Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #16 - Tying Up Loose Ends

January 6, 2010

Today is my last full day in Uganda, and I have made a very packed list of “to-do” items before I go. For Givology, I still need to collect letters, an interview, and drawings from Irene, and Barbara. We still have a few interviews to complete, notably Joanita and Amina together. And, before I leave, I have to fulfill my promise of teaching the students here how to create a website. Everything takes longer in Uganda so I know that making very ambitious plans may not necessarily be feasible in execution, but as Confucius once said, “Aim high, achieve middle. Aim middle, achieve low.” So, of course, I’ll set my sights up high!

So many thoughts roil in my mind – stories of the people we met, troubles we encountered, the strong desire to continually do more, yet understanding more than ever the limitations that I face with resources, time, and agency. The Peace School does a lot of good in the community, but as we unwrap each layer with every day of our stay, we begin to realize the complexities of delivering quality education, prioritizing students given limited capacity, and balancing school and family interests. Notably, separating school and family presents a slew of challenges, as the Peace School is very much a family-run operation, with benefits and drawbacks.

This coming summer, I start working at Goldman Sachs in New York City – a completely different world from Peace School. Coming here is a reminder to not lose sight of the bigger picture, to understand that the value of money. One can easily spend $100 in New York City, nearly a paltry sum, but here, that amount of money can accomplish so much! I am so glad to be here because the experiences have transformed me – exposed to me the simple things that we take from granted, such as:
  • Cheap and clean water from the tap (Water is so expensive here and the family spends a lot of time boiling water to rid bacteria)
  • Streets that are paved and in good condition (Due to traffic, it takes two hours to get to the city center, even though the distance is not substantial. Getting to the village takes nearly an entire day given the unpaved, narrow dirt roads. No wonder everything here is so expensive – it is so difficult to transport goods from one area to the next)
  • Ability to go to high school for free (Here, the students pay about 400,000 shillings ($200 USD) three times a year, resulting in a cost of about $600USD per year. In perspective, this amount easily exceeds the earnings of many families.
  • Availability of a wide variety of food (The majority of the population relies on subsistence farming and consumes only what they can produce. Here, meat is considered a real luxury.)
  • The opportunity to travel and see so much more outside of your village and local community – for these kids, owning a passport is a dream
  • As a student, to concentrate on your students alone and not have to always worry about school fees and working to afford school
  • To have good quality education opportunities in government student schools. Although the Ugandan government adopted free primary education in theory, the poor quality of government-run schools disincentive attendance. The kids often tell me that in government-run schools, teachers often don’t show up, and if they do, they make the kids dig holes for them to assist with their own personal farming needs! (That’s why schools like the Peace School are very well-respected and needed in the community)
  • Obtaining good jobs and opportunities after graduating on the basis of merit, rather than nepotism and the power of your family relations
  • Ability to buy internet cards and electronics cheaply (Here, services are very cheap – human labor can be purchased for a very minimal cost, but anything imported – typically manufactured goods – are extremely expensive!)
  • Feeling connected to the world – to know the external world not only through television
  • To never worry about when to have the next meal
  • To have access to healthcare (The government’s AIDS policy has really made a tremendous difference, but the need for basic healthcare is so urgent, especially in the city slums and the villages. I’ve seen so many children plagued with permanent disabilities and ailments as a result of not being able to obtain immediate medical care for completely treatable conditions! For example, Grace who became deaf after her fever burned for weeks.)
  • To have government support for unemployment and other needs

The list goes on and on…I can’t even fathom writing down everything. More than anything, being here has taught me to appreciate life much more – some people go to Africa and come back disillusioned. For me, I feel even more motivated and empowered. Even in the village, where life is difficult, the children laugh, play games, and survive. Being here as broken down the barrier between “us” and “Other” and demystified our differences.

I feel that Africa, in general, is so poorly understood; the media tends to cast the entire continent in perpetual crisis. We think of Somalia, Darfur, starving children with swollen bellies, and photos and videos of human suffering. Uganda is one of the poorest countries in Africa, clearly evident in the slums of the city and the squalor of the villages, but slowly, development occurs and the young generation grows up very hopeful of the future.

The world is definitely shrinking, boundaries, disappearing and eroding over time.

After a morning of just hanging around the classrooms and chatting with the boys about their life, the credit crisis, and their aspirations to leave Uganda, I asked them to write me a message in my journal so I can remember them. Time dulls memories, leaving only a faint impression as the years passed. With their messages to me in my journal, I will never forget this moment!

[Below are some scanned pictures of my journal of the messages that the children wrote for me!]

