Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #10 - Catharsis on New Year's Eve

December 31, 2009

New Year’s Eve greeted me abruptly with an over-exuberant rooster’s crow, a cacophony created by the roofers working directly above my bedroom, and the tones of Jia’s alarm, akin to the sounds of forging metal. New Year’s Eve has special personal significance – 2009 marked many milestones, including the completion of my Economics for Development degree at Oxford University, Givology breaking $50,000 and 1,000 registered donors, YouthBank’s launch, and a full time job offer to start summer 2010.

After a simple breakfast of bananas, apples, and mangoes, we went to town to exchange some money and pick up additional iron sheets for the roof. When we returned, Joanita was greeted with the unfortunate news that the roofers needed additional materials and iron slats for the corners. In order for the solar panels to be upgraded, the roof needs to be complete, so everyone was scrambling for money to be able to afford the materials. As a side note, all imported products – manufactured goods and building materials – cost substantially more in Uganda in the United States. Although a haircut costs 2,000 shillings (about $1 USD), iron sheets and concrete can easily cost 3x more! Alas, I’m experiencing for myself the economic theories I learned about last year – non-tradeable goods are extremely expensive, but all tradeable manufactures approach world prices.

[Below is a picture of the roofers at work, with many of the boys volunteering their labor to minimize the labor costs. In general, given the recent relocation of the Lower Campus, the main campus is now filled with lots of building materials. Second picture courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

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Because the man from Uganda Solar was paid upfront, he keeps on finding ways to increase the cost. In fact, getting him to show up at all has been a challenge! Doing business in Uganda is very frustrating – the negotiations are tedious and contracts extremely difficult to enforce. (Alas, I now understand why so much of economics focuses on contract design, information asymmetry, and incentives!) According to the children, corruption is endemic so every transaction has so many additional embedded costs. For example, Sula told me even though college scholarships exist, you have to bribe the committee to obtain them or be related to an important government official. Even then, the scholarships remain highly costly, as you have to commit 10 years to government service while receiving a reduced salary. In addition, given the importance of family relations and the Ugandan equivalent of “guan xi”, one often times have to tiptoe around issues to not offend. Because of the frustration involved in getting even simple things done, I wonder how Joanita and Iria can keep themselves together in light of so many hold-ups and delays. Iria is truly a blessing for the Peace School – she’s organized, detail-focused, practical, highly effective, and calm in the face of fire. Without Iria, Joanita would get over-stressed!

I admit that today was not the best of days – after returning with the iron sheets, we left for town again to pick up toilet paper and disposable cameras to supplement the ones that Lydia brought from London for us. Going shopping would at first appear to be an easy task, but with traffic and the all the complications of the city, the process took about five hours and culminated in a near emotional breakdown.

First, the disposable cameras were incredibly difficult to find. We went to so many shops without avail. Joanita offered to inquire the price as the mere appearance of Jia and me results in a steep price hike. But as Joanita hadn’t been in Uganda for ten years, she had trouble communicating. With traffic exacerbating the heat of the afternoon, we spent thirty minutes just trying to go two blocks. Abraham had the car and circled when we negotiated the price of the disposable camera, which came to be about 25,000 shillings (about ~15 dollars). Although rather expensive by US standards, I suppose this was a fair price given the transport costs of imports, but it hardly seemed reasonable. Joanita, Iria, and I viewed the purchase as superfluous (as we could just provide the kids with our own digital cameras), but Jia was adamant since she had a very specific vision in mind and claimed that disposable cameras produced a unique effect. Given the time constraints, however, we just purchased one of the cameras and left in a sour, acrid manner.

The weather was extremely hot (near suffocating), and the bustle and mass confusion of the city overwhelming from my point of view. As we are guests of the Peace School, Joanita and Abraham didn’t want to deny us the purchase of cameras. Nevertheless, given the problems that we encountered, I felt extremely bad troubling Joanita further, but dissuading Jia proved to be very difficult. As a result, I ended up being sandwiched in between – all parties discontent. To make matters worse, a policeman entered Abraham’s car after catching him make an illegal turn while he was circling around waiting for us, and demanded a bribe. Abraham managed to get around the problem by making a personal appeal and offering to drop the policeman off at a convenient location, but the experience further augmented the tension in the van. Jia likewise felt cheated and dissatisfied with everyone’s lack of support for her vision and the rather high price that we had to pay, the result of a rushed and failed negotiation. Tempers flared. I expressed to Jia my concern of troubling everyone, especially since our hosts wouldn’t refuse our request. Jia retorted that I had escalated stress by pushing her, while Joanita and Iria expressed disbelief at the amount of money we spent. I suppose that since Joanita and Iria had handled many business negotiations and contracts for the Peace School, our disposable camera purchase appeared to be a frivolous indulgence. When $50 USD is sufficient to construct all three temporary sheds for the Peace School, it’s hard to justify $30 for just two measly cameras! Plus, with all the cameras floating around (albeit all digital), buying additional cameras probably didn’t make a lot of sense. To make matters worse, we already had spent a lot of time, meaning that urgent priorities had to be pushed back.

Abraham then drove us to a supermarket complex, where we bought toilet paper. Jia and I split the cost for a refillable film camera for about $17 USD. We then browsed the traditional crafts sold at the adjacent store and picked up a large tub of ice cream for the family. (Evidently, Madina and Amina (grandmother) crave ice cream!) At this time, I felt very drained – although I’ve gotten used to being hungry all the time because we keep a very brisk schedule that often doesn’t accommodate normal dining hours, today was substantially worse than any other day because I ate breakfast really early, forgot to take my malaria pills, and remembered to take them only later in the afternoon, but on an empty stomach. We arrived home at 5:15 PM for lunch –by then, I felt exhausted, weak, and completely deflated.

