Ten years ago, long-time Holt partner Jolly Nyeko donated her land to build a school for the children of Masulita, Uganda. Most of the children had never before seen the inside of a classroom. Today, nearly 300 children attend Jolly Children’s Academy with the support of Holt sponsors.
Jolly Nyeko has started many things in her life. The first helpline to report child abuse in Uganda. One of the first organizations to help children and families recover from brutal conflict in northern Uganda. A PhD in early childhood development, which she also later finished.
But one thing Jolly Nyeko never meant to start was a school.
“Starting a school was not my idea,” says the founder and director of Holt’s long-time partner in Uganda, Action for Children (AFC), as she stands on the grounds of Jolly Children’s Academy — a primary school at the center of a village called Masulita, located about 20 miles outside of Kampala.
Today is an exciting day at Jolly Children’s Academy, where Holt sponsors have teamed up with local staff to throw a party in celebration of International Children’s Day. Earlier, the 150 children in sponsorship at Jolly Academy gathered in the grassy field between their classrooms to perform songs and dances, open gifts from their sponsors and eat a three-tiered cake with white and purple frosting. They now sit and giggle in groups, drinking soda pop and relaxing on the grounds of the school — a school that was once, but is no longer, Jolly’s farm.
“I bought this land to do some simple farming. I really wanted to do this as a hobby. So I bought this land, I started farming and I had laborers who would come and work in the gardens,” explains Jolly, a warm-spirited woman with an easy laugh and tight braids that have a slight reddish tint to them. “And all of a sudden, I started seeing children who were supposed to be in school. They were also coming to work in the gardens!”
As the director of AFC — a day job consumed with rooting out and addressing issues that keep children from reaching their potential in life — Jolly naturally felt compelled to find out why the children working in her gardens were not in school.
“I asked the parents, ‘Why aren’t these children in school?’ I was told there is no school nearby,” she says. The government school in town sits at a distance of 3 miles away, which is way too far for the children of this rural farming community to walk. They would also have to cross a swamp to get to school, and during the rainy season, the swamp floods. “So the little children wouldn’t go to school because they won’t cross the swamp,” Jolly says, her voice rising in pitch. “That touched me.”
Clearly, Jolly could not stand by and let the children of Masulita continue working as day laborers when they should be in school. But what could she do about it? “I’m a sociologist, not an educationist,” she says, laughing. She did not have time or expertise to manage a school. But she could do one thing. She could offer her two-acre plot of land to the community. “I said okay, we can start, but you will be the ones to manage [the school], not me,” she says. “It will be your school. All I will do is offer the space.”
But soon, the reluctant founder of Jolly Children’s Academy could not stop herself.
“We started off with one block classroom. They made bricks and we started,” Jolly explains. “If they made bricks, I bring cement. They bring a door, I bring a window. Little by little, we added on one room, one block, until we had enough classrooms for every class.” From there, the school became what it is now — five cement block classrooms that have become the heart of this rural farming community outside of Kampala, Uganda. The school is a bright and cheerful place with a small farm behind the classrooms where children learn agricultural science. Decorating the grounds are little signs with encouraging phrases, such as “Be a role model,” “Have good friends” and “Respect your teacher.”
Today, Jolly still serves as director of AFC and she only occasionally visits the primary school that bears her name. But the children all recognize her when they see her coming. They call her “doctor.”
“Really, I did not intend to have a school, but somehow, God in my heart was saying you need to do something because there was a great need,” Jolly says. “There was a gap.”
In rural Uganda, gaps are about as common as the steep dips and crevices in the rocky red dirt roads that meander through its small farming communities — communities that take up about 71 percent of the land in Uganda, and make up 84 percent of the population. Years of war have devastated an already inadequate infrastructure in these villages, leaving gaps of all kinds — gaps in healthcare, gaps in education, gaps in access to fair and safe lending to help families rebuild their businesses and their lives. For the children of these communities, an education is no guarantee and depends on mainly two variables — whether they have access to a school, and whether their parents can afford to pay the fees required for them to attend.
Before Jolly and the community came together to build Jolly Children’s Academy ten years ago, the children in this region faced both major obstacles.
“For children to be at school in Uganda, they need a uniform, they need scholastic requirements, and they need to pay for a meal at school and so many other requirements,” explains Lydia Nyesigomwe, Holt’s long-time country representative in Uganda. Fees to attend a primary school in Uganda range from about 100,000-150,000 shillings — or $40 — per child per term. If children need to attend boarding school, which many do as schools are so inaccessible, the cost is about 3-4 times as much. But in a community where a family may earn at best 10-20,000 shillings per month, this cost is too steep to afford on their own — particularly when a family has more than one child, which most families in Uganda do.
“Education is very expensive in Uganda,” Lydia elaborates. “The government is starting to pay for free education, but there may only be one school in a community and children must walk long distances.” Those who live too far from the school — or who have to cross a swamp — miss out if they can’t afford boarding fees. “In Uganda, we are very good at having many kids,” she jokingly adds, noting that only a limited number of children can enroll in government schools. And when choosing which children to send to school and which to keep home, Lydia says “families will often send the boy child to school, but not the girl child.”
Through sponsorship, Holt works to ensure that both boys and girls receive an equal education. But to ensure that every child in a family can attend school — in Uganda and everywhere we work — Holt works to empower not just children, but their whole families.
