Saturday, April 13, 2013

Filling the Gap With Mission by Stan Allen

In this inspiring blog post, Nyaka supporter and volunteer, Stan Allen introduces us to "two teens on a mission." Enjoy the third installment of this four part series! And be sure to check in next Saturday for the final update.

I didn’t go with the light brigade today to Katumba, Nyaka’s sister school, to help give out more solar lights for a couple of reasons.   After yesterday’s exercise at Nyaka library, we decided to assemble the lights ahead of time, and consequently, I am not exactly needed for the simple activity of distribution.  But I hear that apparently the announcement that the solar panel could also charge cell phones elicited a similar response of delight as yesterday.  Also, I had a considerable amount of my own bagga . . . er, work, that came with me and I really had to do some.  So I set the computer up on the dining room table this morning and was making steady progress until I was evicted by my daughter, Emily.

I am now sitting at the coffee table in the living room looking into the dining area where Emily, the package I delivered to Nyaka (or as I told the students the first day, my present to them for the next 6 weeks) is sitting next to Allan, tutoring.

Emily is on a mission.  For that matter, Allan is on a mission too.  Emily’s mission is enabled by the gap year she has been plotting and planning since midway through senior year in high school.  She has managed trips to Michigan where she interned at Nyaka headquarters for 6-weeks, accompanied me for most of my 3-month sabbatical leave in Tasmania, Australia with a three week side trip to Sydney, and turned around and flew almost the same distance the other way to Uganda.  In between times, she has discovered the joys of road trips and included many of her friends, who entered universities already, as destinations.

In our home, Emily has earned the nickname “big heart” for her predilection for taking in strays (quadri- or bipedal), causes, and charities.  She stumbled on Nyaka – or was it fate? – through my colleague, Anu, who is on the Board for Nyaka.  I think the minute Emily heard about what Nyaka was doing, she fell for it.  They had her at “orphan.”  Nyaka is a particularly well suited cause to Emily’s gap year mission.  She loves kids, she loves travel (apparently, there exists a wander lust gene, and she inherited it), and she is interested in the world of NGO or charity in some incarnation, which is partly why she has chosen to start at George Mason University in Virginia in the Fall.  GMU is one of most multicultural schools I have ever visited, the biggest in Virginia actually, with curriculum choices to match, and a close proximity to Washington, DC that bodes well for possible connections to the NGO world.

Miss Big Heart is often mistaken for a pushover.  With a ready smile and genuine trust of people, her soft spoken personality belies a rather fierce resolve.  I have witnessed that on the soccer field, the basketball court, in her fund drives to sponsor a Nyaka student (she funding a student at Nyaka for the entire 8-year primary school period), and in her resolve to go to all corners of the world, at 18, fearlessly.  An example of her toughness.  She tore her ACL playing basketball, got it fixed, rehabbed, then tore her other one playing soccer, got it fixed, rehabbed it, and ended up defensive player of the year in her last two years at high school (the only two years when both bionic knees were functioning simultaneously).  The parents were skeptical about her going out on the field; Emily was resolved.

Allan’s mission, from another world, is at least as ambitious, as he sits there at the table where I was formerly working, Emily by his side.  I imagine – although I have only recently met him – that his pluck is as acute.  Allan is a young man, about Emily’s age, actually, who was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy.  A terrible affliction in any country, CP could be a fate worse than death in a developing country.  Living in a rural village with no services and sparse parental care, Allan is practically imprisoned in his own house.  Had it not been for the lucky coincidence that his village is but at the bottom of the hill from Nyaka, he might have been a social casualty of this congenital curse.

But he is near Nyaka, and this is where the story highlights Nyaka as a community resource.  I was under the mistaken impression that all students here were AIDS orphans, but the scope of admission is broader.  Every year Nyaka representatives scour the communities in a 4 km radius to flush out the most deserving 30 or so students for admission to Nyaka school.  They may or may not be a collateral victim of the AIDS epidemic but they all are potential victims of rural poverty.  Nyaka provides them with a way up.

Allan attended Nyaka.  He advanced through grade 8 but, because of immobility, is stuck there.  Stuck in his house, actually.  His mission now is to learn the computer.

