Notre Dame sophomore Tess Bone is in the College of Arts and Letters, studying Dept. of Sociology/IIPS and Peace Studies. As a 2006-07 grant recipient in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), she is conducting a research project titled “The Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative: Methods and Lessons.” The UROP Program provides financial support to students who wish to engage in independent research, creative projects, or the presentation of their own research at conferences.
By Tess Bone (‘09)
We began the day at a beautiful African mass in a new Holy Cross Church in Jinja featuring the local language, Lugosa; beautiful singing; and a warm welcome by many parishioners and perhaps every child in the church. After mass, we received smiles and handshakes from all sides, so eager just to shake our hands and say that we were “most welcome.” I have never experienced so much raw friendliness or such genuine smiles that said how happy they were that we were there. We were very heartened to begin our day in such a special way before heading to St. Jude Primary School and Lakeview Secondary School. At both these schools I was struck by the intense natural beauty, the greenery, and Lakeview’s breathtaking view of Lake Victoria. However, I was also struck by the realities that exist for the students in these schools.
We were shown around by two Notre Dame ’06 grads named Matt Young and Clay Allison, who are teaching at these schools for a year and a half through Holy Cross and Notre Dame. We met another Notre Dame grad named Jessica Brock who was visiting from Western Uganda, where she teaches also. Walking around the campuses and hearing their stories was quite an experience. The joy they share with the children they teach was very apparent, but the difficulties the very young children face was tough for them as well. It is my first time in Africa, and though I had an idea of what to expect, it is still a shock to see firsthand the dirt-covered floors, the dark classrooms, and the overall lack of resources such as books and other study materials.
A few things resounded with me while visiting the schools. First, I noticed the facilities themselves: dark wooden structures filled with about 60 rudimentary desks per room. Clay told us that when it rains, half the kids can’t make it to school through the mud. Those students who do make it are disappointed when the teachers are forced to cancel class because the rain conditions on the tin-covered roof make it too dark to see and too loud to hear too, challenging even the most experienced teachers. Matt and Clay teach computer class, which entails 300 kids for 7 computers. The students cannot afford books, so everything is taught on the board; including computers. I was incredulous: how can somebody learn the vital skill of a computer through drawings of the screen on a chalkboard?
That was the first of many system-wide barriers to getting an education. The conditions themselves pose a challenge. The latrines (a hole in the ground), the “kitchen” at St. Jude’s that I only recognized as a pile of charred wood, and the two daily meals of porridge would be enough for most contemporary American students to give up completely. The girls’ dormitory at Lakeview had rooms the size of a Notre Dame two-person dorm room, but they had six sets of triple-bunk beds in each. A total of 18 people sharing the same small space, and compared to conditions at most other local schools, they are considered lucky! At that point I knew I’d never complain about dorm life again. Despite these challenges and the miles many walk to school, the children still desperately want an education.
Most don’t make it past primary school; they simply can’t afford it. Matt said that his class sizes drop considerably when school fees are due, and many never come back. How much is tuition for a school year? Three terms cost $15 for a total of $45. That figure probably shocked me the most. How many useless purchases have I made, that I cannot even remember, that would put a child through school here? It is sickening (and incites some guilt) to compare the conditions of these young children with the lifestyle and norms at Notre Dame, or any American school for that matter.
Brother Everest, a teacher at Lakeview, shared with me many heart-breaking stories from his experience, as well as the children’s deep desire and joy for learning. They understand, according to him, the life-and-death value of an education. One boy he told me about lost both his parents toAIDS, heaving upon his shoulders the huge weight of grief and the responsibility to care for his younger siblings. What can a 15-year-old boy do with no education, high unemployment, and no resources or opportunities? This type of hopelessness did not exist in my reality growing up in the United States. The hardest part is that when Matt, Clay, or Brother Everest see older students, the students almost always express their deep but futile desire to return. Quite a change from the homework-hating, school-dreading attitude back home.
If nothing else, this visit has given me a revived value of the opportunities we are lucky enough to have, and an appreciation for the strength of the people that face their dire problems with what has seemed to me such stoicism and hope. To see the huge congregation at mass, everyone dressed in their Sunday best, to hear the indescribable beauty of the drums and voices singing in their language, the sense of true celebration, I never would have guessed the difficulties they face daily. When I come back to Notre Dame, I will remember what I’ve had the incredible opportunity to see, and I hope to share some of the things we never see in the States. Every comfort and discomfort at Notre Dame is a blessing: every dorm room, dining hall meal, and yes, even finals week.