“We are here to give some kind of healing gift to the world.” Malidoma Some’
Deep in the village of Kyanja live children robbed of their mothers’ embrace, stripped of their fathers’ protection. It is primarily AIDs and malaria that has left them without parents. They help make up the 2.3 million orphans in Uganda. Other children in the village have parents but are victims of economic hardship; the culprit that keeps bellies filled with hunger. 85% of Ugandans live on less than $1 a day. 31% of the country lives in poverty. The children of Kyanja village have not escaped the harsh statistics. These are the children that Agnes Mukasa discovers as she travels to her son’s home in Kyanja. These are the children Agnes would come to care for when she starts Brain Tree Primary School.
In 1948 the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document proclaims common standards of achievements that all people and all countries shall strive for. Human rights are outlined in 30 articles. The Declaration, in part, states that education is a basic human right; that everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.
Agnes Mukasa probably never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She did not have to. Agnes’s life is a living example of dignity, respect, and the worth of human life. Her life is an expression of humanitarian efforts. Of feats requiring courage and strength. She lived through and provided safe haven for countless others during the regime of Idi Amin, the aftermath of civil wars, of disease, of poverty, of famine.
Only one possibility exists for Agnes when she becomes aware of the children in Kyanja lacking education and care. She must help them. It is 1994 and honoring cultural tradition, Agnes brings her concerns to her family and the local Elders. With faith, determination, and a budget consisting of only prayers, the decision is made; Kyanja will have a nursery school.
The first classroom is her son Michael’s garage. It is in this tiny square of undecorated space that Agnes takes in the first four pupils. The news of the school spreads like bush fire. “What about me?” is the overwhelming cry repeated throughout the village. Children emerge from every hidden corner and shadow as if after being lost for too long a time they finally find their way home. They want to go to Agnes’s school. Determined to heed the call of the children Mrs. Mukasa and her family acquire four acres of land from Ssalongo Lule, a village Elder, and build a new structure. The nursery class moves out of the garage and into the new building officially named Brain Tree Primary School.
A long bumpy unpaved road of red clay earth leads to the school. Hazel and I travel over this path for the first time in June 2002. We are lucky, she and I, for we are the passengers in a four by four vehicle. The two mile curvy stretch of primitive road gives us a serious aerobic work out. Bump after bump, disbelief is jolted into me knowing that Agnes travels from Kampala to Kyanja on this road every day, usually by foot or boda boda, the motorcycle taxi, and has done so for several years.
We’ve come in the dry season. The truck bounces down the creviced road kicking up a tidal wave of red dust in our wake. The still air allows the dusty cloud to hover behind us for the longest time. Slowly, a gauzy veil of red settles on every surface along the way. Even I am wearing it. The dry season in Uganda. A season of little or no rain. And a lot of dust. It makes me think of water for the duration of the ride and sets the theme for the day.
Hazel and I are the first foreigners to visit Brain Tree. Over the years the school has expanded and the school we now come to visit offers Nursery through Primary Seven. This is the first year Primary Seven class is offered. In honor of our visit, the school is holding a Sports Day and Concert and it is time to attend the activities. We are led behind the school where we carefully duck under the barbed wire fence, cautiously tip toe through the cow pasture, and arrive in the field at the bottom of the hill. Everyone is assembled and waiting for us. We take our seats in the front row of tightly arranged folding chairs protected under a blue tarp. A high noon equatorial sun welcomes us to Sports Day.
It’s hot. I sit sweating under the shade and watch the children. Taking photographs seems like such an onerous task to me. The sweltering heat does not keep the children from having fun. Between competitions they approach their teachers and hold out their hands. Their open palms receive a white powder that is quickly licked up by eager tongues. Electrolytes. Electrolytes but I see no water for the children.
The concert starts shortly after the sports activities are completed. The children perform again for the guests and care givers. Traditional songs and dances accompanied by drumming entertain all of us in the largest classroom in school building number three. It’s an ethereal experience and I find myself in an altered state. It could simply be the aftermath of sitting in the heat earlier but rather believe it is the combination of the rhythms, being in Africa for the first time surrounded by singing children, and weariness. All of it has me floating above the festivities, making it terribly difficult to keep the video camera still.
