Travel Teaches Teachers: Empowering Girls in Uganda

by Eve Schwartz OPC ’06

This year, I received a grant from the Penn Charter Science Advisory Board, a consortium of OPCs in science led by Steve Kron OPC ’79, to fund my three-week research trip to the Bududa Learning Center (BLC) in Uganda. The goals of my summer research were to discover why girls in rural Uganda leave education after completing primary school and to find ways to improve their chances of success after graduation.

The Bududa Vocational Academy (BVA) program outside of Mbale (about a five- hour drive from Kampala, the capital) served as an important connection during my trip. Founded in 2002, BVA provides microfinance loans, schooling to orphans, and vocational skills to its students, ages 5 to adult. Children of Bududa, a weekly Saturday program, provides orphans who have lost one or both family members to HIV/AIDS with the resources and skills necessary to improve their chances for success.

David Kern, former director of Lower School at Penn Charter, and his wife, Karen Vaccaro, helped build the first BVA building in 2002. After leaving Penn Charter, David and Karen moved to Uganda for a year to volunteer as school administrators. While I was in Bududa, they served as my hosts.

Girls living in Uganda face a number of challenges that can significantly impact their wellbeing, development and future. They are more likely than their male counterparts to drop out of school, marry early, have unplanned pregnancies and experience poverty. Girls attending school often face gender bias and discrimination in both the curriculum and from teachers, and schools often fail to provide them with a safe learning environment. Obstacles for girls are magnified within the country’s growing rural populations, such as those in the Bududa District of Uganda. Social scientists agree that adolescent girls hold the key to success in the country’s race to prevent the population from tripling by 2050. The current population totals about 30 million people.

The Foundation for the Bududa Learning Center, the nonprofit that assists with BVA funding, comes from a variety of Quaker sources, including the African Great Lakes Initiatives and Friends Peace Team. At Penn Charter, first graders learned about Africa with David, and Lower School students donated sneakers and clothing. In the spring, Middle School students gave a presentation about issues in rural Uganda and hosted a dress-down day that raised enough money to sponsor an orphan.

At Bududa Learning Center, I taught programs about health and reproductive rights, women’s empowerment and life skills, and I provided students and teachers with curriculum resources for professional development. Every day I hiked two miles to BLC, on muddy paths that wound through mountainsides that were dotted with dozens of small earthen huts and small subsistence farms with cows and chickens. Almost every child and adult greeted me, mixing an English phrase that they all know with Lugisu, the local language: “Mzungu, how are you? Mulembe!” or “White girl, how are you? Hello!” For me, this represented the welcoming nature of Bududa.

Two days a week I taught English classes with teachers who were receptive to using games and inquiry-based activities in their lessons. During the afternoons, I conducted lessons on women’s empowerment and identity to students in the nursery school teacher training program. I adapted some of these lessons from Penn Charter’s Middle School advisory curriculum and others from Girl Up Initiative Uganda, a United Nations group that provides young women with education and economic empowerment to be leaders in their communities.

A primary focus of my visit was on family planning efforts. On Wednesday evenings, a representative from TASO (The AIDS Support Organization) collaborated with BLC teachers who educated students about HIV contraction and sexual health and wellbeing. Karen, David and I also visited neighboring schools to develop our understanding of the myriad of challenges facing schools and students alike. I was most surprised to learn that each instructor teaches about 100 students in every class!

Each Tuesday and Wednesday, before the afternoon downpours started, I partnered with Martha, the BLC social worker, and we journeyed up into the mountains to conduct site visits for the orphans of the Children of Bududa program. With Martha as my translator and guide, we evaluated caregivers on the cleanliness of their home and conducted surveys and interviews to gain information about the various types of obstacles that could limit a student’s ability to get to school. Typically, the caregivers are “aunties” or an elderly grandmother who is responsible for up to five young children. The BLC Foundation provides support to the orphans and their caregivers through individual sponsorships. These donations provide a school scholarship for an orphan, and sometimes a source of income for a family. The goal is to reduce the number of challenges that students and families encounter every day, thereby improving their chances to graduate from secondary school.

I am thankful to the Science Advisory Board for funding my research work at Bududa. I learned a tremendous amount about obstacles that women face in developing countries, and I plan to use this work to teach students about public health in seventh grade biology, health classes, and through work with the sixth grade food insecurity service project. Overall, this work and funding speak to Penn Charter’s commitment to embrace opportunities that push students and teachers alike to lead lives that make a difference.