In recent years, Zena Bentley, a retired teacher from Whitby in Yorkshire, has joined our annual visit to Kabale. Each year she has spent a few days visiting a school in a very poor rural village north of Kabale. Below is her account of how this school was set up with the support of Naomi Haigh and its incorporation into All Our Children to give it charitable status. Zena is a trustee of All Our Children.
Zena wrote the piece below before hearing the very sad news that Naomi had died. It is an inspirational story, as you will read. Continuing support for Source of Light will be Naomi’s legacy.
The remarkable story of the Source of Light Nursery and Primary School is really about the incredible compassion and belief of Naomi Haigh. Naomi is a young musician from Stokesley. She is the daughter of someone I knew when I was a school girl, and then didn’t see for 40 years. I met her at the Teesside Symphony Orchestra which her father conducts. There I met her mother, reconnected with her auntie, whom I also knew 40 years ago, and became Naomi’s friend. She is outgoing and a live wire! Her grandad told me of her upcoming trip to Uganda and his pride in her achievements. Here is the story of the school and what it has achieved.
Naomi went to Birmingham University and studied Music and German. In 2013 she took part in a voluntary programme with NGO Soft Power Education, which took her to Uganda. She worked with a school in eastern Uganda.
Shortly before she left Uganda for England she met, completely by chance, a young Ugandan graduate, from the west of Uganda, John Kaahwa. They were both drinking coffee and struck up a conversation. He explained how his father had given him four parcels of land for his 18th birthday and, although he could sell the land or farm it, what he really wanted to do was build a school. As a child and teenager, he had walked 12 kilometres a day to get his education.
The government had promised the village a school but at the last minute changed their minds and built one in a different place. His father had started a school of sorts, sheltered under trees and with woven reeds for protection from the elements. He started it because a lot of the village children slipped into child labour and didn’t make the journey his son had taken. What John wanted to do was build a proper school for his village.
He wanted all the children to get an education and not be forced into work, with no prospect of escaping the poverty trap. He had no idea how or if he would get enough funds to build and run the school, but he had started saving money from his job as a secondary school English teacher. He must have been very passionate and persuasive as Naomi promised to help him by raising money through giving a concert in England.
On her return to England her family was sceptical. What did she really know about this man? How did she know the money would be used to build a school? What difference could one person make? Naomi sought legal advice and set up a fund. She worked with John, by email, to raise money to start and build the school.
She didn’t promise to raise any specific amount or meet any deadlines, but she has been true to her word. In the first four years she raised and sent almost £10,000. She shaved her head, baked cakes and sold them, performed in concerts, organised other people to give concerts, took part in sponsored events. She had the reassurance of frequent updates and photographs of the progress made in Uganda from the man she met, John Kaahwa, who is now the proud proprietor and headteacher of this school.
At this point, Naomi was persuaded to go and see the school for herself. Her grandad told me how worried he was about her travelling alone. I had just retired and I volunteered to go with her. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for!
It took us three days to get to the school. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. First there was the trip to London, then a long flight, then a car journey, then finally we set off by boda boda (motorbike taxi) for the village. We travelled about 10 minutes by tarmacked road and then about the same on a dirt track. We could not see it until we were practically on top of it. What a greeting we had! The pupils had prepared songs and dances of welcome. The whole school took part. We met parents, governors, friends of the school and local leaders. It was overwhelming. The children were fabulous. Boys and girls have their heads shaved. There is no problem with sweets or mobile phones. The children are very keen to learn and we witnessed no discipline problems.
Everyone in Uganda pays school fees. The children know their parents have to make sacrifices for them to attend. They are strictly there to learn. They were up for anything. Naomi and I enjoyed sharing songs, dances and games. Later we taught them knitting and how to make friendship bracelets. John had told us he had built a library. This had been lost in translation as the library was in fact a set of almost empty shelves. We filled them with things we had brought and then things we bought – additional musical instruments, PE kits, pens, pencils, stationery, maths sets, red pens for teachers, text books, dominoes, jigsaws.
What we both liked best was the strong sense of community and caring. John’s mum is a very rare thing in Uganda – an old person. The average life expectancy in 2017 was just 46. On that trip she was the only person over 60 whom we saw. She was revered by the students. Like the rest of the village, she keeps a few chickens and grows a range of crops. The children are well fed. They drink rain water and were very grateful for the guttering and water tank which was our last big project before we set off.