‘Rwenzori’ the children repeat to me throughout the day, but I have no idea what that or most other Luganda words mean. Later I learn that Rwenzori is the name of the bottled water I am drinking. I also learn a little geography. The Rwenzori Mountains are in western Uganda. More importantly, Hazel and I discover that the nearest well is about a quarter mile away; over the hills and along a narrow and rocky footpath. Fetching water for one hundred fifty students is simply not possible, even on Sports Day when the need for water increases exponentially.
Within a week of Sports Day, Hazel decides to fund a water project. It is all too clear; the school needs water. Due to the generosity of my traveling companion, Brain Tree will have it before the end of the year. $2800 covers the digging of a 700 meter trench and pipeline that will connect Brain Tree to the water utility. The budget also covers the installation of a 2000 liter holding tank for emergencies. In just a few months the school has water.
It is December 2002. A large crowd gathers for the official ‘Water Opening’ ceremony. Mr. Subi the Headmaster officiates. With one hand he aims the hose high in the air. A school yard of eyes bulging with anticipation, watch his every move. Mr. Subi’s other hand slowly reaches for the valve and as if on cue, everyone takes a deep breath and holds it. Screams burst forth as the tap is turned on, and water gushes up into the sky before it rains down on every smiling face. There is not one person who doesn’t welcome getting soaked. With faces raised up, all mouths are open wide alternating between catching droplets of the precious liquid and singing a short but sweet, three word verse over and again ‘Water is life. Water is life.’ Simple but true; water is life.
Like a pebble thrown into a clear lake, the gift of water ripples out to the whole community. People in the village finally have access to water. They can connect to the pipeline for a small fee, payable to the school. “There are less diseases now and less fighting amongst the badly hearted people”, says student Ddungu Joseph in a letter of thanks. Goodness spreads; the future has grown fertile, and recorded in history is the last waterless Sports Day.
Shortly after the school is transformed by water, Hazel surprises us. She wants to do more for Brain Tree. “Something as meaningful”, she says. I wonder if anything can be as significant as water. After discussing Hazel’s desire with Mr. and Mrs. Mukasa, the answer is clear; there is another way to inject life into the school. A library. It is November 2003 and I excitedly approach Hazel with the library proposal.
2004 is a busy year. Two supporters donate funds to build a dormitory for 100 students. Boarding facilities give orphans a home and also attract families who can afford the fees and tuition. In summer I take my third trip to Uganda. Throughout the year I oversee all Brain Tree projects, keep tabs on the budget and report to supporters. The library project is on hold until resources free up.
When it is time to start the library, the calendar says March 2005. From the time the initial library plan was developed to the time we can implement it, things have changed. Fuel costs are higher and Uganda has had draught, resulting in inflation and an increase in construction costs. Add to the equation, the falling value of the dollar, and the funds that Hazel donated are one third of what is needed. Trusting that everything will work out, we proceed with the library. In the summer, ground is broken. Come September, another dear friend, Gail, donates an additional third of the budget. The end of 2005 approaches bringing with it the promise of a finished library for the new year. And much work still to be done.
Books. A library needs books. Uganda is an English speaking country. Children first learn their tribal language of which there are over 30. In and around Primary Four students start to officially learn the English language. Amazingly, in both primary and secondary schools, children learn many subjects in English. Many of our graduates are in secondary school on scholarship made possible by The Shipley School. These older students are required to read a litany of classics that western school kids are required to read. After going through school without many books or much reading, this seems an unfair academic requirement. And, as Mukumbwa Isaac tells me, he is sorry for his poor grade in Literature Class at Midland Secondary School. He says he wasn’t able to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer because his school had a few unavailable copies. I pick up a couple of these Mark Twain paperbacks at my local library’s used book sale for 25 cents a piece and send them to Uganda. I take note and decide that the library at Brain Tree must have the classics for the graduates.
