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When I Met Them the Second Time

This morning in Uganda was mercifully cloudy, the kind that makes the locals don their heavy down jackets and the visitors put sweaters in the cars just in case. I was busy. It was day 5 of a 10 day trip, and only yesterday had my suitcase, full to the brim with letters and gifts (and my clothing), arrived. We had distributed most of the letters the day before. Over 70 children and parents had crowded into one small classroom while myself and three staff members handed out all the postcards, binder-paper letters, and typed novels complete with pictures that sponsors had sent. As Richard read out names, teacher Emily marked a printed spreadsheet, and teacher Mercy handed out the letters. I stood in a corner by the blackboard receiving a steady stream of students for their photo for over 2 hours.

However, there was one student conspicuously absent from the crowd that day. Winnie wasn’t there. I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or sad. I wanted to see the girl I sponsor, but in such a busy environment I wouldn’t be able to do much more than say hello. My heart longed for a connection with her, and whether from sincere love or from obligation I had yet to discern. “Maybe she will show up tomorrow,” I thought “Yes. That would be best. I have too much to give my attention to today.”

So this morning. I’m standing in the office, tallying the letters that had not yet been distributed. One by one, children and their caretakers start to arrive. I’m taking pictures, handing out letters, and checking the spreadsheet all at once in this tiny office. Then Winnie walks around the corner and through the door. I look up: she’s come with her father. Immediately, I get very self-conscious. 

I had last seen her father seven months before, after signing up to sponsor Winnie. Winnie was shy, not the type to run up to you instantly, but I figured she just needed time to get used to me since I’m older and different looking. It was her family I was nervous about. Winnie lives with her dad, an uncommon situation. At least with another woman, perhaps a single mom, I could be on a more equal footing. But with Winnie’s dad, I honestly didn’t know what to say. Here I was, an unmarried young woman, second only to children on the bottom of the social ladder, yet in the position of benefactor to his child. How was he supposed to treat me? How was I supposed to treat him? Seven months ago, through an interpreter, we had talked about what he did for a living (drive someone else’s motorcycle as a taxi), and how he came to care for Winnie (sounded like he had a few past relationships), and how she was liking school (fine). At that time, Winnie didn’t say much. In this culture, adults do the talking and children are supposed to be silent while they do. I had recently been mistaken for a high school student, so I already barely cleared the bar for “adult.” For that hour, I wished I could somehow quietly shrink down into Winnie’s world with her and let the real adults do the talking.

On this cloudy morning when Winnie and her dad walked into the office, despite my self-consciousness, I knelt down to hug her and gave her the letter I had written to her. I lowered myself to Winnie’s level as much as I could in that small space already packed with students. Her eyes were brighter than last time. She was still reserved, but more coy, less shy. Ok, this was good. Then I looked up at her dad. At once I felt out of place. Not fully in Winnie’s world, not fully in his. I greeted him, he greeted me, we exchanged a few words, and then I had to attend to another student who had just walked in. It was only afterward that I realized how much improved his English was. 

With the arrival of the new student, it was time to leave the cramped office for a classroom. The pairs of guardians and children found desks, and they began to read the letters from America and write back. Winnie and her father sat in the back. Once everyone was settled, I cautiously wandered over and sat down. 

The room was quiet. It was the kind of slow, unhurried, patient quiet that is the loudest in Africa. I heard the soft sounds of parent’s voices and the scratching of pencils. And right there in front of me, with her dad’s help, Winnie started writing a letter back to me. Her dad traced out a horse for her. I commented that he was quite talented at drawing. As Winnie filled in the lines, her father and I talked about what subjects he had studied in school. He hadn’t finished, but his real trade was plumbing. In a society where people live in huts and get their water from streams, there’s not a big market for plumbers, so he struggled to find work. As we talked, his eyes were downcast, and he spoke slowly. This was really meaningful to him. He didn’t want to work driving someone else’s motorcycle for hire– the pay was next to nothing. I thought there was something different about him this time. Last time, he had seemed almost stand-offish, but this time he showed up to school with his daughter, and that was something. Maybe he was changing and growing. Just like Winnie. Just like me. 

