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I am volunteering in Jinja, Uganda, with the Phoebe Educational Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO). Part of my work involves administering a vocational school that PEFO established in December 2007 in order to help young women who had had to leave school early because they could not afford the school fees.
There are 12 students at the school, all between the ages of 16 and 23. Many of their parents died of AIDS, and they are being cared for by their grandmothers. In addition, about half of the young women are mothers themselves, and struggle to provide for the many dependents in their families. The opportunity to learn a marketable skill—in this case, tailoring—is a potentially life-changing one for them.
I was startled one night a couple months ago to receive a phone call from one of the young women at the PEFO vocational center. The reason they don’t have cell phones or the ability to make frequent pay phone calls is more or less the reason they’re in this program: they’re extremely poor.
But there was one of my brightest students, “Sarah,” 23, on the other end of the line one evening. I greeted her with pleasant surprise.
“Madam, I can’t come to class tomorrow,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the static of the pay phone line.
“Oh…well that’s okay, Sarah. It’s no problem. Thanks for telling me, though.” As an afterthought: “Is everything all right?”
She paused. “Madam, our family is visiting tomorrow for my son. Last week he fell sick, and he was lost.”
That couldn’t be right. Sarah has a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, and they are the joys of her life—especially since her husband left the family a year ago for another woman, which she talks about with lingering bitterness and pain.
“He is lost? What do you mean?”
Her voice seemed to grow fainter. “He was sick very suddenly, and we took him to the hospital, and on the way…he lost his life.” She added: “So I will not be at the school tomorrow.”
I was suddenly overflowing with condolences, offers to help, profound apologies—all of which sounded empty and clichéd as I uttered them. And just then, her phone credit ran out and the line went dead.
I spent the rest of the night alternating between attempting to call her back and fighting back my own tears. Child mortality rates in developing countries are shocking by Western standards, but they’re still little more than numbers on a page until one of the most intelligent, prepossessing young women you meet in one of those countries has the light abruptly sucked out of her life.
The next day, another PEFO staffer and I drove into her village, down bumpy, red-dirt roads lined with banana trees and mud huts in front of which children shrieked and played. Each one must have been a reminder to Sarah of what she had lost.
She was waiting for us on the side of the road, at a neighbor’s house. She smiled the same smile I saw every day at the vocational school, as if nothing were wrong. I got out of the car and gave her our gifts of bread, tea and sugar. Then, not knowing what else to do, I put my arms around her and told her I was sorry.
And then she began sobbing quietly. “Madam—I have lost all my hope.” She shook her head as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I miss my child.”
We spent the rest of the day back at her house, chatting with her neighbors and family members, playing with her little daughter (who Sarah kept obsessively by her side the whole day), and walking out to see the fields where she cultivates corn, beans, cassava and potatoes.
One of the neighbors pulled out a photo album at one point, and showed me Sarah’s late son. He was, by any measure, a beautiful child. He had his older sister’s same shy smile and his mother’s large, bright-alive eyes. At that point, after doing her best to talk and laugh with her visitors throughout the day, Sarah began brushing away tears. The neighbor quietly put away the album.
Soon after that day, the vocational project really took off; we began making deals with local schools to buy school uniforms en masse from our young vocational tailors, ensuring a potentially enormous, sustainable market for this class and all future classes. Every day I visited the school, the girls had made new skirt and shirt designs and hung them proudly on the walls. And I was starting to see a new confidence in the way the girls carried themselves—a new spark in their eyes.
Sarah continued as she always had—energetic, inquisitive and determined. She made no reference to her dead son, never faltered when other students brought their young children to the school with them for the day. But I continually wondered and worried about her state of mind.
A couple months after my visit to the village, we learned about a two-day finance and bookkeeping workshop being held in Jinja. Since the young women would be starting their own tailoring business together after graduating the vocational school, it was critical that some of them have a sophisticated grasp of accounting. (We hold periodic “Entrepreneurship” lessons at the school, but we only cover the basics.)
PEFO could only manage to pay for one young woman to attend the workshop. I thought back to all those “Entrepreneurship” classes, to the hand that was raised the most frequently, to the person who asked all those questions I often struggled to answer, to the young woman who listed seven subjects—including accounts and commerce—when asked what her favorite classes in school had been.
I met Sarah on the morning of the workshop and guided her to the hotel conference room where the lectures were being held. She was easily the youngest person there, and her simple attire stood in stark contrast to the business suits and tailored dresses of the other participants in the room.
“Now, don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I told her (though I could imagine no such thing), “and think about how this will apply to your business. You will have to use this knowledge in just a few weeks!”
She nodded, oddly quiet, and I realized she was quite nervous. “You’ll do great!” I added, and then left her to the workshop. Well, I thought, at least she’ll get some good food.
The rest of that week at PEFO, we rushed to solidify plans for the vocational students’ graduation: we picked out a place for them in their local village to set up their business, we signed up more schools to buy uniforms by the hundreds, and we began recruiting the second class in what (I hope) will be a long line of groups to have their quality of life improved significantly by acquiring the means and skills to earn a decent living for their families.
The next week, I dropped by the school and learned of all the progress the girls had been making recently. But I was especially eager to hear how Sarah had fared in her workshop.
“I will show you,” she said. She took out a notebook and opened it to a page of complex tables and figures. “This is the [incomprehensible term to me] method of accounting,” she began. And then she flipped to the next page, and the next—countless pages of meticulous notes—explaining everything she had learned in the workshop.
“At the end of the class, we had an exam on everything they taught us,” she said. “And they awarded certificates to those who passed.” At this point, she pulled out a glossy, laminated certificate with her name on it and showed it to me. “Only 18 passed.”
“How many were in the class?” I asked.
Suddenly I felt tears spring to my eyes. I picked up her certificate and stared at it. “Oh my God! That is…oh my God!”
I had the feeling then that the project was going to be a success, that the tailoring business would be in good hands when I left, that inside all of these young women were countless untapped talents that just maybe stood a better chance now of finding expression.
I know life won’t always be easy for these women. Already, many have overcome more difficulty than most people in the Western world will know in their lifetime. But all I wish for them is what I began to see happening during their time at the vocational school: pride in their abilities and confidence in their way forward. And for some of them—to find hope again after losing it along the way.