My stomach felt really bad while I was eating lunch (probably because I didn’t take my malaria pills with much food today), but it was really hard to control my intake of food as I felt so hungry. Some people can skip meals easily, but I have a lot of trouble. I ended up getting sick, and then running off to the bedroom crying in shame for: 1) complaining to everyone how hungry I was – a rather petulant and whiny request earlier in the car, 2) knowing that here in Uganda, so many people miss meals and never have the chance to eat their fill –sometimes for days and weeks at end – yet, I threw a fit over one missed lunch! And once I started bawling, it was hard to stop – guilt for causing a lot of trouble and making people concerned, pent-up stress from the journey to the city and being caught between two different groups, and frankly, the sadness I felt for meeting so many people who I really want to help more than anything, but realized I couldn’t. After hearing so many stories from the orphans, the children, and the villagers I met, I had too much emotion suppressed inside, and once I opened the valve, all the sentiments erupted violently.

In the middle of my private breakdown, Joanita knocked on my door to get me to introduce Givology to the remaining adults who missed the first talk – Abraham (Amina’s dad and our driver), Passy (the headmistress of the Lower School), Madina (the head of the household), Lydia, and Helen. I dried my tears, washed my face, and put on a smile to deliver the presentation. Overall, it seemed that my discussion of Givology was received very well! When taking pictures, Jia admitted that she couldn’t even tell that just a few minutes earlier, I had been in emotional distress! I suppose that once I got started sharing the concept and vision behind Givology, I felt much better – perhaps an empirical testament to Nicholas Kristof’s claim that commitment to a cause engenders true happiness. In my case, verbally reaffirming the purpose behind my visit acted as a salve to the tribulations of the day, soothing away my problems.

After the adult’s presentation, I made a presentation about Givology to all the children on the front porch. I figured that they at least deserve to know why two girls are always running around asking to take pictures and video, and requesting everyone to draw and write! I think the kids were impressed by the concept and execution of Givology – more than anything, the fact that students roughly their age could start an organization and build a website (technology in general fascinates the teens). Afterward, many of them came up to me privately to ask follow-up questions – how we maintain accountability in the use of money, how they can register, how to start a chapter and take part in the organization, and most commonly, how they can be sponsored.

[Below are some pictures of my presentation about Givology – it was really gratifying to be able to share our vision. We really want to do as much as we can in support! Photos courtesy of Jiashan Wu]


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Sula pulled Jia and me aside to share his story. Having graduated as one of the top students at the Peace School and not paying once cent of tuition, he went on one of the best boarding secondary schools in Uganda, which costs about 400,000 shillings a semester for 3 semesters (about 1.2 milion per year, roughly $650). His father died, leaving five children, and his mother remains in the village, pretty much defenseless and unable to provide for the family. So, he came to live with his grandmother at the Peace School, who pays all his fees. As his sister works at the school and cut a deal with the director, he only needs to pay half of the total cost, but the remaining balance is certainly no paltry sum and requires a lot of financial resources that he doesn’t have available! Hence, whether he misses a term is entirely contingent on his grandmother’s decision. So, he told me that in order to make her happy, he does a lot of work in repayment – he pushes himself really hard to do as many chores as possible and volunteer his labor and time so that he can go back to school. Having seen Sula on the roof with the roofers, washing clothes, taking the most difficult tasks when pulling down the Lower Campus, and always helping out Madina in the care of the household, I now better understand his motivation for working so hard. In speaking to me earlier, Iria was very right in describing the structure of relations – to earn their tuition fees, food, and housing, the boys manage the work.

[Below is a picture of Sula – he towers over the rest of the boys! At first, he appears very quiet and serious, but you soon discover that he has a quirky sense of humor. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu]

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Josh chimed in that Amina (grandmother) also pays his fees, roughly 200,000 per semester (600,000 shillings per year, roughly $325). His fees are somewhat lower because his school is walking distance from the Peace School complex so he doesn’t need to pay additional boarding costs. After hearing these stories, my admiration for Amina grew even further (frankly, at this point, I didn’t think it was possible to have my awe of grandmother to increase!). She raises money for the operation of the school AND sends the promising orphans to secondary school. In so many different ways, she is the heart of the entire Peace community.

Afterward, we all came inside to chat and rest. Jia showed Ellijah and Farook Photoshop, and I took a brief nap to relax myself. After a quick shower (I’m getting good at using a bucket!), came dinner – matoke, chicken curry, cassava, fresh eggs, and rice. Iria and Joanita then had a frank conversation with me about the short-term and medium-term challenges facing the Peace School, which I really appreciated. Although the school has been successful for the last 15 years, in order to bring the school to new heights and substantially expand the scale, an overhaul of the current modus operandi is required. As one can imagine, people often fear change. I’m really happy that Iria and the Task Force are on board to support Joanita and the school – they already have an action plan set in place, a powerfull vision to motivate the decisions, and the (wo)manpower to execute.

That evening, we waited until midnight to stand alongside the classrooms and watch the fireworks from a distance. Although the fireworks were very small compared to the expansive nighttime sky, the novelty of the display really enraptured the children. In particular, the young children became very hyper, especially little Farook. Excited by the atmosphere of anticipation, he ran around the front yard at great speed, pretending to be a small airplane! His high-pitched screams and antics were extraordinarily cute – imagine an Energizer bunny on hyper speed or a chipmunk on caffeine and sugar! I learned a little bit of Luganda (and then promptly forgot)…such is the memory of a 23 year old.

Most notably, as a New Year’s present, Joanita connected me to mom, dad, and Grace! Just hearing their voices for a couple of minutes made me feel so happy – warm inside to know that continents and an ocean away, we are all thinking of each other and anticipating collectively more adventures and milestones for 2010.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

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