I had to get up to greet another student who had just arrived, and when I returned, Winnie had progressed to the writing part. I quietly sat down and started looking through the photos on my camera so as not to get in the way. Her father read the letter that I had written to her, and he started asking what she wanted to say back so he could help her write it. I was looking at pictures from the day before when I heard the quietest little voice dictate, “I love you, Elsie.” I stopped. 

Had I really just heard that? 

Oh, Lord. I do not deserve that. I’m awkward, I’m nervous around grown-ups, and sometimes I forget to write to Winnie. I don’t know how to talk to her dad. I hadn’t come with any gifts because I didn’t have the time. She had said barely a sentence to me before this. And yet those four words rang in my head. “I love you, Elsie.” 

I did not deserve it. I still don’t. 

I think God’s in the business of giving us things we don’t deserve. 

I looked at her and her father, hunched together over a piece of paper, and I started praying. In the moment of realizing how inadequate I was, I needed to talk to the One who is totally sufficient. This family has nothing. Winnie has no mom, her dad has no wife. Winnie has no toys, her father has no work. But somehow, through God’s goodness, He connected Winnie to Solid Rock Christian School, and then to me. Now she’s here, and I’m here, and in a strange and imperfect and awkward way, we love each other. I want to give her everything she wants, and if I feel that way, how much more does her heavenly Father? He’s in the process of doing that, and maybe He’s using me to do so. 

I realized too, how much more does God want to give me everything I want? My heart longs for authentic connection and sincere understanding, with both Winnie and her father. Perhaps there was a reason they had shown up on the second day, not the first. Perhaps there was a reason her father’s English had improved. Perhaps there was a reason that I had to come back a second time because patient is the first thing love is, and we can’t expect instant connections with everyone. Perhaps God is so much better than I think.   

As they wrapped up writing a letter to the young woman right in front of them, Winnie and her father were the last ones in the room. I asked if we might pray together, and we did. Winnie sat on my lap, and it was one of those beautiful moments when the right words just come without much forethought. We prayed for Solid Rock to remain blessed. We prayed for her father, that he might find work as a plumber, and we prayed for Winnie, that she may thrive and flourish. Then we went out to the courtyard. While Richard and Winnie’s father talked, I gave her a long and entertainingly bumpy piggy-back ride. Where words don’t work, piggy-back rides do. She tried on my sunglasses and we took a photo together, which I printed out for her later. When her dad came up to take her home, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want them to leave. I had been nervous when they had first appeared, but now Winnie’s genuine smile had overcome my nervousness. We said goodbye, and I watched them walk out the gate. I stood there long after they had left. 

God is taking care of Winnie. He has used and is using me as a small but significant part. Perhaps I had this image of sponsorship as this instant-best-friend across the world kind of deal. I associated it with the right “feelings.” God’s love was too fierce for Winnie to wait until I felt a certain way. Jesus sure didn’t feel like going to the cross for me, but he did anyway. His love for all these kids is too strong to wait for anyone to feel like a perfectly magnanimous benefactor. He’s not looking for that. If there’s anything that sponsoring Winnie has taught me, it’s that if I wait until I feel like doing something good, I’m never going to do it. Take action. See what happens. He could use you to help these kids thrive. 

Elsie and Winnie

 

 

Coloring together. Photo credit: Osbaat

Winnie and her father, Osbaat.


Mock exam results are in– with good tidings!

This is a big year for Solid Rock Christian School. 2018 will mark the first year that the school will graduate a class! Last month, the P7s (7th graders, also known as the “candidate class”) sat for mock exams at a neighboring government school. This was very important since it was the first chance they had to take the full final exam in an exam-like setting. In Uganda, the federal government runs the education system pretty tightly. Each level of schooling ends with a federally-administered exam that has a significant impact on the student’s future options.

This current class is a special class in many ways. They’re the guinea pigs. Solid Rock has dedicated teachers, but these students only started their education here in 4th grade. In many ways, their foundation was the biggest challenge of all, through no fault of their own. Growing up in poverty is rough no matter how hard you try. When you have homework to do, but unless you go fetch the water a mile away your family doesn’t eat, well, it’s not a hard decision. So the teachers and administration said many prayers over this class of 33 when they sent them off to take the mock exams.

