Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shot@Life Trip Blog Day 1: UNICEF and Railway School

We're finally out in the daylight and starting to see Kampala! Our first stop was to UNICEF offices for an overview of the country's child health situation. Some progress is much more encouraging than I anticipated and some challenges are much greater than I imagined.

Uganda shows phenomenal growth with 7-8% GDP growth per year for the last 10 years - faster than China. We met officials from the Ministry of Health proud to be in partnership with UNICEF to employ innovation in programs dizzying in scope. Mosques and churches work together hosting Family Health Days at houses of worship easily accessible to families four times a year.

However, the director took some rosy sheen off of the pretty pictures in my UNICEF donor literature back home. For instance, it's fantastic that every child in Uganda can get a free primary school education now, yet K-8 education doesn't give vocational skills necessary to find a job and secondary education is too big an investment for families in extreme poverty. With the world's highest fertility rate, child health care coverage is not rising quickly and every program must be evaluated in real time to take care they don't make things worse. "A country is like an elephant," he said. "It takes a long time to start moving and once it starts dancing, you have to be very careful where it steps or it could be disastrous." Nonetheless, the promise of the Family Health Day program and cell phone tech innovations give much reason for hope (more on these later).

The highlight of the day was visiting Railway Primary School, serving 1306 children from surrounding slum areas. Each class has between 80-120 kids and four teachers. The children - uniformed, disciplined, but full of personality - welcomed us warmly and couldn't wait to jump into our pictures.

The problems the students of Railway face are extraordinary. Many are orphans, live in one room homes, are affected by HIV/AIDS, and have to find odd jobs to try to earn money after school. In the recent past, most girls were pregnant by age 11. Yet inside school gates, kids are encouraged by teachers who are more family than mere staff. And lives are changing dramatically for the better.

We were blown away with how much is done with few resources. All around the school are positive messages and even some about sexual health ("Body Changes Are Not Abnormalities. They Are Signs of Body Growth") painted on rocks. Kids performed skits and songs for us about the importance of sanitation and immunization ("Sanitation, you are our are precious!). Girls make crafts from straw and waste paper to raise money for books and material for cloth sanitary pads. At every turn, solutions to the thorniest problems are found with creativity and love.

Overall, I was amazed at how at ease I felt as I saw familiar feelings reflected in people around me. UNICEF field staff are driven by the same passions that motivate Shot@Life champions. Children in poverty are silly, theatrical, clever, and beautiful...just like my own daughters. That's why I'm here. Because I would never sit idly by if my own kids needed help like this. And we're not about to give up on the children of Uganda.


Mary Taylor-Johnson said...

Wow -- what a powerful experience. Your description of the school raised a lot of questions from Annie and Grace, who pointed out at in Evanston, they have classrooms with about 20 kids and often 2 or more teachers. A humbling contrast!

Lynda @MommyPowers said...

Thank you for sharing your story with us. It inspires me to do all I can to help! said...

Thank you for sharing this useful information.

Eriko said...

Sending encouragement to the children and their teachers from over here!

Jennifer DeFranco said...

Excellent recap, Cindy! Your experience is worth so much and your compassion is priceless!