Partnership + Education = Empowerment

IMG_7745Confession: I am not a global health professional. I mean, technically I am now, by trade, not training. But like many GHC Fellows, I did not come into this fellowship with an MPH or a nursing license. I came with a M.A. in International Education, and though my previous 1-2 years of experience in East Africa did focus on public health, education is, at the end of the day, my true passion. Luckily for me, I get to work for a placement organization that is just now entering the global health arena right along with me, and whose background, and expertise, is in education as well. While I do not engage very often with them, I have been observing and learning about S.O.U.L.’s education interventions in my 3 months here, and what I have seen is, well, nothing short of inspiring.

When S.O.U.L. was in its nascent stages, it was soul-ly focused on listening to the village’s stories, ideas, and needs. What S.O.U.L. found was a society with a strong desire to learn, but who lacked the necessary funding and supplies to attend school. S.O.U.L. then developed an innovative model that goes beyond the confines of simply “sponsoring a child.” The need for partnership was evident in an effort to ensure sustainable support of the children in Bujagali and Kyabirwa, so S.O.U.L. entered into a 50/50 partnership with members of the community, where the organization only pays half of the school fees of any child whose parent has agreed to help either run the schools in which the children are enrolled, or at the very least act as a key stakeholder in school parent committees. The other half of the fees are expected of the families themselves, often coming from their share of S.O.U.L.’s very successful, small-scale income generating projects (which are virtually all self-sustaining in this community at this point). Today, there are 325 students involved in the S.O.U.L. Bursary Program, 30 of whom are university students working to become the next generation of Ugandan leaders. In addition, S.O.U.L.’s Pre-Primary program enrolls 137 “baby-class” students who spend the first half of every day here at the S.O.U.L. Community Center, learning to read, count, sing, dance, collaborate, and more generally, simply to be excited about coming to school every day, an avenue that has proven impact on a child’s future in her or his schooling.

These are all the pretty statistics and stories that you can find on the website. But serving as a Global Health Corps Fellow with S.O.U.L. Foundation, I am in a unique position as something akin to a 1 year contracted consultant, who is in a sense able to look at the organization from a bird’s eye view while at the same time getting to see the real inner-workings of the education programming every single day (without the stress of running all over Jinja District to collect school fees, sponsor letters, and conduct ongoing evaluations of each student, efforts for which I cannot commend Safa, Allison, Phoebe, Jane, Brooke and the whole S.O.U.L. team highly enough). What I see is an innovative education support model that is truly helping this entire community lift itself out of extreme poverty and offers hope for a beautiful and prosperous future.

Now, if you’re reading this, you know that I have a tendency to be overly-critical of every single NGO, UN Agency, government intervention and volunteer project doing anything to help anybody anywhere. It’s the realist and the academic in me. I am not one to praise a programme unless praise is due. And S.O.U.L. Foundation’s education programmes deserve praise.

The inspiration for this blog post came today when I was sitting at my desk frantically writing a proposal for approval from TASO’s Institutional Review Committee for our upcoming research on maternal health. Tata Muganda (father of Muganda, another S.O.U.L. university sponsored student), entered the room with his usual big smile and heart-warming laugh. He greeted me and we exchanged my limited Lusoga, which with Tata Muganda always includes a lesson in a new word or phrase (tunaayanga – I’m leaving). But throughout the day I noticed other parents walking into the S.O.U.L. offices, and also noticed myself noticing that this was not a novel occurrence. Parents come in here every single day. They sit in front of Jane’s desk, our inspiring and diligent Office Manager for over 4 years now, and talk with her about, well, their children. I can never understand what is being said, but something is usually being signed. Parents are signing off to receive school books, they are paying their half of their children’s school fees, they are looking over their children’s grades and progress reports and evaluations. They are doing something that you honestly do not see everywhere you go in Uganda: they are engaging actively in their children’s education.

S.O.U.L. Foundation prides itself in having programmes that are entirely based on a partnership model. These are not handouts; this is empowerment. Sure, the organization is still paying part of the school fees, but with the income generating component of S.O.U.L.’s work in the community, these parents are increasingly able to support their children’s work and their futures. One day, S.O.U.L. will become irrelevant. Obsolete. At least that may be the ultimate goal. Isn’t that the trick with development work? To work ourselves OUT of jobs? S.O.U.L. is breeding a community that is supporting itself in an increasingly sustainable way. And these students are being shown a model of helping others through partnership, not charity, which they can carry with them into their careers.

A reminder that I really do have the best GHC placement. I get to see empowerment, development and concrete change happening before my very eyes, every single day.