December 27, 2009
[Note: Be prepared for a very long entry. We took so many pictures and videos today! Photos are courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]
Today we woke up very early to go the village of Chaguey, about 2.5 hours outside of Kampala. We all crammed into Abraham’s mini-bus and set off – Amina (grandmother), Joanita, Jia, Morris (the director of the Peace School), Solomon, Mariam, Amina (the younger), Charles, Iria, Abraham (the driver), and me. We barely fit in the vehicle, as four adults sat crammed in one row, yet managed to brave the bumpy and dusty journey. Along the central road connecting Uganda to Kenya, we passed the slums of Kampala, the industrial district (where Mukwano’s production occurs), the rainforest (which has shrunk considerably with development), and various road-side markets where farmers gathered to sell their produce. About 1.5 hours into the journey, we ventured off the paved path onto a dirt road, highly uneven and narrow. Frankly, I doubted that our ancient mini-bus – a public taxi that probably had already completed a few decades of service in China – would manage the challenging terrain. Yet, as a taxi driver, Abraham seemed to consider hurdling along the dirt roads simply a day’s normal work.
[Above is a picture of some of the fields that we passed. When I asked Joanita whether the landscape at changed, she told me that development had really improved the entire area - before, there would be thick vegetation everywhere. Now, plantations have absorbed much of the land.]
We drove on the dirt road for an hour or so, passing huts and fields, the majority small plots of farmed land. Our first stop was the field inherited by Marylove, Joanita’s sister who resides in Richmond. A poor decision to sharecrop the land without oversight had cost the school a substantial amount of foregone revenue. When we walked through the fields along a narrow path carved out of the thick jungle-like vegetation, Joanita and Amina lamented the disarray of weeds and flora that had overtaken the land. We then made a second stop at the fields owned by grandmother, where she cultivates bean and maize to feed the children at the school. When I saw this second plot of land – immaculately cared for and at least an acre in size – I was truly astonished and humbled by how much work and love the old grandmother had single-handedly invested to support the school.
The level of poverty here is something I have never seen before. The huts are constructed of twigs and mud, with a thatched roof as cover. Due to limited capital to conduct large-scale agricultural production, the villagers rely on subsistence farming. The children who lived nearby were in equal states of deprivation. Clothing in tatters, dirt everywhere, barefoot, stunting due to malnutrition, and solemn faces (at least, at first). I saw children everywhere – all of a very young age, typically primary school. I also saw various elderly grandparents, stooped in their old age, but working hard nevertheless to tend the crops and animals. Strikingly, I met very few middle-aged adults, the result of AIDS, movement to the cities, and the accidents arising from village life.
[Above are some pictures of the huts and the children that we walked past.]
Sickness and death exist as a very normal aspect of daily life. The fact that one woman in the village was killed by a crocodile and another beheaded by a machete due to a jealous spat with another woman (this murder conducted in front of the child, who now refuses to speak, likely from the shock) was treated as normal news and mixed casually in the chatter with Joanita and the family.
We went to a clearing in the village, where the expectant adults and children gathered, waiting for us. As the Bbaale family is recognized within the village for their work at the Peace School and their contributions to support the village (ex: construction of a communal kitchen, provision of food during a bad harvest, offering of land free of rent to a family in need), the entire village came to greet us in excitement, especially in light of Joanita’s return after so many years! Many of the boarding students at the Peace School come from this village and return during their holiday break, so Jia and I really looked forward to having a chance to visit these children in their home environment.
[Here’s a video that I took of all the villagers introducing themselves in the beginning, when we first met everyone in the clearing.]
As a development economist, I generally find the idea of handing out free gifts and goods rather distasteful as it cultivates a mentality of dependency, rather than invest in a sustainable future. Since Joanita had gotten suitcases of donations from various local churches, however, we had plenty of Christmas gifts to give out. To allocate the gifts equitably, Joanita and Iria – in a rather regimented fashion – told the kids stand in a line to receive the candy, stockings, toothbrushes, soap, and clothing. At first, it felt very patronizing – those who “have” ordering the “have nots” about in the allocation of goods, but then I realized that with all the children clamoring for their share, there was no other better way to handle the process. I’m hoping that with the funds we raise on Givology, at least some can be reinvested in the village to guarantee sustained income and to open new markets. The infrastructure is so poor that the villagers are in essence “trapped” – they can’t leave to sell their goods as they own no vehicle to take them to the nearest trading post, and they produce only just enough to survive.