Our visit was in 2017. We have continued to raise money through concerts. We have played in Stokesley, Nunthorpe, Bedale and Whitby. Sometimes we have worked with other people. We have received donations by appealing to concert goers and colleagues. The school has grown gradually, going up the years to their final year of Primary education (P7). In Uganda there are end of year exams and, if you do not pass, you repeat the year. It can take a long time!
Since our trip I have been back to the Source of Light but I have also worked as an advisor in a city. The city schools are very different, although they look almost identical. Government schools have more text books than private schools and the regimes and ethos are very different. Despite it being against the law, it has been very common for children to be beaten for any reason and sometimes without a reason. Any child whose parents are not up to date with fees are sent away and stay away until there is money enough for them to pay for a term in full.
In this way a lot of children fall behind and some slip into child labour, whilst others take a long time to get a basic education and many do not finish their courses. If at the end of school there are outstanding fees, then certificates are not given to the students. They must clear their debts.
The Source of Light had 165 pupils when Naomi and I visited it together. Before the pandemic lockdown in 2020, it had grown to 330 students. The first cohort took and passed their End of Primary School examinations. They all attained good grades and have the opportunity to continue to secondary education. We are so proud of their achievements. The school looks after the children. Parents are often behind with school fees, especially if there are problems with the crops. John is patient. A father with two children at the school died. John kept the children on at a very reduced fee rather than making them leave. One family moved to the Source of Light because one of the children had been beaten by a teacher for a crime she had not committed. When it was proved that the teacher had been wrong and the child was innocent, the teacher refused to apologise. Parents know the Source of Light cares and it now has a reputation for excellent exam results too!
I was asked “will the children go on in education?” and “will there be better jobs for them to go into?” 14 of the 18 students did start secondary school. Most of the class were the first people in their families to get so far in their education. The knock-on effect is huge. Those students will be better placed to help their parents with filling in forms and understanding how to register to vote. They will be able to help their siblings, and their siblings will know it is possible to succeed. In time they will have their own children and will be able support them to do even better.
In March 2020 Uganda locked down and all schools were closed. The school is in a very rural area. There was no hardship with regard to food but parents did struggle to pay rent and some children may well have slipped into child labour. John reports no pregnancies among the school girls and no forced early marriages. This is not the case in Ugandan cities.
John is now married and his wife gave birth in September 2019 to twin girls, Peace and Grace.
In late 2020 the school reopened but only for the examination class. The school was re-inspected in February 2021 and the licence was renewed. We had managed to supply money to cover the cost of digital thermometers, washing stations, soap, sanitiser and masks. That one class took their exams in March 2021. Shortly afterwards Uganda had a second lockdown and the school was closed. We had to wait a long time for the results but the 12 students all passed with high grades.
Naomi and I continued to raise money to fulfil the latest criteria from the government. We have already built three blocks of classrooms and a school hall. Now the school needs a perimeter fence, a permanent kitchen and, because of its size, it needs to provide accommodation for at least 4 members of staff. Of course the aim is for the school to be self-sufficient. The fees paid by the families cover the teachers’ salaries and materials. Naomi committed to help with money for the building. It seems it is not finished, so neither are we.
The position in Autumn 2021
Despite the death of our beloved Naomi, the work at Source of Light continues. It is part of her legacy to the world.
On the day of Naomi’s funeral, 24 September 2021, John had a further school inspection for the school to become a centre to hold exams. John was sure this was Naomi’s doing! The inspectors were very impressed and found everything that had been asked of the school done, or in hand. They had no hesitation in granting the licence to be a centre for examination.
To retain the teachers, ready for the reopening of the school after the pandemic, we have paid their wages. If we had not done this, they would have fallen into debt. Their wages have come entirely from donations as there have been no school fees to collect. The building of the staff accommodation is well underway, up to roof plate. Our current funds are also being used to complete what we hope is the final building. Funds are also needed to buy supplies of stationery, food, etc to re-open the school in January 2022.
The work for Source of Light is continuing with the help of the charity All Our Children. For more than a year, all donations have gone under the umbrella of All Our Children. We have the same values and principles, namely to provide access to education and improve the welfare of children. Through AOC, we have been able to claim gift aid and their treasurer has made transfers for us into Uganda.
I am in regular contact with All Our Children and John Kaahwa in Uganda. Meticulous records are kept of donations, gift aid, the needs of the school through budget proposals from John and information on transfers of money.
Naomi was a force of nature with a character that lit up those around her and continues to do so.
Zena Bentley, October 2021
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