While Emily came to Nyaka with a few assignments, probably none carry the significance of helping Allan become proficient on the computer.  For him, it’s starting not at the beginning, but remedially, before the beginning, as he only has complete use of one of his hands.  Under such circumstances, the keyboard is daunting.  The night before Allan’s first lesson here at the guest house – for which he has to negotiate the famous Nyaka highway, aka boulder strewn war zone, uphill and then be carried in to his seat by the table – Miss Big Heart was drawing out a practice keyboard for him to take home and practice his fingering.  Only, after the first lesson, it became clear he was one handed, so the next night, Emily went to the Web (it’s still amazing to me that we can do that even in the western boonies of Uganda) to find teaching models of one-hand typing.  Only, Allan has limited use of his pinky, so Emily further modified the one hand typing paradigm the next night – sort of an Allen modification for Allan.

The custom keyboard designed by Emily for Allen

Allan is delighted – no, ecstatic – to be learning computers.  He certainly sounds ecstatic to me in my exile at the coffee table, giggling when he gets gentle encouragement from his teacher, drilling in on the latest instructions from the instructor.  Allan’s spirit is indomitable; expectations are mountainously high.  Nyaka has shown extraordinary support for Allan.  Nyaka arranged to have Allan come to the US to get two operations to help him gain mobility and strength in his limbs.  Jennifer and Daniel have expressed unconditional willingness to have Allan ply his incipient computer expertise at Nyaka, teaching computer skills to students here, and perhaps Katumba too.

Without this fateful proximity to Nyaka, Allan’s life could have been quite sad.  Now, there is a possibility of acquiring a skill that could keep him content and productive for a long time to come.  To me, there seems a lot of pressure on both student and teacher, but as they giggle and chat and talk about semicolons and shift keys, they don’t seem to be feeling it.  Two teenagers from different worlds, on a mission.  It will be fascinating to watch the progress of this great experiment in human kindness.  That the beginning of this technical training is happening for one particular young woman in this particular gap year – well, how can it be more meaningful?  Allan may be just one of Emily’s missions for this gap year, but he may very well be her greatest one.

Friday, April 12, 2013

2013 First Term Secondary Student Update

First year secondary students!
Dearest Sponsors,

We are proud and honored to give you the report on our secondary school students, the students YOU have been supporting through your gifts, letters and encouragement!

YOU are currently supporting the education and future of 80 girls and 64 boys.

That's 144 students in total!


You are saving the future of hundreds of children. Thank you.

Click to enlarge and view Daphine's interview.
Every student had an updated photo taken and completed a new interview for you. Because of your important role in their life, you will have the opportunity to watch them achieve their dreams and live life at their greatest potential.

We hope that after you take some time to get to know your student, you'll take a moment to write them an encouraging letter.

Your student looks forward to hearing from you!

 And we are thrilled to welcome two new girls into the class, Amanya Bonietor and Sarah Rukundo. Thanks to YOUR sponsorship, they are now well on their way in senior five this year!

All of our students showed great promise on their beginning of term exams. A meeting was held with the students to share successes and challenges, and many students left inspired to continue their hard work!

Igabito at St. Gerards.

Never underestimate the value and impact YOUR encouragement has on YOUR students!

Denis on campus at Bishop Combon College.

YOU are helping them succeed every day!


You can give your friends and family the opportunity to be part of something extraordinary. Introduce them to students still waiting for someone like you by sharing this link to our photo album: 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Last week we met our volunteer Stan Allen. This week, hear more from his experiences with NAOP in the second installment of this four part series! And be sure to check in next Saturday for a third update! 

I expected to be idle, even bored.  And then, the light dawned – almost literally.

Between the time we arrived at Nyaka and our trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park a mere five days hence, I had nothing official to do at Nyaka.  Unlike Emily, who is increasingly involved with curriculum matters, I was the deadbeat.  What could I possibly do that would be useful in 4 days (Monday – Thursday)?  That changed when I was conscripted on Sunday by the new guests bearing the light.

Linda, the founder of the NGO, Fifty Lanterns International, arrived with her friend Kelly from Minnesota with 250 solar powered lights.  Linda and, Nyaka in-country manager, Jennifer – friends since meeting in Rwanda when Jennifer was running a refugee camp for Amercian Refugee Committee – had been conspiring for a number of years to get these solar power lights to Nyaka’s Grandmothers program.  Basically, the lights consist of ~10 x 10 cm solar panels that plug into a small rectangular LED light powered by a rechargeable cell phone battery.  Accompanying the basic package are two cell phone adapters so that the power cord from the solar panel can charge a cell phone.

The day after the light brigade’s arrival, they were scheduled to meet with some 90 Grannies, as they are called, to distribute these lights through the Nyaka Grandmothers program – conscript in tow.  In brief, this program trains Grannies in practical life skills and provides, on occasion, items that will enrich their lives.  For example, on my farm tour yesterday, I learned from the farm manager that his stable would have had more goats had most not been given away to Grannies.  Today, they were getting solar lights.

