Sunday, January 27, 2013

Helpful Harmony

You might remember that, a while ago, I recorded a CD.  My plan was to take any profits that I made off of it and to donate them to one or more charities, development organizations, and other groups focused on helping people in need.  Thanks mostly to the efforts of Mom and Dad (I had been in Uganda for several months at this point), and, of course, to the people who decided to buy one or more CDs, we sold quite a few of the copies that the recording company had sent to us.  Now, it has been a while since all of that happened, and, up until now, nothing has been done with the money.  The main reason for this delay is that I have not been able to make up my mind as to where the money should go.

Living and working on the ground in Uganda, it has become fairly easy to see the darker side of development – corruption, inflated administrative costs, projects that don’t work but continue to be funded, organizations that exist on paper but don’t actually do any real work (so-called “briefcase organizations”), etc.  Lots of organizations do great work, don’t get me wrong, but it is often very hard to be sure that all, or even most, of the money you’re donating is actually going where you expect it to go.  Going hand in hand with that, I have a responsibility to many people in this situation, to make sure that the money they have so graciously given me goes toward a worthwhile, uncorrupted cause.

So, let me say that, now, I have made a decision that will make use of most of the money we have available:

Patrick Muleeto is one of the sons of my Ugandan counterpart, Max.  He is about thirteen years old (though I’m not exactly sure), and the two of us have spent a decent amount of time together.  Pretty soon after I started working in Kalisizo, Max started sending Patrick over to my house to practice on my computer.  Now, Patrick comes over whenever he wants (which isn’t really all that much, considering I’m working most days and he is only home during school breaks), often waking me up on a Saturday or Sunday morning so that he can spend some time practicing typing and then playing around with the games, movies, and music that happen to be on the computer.  At this point, he doesn’t really need me to be watching over his shoulder anymore.  He turns it on, I type in the password, and then he’s free to do as he pleases.  Just last weekend, he spent over five hours doing stuff on the computer – he even found that Angry Birds game, which I didn’t even know was on there – while I sat nearby and read.  He’s a great kid.  He’s smart, quiet, polite, and has a lot of fun playing with his younger brother Emma (short for Emmanuel).

Patrick, taken on Christmas Day, 2011
Anyway, Patrick finished up primary school at the end of last year.  In Uganda, the school year follows the calendar year, and each year consists of three terms, with breaks in between.  Primary school has seven levels (P-1 to P-7), and, at the end of P-7, all of the students take what is called the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE), and your score on this test plays a large part in determining which secondary schools will accept you.  The exam tests four subject areas – math, English, science, and social studies – and you get a numerical score, ranging from 1 to 8, for each subject.  Lower numbers are better.  My guess is that a 1 or a 2 is about the same as an A in the USA.  Patrick’s aggregate score, which adds up the scores from all four subjects, was an 8, so he basically averaged a 2 for each subject.  This is very good.  Aggregate scores from 4 up to 12 are classified as “Division 1”, which is the highest level you can get.

Max and his family are Catholic, and Patrick has already decided that he wants to study to become a priest.  The academic progression to become a priest is also a little different in Uganda.  After primary school, students who want to become priests enter a seminary that corresponds to the first part of secondary school.  Secondary school consists of two levels: ordinary (“O”) level, which includes the first four years in secondary school (S-1 to S-4), and advanced (“A”) level, which consists of the last two years (S-5 and S-6).  So, the first seminary that Patrick will attend matches up with the O-level, and then he would move to another seminary that corresponds to the A-level.  Finally, he would finish up with two or three years at a more advanced seminary, which could be considered equivalent to the university level.

Sending one of your children to seminary is not cheap for the average Ugandan family.  Good secondary schools are not cheap either.  Patrick was accepted into this first seminary, and, last week, Max showed me the list of fees for the first term.  For the entire year, the total cost is probably going to be about $700, which is definitely a significant amount of money, especially for parents who have several children.  In most cases, if the family can find the money to do it, as many children as possible are sent to private boarding schools.  Unfortunately, these schools are far above the level of their public counterparts, which results in an educational system with significant inequalities across the country.  I guess this sounds similar to parts of the United States.

Anyway, Max and I were talking about these financial issues last Monday.  By the way, I think it’s a testament to our friendship that the two of us could talk openly about what I would consider to be a very private matter.  I am usually not incredibly comfortable talking about these personal issues, unless it is with someone with whom I have developed a strong relationship.  With Patrick entering this higher-level school, Max and Teddy (Max’s wife) are finding it difficult to keep many of their older children in these private secondary schools, and they were thinking about moving one of the girls to a local government (public) school.  As I said, this would be a major step down for her, and they know it.  As the conversation was winding down, I decided to throw out the idea that I might be able to help a little bit, maybe paying part of one of the kid’s school fees, maybe Patrick’s, for example, since we have spent the most time together.  Max was very happy to hear about this possibility, and said, “Oh, yes, it should be Patrick.  He loves you.”  Putting my head down and blinking back a few tears (as I am doing now), I said that I would need to do some checking to figure out how much I could contribute.

I immediately shot off an email to Mom, asking about the total amount of money we had received from the CDs.  Timing was almost perfect, because I had an answer within a few minutes.  It turns out that we should have a little more than enough to cover all of his fees for the next two years.  After running it by Mom to convince myself that it was actually a decent idea, I told Max the story about the CDs and let him know how much we could cover.  For now, we have agreed to only one year, and, as long as everything goes well and nothing crazy happens, we can easily add on the second year.

Of course, this isn’t what I had in mind originally, but I guess that’s how stuff usually works.  You have new experiences, resulting in new perspectives, which allow new opportunities and possibilities to present themselves.  This decision is certainly not a sustainable solution to the countrywide educational issues in Uganda.  A real long-term strategy would involve working to improve the quality of education in government/public schools, so that all of the country’s children have the opportunity for a good education.  But, right now, using what is available, this contribution can help to keep one more child in a better quality school and can help two parents to provide for all of their children.

Let me close with these thoughts: This contribution is not “mine”.  Many people have played a part to make this thing possible, and I want to thank all of those people – you know who you are.  As I said, this was not exactly my original idea, but it seems to fit.  A need is there, the resources to meet that need are also there, and the means to bring those resources here to meet the need are easily available.  Besides all of that, in my own personal journey (in both the physical and spiritual realms), it seems to be the right time for this to happen.  So, once again, thank you all for the important part you have played in making this thing a reality.

Oh, and of course, happy 21st birthday to my brother Luke!