against Cambridge fast approaches, I understand the importance of full commitment. By the time I arrived back at Oxford, I basically had two and a half days to prepare for my Economics midterm. Alas, despite the pressure, I don’t regret all my travels this winter break!

Highlights of First Week: Other than my Economics midterm (rather straightforward and much less daunting than I anticipated), I enjoyed getting back into the mood of a student. At first, it felt really surreal to be back in class after three weeks in Uganda and then one week in France, but I quickly adjusted within a few days. Most importantly, going to Uganda revealed to me how much I have to appreciate – the opportunities and luxuries afforded to me in my life at Oxford. As a result, I look forward to this semester with an even greater anticipation than before – as this year may indeed be my final year of study, I intend to take advantage of everything!

My classes this term are much more applied. In particular, I enjoy the fascinating microeconomics lectures by Professor Thanassoulis because he’s extremely engaging and great at distilling difficult concepts into understandable components. Asset pricing this term focuses on the empirics, which I find a lot more interesting, and Professor Ramadorai banters with the class, keeping everyone on track!

On the Givology side, I spent a lot of time catching up with prospective partners from around the world – Contact Skip in Peru, Science for Humanity, Jacaranda, Future Leaders Academy in Kenya, Notre Dame HS in Uganda, and Nido Disperanza in Cameroon, among others. We have a huge backlog of potential partners to interview…it’ll definitely be tough striking a balance as we want to make sure we have the resources to fully dedicate and support them fully.

Notably, on Sunday, I went to formal dinner at Pembroke with Erin, Kate, Ellen, and Pranav from my class! I really enjoyed the experience, and after dinner, Erin showed me the trophy case containing the medals of Sir Roger Bannister, a distinguished neurologist and former Master of Pembroke College…and the first man in history to run the mile in less than 4 minutes. Goes to show that intelligence and athletic ability don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive!

Highlights of Second Week: Not too much happened early in the week, as I felt rather sick. With YouthBank and Givology work piling up with my absence, I spent most of this week clearing through weeks worth of e-mails and work. Thanks to Coonoor, our Director of External Relations and Outreach, we’ll be taken on as a client by Service Corp Consultants from Net Impact. I also made an application on behalf of Givology to the Oxford Volunteer Consultants, which places MBAs with organizations looking for external feedback.

Notably, I had a very busy weekend. On Saturday, I woke up early to compete in the Social Venture Competition, organized by the Private Equity Oxford Business Network. As the only non-MBA participant, I was a last-minute addition to the team. Despite having the smallest team and very limited time, we did a full valuation and presentation about a potential m-commerce investment. We didn’t win, but regardless, it was a good experience, though I think myself rather insane for choosing voluntarily to complete a corporate finance/valuation project for fun! Also, I take pride in the fact that as the underdogs, we exceeded expectations – in particular, the fact that we did a valuation from scratch and caught a major mistake, while the other teams didn’t even bother. I worked with Farell and Jenn – two MBAs who I’ve gotten to know, both with really interesting backgrounds and experiences.

After the competition, I biked to my ice hockey game against Milton Keynes. We lost 7-2, but the score didn’t reflect our performance – the game felt a lot closer in actual skill. I scored both goals, but frankly, their goalie didn’t seem particularly experienced. After the game, I went to see Sherlock Holmes, perhaps one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last few years! Definitely worth it to see the movie on the big screen – I loved the quirky dialogue and the intricate plot. (Alas, I’m addicted to the detective genre in general – right now, I can’t stop myself from indulging in episodes of Detective Academy Q…an unfortunate source of procrastination)

On Sunday, I went to the Ashmolean Museum, and was astounded by how much larger the collection has become! With the reorganization of the exhibits, the explanations and themes emerge much more clearly. I spent about 1.5 hours at the Museum, and resolved to return, as fully appreciating the content requires at least a full day or several visits!

That afternoon, I worked with Jia on figuring out the logistical details for our NYC exhibition of the artwork we collected and created in Uganda. We’ll also be publishing a book to compliment the exhibit – with the end of March as our target date for opening night, we have so much work outstanding. (But, of course, fun and meaningful work!) Jia found an ideal location and printer partner, so we’re in the process of hashing out the details to make sure our exhibit receives sufficient media attention and generates at least $20,000 in profit. At 9:30 PM, I decided to make a last minute submission to the St. Gallen Symposium and spent the next three hours writing up an essay on the theme of “Entrepreneurs: Agents of Change.” (If you’re curious about my paper, e-mail me and I’ll be happy to send it.)

So, now third week has begun – frankly, I can’t believe how quickly time has passed. With term in full swing, we have lots of assignments due. But I suppose my travels have shown me the worthlessness of stress – maybe because I’ve seen much more, I’ve developed a healthier perspective on the balance of life and work.

One step at a time, all can be accomplished! Admittedly, I’m still clearing my backlog of calls, meetings, applications, and papers, but eventually, I’ll finish.

I miss home lots.

Day #12 – Exploring Makindye

February 1, 2010 - 3:55 pm 1 Comment

January 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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