Jiefei Yuan's Blog

My Tuesday Conversation with Joanita

When the phone rang, it was approximately 7pm EST. A kind, patient voice answered on the other end. After a brief introduction, my interview with Joanita Senoga, the founder of the Circle of Peace School in Uganda, began. What followed was not a high profile interview conducted with a tape recorder, pen and notepad, in a dimly lit office space, but an impromptu conversation about the power of education to change lives one child at a time. An hour and rounds of inquires later, I discovered the true power of one lies not in one’s noble causes or lofty goals, but in one’s actions and convictions to act accordingly. I learned what Joanita continues to inspire in others - that the gift of education transcends boundaries; it is a universal cause proven to generate significantly high ROI with little monetary investment but an invaluable amount of investment in time, energy, and compassion.

We started in the present, as I wondered out loud what Joanita has been up to since she enrolled in the University of Richmond. I asked about her dual role as both an educator and student. It turns out she’s wearing far more hats at the moment than one can possibly imagine. Joanita confesses that she works two part-time jobs to make ends meet at home, to support her one daughter in college and another who’s about to enter college, all the while committing the better half of her day to the Peace School she started back in 1994.

“I work at the library as a full time employee from 4:30 until 1 in the morning. During the daytime, I make phone calls to check in on the Peace School… I also have another part-time job, for five years now.”

The Peace School, however, is perceived as more than just a job; it is deeply regarded as a third child to Joanita, to be nurtured, cherished, and placed under constant supervision and guidance. When asked to speak about the progress and setbacks in the school’s fifteen-year history, Joanita starts ardently about the education inequalities and missed opportunities she witnessed growing up in rural Uganda. She recounts in a regrettable tone about the many children left behind or overtly kicked out of school due to the lack of a compulsory education system.

“Unlike in the U.S., kids must pay to go to school in Uganda. School fees include uniform, shoes, books…Here in the U.S. those things don’t mean so much. But some people [in Uganda] don't wear shoes; shoes are a luxury compared to food.”

I learned later that it costs at least $450 per year to attend public school in Uganda. That may not sound like much, but in a country where the nominal GDP per capita is only $454, this is no paltry sum. Though the government has made significant efforts since the late 90s to expand literacy and boost school attendance by providing free tuition for all orphans and for up to four children per family, this policy, better known as Universal Primary Education, has not been effectively implemented throughout the country. In Joanita’s own experience, she recalls taking in orphans from distant and nearby villages, often AIDS victims, to be educated and cared for at her Peace School whose basic mission is to provide underprivileged children with the tools of learning and understanding that they can utilize to live a life otherwise unfathomable. She eloquently describes education as the best gift her parents have ever given her, for this special gift remains with her to this day as she seeks to endow others with a similar gift.

“Poverty is intense in Uganda… Growing up, my parents provided me with education, not things or presents. Instead of holidays and birthdays, they emphasized education. They told me, ‘No one can take your education away from you. You will use it to help other people.’ Education was the only gift I could give these kids.”

And so she quit her full-time job as a teacher in a local primary school to start a different kind of school – one that would serve the kids who can’t afford an education otherwise, and one that would provide a sanctuary, home, and community to the kids who are in most dire need of care and attention.

“My parents were very supportive. They gave us what they had. I started out with just 8 kids, and it soon grew up to 24. After my father rented this property from a widow, my sister and I began teaching, just sister and I, and then we hired an art teacher.”

What began as a roundtable with a few stools turned into an operating kindergarten and a small first grade classroom. That was the first big milestone in the Peace School project. Fast forward to 2009, the school officially enrolls 250 students and offers Kindergarten and Grades 1-7 education. The school also boasts ten functioning classrooms where primary school students learn basic lessons in Math, English, Writing, and the Social Sciences.

I briefly inquired about the overhead costs of running the Peace School. Joanita was very open to discussing the school budget as well as the tuition and optional room and board ($85 and $200 per semester respectively) required to cover the school’s operating costs and expenses.

“We try hard to not turn anyone down. If they can’t afford, then we help them. The most important thing is to keep the kids in school.”

Already the Peace School’s achievements and philanthropic approach have generated much hope and excitement in nearby villages. “There are still more boys than girls, but the number of girls is growing because people hear about us and soon they come from other villages,” Joanita boasts confidently.

I naively asked about the school’s marketing strategy and targets to which Joanita gave a frank response, “Right now it’s just word of mouth. I’m working on brochures and would like to add newsletters, but that’s another expense to the school. We currently don't have the money. We need at least $17,000 every year just to keep the school running, to buy books and things, to pay teachers and meals... The school raises chicken and sells eggs as fundraising.”

Strapped for cash and severely underfunded, the school still commits to its mission of fostering a sense of community and camaraderie in and out of the classroom. It turns out Joanita’s mother has become the most public spokeswoman for the unofficial Peace School campaign, which she runs by holding door-to-door ‘parent-teacher conferences’ in order to reach out to families in nearby villages.

“My brother has done some reaching out, but mom does most of it; that's her role. She goes twice a week, usually on Wednesdays and Fridays. Some parents have not visited the school at all, so my mom visits them to see how they’re doing.”

This personalized, intimate approach has proven to be an immense success so far. Enrollment at the school is growing at such a phenomenal rate that a new application process was recently created in the face of scarce resources and limited space. The good news is, by investing in human capital for over a decade, the school is already generating promising ‘returns,’ literally, as many Peace School alums are now happily returning to volunteer at the school.

Joanita, perhaps at her proudest moment, recalls how many of her former students are now in law school, engineering school, nursing school, education school, design school, pilot school, and the list goes on. She has made a determined effort over the years to keep in touch with her students and to continue reaching out to their parents.

“It is truly rewarding to see where they are now. One of my students is now in law school. She often comes back [to the school] helping with tutoring, prepping for exams, giving back to the school. Another student returns during holidays to help. I also have a student who’s finishing his teaching degree, and he wants to come back and teach for me.”

The impact Joanita and her Peace School have made is palpable. Yet, it is still largely an unfinished project. When asked about her future goals, Joanita resolutely states that she wants to add a technical/vocational branch so that kids can learn carpentry, electrical work and the like to be used later in life, as well as a special school for adult education so she can teach the parents of the kids to read and write. Observing the growing trend of multiculturalism and language-learning, she also wants to introduce French and Spanish to the school’s bilingual curriculum.

Finally, Joanita’s ultimate goal, in her own words, is to “see the school grow and make a difference in the kids’ lives, giving the kids all the opportunities to help the community and the economy… so they can give back to their country and make a better living.”

A recurring theme throughout our conversation is that the benefits of education can only be felt and not simply measured. This was expressed most poignantly by Joanita when she described what makes her Peace School unique, “Our school is run on love, and the kids see that they are loved.”

And that has made all the difference.

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