Thursday, July 31, 2014

Three Schools

Funded by Invisible Children
Incredible day today. We visit three schools that have been supported by Invisible Children. Each school has been the beneficiary of fundraising campaigns, most significantly one called Schools for Schools in 2009-2010 that matched US regions to specific schools in Northern Uganda.

The first school we visit is Keyo, a school that Carlie, one of the other teachers on our trip, had helped to fund. The campus is tidy with small signs around campus offering aphorisms for living like "Aspire to Inspire before you Expire."

The first full classroom of students has wide open windows; long narrow, wooden desks; chalkboards; and rows of kids in tidy uniforms. We stand at the front of the classroom as the head teacher explains that we are part of Invisible Children. Carlie is overcome with emotion as she introduces herself and her connection to Keyo.

Carlie Frye greets Keyo Secondary School
Though the students' faces are stoic as we smile from the front of the room, when we circulate and introduce ourselves personally with the three-step Ugandan handshake, their faces crack into wide grins. 

Greeting students at Keyo
Being in one of the Schools for Schools sites is as surreal as stepping into a favorite book. The names of all the US schools that helped raise money for classrooms are carved into beautiful signs that hang near the entrance to the new buildings.

In each of the  classrooms we visit, the students are subdued under the eyes of their teachers, but when a few of us happen upon a roomful of kids waiting for their teacher, the teenagers are far more  playful, the kids enjoying laughing with us, shaking our hands, and giggling about questions we ask about being sneaky when teachers are out of the room. A couple of girls sitting outside another classroom are happy to have us come take pictures which they thrill to see.

After visiting the classrooms, the administrators invite us to a staff meeting room. They tell us about the impact of the "sponsorship" programs at the school then serve us a meal of yellow bread, hard boiled eggs, and bananas. For drinks they offer us water and chilled sugary sodas: orange crush, colas, and a strong ginger ale called Stoney that we have all grown to love.
Refreshments with Keyo faculty

We enjoy the refreshment and songs from a group of scholarship students who introduce themselves and sing for us. When we ask what they hope to study in University, they nearly all say medicine or education. The students ask some frank questions about IC "sponsorship" and want to know why IC isn't fully funding their schooling, paying only the tuition costs and not funding things like uniforms, as they have done in the past.

When we leave campus and get back on the bus, Lauren Manning, our American Invisible Children staffer who lives and works in Gulu, takes time to explain how IC has evolved in recent years, including being more mindful about sustainable development, something that's dogged the organization since the Kony 2012 fallout of the past year and a half.

This perpetual re-examination and mindfulness is one of the many things I admire about the organization. It has never be stagnant or unresponsive to the most progressive ideas of sustainable development and impact in the region.

We need the community and the families to be invested in these kids too, Manning explains. So IC pays tuition, but the remainder of the fundraising for other costs must come from elsewhere. Students are also expected to maintain a high level of performance to keep their scholarships from year to year. These are financial strategies for IC but also, more importantly, strategies that IC hopes will encourage more local engagement in change and development.
Jessica Goldman finds her school's name at Sacred Heart

The second school we visit is girls boarding school called Sacred Heart. The campus is immaculate and lovely. As at Keyo, aphorisms about living well dot campus. "Stave off Evil."

Students at this school arrive the first day and are sequestered on campus for the duration of the school year, a strategy to keep them both safe and focused. A young woman in a well-tailored skirt suit greets us. Prescovia is an Invisible Children scholarship graduate and former Roadie who is now Academic Assistant to the Head Teacher.

Each of Invisible Children's traveling Roadie campaigns included a Ugandan who was an important part of offering witness for the stories of the war and life in Northern Uganda under Kony's terror.  This interchange of people sharing stories and connecting personally has been a powerful component in IC's desire to cultivate the sense of global family.
Girls at Sacred Heart watch us arrive

Lilli Cairl, one of the girls on the trip, is thrilled to see Prescovia, the Roadie who visited her school in California when she was touring. These reunions continue throughout our trip as each of reconnect with Ugandans we'd met on Invisible Children tours.

Lili Cairl reunites with Prescovia
The students are dressed in pink schoolgirl dresses and line the balconies to watch us arrive, smiling and waving. Their hair is uniformly shaven quite short, something done for both simplicity and sanitation.

We visit a classroom where two of the girls demonstrate an Achioli dance. Three in our group, Carlie Frye, Kristin Pedley and Lisa Jayne, offer a few rounds of the Electric Slide in return.

Our final school visit is to the local Gulu high school, the largest of the three with over 1700 students. We are greeted by the Head Teacher, an older woman who will retire within the next year due to Uganda's retire by 60 rule. When I ask what she plans to do with her time after leaving the school and she tells me of a project to help rural kids become literate.

She leads us into a recently completed building that was funded by IC. The ground level is a room filled with new bookshelves and desks. Upstairs is an assembly hall with a stage that can seat 1000.

Outside in the courtyard hundreds of teenagers gather for announcements and a random assortment of broadcast music. I ask what percentage of kids in Gulu go to school. I am told the number is around 60%.

From that time on, every time I see a kid not in school, I think of that remaining 40%, left to sell cakes from street corners, if they are among the lucky few to get jobs. It's an important reminder of how much still needs to be done to help kids get to school.

After our tour, the Head Teacher invites us to see her office where we sign a guest book.

A picture of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni hangs crooked and off-center on the wall behind her desk.
A campus sign at Keyo Secondary School

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