A trip to Uganda in bid to aid school

Posted: May 24, 2007

Below are excerpts from a diary by Michael and Jill Zimmer, Inquirer readers from Downingtown who traveled with Abitimo Odongkara back to Gulu, northern Uganda. Abitimo is the Ugandan schoolteacher who accompanied war-scarred teenager Jennifer Anyayo here for surgery as part of The Inquirer's All Join Hands program. The Zimmers are on the board of a new Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Friends of UNIFAT, to raise money for Abitimo's school:

May 18, 2007

Heathrow Airport, London

Ten hours in Heathrow has allowed time to review things with Abitimo. Turns out she has plans for us. Places to go, people to see. I told her we will look at UNIFAT and see what the school's physical priorities are. We will make a plan for what and when. There are now 15 groups committed to funding orphan tuitions. We hope to make ties to schools in the Philadelphia region as a way to raise money.

Ten hours in Heathrow has allowed time to review things with Abitimo. Turns out has plans for Places to go, people to see. I told her we will look at UNIFAT and see what the school's physical priorities are. We will make a plan for what and when. There are now 15 groups committed to funding orphan tuitions. We hope to make ties to schools in the Philadelphia region as a way to raise money.

May 19, 2007

Kampala and Gulu

We are operating in a slight fog resulting from a six-hour flight, a 12-hour layover in Heathrow, and another eight-hour flight. Thanks to the time change, our bodies tell us we should be heading to bed (for the second time). Instead, we are piled in a 14-person van with 12 suitcases (almost all school supplies) heading north on the Gulu Road. We are traveling with a queen, though. We were met at the airport by a throng of Abitimo's "children." Some are blood relations. Others are kids to whom Abitimo has been a surrogate parent.

The drive is a challenge. The road is full of potholes and traffic. For eight hours we are never alone on the road. Motorcycles are common near Kampala. Further on they are replaced with more and more bicycles. There are many buses, and we occasionally pass slower trucks filled with cattle on their way to Sudan. Always, there is foot traffic - the displaced people who live in the many piecemeal structures along the road.

We arrive in Gulu late in the day and eat dinner at Abitimo's. There is a handwashing ceremony before we eat. There are no utensils. We use a rubbery bread to scoop up the food. The food is good, and Abitimo is sooooo happy to be home. There is a constant stream of children, grandchildren, friends, nieces and nephews. Eight children sit in a corner happily talking and singing. No TV. What a blessing.

May 21, 2007

UNIFAT school in Gulu

Uganda is an odd collision of technology and antiquity. As we walked today, we thought we saw a woman carrying water on her head and talking on a cell phone.

 Last night, Abitimo's adopted grandson Denis said that the current generation has learned to wake up and simply be happy to be alive. How do they return from this to the stable family life they had before? Survival is difficult, even without rebels on the doorstep. But people still smile. . . .

We met with the board and added officials at the school today. Everyone was eager to say hello and thank us for our efforts. . . . The members of the UNIFAT board are unabashedly proud of the record of their school. Ugandan children must take a difficult test to enter high school. UNIFAT places nearly 90 percent of its students in secondary schools. This is like 90 percent of a high school class entering college.

They note, however, that it is a constant struggle. With 1,500 students and 40 teachers, it is obvious that many classes are well beyond ideal student-teacher ratios. To keep good teachers, it is necessary to pay more. Yet with so many orphans in the school, the tuition base is low. This places a great strain on the school's budget and leaves little for the needed classroom expansions.

The board was especially inspired at the idea of American students adopting UNIFAT students. To have tuition coming in for the orphans will relieve budgetary stresses. The needs are many and varied. Children currently squat over open latrines flushed with water from a hose. Teachers hold classes in rooms that would be janitor closets in U.S. schools. The children are squashed into benches with barely room to pick up their arms to write. The current school must be expanded and made tolerable for education.

We were able to walk the grounds at the end of the day. We found children doing work in buildings on the first floor with masons laying bricks on the second. In the United States, regulatory agencies would be having spasms. But Gulu is Gulu. Children must be taught. Buildings must be completed. Somehow, it will all work out.

May 22, 2007

The Government, the teachers

We meet George, the headmaster at 9 a.m. at the Gulu district offices. A very modest building houses a great number of government activities. The hall has stacks of file boxes.

