Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #11 - Ushering in 2010

January 1, 2010

With today, I now have fully lived through two complete decades – the 1990s and the 2000s. Alas, how quickly time flies! I still remember the extreme (and unwarranted) anxiety surrounding Y2K. How far we’ve progressed since then!

I woke up early today at 7:15 AM to the clamorous banging of the roofers. By then, everyone in the household was already busy working, as always. They must think us very lazy for lounging until late morning, typically until 10 AM. I tend to wake up earlier than the rest of our team of four, but still substantially later than the household members. According to the boys, secondary school starts bright and early at 4 AM, so they are highly accustomed to waking up and working on very limited sleep.

In a unique way, each family member contributes to the expansion of the Peace School. Charles and Solomon (Joanita’s brothers) volunteer their time and construction expertise – although neither have much money to invest in the school, they offer their energy and labor in assistance. Abraham, despite all the financial troubles at home, has worked hard as the deliveryman, ferrying people and supplies between town and the school to facilitate construction. Jia handles the creative side of documenting the trip, while I’ve concentrated on the written record through this blog. And of course, Givology and the Task Force in Richmond have worked really hard to raise funding to make the vision a reality! Without the money to sustain the operations, growing the school would constitute nothing but a pipe dream.

After breakfast, Jia and I spent some time walking around and taking photos of the Peace School complex and the boys working hard to build the temporary sheds. The plan is to fully complete the temporary classrooms in two days, and then spend a few months designing and constructing the permanent buildings in time for the next academic year (roughly June-July). I agree with Joanita and Iria’s perspective that the permanent buildings should not be rushed, and ought to be built with longer term objectives in mind.

When I visited the back part of the campus, where the temporary sheds were being built, I was astounded by how much had already been complete since the morning! Not a bit of material was wasted – all the wood planks and poles that were salvageable from the original buildings were reused once again. By mid morning, the first temporary shed was already nearly complete!

[Below is a video showing the progress of the construction of the temporary sheds. I was really impressed by the speed of the work – with the help of the boys, the hired contractor was able to complete his task very quickly and at minimal cost.]

Afterward, we went inside and spent some time brainstorming ideas and sorting through our notes. As today is January first, I basically only have one week left before I leave. I know I will miss everyone tremendously – it’s hard to explain, but within a very short amount of time, I somehow cultivated so many meaningful relationships. What better way to usher in 2010 – a new year – than making new friends and trying our best to make a difference!

Even when I don’t intend to, I sometimes find myself slipping into a routine of student life and losing sight of the larger picture. With exams, problem sets, conference calls, and lectures on my mind, I often worry about rather trivial things and obsess over small hiccups that interrupt my plans. Each day here at the Peace School reminds me of what is important in life – family, friends, and the simple pleasure of living as fully as possible each day. City life is complex and often materialistic, but having many possessions doesn’t substitute for real experiences, adventures, and the chance to creatively commit to a cause. With the short time we spend on this earth, I think it’s important to recognize that material accumulation can never compensate for the happiness derived from experimenting, learning, and spending time with family and friends.

Right before lunch, catastrophe struck. A very heavy rain blanketed Makindye village and the roofers had just exposed the ceiling of a good portion of the house, including the area right over Jia’s and my room. Unlike typical afternoons, the rain today came down particularly hard in extremely violent bursts. The roofers, rather than rushing to cover the exposed ceiling with a tarp, decided to descend from the roof and wait. As a result, the exposed ceiling started to leak heavily.

When the first drops began to fall, I rushed anxiously into our room and saw the water come through our ceiling. As we have our precious electronic equipment and files in our room, I called Jia over urgently, and we managed to save everything in time before the rain got so heavy that water surged from the cracks and pooled in our room.

The family seemed very embarrassed about the situation despite my assurances that everything was alright as none of our equipment or artwork got wet, as we retrieved everything in time. Solomon’s room, however, was completely devastated. As a consequence of the roofer’s laziness and poor decision to expose the roof (despite Solomon’s warning about the impending rain), mildew and rot can easily form on the now damp old ceiling, potentially resulting in a cave-in.

