“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” John Ruskin
Waiting for us at Entebbe Airport are the Mukasa family and friends. It is late Tuesday night, July 18th. Just footsteps out of the immigration door we are enveloped by hungry octopus arms that pull us into a soft center. We feast upon gleeful hugs and words of endearment before we are turned loose. The arms of our welcoming committee again come alive, this time to unburden us of every piece of luggage we carry and to gently direct us to the ride home.
This is the first trip to Africa for my traveling companions. Both are from The Shipley School. Joey is a teacher in the middle school, David a student going into his senior year. We are exhausted from the day and a half journey. The hour long night time drive is made darker by power outages. Joey nods off intermittently in the back seat not missing much but the glow of charcoal fires that dot the banks of Entebbe Road. David is keyed up and engages in conversation with our Ugandan hosts. As for me, I wear the familiar cloak of weariness alongside a home coming contentment; tired but happy and knowing that in the days ahead much work has to be done.
The very next day is the first trip to Brain Tree. Geoff Walukhu a dear friend and trusted driver picks us up in Kampala. Joey and David will be staying at Brain Tree. Their luggage comes along. Joey jokes with David saying he must have brought a sister or two since his bags are so big and heavy. The truth is David has brought an assortment of video and photographing equipment, laptop and related paraphernalia to capture the making of the library. With van loaded, we set off for Brain Tree.
Like all trips to the school before this one, it is a long bumpy ride. The dust from the unpaved road is tame since we’ve brought the rains with us. A good omen in Africa. David shoots video footage along the way including the inside of our vehicle. We look like kernels of cooking popcorn and I am sure that all who eventually watch the video will get motion sickness.
Geoff slows down to make the last turn before reaching the school. The road evens out, the ride gets quieter and I can hear a soft vibration of sound coming from the school yard. The whole of Brain Tree is waiting for us and in the moment we are spotted, the calm hum of the crowd twists into a storm of clamoring bodies. Everyone runs to and fro with screams of long awaited anticipation. As quickly as the chaos erupted, an organized orchestration of children start singing a rhythmic welcome, led by the pounding of the drums. The van stops, the door opens. Totally dumbfounded, I manage to find my legs and let them take me into the undulating sea of celebration.
The festivities have no time limit. The grass skirt tied around my waist has been moving most of the morning and I hope the Ancestors are pleased. Finally Mr. Subi the Headmaster breaks from the trance and signals the drums to stop. He makes formal introductions while catching his breath and invites us on a school tour. I am not a stranger to the school and would rather go directly to the newly constructed library. With the festivities over, the teachers and children return to their classrooms. Joey, David, and I respectfully follow Mr. Subi, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Mukasa.
After touring the school grounds, the library looms up in front of us. The library! It is big. It is beautiful. And it beckons us. Chickens strut across the veranda in front of us as we enter through the large glass and iron doors. Inside, the natural light streams through eight large windows and brightens the yellow mustard colored walls. The book shelves have been constructed in natural wood. They are empty of course but won’t be for long. Or at least this is my hope. The books have not yet arrived and although I am concerned, standing inside the library brings a sense of peace and early accomplishment.
The mid June delivery date for the book shipment has turned out to be mid July. The receiving agent is Mr. Keyune. He has promised the books’ arrival everyday for at least a week and Mr. Mukasa has grown skeptical. The library’s grand opening ceremony is scheduled for Sunday July 30th, leaving eleven days for everything that needs to be done. I telephone Mr. Keyune and he assures me that the books will come in the morning.
In the meantime, there is much work to be done. A few years ago I brought 30 pounds of books with me. Books occupied space in my luggage this trip as well. All of them need to be processed for the library. Classroom books purchased by Mr.Subi require attention too. Then there is Namuli Hilda. She was a teacher at Brain Tree for many years and upon my arrival, became the librarian-to-be. I will teach her everything I know about the running of a library before I leave. Florence Namwanje, the grand daughter of the Mukasas is staying in the dormitory with Sandra Mukasa and is her chaperone. Sandra has the same last name as the Brain Tree founders, but is of no relation. She is an American student going into her junior year at Forrest Garrison Girls School in Maryland. She was awarded a grant for international service. Both of these young ladies will prove to be indispensable to the opening of the library. Every free moment Joey has between teaching and spending time in the classes is used for the library. David busies himself with recording the daily events, cooking from time to time, and searching for diet coke.