I am reminded by George that Uganda was a British colony for many years and the formalities die hard. We must pay our respects to the district education officer (DEO), the municipal education officer (MEO) and the district administrator. We understand that it will be healthy for the school if the government knows there is a specific nongovernmental group organized for their school. This may lead to added government funding. I suspect it may also relieve concerns about the school’s condition.

I am particularly impressed that both the DEO and MEO have children enrolled at UNIFAT. Obviously, both could send their children to any school in the area, but they chose UNIFAT.

After the morning's activities, we meet with the teachers as a group. Once again, Ugandan formality is front and center. Careful consideration is made of an agenda and each speaker carefully addresses the dignitaries (Abitimo, the headmaster and us -- so cool!) as if they are initiating a commencement address. I again ask for a Quaker silent moment for prayer. They are very obliging.

It is well worth the wait. These are wonderful people. Several speak at the meeting and we meet many separately. They are, to a person, humble, polite, unassuming and concerned to the greatest degree about what is best for their children. I would send my children to this school without electricity, without windows, without computers … without hesitation.

The teachers ask for simple help. Most importantly, it would be nice not to have 80 children in a class. Glass in the windows would be nice. A copy machine would be great for making homework. They would like to be able to exchange views with some teachers in the states (we can help there). They would like enough books so each child had his/her own.

Jill cries again and I have a hard time myself. So, so many good hearts. So many good children. We will not be able to turn back after this.

We sit under a tree at the rear of the school with Abitimo and a few teachers as the sun lowers. We overlook a continuing construction project. We are interrupted yet again by one of Abitimo’s ex-students. A young man stands patiently to one side until recognized. Abitimo is gracious and recalls him well. She has touched so many lives.

The work is on a small grouping of buildings behind the main school. UNIFAT has received a small grant from the government that will pay for a few more bricks on the U.S. Embassy building (the school was given $10,000 two years ago for building, but it only was enough for the first-floor rough construction). We talk to the masons who are still working (they have to use seven bags of cement per man per day to make wages). With enough money, we could have four more classrooms in this building in two months and finish the first floor.

We talk over dinner about the children in the streets. We have found that the motorcycle "gang" on the corner is actually a taxi stand. The young man at the internet café cannot do enough. They are all young entrepreneurs trying to make the best of a bad situation.

The teachers at the school are the products of a long history of strong families. For generations stretching long before the United States was born, they have taught their children respect and proper behavior. The children in the street are in danger. If they lose that sense of family, that sense of decency that has been engendered through the years, we may lose them and future generations. This is a critical time for Uganda. Those who are building the future by maintaining the past are the people we need to help. UNIFAT is part of that fabric. We need to make sure it thrives.

May 23, 2007

Amuru & the camps 

This morning we "sneak" to the school early. We must spend some time on the road today and I want to talk to construction people about the work and the cost to complete the four partially completed but still-being-used classrooms and the four new rooms under construction above them. The masonry contractor and Elvis, the engineer, are very pleasant young men in their mid-twenties. They are eager to do the work and understand that helping me may help to find the money that gives them more work.

We have come to realize that this work means more than just more room for teaching. We will buy windows from local fabricators, cement from local suppliers and we will hire local masons and carpenters to assemble the buildings. This will be a boon, albeit modest, to the local economy. But it will mean a few more local people with money in their pockets able to buy local goods themselves. This is the way life can return to normal in Gulu. When money goes directly into the local economies through nonprofit groups, it is an immediate stimulus. People can begin to focus on a future. They can get up in the morning planning for the day ahead. For now, as Denis tells us, the mentality remains that waking up in the morning is a great achievement unto itself.

We travel to Amuru to see the site of Abitimo’s first school. It is some 45 kilometers to the northwest. As we drive, we pass several displacement camps.

Along the road, we see many signs warning of land mines. We are certain that they are no longer be much of a problem. We are accompanied by a full load of board members, faculty and Abitimo. Nevertheless, it is sobering, as are the increasingly frequent sightings of soldiers with automatic weapons.

We stop at the Amuru camp to pay respects to the local camp officials. We walk through the camp some distance to the office. It is an enlightening experience. It is hot and dry. Flies are near constant. Even with most of the occupants out working the fields (now permitted) there are many, many people in the streets. Clothes are, of course, ragged. Many children, with no school to attend, roam freely.

The faces remain bright and cheerful in spite of the deprivation. They surely miss their homes, the openness of the savannah that we see beyond the huts. But life can still be lived. Laughter can still occur.

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