I research the cost and availability of books in Africa and the cost of shipping books from America. Research shows that shipping books from the States is more cost effective than trying to find and buy them in Uganda. That is, when books are donated, and the collection and preparation processes are volunteer effort. In addition, the expansive range of subject matter in the USA simply cannot be found in Uganda.
The plan is set into motion. A book drive will start immediately. Used book boxes are collected from local book stores. Nile Ocean Cargo in Boston is selected as the shipper. Mid April is the target ship date with an expected mid June delivery date. The intention is to finish collecting books by mid March, prepare them for the library and shipping after spring break, and transport them to Boston just before mid April. I will travel to Uganda in July and set up the library.
A book drive starts in November 2005. It is a homegrown effort with 70 letters distributed in my neighborhood. I ask for books appropriate for a primary school in Uganda and supply a list of classics required by secondary school. I place a plastic bin at the end of my driveway and cross my fingers. I brainstorm other ways to collect books. From the car salesmen to the solar contractor, neighbors and friends, I ask everyone I meet and witness their joy in helping.
At first books trickle in and then….a deluge. An overwhelming but wonderful deluge. My next door neighbor Jennifer is a fourth grade teacher at Coeburn Elementary School. Her students spearhead a school wide book collection. 2000 books are delivered in March. I have an instant distribution warehouse in my home, known the previous day as ‘the dining room’. A college professor in New Jersey hears about the library and takes the cause to her colleagues and book club. Her passion fills up the whole of my station wagon. She and her daughter generously support the library project.
The Shipley School lends a huge hand by planning a book drive and a fund raiser to complete the balance of the budget and book requirements. Barbara, Liz, and Pat, the librarians at Shipley, offer their assistance. I know I need their expertise but don’t know exactly what is required. These fabulous ladies teach me what I need to know to set up the library, oversee the book preparation process, and are selfless with their time.
Out of over 5,000 books collected, 2,500 are chosen for Uganda. Under the skilled tutelage of the librarians, the books are manually catalogued by upper school students, teacher and parent volunteers, and friends. Cataloging entails looking at each individual book, writing down its data, giving it a spine label with Dewey Decimal number, and placing a book pocket and book card inside the back cover. Card catalogue cards and master shelf cards are (mostly) computer generated but manually alphabetized. That’s four cards for each book. 4 x 2500 = a whole lot of cards.
The books not selected for Brain Tree’s Library are donated to local institutions. Two elementary schools and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia receive quite an inventory. Adult books not appropriate for Uganda go to local libraries. A set of Annals stays at Shipley. Building a library half way around the world, benefits many in our local community as well.
Everything is going along smoothly. Until March 8. In the morning I call Mr. Kaddu at Nile Ocean Cargo. He tells me the ship date has been moved up two weeks. No longer mid April the ship date is now Monday April 3rd. I panic. The Shipley book drive starts on the 17th of March. Is it possible to collect and prepare the books in a week’s time? Spring break starts on March 24th. If not, the next ship date is mid summer and that won’t get the books to Brain Tree until the autumn. I can’t go to Uganda at that time and yet I need to be there to set up the library. I tell the librarians of the change in shipping and the potential dilemma. The majority of work is taking place in their library under their supervision. I value and respect their collective wisdom. They tell me not to worry, it will be done. And it is. Before spring break, the books are ready.
The books are packed into 42 boxes. 2 cubic meters of books. This is the measurement used for container shipping and costing. Each box is taped out the wazoo and shipping labels placed on three sides. Steven, my Ugandan brother, offers to drive the books to Boston. Spring break passes and on April 2nd, a cargo van is rented. Steven makes the first pick-up at my home and I instantly get my dining room back. He picks up the remaining load at Shipley before heading to Boston. In Boston the freight is placed in a container, the container on a ship. And then away it cruises on the high seas for two months heading to Kenya. Once there, the shipment heads west across this neighboring country by road for several days until reaching Uganda’s capital, Kampala. In Kampala the books go through customs and clearing and a Mr.Keyune will call Mr. Mukasa for delivery. In July I will be at Brain Tree to unpack and shelf the books, and get the library up and running. But for now, it is the beginning of April, the books are on their way, and it is time to take a break.