Help Build a Humanist School In Uganda! August 16, 2013

Help Build a Humanist School In Uganda!

This is a guest post by Sean McGuire. Sean lives in Montreal with his wife and young son. He blogs under the pseudonym Godless Poutine at My Secret Atheist Blog, which is becoming less and less a secret every day.

Kasese Humanist Primary School students display books that were donated to them by the non-profit group Books Abroad

Some readers of this blog may recall Cathleen O’Grady’s excellent guest post The Less Than 1%: How Uganda’s Atheists Are Fighting Back. It’s about how atheists and secular-minded people, a tiny minority in the African country, are striving to make things better for their community:

In many countries around the world, religious groups are pushing for conservative social policies and retaining their grip on society by dominating the public discourse and provision of social services. In Uganda, an extraordinarily religious country, the small but vocal atheist movement is pushing back — hard.

Uganda is at a crucial crossroads now as a society. American Christian fundamentalist churches and other organizations have sent waves of evangelists to this country. To some degree, they have brought about rampant and violent persecution of gays and lesbians. It is now unsafe to be publicly gay in this country — people have been killed. This is, of course, the home of the Kill the Gays legislation.

Superstition is also a major problem in this country. Humanist activist Leo Igwe recently reported that:

In Uganda, the belief in witchcraft and ‘black’ magic is very strong. The term witchcraft evokes fear in the minds of people across the country. Very often people attribute death, diseases or any misfortune to witchcraft. Witchcraft accusations often take place among neighbours, family or community members. People hate or react violently to anybody suspected of using occult powers to harm or destroy. A witch is generally seen as an ‘enemy within’ who should be eliminated.

Recently, a man suspected of practicing witchcraft was beheaded in the nearby Kayunga District. These occurrences are not uncommon in Uganda and can often be justified with passages directly from the Bible.

In such an environment, there is a real need for critical thinking and science-based education, unclouded by superstitious beliefs.

Well, in her article, O’Grady mentioned a school that was working to develop those very skills: the Kasese Humanist Primary School, which is located on the western side of Uganda, on the grounds of an abandoned train station. It was founded in 2010 by Bwambale Robert, who only a year earlier founded the Kasese United Humanist Association:

KHPS staff standing in front of one of the current school buildings (Bwambale Robert)

The school offers nursery and primary school education to kids ages 3-13. It runs on a foundation of science and embraces Humanist values and ethics.

The Story So Far

I want to start by telling you how I became involved with the school and what I’ve seen happen there, in the hopes that you will see that great things can be done with relatively little money.

My connection with the school began in May 2012. I was researching secular charities after being deeply impressed by [The Thinking Atheist] Seth Andrew’s 44th birthday fundraiser that successfully raised $30,000 for two secular aid organizations.

I wanted to learn more about the school, so I emailed its director, Bwambale Robert, and he agreed to let me profile him and his school on my blog.

Bwambale Robert

While writing the profile, I learned that an American, Daniel Loving, would be volunteering there. It was during one of my many online discussions with Daniel that we came up with a plan to help the students. It all stemmed from this comment from Daniel (edited below):

I would say nearly everyone at the school — both administrators and students — is suffering from some level of malnourishment. So sometimes, a few times a day, I go and get extra food for the students. It makes them more placid and easier to teach. If their brains are working properly, I do not have to repeat lessons, either.

There is more starch here than you can eat. They need vitamin B12 (e.g. meat or eggs). Three eggs will run you just around 20 cents American here.

Some of the local population maintain gardens to sell produce. (Daniel Loving)

And so, with Bwambale’s support, we launched our first fundraiser to build a chicken coop at the school. We planned for the structure to be made of brick, but changed it to a more portable wood design since the land was being rented from a railroad company and erecting anything permanent wasn’t productive in the long term.

Word was spread though several blogs, Canadian Atheist and Pharyngula in particular, and with the help of over seventy generous donors, the fundraiser was a resounding success. I remember having to go to the local Western Union office twice and having the attendant ask me both times if I was sure this $2,000 was being sent to a legitimate organization.

It was very legit. Construction of the coop began in August 2012 and it is now complete. The chickens are healthy and are producing eggs for the children on a daily basis. Readers of atheist and Humanist blogs were making a tangible difference in the lives of children in a country that has been riddled with famine.

