A Visit to St. Paul Nkokonjeru

by Christa Keppler

Many of you are familiar with the partnership forged last year between Coyote Ridge Elementary, the school where I was previously an assistant principal, and the St. Paul School. Visiting this summer was a dream come true, and without a doubt, a life-changing experience.I imagined it would be transformative, yet it was much more fulfilling, eye-opening, and awakening to the senses than I expected it would be.

Although there were several daily highlights along the journey, visiting St. Paul, in Nkokonjeru, was probably the most memorable, and unlike any experience I have ever had. There are permanent imprints in my mind of the children’s beautiful smiles, their strong desire and eagerness to learn, their sense of hope and wonder, and how deeply they care about us.

The St. Paul School is in the heart of the jungle. Upon entering the village, we were greeted by a few dozen students, all singing songs and celebrating our arrival. The road narrowed into a small walking path on which we somehow managed to drive. Our car must have been the first to have ever traveled along that trail. For most of the children, we were the first white people they had ever seen.

During our stay in Nkokonjeru, I found myself slipping in and out of sheer joy and deep despair. There were emotional highs and lows throughout my visit to St. Paul. I soon came to learn that the majority of the children were orphans. Hearing their stories, I questioned how any child could endure what they have, and why should they. Many have lost parents or family members due to the devastation of AIDS. Most have tattered clothing, few wear shoes, and others are quite sick due to lack of food or medical care. I wondered how on earth they could ever concentrate enough to learn anything, especially with 110 students in a school house the size of one American classroom, and with their only meal in the day being a half cup of porridge.

Yet, what amazed me most from this trip was the students’ strength, resiliency, and strong DESIRE and will to learn. From the outside, you could never tell the sorrow and grief they had to bare because of their circumstances. I was in awe of their cohesiveness as a community, whole-hearted expressiveness through singing, dancing, laughing, and the ways in which they embraced life. There were some students of whom I grew especially fond. I can still hear Oliva’s voice singing, “Christa, you are my baby.” The students took months to prepare song and dance performances for our arrival as well as for the luncheon we hosted. I realize just how much I have to learn from them.

During the trip, I also recognized that before we could focus on learning or educating the children, there was a higher priority: food. During the day, students receive one meal, which consists of diluted porridge or corn flour. It costs about five dollars a month to feed a child one serving of porridge a day, but many families don’t even have enough funding to pay for this, so some children go hungry. Since schools are not subsidized by the government, it is up to parents to pay school fees in order to send their children to school. Many parents cannot afford to pay the dues, so it’s up to the school to find the means (which they don’t have.) Often, students end up not going to school. I started thinking about how many children I could feed in a month by giving up daily lattes.

Amidst the devastating poverty, there was a strong sense of pride among the people about their culture. We were fortunate to have experienced their culture first-hand when given a tour upon our arrival. We were chaperoned throughout the village learning about the 101 uses of the banana plant, meeting the uncle who hunted antelope with a spear to provide meat, participating in rituals with the village healer/witch doctor, dancing to African drumming into the late hours of the night, playing soccer with the children (which consisted of a tightly bound up plastic bag,) and introduced to the elders, which was a significant honor in their culture. Yes, we were culturally enlightened to their ways.

Although there’s a significant distance that separates Colorado from Nkokonjeru, Uganda, I was amazed by how strong the friendship has grown between the schools. All the villagers expressed deep gratitude and appreciation for our partnership. The children and staff at St. Paul asked so many questions about Coyote Ridge and were eager to continue to deepen the relationship and partnership that already exists. I left there knowing that any small amount will help, and that EVERY monetary donation would be put to good use.

The school especially needs a new structure that can safely and adequately accommodate the students. Currently, they have one small structure with a leaking roof, not enough benches for the kids to sit on, and it’s extremely cramped. The school has one flimsy blackboard that they move from one classroom to the next, as well as some chalk, dull pencils, a few benches for kids, and some lined notepads that are so tattered they’re crumbling at the seams….and that is IT!

I forgot to mention the pen pal letters that adorn the walls. Yes, letters from the students at Coyote Ridge are the only “visuals” in their classrooms, and they hang them proudly to remind themselves of their connection with us here in the U.S. Honestly, no other teaching supplies exist. Given their vast needs, the teachers could have been crying out in desperation, but this wasn’t the case….they are very humble and gracious people. I left St. Paul knowing that there are significant needs, and that any help will go a long way. The people of St. Paul School taught me to appreciate the simple things in life – namely, family, friends, and all the joys that life has to offer – if we take notice.