About thirty percent of the children at Brain Tree are orphans but I had not experienced any of them becoming one. That was about to change. After the tour I am informed of the latest news while we get to work. The most prominent piece of information comes from Agnes and it is about Winnie Mukashaka, an 11 year old student of Brain Tree. I have grown found of Winnie over the years and it is with great distress that I learn that her mother died just yesterday. Winnie is now an orphan.
Thursday morning and I am back at Brain Tree working in the library. There are chickens and children running in and out and visitors coming and going. “Madame Lori, someone has come to see you,” a voice calls out. I turn and look. Standing on the veranda is Winnie. She has come to greet me. I approach her gingerly and force the words quietly out of my mouth, ‘I’m so sorry about your mother Winnie’. She falls into me with heavy sobs. I wrap my arms around her and do my best to not join her in grief. The unfairness of life so disproportionately encountered here in Africa takes its toll on me each time I come to Uganda. I look at Joey. Having him here helps me be strong for Winnie. When Winnie’s crying subsides, Agnes leads her away. I take a deep breath, turn around and get back to work.
Before long, the work day is finished and I visit Winnie in the dormitory. I give her a teddy bear. I make promises to her that I intend to keep. She’s a little girl on her own now. One of the 2.3 million orphans in Uganda. I hope my small offerings bring her comfort.
Later in the day the library crew, Agnes, Mr. Subi, and Winnie’s classmates, join Winnie, her siblings and the rest of the village high on a hill where Winnie’s mother will be buried. At least one hundred people must be present. Joey, David, and I are ushered to the few chairs in front of the proceedings and are the only ones given these seats of distinction. Later we will learn that we are important guests. We have come all the way from the United States to be at the funeral. Even more, David is capturing everything with his video camera, a privilege reserved for few. The three of us being at the funeral is a great honor to Winnie’s mother. Our presence has given her life more value. It is a mutual veneration.
Mr. Subi translates selective parts of the long eulogy for me as he kneels to the right of my chair. His deep whispered voice is comforting but at times his words are lost on me as I take in my surroundings. A cluster of faded red and white Brain Tree uniforms are to my distant right. Villagers in the colorful cloths of Africa are everywhere else, tucked in the earth’s lap and form a dense circle surrounding the casket. I hear the sounds of grief and dwell on thoughts of Winnie’s mother on her death bed. What was it like for this 40 year old woman to know her death was imminent. To know that she would leave her five children to an unknown future with no family in the village to depend on, or money to provide for them. I say a silent prayer to let her know she can count us. She can count on Brain Tree. My eyes find her youngest child, Winnie. She is sitting beside the coffin holding the teddy bear.
Back at school there is no book shipment. I call Mr. Kaddu the shipper in America and tell him about Mr. Keyune and his empty promises. This communication results in another promise by Mr. Keyune but this time he keeps it. It is about noontime on Friday when I am called out of the library. As I reach the front courtyard I see the entire school surrounding Mr. Keyune and his van. The back doors of the vehicle are open and inside are the boxes that were sent off in April. They’ve come far. Several children busy themselves with unloading the shipment. All the others are singing, clapping, and dancing. There are songs about Shipley. Songs for me. Songs of Uganda. Songs for everyone who is part of the library story. Surely this is the biggest show of enthusiasm over books anywhere in the world.
I feel wonderful. I look around and Joey too is wearing happiness. David is busy capturing the celebration on film. To my right is Mubiru Titus a P7 student. He looks up at me and his big white teeth and sparkling eyes tell me all I need to know. But as if I need convincing he says, “Madame Lori, all this celebrating is because of the books. We are rejoicing because of you.”
Children begin to pick up the heavy boxes. From Nursery to P7, every child wants to help. Before they get too far I realize we must count the boxes. The lot is placed back down in no particular order. Joey takes a pen and as the crowd counts in unison, he marks each box. The counting stops at 39. I take a deep breath and look at Mr. Keyune. I inform him that three are missing. He says he will go back to the warehouse and find the missing boxes. I ask when. “This afternoon”, is his automatic reply.
