It’s been 27 years since my last conversation with my mother. Like many girls born in rural Uganda in the late 1950s, she did not finish school before she was married off. She often told me, “I never got my degree but one day, my little man, you will.”
She instilled in me the value of the education she was not able to complete. Holding my small hand, she guided my right forefinger as she taught me how to scribble my ABCs in the dust. She taught me English by pointing to a tree, hut or cow and asking me to repeat their English names after her. She then translated the same words into our mother tongue of Runyankole. When I was frustrated, I’d ask, “Mama, why do I have to learn these foreign phrases?”
As if foretelling the future, she held her pen right before my eyes. “Here is your pen, hold it firmly, for it and this new foreign language will be your compass to navigate this world.”
My mother died of breast cancer when I turned 6.
My father dropped out of school in grade three to take care of his family’s cattle herd as the eldest boy of his family, but he, too, wanted me to have a good education. Soon after my mother’s passing, he took me 30 miles away to live with her brother. He knew education standards were better in my uncle’s county, and schools were closer than they were in our village.
The journey to school
But “closer” is a relative term in Uganda. I had an 8.8-mile commute each way.
When I was 7, I’d get up by 5 a.m. to help gather the cows from the farm and to help my cousins with the milking as the early morning orange sun rose over the hills of my village of Kempungu. Then I’d drink a cup of milk and eat a baked sweet potato and head to school. This would be my only meal until the evening. Soon after my breakfast, at around 6:30 a.m., I would run 8.8 miles barefoot to school. And it wasn’t a leisurely jog. I had to be there in time for the 8 a.m. bell and the hygiene check at 8:15. Latecomers got six strokes of the cane.
The path was unpaved and sometimes dangerous. Some days a snake would slither across my path or I might run into a hyena or wild dogs that could have rabies. With the stick I carried to protect myself, I killed several snakes on my way to school and scared away many dogs.
During the rainy season, from late September to late November or even early December, there was an additional obstacle. A big swampy creek about a mile from school flooded daily. I’d take off my school uniform and put it in my book bag to keep it dry. I’d swim with one hand while using the other hand to hold the bag on my head.
If the water was too deep, I would ask an older cousin to carry me on his back.
But I didn’t mind the long journey. Neither did my cousins and friends. Sure, the trek was challenging, but school was a haven for us. I was always glad to arrive. It was the one place where I felt like a kid. I didn’t have to do the unending chores of fetching water or firewood or cutting grass to thatch a roof. And I didn’t have to worry about — and care for — my sick relatives, like the uncle dying of AIDS.
School usually let out at 4:30, and the journey home was more relaxed than the morning commute. We took our time and enjoyed it, splashing water at each other. It was our own refreshment after a long day at school.
On our return from school, an elderly woman would offer us mangoes from her garden. But she was quick to chastise us if we grabbed the mangoes before they ripened. She had an abundance of Obuntu — a word in my language roughly translated as “human kindness” — that sometimes is so rare in Uganda today.
My early years in the classroom taught me the importance of a public education, and its inherent value as the greatest equalizer. My school was the one space where the children of farm workers, village chiefs and peasants came together. It did not matter how wealthy or powerful your family was or how many family members were living or dead. What mattered most at Katebe Primary School was what kind of student you were.
My math and science teacher truly believed in me. Mr. Aine could see my inquisitive mind and ability to solve math problems and pushed me to work hard. When it came to national exams, only two of us in the entire grade seven passed with top marks.
I’ve been very fortunate. Many of my peers from school and community weren’t able to overcome the challenges they faced to obtain a good education. Research shows that despite the economic growth in Uganda and the move by the government to allow all children to attend school free of charge, it’s still an uphill road to climb for a child born in rural areas to complete their education. Seventy percent of children living in rural poverty do not complete primary school. There are many reasons for this high dropout rate — including the long distances that some children must travel.
I made it thanks to both strangers and loved ones who believed in me and sacrificed for me. I’ve always felt an immense sense of gratitude and responsibility to pay it forward and help all of Uganda’s children obtain a great education. In July 2015, I co-founded Teach For Uganda on the premise that young Ugandans like myself, who have had the opportunity of a good education, can return to our communities and teach for two years. Together, we can provide a different and positive pathway for our young brothers and sisters who live in challenging circumstances through no fault of their own.
Luckily, I no longer have an 8.8-mile commute by foot. But I do sometimes seek peace of mind with an early morning run. When I see that orange sun rise, I remember the wisdom of my mother, who inspired me to dream big and to use the power of the pen as my compass.
James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For Uganda. He’s an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, a 2015 Global Fellow at Acumen and an alumni of the Global Health Corps Fellowship. He tweets @Kassaga4UG.