“One of the strengths of Holt’s sponsorship program is family sponsorship,” Lydia explains. A certain percentage of a sponsor’s monthly support goes toward their sponsored child’s education — providing fees, books, uniforms and supplies. “But part of that support,” Lydia says, “also supports the family to do certain activities that can help them move from one level to another.” What Lydia calls “family sponsorship” is what Holt calls “family strengthening.” Through our family strengthening programs, Holt sponsors equip families with tools and resources to generate a stable income. And as they become more stable and self-reliant and are able to stand on their own feet — or as they say in Uganda, when they reach “atenge” — families become equipped to independently meet their children’s needs, including paying their school fees. So while only one or two children in a family may be directly sponsored, the family has the resources to send all of their children to school.
In Uganda, Holt sponsors directly support their sponsored children through primary school. “But the little money that is received, if well utilized by the family, can support another child who is going to secondary education,” Lydia says. “It can contribute to a group savings that the family belongs to. It can buy a goat that can multiply and produce other goats that can be sold for money that can be used to provide other necessities within a family. So that is very, very critical.”
One family we meet in Masulita perfectly exemplifies how sponsorship and family strengthening work together to empower both children and their families.
Veronica is 69 years old. She has close-cropped, graying hair, a big, boisterous laugh and the energy of a much younger woman. This is a necessary attribute as she is the sole guardian for ten grandchildren, ages 6-16.
As we approach her home, Veronica grabs Lydia’s hands in her own as though a long-lost friend, and kneels in greeting. Her grandchildren peek out of every corner and crevice of her property while her eldest, 16-year-old Angel, greets us in perfect English.
Several years ago, tragedy caused Veronica to become the caregiver to her grandchildren when both Veronica’s son and daughter and their spouses died — leaving their ten children orphaned and homeless. Her son was a boda boda, or motorbike taxi, driver — a dangerous profession that causes one or two deaths every day and many more accidents in Uganda. Her daughter was an army officer.
Inside her small sitting room, Veronica perches on the edge of a chair with all ten of her grandchildren sitting on the floor behind her — filling ever inch of remaining space. Ten beautiful pairs of eyes peer at us, listening as their grandmother explains what motivates her to continue working well into her old age to provide for her many grandchildren.
“First, I get my motivation from God, Jesus Christ,” she says in Luganda. “And because I have sponsors who have come to support us, it gives me the motivation to continue looking after them.”
Two of Veronica’s grandchildren are in Holt sponsorship — 12-year-old Allen in Primary 6 at Jolly Children’s Academy, and Dorreen, in Primary 1. Incredibly, however, Veronica has been able to cover school fees for Allen and Dorreen’s siblings by building on the agricultural investments she has received from Holt and AFC. Provided with seedlings, she planted not just food to eat but crops that she can sell at a high price once they mature — including coffee beans and the eucalyptus trees that many families use to build the thatch roofs on their homes. She also saves much of what she earns and has bought goats and chickens and cows — smart investments that provide not just food, but calves, milk and eggs to sell at market.
“The money I save has been put to use so that I can continue supporting my grandchildren,” Veronica shares. Through her many enterprises, Veronica earns about 10-20,000 shillings per month. Veronica has also planned well for her grandchildren’s future — even in the event that she can no longer support them. When the eucalyptus and coffee beans mature in about 3-4 years, they will provide ample profit to save for their school fees.
“By the time they reach 16, she will be too old and she’s not sure if she can work,” Lydia explains. “So she is training them how to work and save, and harvest the coffee themselves.” Looking at Veronica, carrying a heavy basket of avocados and mangoes, it’s hard to imagine her ever losing her vitality or strength. Her drive and devotion to her grandchildren is truly inspiring.
She is committed not only to supporting and feeding them, but to seeing them surpass her own achievements. In a community where most families cannot afford to send their children to secondary school, Veronica made sure that her own children completed their high school education. And while her parents never stepped foot in a classroom, she tells us, she completed the seventh grade.
Veronica tells us that she expects Angel, her oldest grandchild, to become a doctor. Now in Senior 2 — her sophomore year — at the secondary school in town, Angel has already surpassed expectations for most of the children in her village.
“Many children drop out because their parents can’t afford to pay tuition for secondary school,” Lydia says. Through the support of Holt sponsors and her own hard work and determination— as well as her grandmother’s hard work and determination to keep her in school— Angel is already exceptional.
For a girl growing up in rural Uganda, she is an even greater exception.
“Secondary education is much more expensive than primary education,” Lydia says. And because so many families can’t afford secondary education, in some communities, parents will accept marriage proposals for their daughters at early ages. “Most children finish primary school by 15 so by 16, they are married off,” she says. “Families believe they are safer in marriage, but actually, they are not.”
Angel is now 16. She is not married, and has no plan to marry until she graduates college. As we leave, Angel expresses her gratitude to the Holt sponsors who support her brother and sister — and indirectly, her entire family. “Holt has helped my family by sponsoring some of my siblings,” she says in perfect English, her voice whispery soft. “We thank you for the help you have given us. May God bless you.”
Ten years ago, Jolly Children’s Academy welcomed the first 22 students into their classrooms. Today, enrollment stands at 295 children, ages 3 to 15.
“We started with a nursery school, P1 and P3,” Jolly says. “But because many children had not been in school even a child who would be in grade 2 would be 10 years old. So many of them are above age because they have not been in school at all.”
In many communities, once children reach a certain age, they would simply be considered too old for primary education. But at Jolly Children’s Academy, age is not an issue.
Although she now goes by “doctor,” Jolly identifies with the children of the impoverished village where she founded Jolly Academy as she too grew up in a family that struggled with poverty. “I know what poverty means,” she says. “I know what it means to go without food. I know what it means to go school and you have no school fees. Because I went through all that.”
That’s why she partners with Holt sponsors as well as the parents — and grandparents — of Masulita to ensure that at Jolly Children’s Academy, every child can attend. “As long as they want an education,” Jolly says, “they are welcome.”
Robin Munro | Managing Editor