This is serious business. I ask the entire school to look at our delivery man. At least 170 pairs of eyes focus on Mr. Keyune. I ask him to give us his word. He says he will return as promised. I echo his pledge and ask everyone if they understand what he is saying. “Yes” is the resounding reply. Mr. Keyune is now accountable to an entire court of school children. If he fails them, his actions will sentence him to a heavy burden of guilt. And his desire for a clear conscience is my collateral. I feel a bit like a crazy woman but later when Mr. Keyune keeps his promise, he says he could not disappoint so many children. The plan worked.
Business with Mr. Keyune is not finished. He hands Mr. Mukasa and me the invoice. He is charging us a small fortune for his services. As I look over the costs I ask him to explain various line items. Rather than answer the question, he surprises me by saying, ‘Well, we can cross that one off. This one too.’ Invalid costs have no explanation apparently. He marks each amount in question with a big ‘X’. The remaining cost is close to the estimate Mr. Kaddu from Nile Ocean Cargo quoted me in America.
With over 2,500 books strewn throughout the library, the next days are busy for the library crew and chaotic for me. Namuli Hilda and I make time for tea with biscuits, as a matter of principal and peace of mind. Each book is stamped and sorted. Books not yet processed are cataloged, and master shelf and card catalog cards are handwritten. The formula for shelving a book in a manual library is time consuming and tedious. Before the 30th, every single book will be in its proper place. But until the inventory of reading material reaches its final destination, it will compete with other matters for attention.
The work in the library is continually interrupted by visitors. Villagers stop by to see if the library they are hearing about is real. Pupils stand by the gated doors and wait for me to stop working to receive their drawings and letters. Mr. Subi and Director Agnes stop by for impromptu meetings. Grandmothers come to greet me. Like Jjajja Nanjego. She is happy to find me in Kyanja again. She brings me a traditional mat and some herbs. ‘Jjajja’ is the Luganda word for grandparent. Jjajja Nanjego is a grandmother raising many grandchildren because 6 of her 8 adult children have died. Jjajja Alice, who has two orphaned grandchildren at Brain Tree, brings a rooster, a bag of avocados, and a pumpkin. I remember Jjajja Nsamba telling me that a (grown) child should burry the parents, but parents should never have to burry a child. Yes, I agree. For the Grandmothers who are holding Africa together, I will always have time to stop my work or take on more.
Miriam and Sylivia come several times seeking help. Both girls are graduates of Brain Tree and should be in Secondary School. Miriam’s mother died a few years ago and her father isn’t able to care for his family. Her little brother Dissan was ‘adopted’ by Brain Tree and he lives in the dormitory. Miriam’s father pulled her out of school and made her leave his home. She is 15 years old. Then there is Sylivia. She is from the first graduating class of 2002. She disappeared after graduation and we feared she was forced to marry at a young age. Instead, I learn, she was passed back and forth among family members and now finds herself out of school. She has parents but they are poor. Both girls have heavy hearts and plentiful tears as they tell me about their misfortunes. So many issues in their lives need attention, but their greatest wish and priority is to go to school. If Scholarship funds are available, the Directors of Brain Tree will supervise their admittance to Secondary School. But for now, the only thing I can do is acknowledge their losses, offer sympathy, and promise my best to help.
As I work, I reflect on all that this library is. It is a sanctuary of joy and sorrow, life and death, hope and promise. It is a meeting place, a chicken house, romper room, and fortunately for the duration of my stay, a perfect place to delight in hearing the children sing as they prepare for the opening day. This building will eventually house books, but for now it already holds a repertoire of life experiences.
The most dependable man I know, second to Solomon Mukasa, is Geoff Walukhu. He is on a mission on my behalf; to find a large wall clock for the library. When in mixed company, we use our code words ‘the round thing’ to keep the surprise alive. This timepiece will be a gift to the school on Opening Day. Geoff also makes sure the colorful Dewey Posters donated by Mrs. Holt from Shipley are laminated. Michael Ssebusolo and I hang them to the right of the library office door. To the left hangs the large canvas poster that was donated by Shipley Lower School a few years ago. It reads, ‘Today a reader, tomorrow a leader’. Florence Namwanje creates signs for the shelves and for the various sections of books; reference, classroom, picture, classics, fiction and non-fiction. The Shipley Quilt is hung on the front library wall. Newly purchased newspapers are hung on the periodical ‘ladder’ and a visitors’ book finds a temporary home in the dictionary stand by the front door. The signs are hung, the books are shelved. Windows are washed. Chickens are locked out. Boxes are removed and the floor is swept. The card catalog is placed on empty shelves to the right of the non-fiction section. The books still needing to be processed are placed on the shelves in the back of the library. Namuli Hilda will work on these after I leave. The tables and chairs are wiped clean and neatly arranged. We are almost ready.
