In the summer of 2009, we traveled to Uganda as part of a training project put together by a San Diego-based non-profit, U-Touch, and a Uganda-based organization, African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF). In the accounts below, we present a cross-section of the complex emotions, thoughts, and insights triggered by our experience. We plan to return this summer with a group of students to continue the work.
As I slid into the small hut on the outskirts of Gulu, I could just make out my companions —Deb Plotkin from the Sister Schools of San Diego and Opiyo Robert, a 16 year old local. Deb and I sat down looking at a tattered curtain dividing the hut in two. A deep, guttural moan erupted from the other side of the curtain. I glanced at Deb, wondering for a moment how on earth I ended up in this situation.
I had come to northern Uganda with two colleagues to offer help to the local Acholis in repairing the damage left by a horrid twenty-year civil war. Our job was to train local teachers and students in the use of computers, email, and the internet. During the first session Robert, a quiet, unassuming student, had approached me to ask if I would visit his father with him. His father was ill and in dire need of medical attention. I agreed to help in any way I could, so I naively asked Deb—who had coordinated our visit—when I could go see Robert’s father. Deb’s eyes widened. “Robert’s dad?” she whispered. “He’s a former commander of the LRA. He was one of Kony’s right hand men.” A mix of anxiety and excitement engulfed me. Kony was the notorious leader of the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group who has engaged in armed rebellion against the Ugandan government since 1987. “Oh yeah, we can go. I’ve been meaning to go see him. Robert’s younger brother, Denish, is a sponsored student as well. We can go visit both of them. I’ve been meaning to.” A Cheshire smile creased her lips. An LRA commander? Brilliant.
It is estimated that nearly 90% of LRA soldiers are abducted children (www.invisiblechildren.com). As a response to this tactic the Ugandan government relocated 1.8 million people to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps throughout the north. Although Kony and the LRA are still at large in the mountainous jungles of the eastern Congo, Uganda has remained relatively peaceful for the past three years. About half of the people in the IDP camps have returned to their villages. However, the traumatic impact of the war is evident everywhere—in the scarcity of middle-aged males in certain villages, in the hastily thrown together IDP camps that surround Gulu on all sides, in the sad eyes that greet you, and mostly in the horrific tales you hear over and over again.
The moan came a second time from the other side of the curtain. “Mama…mama.” This was the local name for Deb. “Yes, Daniel?” Deb responded. “Mama. I am in pain. I cannot move. My back. I can’t work. Ughhh….”
“Daniel,” said Deb, “What can I do to help? Do you need a ride to the doctor? Why don’t you go to the doctor for your pain?”
“Mama… I would,” Daniel whispered. “But they won’t see me.” Another groan, and a hand slid out from underneath the curtain. Slowly and painfully, a bald man in his forties dragged himself out from beyond the curtain onto the dirt at our feet. He rolled onto his back and looked up at Deb, his son Robert, and me.
“You are my mama,” he said to Deb, his voice stronger now. “And you,” he continued looking at me, “are my papa. You have given so much. You have sent him for his education. And you have blessed us. You are his mama and papa now.”
Deb asked again why Daniel hadn’t gone to the doctor. “Mama. I would go. I must go because I cannot work. Mama, if you could help me with a bit of money, just to make my back better. I could work. I could make my son proud.”
I glanced at Robert, and he would not make eye contact. His embarrassment was palpable. I wanted to hug him, to tell him all would be ok. But questions raced through my mind about this man lying on the ground at my feet. How many people had he killed in his eight years with the LRA? How many children did he take from their homes? And why would he do these things? Was it fear? Did he believe that Kony truly was sent by God?
The problems that existed here were beyond anything I could have imagined, and that moment sitting there with this man—Kony’s first English translator—made me feel completely helpless. Thankfully Deb ended the conversation, making it clear in the softest way that she had no money for Daniel. She could give him a ride but could not pay for his hospital bills.
We excused ourselves from the hut. Robert still needed to get back to his boarding school. On the drive back, Robert and I got into a conversation about his future. He spoke of his dreams of being an electrician and a driver. I shared thoughts on college and studying electrical engineering. He wanted nothing of it, though. He knew what he wanted to do. As we discussed this, a smile crossed his face. He invited me to come visit his school, and a bigger, fuller smile met mine when I accepted. My feeling of helplessness lifted. Our reason for being here was completely clear.
Our first evening in Gulu, we walked behind our hotel to an even smaller village where we were greeted by at least a dozen youth. They danced with us, sang with us, and played with our cameras. It was a great way to start our adventure. We kept our eyes open to see who we might adopt into our HTHI family, which youth our school would sponsor to get an education. Our host, Deb Plotkin, kept telling us we needed to have patience because there were thousands of students who wanted to be sponsored.
As days went by and we met more students, many found a way to ask us whether we would sponsor them. We read through “pen pal” letters, and the vast majority would slip in a comment asking someone to pay for their education. These letters were from students already in school, but what about the thousands who were out of school? The government claimed to pay for universal primary education, but then why did the kids say they couldn’t afford it? They told us they had to come prepared for school in uniforms, with books and lunch. If they did not have any of these, they were not allowed through the front gate. The Minister of Education informed us that the government takes into consideration all expenses, including books and uniforms. Something didn’t make sense. These kids were clearly in some sort of need.
There are many international organizations that sponsor students in the area. In the Gulu region alone, 60% of students are sponsored to attend school. The challenge is that widespread sponsorship, like many well-intentioned ideas, creates unintended consequences. In the Gulu region, it has created an education culture dependent on money from foreign sources.