Iria was enraged – she yelled at the roofers for their negligence, but given language and cultural barriers, they just laughed, which only infuriated her even more (and rightfully so)! Hence, lunch – cooked by Lydia – was a rather tense affair. Joanita had a perplexed, solemn look on her face and kept uncharacteristically quiet as Iria verbally expressed her anger.

Abraham then arrived to pick us up to go to his house, as scheduled. The 45 minute drive was pleasant, but as he lives in the rural area outside of Kampala, the roads got increasingly worse as we drove. When we finally arrived, I admit I was surprised to see such a beautiful home, in light of all the discussion with Joanita and Amina about the family’s financial troubles. They have a carefully maintained property, the result of the hard work of the three sisters (Amina, Mariam, and Aisha) and the great industriousness of their mother. In Uganda, women traditionally handle agriculture – that’s why, according to Joanita, the women work so much harder than the men. The front lawn of the house had papaya trees, mango trees, maize, and other Ugandan food staples. When we walked to the back, we saw cassava, banana trees, sweet potato plants, plaintain trees, and jackfruit trees, all carefully planted and growing magnificently. As the area of the land is rather substantial, I was so surprised to hear that Amina’s mother did the majority of the work herself – the amount produced could easily feed the family and generate a healthy amount of marketable surplus.

[Below is a picture of Amina’s mother – she is truly a remarkable woman for cultivating a love of learning in her children despite her own limited education, and for doing a tremendous amount of work to sustain the family. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]


When we went inside, I was really impressed with the building. Abraham fired the bricks himself and built the house three of his friends. The living room is furnished tastefully with plush carpet, a high ceiling, cabinets, and elegant furniture and decorations, including a chandelier, sculptures, and a proper English tea set. In fact, the living room easily exceeded two times the size of my own living room in Northern Virginia! Everyone was really well dressed for our visit, and the girls proudly showed me their rooms. Most notably, we then went into the courtyard where we saw all the chickens that they care for – the primary income for the household.

The girls and their mother care for the chickens, which are separated by stage of life. It takes about five months for a chick to enter into the egg laying and profitable phase of 1.5 years. When the hens live past their prime, Abraham sells them for meat. During the initial life phase, the chicks very delicate and require a lot of intensive care, else they get sick and die very easily. Abraham had built a substantial number of chicken enclosures, all in all, he probably had about 1,000 chickens at different life stages.

[Below is a picture of the family together. What a wonderful family! They are all very close, and support each other wholeheartedly. When you enter their house, you get a very warm feeling. When Jia took this picture, I think they all felt a bit shy. From left to right: Aisha, Amina, Mariam, Amina's Mother, Abraham. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]


Earlier, I had given a presentation on Givology to Abraham, and he expressed a strong interest in getting his daughters registered. He told Joanita that a great number of his profitable egg-laying chickens had died due to the purchase of poor quality feed from an unscrupulous vendor. At first, I really wanted to help, especially since Amina had come to me in tears, but despite everything, I felt torn about the best way to use and allocate Givology money. I don’t doubt that since the girls attend the best secondary schools in Uganda (all are very smart and scored near the top in the national exam) and that Amina goes to university (costing $3,500 per year) that the costs of education are very high for the family and difficult to afford, especially since the three girls board at their respective schools and have to pay very high tuition fees. Unfortunately, secondary education in Uganda costs families quite a bit! Nevertheless, despite the higher education expenses the family confronts, they also live substantially more comfortably than the children and families that we met in the village.

