In Search of the New Cartographers
Lessons from a Givology Fellowship at the Circle of Peace, Kampala, Uganda
“It’s my duty. If we can build an environment where students can develop, where they can learn, where they can be at peace — that is the only legacy that I can ask for.” Farook Kakeeto
I sat with chills as I interviewed Farook, the bursar of the Circle of Peace School in Kampala, Uganda. He was not unlike me — a young man in his early twenties clasping onto a dream to leave an impact during his time in this world. What separated him from others my age though, was his wisdom embedded in unbrandished experience.
I came to the Circle of Peace looking for directions. Directions to a path where I could leave a visible trail that could guide this school to a place that would leave them off better than before I arrived. Farook would be the first guide I would meet who could assist in this task. But it was by exploring the tale of his whole family’s story that I slowly realized that I may have found directions in my own life as well; a map to somewhere I’ve been searching for for so long.
And so began the search of the new cartographers of persistence, of peace and of proactivity in addressing one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.
It’s my duty to share their story.
January 2015. It was a fateful afternoon when I was hosting the Western Capital Markets New York Conference as VP Events that I had the privilege to have a conversation with one of our panellists, Joyce Meng, Co-Founder of Givology. Givology is a micro-finance charity founded to demonstrate the impact that can be made when many small contributions pool together to affect change at a larger scale, whether through time or monetary donations.
The New York Conference’s purpose was to give students a candid glimpse of life at the heart of global finance. I however, had an undying flame calling me back to the African continent after having worked at Vava Coffee, a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2014. Joyce’s vision that social impact and one’s career need not be mutually exclusive jolted me to pursue a fellowship with the organization. Two months later, I was partnered with the Circle of Peace School as a Givology Fellow.
Two months after that — I was back.
I arrived in Kampala in mid-July after having spent two weeks working as a journalist and student correspondent for my university, building field school partnerships across Uganda for a new Master’s Program in Global Health Systems. I spent the prior five weeks in Kigali, Rwanda, working at a street children rehabilitation centre. You could say that I felt at home in Africa but that couldn’t be true until I arrived at the Circle of Peace to the welcoming hugs and grateful smiles of Farook, Charles, MaryLove and Abraham. Home without a doubt was where the Bbaale family was.
What could one truly accomplish within the span of just ten days? How could I realistically trailblaze a footprint that was up to the standards of the Givology organization? My experience in East Africa to that point was that life there moves at a leisurely rate, with a Swahili proverb summing it up: “Haraka Haraka Hyena Baraka”, best interpreted as “Quickly quickly, one doesn’t win the race.” I had to be swift without leaving any blank spaces in my work, while aligning with the style of Ugandan culture to help the school stay ahead in this real race, the race of human development at the most crucial time of our lives.
Quite the challenge.
The Circle of Peace was founded in 1994 by Joanita Bbaale as a program to provide basic education for students who could not pay steep school fees. With a focus on delivering the essential skills for self-sustainability in life, the humble beginning of the school at the front steps of Joanita’s home took 21 years to become a leading primary education centre in the region. They now have 300 students, international support from the Circle of Peace International (COPI) NGO and a story that should inspire others to build education in Uganda from a local level, together.
Success, however, didn’t come easy, but they too were up for the challenge. It required the entire Bbaale family to come together and make the school the focal point of their lives. Whether it was relocating the school grounds, or taking on-board Charles Bbaale full-time, who was busy with his own work, every challenge the school faced could be boiled down to one thing:
It was through this baseline understanding where my objectives were clear. What could I do to ensure that the school’s operations would be more profitable, more sustainable and more scalable for when I was gone? That question was the leading arrow to define my two projects.
Firstly, alongside Abraham, Farook’s father, I was to don the vest of Sherlock Holmes. Abraham runs the David Davenport Chicken Farm for the school, which is a major income generator as eggs are sold daily, and chickens yearly, to sustain Abraham’s living and make a valuable contribution to the Circle of Peace. The challenge: his newest batch of chickens were simply not laying eggs.
Through some detective work we discovered that it was due to a low grade feed sold by a dishonest merchant that the chickens weren’t nourished enough to produce anything. To cut his losses, we drafted a contingency plan to ensure that this setback was simply an outlier after a number of years of strong profitability that garnered reinvestment back into the school.
