July 2017: Day 8

Today was by far the most rewarding and emotional day on this expedition! It will stand out as a vivid memory for our whole team and communities we work with for years to come.

The morning started with the team taking a 15-minute stroll from the guest house to Hadassah Primary School, one of our participating schools who will be benefiting from the school bus.
An automobile painter met us at the school were he expertly free hand painted TWSB logo onto the bus as well as the names of the three recipient schools.

The children were overwhelmed, as where we, and they serenaded us in gratitude in both English and one of the local dialects. Hadassah's music program came in 15th place out of 15,000 schools in Uganda and the performance they put on for us, complete with a dance and warrior costumes and headdresses was more moving than any Broadway production. We all joined together and danced around the bus, grateful for the benefits it will provide. 

Sadat, the head of technology at the school gave a moving speech about the importance of education and how literacy starts from the teachers. He thanked Aaron and TWSB for providing a robust online library through the gifting of SiMBi and access to an abundance of knowledge through the gifting of an application called Rachel that is loaded onto our Raspberry Pi intranet systems.

Following the gifting of the bus, we went straight to Mbale, a nearby city and bought a bicycle for John. The team then gifted this bicycle to John (Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School's Math Teacher). All of us, John included, were overcome with emotion as we understood the positive impact this bicycle would have. John hopped on the bicycle, expertly rode it around, then came back to the group, hopped off the bike, and picked it up above his head! 

The aim of TWSB is to empower access, and today was all about providing it and understanding its importance. Giving the bus was an incredible experience that will help an entire community and giving John his bicycle will notably change his life. It was a special day.

Today marks the last of our working days in Uganda and we have had a truly incredible experience. We're already coordinating upcoming projects and trips with our Uganda team and we cannot wait for our upcoming expeditions. 

July 2017: Day 7

Today was an early morning. We woke up at 6 am. to experience one of the defining moments that inspired Aaron to create TWSB - students journeying to school.  

One of the sources of inspiration for the founding of TWSB was when Aaron experienced students journeying to school. Many of them walk up to 8 km and when they arrive at school there is often no food. As we drove in the new bus, we passed hundreds of children gripping pens and pencils in hand.

Today, something truly remarkable occurred. 
While watching the myriad walks of life journey to school, Aaron spotted one of the teachers, John, from Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School. John has one leg (his right leg) and was walking on broken crutches. We stopped the bus and offered John a ride to school. While driving to school, he told us that the 4km's takes him over an hour each way and it was incredible to understand that our work will ensure John is better able to access school (Johns story has a truly surprising ending that we will be sharing in a follow-up post.)  

When we arrived at Putti Village, we got to work immediately. Micah, Elliot, and Eli spent the first 3 hours collecting bricks and mixing cement so that they could construct the base of a water catchment system.

Liz, Sarah, and Micah each taught classes to the children and interviewed many inspirational residents of Putti Village.
Michael took hundreds of pictures and conducted and filmed countless interviews as well.

As we were getting ready to leave Putti, John approached Aaron and explained that he appreciated the offer to always have a spot on the TWSB bus but he did not want to take any spots away from students and wondered if TWSB could purchase him a bicycle. 
Initially, Aaron and the team were confused but John explained that with one leg, he was able to ride a bicycle. He ended up borrowing a bicycle to demonstrate and even gave Aaron a ride!  The team decided that they would work to purchase John a bicycle.

It was a truly special day that showed us the importance and impact of our work and the team left Putti in incredibly high spirits. 

July 2017: Day 6

Today, we were provided with the opportunity to walk through the Peace Kowerma Coffee fields. Peace Kowerma (Delicious Peace) was founded by JJ Keki, a member of the Abayudaya, after he witnessed the atrocities of 9/11 while visiting New York. There are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish coffee farmers and there the interfaith collaboration in the fields has brought a greater sense of prosperity to their communities.

Walking through the coffee fields led us to a beautiful rock that forms a natural roof structure over looking a valley. JJ shared with us how that this rock acted as a synagogue for the Jewish coffee farmers when they were forced to hide their religion when Uganda was under the leadership of Idi Yamin. We sat beneath the rock while JJ recounted the story and then climbed up the rock to marvel at the beauty of the valley below.

We finished the afternoon in Mbale, the closest city to us, where we purchased much-needed supplies for the following day.
The rest of the day was spent doing research and prep work for the days to come!

July 2017: Day 5

 

Our morning was monumental and we’ll always remember it! 
The bus that TWSB has been working to provide to benefit three schools: Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School, Hadassa Primary School, and Semei Kakungulu High School picked us up from the guest house and dropped us off at Putti Village! 

A year and a half of work, research, fundraising, and legal documents have gone into this bus so when it arrived at our door step, we were speechless. 
The two drivers: Isaac (School Bus Driver) and Shabyan (Taxi Driver who operates the bus when it is not driving students to generate revenue) picked us up smiling the whole way. It was a joyous occasion. 

Compared to the bus we were in yesterday, which struggled up the muddy, windy roads, riding in our very own, significantly newer bus made us feel like royalty. 

We arrived at Putti to children whose happiness mirrored our own as they understood the positive effects that the bus will have on their lives and community. 

We quickly got to work laying more bricks. We finished building the remaining two walls which completed the construction of the main supporting walls. 

Liz ran an educational planting workshop during which she taught the children how to plant seeds and made a beautiful mural that explains the process. Additionally, she came close to completing the building of the compost bin and planted tomatoes, onions, and green pepper. Liz’s work is helping to ensure that the garden fulfills it two goals: 

  1. To improve nutritional diversity and help provide students with much-needed iron through growing crops such as spinach and dodo (a leafy green). 
  2. To improve agricultural best practice by integrating agriculture into the curriculum. 

Micah put her teaching skills to use and developed a lesson that aims to improve primary (grade) 1 and 2 students' literacy skills. 

Aaron continued teaching the teachers how to use the SiMBi app most effectively as well as how to use the other incredible content on our servers (intranet systems) such as everything on Kahn Academy Lite, TED, and much, much more! 

