In Uganda among the survivors of the horrors of the war; in a slum in Kampala, women built a school by breaking stones and handcrafting necklaces
By Alessandra Muglia originally published by Corriere della Sera, Italy
Photos by Stefano Schirato
March 20, 2018 — After a year and a half of being held hostage by rebels, Adelo was a ghost of herself.
“I was 15 when they kidnapped me, but I already had two children, one just a month old," remembers Adelo. "I left them with my mother. They forced me to kill and torture my people. They made me feel worse than them, cursed. They raped me. I was infected by HIV. I never thought I would survive. And let alone one day see my boys graduate and leave these huts to go to university."
It is almost noon; the sun is hot above the expanse of plates and red soil lying on the hill of Kireka, a suburb of Kampala. Adelo smiles. Adelo who became Ketty, Ketty Adong.
“I changed my name when I escaped from the forest,” she says, sitting on a bench in her brick hut in the heart of the Acholi slum.
A shanty town without running water, sewers and inhabited mostly by women of the Acholi race, the same as the rebels, the most massacred race during the civil war that for nearly twenty years has bathed in blood their land. The insurgents kidnapped, enlisted and made these women their own women, as the government crammed them into inhuman camps before destroying their villages in search of the militia. Women who arrived exhausted from the north, where the fighting raged, found refuge on this hill overlooking a huge stone quarry. Rose Busingye welcomed them. Rose is a Ugandan nurse, who dispenses care and attention at her International Meeting Point, a local NGO and AVSI Foundation partner.
With a magnetic gaze, Rose is venerated here like a laic mother Teresa: she is the person who has “liberated” these women from the weight of inhuman experiences, as they sing in a kind of welcome show. Women, who have seen Hell and now dance on stage, allowing themselves to be carried away and dragged by the rhythm of drums and calabashes. It is an explosion of vitality and enthusiasm that you do not expect.
“At first, they wanted to let themselves die,” says Rose. “They did not want to cure themselves, they would sell the antiretrovirals drugs we were giving them”.
And now dance on stage, allow themselves to be carried away and dragged by the rhythm of drums and calabashes.
They could only break stones to survive: 50 kilos of gravel for the equivalent of 70 cents in euros. An entire day breaking their backs was not always enough to take this amount back home. This work was a bestial effort for anyone, a massacre for these HIV-positive women or whom had already full-blown illness. Today, the Acholi slum is different. Ketty, after recounting her story of when she was still Adelo, gets up, opens the door and proudly points to a big boy. Charles Carron meets us, jeans, T-shirt and deep black eyes. He is her eldest son, 18 years old and graduated from a very special high school: Ketty built it herself with the other women of Meeting Point.
“Here we felt looked after beyond our miseries and we were born again. We wanted the same for our boys,” says Doreen Angoon, 52 and mother of 5, who is also from the North of Gulu, and landed on this hill after being kidnapped by Kony rebels. “In other schools, they insulted our children. ‘Your mother has HIV’ they mocked them, sometimes even the teachers. This is why we said to ourselves: ‘We must build our school’ and we succeeded”. In 2010, they began to create necklaces with recycled colored paper strips rolled up like beads and then waterproofed with varnish. They sold 48,000, mainly thanks to AVSI’s network overseas. “With our gravel, we made the floors, we built walls,” adds Angon with pride.
In 2012, the school was inaugurated. It is a modern mango-colored building on the other side of the hill, along Kireka road. State-of-the-art laboratories, spacious classrooms with nice wooden furniture, bathrooms with running water, reproductions of “The Sower at Sunset” and “First Steps” by Vincent Van Gogh and phrases like “Teaching is the adult way of learning” create the educational atmosphere the women wished for their children.
The slum seems light years away. Many arrive after more than an hour walk and stay there until the evening to take advantage of the light that is scarce at home. Inside the school, there are 450 students, girls and boys with only 45 per class, compared to 90 per class, the national average. Seven years after it opened, it’s time for budgets.
“Since 2014, 156 students have received a high school degree, of these 78 are attending university,” explains Matteo Severgnini, the Educational adviser. “The others could not attend university because they can’t afford tuition.”
Even if they work in the quarry every weekend, as many students do barefoot, from elementary to high school, to be able to pay for school materials, the tuition remains difficult to afford. The tuition fees are covered by AVSI for 352 slum students thanks to the distance support program. At the same time, 100 students coming from (relatively) well-off families, provide for themselves. The institute is also frequented by youth living outside the slums, and is now recognized as a school of excellence.
“This year, we entered the top 100 of the best schools in Uganda – 76ths out of 1,592 – based on the results obtained at the final exam. A great result and unexpected from an institution that welcomes children from the poorest areas of the city and where it is forbidden to beat in order to teach. An innovative method compared to other schools where the motto ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is applied (if you do not use the wand, you spoil the child). Our high school environment is so much appreciated by pupils that 80% of the 78 slum university students study pedagogy because they want to teach,” says Severgnini.
The revolution of education (and of a society) starts here.