The next challenge came in January of this year when I was contacted by Bwambale and informed that the school was in the process of acquiring land of its own. Remember, the school was (and still is) renting its land and building from a Ugandan railroad company, making its long-term future uncertain and permanent improvements to the land risky. Potential school projects were also put on hold so that “rent” could be paid from the donation amounts.

More recently, the Ugandan government has begun to remove the old tracks on the school’s current site in anticipation of running a new modern rail system through the region. Although Bwambale assures me that their land is secure in the short-term, there is no telling how this will go over the next few years. Things can be unpredictable politically in Uganda, and public land has been known to be sold to private developers at a moment’s notice in the past.

But for the time being, the land was theirs… but only if they could pay for it. The school only had enough for a 50% down payment. The other 18,000,000 Ugandan shillings (around $7,000 dollars) had to be raised in order to finalize the transaction.

Students on a tree-planting exercise at the new land.

Again, with the help of some prominent bloggers spreading the word, the fundraiser was a success and the land transaction went through! This time, Atheist Alliance International graciously let us use their donation page and the rest of the required money was transferred to Uganda — saving me many more awkward visits to Western Union.

The land has a single building on it with a large gaping hole in its side — robbers stole the metal door that had once been in the wall! There was also no power. So work began to patch up the hole and make this building usable for classrooms.

Worker repairing Building One, the sole abandoned building on the new land, which will house some small classrooms (Bwambale Robert)

Once the repairs were complete, I started up another fundraiser to bring electricity to the land. We raised $600, which was enough. Holes have been dug and the process of erecting the power poles is now in progress.

On September 11th, the Pathfinders Project will arrive in Kasese to work with the students at the school. During their stay, the Pathfinders will be blogging about their experiences. They will be bringing special kits donated by the James Randi Educational Foundation to teach the children how to think critically.

In addition to all the positive developments above, the school has benefited from other innovative initiatives such as the Curly Questions Project directed by Swinburne University of Technology’s Faculty of Design in Australia. According to project lead James Marshall, the project has two aims:

“We wanted to support Kasese Humanist Primary School in achieving its mission, which is ‘with science, we can progress’,” he said.

“But we also wanted to engage our digital media design students and world-leading scientists in affecting real world change.”

The university donated computer equipment and an overhead projector along with funds to renovate the existing school computer laboratory.

In addition to educating children, this school provides real benefits to the community at large:

  • Employment to locals: teachers, cook, bursar, computer instructors, security guards and gardeners.
  • Library services are open to the general public as well as the children.
  • The school operates a barber shop which cuts hair at half the regular going price. This improves hygiene for many people in the community.

Your donation to the school will not only have an effect on the minds of future generations of Ugandans, but will also have an immediate benefit for the parents of the children and the entire town.

Where we’re at now.

That’s the story so far. The vast majority of this success has been due to donations from blog readers like you.

I wanted to tell you the whole story so you would see just how much we can achieve in the atheist and secular community when we work toward a common cause. The school wasn’t build by wealthy benefactors, but rather by people who read a blog post or listened to a podcast and donated a few dollars online. They’ve made a real difference in the lives of children in another part of the world.

As it stands, the school has this new land but it’s not suitable for use just yet. The majority of its classrooms are still located on the rented land and its long-term future is unknown. The next step is to construct classrooms on the new land and move the school there.

To do this, I’ve set up another fundraiser and the good people at Atheist Alliance International have agreed to collect the funds and send them to the school. My goal is to spread the word and get people donating.

You can help us by giving a little bit here.

Yes, I know, the $35,000 goal seems very high, but we’re talking about building a whole new school on permanent and secure land so that real learning can begin without Bwambale having to divert a large portion of his school’s funds toward rent.

We can help these kids learn how to think critically and get a real education. At the very least, it’s a respite from an ongoing onslaught of fundamentalist Christian dogma and religiously-motivated homophobic attitudes.

At the same time, by helping this school prosper, you’re helping change the perception of secular institutions in this highly religious environment.

The school’s mission is to foster critical thinking free of religious and supernatural dogmas. You can help teach these kids how to think and not just what to think. Please donate if you can.

An elderly Muslim woman makes a point at the most recent parent-school meeting. This is a testament to the bridges being built between this secular school and the surrounding religious community.

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