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Building hope A Victoria-based society helps give children in a Uganda village what they want the most – an education

It has been said it takes an entire village to raise a child.

And while that conventional wisdom is normally applied to education in the western world, it is even more true for the small Ugandan village of Busabaga, where a new school has brought hope to a once-troubled community.

“At first we had an idea of one or two classrooms for kids to have shelter but today the community is looking at it as something much larger,” said John Gates of the Victoria-based New Hope Schools Society, which recently finished building six classrooms of a 12-room schoolhouse called the Victoria Lighthouse Education Centre.

“It has mobilized the community in a way we didn’t anticipate at first.”

Gates formed the society in 2003 – along with his wife Nedra and Metchosin resident Debbie Futter – with the intention of constructing a school for the children of Busabaga, after observing the atrocious conditions there while doing missionary outreach work.

With no water or electricity and terrible roads through a full 10 square kilometers of sugarcane fields, students coming to school from outside the village risked being robbed, beaten or raped on their way to and from class.

Many children were unable to attend school because in Uganda the state does not pay for education. In a country where one third of the population is below the poverty line, it costs 25,000 shillings ($25 Cdn) per student for a three-month school term.

Most families earn as little as $70 Cdn a month.

The plans for a new school began modestly enough, with two rooms plus a storeroom completed last year, then progressed more ambitiously to 12 classrooms after the Church of the Holy Spirit in Saanich sent a 17-member team to Busabaga in 2000.

Six years into the project, Gates said the progress to date is remarkable.

“We’ve made some big headway in the last 10 months,” said Gates, who returned from Uganda in December with his wife Nedra.

The couple had been in the central African country since February working as missionaries at the Youth With a Mission base in Jinja, a 90-minute drive away from Busabaga.

The school has six classrooms and boasts 180 pupils from kindergarten to Grades 2, as well as seven paid staff including two full-time teachers, two who teach part-time, a cook, a security guard, and a storekeeper.

Students pay 6,000 shillings ($4 CDN) to attend for three months, which covers the cost of instruction as well as all books and materials, a daily meal and a school uniform.

The latter is a particular point of pride for the students, said Gates, who observed that children in Africa, unlike their counterparts in North America, are happy just for the opportunity to attend school.

“Kids there are hungry for education,” he said. “You ask a kid what he’d like more than anything and he’ll say ‘I want school fees to go to school.’”

More than providing a basic education for children, however, the school is branching out to meet the needs of youths in the community, who see it as a source of knowledge, said Isaac Musoke, a 29-year-old former resident of Busabaga, now living in the capital Kampala and who helps run the school.

As an example, Musoke said, farmers are being taught organic farming techniques as a way to increase their crop yields, thereby making the village more self-sufficient.

Musoke said Busabaga has taken full ownership of the school project – guided through a community-based organization called the Busabaga Lugala Community Development Initiative – with villagers pitching in when needed. That includes building a new 3,000-litre water tank, which has significantly improved sanitation.

“They picked up the vision and they brought in the help,” said Musoke, who is in Victoria for two months. “That’s what is outstanding is the village is waking up and doing things to benefit themselves.”

With several hundred children eager to enrol at the school, Gates said the next step is to add a third grade and eventually Grades 4 to 7.

The ultimate goal is for the school to attract children outside the country along the lines of a British boarding school, said Gates, who noted the school is beginning to acquire a solid academic reputation, with pupils scoring high marks on recent government examinations.

“They’re bright kids,” he said.

The New Hope Schools Society has so far raised $65,000 for the school, but it still needs an estimated $120,000 to complete the remaining six classrooms.

To donate or to get involved, call John Gates at 704-1392.

– wth files from Mitch Wright

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