Teacher of the Month – Ssemujju Nelson

There is no school when you have no teachers. When you think back on your own experience in school, isn’t it the teachers that come to mind as being most impactful? The teachers are the ones who tirelessly show up, pour into, mold, shape and water the seeds.

Our Get Schooled story continues as we work to support the new Kassanda Seed School. We are going to highlight a Teacher of the Month to give you a glimpse into the lives of our teachers and what it’s like to teach in Uganda. We hope you enjoy their stories and photos and consider joining us by financially supporting the hard work they do every day with the kids in the village as a huge act of service. Teachers in the smaller villages, like Kassanda, typically make $4 a day. To give you some context, it costs about $3.50 for a meal out, $20/month for rent (with no power), and transport to the school can cost anywhere between $1-2 per trip. As you can see, their daily wage does not go very far, especially if they have families to take care of. These teachers SHOW UP in every sense of the word, from 7am to 4pm and even on Saturdays, to care for, discipline and love these children. I want to honour them with a fair wage – they deserve it. Click on this DONATE TAB and it’ll take you where you need to go if you want to honour these people with us.

Have you ever met someone who is happy to do things in the background and never take any credit or glory for him or herself?

My friend, Nelson, is one of the most humble people I have met and Uganda and that is saying something in a country full of humble people. I have known Nelson for about four years and he is the same man today as he was then…always putting others before himself, letting others take credit and quietly leading in the background. I think the picture of a true leader is one who makes others look good, almost as if the ones following are the ones leading, while all the while, humbly taking a backseat and steering the course with gentle strength.

Ssemujju Nelson is married to a lovely woman named Nakalema Margaret, and has one child biological child and takes care of four orphans as well. His highest level of education is a diploma and a Grade III Level teaching certificate. He has taught for twelve years since 2008. The classes he likes to teach the most are P.3 and P.4 and his subject of choice is ‘Christian Religious Education’ (CRE) Geography, History and local languages. He is a natural teacher and loves to share with kids. He left his previous school to be here for the new beginnings of Kassanda Seed School and he is so proud to be part of it.

Watch Nelson in action here.

Nelson greeting the kids in the morning and getting them organized for the day
Nelson’s wife and kids
Nelson, Jacob and Vincent the day we set off on our bike trip.

 

 

Time to say good-bye

I slept pretty well on my last night under my mosquito net (pronounced mo-skwee-toe here). The woman who has been giving me excellent service, a young mom named Harriet, wanted to take photos together so we did that. We joined up with Kato, a young maintenance man who worked here last time I stayed here and remembered me, to take some photos on the terrace. Harriet was looking at all of them and only choosing the ones she looked the best in. J

After the photos, she said she wanted to show me something she was having trouble with. I am ashamed to say I rolled my eyes, thinking she was going to ask for school fees or something of the like. She took me into my room and opened up her blouse to show me a huge lump in her breast. She said it has been getting bigger for the past months and I was very concerned. She promised to go to the doctor as soon as she had enough money but was not sure when that would be. I prayed with her and we said our goodbyes. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how that must feel for her to have a young boy and to have her very life (possibly) dependent on if she could make enough (working from 7 am to midnight every day) to get herself to Kampala and to a clinic. I needed to help her. I only gave the equivalent of about $10 USD, but she was overwhelmed with tears, went down on her knees and sobbed, hugging me around the legs and wiping her tears on my pants. I don’t relay this story to make myself look good. I hope you all know that. I tell Harriet’s story because she became my friend and I care about what happens to her. She works her butt off for so little (and always with a smile, mind you) and it’s striking to me how much I take our healthcare for granted. We in Canada and the US (myself included) complain about that more than we should. Next time I am tempted to get frustrated about how long I have to wait for an appointment, or how slowly things move, I will think of Harriet and the gratitude she showed from such a tiny gesture when she might be facing breast cancer and not even know it.

Vincent called the hotel and left the message that he would be there to ‘pick me’ in about 20 American minutes (the term we both use when we are serious about the time). So, about 35 minutes later (J), he drove up, which gave me enough time to buy one last chipati and scarf it down. The hired van had been cleaned in anticipation of taking me (something they always do which is so nice and so unnecessary) to the airport and Mama Jane (Vincent’s mom) was inside along with Nelson and Jacob. They insist I sit in the front seat (which I really appreciate because I get carsick) and off we went. We stopped one last time at Kassanda Seed School and the kids went crazy, happy to see me again one last time. There were some new faces so I know the kids are slowly rolling in just as Vincent has said they would.

We had an uneventful journey to Jacob’s house near Kampala and I took in the familiar scenery and reminisced about our bike trip as my friends conversed in a language I don’t think I will ever master. I got to meet all of his children this time and my 18-year-old friend, Vicky was there to greet me, donning some fantastic extensions she didn’t have before. Jacob sadly had to head away quickly to bury a man he considered his father. I could tell that this was weighing heavily on him for the days leading up to now so I was happy to see him go.

