Last October, I took my first trip to Africa. I was excited to join a group of American mothers with the UN FOUNDATION to witness UNICEF health programs taking place in Ugandan primary schools. I was thrilled that I would able to look into the faces of children I advocate for every day as a global poverty activist with RESULTS! For the entire span of my young daughters’ lives, I have stood up for children all over the world to have access to primary school and basic health care. I was elated to finally have the chance to witness the fruits of our aid in person.
When I boarded the plane, however, I was nervous about what I would find. Would I witness poverty so crushing that I’d be shocked into inaction? My friends told me that my life would change and the trip would open my eyes to how another part of the world lived. Yet I wondered, “What if it’s so depressing I can’t bear to continue my work anymore? What if I’m not really making the difference I think I am?” In fact, my journey did open my eyes in a fashion, but not quite in the way I expected.
One of our site visits was to Railway Primary School. Nestled among the slums of Kampala, Railway serves children deep in the clutches of poverty. Many of the students are AIDS orphans. It’s true that on the surface I did see conditions that have never even occurred to many Americans:
- 100 students to a classroom with only teachers in each class
- No electricity
- Only one source of water at the whole school for washing and cooking
A library with hardly any bound books. Most books were made by older students to teach younger ones to read
I admit that I would be outraged if my own daughters experienced this in our suburban school north of Chicago. Still, I suppose I was prepared to see this reality as related to me by fellow activists, expert speakers, and documentaries. Yet I found other things that I wasn’t expecting:
- Students divided up into multi-age “families” so they can look out for each other when they have no family structure at home
- Young girls and boys learning not just their colors and ABC’s, but singing songs about hygiene and reciting poems about how to protect themselves from pneumonia and malaria
- Hand-painted signs everywhere on the grounds assuring young girls their bodies are their own and reminding them about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and early sex
- A headmistress who came up with an innovative program to have girls sell crafts to buy school supplies to keep them away from sexual predators who trade pencils and notebooks for sex with 11 and 12 year old girls.
These experiences in the Railway classrooms expanded my ideas of the function of a school and what a teacher truly can be to a student no matter where in the world the student happens to be.
You see, as a global education advocate, I was always prepared with an armload of talking points about how kids need to learn so they can hold jobs and have opportunities in life. I could tell my members of Congress about how a girl who goes to school one extra year can earn as much as 20% more as an adult. Basic literacy could lift 171 million people out of poverty – a 12% cut in world poverty. However, literacy and economics don't tell the whole story. What I saw firsthand in Uganda taught me how important the other aspects of school are that I was taking for granted: health survival skills, self-respect, socialization, unity, and – yes – even love.
Many of the Railway students have no real caregiver and nowhere to go but the street because an uncle or aunt’s one room home is used for a business. Sometimes they have nothing to eat. But for the time they are at school, they are fed. They are cared for. They are busy and productive. They are respected. They are safe. The value of these things cannot be overstated for the development of strong, compassionate adults.
While it was important for me to witness poverty with my owneyes, it was critical that I left inspired by what incredible achievements are possible when we all work together across the miles. My eyes were indeed opened to the true value of school and teachers to children with so little. I’m grateful I met the children of Railway and several other schools who taught me so much. I returned to education advocacy joyfully and hopefully because I have seen their faces and I will not let them down.
If you would like to join me, consider one of these actions for Global Action Week:
Join the GLOBAL CAMPAIGN FOR EDUCATION-US CHAPTER to learn more about the need for global education
Make a DONATION TODAY TO RESULTS to support our advocacy to provide access to primary school to all children everywhere.
Look at their faces in this post. YOU can make all the difference in their lives.