Becoming beautiful trees

Preschool program for refugees in Uganda grounds students with love

children in classroom holding plastic blocks

Two years of pent-up energy seems to spill out the open preschool windows and doorway to where I stand, capturing me in its wave. My body begins to move to the sound of the rhymes the preschoolers in Uganda repeat together.

“I give you the ball,” the teacher says as she hands a miniature, yellow soccer ball to one lucky student, who is in the first of three levels of preschool. The other classmates, between 3 and 8 years old, hold up their imaginary balls.

“I put it here,” they shout in English, as they put their “balls” on their left hips. I catch the eye of one curious student who is watching this white-haired, white-skinned, older woman. We smile at each other, and then she laughs as I start following the motions. I switch my “ball” to the other hip as the children sing out, “I put it there.”

“We all play better!” at least 40 children shout, holding up their balls. I clap my hands, as they start again with the rhyme that is helping them to learn English words. 

A Ugandan teacher stands in front of a group of young students
Teacher Margaret Aseera teaches her students English words using a rhyme with real and imaginary balls. She leads the youngest students at the P4T Primary School at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. MCC photo/Matthew Lester

The students at Planning for Tomorrow (P4T) Nursery and Primary School, preschool through grade seven, are refugees. Their families have fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and crossed the border into Uganda to find safety and food in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. The children, who mainly speak Swahili, need to learn English because it is the primary language in Uganda.

But for the last two years, 2020 and 2021, the Ugandan government closed schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students had to stay home while parents tried to find work during the pandemic. Teachers left the school because they needed to make money.

When I visited in February with freelance photographer, Matthew Lester, schools had just reopened a few weeks earlier. Administrators at P4T were still figuring out how to handle the influx of students who overwhelmed its classroom space and number of teachers.  We were there to gather stories and photos for Mennonite Central Committee, which supports P4T’s two preschool programs ─ P4T school and New Hope Nursery and Primary School.

“Children love it here,” says Daniel Ameny, executive director of P4T, which is not only the name of the school, but also the Ugandan nonprofit, P4T Youth Organisation, which Ameny helped to start. As a refugee himself, Ameny is committed to using his compassion and university degree to empower his neighbors.

A Ugandan child holding a bowl of cooked maize and beans
Children who come to P4T get large portions of ugali (cooked maize) and beans twice a day to sustain them, even if they don’t eat at home. School administrators say they are working on improving the nutrition of the meals.MCC photo/Matthew Lester

The students get two meals a day, enough to tide them over if their parents don’t have money to buy them food for dinner, Ameny explains.  At school, students are encouraged to talk and to express themselves; physical punishment is not allowed.

That’s not always the case at home, Ameny says. Parents have been traumatized so they don’t have much emotional reserve. They parent the “hard way,” just like they were parented.

“And there is poverty, really, the connection is so strong because a parent is here struggling to put food on the table. And they don't have time to handle the children softly, because they are busy, their mind is busy. … if a child disturbs (a parent), it is either a slap, a kick.”

A Ugandan father and daughter sit next to one another outside their home
Mukombe Mulomba is hoping his daughter Racheal Safari,11, will finish school and teach others. He says he is concerned by the amount of violence against children that he sees in the community. "A child will not always be a child. Let's find a way to do things differently."MCC photo/Matthew Lester.

Other children are traumatized by circumstances. At 6-year-old Diana Sila’s house, her 84-year-old grandmother, Jane Kisimbe, takes care of her and her four siblings, all under 14. Based on Kisimbe’s age, I wonder if she might be a great-grandmother, but I don’t probe.  

Kisimbe says she fled DR Congo three years ago with the children after their father was killed by rebels. Their mother came later, but within a few months of her arrival she died from sickness.

I ask her, a fellow grandmother, how she is coping with her daughter’s death.  

“Right now, I’m looking up to these kids going to school. Anytime, I might pass away, but what will be their future if they are not at school?” she says. Three are in school. The oldest two help at home.

I am glad that teachers and staff who take MCC-supported trainings every year have already learned how to maintain a safe classroom environment. They also have learned how to identify a student who is especially traumatized and how to assist them.

A counselor at each school handles issues of parental abuse and severe trauma. MCC also is supporting training for parents so they too can better understand the impact of trauma on themselves and their families.

I think about the trauma Kisimbe’s grandchildren will face when she dies, and I ask P4T staff what will happen to them.  

The 13-year-old boy will be responsible for his siblings, they say.  

An elder Uganda woman sits by a mud brick wall
Jane Kisimbe, 84, is the sole caregiver of five grandchildren, but she is not well. If she dies, her grandson,13, in the background, will be responsible for his younger siblings. MCC photo/Matthew Lester

I glance at the boy, so slight in frame who sits quietly to the side of the adults, and I think about the huge burden he will face just to feed his family. UNHCR still provides some food, but that will eventually stop.

Is there any Ugandan government support for orphaned refugees, I ask? No. What about a foster care system? No. Who will care for them?

P4T will watch out for them, says Ameny, while reminding me that this situation is not unusual in the camp of about 140,000 refugees. Many families struggle like this.  

Before I say goodbye to Grandma Kisimbe, I sit beside her and show her photos of my grandchild, now a toddler. We smile and laugh together, sharing the joy of a child’s innocence.

I wonder if Grandma Kisimbe is thinking about the unfairness of the situation – what her grandchildren have faced versus what she may assume about my granddaughter’s privileges. I know I am. The only suffering my grandbaby knows is having a fever and scraping her knee on the playground.  

Back at the school, workmen are preparing the foundation for the playground MCC is funding. Still to come are two rainwater harvesting systems so preschool children can wash their hands and drink clean water.

Construction workers work the ground for a future playground
MCC is supporting the construction of a playground area that will eventually have a fence around it with flowers as a way to tell the children that play is important for them and they are worthy of beauty. MCC photo/Matthew Lester

MCC will provide wooden desks for new classrooms that are now under construction. More classrooms are essential because in February two preschool teachers had to teach two different classes in one 600-square-feet room.

When I worked as a teacher years ago, I thought five classes of 30 high school students who knew how to sit and generally be quiet was a lot. But having a room of 40 to 50 wiggling preschoolers is unimaginable to me, let alone in a shared classroom.

child raise hands for turn at whiteboard
Rachel Komuhendo, caregiver of the preschool class most ready to move onto primary school, considers the students who want to come to the white board and write the number of cups.  MCC photo/Matthew Lester

I ask Margaret Aseera, who taught the youngest class the ball rhyme, how she manages the youngest students in one classroom.

She says she engages them with rhymes and songs and physical movements. The students learn through repeating what she says. She also uses colored blocks and other manipulatives from a supply box MCC provides for each school, to help them learn their colors, to count and to teach them to share.

Plus, she adds, “I love children!”

P4T faces many challenges, including retaining teachers and meeting their budget. Some parents can pay school fees, others give food or volunteer, but parent contributions declined significantly as the pandemic affected their job prospects. The staff make financial sacrifices because they are committed to the students and community.  

I like the proverb that Sumi Hamid, the operations manager, shares. When a tree starts out bent, he tells me, you will never put it straight again. Preschoolers are like trees, he says, that need to start out learning healthy habits, from washing hands to sharing.  

“If they can be taught when they are still young,” Hamid says, “when they grow up they can become beautiful trees.”