Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #4 - Christmas

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 Madina, 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, Madina, 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! Madina (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.

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