On the flip side, the girls are really gifted and bright – Aisha was head girl at Peace School, Mariam achieved five distinctions in the national exams, scoring as one of the best in the entire country, and Amina aspires to practice human rights law. All three girls study really hard and have substantial, yet achievable goals – I have no doubt in my mind that if they graduate, they will not only find jobs for themselves, but also create jobs and opportunities for others and contribute back to their community. For example, Aisha wants to be a neurosurgeon – certainly, a lofty objective, but for her, definitely within her grasp if she works hard. She attends one of the best schools in Uganda, does very well, loves the sciences, and has a very clear idea of what she needs to do in order to reach her goal. Yet, even though their school fees are expensive, I feel like $50 USD can do so much for the children in the village, who have so little, not even a concrete house to live in.

I really struggle sometimes because despite my best intentions to contribute as much as possible, I realize that I must prioritize given limited resources. However, how does one ever prioritize one life over another? Since families don’t have access to education loans to allow them to meet the tuition payment deadlines, if Abraham doesn’t scramble and pull on his connections to get enough money on time, then his daughters can’t return to school. In all honesty, I don’t know what to do. I am uncomfortable with raising thousands of dollars to afford college tuition for a relatively better-off family, especially after visiting the village. But at the same time, Abraham’s daughters really have a bright future ahead and without a substantial amount of funding, they won’t be able to continue on.

With no clear resolution in mind, I came to the following conclusion. First, I will hold a fundraiser for Amina when I get back to Oxford to raise a few hundred pounds so that the family can meet the tuition payment deadline on January 22nd. This funding, however, will remain separate from the funding that we raise online through Givology. Second, rather than deciding for myself whether Abraham’s daughters in secondary school should be featured on Givology, I’ll leave that final choice up to Joanita. As the founder of the school and Givology’s main contact, she should have the final say in choosing funding priorities, with the recognition that each dollar ought to be used to generate the greatest amount of impact.

When we got back to the Peace School, it was already late. To Jia and my great surprise, our beds had been moved to the living room and everything arranged wonderfully! My insides melted as I profusely thanked Madina for all the trouble that we caused. We then ate a tasty dinner cooked by Lydia, and went to bed.

I spent all night reflecting over the nature of human relations. Everyone here is a striver, a manifestation of mankind’s natural instinct to survive and take advantage of opportunities that arise. After the Givology presentation, so many of the children and adults have come up to me privately to ask whether either they or their children could be sponsored. I treasure the stories that they share with me, but I don’t speak Lagandan, so I wonder if I’m only capturing part of the complex picture. It’s not that everyone intentionally attempts to mislead me into thinking their socioeconomic situation is worse than actuality, but I empathize with the rational, instinctual drive to make the most of interacting with foreigners.

More generally, as child grows up, he or she develops a deeper understanding of the complexities of society, recognizing that not all intentions are pure, even those that appear superficially innocuous or friendly. In many ways, poverty accelerates this process as material deprivation forces people to find ways to secure resources for survival. Under dire circumstances, people resort to unethical means without questioning – not realizing that in the process, they compromise their own dignity and humanity. I remember that gruesome moment in Slumdog Millionaire when some unscrupulous men picked up orphans on the street, taught them how to sing while providing them food and shelter, and then upon gaining the children’s trust and love, knocked them out with chloroform and disabled them (breaking their limbs, blinding them, etc.). Then, these children were sent out on the street to beg, with all their earnings collected at the end of the day. Horrified, I asked Shaan if such a horrible profession existed, and he told me it was very common.

I wish the world were straightforward, honest, and direct, but this is not the case. Yet, if one lives life always suspecting and distrusting others and worrying about being taken advantage of, life becomes meaningless. My resolution? To treat people genuinely and kindly simply because it makes one’s perception of the world so much brighter, and the experience of living much richer and happier. This doesn’t mean willful ignorance or blindness, but just a general faith in mankind and a belief that kindness given foments kindness in turn. Indeed, such is the formula for a long and happy life!

P.S – I wrote my New Year Resolutions today, but I’ll be keeping that list private! Looking over last year’s resolutions, I achieved nearly my entire list. What better way to usher in a New Year than by setting fresh goals!

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