Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #7 - Taking Inventory of the Lower Campus

December 28, 2009

I woke up today around 9 AM and ate a breakfast of bananas, nuts, and maize, and then sat on a mat on the porch to do some much needed economics studying. (Unfortunately, when I return to Oxford, I’ll have to take my economics midterm, worth 20% of my final grade!) The rain poured very heavily and we lost power in the house, but the light outside made studying under the covered porch perfect.

Jia woke up later, and feeling rather lethargic from doing so little exercise, I asked her to show me some Bikram yoga poses for fun. I never really understood yoga before, but after doing the standing, triangle, and sitting series, I now understand why yoga attracts so many followers. It creates flexibility, focus, and core strength by leveraging natural tension in stretching the body in opposite ways and in positions that require a lot of strength and concentration to maintain. As a rather inflexible person, I struggled quite a bit – I’m sure my awkward balancing acts amused Irene and Josh a lot. In stark contrast, Jia looked very elegant and relaxed.

Afterward, we waited until Joanita and Iria woke up to go to the Lower School Campus and take inventory of the assets for completion of the deed of reassignment. The Lower Campus is actually very close to the Upper Campus, and was the site of the original school that Joanita started more than fifteen years ago! Unlike the Upper Campus, where all the buildings are constructed of concrete and mortar, the classrooms of the Lower School are all temporary structures – dank wooden sheds that look severely weather eroded and rather tattered and beaten. The school started 15 years ago, so you can imagine the state of disrepair of the sheds!
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[Above are some pictures of the lower school campus sheds. You can see Teacher Hasan in the second picture! he's a 23 year old teacher at the school, who has cultivated a love of art in many of his students. He lives at the Peace School is a favorite of the students!]

The Peace School had rented the land from an old woman, but when she passed away in September 2009, her son received ownership of the land and demanded that the Peace School leave immediately. Obviously, since term had already started, this wasn’t feasible, so the Peace School negotiated to move the eviction date to December 2009. The man grudgingly agreed, but mandated that in addition to the cost of rent, the Peace School had to pay for his own private apartment rent in Kampala for the months in between! (Ah, I suppose some people are rather unscrupulous…they don’t even bother taking into account the work and mission of the school.)

When I first visited the school, I was shocked at how cramped it felt! Joanita explained to us that the man – to incentive the school evacuation – had constructed a set of his own permanent private buildings all around the school. As a result, there was barely any space left for the play area, and the combination of the cramped grounds and disrepair made for a very sad site. I took the inventory, but frankly, the assets to salvage appeared rather downtrodden.

As an interjection, I discovered is that every material object here has a much longer expected useful life. Computers, cars, posters, etc. that would have long been discarded by their owners in the USA s are meticulously cared for in Uganda to maximize their utility. A lot of the goods sold on the streets are second-hand, imported from discarded goods from China, Dubai, Europe, and the USA, among other countries. In fact, almost all the taxis and mini-buses in circulation still had printed Chinese characters on their side – basically, the generation of old vehicles abandoned from decades past!

We then went back for lunch. Afterward, I chatted with Zamu (Marylove’s daughter, about 18 years of age) about life in Uganda, women’s rights, and AIDS policy, among other topics. At first, she was rather hostile, accusatory at first of all the splendors available in the USA, but she soon opened up and began sharing more of herself and life. Although the families can’t afford much in Kampala, the majority have access to a television through some way or another, and as a result, are very familiar with American pop culture. By watching all these American shows, many of them about the young, beautiful, wealthy, and extremely bored (EX: One Tree Hill, the O.C, etc.) Ugandans start believing erroneously that everyone in the USA lives swathed in riches. With no opportunity to travel and few interactions with tourists and outsiders, you can imagine how easy television can mislead the people.

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[Above is a picture of Zamu and me together. She’s really sweet and fun to be around! Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

Evidently, the Bbaale family had a really negative experience with prior volunteers, and as a result, really worried that we would cause similar problems. I won’t go into the details about the specifics, but some of them worried the family greatly, didn’t follow through on their volunteering work, and created some tension in the community, which would explain Zamu’s initial distrust. Zamu is very much into fashion, clothing, and hip hop – not too different from many of the young people from the states! As she lives directly in the city on her own, she’s very cosmopolitan and savvy about pop culture (in fact, much more ahead of the times that me)!

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, but with a lot of necessary activity. Jia and I passed out the journals for our book project to the girls and explained the intent and details of the initiative. We also sorted through the photos and drawings from the village, played games with the children, and wrote our own journal entry as an example for the kids. We entitled the journal J^2 x J for Jia and Joyce’s Journal!

During the day, a few of the boys asked me to show them different functions of the Internet. Josh came first wanting to know how to use youtube to build a radio. Later, Isaac dropped by to find out how to use youtube to watch a recap of Arsenal v. Liverpool, the latter his favorite team. Unfortunately, even though I showed them how youtube works, the bandwidth was so low that each video couldn’t load properly. Given poor infrastructure, all internet connections tend to derive from a portable dial-up USB modem that leverages the rather slow wireless cell phone network. The older children are all extremely intrigued by technology – at their secondary schools, they probably have 1-2 shared internet stations so that everyone has a chance to try, but no one really has much time to explore and learn. An internet café not only has a rather slow connection, but costs about 500 shillings for 20 minutes (about 30 cents for 20 minutes or 90 cents for one hour), which is considered too expensive of an indulgence by many.

The most fascinating aspect to me is that the children here get exposed to so much American pop culture in our movies, TV, and other media. Most families can gather together to watch one small television that is communally shared. For example, Zamu knows about Prison Break – a show I never watched before – and is completely up to date to the latest episode. As aforementioned, seeing all these American dramas and reality TV shows cultivates an expectation that everything portrayed on the screen is realistic, which definitely result in a lot of misconceptions. No wonder they expect Jia and me to have lots of money!

After a late dinner, I had a chance to present Givology formally to Joanita, Iria, Solomon, Charles, and Morris. I spoke slowly and highlighted our philosophy of micro-donations, accountability, and students helping students. It appeared that all the adults were very enthused by the idea, and surprised that a group of students could build such an organization! Charles, the highly capable brother of Joanita and former headmaster of the school, praised the idea as “genius” and wanted to find out how to register and get involved in Uganda. Well, Givology isn’t a genius idea. Rather, it’s just a meaningful personal commitment we all have to do as much as we can to support students and communities throughout the world.

During the night, I woke up with a series of bad itches (about 7 bites) on my back which I had scratched to the point of bleeding, so all in all, not my most restful sleep. Tomorrow, we have a VERY busy day ahead as we’ll be relocating the Lower Campus temporary sheds so I want to prepare myself. Our plan is rather ambitious: to take down every single one of the classrooms and assets (furniture, chalkboard, building materials salvageable, desks, benches, etc) in the Lower Campus and to move everything to the Upper Campus.

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