What can I tell you about my experience in Kitgum District of Uganda? I’ve tried about half a dozen times to write this article and to reflect on what the experience meant to me, but so far every attempt falls short. I was going to tell you about how it felt to be the only white person I saw for five days (how all of the children would shout “Munu!” – white person! – when I walked by, and how they’d peer in my bedroom window while I tried to nap, like I was an exotic zoo animal), and then I was going to talk about how this trip felt different from my other visits to Africa, and then I thought I’d start by reflecting on how complicated it feels to be white, relatively wealthy, and a representative of colonization in a place like Uganda and still walk with consciousness and humility… but all of those attempts make this story too much about me and what I really want to tell you about is the school that was the primary reason for my visit.
Laker Memorial School in Kitgum District, Uganda, is the school my friend Nestar started five years ago and which I have been supporting financially for almost that long. What I learned on this visit is that it is named after Nestar’s mom, Laker, a strong and courageous woman who believed in educating children and who worked hard to raise school fees for her children despite the many obstacles life threw in her path (ie. they had to flee their farm when her children were still young because the rebels had attacked their region, and she became a single mom when her husband died a few years later). Though the school is currently housed in a temporary facility that was never meant to be a school (they had to cut windows into the classroom walls so that the children would have fresh air), Nestar’s dream is to some day build a new school on the land that her mother owned.
Though Laker Memorial School is primitive by western standards (there are few textbooks and no computers, the paint is peeling off the classroom walls, and all of the teaching aids are handwritten by the teachers), it was clear to me as soon as I visited that the level of education is high, that there is a strong commitment to fostering excellence in the children, and that the leadership of the school has passion and a vision for the future. On the first day I visited, I heard some beautiful music drifting out of one of the classrooms and I went to investigate. When I was invited into the classroom, I discovered that the school choir was practicing their school anthem, which had been written by the head teacher (who was delighted to share it with me). They were singing in four part harmony – at a higher quality than any school choir I’ve ever heard in Canada.
During that first visit, I also had a chance to visit the school kitchen, a small lean-to hut behind the main school building where the school cook was stirring a huge pot over the fire. I was in awe of the muscles and agility required to stir such a pot AND the fact that she was doing it barefoot, just inches away from the fire. (Note: providing school lunches is one of the ways a school like this attracts students – because then the children get at least one solid meal every day.)
A couple of days after we arrived, I was welcomed as the “chief guest” at the kindergarten graduation. I was imagining the kind of small-scale graduation ceremonies my children had when they completed kindergarten – where parents perch on the edges of tiny chairs in the kindergarten classroom and the children wear paper mortar-boards they’ve made in class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a full-day celebration that included much music and dancing, a huge feast, a spelling bee, a drawing contest, and many speeches from dignitaries (including myself). It was a joyous day and I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time when the women invited me up to dance and I proved to them that a white woman’s hips just can’t shake the way a Ugandan woman’s can.
I don’t use the word “awe” lightly (my dad taught me well about the overuse of superlatives), but I am truly in awe of what has been created in just five years at Laker Memorial School. The vision of Nestar and the people she has gathered around her in support of the school (including several of her siblings who serve on the board) is spectacular. It is no easy feat to create a school (and the foundation that supports that school) out of nothing in a remote part of Uganda, where people still struggle from the after-effects of 20 years of civil war, and then to grow it from a couple of dozen students in one grade level to 250 in 8 grade levels in just five years. Nestar does much of the fundraising herself (she sells homemade jam in markets in the Netherlands, where she now lives), and together with her husband Ed, runs the non-profit for next-to-nothing so that all donations can go directly to the school. (And, it should be added, she does all of this while raising four children.)
While I was at the kindergarten graduation, seated with the other special guests, I had the opportunity to chat with several local politicians and community and church leaders from the region (including the school inspector). What I heard from all of them is that the school is developing a strong reputation not only in the Kitgum District but across Uganda for quality education and excellent teachers. It was clear from the way that they spoke of it that they too are impressed with what Nestar has managed to create and the quality of people she has attracted to serve in school leadership.
To give you a sense of who Nestar is and what she brings to the school and the children being educated there, I want to share a little story of a tiny moment that represents so much more of what I witnessed in my time with her. During the spelling bee, when kindergarten students were taking turns spelling the words read by the teachers, she took aside one of the boys who had failed to spell his word. “Don’t ever be afraid to try,” Nestar said to the young boy, leaning over to look him in the eye. “You might fail, but at least you tried, and trying is always the first step to succeeding.” She spoke from her own years of experience, having tried a big and bold thing in starting a school, knowing she could have failed.
