I try to avoid photos in general over here in Uganda. I’m usually in a pretty severe state of dishevelment, which I feel would be best left unrecorded: bird’s nest hair, shiny, shiny face, stained clothing, etc. I’ve specifically worked hard to avoid the ‘white chick posing with many smiling African children’ photo. It’s clichéd and seems forced, no matter how long or how hard the white chick in question has worked with the African children.

I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to these things, and my time here in Africa has made me think a great deal about the nature of development. It’s a murky issue that only grows in complexity the more I immerse myself in this ‘developing’ community. I’ve read a few books on the issue since I’ve been here, and had many a philosophical conversation with David and other volunteers who have passed through the village. There are lots of questions (what does Africa need, why does Africa need it, who is supposed to help Africa, does Africa even need help, hasn’t foreign aid done more harm than good, aren’t we just so many ineffectual band-aids on a wound that needs to heal internally, and what right do we have to barge in here and insist that we know what’s best anyway?). There are not so many answers.

My discomfort grows when I walk through the village and receive such automatic respect and deference from many of the villagers, not to mention the staff of the school. My skin color apparently acts as a very impressive resume. I wonder why in the world people with so much more experience and wisdom than me follow my suggestions unhesitatingly. Thankfully, this aspect of the experience is diminishing with the time I spend here. The sheen of novelty has faded from Teacher Ruth, and many people now feel comfortable openly laughing at me, especially when I try and join Teacher Nelson’s dance classes. Although, I recently found out that I’m not yet completely out of style. At a workshop attended by a lot of local politicians and head teachers, John Wanda introduced me and asked if I would ever consider living in Uganda permanently. I responded with a smart-ass comment about having to find a husband first, which John took great pleasure in relaying to the whole audience. There was much general merriment and knee-slapping. Somebody didn’t see the humor in the situation though, as two days letter I received a serious application for the position of my spouse. Credentials were listed, contact information was given, and some poetic language was thrown around. It was actually very touching. When I failed to respond, I received a second query. This guy meant business.

“While I appreciate your interest in getting to know me further, I want to make sure that you understand that my comment about finding a husband was a joke. It was not a serious request.”

There’s something I never thought I’d have to write.

Marriage proposals aside, the image of the muzungu in this country leaves me perplexed and a little on edge. I think back to the second P7 debate I ever witnessed: “Foreigners have done more harm than good in Uganda.” I wonder which side I would take if asked to participate in that discussion.

But through all the theoretical intricacies, I know there is one thing I can firmly stand behind: this school and the work it is doing. I sometimes get bogged down in the operational details over here, or frustrated at the hours and hours I spend in unproductive meetings. But then there are moments when the full impact of this institution hits me smack in the face. We have a small team over here right now making a documentary about the school, and I took them to visit some of the students we are sponsoring in Miggade College—a secondary school outside Kampala. These kids all spent several years at Arlington Academy of Hope before taking their Primary Leaving Exam, passing with flying colors, and receiving a full scholarship from donors in the US to attend one of the best secondary schools in Uganda. I’m not all that familiar with these students, as they graduated from the school before I arrived, but when they saw me they literally ran over and engulfed me in giant bear hugs. The girls were all wearing their smart yellow uniforms and wide smiles almost cracked their faces. We sat in the grass and talked about their lives at secondary, and what AAH has done for them.

The bottom line is this: these young women will complete their formal education, and most likely continue on to university, because of Arlington Academy of Hope. Without the opportunities this school presents, the odds were greatly stacked against them even completing primary school, let alone moving on to secondary. But it’s more than that. These young women are confident and outgoing and eager to talk talk talk about their education and what they are learning and what they want to be. They are overflowing with possibility. It is infectious. I imagine coming back here in ten years, and finding the school staffed entirely by its own alumni. I imagine new schools they will open in the area, or clinics, or businesses, or whatever. It is tangible progress that you can grab hold of and give a big hug. You cannot argue with change of this nature.

Besides my interactions with the secondary students, there are plenty of moments in the village that make me halt and laugh with the sheer joy of being involved in such a project. We have just opened a new library at the school, and kids are literally queuing around the block to get their hands on a book. Sure the place looks like a bomb has hit it once they leave, and they always put the books back on the shelves backwards (why? WHY?), but they are practically foaming at the mouth for the love of reading and I can’t think of anything better to get excited about. Kitongo Boniface is a little imp of a child who comes by my office every break and lunch to have some one on one reading time. I’m not going to lie—he’s largely motivated by my impressive sticker collection. But reading is reading, regardless of the motivation. We’re working our way through a donated phonics series, sound by sound, and he gets better every day. When he comes across a word he doesn’t recognize his lips move frantically as he tries to decipher all the possible sounds and blend them into something familiar. He stutters through half the alphabet before looking up at me imploringly for some assistance and it’s all I can do not to dissolve in a fit of giggles or tears.

Nakuti Sarah in P1 is PSYCHED about our Reading Challenge!

Children walk two hours to school and still arrive a half hour early. Children sleep on mud floors and do their homework by lantern light and still have a clean uniform and polished shoes every day. Children come on Saturdays. Children’s parents, who never completed school themselves, sell their last cows to make sure they can pay the parent contribution every term.

Of course, children are children. There’s bickering and hollering and crying and cheating and tricksters and jokers and pranksters and wasted time and lost books and scraped knees and broken chairs and grumpy teachers and stressed cooks and it RAINS every day and the compound becomes a swamp. It wouldn’t be a school without those things. And sometimes I’m mad and sometimes I’m tired and sometimes I disagree with the US Board or the Headmaster or the Program Director and sometimes I have to go home and have a beer. But I’m halfway through my time here, and I feel a small bubble of sadness already growing inside me at the thought of leaving. I can’t speak for the UN or World Bank or IMF or USAID or any of the other countless agencies and organizations speeding along these dusty roads in their shiny pick-ups, but I can speak for Arlington Academy of Hope, and I deem it undeniably worthwhile.

So, here they are; the dreaded ‘white chick with African children’ pictures. Because I’m proud and I’m grateful and they are so darn cute.

I became an inadvertent Pied Piper on a visit to our sister primary school in Bupoto.

Handing out reading challenge packets to some excited P4 students