There are six rows of shelves that wrap their way around the library. Along the back wall and up and down the center of the large room. They are six high. Since Brain Tree is a Primary School only the four bottom shelves of each section will be used for storing books. The top two shelves will be used for displaying special projects or books. Namuli and I pick out the most beautiful books and prop them up on the top shelves for the Grand Opening. The place looks incredible. It is an upscale library for any school in any country. And more importantly, the library is ready for the opening ceremony.
Finally it is Opening Day. Sunday July 30th. The day starts with a school tour. Parents, care takers, and visitors are escorted to each schoolroom. Every grade has prepared science displays or experiments. In Nursery, Angela stands on a chair behind a long table. On the table is a selection of items from nature. She is just a little thing and she speaks using memorized English. Angela says, “This is our nature table. These are things made by God. Living things and non-living things. Living things have life. Non-living things have not life.” And then proceeds to give the names of the living and non-living things in both Luganda and English.
One class showcases a diagram of a beaker and rain gauge on the floor of the classroom made with sand. It is about six feet long. Students take turns describing the parts and how they are used. Another class uses basins of water, plastic cups and candles to demonstrate the relationship between gases, pressure, heat and water. Cups connected with string are stretched across the classroom and adults are invited to whisper into the cups for a demonstration on how sound can travel. Another group of students display natural materials such as grasses and clay and the household items made from them.
The older students present more involved studies. Primary Seven pupils describe the technology of building a refrigerator that requires no electricity using the class fridge they previously built as their example. We also learn about the characteristics of mold. Pairs of Primary Six students test for starch in various food items and plant matter using iodine. Leaves are to be tested. The children show us how to first remove the chlorophyll. I am anxious as the leaves are boiled. The rickety old burner seems too eager to burn the tender finger tips hovering above it. My fear is not unfounded. The burner explodes just as the leaf is ready for the starch test. The teacher extinguishes the fire to my great relief. The proud students carry on paying no mind to anything other than starch testing. After all, these are the kids who use razor blades for sharpening pencils and machetes for cutting through the bush. As the experiment draws to its conclusion, two things are immediately clear to me; the leaf has no starch and funds need to be raised to purchase safe equipment for science. And old fashioned metal pencil sharpeners wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
The tour encompasses each classroom and both the girls’ and boys’ dorms. In the dormitories, there are lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. The living arrangements are clean and tidy. The toilets are luxurious compared to most local standards. Each bed is covered by mosquito netting. In the girls’ dorm, it is easy to see which one is Winnie’s. The little teddy bear is sitting on her bed.
With the sightseeing over, the most important event of the day unfolds. The Grand Opening of the Library. The crowd gathers on the library veranda and the overflow of people cascades on to the ground. I am in front of the gathering by virtue of the honor bestowed upon me. I am to officially open the library.
There is wrapping paper taped to the right of the door. My first official job is to tear this covering off and expose the surprise underneath. A simple job successfully done reveals a list of benefactors neatly carved into a square of granite permanently cemented in history. After the clapping fades, the returned calm opens up a quiet space for the next event. A pair of scissors is handed to me. I cut the ribbon that crosses the door and as it falls to either side, the excitement rises from the group behind me. This is the moment every one has been waiting for. The library is officially opened.
My right foot crosses the threshold and in an instant, all the relentless work of the past year vanishes. In its stead are completion, satisfaction, delight and joy. I am the first to sign the brand new visitors’ book. And though I have seen the inside of the library every day since I arrived, it truly feels like the first time. I can’t help myself from walking around and looking at every book, nook, and beautiful detail with awe.
“A real library’, is exclaimed. “This is like a University’ is spoken in disbelief. Along with statements of shock and pleasantries are sounds that seem to be unique to this part of the world. Just ask Joey. He loves the expression that Mr. Mukasa often uses as he swings his head from one side to the other; a declaration that is just a sound but says so much. There is true amazement on the faces of every visitor. I think they were expecting to see piles of old books lying around. But instead, they are astonished to see a real working library with no detail left undone.
