An African vision, by Africans for Africa! Tusome Africa is Born.
I was driving home from a friends’ funeral when I stopped by the roadside to buy some food, as is usually the case on a journey like this. Women and children run to the car and try to sell their foodstuff. I observed this little boy of about four or five years stood quietly at the back of the pushing crowd, wearing an oversized school uniform, holding a basket of passion fruit. He wasn’t saying anything. He stood away from the pushing crowd elegantly balancing a large basket of passion fruit in front of him. I got out of the car and approach the little boy, and asked him how much the basket of passion fruit cost. He responded simply “3,500 shillings” ($1) and he quickly added that he would also give me a few extra pieces of passion fruit if I bought two baskets for 7,000 shillings ($2).
I asked him to see the “enyogeza” which is the local word for ‘bonus’ before making up my mind, and off he run like a topedo and was back with the second basket and several pieces of ‘extra’ passion fruit. I bought the two baskets as I was pleased with his “bonus” and paid him 7000 shillings plus a little extra asking him whether he could count. He placed his empty baskets on the ground and proceeded to count the money. He then looked up and said, “I think you have paid me more than you should.” He counted it again and returned the extra money saying, you had given me extra, handing me the extra money back.
At which point, I was startled at his honesty and at his ability to function in a what seemed to be a complex commercial setting for a boy his age. This little boy demonstrated maturity by not fighting through the crowd but by standing in a dignified manner with his basket. He negotiated in a fairly sophisticated sales process where he was able to discuss an incentivized transaction. He accurately counted the money and returned the extra money, which had deliberately been given as a small “tip” for his services. Rarely in such circumstances would that happen in Uganda. I wondered about his life, his school, and his family.
Amused and curious, I asked him as he helped me carry the fruit to the car, why he wasn’t in school that day. He mentioned that he had been sent away from school that morning for failure to pay his tuition. I asked in what class he was and he said he was in the top class of pre-school. I further inquired how much the fees were and the little boy replied 10,500 UGX ($3) a month. I was really struck by the fact that my entire food bill at this stopover was exactly what this boy needed to be in school for a year! I asked what his parents did for a living and the little boy said that the mother stayed at home and looked after his siblings while the father was a peasant who tilled land for food. I asked him what his name was, and the little boy said he was called John.
As I sat in the car, about to set off, I couldn’t stop thinking about John and his future without an education. But also what an education would mean for a child like John, already so articulate, his mind functioning beyond his age and life. I got out of the car, asked John whether he could take me to his home to speak to his mum. Deep down, I was wondering what to say to the mother. On one hand, I thought the mother might be angry at a stranger poking their nose in her business, on the other hand, I was also concerned about the ‘begging’ culture that I had seen so often among my people. People who for generations were used to strangers coming to their villages with mosquito nets, malaria tablets, HIV drugs, food baskets and I had seen men and women bringing out the begging bowl instead of working hard to earn a living.
I was battling with my own prejudices and I conflicted with every step I took as we crossed the busy road and walked a short distance to what was John’s home. One thing I was sure of; no mother would let her child work in such conditions if they had a choice! As I wrestled with my own anxieties, John walked quietly beside me. In a dignified silence, expressionless as if this was something that happened to him every day. A crowd was gathering around us, which made me even more nervous. It was not every day that ‘customers’ go to homes of children selling foodstuff by the roadside. As we approached John’s house, I saw a woman, bent over a large pan of food, with a child on her back and around her sat about seven other children. She looked up at me with curiosity but welcomed John’s ‘customer.’ I explained that I had bought John’s passion fruit and I had noticed that John was wearing his uniform but wasn’t in school. I realized how accusatory the words may seem to any parent but she listened to me intently as she continued to serve her children food. I said that John had mentioned that the amount of fees were about $3 a month. She sighed, looked at me and said, John as well as his other siblings here, go to school in turns as we juggle to pay fees. She added, “He is in pre-primary which is a luxury around here! I have children about to sit their primary leaving exams and those are my priority!” She stopped serving the food and looked at me warily. “We invest in John’s schooling because it helps him with counting money and this is important as he helps us to stuff by the Masaka – Kampala main road.” I asked her whether it was ok if I could pay John’s next term fees. His brothers and sisters were giggling in disbelief and prodding him playfully.
She looked at me, long and hard and finally said. “We do not have a phone. His father would have loved to thank you.” I gave her about $10 and asked whether she could pay John’s fees for the term. She asked John to take the money and to thank me. I quickly said my goodbyes and I asked if I could take a picture of John. The mother shrugged and again, I felt guilty. Here I am offering $10 to a stranger to pay for her child and then, asking if I can take the child’s photo. It was a difficult position for any parent. I wondered whether I had any right to and whether I was towing a fine ethical line! I also asked John if I could take his picture and he said yes. He told me he had never had his picture taken before.
On my way home that day, I was full of mixed emotions. I knew, that John’s story wasn’t unique. Sadly there are millions of children like John in Uganda. When I got to the car and discussed the idea of revolutionalising primary education for the millions of children like John, my friends agreed and that was the day that Tusome Africa was born. I got home and shared this story with my own family, they agreed that we should try and help John. John was a turning point in my life. I have since discovered that about 80% of all children in Uganda who start out in primary school, do not transition to secondary school. What is worse is that most will leave primary school having failed to become functionally literate or numerate. We decided that there must be something we could do.
P.S Importantly, John and his parents subsequently permitted me to use their story and the pictures here as I shared with them how John changed my life!
Written by: Bea Simpson.