KAMPALA, UGANDA — We’re talking education, Richard and me. I give him a wad of cash. Five hundred thousand shillings — just about $180. His three kids can return to school for another semester.
His white teeth flash on his black face. “May God richly bless you,” he says. “I am happy. So happy. You tell Jean that Richard is happy. Send greetings to the children. But tell them I’m happy.”
We help several Ugandan kids with school fees. Paul now has three school-age children. Alice, three. Beatrice, two. Lydia, two, I think. We pay Paul’s because he’s our gardener. The others we’re simply concerned about — families with men out of the picture or hopelessly broke.
Beatrice’s husband, a Ugandan soldier in Iraq, sends her some pay, but has nine kids from several women.
Donating school fees is a priority upon our annual return to Uganda, this now our seventh year. It shows that so-called universal primary education — government covering school costs in developing nations — is a sham here.
Public schools are that rotten. Even Uganda’s poorest would give their right eye to use nongovernment, fee-paying schools. They’re bare and basic, but give kids at least a shot at learning up from down.
Private boarding schools — think porridge and beans and a thin mattress — are especially popular. There, kids can get their rote drills from dawn to bedtime. These same-gender schools have other issues, though.
Kampala Parents’ School has a telling motto: “Struggling for the future.” Yes, this is Uganda, where 30 per cent of revenues come from foreign aid but the president has a new $48 million jet. And those new fighter planes? $744 million. It is the rot that it is.
Richard was our first gardener. That’s a common job in green Uganda, the so-called Pearl of Africa. Now he’s a turnkey boy for taxis, the white beater-vans that transport commuters. There they sit, jiggling and jammed. From the front passenger seat, Richard waves them in, calls routes, collects the ratty cash.
His typical workday is seven in the morning to nine at night. He’ll earn, tops, 10,000 shillings. With Uganda’s wild inflation, that’s $3.59 Cdn. That won’t cover his family’s food or clothes or soap or salt. The vegetable garden gets them by. With the wheels we got them, his wife bicycles there from their village home, a one-room shack.
Richard has travelled hours to see me. We meet secretly, like we’re spies or something. You see, he got in a fight. A bad one. Had to run. Had enemies. The last time he was at our house, years ago, I received this exact phone text:
“Last nispght we so that traitor Richard coming there. U gave him some thing. If we happen to see him again, oh his relative with them u will arrested, oh burnt 2 death with u’ r family. Stupid Canada. stop mistreating people instead of blessing u will reap ceases.”
Yeah, we gave something.
Today, actually, isn’t the best time to give more. East Africa is in power crisis with electricity more off than on. Throw out the food. Now, our fridge is broken. Our dim backup lights run on battery, but we’ll need a costly generator. This all at a respected university. No complaints, though. The neighbours in Somalia are starving or dead. Millions of Ugandans don’t have our options. As it is, our own kids attend a fine international school.
Richard’s eyes light up when he talks of his children. Ruth, 7, one of twins, is so bright, he tells me. “It’s all about performance.” I know. Uganda’s top students are splashed over the newspapers like national heroes. I suppose that’s what they are. Heroes.
Richard stands up to go. His striped brown sweater is straight out of The Brady Bunch. But he’s dressed up for me.
Now he’ll have find to find other money for his kids’ school “essentials.”
That’s a uniform. Shoes. Toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. A broom.
“If God gives me a phone, I’ll give you my number,” Richard tells me.
“Do that,” I say.
Even without, though, today Richard is happy. This is what I know.