This month, results came back, and the Solid Rock Christian School students actually out-performed the school where they sat!* If you have been a part of the prayer team that has been praying for them, THANK YOU. Principal David sends his thanks to you as well. If you would like to be a part of the official prayer team for Zozu Project, email Elsie at elsie@zozuproject.org. Hope is high for the final exam in November. Though the big picture is positive, there are still a few low-scoring students that the teachers are more than determined than ever to help. Keep them in your prayers! There’s no mountain God cannot move to accomplish His good purposes for these students.

The Candidate Class- pictured here in February at the start of the school year.

*If you’re curious, the Ugandan grading system is divided into 5 “buckets,” simply put. The best you can do is a “1st grade,” which means you got 100% of your examination correct, or close to it. It’s equivalent to an A for us. Then you have a “2nd grade,” like a B, a “3rd grade,” like a C, or a “4th grade,” like a D. Anything below that is a fail, or for them a “not pass.” The majority of most local school’s students get 3rd grades. But the majority of Solid Rock students got a 2nd. And we even had a few 1sts!


But first, a Well

For all of you who have been following the progression of the teacher housing project, there’s been some news! Before beginning to build the structures themselves, a borehole well needs to be dug. It’s a long process, to find the correct location where the groundwater can be reached, but it has to be done first so that the buildings can be arranged around it.

Just last week, we received an email from Pastor John Paul, the leader on the ground, with the words “Thank you for your prayers. The teaches will now get free clean water. We were able to get the water, we praise the Lord for that.”

And with that news and these pictures, the project constructing housing for teachers has commenced! Thank you so much to all who contributed to this project! Through you, many teachers and generations of students will be blessed. More pictures to follow as the project progresses.


The Finest Shoes in the World

This post was written by Mick Lebens. He and his wife, Elaine, are the founders of Zozu Project.  

“At the end of our trips to Uganda we have made it a habit of leaving things with our Ugandan friends. To be truthful they are usually things that I somewhat self-consciously admit no longer meet our first world standards. They may be an old pair of jeans or a well-worn shirt that would soon be donated or even discarded after our return home. These are always received by the recipient much like a young child in America gleefully opens gifts on Christmas morning. It is a humbling exchange, to say the least.

Two trips ago I was making my usual transfer of jeans and shirts when I told the recipient, one of our sponsored children Raymond, that I also had a pair of Keen shoes whose strap had pulled away from the sole making them useless in my eyes. He excitedly exclaimed with a gleam in his eye, “I will fix them, I am a cobbler!!” And with that the shoes, or what was left of them, exchanged hands.

During our next trip, I was spending time with Raymond when the long forgotten shoes came to my mind. I asked him what had ever come of them. Raymond, the cobbler, proudly stated that he had fixed them and given them to his father. He noted that he wore them nearly every day.

The Lebens with Raymond (in white collared shirt) and his father (far right)

Several months after we left we received news that Raymond’s father had died after an illness. Our hearts ached for him and his family and we longed for our next trip when we could love and support them in person. That time finally came during our most recent trip in late June of this year. In many ways it was our best trip (although I’m guilty of feeling that every time). This trip stood out, however, in that many of the children we have seen grow and mature for 4 years now. Especially with the older children like Raymond, the conversations are more complex and their dreams for the future now more possible. It was during one of those talks with Raymond that I brought up the shoes again. I asked him whatever became of the shoes and did he still have them. To my surprise he said he no longer had them but the reason why was even more startling. He told me “it is a custom in our community to bury someone when they die in their finest clothes. My father always cherished those shoes and they were his finest.” I had no words for Raymond and even if I did my tears prevented me from saying them. My discarded shoes, that if truth be known I had strongly considered tossing away as rubbish, in this community were received by Raymond’s dad as the finest of gifts. I haven’t quite worked out in my mind why some in this world we live in are given so much materially and why others struggle for the basic necessities. I have concluded, however, that this honor and privilege to be a part of someone’s opportunity is my life’s greatest gift. I thank all that have joined in this Zozu Project journey and reassure you that there are many stories such as this one of change and hope that are occurring on this little dot on the map in Uganda. Your sponsorship, your gifts, and yes even sometimes your shoes matter in these children’s lives.”