Since 2006, one organization, Windle Trust, has sponsored 3240 students in the Gulu District and 5000 students total across Uganda. They sought out students who were orphans, especially girls, who had been ill, disabled, or previously abducted, had incapable parents, or were heads of households. Windle Trust helped pay for tuition and exam fees, as well as scholastic materials, sanitary needs, and psychosocial support. In addition, they have helped with reconstruction projects in Gulu. But Windle Trust’s main donor, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, terminated its funding in December 2009, leaving over 3000 students to look for other sponsors.
People in this region are well aware of the flood of money streaming in to pay for locals to go to school. Well-intentioned non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Windle Trust, Invisible Children (who sponsor about 700 students), and Save the Children have helped fuel a culture of dependency on these sources. As one might expect, the need is such that some people are trying to “game” the system in order to get double or triple sponsorships. We, unfortunately, experienced this firsthand on several occasions. It saddened us to discover that one of the young students we hoped to sponsor was dishonest about her family’s ability to pay for her school fees. We were there to help the children most in need—those whose parents were killed in the war or who had been taken as child soldiers.
At some point, Uganda and Ugandans will have to begin supporting themselves economically and in other ways. Our group from HTHI has decided to sponsor three students who we met last summer. We feel like these students are taking advantage of the opportunity and come from a situation that requires help. Nevertheless, there are looming questions: Are we helping them or hurting them? Is making education sustainable for developing countries a possible feat? Or is my lifelong dream of coming out to Africa and “saving the world” coming back to haunt me?
At some point after our visit, our focus shifted from finding ways to help get kids into school to finding ways to help Ugandans help themselves. After all, isn’t that what we do daily in the classroom? We want to empower our students–facilitating instead of dictating. We know it is imperative that the Ugandans move toward being producers, creators, and problem solvers. If this does not happen, all the NGOs in the world can come and try, but no true lasting change will happen. The key to creating this change will be with education. Maybe my dream didn’t completely come true this past summer, but it was definitely the beginning.
Training, day one, Gulu. Everyone is so nice and respectful, so grateful to be here. We have 19 students and teachers with us, in a medium-sized room full of desks and chairs. This is the very first training in the new Community Technology Resource Center.
We started with an icebreaker. Brian put everyone in groups of 2-5 and asked questions like “What is the last book you read?” or “What is your favorite food?” I stood with two students and one teacher and listened to their quiet responses. Then the most incredible thing happened with the last question. Brian asked: “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” We gave examples like the power of flying or the power of being invisible. Yet every single person gave a selfless response for all of Uganda: peace for the country, education for all, warmth in everyone’s hearts, the end of the war. We looked at each other in amazement. This was going to be a humbling experience.
We had planned to cover what we called “computer basics.” Brian would go over the hardware, such as the touch pad and the keyboard. Then I would go over some word processing and Excel, and Elika would go over social networking and blogging. Brian would come back and go over internet basics and the power of Google and Gmail. We would conduct our training by doing a project. By the end of the day, in groups of four, students and teachers would have researched a question of their choice on the internet, used word processing to develop a response, and posted this information on a newly created blog.
Within the first minute, we realized that computer basics would more appropriately include how to open a computer and how to turn on a computer. We would need to reflect, regroup, and adapt our training plans to the needs of our audience. Throughout the day we continued to mold and shape our lessons as appropriate. Not only were we unprepared to meet the level of experience of our students, but we were working in a region where power is a fluctuating resource. We had trouble keeping our computers charged with limited power outlets and power adapters, and we continually lost our connections to the wireless internet router in the AMREF office. It didn’t matter. We were working with some of the most appreciative and engaged students I’ve ever encountered. They continued to ask questions and express their gratitude, patiently waiting for a turn on the computers. We found ways to share computers and work in small groups, we allowed the use of Brian’s computer and mine, and we rotated through our limited power supplies.
After I went over word processing, we gave students time to just write. We told them to write about anything, to practice with the keyboard and formatting. I was completely struck by their choices in writing. If you ask a student in the US to write freely about anything, you may get responses about their families, friendships, and hobbies. In Uganda, when first given access to a computer, these trainees wrote letters thanking AMREF for the training, letters to school officials requesting changes for the school and students, letters about how much technology can help them learn. Without any prompting, almost everyone wrote about how they were thankful for the opportunity to experience the computers. Wow.
At the end of the day, we all gathered in a circle and had everyone write for about 10 minutes. We asked, “What struck you most about today?” and “What impact do you think the center, training, and technology can have?” One teacher wrote, “I want to be a great educator in the hope of this new generation, especially in the field of academics. I hope to educate multitudes of students in this nation and world over. This calls for sharing of experiences and ideas from various fields.” A student wrote, “My school needs support in terms of access to technology…computers in particular…to ease learning and interaction with other students elsewhere around the world.”
In Uganda, technology represented much more than the laptops used for the trainings. It meant access, opportunity, and hope. Asked how he believed technology would most benefit the school and community, one student gave a simple response: the creation of friendships with people from other parts of the world.
By the end of the day, I was hot, hungry, dirty, and exhausted—but I was completely taken aback by what we had experienced that day. Nineteen students and teachers now had gmail addresses through which we could now be in contact. Nineteen students and teachers now had a place to go where they could learn computer basics and access the internet. Nineteen students and teachers were giving us valuable lessons and reminders in our teaching. Already, as our student hoped, we were creating friendships with people from around the world.