We hear it said all the time, "Education is a right that every child should have." This is a wonderful sentiment and easily said when we come from countries that offer spectacular free education systems for all children. But what happens when the education offered by the government, free of charge, is such a waste of time that parents would rather keep their children at home where they will at least learn useful life skills? What about in countries where the poverty rates are so high and mortality rates are so high amoung people in their 20s-40s that children are being orphaned and left to be cared for by family members who are so overburdened with children that they can't afford to pay the cost of one child's tuition, let alone for all of the children in their care? Well, let me share with you the story of two women who have felt the full impact of these realities. In order to protect the identity of these women, I will apply new names for both of them.
Laila is a woman that we have grown to know and care for, who lives very close to us working as a "maid" for a wealthy Ugandan family. One evening when she was sitting with us attempting to help us locate our lost cat, she began to tell us her story, and it goes something like this: when Laila was 6 months old both of her parents died (not sure of the specifics but they are not important here), she was taken in by her aunt and uncle along with her three older siblings. Together the aunt and uncle were now responsible for the care of seven children, all of whom were school-aged, with the exception of Laila. As she grew older she began to face severe abuse at the hands of her uncle, and when the money ran out she was the first one to be pulled from school, following primary 3 (equivalent to grade 3 in Canada/USA). Until she turned 16 years old she continued to help her aunt around the house with chores and to bring in money to pay for the other children's tuition. All the while Laila continued to be abused by her uncle until she had an idea. If she became pregnant and was then forced to be married she would be able to escape the abuse she had lived with for the better part of her life. So that is exactly what she did, she met a boy a couple years older than she was, and she became pregnant and shortly after married. When her son was very young (not sure of the exact age) her husband was in a fatal car accident, with only a primary three level of education Laila was left without any means to care for herself or her child. She was forced to return to her aunt and uncle's home. Laila is now 20 years old and is working as a maid to provide the money necessary for her son to go to nursery school, who lives with her auntie in a village more than one hours drive away. I wish I could say this was a happy story and that she works for a kind family that respects her, but this is not the case. She works for a family that treats her as though she is worth less than dirt. She is not given time off to attend church on Sundays, visit her son more than once every three months, or even to attend the funeral of her niece who recently passed away. What is Laila's response to all of this? "Lin, there are bad things that happen to all of us, but when we can come through them and learn something, and become stronger then we are the ones who have won." She is so wise and so strong and so deserving of far more than the life that she has lived. So Zaid and I have committed to helping her create a new future for herself and her son. She dreams of becoming a hairdresser so she can open her own shop and provide for her son, and that is exactly what she will do. She is set to enroll in the hairdressing program at a school near her village this coming February! This is not meant to make Zaid or I appear as "white saviours" but rather to give you a glimpse into the lives of countless women who truly have so much potential but often have no means to meet that potential. There is no conceivable way that we can help every woman with a story similar to that of Laila, but we certainly can try to offer a hand up to as many as we can, within the means we have been given. Mary is an example of another woman that is paving her own destiny in an incredible way.
Now, Mary has a story similar to Laila in that she also has very limited education and lost her parents at a young age. She also lost her husband when she had young children (five to be exact) who she had no ability to provide for on her own. The thing that makes Mary different than Laila is that she has HIV (as did her husband and two of her small children). This means that she not only has to access the necessary medications for her and her children but she also struggles to find a safe place to raise her children away from the incredible stigma that hangs over her head. In an effort to assist Mary, Nagadya Lillian Mugalula took her children to MCS so that they could attend school for free. In the meantime, Mary has enrolled in the women's vocational program with Bridging Villages and has begun to learn skills that will equip her with the means to care for her children. She has even become a community advocate for other HIV+ women when they are giving birth. She talks to them about the importance of taking their medication and having their children tested as well as the risks and benefits of breastfeeding. She is truly an incredible woman and has come a very long way since we first met her two years ago. But here is the most touching part, today we had the chance to tell Mary that two of her sons have received sponsors and will be going to secondary school in the next couple of years. We were expecting her to smile, say thank you and possibly give us a hug...what we were met with was so much more. She crumpled into her chair, weeping and repeating over and over that "this cannot be true, thank you mama and to both of you" (this was said in Lugandan) as she looked back and forth between Lillian and us. She could not believe that her children would have the chance that she never did. That her children would have a chance at their dreams. That she would not see her children repeat the same cycle that she had been forced to be a part of.
These are the stories of countless people in Uganda. These are the stories that we are working so hard to eradicate. We don't want there to be a child in Uganda that is stripped of the chance to achieve their dreams and of the chance to complete their education. We dream of a Uganda that is made up of a generation of educated, empowered, and successful people who were simply granted the right that we all believe should be automatic for every child, that of an education.