If Laker Memorial School produces even a handful of young leaders, like Nestar, who lead with compassion, vision, and humility (and I’m certain it will do more than that), then the world will be a better place.
Over the years, I have helped raise money for classroom furniture, textbooks, and, most recently, the construction of a latrine to increase sanitation at the school. Many of you, my readers and friends, have been generous supporters of this school along with me, and I thank you for that. I can assure you that your donations are going to a very good cause and that every dollar is being well spent. I hope that you will consider continued support (you can do so on UKEF’s website) and that perhaps you’ll even consider making a monthly donation.
These children have hope for a better future because this school exists.
Note: Please read all the way to the bottom to find out how you can participate in a special anniversary project and be entered to win a prize.
Ten years ago, I started my first blog. It was called Fumbling for Words, because I am a passionate gatherer of words and am always fumbling for the right ones to articulate the complicated things that show up in my brain. And I really, really wanted to find the right words that would connect me with people because, even more than words, I love people. And I love meaningful conversations that connect me to those people.
In the beginning, there was a very particular reason for my blog. I was preparing for my first trip to Africa, a trip I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. I was traveling there in my role as Director of Communications for the non-profit organization I worked for at the time. Though I was delighted with the opportunity, the reason for going complicated the trip for me. I didn’t want to arrive on African soil as a “donor” meeting up with people who were “recipients“. That created too much power differential for me. I wanted to arrive as an equal, a story-catcher, and a listener.
I thought a lot about that, and when I think about things a lot I write about them. Writing is like breathing for me – it helps me exhale what doesn’t serve me and inhale what I need. Here’s an excerpt from my very first blog post.
Will African soil welcome me? Will the colours be as rich as those in my dreams? Will the zebras and lions gaze at me knowingly with eyes that say “we knew you’d come some day”? Will it make me feel hopeful or sad? Or both? Hopeful that this world is a vast and intricate thing of beauty and there is so much more space for me to grow and learn. Or sad that somehow I have hurt these beautiful people by my western greed and western appetite.
I won’t preach from my white-washed Bible. I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me.I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
That trip changed me, as did subsequent trips to other parts of Africa and to India and Bangladesh. Each trip cracked me open in both hard and beautiful ways. They fueled my love of stories and ignited my passion for meaningful conversations that connect people across the barriers of race, gender, language, and class.
When you travel with an open heart, you have an opportunity to look deeply into your own heart to examine your privilege, your prejudice, your preconceptions, and your understanding of power. Traveling to Africa caused me to question how the seeds of colonialism had grown, unbeknownst to me, in my own heart. What subtle things do I do in relationships because I assume I have a right to this privilege? What ways do I take for granted that I am entitled to power? And in what ways am I uncomfortable when people assume I have power that I don’t feel I have?
When I came home from Africa with the responsibility of sharing stories with Canadian donors about where their money was going, I did my best to offer dignity and respect to each person whose stories I shared. I was determined not to use images that branded people as helpless victims, and the stories I told were always about their resourcefulness and ability to thrive even in difficult circumstances. But still… there was always a restlessness in that work, because I was always telling stories for the purpose of raising money rather than sharing stories as a way to build bridges, change paradigms, and find mutual healing.
That work served as a catalyst for me to dig deeper and deeper into what it might mean to build healthy relationships and host meaningful conversations across power imbalances and racial divides. My ongoing inquiry brought me to The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting. The circle, I am convinced, is the best place to start. The circle invites each person in each chair to bring themselves fully into the conversation, to serve as leader and listener, change-maker and healer.
As I reflect back over my ten years of blogging, it’s clear that I keep circling back to the same inquiry that ignited my first blog post and that brought me to the circle. In the 1521 posts I’ve written, and in the work I now do, this question comes back again and again.
How do I create safe space for meaningful conversation where barriers are removed and real growth and change can happen for all of us?
This question took me deeper and deeper into this work, inviting me into more and more challenging conversations and situations. It led me away from that non-profit job into self-employment, it helped me build relationships with people all over the world who are hosting conversations like this, and it led me again and again back to the circle. This blog became a kind of virtual circle, inviting people into the conversation.Collectively, those of us who have gathered here (and on connected social media) have been having meaningful conversations, removing barriers, and encouraging each other to change and grow.
Together we have been learning to live more authentically, more courageously, and more compassionately. We’ve stretched ourselves, we’ve shared grief stories, we’ve celebrated together, and we’ve grown our relationships.
