The first time I went to the Luigi Giussani High School and received an official tour it was clear to me that the mission of AVSI and all of our friends here is alive there. The school acknowledges the humanity of each student in everything from the structure of the building to teacher relationships. Schools around the world could learn from their philosophy, but particularly in Uganda, where they are an anomaly. Every teacher I have spoken to (and there are many because my research involves teacher interviews) emphasized that the other schools consider punishment to be the only road to learning. Instead, when a student enters LGHS they walk into a bright mango-colored entrance hall — the size and color intentionally signs that all are welcome. From there they meet teachers with whom they can have a “free and open” relationship, as opposed to one of fear.
After my tour, I had breakfast with three students and one teacher who shared their experiences of being at the school. Like the women of Meeting Point International, they were signs to me of a seemingly impossible rebirth. Gladys even said, “I was born at the age of 14 (when I started at LGHS) because that is when I started living”. Each one pointed to Christ as the reason for the change in their life, but first they pointed to their relationships with their teachers. “That first day a teacher gave me a smile that made my knees go weak. No teacher had ever smiled at me or asked me what my name was,” said Gladys. She goes on to share that these teachers want to educate their hearts before their minds. Anita (who is much younger) had a sense of this, as well. She told us, “If I am educated it’s not only about books, but also, I discover my talents. I discover who I am”.
And again Vincent affirmed this sentiment; “They educate us about who we are and what is the meaning of life”. First, the school addresses the humanity of the students — their heart, their identity. From this education of the heart, flows a greater willingness to learn. The school does not punish like the other schools and yet their students learn and behave, for another reason. Betty is an English teacher who explained that her relationship with her students is in some ways like a parent or a friend. She said, “There are times when your students are showing you they need something else and humanly you have to see that”. As I prepare to teach in September, I am learning so much from these Ugandan friends and what it truly means to educate.
At the heart of my experience in Uganda is the experience of over 2,800 women living in the slums of Kampala, who have started a new life after meeting Rose Busingye — affectionately known as Auntie Rose. Auntie Rose is a nurse who like many others sought to medically assist the population of HIV-positive women fleeing violence in the North. Many of these women come from the Acholi tribe and this fact combined with their illness made them generally unwelcome in Kampala. Today one of the worst slums in the city is named the Acholi Quarter and it is just on the edge it that I met the women of Auntie Rose.
When Auntie Rose discovered that many of the HIV positive Acholi women were selling the medicine that could keep them alive, she wanted to understand why. She realized that these women lacked any concept of the fact that they are valuable — and so why bother with this life that has caused them so much pain? In her own words, Rose describes a different position in front of life: “I am not defined by my limits, but by my personal relationship with God who makes me and makes me as an infinite desire of Him.” She understands that she is infinitely valuable.
Rose founded Meeting Point International to affirm that these women also have value, they are loved, and they can be happy. And they are so happy! I went with a group of six or seven others to meet the women and about 100 of them welcomed us with shouts and (literally) carried us into Meeting Point, where they had prepared multiple songs and dances to express their joy and welcome us into it. Their traditional Acholi dances were beautiful and impossible to imitate, but incredible to be surrounded by. When they sang, I was especially moved by a song recounting the individual sufferings they have faced, but always returning to the refrain of “Rose Saved Me”. Life is still difficult, but as one woman shared she was “reborn—given a second life” when she met Rose and realized she was not worthless. That same woman kept repeating over and over “that is enough”.
Since its founding, Meeting Point International has grown to support the HIV affected men, women, and children (in particular the orphans) throughout the four slums of Kampala. From the starting point of friendship and belonging, Meeting Point has three main objectives: to assist those suffering from HIV/AIDS, to alleviate poverty, and to promote all levels of education. The Luigi Giussani Schools (where I spend much of my time) is a fruit of the work of Meeting Point and the desire of Rose’s women to have a school that shows their children that they have value too. Another focus of Meeting Point is supporting the small business ventures of the women. These are just a couple of the many ways Meeting Point has offered a community for growth.
The form of support is somehow secondary to the love and affirmation Auntie Rose relentlessly gives. The sufferings of “Rose’s women” are some of the most painful experiences I have ever heard — but they are happy. There is no explanation beyond the infinite, indescribable love of Another. To be frank, it makes no sense; there is no other way to justify their joy!
There are four big organizations here in the capital of Kampala that are in someway related to my work. In a certain sense the most important is The Meeting Point International, which was started by a woman named Rose for women in the slums — to put it very simply. These women then asked for schools for their children and so began the Luigi Giussani Pre-Primary and Primary School, as well as the Luigi Giussani High School. Out of a desire to contribute to the education and professional development of Ugandan teachers, the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE) was born. And the last crucial organization is AVSI, which supports the first three, in one-way or another.
My “home-base” for work is LGIHE. The institute has taken on the incredible task of aiming to instruct and provide professional development, which will improve the quality of education in Uganda. In everything they do they focus on conveying the infinite value of every person. They do this through diploma and certificate programs for teachers and administrators, as well as, workshops for the teachers of the schools they oversee. From what I have seen at LGIHE and the schools, by helping teachers discover their self-worth they are then able to convey this message to their students, thus changing the school environment.
When I am at LGIHE, I work with their team on finalizing curriculum. I also help with the research of the institute, which right now is focused on understanding how best to teach literacy to the students of the two schools. I am also working on a personally developed research project, which will investigate the mission of these schools and how this changes the way their teachers teach. This is incredibly important for me, as I prepare to teach in September. I am interviewing and observing the teachers and already I have seen that these schools are unlike any other in Uganda. Through this research, I am trying to understand why they are so different.
Even though my work is focused on the teachers and schools, it is impossible to disconnect that from the other organizations — particularly Meeting Point. My next post will try to express how incredible Auntie Rose and her women are.
I wanted to come to Uganda to understand teaching from the perspective of LGIHE (Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education), but I had barely been here for two days before I realized that six weeks would not begin to scrape the surface of what life in Uganda is, and therefore what the work of LGIHE is a response to.
But I am here and my short “journey” has begun, so that’s my starting point. It is not and will not be anything I expected, but I think because of that fact it will be even more beautiful. So far, I have learned much more about how to live then how to teach.
They call me Mzungu, which officially means foreigner (but really just “white person”) and this may seem like a small detail, but when the babies run to me to touch my skin and hug me to see if I am like them, I realize that being the “other” in many ways defines my life here. First of all, that experience with the kids happens all the time and I don’t feel sad, because I am different — I know I am very different! — I feel loved because they have acknowledged how different I am and take care of me who knows nothing about their world.
And I mean really nothing… I can’t buy lunch from the stalls on the streets alone, because I would not know the food or the prices; I can’t walk anywhere alone, because it isn’t safe when I don’t know the way; I can’t speak their mother tongues and I don’t know where to buy a mousetrap for our new roommate. But I have been helped with all of these things! Not once have I not had someone to turn to.
My life here is a series of moments where I am in awe of how incapable I am. Right now that can be really frustrating, but I hope I can have the conviction of Therese of Lisieux, that in being like a child in front of life and in front of Jesus, begging for help will teach me something more valuable than the comforts and independence of a summer at home.
A recent grad from Boston College, I will be spending the next two months in Uganda seeing my studies of education, psychology and human development in action. I am lucky enough to be volunteering with and learning from the community of educators at the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE). My days will consist of everything from classroom observation to educational research to exploring the culture of Uganda (and Kenya for a brief visit!). I would love for you to follow along for what I am sure will be a crazy beautiful summer!