Mick Lebens, who wrote this post, is married to Elaine Lebens, and together they are the founders of Zozu Project.


Before and After – Solid Rock Christian Preschool is Open!

When you decide to get your hands messy serving the poor it’s just that– messy! You get in to address one need (in Zozu’s case the need for elementary education) and before you know it you discover so many pitfalls and holes around you that you realize your one shovel just isn’t enough. That was the case two years ago at Solid Rock. The 1st graders at Solid Rock were coming into class with a severly under-prepared, and the teachers were working overtime. While nothing was really going wrong, the impending risk of burn out was real.

So do you throw in the towel and only take the 1st graders who have already been to school?

No. You pray hard, and set to work building a preschool.

It’s with great joy that, three years after the opening of Solid Rock Christian School, Solid Rock Christian Preschool is officially open!

For some students, this is the first time someone has read to them from a storybook.

 

Isn’t it amazing that where there used to be nothing but dirt, there are now teachers teaching and students learning in a four-classroom building? The desks are still being built and the bookshelves have yet to be filled, but thanks to your generosity, that’s all happening as you read this. Well, actually people in Uganda are probably asleep while you read this, but you get my point.

 

Before…

…After.

 

 

If you gave to the preschool, you made this happen. You made a place for children who used to be wanderers to be students.

 

On behalf of them, thank you.

Want to spread the love? Share this post with your friends! I mean, maybe I’m biased, but I think this is pretty cool.

 

 

 

Want to spread even more love? Giving to the “Where needed most” fund helps cover the school fees for these little ones until they have permanent sponsors.

 


The Year 2065

Oftentimes when we are moved to help people who are victims of struggling and suffering, it’s because of an eye-opening experience. A photo or video strikes out, or we read an article, and the abhorrent conditions ignite a previously dormant spark of compassion. But those abhorrent conditions, so shocking to the new eye, are the day-to-day experience of those who live in them. Long after the picture fades from our memories, that child is still living in that hut. That mom is still working that farm. That baby still has those flies swarming around its lashes.

Poverty is more than just lacking food for today. It’s your family lacking food for two generations. Your father has never known the dignity of stable work. Your mother has never had the security of a loving husband. You’ve never been expected to finish school. What does it feel like to live like this? How can we possibly develop the empathy necessary to love from so far away?

Immersing in their culture is a powerful gateway to experience a bit of what the poor experience every day. Yes, the students we serve are up against material poverty. But the hardest obstacle is not a poverty of things, but a poverty of hope.  This is a poem by Ugandan poet Peter Kagayi, and in it he unpacks what the poverty of hope feels like in an erudite, eloquent, and challenging way. He, a native of poor Uganda, imagines what life will be like in 2065, roughly 50 years from now. It’s not an easy read, but then again, neither is the life of the poor easy.

In 2065

Nothing will have changed that much,

Except I will be over 70 years

The roads will be the same

The politics will be the same

Kampala [the capital city] will be the same

In 2065 nothing will have changed that much,

Except I will be over 70 years

 

And I will go to Mulago [hospital] to cure my rheumatism

And the doctors will say there is no cure

And the boda- boda [motorcycle taxi] man at the stage

Will recommend to me a West-Nile witch doctor

And I will go to my grandson’s school like my grand-father did

And I will be turned away, for old age will be something forbidden.

 

The president will be the president we have today,

And in a wheel chair he will give the Nation Address

Only his son, then a field Marshall, will read it on his behalf

And he will talk on his behalf

And he will rule on his behalf

In 2065, nothing will have changed that much,

Except I will be over 70 years.

 

And Makerere [the university] will be on strike and Major- General ‘Something’

Will order open-fire on the students

Because their demand for fried beans

Will be a threat to the security of the State.

