Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, but nothing can truly prepare you for your first direct experience of a project like the KYGN school. Sure I’d been exchanging e-mails with the KYGN people, and my experience in Uganda ensured that I was perhaps better prepared for facilities and conditions than the majority of first-time visitors would be.
But what you can never prepare for is the kids stealing your heart. KYGN has certainly had more ‘Mzungus’ through their doors than St Andrews Primary School in Uganda. I was much less of a novelty here as a result, and there were no mass gangs of fascinated kids stroking at my skin in the way they did over there. But they did still love to use me as a climbing frame, play football with me or just simply be held…
I’ve already said that KYGN was set up with the purpose of providing an education, healthcare and a safe home environment to children who would otherwise not be able to afford it. But it’s easy to spout lines like that without exploring individual stories behind them.
There was one girl in particular who just wanted to be held by me. I could carry her around all day and she would have not complained or got bored once. It turned out that she had never known her parents and been mistreated by her aunt, and as a result had never known what it was like to be cuddled until she’d seen her peers at KYGN getting some. It was particularly difficult saying goodbye to her on my last day (and in case you’re wondering, that’s not her in the photo above).
Its individual stories like this that makes you realise just how important the work KYGN does is, and why it’s important the school continues to go from strength to strength. Yes they have achieved so much already, manifested in beautifully decorated classrooms, dedicated teachers and nutritious meals laid on for the children during morning break. But the school needs more if it is to provide its girls and boys with a well-rounded education and childhood.
A library, it should go without saying, is a crucial part of this. A real bugbear of mine is people (usually middle class types) saying we don’t need libraries anymore because of the Internet. Don’t get me started on that one. But worse than all that was when someone from another school who had links to a project in Uganda said, when I told him we were building a library in Uganda, ‘are you sure that’s the best thing you can be doing for them?’
The implication there is that a library is a luxury, and we should be ensuring more basic needs are met. But to me, libraries should not be seen as a luxury. They are so much more than merely a room full of books, or at least should be if they’re going to have a meaningful impact. They can foster an inclination toward intellectual curiosity and a love of literature that will fire a child’s imagination. They are an educational tool outside of a formal, prescribed classroom environment. In short, they’re great levellers, and open up possibilities for the socially disadvantaged; in this context, they’re a crucial spoke in the wheel of KYGN.
Anyway, with that rant over, it goes without saying that a big part of this trip was setting the groundwork for the library. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan there. By the time I arrived, Michelle had given birth to her daughter, meaning she was on maternity leave. She ran the Hostel I stayed at, but had quite enough on her plate without discussing library logistics. Anna, KYGN director, was naturally the best person to talk to…but unfortunately, she was taken ill the day I was due to meet her, and had to be driven to Nairobi in nearby Kenya for treatment (she has thankfully fully recovered since).
Well, in this situation, you do what you can. I did manage to find some time to talk with Michelle about the practicalities of, you know, having a gang of teenage girls staying at and working at the KYGN project. And I could scope out the grounds to see where the library could fit in (short answer – wherever they thought it would be best, really).
I also had the benefit of the wisdom of some other people volunteering with me. First were the Scottish families I was volunteering with, one of whom was there for his second stint – he’d enjoyed his first time there so much he brought his own family and a mother and son who were close friends of the family back with him. They were a great support in my first few days in particular, showing me the ropes and giving me a good insight in to the everyday operation of the school.
After they’d left I was with an all-female American group, consisting of three adults and four teenage girls. The four girls were pupils of one of the adult trio, and observing the behaviour of the group gave me an interesting insight in to group dynamics and the subsequent experience of the girls on their trip. I definitely learned some interesting lessons from seeing this in action…more on that in a future post.
Ultimately, my stay at KYGN was all too brief, and it got me suitably inspired for when I would return two years down the line. Next time I visited KYGN it would be a very different place – the library building would be up, and I’d have 14 English teenage girls with me…that’s still to come as of the date this post was written, but it’s hurtling toward me with somewhat alarming velocity.
In the meantime, check out the video in this link: it will introduce to Anna, as well as show you the current state of affairs on the ground, giving you the next best thing to being on the ground at the KYGN project yourself…and who knows, perhaps you would like to visit too?