Exposing the Dark Side of Shutting Down
In 2020, we were celebrating the fact that our ministry and school had nearly defeated the threat of child trafficking for the 800 plus children at Shikhuyu. Little did we know that this could change with one nasty virus that ravaged our world. Though we steadfastly continue this war against the evils of child trafficking, our 10 years of work and progress have been challenged. Child trafficking, teen pregnancy, early marriage and so many other tragedies that we have worked so hard to eradicate are rearing their ugly heads.
And the fight is on.
Precious photo captured by Moses
When the world shut down, it was scary for many of us. I personally lost about 1/4 of my income as I was unable to work my second job at the time. However, I was so blessed to spend more time at home with my granddaughter and adult and teenage daughters. My work continued from my kitchen table for Hands of Action, as I brainstormed and discovered ways to raise funding without the ability to hold monthly fundraising events.
It was not long before our school in Uganda, (along with every school in Uganda) was also forced to shut down. We knew that this would create a ripple effect of challenges and hardships, but honestly the ramifications ended up being worse than we had imagined. Without school, the children who rely on our school feeding program for their one and only meal of the day began to starve. With little reserves of fat and nutrition in their little bodies, this became a desperate situation quickly. Moses and I brainstormed and decided that we must enact an emergency food commodity distribution program.
A glimpse into the process of distributing emergency food commodities at Shikhuyu
It seemed like a simple idea, but there were many problems along the way. First and foremost, food was not available locally due to a harsh rainy season that made the crops fail in the village area. So food had to be purchased in bulk from the city at the bottom of the mountain and trucked up the washed out, winding, and often dangerous roads to the school. Due to supply and demand, the price of food was higher than we had hoped, so we had to raise an extra $4000 per month to feed the children cornmeal and beans. Once the food arrived at the school, our staff with Hands of Action Uganda would have to portion, bag, and keep track of all of the food and the distribution process. This took days, and then the children would come in groups to gather their commodities, again taking days of distribution. Once completed for the 800+ kids, this process would begin again. Part of Moses' home became a distribution center to keep the kids from crowding at the school. We had hoped that this process would last only a few months, but we are going on a year now.
Amidst this difficult process we have witnessed the incredible faithfulness and love of God for these children over and over again. One of the most amazing things about this journey has been seeing God work through faithful donors who have given enough every single month to feed these children. And each month when I thought that we were simply going to be out of food money, the money came. Many tears were shed by myself and those behind the scenes as we prayed and sought and then saw God answer time and time again through everyday people. Thank you if you gave toward this need. You literally saved lives of children in our school.
So, if food distribution were not hard enough to manage, due to the countrywide elections and Covid complicating life in Uganda, there was an ordinance put out that stated that anyone caught distributing food would be arrested as it was not safe to have people gather to collect the goods. Quickly, our Director, Moses, jumped through the necessary hoops, and our school site became an officially registered emergency food distribution site so that our staff would not face imprisonment for feeding these precious children. It was not an easy process, but Moses and his persistence made this all possible.
Some of the children who go to our school
So now we have met the very basic need of feeding our kids, but as time went on and no end to Covid was in sight, the families and children began to lose hope. The food we provide only goes so far, and there is still widespread hunger amongst the families who are a part of Shikhuyu. Darkness is spreading, along with the fear of this dreaded virus and families are facing hard decisions that they had not faced since our school took in their children. Without the security and certainty of children attending school, and with the crop failures, lack of income, fear of disease, and all of the other community difficulties children began being sent away again. If you know about our history, one of the reasons our school was established is to prevent child trafficking. Prior to the school being built, many families faced the unimaginable decision of "saving" some of their children by sending other kids away to work in the fields or as house boys and house girls (maids or worse). When we opened the school, parents no longer had to send kids away because our school provided what they could not.. food, education, safety, clothing, medical care. Without the school, these needs flooded the community again.
We have no idea how many of our precious children have been sent away, however we will know once school is back in session and the teachers can account for the children who returned. During the shut down, our staff on the ground has worked hard to try to track down students reported as missing, trafficked, married, or pregnant. There have been many investigations, even with the Covid lock downs and restrictions. We have sadly lost some of our teen girls to early marriage, and we had an explosion of teen pregnancies over the past year. The full picture will only be known once we resume classes and can see who comes back and who does not. It's a grim place to be in, and since I have personally known many of these students for most of their lives, I am sick to my stomach wondering what more we will discover.
Uganda has the highest teen pregnancy rates of Sub-Saharan Africa, at 25%. Our school had very few teen pregnancies since starting. That has changed, now.
Then comes the next wave of questions.. What do we do with all of these pregnant and teen mom's and dads? We have invested years of education into these children, does having a child mean that they now have to become a statistic and quit school? We do not have the financial or the practical capacity for special programs for teen parents. And if we did, would it be seen as rewarding this behavior only perpetuating this cycle with other youth? These are the hard questions we have to mull over and pray about. Oh, how my heart does not want to see a single one of these precious children fall through the cracks! However, we have limitations. Having babies in class is not an option, as that would be a distraction to the other students. And, the fact that the only viable way to really feed an infant in the village is through nursing means that if a teen mom lives away from the school grounds, she would miss way too much school trying to meet up to nurse her child throughout the day, even if someone were kind enough to provide child care. There is no easy solution, and that is the only thing I am sure of.
Even in the midst of all of these difficulties, we are finally seeing a glimmer of hope for moving back into a new normal at the School. Our high school students are expected to start up within a month, as well as many of our elementary students. We have not yet heard of the the government mandates for class size, spacing of students, masking, etc, so we are not sure that our current classrooms sizes are enough to accommodate the new regulations. But we are confident that we will do all we can once those standards are set to meet them. Finishing our School Chapel will add three classrooms to the elementary school, easing congestion and space issues. We are going to be campaigning hard on this project now that life is going back to some normalcy in Uganda.
In all of this, we are asking that you stand with us in so many ways. Please pray for us, for Moses, for the staff of our on the ground programs, for the students. Pray for wisdom and discernment as we navigate uncharted territory and make hard decisions. Pray for sponsors to continue to come forth and to sponsor the children who are still waiting and hoping to be chosen.
Moses speaking while campaigning earlier this year
Our Hands of Action International Board of Directors had to make the very difficult decision of cancelling our 2021 team trips due to both Covid and the political climate of Uganda. It is simply not safe to travel there at this time for so many reasons. I personally am still planning a trip once these situations have calmed down and it is deemed safer to travel there. For those who sponsor children, please do know that I will be doing my very best to get to the school to see your child, get a new photo, and exchange letters. My heart is to keep you connected and I will do my best to make that happen. Thank you for being so patient and for continuing to support your child(ren) during this time. All of our school staff has remained employed and paid, which we are proud of. (Uganda did create a mandate for this, but we had already made the commitment to do so to honor our amazing staff and retain them before the nation enacted the mandate to pay school staff during Covid). I am so proud of our Hands of Action family and I am incredibly honored and grateful to be in the position I am serving both locally and internationally.
Our chapel in it's current state. We are raising the funds to complete this project and to bring real life changing hope and truth to the children and families we serve.je
As always, if you would like to sow into our school and chapel, you can do so by visiting our website and clicking donate. www.handsofactioninternational.org Together we will continue to fight the good fight for these children. Covid is just a bump in the road, our God has this school in His hands and we know He has a better plan than we ever could. I am excited to see what He does this year!