Clearly, just handing out items won’t help the village achieve sustainable development in the long run, and one can even argue that the expectation of gifts in the future may corrode incentives and distort local markets. This village, however, has its own productive activities and our Christmas gift surprise is very much a one-team special treatment, far from a cycle expected to continue. According to Joanita, this village rarely gets outside visitors – the last time occurred two years ago, when a team of doctors came to offer free health services and check-ups for a day (and never since returned). Frankly, Joanita, Jia, Iria, and I are here just for some holiday cheer and to give the kids a break from daily routine and the opportunity to play games and make art. Even throughout the day, the villagers kept on expressing their hopes that we’d come back to play with the kids again – I suppose they found our presence very novel and amusing.
[Morris and Iria hand out the Christmas gifts to the children.]
Before I go into the details of the day, I want to write a little bit about the lives of the children. Very few of the villagers speak English, so I want to caveat my conclusions with the disclaimer that these are mainly my personal observations and the insights I pick up from Joanita when she translates.
As children are expected to contribute to family income, they truly work very hard. Social tradition dictates deference to adults, so the children tend to be very obedient and solemn. When we first arrived, the children sat with their mothers and/or grandparents in a very serious fashion – no expression on their faces, unlike the children of the Peace School complex, who are generally very friendly and outgoing. The parents and adults very strictly instruct the children, and they comply.
Just to test the water, I made some goofy faces to see how they would respond – almost instantly, they all laughed! (Jia and I had a working arrangement in which I would pretty much make a fool of myself so that she could capture some much more natural and relaxed footage of the children.) With us smiling and cajoling the children with games and activities, the children began to loosen up.
[Jump rope definitely helped a lot! Morris had brought one from the school, and as you can see, the kids are really delighted to play]
I couldn’t get over the fact at how small these children were for their age, some with serious medical conditions due to inadequate care. For example, Grace who is deaf and mute because she had a high fever that went untreated (she attends the Peace School), a dear little boy who suffered severe burns that healed poorly, another boy who was cross-eyed and had severe vision impairments…and frankly, just so many fragile looking children, healthy enough but without fully adequate nutrition. As I discussed earlier, we saw lots of children and old grandparents, but not much of the generation in between – all women, no men around at all.
Yet, despite all the challenges, children – in the end – are still children, who enjoy games and playing! To loosen up the kids, I introduced the game of sharks and minnows. As very few of the children could speak English, we needed Amina to communicate for us, but inevitably, some key instructions were lost in translation. The game started off well, with the children laughing excitably, but we stopped early because some o the kids fell down and started crying, and because one kid who was “caught” by me started crying because she thought she was in trouble. (Actually, I was just very unlucky because had recently witnessed the murder of her mother, and was still in a very sensitive and scared state) In general, the interference of the parents and adults tended to cause the children to freeze up (I heard loud instructions in Luganda, so I assume the adults were telling off the children for some misbehavior), so we really tried our best to relax them before starting on the art activities in order to elicit the most natural and creative response.
Just like all of our prior experiences, the kids start off really shy and then they open up. They feared the camera at first (though they were all intensely curious), but by the end, everyone wanted their picture taken and were smiling, laughing, and making each other laugh for us!
[Above are some pictures of me with the kids. I really enjoyed spending time with them – even though we couldn’t communicate in words, somehow we managed to convey a lot to each other nevertheless.]