Sarah, Eli, and Elliott finished laying bricks for the classroom compound. It was a good day. 

Following a busy day and a delicious dinner, JJ Keki, Enosh (Spiritual leader of Putti Village), and Seth (Head of S.K High School) joined us at the guest house for a class (or two) of wine. We discussed our work and its impact and we’re feeling incredibly fortunate to be working with such incredible communities. 

'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
- Margaret Mead

July 2017: Day 4

Today, we continued classroom construction and set up the Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School CSA garden. It was special to see how much was accomplished in such a short period of time.

The day started with a few obstacles but spirits remained high. The rains made it extremely difficult to drive on the muddy roads. However,  rather than being irritated by having to get out and push our bus when it got stuck in the mud, we laughed throughout and had an absolute blast! 

After purchasing supplies in Mbale Town, the team headed to Putti Village to continue with our projects. 

Liz began the construction of a compost for the CSA Garden while Sarah shoveled rocks out of the garden and spoke with locals about the chicken coop and how best improve it.

Michael and Aaron interviewed the new bus driver for the bus that TWSB is gifting in the coming days.

Micah and Aaron learned the local way of brick tossing and carried bricks to Elliot and Eli who laid and cemented them. 

The day at Putti came to a close with some incredible timing. The youth at Putti called Aaron aside and asked for a soccer ball. By chance, Elliott had bought them a new one earlier that same day and we all had the privilege of watching as they opened their gift and put it to use. 

July 2017: Day 1 & 2

Our team arrived in Entebbe on Wednesday. The remarkable group of  Educators, Economists, Agriculturalists, Researchers, and Photographers journeyed to the guest house at Nabagoye Village, our home for the following 10 days! 

Following a 5-hour bus ride led by a police entourage (we felt like celebrities), we arrived at the guest house and settled in for the night. 

The following morning, Rachel and her daughter Halima, the guest house chefs served us the world's best omelets (we're not biased :)) and Aaron, TWSB's Executive Director led an orientation session and discussed the various responsibilities for the trip. 

After the meeting, we visited one of the incredible schools we work with: Semei Kakungulu High School and had a chance to bond and work with the students.

Later, we ventured into Mbale Town, the closest main city to Nabagoye. We explored the vibrant market place and purchased supplies from the supermarket.

The day came to a close with a beautiful sunset followed by thunder and lighting!
It was a lovely day learning the lay of the land and working with our partnered beneficiaries! We are looking forward to implementing our projects!

The team represents an incredible, diverse group of change makers and they’re roles are showcased below: 

  • Micah and Eli, from Vancouver, are conducting reading fluency tests to ensure that the SiMBi app is fulfilling its purpose.
  • Michael, our photographer from Hunter Valley (two hours North of Sydney, Australia), joined us in collaboration with Photographers Without Borders (PWB) and has been taking stunning photos, which will be featured on Facebook and the TWSB blog.
  • Sarah, a UBC Economics Student from California has joined us to monitor and evaluate the chicken coops that TWSB implemented on previous trips.
  • Liz has joined us from Montreal where she is a McGill student. Her role on the trip is to help implement a CSA (community supported agriculture) Garden.
  • Elliott, joining us from Vancouver, is working with locals from Putti Village to build the classrooms.
  • Aaron, from Vancouver, is leading the team and guiding us to ensure that our projects are successful.

 

Day 2

On Friday morning, we happily awoke to the sound of cows and chickens and set off for Putti Village.  

Upon arrival, our team met with the communities leadership and teachers to discuss the projects for the upcoming week. 

We quickly got to work mixing cement for the new brick classroom we are building with assistance from local builders and community members. It was incredible to see how much of the classroom was completed in only a few hours and to be apart of the process! 

Understanding that in the near future, the children from Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School in Putti Village will be learning in this classroom made the challenging work much easier and far more rewarding. Especially after seeing 3 full classes of students studying outdoors and the constant distraction the students and teachers endure. 

  • Sarah, who is monitoring and evaluating the chicken coops, interviewed the Putti Village leaders in order to understand its current condition, impact, and potential to generate revenue for the community. 
  • Liz, who is working on the CSA garden worked with students in Primary 6 (grade 6) to implement a more sustainable agricultural system. Working with the P6 students, they cleared and weeded the land. 
  • Micah and Eli worked diligently testing student fluency to understand the impact of SiMBi.
  • Michael continued to capture the remarkable communities we work with in order to amplify there     stories. 
  • Elliott and Aaron worked on a few projects including classroom construction and helping to    prepare the garden.   

It was a productive and rewarding day that segwayed into a beautiful Friday Night service with the Abayudaya Jewish Community. 

March 2017: Day 7

We are no more than 100 feet from driving away from Putti Village and the feelings are indescribable. The immediate reactions were awe and astonishment as to what we helped create. Our team of 15, along with dozens of local workers built a solar-powered classroom in the middle of rural Uganda outfitted with tables, chairs, wifi and computers.

Presenting the SiMBi Classroom!!!  The finishings still require some work but that will be added in the coming days. 

Presenting the SiMBi Classroom!!! 
The finishings still require some work but that will be added in the coming days. 

Putti Village is a place so poor with no future in sight for the local community. Some are fortunate to send their children to schools elsewhere and take small steps to try and offer a future of some sort to their children and families. I remember driving away from Putti Village with Aaron 8 months ago with heavy hearts wondering what we could do to offer more hope to the village. We knew we would be back and immediately began planning. We identified key areas to target: Literacy, Technology, Books, Educational resources, Tuition scholarships, Water, Food (Nutritional Diversity) And some fun! We spent months further developing our reading app, "SiMBi". It is still a work in progress but offers a comprehensive reading program beginning with sounds, words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. The question became - in a world of billions of cell phones and technology, how can we incentivize reading through an available and free app.

A few of our solar panels used to power the classroom. 

A few of our solar panels used to power the classroom. 

