Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #2 - Settling into the Peace School

December 23, 2009

A rooster is a wonderful natural alarm clock, except that he awakes at 5 AM in the morning. Having slept for the majority of the plane ride, I awoke early to welcome a very bright morning. When I entered into the living room, many of the resident students at Peace School – the orphans who have no home to return to and the children of the Bbaale family – came to greet me.

We chatted informally for about an hour. With no adults around, I got a more honest and informal opinion about life in Kampala. In particular, Elijah, a very talkative young man, shared with me his concerns and doubts about the Ugandan Education System. High school students evidently work very hard, attending class for more than 12 hours a day and then studying an additional four hours, all of which involves a lot of memorization of theory and textbooks rather than practical experimentation. Elijah, who recently took the university entrance exams, felt that after so many years of high school, he still lacks a real skill. Farook, Josh, Sula, Isaac, and the other boys were very much Elijah’s silent and smiling friends. Later on, Amina, Dama, Irene, and Barbara joined in on the conversation. Irene and Barbara I immediately recognized as being two of the students we sponsor on Givology.

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[Above is a portrait of Irene]

Irene is such an endearing child! As both her parents passed away from AIDS, she now resides with her grandmother, the heart of the Peace School. She was really shy and quiet at first, unlike Shareen and Natasha, the two girls who live with Helen and Morris, the secretary and director of the school. But shortly afterwards, Irene warmed up and happily showed me around the Peace School while singing, laughing, and dancing. What a lively trio!

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[Picture of Irene, Shareen, Natasha, and Me]

Growing up, I always played a lot of invented games with my little sister, and this was a time for me to pull them out again, nearly twenty years later. The little children all seemed to enjoy these games immensely. As one would expect, they have to be very creative in coming up with their own sources of amusement as there isn’t very much around in terms of toys and prefabricated entertainment.

Barbara is very quiet and measured, but with a certain intensity. She told me that her favorite subject is math and that as a fourth grade student, she finds school rather easy for her. She’s so quiet, often times you would hardly notice her entering or exiting a room, but she’s always watching, very curious.

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[Picture of Barbara]

We ate a breakfast of Ugandan tea, brown bread, bananas, and roasted peanuts before heading out to the city to settle some legal issues regarding the relocation of the Peace School’s Lower Campus. Before we left, Morris – the brother of Joanita and the Director of the School – gave us a tour of the school buildings and grounds. I’ll be posting a lot of pictures later, but it is truly amazing how much the school is able to pack in so many buildings and classrooms under very strict area limitations.

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[Picture of Peace School Buildings]

The classrooms are rather small for 25-30 students, and the walls are filled with posters and learning aids hand-created by the teachers. The students don’t have very much – unlike their primary school counterparts in the United States with toys, computer games, professional decorations, and printed posters, everything in this school is created by hand. Along the walls of the schools, there are murals and painted diagrams of so many different things, from geographic maps of East Africa to a diagram of the digestive system.

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[Picture of the Peace School murals]

The dorms are rather small to pack in 20 people, but the school doesn’t have much space to spare. Two children share each bed, stacked in neat bunks. Despite the limited space, everything is clean and orderly. I even saw some of the student letters written for Givology pasted proudly on the wall! Recently, the kids started a pen pal program with an elementary school class in Richmond – by trading letters, the students of the both the Peace School and their counterparts can form new friendships and better understand each other’s culture. From what I’ve seen, after a moment of initial hesitation, the children are not camera shy and love posing for pictures and seeing themselves appear on the small LCD screen of Jia’s video-camcorder.


[Youtube video of the Peace School]

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[Picture of the girls posing – I handed Natasha, Shareen, and Irene my camera and allowed them to take some photos of their own. Their photos turned out really good!]

After doing the tour of the Upper Campus, we took the minibus to town to meet with the lawyer, exchange some money, and then do some shopping. The meeting with the lawyer went very well – the school will be formally incorporated as a non-profit in Uganda by the start of January, and I will be assisting with the inventory of the assets for the deed of re-assignment for the transfer of Lower School property to the Upper Campus. The process of approach for the name change to Circle of Peace School will require the school to undergo a new inspection by the Ministry of Education. Although nothing will have changed, the administrative hurdles require the initiation of the entire licensing process.

