I feel like I was able to put into words what Uganda meant to me personally in the last blog entry.  The following is a presentation I gave at an AAH gathering, trying to explain more specifically why I find the AAH project so compelling and worthwhile.  The link at the bottom is to a slide show I made of some of my best school photos.

Before I left Uganda I had a tendency to sigh sadly, and tell everyone that I had to head ‘back to reality.’ That was not an accurate statement. I don’t know a lot of statistics off the top of my head, but I’m willing to bet that more people in the world live in mud huts than live in red brick mansions, that more people in the world dig the earth and grow their own food than stop by Giant on the way home from work, and that more people in the world fetch their water from a well two miles down the road than open the faucet and watch it gush cleanly out. So in the big picture, our lifestyle here in Northern Virginia, and indeed North America, is exceptional and strange. My experience in a small Ugandan village was closer to reality. In reality, children walk miles to school, often with no shoes, and sit on earthen floors trying desperately to learn from poorly trained teachers. In reality, many children never learn to read or write, and never make it past early primary grades, and never get a chance to carve out a life for themselves that differs from the life of their parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents. In reality, we have a big, big problem with education, and since education is the vital root of development, we have a big, big, problem with development in general. So, as they say in Uganda, what to do?

If you ask Mutemi Godfrey, Deputy Head Teacher of Arlington Academy of Hope, that question, he will not hesitate in his response: ‘What to do?’ ‘I have to go.’ ‘Go,’ in this context means the opposite of what you might think. In fact, it means many things: try, strive, continue, improve, stay. And these are the words that have defined a small school in the mountains of Eastern Uganda, and these are the words which infected me, and gave me the best year of my life. In January of 2008 I arrived in the parish of Bumwalukani, dusty and tired, and somewhat overwhelmed. Funnily enough, in December of 2008 I left Bumwalukani, feeling much the same way. In between I found adorable children, good friends, a model of transformation, and a life’s calling.

Arlington Academy of Hope sits in the middle of one of the poorest, most low-achieving school districts in Uganda. Its foundations were hewn out of the bulky red clay of the hillsides, and it is surrounded by steep jungle paths and heavily planted farm plots. In a community controlled by grey rain clouds and sticky mud and a never-ceasing supply of long, hard labor, it sits colorful and clean, echoing with the shouts of busy children.

The staff of this school comes from all over the country. They left their urban environments and family homes to slog up the mud roads in black gumboots, to battle the deafening rain on the tin roofs, to accept the flickering power supply, and to raise the teaching and learning standards of a community. Every day I spent with them was a lesson in going above and beyond. Deputy Godfrey spending hours in the library painting posters for the reading carnival. Teacher Patrick pecking away at the computer, typing up the permission slips for the Kampala field trip he is organizing. Teacher Michael standing with a group of students, scratching his head at the large assortment of magnets on the ground as they discuss possible science fair projects. Teacher Grace sitting with her weak readers after school. Teacher Okwii spending lunch down at the cow shed, checking on the new school calves. The nature of the project requires a level of commitment and selflessness from its staff, and we are lucky to have collected a community of talented and resilient individuals who have made their home in the mountains and steer the transformation occurring there.

The transformation of what? Well, at its most basic, the transformation of children. The children of the Ugandan village hold the same amount of potential as the children of the American elite. The difference is in the tools available and opportunities presented to these groups. AAH is a doorway, a platform, a workshop, and a shelter for the children of Bumwalukani. It is miraculous in its simplicity: give children the basic components of a functional, comfortable learning environment, and they will learn. Uniforms, food, desks, pencils, books, a teaching staff that cares and shows up everyday. In the United States we take these things for granted, but in Bumwalukani they were elusive, too expensive, out of reach. AAH has changed that and set a new standard in the village. If we look at the measures which define modern education, the standardized tests, we see that our children are passing. If we look at the factors which contribute to future career opportunities, we see that our children are reading and writing and speaking English and continuing their education past primary. If we look at the characteristics of a successful child, we see that our children are hardworking and polite and happy. They are so happy. But the transformation is larger than that. At AAH children learn not only the lessons required by the Ugandan curriculum, but they learn that every moment spent in their classrooms is an investment, they learn that if they need help they can reach out and find it, they learn that their community needs them, and will count on them in the future.

And all these things are lessons I learned too. I dug-in in Uganda. I rolled up my sleeves and put on my gumboots and organized and sorted and made lists and schedules and trips to Kampala to buy books and pots and read with children and played with children and sang with children and laughed with children. I don’t think the transformation of Ruth was part of AAH’s initial mission statement, but they have inadvertently enacted it. I have become passionate about a place and a group of people thousands of miles away. I have become committed to the cause of transformation through education. But mostly, I have become hopeful. Hopeful that in an increasingly unjust and trouble-ridden global community seeds are being sown and lights are appearing at the end of tunnels, and hopeful that I will find a way to be a part of the solution.

I planted a tree on the school compound during my last weeks in Uganda. I think about it sometimes, when I’m driving along the frigid Virginia roads and see the bare branches overhead. I’m hopeful that it’s growing and thriving in the Bumwalukani soil. I’m hopeful that children will play around it and climb in it and read in its shade. I’m hopeful that it will endure, and that maybe one day, I’ll go back, and see it again.