Welcome to graduation day at the UNIFAT Elementary School in Gulu, Uganda
Many years ago I met a Ugandan who, as a young child, was among thousands who had been abducted to be child soldiers. After two years Denis Okema managed to escape to Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, where he was adopted by Abitimo Odongkara, a local teacher and community activist. She saw the plight of children, many of whom were orphans fleeing civil strife and violence that plagued rural areas of northern Uganda, and began teaching them under a tree near her home while also providing food, shelter, and a safe nurturing environment.
Abitimo established a school called UNIFAT, the Upper Nile Institute For Appropriate Technology, which soon became a beacon of hope for thousands of children and continues to serve the families of nearly 900 Gulu children grades K-7th. Denis often visited my classroom, and twice was accompanied by Abitimo. These friendships led me to partner with a Philadelphia-based NPO named Friends of UNIFAT, which is headed by Abitimo’s son Patrick. Working with them I learned about the need to help teachers and school administrators carry-on the legacy of Abitimo, who died in 2016, by instilling in youth the principles of human rights and teaching them effective Life Skills for Global Citizenship.
Last November we traveled 8000 miles to Gulu, where I met administrators from the school and region and worked with 45 UNIFAT teachers and staff, including an intensive 2-days of workshops. Working in small groups, participants studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their own Uganda Constitution, comparing the two and relating these to their curricular goals for each grade. The same was done for the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on Goal #3: Good Health and Well-Being. Throughout these exercises I introduced pedagogic “best practices” strategies applicable for their classrooms.
On the final day of the workshops, each group was tasked with designing a grade-appropriate outreach project for their students, incorporating the UDHR and SDGs, goals and timelines, and essential skills such as collaborative problem solving, civic responsibility, and empathy. At the conclusion, participating students and teachers were awarded certificates of achievement followed by a celebration.
In addition to the workshops, I delivered 50 kits provided by our local Days for Girls organization, which is under the leadership of Andra Bensen, and also brought three cases of supplies including a video projector.
Building upon the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers and with full support by UNIFAT administrators, augmented by funds from Friends of UNIFAT and Words Into Deeds, the initiatives arising from the workshops are already being implemented. We have established a small grants program that is already providing direct support for the new student projects and help teachers develop effective grant-writing skills.
A large room for new computers has been renovated and equipped, and staff hired to provide on-site training for teachers and students. These will enable teachers to gain computer literacy and bring internet resources into their classrooms, and allows me to have ongoing communications with teachers and students as they launch and develop their outreach projects.
My visit coincided with the end of their school year, and included joining in their graduation exercises that formally recognize being promoted to the next grade level. During the commencement activities, students from each grade level made presentations. These were accompanied by numerous speeches, with the ceremony lasting over 5 hours.
It was a joy to discover the enthusiasm and appreciation of the teachers for these educational initiatives, and the school administrators’ support for aligning the curriculum with human rights goals and citizenship training. And at the same time, we came to appreciate their lack of many basic educational resources that we take for granted, and to tailor our assistance to meet the highest priorities.