We take our seats under the tarps after a thorough exploration of the library. The performances begin. The children sing, dance, and perform a few skits. Everything taking place on this day is in honor of the library. It doesn’t take long, however, to see how the Grand Opening brings us all together for Winnie. When the children are on stage, Winnie is often front and center either singing her heart out or dancing. She also has lead roles in some of the skits. Following an African tradition, visitors go to the stage and hand out coins, especially to her. Even when the rains are heavy. I realize that practically everyone in the audience makes this pilgrimage for Winnie. What I am witnessing is more than just an African tradition; these people are acknowledging Winnie, her loss and her spirit. I think this is what Desmond Tutu calls ‘Ubuntu’. David too, goes to her. He steps out from behind his camera, walks up to the stage and follows tradition on behalf of Winnie. Here we all are at this grand event celebrating the library and this outpouring of love for Winnie takes center stage. The effort this project took for so many months by so many people is immeasurable. What it brings to Winnie on this day alone, is priceless.
A guest of honor is the Honorable Namyalo Sauda. She is a Minister of State for Education in the Kabaka’s government. The Kabaka is King of the Buganda Kingdom. Uganda is a Democracy led by President Museveni, however the Kabaka is an influential presence for the largest tribe in Uganda. The Minister is a lecturer at Makerere University. She presents a small but powerful speech. The Honorable Namyalo Sauda reports that Uganda does not have a reading culture and yet, in order for Uganda to rise up and realize its potential as an African country in a global world, Ugandans must become readers. She tells us of a recent experience in which she asked her colleagues at the University to read an article. A few weeks later she called a meeting to discuss the article and learned that only 20% had read it. The explanation? Uganda is not a reading culture, not even at the University level.
Without a doubt this woman of stature is honored to be with us on this special day. It is difficult to get an audience with her and yet she made the time in her busy schedule for us, because of the library. She promises to tell King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II what we are doing in Kyanja village. She speaks of how important our work is for the whole country. The Minister makes reference to the long canvas sign hanging in the library that reads, ‘Today a reader, tomorrow a leader’ and concurs. Her appreciation is genuine and it is offered to everyone who supports Brain Tree.
The elders of the village come with sincerity and full hearts. They believe the library will change their community and country for the better. African elders hold the vision and wisdom in their communities. They are consulted about many matters in their village; their wisdom and opinions are highly respected. The elders were even consulted in 1994 when Agnes and Solomon Mukasa first thought about starting a school. The land that the school is built upon and where the library now stands came from Muzeeyi Ssalongo Lule, an elder who has now since joined the Ancestors. It is a solemn experience to hear the words that are spoken by the Elders of Kyanja. Their offerings are a testimony to a job well done; one with far reaching ramifications. Even the rain which is falling now, and has been since I arrived, is a good sign. According to tradition, when it rains the Ancestors are happy. From the children to the elders, from grandmothers to government officials, even the Kabaka and the Ancestors, everyone sees promise in Uganda because of Brain Tree Primary School’s new library.
The teachers, Directors and I hold the first official meeting in the library. It is Friday August 4th. We discuss how the library will be used by the school, graduates, teachers, and the village. The library will be opened to the community in the future. First Namuli must become confident in her abilities as the Brain Tree librarian. The school must become accustomed to the workings of a library. Learn the Dewey Decimal system. Even simply, how to take care of books and insure their safety. The following week each class will incorporate a regularly scheduled library period. After the meeting, Namuli and I sit together and I give her copious notes. I am leaving the library in good hands. Namuli is asked to report to me regularly. The day is over too quickly. A gracious send-off as lovely as the welcome sees me down the road and away from Brain Tree. One more day in Uganda is in front of me and then back to America.
Agnes Mukasa and her family changed the lives of orphans and children of poverty in Kyanja, Uganda when they started Brain Tree Primary School in 1994. Since that time, Agnes’s healing gift to the world has touched many of us. Our combined efforts of love and skill have made the Brain Tree Library such a magnificent achievement and a shared success. It is a masterpiece. Supporting Brain Tree Primary School is a labor of love and the type of endeavor that makes life worth living.