We chose to do our work in Putti Village because of the relationship Aaron developed with the community years ago that we have nurtured and continue to cultivate. They have become our Ugandan family. There is a great deal of mutual respect. At the core of our work is a collaboration with our Ugandan leaders. We make suggestions for improvement based on their needs. The role of TWSB is to meet their needs. We endeavor to support the local economy whenever possible. We feel our approach goes a long way to strengthening these relationships and the trust they have in us and vice versa. We built another water catchment at Putti and a chicken coop at Semei Kakangulu High School. We passed out one hundred soccer uniforms and balls thanks to the generous and continued support of Stormtech. While the students appreciate our nutritional work, specifically the water catchment systems, the look on their faces when unwrapping the uniforms was truly beautiful. 

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Following the soccer game, the team got to work to ensure that the classroom would be brought to fruition before our departure. It wasn't easy but watching as the previously disparate pieces came together was truly a spiritual experience. Our 15 volunteers and Putti Village family sprang into action! Within 20 minutes, the container had become a beautiful classroom that the community couldn't believe belonged to them. 

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As our group entered the classroom and sat down at the tables and benches that we had helped build and sand. The magnitude of our impact settled in. After a brief tour of the classroom and ensuring that the subtlties: wiring, locks, wifi, computer passwords, and offline reading applications were all functioning, we left the SiMBi Classroom. 

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Ultimately, we were able to sponsor 17 students and pay for their tuition. We helped an additional 3 brothers who shared their story with us and we purchased their basic living necessities. 

We ran book drives and school supply drives in Vancouver and carried 30 duffel bags with us. We built a library and filled it with children's books and school supplies. 

Wow-what an incredible week!!! We are all tired, dirty, exhausted and above all happy. As I type this, I'm at a loss for the right words to open a window into our experience.  

A HUGE thank you to all of our volunteers- you were all amazing. Each and everyone of you had your hand in all of the projects- whether it was sorting, painting, sanding, carrying bricks, mixing concrete, photographing, videoing, testing the students, teaching, or building - we did this together. Our group was supportive, shared resources, and kept each other going. These trips are hard physically and emotionally. We lived together in a guesthouse lacking many comforts- air circulation, water to shower, inedible lunches and power. The effect is cumulative. Yet, when we asked 6 teenagers if they would have preferred to be at the resort down the road, they all echoed the same sentiments... We like living within the community... We like the homemade cooking... We like living closer to the people we are helping... We like the authentic feeling... That is not an easy choice. However, it didn't feel right to these remarkable young adults to live with excess and luxury- the juxtaposition too great. 

Sorting through backpacks, stationary, and clothing donated by the many generous families from Vancouver. 

Sorting through backpacks, stationary, and clothing donated by the many generous families from Vancouver. 

Nicole teaching teachers from Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School how to use SiMBi - our reading app. 

Nicole teaching teachers from Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School how to use SiMBi - our reading app. 

Tyler and Justin helping to organize the new library.   

Tyler and Justin helping to organize the new library. 

 

Sherri painting the classroom. 

Sherri painting the classroom. 

For all that we gave Putti Village, the gifts and lessons they showed us were far greater. They changed our lives in ways we haven't processed yet. Our hearts are full. 

We thank you to all who donated, purchased supplies, an followed our journey with your incredible encouragement, love and support. It takes a village, or 2 in this case, to achieve what we were just able to do in a short time. We all have the power to effect change and improve the lives of people who have been marginalized whether local or abroad. 

Stay tuned for our July trip. We were able to identify a great need and the wheels of the bus are already in motion. We will be back on July 19th!!

With so much love and gratitude,

Michelle and Aaron

 

March 2017: Day 5 & 6

We have had an incredible weekend. Saturday was a day off. We went on a beautiful hike on the slopes of Mt. Elgin to Sipi Falls. We hiked the falls and walked through the lush rich coffee plantations. The views from the top of the mountain were spectacular. We enjoyed seeing the country side and taking a much needed day off to talk and reflect upon the work we have been doing.

This morning (Sunday) we retuned to Putti Village. The progress on the reading room is unbelievable. The windows were cut and welded, and the solar panels went up on the roof. It is a beautiful sight to behold. 

The team that has been working on the library completed the room today. We carried 6 duffel bags full of books and school supplies and sorted and loaded the shelves. The Putti teachers and staff were blown away by the amount of materials be brought. While I was unloading supplies, one of the teachers asked me what the pencil sharpener was. I took a new pencil and showed her how to sharpen it. She had never seen anything quite like it and quickly went to get the other teachers so I could show them. The same happened with the glue sticks. It's hard to imagine things so basic and items we take for granted are so rare and special here. Additionally, we stocked the shelves with educational resources and text books. What an incredible accomplishment for our team. 

We brought a few computers with us and began to teach the teachers how to use the reading app. It was quite an overwhelming moment to see the app working in Putti Village after a year of testing, writing and building the app. To see it in use in a village like Putti is nothing short of remarkable. Tomorrow we will bring the remaining computers and load up the classroom. The tables and chairs have been built and tomorrow we will load up the container and make it look like a classroom inside!! The anticipation felt by us all is mounting. 

Tonight is our last night as a group as 6 people are leaving tomorrow after we finish our work and heading off on safari. It is a mix of emotions for us all. We came and accomplished so much in a short time. We laughed and worked and will forever be friends for the experience we shared. 

Until tomorrow...

March 2017: Day 4

What a day...

We started in Putti Village working diligently on our projects. The classroom and library are coming to life on schedule. There was a buzz in the air with our team of volunteers working side by side with the Putti Team. There is something quite magical taking place here. 

Two of our amazing teacher volunteers brought an activity for the students: they took Polaroid pictures of each student and left them with an "All About Me” activity that we're hoping to see on the walls next week!! We finished the book shelf and began constructing a second water catchment for the village. The 1000L container we left for them last summer has proven to be effective and time saving. The community is so appreciative of the accessible water. No matter how much time you spend in these villages, the time spent collecting water is always sad to see. 

The shipping container looks more like a classroom than a container at this point. The roofing began today and painting was completed. The desks and chairs were varnished and ready for use. 