And U.R.A [political party] will be taxing the air we breathe,

The many times couples kiss,

The fart we excrete,

The words we speak

And the way we die

And will determine those who go to heaven

And those to hell

And tax their corpses differently

 

In 2065 nothing will have changed that much,

Except I will be over 70 years,

 

And teachers will be begging on the streets to feed their families

Their wives will sleep with tourists to make a decent living

The syllabus will be the same shadow of what colonialists left behind

With systems too archaic and too alien to offer anything essential

And the students will remain cabbages and potatoes

And the ratio of the jobless to the job-hopeful

Will remain nine to one

And like that life will move on,

And like that nothing will change.

 

In 2065 children of eight will be using contraceptives

Children of eight will be going to night clubs

In 2065 children will not be children

They will be eating fellow children for breakfast and for break at school

And they will not wash their hands and will offer you a hand-shake.

 

And we will be the people in that future

Built from a present that promises not much

Except ageing

We will be there hoping to die soon.

 

It breaks our hearts that this is the mindset that many of these students grow up in. Poverty is hopelessness, but thriving is hope. This is what we stand against with every child that is welcomed into Solid Rock and every dollar that is raised. We stand against hopelessness. Yes, the children and families we serve can use a new bed or a bag of beans, but more than that they need hope. Stumbling, imperfect though we are, we want to be a participant in ending hopelessness.

“…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” Isaiah 85:10.

Our sacrifice of money or time or prayers can, and does, create hope. The encouragement of a teacher builds hope in each student that they really can graduate. Education for children builds hope in each mother, that one day their child will be able to provide for their own family. Our dream is that in 2065 the students who graduate from Solid Rock will be 55 and still be able to say “I have a full life ahead of me.” Most of all, it will be them who will look around and say “how can I bring hope where there is none?” If poverty is believing that in 2065 nothing will have changed, thriving is believing that the best is always yet to come.

 

 


The Sacrifices of Service… Stories of the Solid Rock Teachers

 Teacher Sunday grew up in the Arua district, not far from Solid Rock Christian School, with a love of dancing, serving the Lord, and playing games with children. She dreamed of a profession and a calling where she could shepherd and mentor children in a meaningful way, so Sunday went to a local teacher’s college and pursued becoming a lower primary teacher. Along the way she met her husband, got married, and at 24 found herself living at home as he went to work. As she says: “At first I was staying at home but praying to get a school that will make me a role model in the community and teach me how to develop a child socially, physically, spiritually, and mentally.” She knew that she was meant for more, and had more to learn, but didn’t know where to look. Then, Sunday got wind of a new school opening up for the poorest children in her community, started by a local church. She decided to apply, and was one of the first teachers hired when Solid Rock opened in 2015. This is now her fourth year at the school, and over the last three and a half years she has grown into the Senior Women’s Teacher, the Class Teacher for 1st grade leading the other two 1st grade teachers, and the Sanitation Coach for the students. As she says “It is now my fourth year since I started working.  I enjoy the services I am offering to the children and also enjoy the services given to me.” 

Every day, Teacher Sunday gets up at around 5, before dawn, so that she can make it to class on time. She walks over a mile to get to school and often arrives tired. After teaching all day, she then has to walk back home along the dusty road. It takes away time from grading papers, spending time after class with her students that need it, and getting to spend time to recharge with her husband Philip. Time management is a struggle for her, but she’s committed to continuing to serve these kids despite the challenge.

 

Teacher Jimmy also grew up in the same tribe as many of the students. He studied at the local teacher’s college, and also gained a certificate as a Peer Instructor in Computers. Says Jimmy- “I started working with solid rock Christian school immediately after completing my studies at the college. But before that I had been praying to be teaching in a school that will also develop me spiritually so after learning about Solid Rock Christian School being under a church (Arua Community Church), I had to join the School and as for now I feel am in the right place and I really enjoy the service provided to me and I feel free to work with the children under such environment.

   Every day, Teacher Jimmy also gets up before dawn. He’s one of the lucky ones who has a motorcycle to use to get to school, but fuel prices are skyrocketing, so he has to be careful in how much he rides. He frequently stays later to play football with the kids, or help set up for Sunday school that weekend. Like fuel prices, rent prices are also rising with the influx of middle- and upper-class South Sudanese who are fleeing their country. Closer housing provided by the school will make a huge impact on his ability to mentor his students and be present with them.

 

 

 

Teacher Godfrey in one room of his two-room house.

