Creating a Space Where People Can Dare to Dream [Again]

A little while ago, I was talking to three teenage girls about their education. I was asking standard questions: What grades are you in? What subjects are you taught in school? What are your favorite classes?

We were having a fun discussion until I asked the girls what they would like to be in future. The cheerful conversation came to a sudden halt and the girls’ moods turned sullen. I endured the awkward silence for a few moments, thinking they were trying to decide which of their many options to mention. However, I soon realized that I had asked them to do something they’d rather not dare to do. I had asked them to dream. I was asking these young girls to envision a future where they get to do what they want. That’s a dangerous thing to do in this neck of the woods because the odds of getting past Senior 4 (11th grade) are very low. In fact, all three of them were unsure if their parents would be able to afford their school fees after this year (10th grade). Asking them to consider the possibility of attending university and proceeding to get decent jobs was almost a cruel thing to do.

When they finally answered my question, they did not say their desired professions. Instead, they stated what they believed was possible – careers that do not require a university education. They explained that they planned to become primary schoolteachers or police officers because that’s a typical route for people who drop out of school. “After Senior 4, we will find some money to start a small business and we will use the profits to pay for teacher training courses so that we can become primary school teachers.”

“What kind of business are you planning to start?”

“Maybe we can sell clothes or foodstuffs or anything we can find.”

“Okay. These businesses will probably not earn you enough money to pay for school but assuming that they would, where will you get your startup capital?”

“We don’t know. That’s the problem. If that doesn’t work, we can also become house helps in the towns and cities, but the risk of abuse is very high and some madams don’t even pay their house helps like they are supposed to.” 

Upon probing further, the girls confessed that they would rather be nurses than teachers or police officers because they want to help sick people. Considering the central role that educators and law enforcers play in any properly functioning society, I would argue that it is very important for people to enter those professions because they want to, not because they feel forced to do so.

I suggested to the girls that we hold weekly meetings to share ideas about how they can raise money for their fees in the years ahead. We are yet to establish any concrete plans, but these are highly intelligent and very determined girls so I am confident that we will have some good ideas soon.

As we talked more, the girls cited the absence of role models and the lack of exposure to ideas as other factors hindering their academic and professional success.  When they said these things, I immediately responded saying: “Oh I have some ideas about how we can fix that! I have some exceptional Ugandan and non-Ugandan friends that will be great role models for you. We can also find a way to get you access to the Internet and a wide variety of books to address the exposure problem. Hmmm…now how do we put these ideas together?”

The answer to this question came a few days later when I returned home one evening to find these same girls sitting outside my house doing their homework. Earlier that day, a solar system was installed at my home (which is also the Nested Savings office), mainly for the purpose of having security lights at night. I had planned to invite the kids in my neighborhood to read and/or do their homework on my veranda instead of walking the distance they trekked every dark night to a study hall (remember there is no electricity in this town). However, this plan was still in its infancy; I was yet to figure out how to provide some furniture or other amenities to ease their learning. When the girls showed up on their own to do their homework despite the absence of furniture, I knew something had to be done immediately. Their actions provided the answer to my question: we need a place near the center of town where students can read, do homework, meet role models, get mentorship, and find the necessary support to enable them to achieve academic and other forms of success.

After a few phone calls and emails to my excellent Nested Savings team, the idea of a Nested Savings Learning Center was discussed and approved, and the team is already working very hard to bring this idea to life.

In the meantime, my colleagues have permitted the girls to use our office space in the evenings instead of sitting outside. As you can see in the image to the right, the girls are unable to use our desks since each one has drawers that contain sensitive documents. So while this is a small upgrade, the Learning Center is still very necessary.  

Every evening, I get excited about turning the lights on and waiting for the girls to show up. Each of the girls has borrowed a book from my personal library so we can read together when they aren’t working on their homework. It’s really great! One thing is clear: these girls, and many other young people in this community, have a deep desire to learn and to do well in life. They are working very hard with the insufficient resources at their disposal and making the most of the few opportunities they have. Access to a few more resources and opportunities could be the catalyst for incredible growth and world-changing achievements.

I am excited to see this idea become a reality and to be part of yet another transformative process here in Uganda. I am also excited to invite you to contribute towards helping the youth in this community dream with confidence again. Visit www.nestedsavings.org/learningcenter/ to learn more about how you can help. I cannot emphasize enough how significant a donation of any amount can be. Please do not refrain from giving just because you can only give a little. Tell your friends, family, and colleagues to chip in too!

Awa’difo ambogo! (Many thanks!)