We spent time going through the educational resources with the teachers today only to learn they have no primary reading material. They are introducing Grade 7 next year and can't afford books. They are missing primary math sheets and have no science materials. With money donated from St. Georges, the Saints boys went to town and bought all of the missing books. We are pretty excited to fill their shelves on Sunday with a new library full of resources and books!

We spent only half of the day at Putti and headed over to the High School for the afternoon. A group of boys approached us the other night explaining that they are orphans and are suffering because they have no soap, sugar, clothes, bedding, clothes, toothpaste, tooth brushes, and shoes. Two of our team members purchased all of the items on their list and we gifted them their basic needs. They were overwhelmed and shook our hands many many times. It was a true gift to be able to help these boys albeit in a small way. 

Then on to the soccer game. We organized a game with Semei Kakungulu High School. We handed out uniforms to 50 of the boys and girls; 25 black and 25 maroon that were donated by Stormtech. It's an incredible moment to see the expressions on the kids faces when they are handed a new shirt wrapped in plastic with tags on. The most surprising part of passing out the shirts was when the little kids picked up the discarded tags and wanted to keep them as toys. We stared in disbelief when they wanted to keep them as toys. Nicole quickly turned one into a paper airplane and we all followed suit. Amazing how when you have so little, even a discarded price tag has value. 

We gathered around the soccer pitch and first watched the students play a quick game. Then it was our turn to take the students on. We had so much fun playing with/against the students. The pitch is set overlooking the mountains in the most beautiful setting. We had an incredible time. 

After washing up, we set out to the newly built synagogue and joined the community as they welcomed their Sabbath with all faiths in attendance. 

Our group has bonded in unimaginable ways and the feeing of happiness tonight in the guest house was palpable. 

Good night from the hill...

March 2017: Day 3

Another busy day in Uganda for the Walking School Bus team!  After a good night’s sleep, we headed back on the bumpy road to Putti Village.  Again, we were greeted by loud cheers and so much excitement from all of the children in the school.  Seeing their smiles and happy faces was the perfect way to start our working day.

After saying our hellos, we took out the soccer balls that we had brought with us all the way from Vancouver.  The excitement was contagious and within seconds, a game began.  Seeing how even the small gift of a soccer ball can bring so much happiness was a beautiful sight.  Once we had a chance to play with the kids, the team rolled up their sleeves and got to work on the different projects that we had started the day before. 

Now that the library was cleaned out and painted, the team began to build bookshelves to hold the donations of supplies and books that were generously donated by so many people in the Vancouver community.  Although the design of the bookshelf had to be modified to accommodate the resources that were available, the team was able to problem solve, build and sand most of the bookshelf that will be ready for varnishing tomorrow.  We are all very excited to see the end result in a couple of days. 

Work on framing inside of the container continued and the progress has been steadily moving ahead thanks to the hard work of the men in Village and Aaron who worked into the late hours of the night.  Only in Uganda is work done by candlelight when the generator goes!  

Testing continued today and a few members of our team began working with the teachers at the school to gather information about each student’sbackground, nutrition and reading backgrounds.  With help from teachers, students and a lot of perseverance, we managed to collect surveys from all of the students.  Hearing first hand that so many students walk over an hour to school on an empty stomach was a reminder of the importance of The Walking School Buses nutritional program. While our team worked with the students to collect data, there were many opportunities to connect with the students - at one point, an impromptu singing session broke out… who would have guessed that the hokey pokey is universal? A highlight was the children standing to sing the Ugandan anthem.

In addition to sponsoring 10 students at the High School, we also received funding to sponsor 5 additional students at Putti Village. Wanting to have an equal split of Jewish, Christian and Muslim students, TWSB added another student to sponsor. We met the students, all of whom are orphans and live at the school. I wish I could explain the abject poverty in which these children live. They live in a shed no bigger than a closet and all sleep on mats on the floor. Their meager belongings are strewn over a makeshift clothesline above them. What a gift to be able to offer these children hope of a brighter future.

After a hard day’s work, the team drove to the home of the legendary founder of Delicious Peace Coffee Cooperative, JJ Kekki. JJ led us up a mountain trail to the Rock Synagogue which overlooks the farms in the valley below.  As the group sat on the edge of the rock, JJ shared the history of the synagogue which was used by the Jewish people in the area in the 1970s to practice their religion in secrecy.  He told us his story and the inspiration behind his collaboration with the Christian and Muslim farmers. The wind and clouds created the perfect backdrop. JJ welcomed us all into his home just in time to escape from the downpour and then ended the afternoon on a beautiful musical note.

 

We had such a nice evening back at the Guest House, playing chess, cards and enjoying eachother’s company. This shared experience makes for lasting an

March 2017: Day 2

After months of planning and dreaming of building a classroom, we finally arrived at Putti Village. The team at Putti had been working as hard as we had been working from our end in Vancouver. And finally, today we began working together.

Last week, the team at Putti laid the foundation necessary for the arrival of the shipping container. On Monday, the 40 foot container was delivered from Kampala and offloaded by a crane. The wood had been purchased with much input and guidance from our friends at Big Steel Box in Vancouver. There have been so many moving parts.

We accounted for everything except the huge downpour and early morning loss of power (that we were supplying). I think that's the best part of working in low income countries- everyone is so resourceful and calm when the unexpected happens.

Last summer, we had the chance to see their lack of supplies. After speaking to the teachers, we knew we wanted to return with school supplies, books and teaching materials. Today that goal became a reality when we cleaned out a small room, ripped out the termite infested book shelves and threw away all of the old used donated books that are not even intended for children. We cleaned and swept and painted the room. Tomorrow we will build the shelves and load them with books and supplies!

We began testing the students. We need baseline word counts for all 143 students in order to measure the efficacy of the reading program we implement. We tested outside in the hot sun with children gathered around to watch. It's amazing the students were even able to focus in the midst of the commotion!!

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The organization for the work needed for the container took much longer than we anticipated. There were so many teams that needed to be coordinated: the framing, the windows, rust removal, painting, solar panels and on and on. Just when the framing really started taking shape, it poured. In some ways it was a welcome relief to the extremely hot sunny day.