Vicky really really really really wanted to show me her church and so she, her brother Sam and I walked the mile(ish) to get there. They asked questions about Canada, my family and shared about life in Uganda and the possibility of them ‘shifting’ (moving) to Kassanda. Like typical teens, they asked what there was to do there and were concerned about leaving their friends and the other opportunities that a larger city can offer.

After the youth pastor gave Vicky a hard time for not being in church for the last two Sundays, we headed home. It looked like it was going to rain, but I thought we could make it. We didn’t. It started pouring and my main concern was that I had intentionally chosen my most comfortable clothes for the long trip home and it all got soaked. We tried to run, but our shoes were so slippery and the roads so pitted with ruts and rocks, that we had to just walk. We were literally dripping wet by the time we arrived, and her mom was so worried and so sorry that I had gotten so wet. “Tewali buzibu, nnyabo” (no problem, madam) I tried to tell her. All Vincent could do was to laugh and say he was sorry. At least I had my bags in the van so I could change. So, with my hair dripping wet and sweating like a pig from the run up the hill, I climbed into the back of the van and found some clothes to change into. You know what it’s like when your skin is wet and you’re trying to get dressed? Yeah, that was happening. I burst out the van with dry clothes to, of course, find it had stopped raining. I’m sure if anyone had walked by to see a muzungu half-naked in a van, I would have been the talk of the town. Good thing for me that Ugandans hate the rain.

I was concerned that Mama Florence would want us back earlier because she was preparing a lunch for us of, you guess it….rice, matoke, and beef soup (a broth they pour over everything that has some chunks of beef with it). My friends here know by now that I don’t like matoke (saagala matoke), but they never fail to give me such large portions of that along with the other foods that I have to tell them to cut it in quarters and that would be enough for me. I still always have to give about half of it to someone else I’m eating with. I am amazed at how much Vincent can eat. He is a pretty small guy and he just told me that he first fills up his legs, then his arms torso and neck. By the time he finished his own meal and half of mine, he said he was full up to his eyes. J

They dropped me at the airport around 6 and although I knew they were in a hurry to leave to try to make it home in the most daylight possible (the potholes can take out your car in a heartbeat and they are hard to see at night), they all insisted on pushing my bags all the way up to the departure door and we said our good-byes there. I don’t know when I will come back, but I know I will see them again. I am now deeply invested in this country and it’s comforting to know I have friends all over the nation. As a side note of awesome, I happened to be on the same flight as the African Children’s Choir, the children whom we had met in Entebbe on Sunday last week. They remembered me and I was able to encourage their leaders and spend time with the kids before we boarded. I was seated right behind them on the flight and they even got up and sang a song to the plane. How great is that?

Tuesday in Uganda

Vincent had to travel to Kampala today to meet unexpectedly with a team about getting children heart surgery, so my friend, Nelson, was in charge today. I am not sure if you remember reading about him, but he is the humble man who took in four orphans and works closely with Vincent…the one who fed us delicious jackfruit in his home when we were here last time. These guys are very protective of me and I know I am in capable hands. The only way we could get to the school was by boda boda – the motorcycle taxis and they knew I was not too keen on that. I’m not sure I can think of much worse than having a motorcycle accident in a small village in Uganda. So, they have a friend named Jared who is a boda driver whom they trust very much, and I agreed. He showed up with a brand-new helmet because he didn’t have one before, and I was again humbled by the care and concern my team over here shows me on a daily basis. They instructed him (as did I) to go mpola mpola (very slowly). Well, I’m not sure we could have gone much slower without falling over. Jared took such care and I felt very safe going the few kilometers to the school. I left him a ridiculous tip because of the helmet, and he left with a smile to go do his job until we called him back to ‘pick us’ at 4pm.

Now there were six teachers and an administrator so I can see how the staff is slowly filtering in, but it was still so strange to me to see children sitting there in their classes with no teacher. I cannot imagine students being so well-behaved and actually staying in class, when there is no one there to teach them. The kids sang songs for me and I passed out some small gifts that my school had provided in the form of coloured pencils and some toy wooden cars. I was thankful we had enough for everyone. I couldn’t bare the thought of the kids just sitting there all day with not much to do until their teacher arrives, so I passed out paper and they all drew pictures and signed their name and age so that I can take the pictures home to my office and remember them (as if I can forget). The toy cars were s huge hit and many of the boys wanted one that resembled a van as that is the form of taxi here in Uganda. They said they wanted to be a ‘driva’ (driver) when they get old enough. I encouraged them to aim higher than that now that they have such a good school.

