When we think of Africa most of our thoughts are drawn toward children with pot bellies, flies and extreme poverty. Although we cannot discount the level of suffering, many people in Uganda have refused to become victims of their circumstances. Hard work, prayers, and tears, have inspired many to rise above their situations and make their dreams a reality.
Francis and Ssanyu are a local Ugandan couple who have taken up the fight to better their lives and the lives of hundreds of children and families in the Lugazi community; including our 2010 HELP-International Lugazi, Uganda team of volunteers. HELP-International is a non-profit organization based in Provo, Utah that is currently involved with development work in six different countries. Each country is equipped with a team of unique and motivated volunteers committed to creating and providing sustainable projects to aid in the fight against poverty and to make a lasting difference. The organization works with local community leaders in each location to ensure sustainability and see that the needs of every community are fulfilled in an empowering way. Francis and Ssanyu are two such committed and devoted people with the vision of creating a better Lugazi and a better Uganda for generations to come.
Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School is located deep in the lush rolling hills of Lugazi, Uganda. It functions as a private school that closely follows the national curriculum and is home to 187 African children between the ages of 2-15. The School stands proudly in the community as a constant reminder to all that dreams do come true.
From a young age Madam Ssanyu never knew her father and was asked to take on the roll of trying to generate income for her family by working alongside her weak elderly mother at a local sugar factory. The combined wages were still not enough to be able to afford the 12 year-old girl’s school fees and she was forced to drop out of school in order to work. The following year Ssanyu would lose her mother and become an orphan at the tender young age of 13. Having only completed the equivalency of 5th or 6th grade, Ssanyu would spend the next 5 years of her life going door to door begging relatives for the amount that you or I would spend on a movie ticket to pay for each term of her schooling. When money was tight among her extended relatives, this young teenager found herself tossed between homes working months at a time as a house girl to try to save money, being scooped up by the generosity of church and other organization members and hidden by some of the kind-hearted teachers and money collectors of her school to help her avoid her tuition payments.
Despite almost giving up hope to continue her schooling, Ssanyu fought desperately every school term for her right to an education. Even from a young age, this woman knew and cherished the value of knowledge and learning.
“I knew the best thing was to go to school” she said.
Ssanyu faced each day with a young heart of courage and determination. This positive outlook carried her through many dark and despairing times including putting up with the culturally tolerated physical abuse inside the classroom.
“One of the teachers would beat me in the head” shared Ssanyu, “I made a promise to God that if He helps me and I get money I will make a school and these things will not be involved in my school”.
At the age of 16 a family friend who also happened to be a headmaster of a school expressed his interest in opening a sister school to the one that he was currently operating.
“He asked me what I enjoy doing” said Ssanyu, “I told him that I taught the bible to children in Sunday School at church and then he asked me if I would like to teach in his school”.
Ssanyu was then employed as a nursery teacher at Katosi Community School in her mid-teens. Three years into her teaching career, Ssanyu was reconnected with a Scandinavian organization from her youth that had previously helped to put her through one year of primary schooling. The organization invited her to join their two-year nursery skills training course that provided certification upon graduation. The offer was accepted and during that time Ssanyu married her life-long companion Francis. The two first met at church and Francis observed her character and commitment toward the children, especially the vulnerable ones.
“I knew at that moment that I could not make it in this life without her” recalled Francis, who would later earn the well respected title of 'Pastor' within the Lugazi community.
The couple began their incredible journey shortly after with some advice from a colleague at a Nursery Skills Center that Ssanyu worked at post-graduation, she and Francis began their own school: Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School.
“Through some kind people I was able to be pushed and go to a training. It was as if God was confirming what was in my heart. I told the nursery skills director that this was my desire also” she said referring to creating their own school, “and I prayed for the funds and that is how we began”.The Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School began eight years ago with only 7 students. Throughout the course of the next 5 years, the number of students grew exponentially reaching well over 100 children and the couple accommodated by using 4 rooms of their rented personal residence as classrooms. The reputation of the way that the school lovingly and respectfully handled their children spread quickly throughout the community and they began to receive difficult cases of children. Children who were incapable of paying tuition, victims of retarded mental growth, def children, and children who were not able to keep up with the teaching speed, were among those that were sent to Ssanyu School.
“When we get new teachers we tell them they are parents to the children and that any form of physical or emotional abuse will not be tolerated here” said Ssanyu.
"We want to create an environment that favors progress” Francis added passionately, “Our challenge is to remove the strong-hold of individualistic tendencies and teach children that they share the same blood, to encourage each other to succeed and that we are all brothers and sisters”.
As the number of children and staff at the school continued to increase and the children among the influx that could afford to pay tuition decreased, the school fell financially to the point where it almost couldn’t sustain itself.
“We just kept moving and praying to God” shared Francis.
After 5 straining but successful years of running the school, the couple received notice from their landlord that that they had only 3 months to pack up and leave the property. After many prayers Francis and Ssanyu found a willing friend who owned some land and a family member to loan them some money to begin construction on a permanent school building for their students.
“The walls were easy to construct because of the cost of the bricks” said Francis, “But the roof was difficult to get”.
The school began hosting classes with only four walls and a partially completed roof. The incomplete structure provoked laughs and scorns from their fellow community members.