The afternoon was busy with everyone working on their projects and, of course, spending time with the students and staff. It's a rare experience to really sit and talk to people who live in the poverty we are seeing. Their lives are hard just trying to provide food and water for their children. Many families live with orphans and have up to 15 children living in very small spaces. Yet, they welcome us to their villages with open hearts and smiles- you would never know.

Today was eye opening and inspiring for all. We can't wait to return in the morning!!

Good night from Nabugoye Village...

March 2017: Day 1

On Sunday, 5 different groups of volunteers left Vancouver and met up in Brussels, while 2 from India made their way. Over 40 hours later, 15 volunteers from The Walking School Bus met in the Entebbe airport. We gathered our 30 duffel bags loaded with school supplies, backpacks, computers and books and travelled the bumpy road to Nabugoye Village together. For many, it was an especially exciting journey, as they have never been to Africa, while the rest of us could not wait to be reunited with our friends here.

With special thanks to the St. George’s School community, we brought with us hundreds of pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners, markers, books, backpacks and paper. Our team spent hours sorting through the supplies so we could deliver them to the three schools. Additionally, with special thanks to Stormtech, we brought 100 school phys ed uniforms: shorts and t-shirts for 2 schools to be able to play in two teams. The sorting was incredible and we all worked together for several hours to ensure the right supplies went to the right schools. We have an incredible group on the ground with us!

Our first stop this morning was Semei Kakungulu High School, an interfaith school comprised of Jewish, Muslim and Christian students and leaders. We had the incredible privilege of meeting 10 students who learned (in front of us) that we would be paying for their education for the next 5 years with tremendous thanks to a special donor family in Vancouver. The students were overwhelmed, their smiles so bright as they clapped and were completely surprised by the news.

One by one they were called up as scholars deserving of this incredible scholarship, It is a moment that will be forever etched in all of our hearts The Head of School spoke to us for some time about the importance of interfaith collaboration; about the importance of standing side by side for the goal of educating their students. He spoke of celebrating all holidays together- they are a true community, one we are proud to support. A big takeaway for many was hearing about the impact of educating one child in a family. One child’s education can take an entire family out of poverty. The cost of educating these children for a year is roughly 250/year with incomes ranging from between 1 and 2 dollars/day. It is a lot to take in, and such is the journey on a trip like this.

As we left Semei Kakungulu High School, we were sorry to leave the students beautiful smiling faces.  

The afternoon was spent walking around the town of Mbale. They have a spectacular market filled with everything imaginable: fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, clothing and on and on.

Photo Credit: Sam Shapray

Photo Credit: Sam Shapray

Following the market, we went to a variety of equipment shops where we purchased additional materials for our solar reading classroom and chicken coop projects.
An early night will be enjoyed by all as we settle into the Guest House on top of Nabugoya Village.

TWSB moves to India

Aaron and I pass one another bricks to help with the construction of our water catchment system. 

Aaron and I pass one another bricks to help with the construction of our water catchment system. 

It was world students day this week. No better time to narrate a little backstory on something marvellous that is brewing.

Once upon a time (about 6 months ago):

Two flights from Bombay to Delhi, hours apart.

Two passengers – one all excited to ‘Tedtalk’ with students for the second time, and one – moving from one project to another, impatient and restless.

Whoever thought defective wifi systems would take me down a path I was going to love and to a land that was going to inspire me.

A man, soft spoken, weirdly comfortable in a foreign country, comes up to me looking for the airport wifi details. And I must have come across as someone who is weirdly comfortable talking to strangers- offering personal hotspot as an effective alternate. Putting on a brave face, Aaron refused at first- but eventually had to give into the pressures of work and got talking, over hotspots and our work. Here I was, sitting with someone who didn’t seem as young as I got to know later – because of two things he was so sure of.

Purpose. Opportunity.

Two things that bring so much more meaning to our ordinary lives.

How does he find time? How does he find the people to support and actually do something? How does he do it?

More importantly, how can I do it? How can I be part of it?

Questions that were going to be answered step by step over the next few months.

It was a 20 minute stranger- meets- stranger session.

And none of us would have given it any more importance-  had Aaron not invited me to his next TedTalk, had we not spoken about the Uganda trip and had I NOT ACTUALLY GONE WITH TWSB to Uganda.

Those 10 productive days that we all spent working together, helping students and each other – they were nothing if not inspirational. Everything that we learnt in Uganda, is applicable in India- THAT was the reason I wanted to be an integral part of this entire programme.

People questioned my objective of going to Uganda, because they didn’t see any value in me going to another country to do this. But if travel has taught me anything, it is this – There is no difference in how humans across countries react to things. Human behaviour isn’t limited to boundaries. And neither is selflessness.

The one person who pushed me to do this and helped me think beyond is Mr. Roshan Abbas.

But I know, that while I was there – there were a lot of people back home – following this journey, sending their love to the kids and the team, hoping we’d be doing something useful for them.

I was counting on these people. And they DID NOT disappoint me.

We now have a team up and running in Delhi, India. Mahima Jauhar (Event Manager), Abhilasha Nandal (Product Designer), Elvy Alias (News Anchor) and me, Sukriti Sachar (Content Designer) – that is what the TWSB Executive team (Delhi) looks like.

We are up against the biggest competitors – inaccessibility to education, inadequate educational resources and closed mind-sets.

And it doesn’t matter that all of us have different backgrounds, different skills, are from different parts of the country, in different phases of life. We are ready to put it all to use for something incredibly meaningful.

What matters is – It’s all heart.

 

Uganda Day 12

Today we woke at 6 am in the simple elegance of our thatch roof huts.

We gathered for breakfast under a full moon and ate delicious Spanish omelets while sipping locally grown coffee.

Astro Photography shortly before breakfast.

Astro Photography shortly before breakfast.

Shortly after, the group set out for a day of hiking and exploration. Our morning safari ended at the banks of the Nile River. From there, we spotted: giraffe, elephant, water buffalo, a variety of monkeys, hippos and crocodiles! Following our morning Safari, we all boarded a barge and crossed the Nile.