One of John’s cousins also had sent some skipping ropes along for the new school, made by her Grade 4 class out of old t-shirts. I can’t tell you how much fun they had and how they share so freely with each other. Even in large groups when they have two people turning the rope, each child only jumps four times and then goes out for someone else to have a turn. They are like this in every area of their lives. They really do take care of one another and it doesn’t matter if you are a friend, a relative, a stranger. They share what little they have; they make sure everyone can play; they include each other. I really admire that about this culture.

After a lunch of kawunga (posho) and bijanjaalo (beans) that I ate with my hands (new experience for me), Nelson and Jacob took me to see the water source used by the school. I knew it would be bad, but I was not expecting it to be as horrible as it actually was. It was about 2 kilometers away, first of all, and downhill…not so bad when you are fetching water and your jerrycans are empty. The source itself was not much more than a rancid pond, covered in scum with cranes and cows nearby also using (TBH – pooping in) the same water. It was disgusting. And dangerous. Not only can a child fall into the water while filling a jerrycan because they have to lean in so far or just step right into it, but there are also tomato plants surrounding the swamp that are treated regularly with toxic insecticides. The children of the school fall sick on a shockingly regular basis with typhoid. As we trudged back to the school with the sun beating down, I imagined children doing this with jerrycans in tow, full of dirty, toxic water, and again wondered at the resiliency and fortitude of the Ugandan people. They never complain, do hard things with a smile and don’t ask for much. This, for me, is what makes it so easy to give. I take everything in my life for granted so often. I’m ashamed to admit that I even asked John to replace my kitchen sink while I was gone because of the bad water pressure.

After school, we went to Vincent’s house to say goodbye to his girls, heading back to school in nearly Mityana. His children have become like my nieces and nephews and I will miss them even more this time. Mama Jane (Vincent’s mum) was also there, weaving mats to make money as she can no longer tailor because of the painful build-up of water on her knee. She is always a delight and this time, she made for us some mats with our names on them. Wow – I can’t even imagine how she did this. She made five of them for various people at home she wanted to appreciate, and I will happily deliver them. She is 61 years old and I know for me, my sight started to decline at 40 so I asked her if she could see very well. She said, “Not so good.” I asked if she would be willing to try on my glasses and she was shocked at the difference they made so I gave them to her. She was so happy that now she will be able to read, write and weave more easily. She is not used to them, so she kept forgetting to put them on. J

I went to bed feeling more content as tomorrow I start my way home, but I was reflecting on my time here. In some ways, I feel it was too early to come back. I realized I still have not processed our bike trip completely and my mind and body were not prepared to come back so soon. But my heart? Now that’s a different story. This is how Africa gets you… the laughter, the tears, the images, the sounds…it stains your heart like the red sand penetrates your clothes and shoes, getting in so deep that you cannot wash it away. And then you come to realize that you don’t really want to.

Back to School

Monday’s blog – Back to School

There is a teacher / head master in Kampala who is a dear friend of Ssenyonga Vincent named Kinyinji Cossy, but I call him ‘funny man.’ We first met him at my 50th birthday party after our ride was over and he is intelligent, engaging, generous and yep, you guess it – hilarious. He offered his expertise to us as we are at the beginning stages of managing the school and he came all the way from Kampala in the rain (not an easy feat as some of you know) to meet with us, talk to the parents, and help us with the budget. While we waited for him, Vincent and I made an application to EMI, a non-profit in Canada that helps with projects such as these by providing engineers, surveyors, architects, etc. to create plans and a phased system of building. They work in Uganda already so we are very hopeful.

So, altough we planned to go to the school in the morning to meet the children and teachers, the rain delayed us, but we were able to get there around 2 pm after sharing a lunch at a local ‘restaurant’ that was really just a concrete room with cooks outside. (I ordered muchere {rice} and bijanjaalo {beans} as that is about what my pallet can still handle at this point.) The teachers and parents/caregivers were patiently waiting for us under some tents that kept off the rain while the kids were playing on their new swing set, running around and staring at the ‘muzungu,’ which I am sure some of them have never seen. There were many speeches and Cossy had them in stitches as per usual with him when he gets in front of a crowd. I got up and greeted them in Luganda and their eyes visibly widened in shock as they quietly laughed and shared surprised glances with each other. I spoke to them about the meaning of the new name we chose – Kassanda Seed School (we had to drop the Academy part because in Uganda, that can only be used for schools who train students in a sport such as football, netball, etc.). I encouraged them to nurture the seeds, water them and to ensure the weeds and struggles don’t come to discourage them from cultivating their children. I told them of the trees in BC whose roots are intertwined and that is where they get their strength when the storms come and that their community is their root system. I hope they understood.

