Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #8 - Tearing Down the Lower Campus

December 29, 2009

Each day now hurtles by at lightening speed – as I grow accustomed to Uganda and have become very close to the Bbaale family and the Peace School community, I find greater meaning and purpose in the cause. When I started Givology, I really wanted to do my best to help my fellow students because education changed my life. But, I had very limited experience in visiting schools in developing countries. My motivation came from a theoretical and principled reason, not from concrete experience. Some people who go and volunteer with international non-profits often end up feeling somewhat disillusioned, but in my case, I am now even more inspired!

We woke up very early at 6:40 AM to dress in work clothes and visit the Lower Campus of the Peace School to tear down the temporary buildings and relocate all assets and salvageable building materials to the Upper Campus. The plan is to take down everything in the Lower Campus in one day, erect temporary sheds in two days at the Upper Campus, sort through all the books and materials for appropriate re-categorization before the start of term on February 1st, and set in motion longer term plans for the design and construction of permanent buildings at the end of the school year. Joanita, Iria, Jia, Passy (the headmistress of the Lower Campus), and I went with the majority of the children – Sula, Medi (the brother of Teacher Hassan), Teacher Hassan, Josh, Isaac, Elijah, Bashir, Charles, Farook, Sharifah (Farook’s sister). When we arrived, we started tearing down the wooden classrooms as Jia taped – the boys seemed to know exactly what they needed to do, and Charles set about building a ladder from a beam that he took down from the classroom!

[Below is a video where I explain the basics of the work we intended to carry out. You can see some footage of the interior of the classrooms and the very limited furniture and space available for the students.]

[Video of Charles putting together the ladder with Joanita. When I think of my own father, a feat such as this would be rather impossible – in the USA, we’re just too used to having all our tools and materials pre-fabricated for us.]

Then, with the ladder complete, Charles, Mehta, and Sula climbed to the roof of the buildings and began taking down the metal sheeting and beams. While watching them from the ground, I kept on worrying for their safety! Their position on the roof looked rather precarious, especially since the sheds are about 15 years old, weakened by erosion and time. Yet, three large grown men could sit on top to perform the duty of tearing the sheds apart! If they fell or if the structure collapsed as they worked (imagine a game of jenga), then we would have experienced a great calamity.

[Below is a video of the boys efficiently tearing down the classrooms – I guess for them, such work is treated as routine, but in general, I was really impressed and amazed at all their practical building knowledge.]

The work was very tiring – I consider myself relatively fit and strong, but the moving of the wooden planks and beans proved very difficult. The boys are all rather skinny and none too much taller than me, other than Sula, but they managed with great ease. As Jia, Farook, and I worked on digging out the cement blocks securing the swing set, Farook laughed at our poor hoeing and shoveling skills, asking us dubiously whether we ever had the experience of digging holes to plant crops! Three times a year, usually during the break, the children go to the village fields to help plant crops to feed the school children.

All the boys were highly familiar with the process of taking down the house – as a result, we managed to complete the majority of the work by 11:30 AM!

[Below are some photos taken during the process. We have so many more to share that we'll be posting later! Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]



But the devil, of course, lies in the details. I worked with Joanita and Passy, the headmistress of the Lower Campus, to pack up the office. As the office was very poorly ventilated, the dank weather of the rainy season created a lot of dust. A lot of the books and supplies available were clearly not used because they weren’t properly categorized or stored. The books often mildly wet, with large amounts of dust collecting on their covers and in between the pages. One of our hopes at Givology is to fund a library for the Peace School – the books need protection and a much larger space would really help the school administration properly categorize and store the books so teachers and students can access them much easier!

Most of the books were from the 1980s or even 1970s – donated books from US classrooms that had long been abandoned. Most meaningfully, I found the budget records, original student work, and teacher plans from more than a decade ago, when Joanita first started the school. As Joanita carefully dusted and packed the books (each book was treated with a great degree of loving care), she told me that so many memories came back. In fact, the boys who helped us with the work today were all alumni of the first class of students under Joanita’s tutelage!

