Uganda Holiday House

May 2015

Imagine being sixteen and never having been to the movies. Imagine being a teenager and never having had the chance to own a pair of jeans. Imagine being a girl and never having gone shopping for a pretty dress.

For our students in Uganda, all this was a part of their reality, until they recently spent three weeks in Kampala on a VF-sponsored holiday program. Instead of heading to their family homesteads in rural Kween (a district in Eastern Uganda), a townhouse in the suburb of Kireka became their home. Instead of rooming with their siblings, each of the girls had a bunk bed to herself in what was essentially a three-week long sleepover with her friends.

The girls were extremely excited at the prospect of experiencing city life for the first time. On the first day in the house, they raced up and down the stairs exploring the bedrooms, the living room area with its imposing flat screen TV and, of course, the kitchen which was well stocked to take care of ravenous, calorie-hungry teenagers. They quickly learned how to turn on the TV; none of the girls has ever had a TV in their house. They had never seen a gas stove, and they were taught to approach the use of one with caution and attention to safety.

But best of all, the girls had abundant electricity and running water available at the touch of a hand. All day, and all night, these two things that are so common place – but have always been unavailable to many – were present to make their lives easier. It was truly incredible for all of them.

Ask the girls to describe a day in their lives at home in Kween, and they all say everyday starts with a precarious journey to the river to fetch water for family use. According to their accounts, the river runs through a forest that harbors men and boys who routinely waylay, abduct and sexually assault girls before melting back into the forest. It is this menacing environment that the girls wake up to every day. They speak of it lightly, with that curious matter-of-fact attitude many teenagers seem to possess, but how can that be?

They also tell of endless chores, in the house and on the small-holder farms which provide their families with food and extra income. As teenage girls, they have a lot of responsibilities; in effect, they shadow their mothers all day around the hearth and homestead, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger children. As if that is not plenty, they must also gather firewood and take the animals out to pasture.

This does not leave much time for a girl to gather her thoughts, or spend time in play and study. Once the sun goes down, there is more darkness than light in the rural countryside because there is no electricity. Homework gets cursory treatment as the tired children retire to bed early.

No wonder the girls were literally ecstatic to stay in Kampala! The holiday program sponsored by Valvisions Foundation was intended to give them a leg-up in academics by providing ample time and resources for study on their own and with tutors. It was also an opportunity to broaden their horizons and introduce them to other cultural and social influences. They interacted with peer mentors from the Choice Club program who helped them practice and speak English. They experimented with different food and decided they love spaghetti and meatballs. They had plenty of leisure time to do things teenage girls enjoy – like shopping for dresses and jeans; they all wore jeans (and shorts) for the first time in their lives. Then, they caught a movie at a nearby cinema – again, another first for all of them. Best of all, by their own account, they had a day excursion to the zoo and wild life center in nearby Entebbe town where they marveled at close encounters with giant snakes, a baby elephant named Charles, screaming Chimps on an Island and two lazy lions sunning themselves on a wooden platform.

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