“We questioned whether or not to move on” shared the couple, “but the parents of our students still trusted us because of the way that we believe in respectfully handling and instilling values within the children”.
“What sets this school apart” continued Francis, “is the focus of the holistic development of the person. Many schools focus on academic excellence and that is very good, but the focus here is the child. This mentality is not a big or popular industry, but we believe that holistic development instills moral value within the child, gains the trust of the community and deeply roots within the child social principles that will allow them to contribute positively to our community in the future. We earn that trust because of our good reputation of child development and that is why Ssanyu School is different”.
With the little money that had come from those children who could afford to pay school fees and with what the couple was able to save, the school now has five classrooms, 187 students and 11 teachers. School fees at Ssanyu school range from $12 to $20 dollars depending upon the cost of books, uniforms and those that can afford to pay the extra $3 for one cup of porridge each school day. Of the 187 enrolled students, only about 80-90 of them are able to pay for their schooling expenses and even less can afford to eat daily.
Unlike the educational systems in Canada or America, the children here remain in school for up to 8 or 9 hours; that is a long time for any child, not to mention a child who cannot afford to eat.
Francis and Ssanyu have committed even more of their meager funds in an effort to feed everyone and supply each child with a cup of porridge daily.
“Whether they pay or not we are now trying to give all of them porridge” said Ssanyu, “before, only 30 children were able to take porridge. The nursery children would cry for food, so we recently decided within the past two weeks to allocate some more of our funds to buy more porridge and feed all of the children and trust God that we will find the needed money elsewhere. Finances are a challenge, but we have the heart here and we fight differently.”
The teachers and staff at Ssanyu Nursery and Primary School fight differently indeed, they fight selflessly. The average wage for a teacher in Uganda for one month is about 150,000 shillings or approximately $75. After each of the able children at Ssanyu School have paid their term fees, the school operates all of its expenses on that money, which leaves less than a quarter of the average wage for their teachers. The teachers at Ssanyu School support their families from month to month with only $15 instead of the $75 that they should be receiving.
“We have lost good teachers because they fear the financial situation; they move to better schools. You can only retain those who understand and appreciate the situation and understand God” explained Francis.
“As this term is ending it looks the same” added Ssanyu, “We will explain the situation to the teachers and ask them to trust God on this faith journey. Sometimes I’ll even leave the receipts on the desk so they can see”.
The care and concern that the couple shares for each one of their students is overwhelming and admirable. Three enrolled children that come from broken families and tough backgrounds have been offered a home with Francis and Ssanyu.
“They were each in their last year of primary school and candidates for national exams” explained Francis, “they were all victims of a bad environment that was not conducive to their studies”.
One of the teenage girls staying with Francis and Ssanyu saw her parents divorced, her mother leave her to move to another district and her father jobless with no place to call home. The directors of the school are not naive to the hundreds of other children who fight for their right to education and their life daily. They have opened their home to a few cases, but take it upon themselves to voluntarily correct the root of the problem. Francis has designated time outside of his roles as a Pastor, School Director, community leader, father and husband to create a curriculum encompassing integrity and servitude-leadership. He is currently working with local police officers, town council members and other high ranking members of the community to progress unity, morals and ethics.
“The gap between the rich and the poor is ever increasing” explained Francis, “It is a very complicated dilemma. Here, democracy means getting ahead at any expense… usually it is at the expense of marginalized populations such as the youth and widows. We need to work together to develop our town; it is about our community and its well-being, not who is in what position”.
The story of Francis and Ssanyu continues to grow. Each day is a new day to accomplish new things and rest assured many things are accomplished every day through the hands of these exemplary people.
Among the several projects that the two Ugandans have undertaken to accomplish, building and completing the additional two classrooms for Ssanyu School ranks high on the list. The foundations of the classrooms were laid almost two years ago and have remained waist-high for a long length of time due to a lack of funding.
“I have been slowly collecting bricks for the past two years” shared Francis, “Every time I have an extra hundred shillings (approximate equivalency of 0.05 cents) that I can spare, I purchase a brick and add it to the collection”.The two-year heap now totals over 3,000 bricks; however it still falls short. The bricks need to be supplemented by over a third and the costs of cement, rebar, timber, nails, doors, locks, delivery, labour etc. have not yet been factored into the equation. These two rooms will serve as classrooms during the daytime hours and Francis has agreed to open the space to disabled members of the community as a meeting place for them during the evening hours. Selected members of families who are struggling to pay school fees will train alongside the hired labourers to gain a marketable skill and be linked to local businesses. In return for their work, the School has agreed to forgive the related children’s tuition fees and encouragement to develop their newly found skill into profit for their family and future expenses.
As someone who shares an interest in promoting education and enriching lives, the invitation is extended to all whom this article is able to reach to see how simple projects, things that are often take for granted in our world, can inspire hope and transform lives. This story acts as a voice of hope for those who don't have the ability to speak. Join HELP-International and our team of volunteers in Lugazi, Uganda this summer and give the gift of education and community support to hundreds of children and families. Donations can be mailed directly to HELP-International (363 N. University Ave. #110, Provo UT 84601) or through PayPal online at: http://help-international.org/donors.html, including “Ssanyu School, Uganda.” in the comments section.