— by Coby Schoffman
Imagine living in the Middle East studying political science with an emphasis on conflict resolution. Nothing could be more present, yet at the same time, nothing could be more abstract.
I’m my last year at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel (Israel’s only private university). I decided to avail myself of the unique opportunity to study “abroad” at Koç University in Istanbul. I’m from L.A. and I graduated from Santa Monica High School, so you would think that going to college in Israel would be foreign enough for me. When I was told that no one from IDC had been sent to Turkey since the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. I signed up right away.
All these major world events were happening around me: Israel’s 2012 Operation Amud Anan (Pillar of Defense), Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park and Taksim Square demonstrations, The Arab Spring, the turmoil in Egypt. As a student trying to makes sense of all this through the prism of my textbooks and the lectures of my professors, I always kept myself emotionally detached from these developments. Even while taking cover from a Fajr missile from Gaza and watching it be intercepted by the Iron Dome, I still felt strangely disconnected from what was happening around me
In the classroom I learned to simulate situations and to analyze societal crises and cleavages. What I desperately wanted to experience was how to acts on my convictions. I wanted to know the palpable side of what conflict, poverty and social injustice really mean. I knew I could not do this in school but I also knew that school was an invaluable tool in order to give meaning and perspective on the world of events. That’s why I decided to take a semester off before I graduate, and insert myself into a completely unfamiliar environment where I would be forced to adapt and react. I wanted to choose a place where the conditions, the culture and the lifestyle would be almost completely disorienting.
I decided on Africa. I contacted a number of organizations and schools that hosted volunteers. Many of these programs seemed somewhat diluted and overly protective in that the volunteers were housed together and remained somewhat sheltered from the population. I wanted to have as few filters as possible. I wanted to go into something pretty much blindly and find my way and create my own experiences.
After a lot of research I decided on going to a small village about seven kilometers north of Kampala, Uganda. I had committed myself through a series of email exchanges, to work as a sports coach at the Kikaaya College and Vocation School in the village of Kikaaya. I’m ashamed to admit that before my trip, all I knew about Uganda was what I was able to gather from the movie The Last King of Scotland, and the gruesome 1976 Air France hijacking and the climactic rescue at Entebbe. So imagine what was going through my head as I flew from Istanbul to Entebbe International Airport. Suffice it to say I was extremely nervous and had no real idea what to expect and what was awaiting me. The school’s director picked me up at the airport at around midnight and my first 45 minutes in the country was filled with polite yet forced conversation and near complete darkness.
My first impression was one of shock. The level of poverty, the absence of plumbing, and the inconsistency of the electricity astonished me. I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming stench of burning garbage or the dilapidated infrastructure of the classrooms and the dormitories. Kikaaya seemed like a place that had been forgotten. Forgotten by whom, I don’t know. Maybe by God, or by the developed world. Either way, the place was like nothing I had ever seen before.
During my first days I was taken around the village and was briefed on my tasks and duties at the school. I was to be the sports coach and the computer science teacher. The computer ‘lab’ was consisted of about six or seven functioning computers from the early 2000’s serving about 700 students. The sports facility was a large, empty pitch of grass. Even with my limited experience I was able to see how much could be done to alleviate the school’s distress by the simple and responsible allocation of funds and labor.
I spent almost two months living with the staff and children of the Kikaaya College School. I was the only white person that I saw during my time there. And to say the least, I felt like I had been adopted into a big extended family. From the staff to the students to the other member of the village community, I felt welcome. I became close to a number of the students, and heard their stories. What was especially sad was how after a while, hearing about dead parents, childhood diseases, personal misery, and pain became oddly pedestrian. The ubiquity of hardship turned tragedy into a grotesque form of normal.
But you would never know it from the bright, beautiful aura that surrounded the children of the school. Through all this adversity, the children demonstrated not only an incredible work ethic and discipline, but also radiated sheer, unambiguous happiness. Despite the unreliable power system and lack of a steady water supply, the broken down classrooms and the crumbling infrastructure, the lackluster library and outdated computer lab, these children still found a way to be motivated. Studying from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM, the hard work and diligence these students exhibited made me, the privileged American middle-class college student, feel like a worthless, lazy, ungrateful slob. These kids were more than inspiring. They changed my life, and now I want to repay them in kind.
I returned to the United States determined to find a way to help the students and community I had just left behind in Uganda. I immediately mobilized these ideas, and this eventually led to the creation of The Nation Foundation. The Nation Foundation is a non profit organization which focuses on rebuilding schools and investing in quality 21st century, up-to-date education in the developing world. The first project of the non-profit is the Kikaaya Project.
Our goal with the Kikaaya Project is too raise enough money to rebuild the school top to bottom. This means new facilities, new student compounds, renovated libraries, restored classrooms and an adequate supply of class materials. It means investing in new technologies that will ensure a reliable water source, and a consistent power source. And it means helping the students with their tuition fees so that no one is in danger of suspension or expulsion due to lack of funds.