Across the Nile, we continued to Murchison Falls where we hiked above the rapids and were able to enjoy the mist swelling upwards.

Our Safari came to a wonderful end at 7PM when we stumbled upon a pride of Lions and enjoyed each others company until sunset. 

As the sun started to dip behind the majestic African horizon, I found myself thinking how incredibly lucky I was to have had experienced today and to have shared it with such a remarkable group of people. 

Eli, Michelle, Samantha, Lainie, Ally, Lynne, Shirley, Leo, Dan, Ruchi, and Sukriti. Thank you for making this first expedition the most productive and meaningful trip I could have ever hoped for. Thank you for believing in The Walking School Bus and helping make our vision a reality. Thank you for your passion, care and willingness to help out wherever needed. It was a privilege to spend the last 2 weeks with all of you.

25 hours of air travel. 11-hour bus rides. 12 enthusiasts. 7 countries.

That is what it took to get the wheels of The Walking School Bus rolling. 

Love, 
TWSB Team

Written By: Aaron 

Uganda Day 11

After leaving Nabagoye Village yesterday, we drove West across the country to reach our safari destination: Murchison Falls. As the landscape changed, so did our moods as we eagerly anticipated our 3-day safari together. The trees became denser and the grass lusher and 7 hours later we reached the park passing elephants along the way. 

View of the Nile from our huts.

View of the Nile from our huts.

The lodge is set overlooking the Nile River. We are staying in huts scattered along the property. 

We had dinner outside listening to the sound of animals. We ate and drank and retired early to our huts as our day was to begin at 6:30 sharp. 

It was still black outside when we woke up and had breakfast at 6:00. We watched the sunrise and the beautiful African horizon was pink and red. It was a breathtaking start to the day. 

We set off on our first game drive at the biggest park in Uganda: Murchison Falls which is 5000 square kilometers. 

We spent the morning on an exciting game drive. We saw herds and herds of elephants, giraffes, Buffalo, antelope, warthogs and prata monkeys; we even spotted 2 lions. 

They packed us lunch and we went to a local spot by the Nile River. There were hundreds of children dancing and listening to music.

Dan couldn't resist and immediately joined in followed by the rest of us. We danced around the circle with the children and their supervisors. They loved including us and warmly welcomed us. While enjoying lunch, a hungry baboon approached our group. Within seconds there were park patrols scaring them away ensuring our safety. There were many baboons and warthogs all around us while we ate- not a sight you see everyday!! Our guide took us to a beautiful lodge to relax for an hour and we excitedly jumped in the swimming pool feeling so happy. We have had very little downtime since arriving and the hour in the pool hit the spot. Then, off on a boat safari to the gorge of the Nile. We saw hundreds of hippos, and many giant crocodiles. There were many animals along the shore resting and eating. The waterfall itself was breathtaking. The scenery here is majestic. 

We returned to our lodge 12 hours after leaving this morning. We had a special day in the park as the 11 of us shared quite an incredible experience together. 

Love, 
TWSB Team

Written By: Michelle, Sukriti, and Ruchi

Uganda Day 10

It's hard to believe our time in Mbale is over. We stayed just the right amount of time and our work is complete for now. Although we still need to monitor and evaluate our projects, we have a good team at both villages to provide us with the support and data we need. 

I need to reflect upon what we saw because it's hard to imagine unless you've been to a rural village in a developing country. 

As a group, I think we collectively spoke about water the most. In the absence of running water, the women spend a good part of their days walking to water sources, filling bottles and jerry cans with water and carrying the very heavy containers home. Some days we had a trickle of running cold water and some days, they filled jerry cans for us. We worked outside all day sweating, wearing sunscreen and bug spray. We had to be deliberate in our "showering". Do I have enough water to wash my hair? There was no way to get all of the dirt off of our bodies with such a small amount of cold water. 

After water, it's hard not to contemplate the scarcity of food: rice, beans, peas and potatoes being staples. But, the remarkable aspect of the food is how and where they prepare it. Both villages had one small coal burning pot. That was the only heat source. They had no counters or chairs and the women either sat on the ground to cook or bent over the pot. Every time they served us lunch and dinner, I marveled at how they could do it - how could they produce enough food for 12 people in that tiny space. 

Notwithstanding the basic necessities such as food and water, these villages have no paper or pens. The schools are lacking books and educational resources. They have the unwanted items that we've all thrown in bins in an attempt to clean out the abundance of supplies we all have. We are planning to take bags of resources to the villages on our return in a couple of months. A duffel bag of pens, pencils, paper, geometry sets, educational workbooks and dictionaries. 

Books. They have no picture books or chapter books to read. 
 

Balls. Putti Village had never had a real ball to play with.  While balls are not a real life need, they make people happy. I realize it is of the utmost importance to help with food, water and shelter,  but I also feel committed to also bring some joy and happiness on my return.  

They are so resilient and resourceful in many ways. But in others, they rely on our help to spark change. I will always remember these men, women and children. Especially the beautiful, bright eyed, smiling children that we worked so hard to provide a way to access a better education. The hope is that through education, we can do our part to help - even one child - get out of their poverty cycle and have a brighter future.

Love, 
TWSB Team

Written By: Michelle Gilman 

Uganda Day 9

Good bye...

There was a feeling of frenetic energy in the guesthouse this morning as we scheduled our last day at both Nabagoya and Putti Villages. 

We began at Semei Kakungulu High School to administer the bus questionnaire to the high school students. Their responses were upsetting, to say the least, with fear of kidnapping and sexual assault en route to school an all too common response. We can't emphasize enough how much these communities need a school bus and we are planning our return here shortly to make the bus a reality. The agricultural team made sure that their three-pronged approaches of water catchment, CSA gardens, and an incredible chicken coop were effectively implemented with incredible community support. 

CSA Garden: 

TWSB Team (from left to right) Sukriti, Lainie, Ally, Ruchi, Enosh (Head of Putti Village), Aaron, Samantha, Michelle, Shirley, Lynne, Leo, and Eli standing to the right of the garden we just planted. 