The second major project was working alongside Charles Bbaale to develop a feasibility plan for a new maize milling business. With guidance from Joanita, as well as MJ and Ben Ebenhack from Circle of Peace International, we drafted a business plan for this new addition to the school. From data collection for the financials, to farm visits halfway to Jinja in the east, to interviewing a maize milling entrepreneur — this project would give me an all-encompassing look at food systems in Uganda. These are systems that often defy our Western-centric understanding of business, as issues such as electricity availability, climate change’s effects on crop growth and water safety would be the bloodlines of such an endeavour.
If the project was a success, it would allow the school to be in charge of the nutritional destiny of its students while becoming an important supplier of posho, a major maize product, to the community. In essence, they could be pioneers in new ways to approach agriculture by vertically integrating their food sources under their school’s umbrella.
I was to present this proposal to the COPI board, and after a few revisions and a pitch of the project, they approved complete funding. To the delight of the Bbaale family, they could get started right away to make up for the losses suffered by the chicken farm.
2 for 2.
The successful completion of these two projects may be commendable but their impact would be minute compared to the lasting words of Charles, Farook, MaryLove and Abraham through the conversations and more formal interviews I had with them.
What truly strike me as the separating factors that make the school so successful despite a lack of government involvement are the principles on which it is based.
Education is the study of truth from a 360 degree perspective.
The children that attend the school often come from backgrounds where their experience of truth is one of pain. Poverty. Neglect. Bereavement. These children live in conditions where the notion of learning is often overpowered by the need to survive on a day to day basis.
As someone in my fourth year of undergraduate studies I often forget that I’ve spent as many years in primary school as the years that followed up until today. In our adulthood we may underrate the importance of those formative years. During those years, we may forget about what we thought about, what grades we received on our report cards, what happened on those Saturday morning cartoons, but we never forget how we felt. We can never forget whether our childhood was one of joy or of sorrow, of stability or of chaos, of love or of fear. And that feeling often stays with us and will define how we approach the narratives of our lives.
The Circle of Peace makes it their priority to ensure that this important fact is not forgotten. By subsidizing school fees for those without the means to pay, and by providing transportation and essential nutrition, the school is able to address real issues full circle and incentivize families to believe in the value of education. There, these children can embark on their exploration of truth in an environment where they need not worry about the fears that linger or define their growth as individuals.
When I spoke with Farook about how his time as a student at the Circle of Peace many a decade ago, he said that the impact it had on him was the reason why he needed to continue the school’s legacy and have a similar impact on every student who walks through their gates. For Charles, he said that he never had the opportunity to achieve a full formal education but that it is the greatest tool you can give a child to escape a life of poverty in a country where that word can be so prevalent. MaryLove said that she internalizes the importance of what they are doing when the alumni of the school come back to volunteer, to share their success stories or simply to say thank you.
Cartographers. The greatest lesson from my time at the Circle of Peace School was that we can all map out our own futures. The school set out to help map the lives of the children who will be at the forefront of Uganda as it rapidly develops further into the 21st century. It took them 21 years of persistence and they definitely didn’t go down a straight path — a chicken farm and a maize milling business aren’t exactly orthodox additions to a school, but today they are addressing a prime need of the world at its focal point — the development of our children.
For me, the map I was looking for upon returning to Africa didn’t need to exist. I was searching for a path to build something in the area, whether a startup or finding the right NGO where I could kickstart my career upon graduation. Rather than simply handing me a map, the story of the Circle of Peace taught me the art of cartography.
The reality that we live in is based on the picture we paint of every present moment.
No matter where you come from, no matter what experiences you believe are holding you back, one of the greatest powers we all share is the ability to paint our present moments in a manner that makes us feel how we wish. We don’t always get to choose what we experience but we do have the freedom to decide how we feel about these inputs. The school truly hit the nail on the head when they want to build a circle of peace — a place where everyone can truly be in acceptance of their current life conditions and be empowered to push themselves to paint the brush strokes of their next steps. That may be the secret to why you could only find smiles on the faces of these children. They often are the embodiment of the happiness that we spend our entire lives searching for- it may be only truth that we need.
You don’t need to become the next Marco Polo and reshape our paradigms about the very nature of the world we live in to embody this dogma; I didn’t need to find the X-Factor that would be my calling for life, but in being the artists of every moment maybe we can be at peace in not needing to be.
Thank you Givology, and the Bbaale family for giving me the opportunity to leave a mark on the Circle of Peace. It’s an organization that I believe is the model on how we can newly become cartographers in painting out our every living moment. From there, we can then help guide the lives of the most vulnerable of us all.
It would be our duty.