I asked the boys whether they felt sad tearing down the school that they first went to – most expressed some sense of nostalgia. Indeed, they were melancholic over the loss of their school – Peace Primary remains one of the happiest memories that they had when tuition was completely free, play opportunities plentiful, and the teachers loving and caring. Yet, all of them expressed some optimism that the new permanent building on the Upper Campus would be even better.

[Elijah and Zamu share some of their favorite memories of the school, including the swing set in the front that Jia and I helped dig out!]

The boys were extremely efficient in bringing the materials back to the house and sorting them. The work definitely required a lot of effort, and you could see the different personalities based on their style of tackling the challenge at hand. I really tried my best, and filmed a lot of the work in progress to provide some footage for all of you, our supporters. While we were willing to rush and complete quickly the tear down and construction of the temporary sheds on the Upper Campus in time for the start of term on February 1st, Joanita and the Peace School Task Force were adamant that the design and construction of the permanent buildings be conducted with great diligence and attention to detail at no rush. Before the end of our trip, Joanita and the Task Force wanted negotiate the purchase of the land to the Upper Campus to expand further, as well as hire and contract with a construction team to build the permanent buildings.

Before I describe the evening, I wanted to take some time to discuss the last few moments before we left the Lower Campus. Joanita was very emotional as it was her first memory of the Peace School, when it was nothing more than an operation started on her front porch. When the relocation was complete, I ask the Joanita, Passy, and the kids to introduce themselves and share some of their favorite Peace School memories, as you can see in the video below.

[Above is a video of the alumni introducing themselves and sharing their fondest recollections of the Peace School. In many ways, we had come full circle – the alumni who benefited as the first class came back to help the Peace School tear down the very classrooms in which they started their education. I found the irony very beautiful – as the alumni described playing on the swing set, the care of their teachers, speech day, I could hear their nostalgia and wistfulness.]

We went back late around 5:30 PM to eat lunch – by then, I was famished. But we made sure that before we left, we had fully cleared out the entire area, leaving nothing behind. We even took back bricks and bags of dirt from the Lower Campus! The work was really hard, but rewarding – Jia took complete footage for the entire duration, and I’ll be posting that sometime later. Below are some photos that Jia took of the process in stages.



On a side note, somehow, the people here don’t seem to get hungry – they work very hard, don’t eat snacks, but somehow, never complain. The children are generally very obedient and help the adults as commanded. As you can imagine, this level of alacrity in work and understanding of household order is noticeably missing in many American families.

After lunch, I took a long nap, while trying to ignore the roofing man working. The entire day made me tired and revealed a lot about the character of the people of the school. Joanita is very hardworking and practical, while Charles, the former headmaster, is incredibly capable (he can build houses, ladders, do almost everything…). And each of the boys played their part in heavy lifting and transport of the materials, with Sula and Mehta leading the take-down efforts. Very few shirked on their efforts, and even the smaller and weaker ambitiously helped out. The neighbors surrounding the school were very curious as to the cause of the commotion – with lots of children standing around watching, Joanita managed to successfully co-opt one of the older boys to assist!

That evening, Jia and I worked on collecting the material and organizing our photos and projects. I suggested that we could bring home some of the scrap pieces of painted wood from the school and give them to donors who donate more than $5,000. While I’m here, I want to find as many ways to raise funding as possible! Below is a photo of some of these wood pieces that we hope to cut up. (Photo courtesy of Jiashan Wu.)


Very late at night, we piled into two vans to pick up Lydia at Entebbe Airport. Lydia resides in North London is one of Joanita’s sisters. I found her very pleasant and friendly! After dinner, I thought it would be a nice gesture to give Amina (grandmother) a back massage – I couldn’t communicate very well with her, but I figure that it should help relieve some of her persistent back pain. Remembering that day in the village where she proudly showed us her fields and all the corn that she planted (must have been at least 1-2 acres), I am truly amazed that she’s capable of such level of strenuous activity without further hurting herself.

Well, all in all, a good day’s worth of work and effort!

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