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Afterward, Jia and I did an interview with Amina (grandmother). Her story is extraordinary – she never completed any formal education, her parents died when she was very young so she worked as a maid and housekeeper for her older sister in exchange for food and housing. She married an equally poor and uneducated man, but he was very enterprising. Together with her husband, she built a large and successful household and portfolio of businesses and properties! In the beginning, Amina started selling samosas at the factory, and Joanita’s dad invested all their savings into a chain of butcher shops! By their last child, the family was securely middle-upper class with substantial property holdings. Joanita had told me that with her very father’s very unexpected passing, the family lost a lot of property and assets, contributing to the recent financial difficulties of the school.

Using the crops that she grows and the support she receives from Joanita and MaryLove abroad, Amina goes to the village and brings kids back to the Peace School. There aren’t enough resources and dormitory beds to help every child in the village, so Amina goes to each family and asks them to select one or two kids in the family to send to the Peace School. (Can you imagine how difficult this decision must be for the parent – to prioritize their children!) One day, the vision is to expand the school such that all children from the village can come to the Peace School for free.

Some of the P7 kids, including two children sponsored by Givology, happened to be around so we collected some photos, pictures, and video. As Joanita and Iria did not return from town, Jia and I ate lunch with Lydia – motoke, rice, spaghetti, beef broth, and groundnut sauce with fish. The food here is very tasty even though the variety is limited; when I go back to Oxford, I know I will miss some of the dishes.

After lunch, we went to the classroom, where we found Sula. He showed us his journal, which made me inadvertently laugh very hard. I found the journal frank and refreshing, and it contained the hysterical incident of his P7 experiences that he recounted on the interview. As you can imagine, the story involved a girl =) I suppose the kids here tend to grow up much faster than in the states. Just by watching Isaac and Ibra, I could easily think that they were 5-6 years older than their actual ages. In contrast, they tend to think the opposite of me! I’m 23 years old, but all the kids think that I’m about 15 – their age.

[In the photo below, Sula shows us an interesting game with folding paper – a form of “active” origami in which the paper morphs from a T-shirt to a house to a slingshot, etc. Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.]

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At this point, I felt antsy to do something physical and fun with the kids. Jia and I wanted to go running, so we changed and met Dama and the boys to go to the playing fields. Rounding up the boys took some time, so Jia and I had fun doing some stretching and warm-up exercises. The little kids seemed to enjoy emulating us, and laughed at our antics! Little Farook was particularly cute and endearing in his attempts to copy us!

We then ran to the playing field – Sula first, followed by me, and then Josh (even as a decently experienced runner, I can’t beat Sula’s really long legs…). Having not done very much strenuous physical exercise since coming to Uganda, I relished the opportunity to run and stretch my muscles. We started with two sets of relay races! All the locals watched in curiosity – two random Chinese girls joining in on the games.

After the races, Teacher Hasan led us into a circle and we did a bit of group exercise where each person would lead a set of movements. Some of the positions we were called on to do were rather interesting (a form of near contortion)! We then ran a lap around the field and walked back, happily chatting. We arrived back at 6:30 PM with plenty of light still left, so we played a bit of basketball keep-away. As expected, Isaac and Sula really dominated the game.

Iria and Joanita arrived back late tonight – they sent Amina to college and encountered various troubles with traffic and college housing. Consequently, we had a late dinner together before quickly clearing out the dining table so that I could give the Internet website creation tutorial that I promised the kids.

Computers fascinate the children here – they are always talking about the importance of computers and the Internet, regardless of their field and actual experience with technology. I suppose they see technology as the best way to connect to the external world and modernize. Josh was particularly keen, having sought me out every day. There was too much to cover in the short time I had before bedtime, but I did an overview of: 1) Givology, joycemeng.com (my personal site), Jia’s site as examples, 2) weebly, facebook, and wordpress (for easy online website creation), 3) html basics (NVu and Gimp the freeware of my choice for experimentation). Clearly, too much material for one session!

But the kids seemed to enjoy it – anything involving computers fascinates them. The Internet infrastructure in Uganda, however, is frightful. We connect using Joanita’s laptop and a dial-up USB modem, which is often too painfully slow that I give up surfing altogether. For reference, it takes about 6 minutes to load the simple version of my gmail inbox, and about 30 minutes to load a short 3-minute youtube video.

Before bed, I gave a gift to the family (separate from our contribution to the Peace School) to express my gratitude for their hospitality and care. Amina then gathered us all in the dining room and prayed for my safe journey back to Oxford and for God to help me achieve everything I set my heart on accomplishing. I didn’t understand a word as she spoke completely in Lagandan, but I appreciated the sentiment. Religion is very important to Amina and many of the people here – faith offers them hope and a respite from the troubles they encounter in daily life.

Tomorrow is my last day in Uganda – my trip passed so quickly, but the memories I’ve made and the work we accomplished will forever be indelible in my memory. Perhaps time will inevitably dull the immediacy of the experience, but I know I will forever treasure the lessons I’ve learned and the relationships that I’ve formed.

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