Teacher Godfrey never thought he would be a teacher. He thought he was cut out to be a lawyer. But after completing his education, he found that the kind of mentorship and leadership that teaching would give him the opportunity to do was what he was really called to. Like his father and grandfather before him, Godfrey became a teacher. He is also married, with two daughters of his own, but for the last two years, he has not lived with them. Rather, like many working professionals in Uganda, he has come to teach at Solid Rock on his own, until a suitable housing situation can be found for his family. As of talking to him last, he hadn’t seen them in three months. Every day he gets up before dawn, prays for the day, put on one of his four shirts, and goes to school. As an upper primary teacher, he often stays until about 6 or even 7 at night, teaching the children who need extra help to prepare for their first exams this November.

     These teachers have never had a Teacher Appreciation Week. There’s no PTA planning a luncheon for them, nothing like that. But WE haven’t forgotten their hard work. We see it, and we want to honor them.

For those of you who have already contributed to the Teacher Housing Fund, THANK YOU! If you want to appreciate these teachers and help them as they serve these students, you can…..

Write an encouraging letter to a Solid Rock Teacher here 

Contribute to the Teacher Housing Fund here!


Cracking Open the Floodgates of Hope

The campus was bustling with parents, children, and staff bright and early in the morning last Monday. Moms and dads greeted each other from across the halls as they walked with their students of various grades into the classrooms. Teachers jogged from office to classroom, stopping to greet each other, parents, and students every ten feet. The principal himself strode around the field, here and there shaking a parent’s hand or patting a student on the head. Slowly first and then with more and more volume, the families came, all carrying some sort of school supply to contribute– a roll of toilet paper, a ream of printer stock, a broom or the like. Bit by bit, the campus slowly filled.

Most families were old hats who had been bringing their kids here for two years. Their kids eagerly ran ahead of their parents. The most noticeable ones were the assorted new moms with little ones in tow. They wandered around or stood pivoting in place searching for a classroom or teacher. Inevitably, they found this one corner of the far building, where a dozen moms with nervous-looking 6 and 7 year olds were lined up outside the classroom door, school supplies in hand, as the smiling first grade teacher unlocked the room. The little students had brand-new pen cases, and were wearing their best dress or shirt for their first day of class. Together, parents and children filed into the classroom, and it began to crowd up fast. Parents sat at the too-small desks squeezed in with their little ones and the teacher’s desk was crowded with people, all giving their names, and showing the school supplies they had brought to contribute to be checked off. It was a bustling, nervously energetic, and happy place to be.

moms hanging out after dropping off the kids.

However, as you look around you can’t escape the reality that this is no ordinary classroom. For these students, their best first-day of school outfit is a dirty t-shirt and the only pair of intact shorts they own. Many girls have dresses that are a size off, or maybe missing a shoulder. Almost all of them are going to wear the exact same thing the next day, and the next. No one has arrived in a minivan, let alone a car. Many have walked over a mile and bear the dust up their legs to show for it. For half these first-graders, this is their first time in a classroom. They have had no preschool to speak of, and their parents who hadn’t finished middle school themselves are unlikely to have prepared them at home. The arm muscles of many of the girls, still so young, look weathered from carrying water, charcoal, or a baby for hours on end. The have no toys, no backpacks, and no lunches. These families are not competing against anyone for status or reputation–they’re competing against their own circumstances just to get by another year.

Moms and kids outside the P1 (first grade) classroom.

Over the course of the week, I’ve been able to speak to many parents, most of whom have no idea why I’m here. If they speak English, they each have told me something interesting about where they come from and what this school means to them and their students. The mother of one of the new first graders said that her little boy was the one who convinced here to apply for this school. At just 6 years old he had heard about it from his friends and desperately wanted to go. One dad said that he was so thankful that his daughter had somewhere to go during the day where she wouldn’t be pursued by strange men and persuaded to marry. The conversation that sticks with me most is one that I had with the dad of a new student. I was outside the school gate as he picked up his son, his only child, and he made a point of walking up and shaking my hand. He told me that his son, Elvis, had been in preschool and had received low marks during his penultimate year. When Elvis heard that he was next to lowest in his class, he told his dad that he was going to work so hard that he would be fifth in his class by the end of the next year. The next year, Elvis finished sixth. The pride that shown from this father’s face as he told this story of his son was like a burst of sunshine. He said he was so proud that he had somewhere the would nourish and encourage his hardworking son. I told him that I worked for Zozu Project, the organization that supported Solid Rock Christian School, and he said “We are so excited to create this opportunity for our kids in this community. I am thankful for your help also. We are all of us working together for these children.” His enthusiasm reminded me of the ownership that this whole community has over this school, that they’re in this struggle of hard work to provide for their kids.