For the light brigade giveaway, we met at the Nyaka library, just down the war torn, boulder strewn road from the school.  When we arrived at 9:00, about 20 Grannies were already there sitting around and chatting, so we started to unpack, assemble, and test the lights.  As we did, more and more Grannies came walking down the last approach to the library – for all of the Grannies arrived on foot, decked out in colorful skirts, shawls, head wraps, and the like.  At one point, a dozen or so Grannies arrived and paraded by our preparation area, stopping by each one of us assembling lights and extending the most sincere, grin-filled, hearty greeting, usually beginning with, “Good day, suh” and a bow, both hands extended either for a hug or a double fisted hand shake.  “How are you?” or “Nice to meet you” was my reply, followed by the double entendre, “You’re welcome.”  It was a 5-minute period of cultural immersion the likes of which I have never experienced, and at one point, I actually had an out of body experience – transcendent.

After I alit, the assembled lights needed to be stuffed back into their boxes for distribution and brought into the assembly hall.  The lights were given out after Grannie names were called off of a roster by the Grandmother coordinator, each Grannie arising, being presented by with a solar light by either Linda or Kelly – in a manner akin to getting the MVP award for the local football team, and returning to their seat awaiting training.  After I finished my appointed assembly functions and clean up duties, for I had ascended from deadbeat to gofer – I took a seat in the back, actually a front row seat to this extraordinary play unfolding before me.

Linda began the training to a noisy hall, her English instructions and Rukiga translation made all the more inaudible by a seasonal downpour exploding on the tin roof of the assembly hall.  While the solar light was a fairly simple device, at least by western standards, it must have been more or less unfathomable to the Grannies, or at least some of them, because from the back of the room, I saw several struggling to figure out how to get the box open, which contained the now assembled solar lights.  Nevertheless, Martin, the associate coordinator for the Grandmothers program, took the stage and was doing an admirable job getting audience participation, asking that various parts be held up, with Jennifer roaming the audience for one-on-one tutorials as needed.

Still, as I watched from my front row seat, I sensed only a mild excitement for the advantage the new solar light would afford the Grannie household, providing portable light to an otherwise darkened house for who-knows-how-long into the evening when there may or may not be something to keep a light on for.

When the basic training was completed, the subject of the two cell phone adapters came up.  By that time, I had taken an intermission from the front row seats of the play and had wandered out on the patio – the rain had stopped – to chat with Richard, the Nyaka farm manager who had lost his goats to the Grannies.  As we made small talk, all of a sudden the assembly hall erupted in to a cacophonous cheer.  Did the local football team score a goal?  Oh, that’s right, there is no TV here.  I looked at Richard and he returned my puzzled look with a broad smile.  “They just told the Grannies that they could use the adapters to charge cell phones.”  Seemingly bored by the idea of evening light, the Grannies had gone ape over the possibility of charging cell phones!

They knew something I did not and this is when I learned about cell phones, or more specifically – cell phone charging, in developing countries, like Uganda.  I knew, of course, that cell phones usage was ubiquitous in even the poorest areas.  Some of the most advanced cell phone systems are going up in these areas because, of course, if you are going to install phone service, why would you do land lines, and if you are going to install cell phone service, you are going to use 21st century technology.  Look, for example, at mobile money, ubiquitous all over Uganda or the fact that even at Nyaka in remote western Uganda, I have no trouble uploading this blog from an Airtel modem.  What I had never considered, however, was that all those cell phones need to be charged.  And it seems that electricity is a far scarcer commodity than cell service connection.  That is why, even in Kampala, there is a market specifically for charging cell phones – sometimes by kiosk, sometimes by mobile charging stations.  A charge cost about 500 UGX, about 20 cents.

But the value of the “charging service” may well be much greater than 20 cents for the Nyaka Grannies because now they have something everybody wants, the essential basis of bartering.  “Can you pick up this medicine from the drug shop for me?  I will charge your cell phone.”  “I will charge your cell phone this week if you will apply another coat of mud on my house.”  “Can you cut that tree for firewood, for a phone charge.”  Or maybe power will come from the light, too. “Come to my house for the community meeting tonight.”  Ostensibly, light, in reality – empowerment.

I think back on the vulnerable parade of beautifully dressed and gracious Grannies parading by me and now think they must have dressed up because they essentially knew they would return, Queen of the Villlage, thanks to the charge of the light brigade and the Nyaka Grandmothers program.