As I look back over 10 years of blogging, I look back to where it all began – back to that place where my tender, open heart, was ready to be stretched and changed, and ready to be in relationship with people who would change me. You, my dear reader, have stretched and changed me, just like those people I met in Africa. For that I am deeply grateful.
Though I haven’t been back to Africa since I left that job, it continues to hold a place in my heart. It’s beautiful, yes, and I’ve met amazing people there, but I think the piece that keeps calling me back is the opportunity to peer into my own privilege and to dive in to relationships that help me grow.
These things are also possible here at home, and I’m finding more and more ways to engage with this inquiry right here where I live, where the most challenging issue is the way that we as descendents of the European settlers have separated ourselves from the First Nations people through colonization and margnalization. I am seeking to understand more about the intersection between power and love and how we can build bridges by understanding both.
When my business (and blog reach) was growing earlier this year (thanks to you), I knew that I needed to use whatever influence I have for good, beyond my own income. I wanted an opportunity to support people with access to less privilege than I enjoy without allowing my support of them to contribute to the power imbalance.The best way that I knew to do this was to let someone from within that community take the lead, someone who was stepping into her own power and was already working to serve a more beautiful world. I didn’t need to look far. My friend (who’d been a youth intern on my team for a year while I worked in non-profit) Nestar Lakot Okella had started a school in the village where she grew up in Uganda.
Because I already have a high level of trust in Nestar’s ability to lead and be a change-maker, it didn’t take much for me step alongside as an ally in support of Uganda Kitgum Education Foundation. I hosted my first fundraiser in celebration of my birthday in May, and with your help, my dear readers, we were able to send more than $2000 to the school. Since then I’ve been sending a portion of the proceeds from programs such as Mandala Discovery and The Spiral Path.
This past week, I received a set of photos from Nestar and they brought tears to my eyes. They were very simple photos of men making chairs, but they meant so much.
Nestar’s note said: “I wanted to share pictures we got from Kitgum. We are able to order 125 chairs and 125 tables and 1 bookshelf for every classroom. All the items are being made locally in Kitgum, so the local community can also benefit from our school project through the jobs created.
“Thank you for your contribution which has partially made this possible. No more learning on the floor for our students next year, YES! :)”
It delights me to no end to imagine the children returning to their classrooms after their winter break ends in January to find out they now have chairs, tables, and bookshelves in their classrooms!
Today, as I celebrate 10 years of blogging, it seems beautifully appropriate that what started as a way to capture my stories of Africa has brought me full circle to this place where I can use my blog as a platform to support the learning and empowerment of young people in Africa whose school was started by a leader from their own community. Some day I would love to be in relationship with the students of that school, not as a benefactor to beneficiaries, but as co-learners and co-creators, working to make the work a little bit better.
And that brings me to my special anniversary campaign.
I want to continue to support the education of children in Uganda AND I want to support my own dream of taking my writing to a broader audience.
I love the idea of us learning and growing together in separate parts of the world. I imagine myself sitting in one of those blue chairs in a circle with them, each of us stretching and growing into our capacity, reading books and writing books and learning to be loving, powerful change-makers and leaders.
This is where you come in. I want to invite you to support my 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project:
The students at UKEF need textbooks. Nestar tells me that there are only one or two textbooks for each classroom and they want to buy more. A textbook costs approximately $12.50, so it wouldn’t take much for us to buy enough for every one of the 300 children at the school.
I intend to publish a book in 2015. As many of you know, this has been a long held dream of mine. I completed what I thought would be my first published book two years ago, but I set it aside when my mom died and then it never really felt like it had evolved into what it was meant to be. The book is now evolving into one called “Circling around to this” and it will be the story of how I’ve been growing into the question above and how it has led me to circle, labyrinth, mandala, and spiral. (Who knows… I might even visit Africa on a future book tour!)
If we are able to raise $7500, there will be enough to buy textbooks for all of the students AND I’ll have most of what I need to publish a book.
If this blog (or my newsletters or any of my writing) has touched you in any way in the last ten years AND you believe all children should have access to education, there are two ways that you can support this dual fundraising goal:
Make a donation using the form below. Half of all money donated will be sent to UKEF for textbooks (or for whatever else Nestar decides the money is best used for – I am determined to let her and the school leadership make the best decisions they need to make without this becoming donor-controlled). The other half will be set aside for the publishing costs associated with getting my book into print.
To make this a little more interesting, I’ve put together a prize package. At 5 p.m. central on Friday, December 19th, I’ll pick a name from all of those who have contributed, and one lucky winner will receive the following (total value $204 + shipping):