After the speeches, they had a question and answer time but because I had no idea what anyone was saying, as usual, I wandered to each class to see what was happening and asked about the number of students as it seemed there were not as many as expected. Here, many things can delay a child, and even a teacher, from showing up on time. Many of them will filter in throughout the week as harvesting is concluded, they scrape the fees together if they can, etc. The lady whose house we built (I just call her Jaja, meaning Grandma) travelled at least five miles on foot just to have her children attend this school. I was shocked and greatly humbled once again.

The night ended with a budget meeting. Vincent had put together a list of all of the items needed for the school and their cost and he wanted Cossy to look over the budget and offer feedback. Things were going to be more expensive than Vincent originally had thought, and I could see the strain on his face as we got deeper into the meeting. To be honest, I also felt rather discouraged after the meeting that went late into the night. The needs here are enormous. I’m talking almost unbelievable. We finalized the meeting with a TOP TEN most needed things: a clean water system (a temporary filter), salaries for the teachers and the gateman/cook (some have not been paid for two months), food, textbooks (they buy class sets and then sign them out), solar lights (there is no electricity here…yet!), uniforms for students and staff, cooking materials, classroom materials, and a means of transport such as a motorcycle to get supplies, transport teachers, run errands, etc. and a water tank to collect rain water (to me this goes with the #1 priority on the list – the clean water).

I am feeling a great amount of pressure and I don’t know if I will sleep tonight.

Family Time

I slept pretty well with my pepper spray under my pillow and the fan I requested blowing directly on me all night. Although my room is small, it’s good enough for me and at $12 per night, you get what you pay for. I can’t complain. I am safe. The staff know me and take good care of me and I got the quiet side of the hotel this time. J

Jane came to ‘pick me’ for church around 11:30 and it was so meaningful to walk into a church where I recognize the faces of most, and they are happy to see me. Ugandans are always very honouring of guests and so my seat was in the front once again, facing sideways so I can feel the eyes of everyone on me as they very rarely have muzungus come this far into the village and away from the larger centres. I made one toddler scream in terror, and hide her face in her mom’s dress, but I have come to expect this and just take it in stride, greeting everyone with the typical eyebrow raise and head tilt that quickly becomes a habit when I’m here. This trip, I have also found myself speaking Ugandan English and with their accent because they find it so much easier to understand. I only need remember to turn it off when I’m speaking to whites – trickier than you think.

Vincent’s children all stayed back from their first day of school (Monday) to see me and spend time with me and I really got to know them a bit better this time. I was asking Stephen, the seventeen-year-old, about girls and if there was anyone special back at school. I wish you could see his face. Of course, we cannot see blushing on their dark skin, but his smile told me what I needed to know and I teased him throughout the day and we had fun with it. They did a special dance and when it was time for everyone to dance, instead of looking like an idiot in the front while everyone stared at a white girl trying to dance (can you imagine), I moved my way back to Vincent’s family and danced with them as they taught me their moves and I tried to keep up. I was sweating through my clothes by the end of about 30-40 minutes of dancing and for the last 20 minutes, I was holding one of the grandchildren of the lady we went to see yesterday. Who ever thought that worship time could be a workout. I spoke a brief word of thanks and a story from last week’s ministry time. I greeted them with Katonda akuwe omukisa (God bless you) which made them all laugh and clap. I’m telling you this – learning some of the local language for out bike trip and keeping it fresh in my mind has made 100% of the difference in my ability to reach out to people on this trip. They are so surprised at first and then seem hounoured that a muzungu would go to the trouble of learning a few things in their language. It has opened doors that would have remained closed and I’m sure helped me avoid threatening situations at times just because I can greet them and say things like tewali buzibu (no problem).

Various people got up to give testimonies and I saw the lady whose house we built go to the front holding a live chicken. “Oh, man,” I thought, “What if that is for me? How do I hold a chicken and what is appropriate for what to do with it? What if it flaps or pecks me and I freak out in front of everyone?” Sure enough, she sweetly shared about the changes that her new house has made in her life and the lives of her children and then walked over and placed that chicken right on my lap. I was struck with the immense privilege to live the life I am living and be here at this exact moment to receive a live chicken from a woman in Uganda whose name I cannot pronounce. Who gets to do that? I am so grateful. Thankfully, after a few minutes someone came and took the chicken from me and set it on the floor by the stage and there it happily stayed for the duration of the service.

After the three-hour service, we walked to Vincent’s house for the typical Ugandan lunch of boiled chicken, rice, matoke, greens, Irish potatoes, and soup (a bowl of beef broth with a piece of meat in it that you pour over your entire plate). They always heap your plate so high that I told Vincent I would eat what I could and then we gave the rest to one of the children. We took a bunch of photos and the children that are getting sponsored for 2020 wrote thank you letters and I tried to show them photos of their sponsors from Facebook. They really loved that and took much time to write their sweet letters that I will bring home.

It was like I spent the day with family. What a privilege.