Afterward, we to exchange some money and buy a Christmas tree at a relatively fancy and modern shopping complex. Along the way, Amina and I chatted about politics in Uganda and the crisis of youth unemployment. Basically, Uganda is ruled by the National Resistant Movement, led by Yoweri Museveni. The part holds almost unitarily all the power – although Uganda returned to multi-party politics in July 2005, the competitor party (Forum for Democratic Change) has only very limited influence. Youth unemployment is a critical issue – even a university graduate often returns to sell sweets on the street, according to Amina. Even doctors and lawyers recently graduated from university struggle to find jobs because firms don’t hire until vacancies arise, and the elderly senior professionals tend to stay in their jobs for a very long time.

The shopping complex was very modern, juxtaposed by security guards carrying scary looking guns. We exchanged some money after some trouble (298,000 Ugandan shippings for 100 pounds), then spent quite a bit of time in the supermarket. Jia and I would have preferred to visit the actual outdoor market, but our hosts seemed to think that the hustle and bustle would be unsuitable for us, preferring to show us the best of their country instead.

Just when I was about to leave, I bumped into Carina and Vinayak, my classmates from Oxford last year who are doing their ODI fellowships in Uganda. What a coincidence – the chance of me bumping into them is so unlikely!

That evening, we went back to the house to set up the Christmas tree – I had lots of fun playing with the children. The women of the household work so hard – they spend an entire day in the kitchen, cooking, preparing food, and then the rest of the time cleaning the house, washing clothes, and maintaining the property, including the fields. Amina, who I’ve taken to calling grandmother, looks to be nearing eighty, but she works non-stop as head of the household. It was heartbreaking when Irene told me that she was worried that grandmother was working herself sick in preparing everything for us! Amina is deeply spiritual and is the heart of the school and home. She owns fields in a distant village and grows and harvests beans, yams, and corn to feed the children. She keeps herself occupied non-stop; I really wanted to help her, but she keeps on insisting that everything is fine.

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I’ll take some time to discuss the sustainable forms of finance for the school:

1. Chicken Farm: The children assist in the collection of the eggs and taking care of the chickens to produce some revenue for the school. They even have an ugly old turkey.

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2. Agricultural plot away from the school – the crops produced feed the ~200 students and the family, teachers, and staff

3. Alumni contributions as assistant teachers and mentors. During their holiday vacations, the alumni return to the Peace School and contribute their time and labor.

4. Small donations by parents who can afford it – According to Passy, the Director of the Lower School, there is about a 50/50 split between students that pay no fees whatsoever and students who contribute a small nominal amount to sustain the Peace School

5. Volunteering by the teachers – teachers are paid salaries, but many are associated with Joanita’s family and choose to forgo salary in return for food and housing.

The school is more than just an education enterprise, it is a community in it of itself. While hear, the house is always filled with visitors – alumni, current students, family members, neighborhood children, among many others. I’ve never felt the experience of living in such a large family before!

We set up the Christmas tree that night – a gift given by Iria to the family. Even though a Christmas tree is definitely a guilty splurge of sorts, there’s a certain unique celebratory joy that comes from these rare expenditures. I put the gifts that I brought under the Christmas tree, while Jia recorded the children singing and dancing!

The house is very cheery, but there are always some underlying wistful tones. Zamu who is separated from her mother (who resides in Richmond) and wants nothing more than to be reunited, Irene who misses and idolizes her deceased parents, and Amina and Elijah, bored with life in the village and frustrated with the lack of opportunity even after a successful academic trajectory.

Afterward, we all came together in the living room to listen to some music. I really like popular Ugandan music, all with strong beats, a distinctively cheery melody, and rich instrumentation. Dinner started at 10:30 PM, much later than I’m used to, but with fresh hot steamed plantain (motoke), groundnut sauce, spilled cabbage, spaghetti, and a bit of chicken (actually, I probably saw this children alive earlier today), I was more than content!

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