TWSB Team (from left to right) Sukriti, Lainie, Ally, Ruchi, Enosh (Head of Putti Village), Aaron, Samantha, Michelle, Shirley, Lynne, Leo, and Eli standing to the right of the garden we just planted. 

Water Catchment: 

Young JJ Keki (Enosh's Son) standing in front of the new water catchment system which is the first of its kind in Putti Village. Here, rain is captured in the gutter systems and channeled down into the 1000L storage tank. From there, it is stored to water the garden and to provide drinking water when the bore hold has dried up. 

Young JJ Keki (Enosh's Son) standing in front of the new water catchment system which is the first of its kind in Putti Village. Here, rain is captured in the gutter systems and channeled down into the 1000L storage tank. From there, it is stored to water the garden and to provide drinking water when the bore hold has dried up. 

Aerial view of chicken coop before building.  Scroll down to see the finished project! 

Aerial view of chicken coop before building. 
Scroll down to see the finished project! 

Then, on to Hadassah Primary School for Day 2 of the reading program. When Aaron and Michelle went into the classroom the students were so excited to split into their respective groups. As luck would have it, all of the students who were absent yesterday, were back today. There was no wifi again, but Aaron read out loud. It's almost funny that we dealt with every possible problem the first day, and the teachers are now able to troubleshoot without us. After we finished reading with our groups, the students were sad to say goodbye to us - they were the sweetest and most appreciative children.

Okay, so it wasn't all them - we were incredibly sad to say goodbye to the students we built beautiful relationships with...

We then met with the Headmaster, grade 3 teachers, computer specialist, head of English (I use these terms loosely). We had to teach them how to assess the students in 30 days. Michelle went through the protocol and we videoed the process in order to leave them with an instructional tool. The meeting went exceedingly well and we really believe they understand all that is required on their part. 

Then, the goodbyes...

We put hundreds of hours into this reading program not knowing how it would really work in a developing country. Could we really create a program with the potential to help students all over improve their reading fluency?

It's hard to articulate the messages and the thanks you's we received from the team at Hadassah. They are beyond thankful to have this reading program at their disposal. They can't wait for the study to be over and get the whole school using the programs. 

There were the most genuine and heartfelt hugs between all of us. And some tears. We walked out of Hadassah Primary optimistic that all of our work would pay off. It's easier to leave with a return trip planned and with a mix of joy and sadness, we left the school. 

On to Putti Village. We went to say goodbye and see all of our agricultural projects finished. The chicken coop, garden, and water catchment are incredible and are tangible improvements for this very poor community. We left them food, water, and a passive income. We can't emphasize enough how grateful they were for our support. The teachers told us on Tuesday that they have never had a real ball. So, we brought them 2 soccer balls and the excitement was crazy. 

TWSB Team standing in front of the completed chicken coop!  This micro finance project provides students with nutrition (eggs), the school with passive income (extra eggs are sold), and sustains the CSA garden using chicken manure as fertilizer. 

TWSB Team standing in front of the completed chicken coop! 
This micro finance project provides students with nutrition (eggs), the school with passive income (extra eggs are sold), and sustains the CSA garden using chicken manure as fertilizer. 

Then, the hugs and thank you's. And more tears. 

We have spent 10 days in the poorest of conditions with no complaints: no running water, using a single Jerry can for a "shower", off and on power, beans, and rice or peas for lunch and dinner. We have been exhausted, hot and hungry. And we would all come back in a heartbeat and do it all over again. 

We are a quiet group tonight taking in all that we saw and all that we accomplished. 12 people from all over the world who came together to help students access education through improved transportation, nutrition and curriculum. 

12 people who made a real difference in the lives of 2 small villages. 2 small villages that made the biggest difference in all of our lives.

Love, 
TWSB Team

Written By: Michelle, Sukriti and Aaron

Uganda Day 8

We set out at 8:30 to begin the first day implementing the reading program. We were excited to finally see how months of research, planning and testing would pay off!! We knew the program wouldn't run without a glitch, but we couldn't have possibly anticipated all of the hurdles we faced. What's that saying... Man plans, God laughs... By 9:30 it certainly felt that way. The computers they promised to charge for us were not charged and the wifi we needed wasn't working. Those components were vital to our project.

The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

By 10:30, we had done damage control, and found 6 computers that worked. No audio, no problem- Aaron would be the reader. So we set off to the classroom to divide our grade 3 class in 2 groups. We learned that 9 students were absent because they hadn't paid their tuition and were "chased away". No worries, we decided to go back the following day to work with those students. We stood outside the Grade 3 room for 30 minutes waiting for the teacher to return from break. Tick tock. Tick tock. At nearly 11:30, 3 hours after arriving, we had solved all of our problems and were ready to begin the reading program.

The students arrived and excitedly ran to the classroom.  We briefly discussed how we would introduce the new reading program and then got started!

Aaron split the 42 person class into two: the treatment group (those using our reading application) and the randomized controlled trial (students who read the same books in class using the same font for the same amount of time without the use of simultaneously listening to the text).

Of the 42 students, Aaron randomly selected 21 for the treatment group. He walked around the classroom and gently tapped students on the head.  After receiving a tap, they stood up and moved towards the front where he stood. Next, Aaron and his cohort left for the library where they would be introduced to the reading application that TWSB has developed thanks to thehelp and support of Riafy.

After Aaron's group left, Michelle explained the reading program to the control group. She showed them the stories they brought and passed out folders containing sight word lists and sentences. This group will read text only (without audio) for 10 minutes every day. The students were thrilled to receive the reading materials. They had never seen a timer on an iPhone and were overall excited about what was being presented to them. Even the teacher asked if she could participate so her reading would improve! During their reading time, the room was silent. They understood that the reading program was going to help all of them read better. After the 10-minute timer went off, the students were sad to return their books. Michelle assured them they would be reading from them every day for 30 days and they would get them back the next day. Neither Michelle or the students wanted the moment to end. It was a hugely successful day and the program had begun. Michelle thanked all of the students for participating and for listening so well. They were so thankful; they all stood up and hugged Michelle with smiles and thank you's.

