If you only had 1 meal a day, would you still keep smiling? That is the reality for the beautiful children I had the pleasure of meeting at Railway Primary School today in Kampala, Uganda. The meal these children have at school will be the only meal they have all day long. You see, their school is centered in the middle of the neighborhood slums they call home! Can you imagine the weekends? But despite their living conditions, these children were articulate, respectful, very bright and excited about learning.
They couldn’t wait to welcome us Shot@Life Champions to each of their classrooms to share their class motto, artwork and specific areas of learning. The school only goes from Kindergarten to Primary 7 (7th grade). Secondary school begins at Primary 8 and is extremely RARE as they are quite costly to Ugandan citizens. Children are considered “educated enough” and are sent to work to make money for their families (mostly in agriculture) after Primary 7.
The school boasts a small library with a minimal amount of books. The children have such a love for reading that most have read every book in the entire library! In order to continue encouraging literacy, the teachers have the children create their own stories and bind their own books. They then share among themselves and read the stories of their friends on whatever concerns or triumphs they have at the time.
Railway houses 1,306 students in a 14 room school. Class sizes range from 80-120 students with 4 teachers. Mrs. Olivia Muhumuza, Headmistress/Principal, recently changed the school set-up to family groups. Each teacher takes a group of 30 students and not only teaches the student inside the classroom, but also works with the parents at home to ensure their child’s successful education. Mrs. Olivia’s personal story influenced her creating this type of program for her school. She was an orphaned when both of her parents died when she was young. As the oldest child of 13 siblings, she knew she must get an education to be able to care for her family. She chose to go to school to become a teacher, so she could educate her siblings as she parented each of them.
The rate of violence in schools is an astounding! One would assume that as in America, their is student on student violence. But sadly in Uganda, teacher to student violence is quite prevalent. Parents want their children to make a better life for themselves, so they stress the importance of education. However, if a child is having trouble in school, the parents give teachers the right to discipline them until they begin to learn. As many studies have shown, “Violence begets violence, and instead of children feeling empowering during the learning process, they feel defeated and take that into adulthood,” says Mrs. Olivia. Her program put a stop to that type of treatment and instead encourages positive reinforcement to assist with learning.
Mrs. Olivia also empowers their girls to be strong and make up their minds about how their bodies are used. Female genital mutilation is common, as well as girls getting pregnant beginning at age 11! In order to build the self-esteem of the girls, they are given vocational time to make lunch mats, rugs, purses, wallets and jewelry at school. The students then sell these items to visitors and the community to raise money for their basic school supplies and personal needs. This program allows children and parents to get involved in their education.
The children were excited to perform for us during a general assembly at the end of the school day. They performed “dialogues,” sang beautiful songs, danced and educated us about their own hygiene, sanitation concerns and yes, immunizations! It is tough to stay positive during adversity, but the Railway children just keep smiling, shining their bright lights and encouraged me to do the same.
What makes you smile when times are tough?