Elvis and his dad

This is a land of struggle. Mothers struggle against starvation, fathers struggle against unemployment, farmers struggle against draught, children struggle against diseases, and everyone struggles against abandonment and loneliness. Most of them own these struggles. They pray and they work and they fight hard, even though they don’t even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. But as this father showed me, there is passionate faith here in this hot and dry place that one day it will be better. It’s like there is a heavy flood of hope stuck behind huge gates just waiting to be unleashed. Over the last two years, Solid Rock Christian School has cracked open the floodgates of hope. These parents are experiencing the first fruits. But there’s so much more to be let loose! There’s so many more children to sponsor, so many more jobs to create, so many more classrooms to build! Just this year we had to turn away over 80 students because we don’t have the physical or financial capacity. Let’s join with these hopeful, struggling families, for as Elvis’s dad said “we are all of us working together” for the streams of hope to flow in this dry land.


“Do the people where you come from know?”

Richard, the social worker at Solid Rock, and I were going to visit the houses of two brand new P1 students: Fibi (pronounced like Phoebe) and Jackson. We walk through the hot, dusty bush to get to Fibi’s house first. I don’t think I can stress hot and dusty too much. The wind is gusty today, giving the whole arid place the feel of an impoverished western frontier town, but in Africa. It’s the kind of hot and dusty that makes your eyes dry and water at the same time. We approach Fibi’s house followed by the usual smattering of village kids curious to see what the white person is doing there.
As soon as they see us coming, members of the household pull out plastic deck chairs in bright blue for us. Plastic deck chairs in bright colors are a staple around here, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice from even the most meager of households. I have never met people with such a capacity for sitting with guests. These bright plastic chairs make any guest feel quite honored to be visiting.

Fibi and her sister outside their hut home.



Settling ourselves into these two bright blue thrones, Richard and I look around for Fibi. Her mom emerges from the hut and settles herself comfortably on the ground at our feet, as is the custom with respected guests and a limited number of chairs to go around. The assorted women of the household–whether they are sisters or aunts I can’t tell–sit under the eves of their grass-thatched hut to watch and listen. With respect, Richard begins to ask in Lugbara all about Fibi’s family and her household. Aside from the singular english words like “toilet” and “mattress,” I don’t understand a thing. As I’m trying to follow along from the questions on the questionnaire that Richard is holding, I see a small baby, just barely able to walk, emerge from the hut. She’s wearing a neatly made, slightly too-big bright orange dress. Toddling quickly yet clumsily towards her mother, she reaches out her hands and climbs into mom’s lap. Then, mother reaches under her shirt, takes her breast out by her hand, and the baby, with determined grip and thirsty lips begins to suckle. I’m so taken aback at this exposed moment of a completely natural thing that I hastily avert my eyes, but I don’t think the mother minds. It’s amazing how accustomed you get here to things that to us are totally out of the ordinary.         Richard asks to see where Fibi sleeps, so we walk into their hut. As all the houses are, it’s very dark, and as clean as dirt can be. Fibi sleeps behind a curtain that divides the hut in half, on a thatch mat next to her family. No mattress, no pillow. It’s a testament to the poverty here that I look at that and think “not bad.” Richard starts asking about Fibi’s medical history. Though she is but 5 years old, she’s had malaria and parasites. Fibi herself doesn’t smile or cast more than a glance at us. She sits on the ground looking at our feet. She looks sad, lonely. Nothing like her older sister, who has been at Solid Rock for two years and is all smiles and posing for the camera. I wonder if her sister also used to be sullen, and if Fibi too will come out of her shell and be happy at Solid Rock. Their mother is, by what I can tell, beyond thankful. She is so attentive to us, so welcoming to Richard, and eager to accept when he offers to pray for her and her family. I wonder at the fact that people who have so little, and rejoice at the mere chance to send their children to elementary school, can often have so much faith.