Michelle's cohort hard at work. 

Michelle's cohort hard at work. 

Meanwhile, in the library, The setting was surreal.  Many of the computers that should have been charged for the study had been neglected and the Ugandan wifi took on a life of its own. 

What many would have considered major problems worthy of disrupting our study proved to be remarkable opportunities. With only 6 of the 21 laptops charged,  we decided to allocate 1 laptop for every 3 children. This was a temporary measure to showcase the app and ensure that the students understood the user interface.  The cooperation was incredible to see. 

The second issue we encountered should have broken the camels back.  The last 3 months have been spent populating our app with audio recordings from around the world.  We've had people in India,  China,  Canada,  South Africa,  Australia,  Germany,  and Switzerland record books using our app. We always explained that these recordings would be utilized by students in our study.  You can imagine our frustration when the wifi refused to work!

This provided us with yet another wonderful opportunity as well as something to consider moving forward. Since the audio files on each page would not load,  Aaron read each page out loud. He began " and to think I saw it on mulberry street by Dr. Seuss."

And had the student click next and interact with the app just as they normally would without the audio playback.

The experience and problems encountered also affirmed our need to build out this app with offline capabilities so that all recordings can be downloaded and shared with rural communities that experience the everyday realities of spotty wifi.  Moreover,  some user experience and user interface issues need to be addressed.  Specifically,  larger and more obvious buttons which people with less exposure to technology do not always find obvious. 

Following our trial run, the group said their goodbyes,  packed up and met the other TWSB team members outside. 

Our Global Reading Program (GRP) Team in Uganda (right to left): Betty (English Teacher), Michelle, Aaron Moses (Headmaster), Aaron Friedland, Saul (English Teacher), Maxwell (Head of English), Juliet (English Teacher). 

Our Global Reading Program (GRP) Team in Uganda (right to left): Betty (English Teacher), Michelle, Aaron Moses (Headmaster), Aaron Friedland, Saul (English Teacher), Maxwell (Head of English), Juliet (English Teacher). 

We hopped in two vans and drove towards Sipi falls - the stunning waterfalls on Mt. Elgon. Our group, with a new addition, Dan, travelled for an hour until we arrived at a rustic lodge where we ordered the most western food on the menu: burgers. While we waited for the food, a guide took us on a hike to see the first and by far most glorious of the three waterfalls. We hiked past pink and purple flowers and banana trees.

After taking in the scenery and showering under the falls, we continued on our journey. While hiking to the final peak, some of the group members cliff jumped into the surprisingly refreshing river. The trail continued to a village high above the hills. We walked past coffee, banana and cocoa farms. It's funny how 'normal' walking amongst cows, goats and roosters has become.

Standing above Sipi Falls overlooking the lush country side. 

Standing above Sipi Falls overlooking the lush country side. 

When we arrived back at Sipi Falls lodge, steaming tea and coffee awaited us. We sat under the terrace marvelling at the view as storm clouds rolled in and lighting illuminated the sky. We laughed and talked and bonded as the rain came down and we took in all the beauty of the rain storm in Africa.  

Love, 
TWSB Team

Written By: Aaron, Michelle and Eli

Uganda Day 7

This morning we set out bright and early to make the long walk to school with the students from Putti Village at the Yonatan Netanyahu School. The early morning sunrise was beautiful shimmering pink and orange as it rose above the mountains illuminating the trees on the horizon. All was quiet as we left Nabagoye Village except the sound of the crickets and roosters. 

As we set off down the road, we began to see more and more students of all ages walking to school. Their walks were all different lengths ranging from 1 to 10 kilometers. The more we drove on, the more the roads filled up with students. Some kids walked alone, some in groups, most without parents, some with shoes, many without, a few with backpack. Seeing young children with no shoes or supervision is hard to digest. However, the scene isn't complete without realizing the hope and determination all of these students possess trying to get an education. 

The need to gift these communities a school bus is apparent. It is also abundantly clear to us that it must be done properly and efficiently in order to maximize the benefit to our partnered communities. While on the ground here in Uganda, and creating new contacts, we have been able to do more due diligence than was possible from Vancouver. We learned that the bus we planned to purchase was purchased and shipped to Uganda from Japan. It was driven hard and we were going to buy it used. Since being here, we learned we can buy directly from Japan and ship the bus here for the same price as gifting them a well used bus. We have also formed a partnership with a local tour company, African Adventures who would like to help us monitor and evaluate the project. As such, we have decided to purchase the bus from Japan and return here in a couple of months to gift the bus. While we are all anxious for this community to have the bus, we must ensure that cost efficiency and maximum benefit to the community are of paramount importance.  

With thoughts of the bus on our minds, as our van approached a fork in the road, we all got out to walk the final kilometre with the students. There are no real words to describe what we saw and how it felt to participate. With our TWSB shirts on, we felt proud to be a part of their journey and to realize the mission of The Walking School Bus: to help students access education. 

While the agriculture/nutrition team set up, Michelle and Aaron went into Mbale to purchase supplies local style. We rode on motorcycles (on the worst of roads) and returned standing in the back of a pick up truck holding on for dear life with our supplies. After a tire falling off the truck and our piping falling out of the truck, we made it back to the village. 

TWSB team was in full swing when we returned completing the work of yesterday's garden, chicken coop and art projects. It was satisfying to see the projects come to life. We'll be back on Thursday to see the chickens delivered!! Michelle had the opportunity to workshop with the teachers and share educational reading resources. They were so grateful and appreciative of all our time and energy!

After 6 hours, the chicken coop is really coming to life! It's incredible, previously we had been working on the theoretical economic growth models and now we're brining it to fruition! 

After 6 hours, the chicken coop is really coming to life! It's incredible, previously we had been working on the theoretical economic growth models and now we're brining it to fruition! 

We arrived at Putti Village at 7:00 am and left 12 hours later exhausted but satisfied and happy to see the difference we are making in the lives of the people here.

Love,

TWSB Team

Written By: Michelle Gilman