Graduation day at the UNIFAT Primary School

Many years ago Gertrude met a Ugandan who, as a young child, was among thousands who had been abducted to be child soldiers. After two years 9-year old Denis Okema managed to escape to Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, where he was adopted by Abitimo Odongkara, a local teacher and community activist. She saw the plight of children, many of whom were orphans fleeing civil strife and the violence that plagued rural areas of northern Uganda, and began teaching them under a tree near her home while also providing food, shelter, and a safe nurturing environment.

Abitimo established a school called UNIFAT, the Upper Nile Institute For Appropriate Technology, which soon became a beacon of hope for thousands of children and continues to serve the families of nearly 600 Gulu children grades PreK-7th. Denis often visited Gertrude’s classroom, and twice was accompanied by Abitimo. These friendships led to Words Into Deeds establishing a working partnership with a Philadelphia-based NPO named Friends of UNIFAT, which was founded by Abitimo’s son Patrick. Working with them we identified ways to help teachers and school administrators carry-on the legacy of Abitimo, who died in 2016, by instilling in their students the principles of Human Rights and teaching them effective Life Skills for Global Citizenship.

In November 2019 Gertrude and her husband traveled 8000 miles to Gulu and presented a series of interactive professional development workshops to 45 UNIFAT teachers and staff. Working in small groups, participants studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their own Uganda Constitution, comparing the two and relating these to their curricular goals for each grade. The same was done for the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on Goal #3: Good Health and Well-Being. Throughout these exercises we introduced pedagogic “best practices” strategies applicable for their classrooms.

Working with teachers during 2-day workshops

Working with teachers during professional development workshops

Head teacher Santo Opiro and students.

Head teacher Santo Opiro and Gertrude presenting gifts and certificates of appreciation to students who attended the workshop. Each of them subsequently participated in several Mini-Grant projects throughout the following year..

On the final day of the workshops, each group was tasked with designing a grade-appropriate outreach project for their students, incorporating the UDHR and SDGs, goals and timelines, and essential skills such as collaborative problem solving, civic responsibility, and empathy. At the conclusion, participating students and teachers were awarded certificates of achievement followed by a celebration.

In addition we brought 50 feminine hygiene kits provided the Lansing, NY Days for Girls organization, which is under the leadership of Andra Bensen.

Teachers receiving the Days for Girls kits

Teachers receiving the Days for Girls kits

Building upon the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers and with full support by UNIFAT administrators, augmented by funds from Words Into Deeds, Friends of UNIFAT and the Ithaca Rotary Club, many of the initiatives arising from the workshops have been implemented and new ones launched.

Our visit coincided with the end of their school year, and included joining in their graduation exercises that formally recognize being promoted to the next grade level. During the 5-hour long commencement ceremony, students from each grade level made presentations, between which there were numerous speeches and a full traditional meal.

It was a joy to discover the enthusiasm and appreciation of the teachers for these educational initiatives, and the school administrators’ support for aligning the curriculum with human rights goals and citizenship training.  And at the same time, we came to better understand their lack of many basic educational resources that we take for granted, and to tailor our assistance to meet the highest priorities.