Jia and I set to work on the $50 campaign. Immediately, we had to modify our original plan because the children have no concept of money or value. Life very much revolves around subsistence farming, and there are very few markets around. At first, I was really concerned that the entire project would fail because the 1) the kids didn’t like talking and sharing information about themselves (even in Luganda Amina had trouble speaking with them), 2) the adults told the kids what to draw (which defeats the purpose of finding out the kid’s actual desire), 3) the adults forced the kids to line up and pay attention to us (which felt very unnatural…as each had to wait their turn to take a photo, receive a piece of paper, and crayons, but we managed to circumvent all these problems with some creative adaptation and some kindhearted assistance from Abraham, Amina, and Charles. Soon, the kids began to open up and relax, and we got some great material. Jia and I managed to create a workflow where Abraham would gently entreat the kids as to what they wanted to draw, and I would then hand out paper and crayons. Afterward, when they finished, Amina recorded the details and Jia took a picture of the kids with their drawings.
[Here are a few of the kids with their drawings! As you can see, the child in the background of the second picture was making a face, trying to get us to laugh! I’ll share my observations about the content at a later time.]
We’re hoping to showcase all the drawings in an online exhibition, as well as an actual exhibition in New York City! I have lots of interesting observations of the entire process and the content that we collected, but I will try to restrain myself and save these for the launch of our exhibition!
The children really had a blast seeing themselves on camera and in Jia’s camcorder. By the end, they were jovially playing, having fun, and making each other smile on the camera. “Seca” means smile in Luganda– I must have used this phrase at least a thousand times today! The children are all so beautiful and charming – as you can below, pictures are worth a thousand words.
[Photos of the children that we met, and the children working on their drawings. Special thanks to Jia for taking such amazing footage and capturing so many magical moments.]
In addition to the children, the adults clamored to get their photos taken. I suppose we handled the demand for photos gracefully enough, but I admit it sometimes felt overwhelming as there were just so many people to satisfy!
[Above are some group photos of everyone together!]
We left the village around 3 PM. I actually found it very difficult to leave – the kids kept on waving bye to us; I truly wanted to stay and spend more time to them. Having spent hours working under the direct sun to collect the campaign drawings and take footage of the kids and families, however, Jia and I felt kind of dehydrated and exhausted. On the drive back, we passed some beautiful sights –green fields bright against an open blue sky. In addition, we drove past the start of the Nile in Jinja!
[Uganda is such a beautiful country. Above are some photos of the fields and the start of the Nile, while passing by car!]
When we merged back onto the main road, we drove past market stalls where women sold fruits, roasted meats, and vegetables. At 5:30 PM, when the smells of freshly roasted food greeted me, I realized belatedly that since departing in the morning, I didn’t use the bathroom nor eat food. I barely drank water too so in all actuality, I felt kind of dehydrated. Regardless of physical exhaustion, however, I arrived home really motivated and inspired. In so many ways, today really opened my eyes and showed me that even though so much need exists, every little bit makes a difference.
During dinner, we had an important discussion about accountability in using funds. This issue is of particular importance to us at Givology because we need to ensure that our partners follow through in their commitment to spend funding in the way they indicated.
No NGO is perfect, but during my time here, although I know there are some problems and gaps in resources, I feel truly and passionately committed to the Peace School cause. Each day, I get even more fired up to do more, as I meet more people and demonstrably see the impact. My heart shatters into a thousand pieces every day when I hear the stories of the children and witness their problems, but there is a powerful sense of hope beneath it all. Going to the village clearly showed me that indeed, it is truly an impossible, Sisyphean task to provide for and save everyone, but something as simple as sharing laughter and activities together can make a difference.
One life at a time, one step at a time.
Each day has so much more significance here than months of poring over statistics and detailed information about poverty assessment data sets in my Economics for Development course, where each life is nothing more than one line in the STATA data repository. I am but one person, but being here has shown me that so much needs to be done, and despite my limited resources, I can contribute at least my own small part.
We all truly can.
PS – Irene was feeling really sick today from her medicine so she’ll be visiting the hospital tomorrow. What a heartbreaking transformation from garrulous and [;ayful to listless and quiet. I really do hope she gets better.
The smiles and laughter of the children will be forever imprinted in my memory.
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