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.