Bidding farewell to them, we walk about 100 yards up the road to Jackson’s house. We are greeted in a similarly respectful fashion, and bidden to sit on the one bench outside the door. Jackson’s sister runs up, topless, with some dirty leggings on, wrapping a soiled scarf around her bare chest. She looks at us, and goes inside. A little later, she emerges in a dress. Or, what once was a dress. This dress, in America, would have long ago been destined, not for the thrift store, but for the rubbish pile. The upper layer of the skirt is totally missing from the front and right side, and hanging on by a thread to the left. There is a long rip from the belly button to the back around the middle, so she ties a scarf to keep it up. There was once a white collar that is now the color of red, dusty dirt succumbed to by everything here that once was white. This is the most sorry excuse for a dress that I have ever seen anyone wear, and it was what she rushed hastily to put on when guests came.


The mother of Jackson turns to me and says something in Lugbara. Richard translates: “She is wondering if the people where you come from know what our life is like, how vulnerable we are?” With nothing else to say, I answer, camera in hand, “That is why I am here. To tell them.” As I write this now, I realize that I can’t sponsor all of these children. I can’t donate thousands to build their classrooms that will hopefully be in use long after we are gone. But just like Mick and Elaine a year ago said to me, “come and see,” I can take my camera and in a small way say to those I know “come and see.” $35 a month may not seem like much. But even if you never write a single letter, there is a mom and a child out there whose lives are impacted forever by that gift. The hope that Jackson’s mom has–he is the first child of hers to be sent to school– is palpable. Sometimes I look at these circumstances, and don’t see much hope. But thanks to Solid Rock and Zozu Project, she does, and that hope is worth everything in the world.


To Raymond, from Mick, your sponsor

We met Raymond during our first trip to Uganda in 2013. He came across as a bit of a prankster to be honest, full of energy and always with that infectious smile. Our third trip was in 2015 and was to celebrate the opening of Solid Rock Christian School in February of that year. Joy and excitement abounded as 200 new children were starting their first year. That smile of Raymond’s that was so evident on our previous trips was absent during this visit. The reason, we learned, was that Raymond wasn’t going to be able to attend the school because he lacked a sponsor. As we had developed a relationship with Raymond, our family made the decision to sponsor him. I’ll never forget that moment where we had the privilege to express to him our intent. Tears filled our eyes as he sprinted off to tell the news to his parents. Those tears flowed even more freely when he arrived at school the next day to begin his first day at Solid Rock Christian School.

Raymond in the yellow collared shirt, sitting proudly beneath Mick.

We just returned from a trip to Uganda last week and once again our relationship with Raymond has dominated my thoughts. I no longer saw him as this mischievous prankster that I knew from our earliest trips. Nor did I see the forlorn version that I witnessed before he received a sponsorship. And I didn’t even see the unfiltered joyous Raymond that I enjoyed after he was notified that he could attend SRCS. This version was one of hope and confidence. It was one that read books with ease that he previously couldn’t have hoped to comprehend. It was one that confidently stated “I dream of becoming a pilot so I can care for my family”. It was a version that was just chosen “head boy” which is the Ugandan version of being chosen school president. He is seen as a leader and is looked up to by his classmates. He is a young man who is on his way to fulfilling his dreams.

I had the opportunity to chat with Raymond and look back on our relationship that has developed from that curious young boy joking with the missionary doctor. It has developed to a friendship that led him to look me in the eye and state, “I will always remember that day I was sponsored. It was my best day”. To have the privilege of being a part of someone’s “best” day is the most humbling of feelings. I say this not in a self serving way, as I too count this opportunity as one of my “best” days and an unending privilege. I say this instead as encouragement for those of you who may be considering sponsorship. It is a life changer and one that I now know profoundly effects both the child and the sponsor. I thank my friend Raymond for this honor. I look forward to the day he lands a plane with him at the controls. Go chase your dreams Raymond.

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