Our van stops a few yards outside the gate, and our driver, Herman, tells us it’s okay to get out. In front of us, a hundred schoolchildren have gathered to greet us. They sing and jump and clap in rhythm. At the lead are two teenage girls with shaved heads and with lions’ manes tied to their waists. A twelve-year-old boy soon joins them. With their arms extended, they begin to shake their hips and bounce, and they back toward the gate. Our leader, Deb, says, “We are entering the school as honored guests.”
The Bethlehem Parents School and Orphanage sits just off the dirt road that runs east from Kyotera. During our time in Uganda, as we work on projects with several groups, this school will serve as our base of operations. Our heart will beat from here.
We walk through the gate, and the children begin to cheer and hug us. They range in age from seven to seventeen. The oldest boy, wearing a Guns-N-Roses t-shirt, rounds everyone together into a clockwise-moving circle, and the dancing continues. I clap and bob. “Jump!” a fifth-grade girl tells me. “Jump!” After the dance, she tells me her name is Cici.
My colleagues and I follow the group into one of the school’s classrooms, a building made of mud bricks and covered with concrete. Inside, a space has been cleared at the front of the room, with a sound system set up along one wall and a row of drummers seated along another. A chalkboard on the far wall invites us, in colored chalk, to “feel at home our first beloved visitors.”
We’re seated at a table facing the performance area, and benches full of children sit behind us in neat if squirmy rows. A group of the middle-school-aged children sing a welcome song to us, and then the secondary-school students treat us to a series of traditional dances. The girls wear pink skirts and lion manes; the boys wear lime-green capris with rows of rattles tied to their right shins. Sashes of red, yellow, and black—the colors of Uganda—cross the boys chests.
Their athleticism amazes me. This is youth and vigor and testosterone on full display, set to the fast-paced rhythm of the drums. A boy dances over the a girl and coaxes her to a space between their parallel lines, and he gets down on the floor and begins kicking his feet out in front of him while the girl decides if he’s acceptable or not. If so, she will turn her back to him and tickle the top of his head with her lion mane; if not, she dances behind him until he gives up and gets up, and they return to their respective lines.
We’re treated to a pair of lip-synching performances and a pair of speeches, and after much clapping and dancing, we break for dinner.
As guests, we eat with the school’s director, Fred Sserwangu—“Mr. Fred,” as everyone calls him—beneath a thatch-roofed cabana. Herman joins us, as does the school’s assistant director, “Young Fred” Mugisha (no relation to Mr. Fred), a man filled with more laughter than perhaps anyone I’ve ever met.
Deb and the Freds are old friends. Deb’s organization, With Both Hands, does community-level economic development projects in a dozen Third World countries. One of those projects has been the Bethlehem Parents School, which she’s been working with for six years. Everyone here calls her “Mama Deborah” because of the many forms of aid she’s funneled to the school—everything from new toothbrushes to an irrigation system for the school’s extensive garden. She’s helped build some of the school’s buildings and has provided the school with significant financial support.
Mr. Fred started the school on nothing more than a great idea and an entrepreneurial spirit. Today, nearly six hundred students attend the school—most from local communities, although some from far away board at the school. Many of the students are orphans, and for them, the school has become their permanent home. “A lot of them were street kids from Kampala that Young Fred rescued,” Deb explains. A number of the kids are HIV-positive.
Despite the celebration, things today are actually quieter than usual. Most of the students have gone home for the two-month holiday that began in mid-December, so only about a hundred kids are around at the moment. Most of them are secondary school students who go away to boarding school during the school year but who have come here—home—for the break.
The kids cram into a pair of too-small dormitories, where bunk beds are stacked like a Boy Scout sleepaway camp. The girls have a little more room than the boys, but not much. In fact, dormitory space is one of the school’s keenest needs. Each dorm is little bigger than a typical American classroom, housing dozens of kids each. Rack ‘em and stack ‘em.
The classrooms are little more than unfinished dirt-floor cubicles with no overhead light and no glass in the windows or doors in the doorways. “Malaria kills” and “Malaria makes me miss my exams and classes” is stenciled on the outside walls.
Last year, a new well finally eased conditions a bit. Students had been limited to a few cups of water per day because of insufficient well capacity—and before that, they had to lug water from a hole more than a mile away, then filter it and boil it—but the new well enables each student to have five gallons a day, although the pump generally flows pretty freely.
We tour the school’s banana groves and sweet potato fields and rows of maize, we make a stop at the chicken coop, and we meet some of the free-range rabbits. The Freds continue to move toward a sustainable agricultural operation that will meet the school’s needs, and they’ve made considerable progress, but food remains a significant issue.
Yet the kids seem joyful, and everyone seems to bear the deprivations with resignation and hope—at least when they talk with us. The school’s motto, painted on a concrete block in the central courtyard, even suggests that struggle is a necessary part of life: “No rose without thorns.” The lesson itself is beautiful and difficult, and it sums up my impression of Uganda perfectly thus far.
But the kids remind me through their smiles and hugs and songs and dances that despite the thorns, the roses are plentiful—and all around me.