Schenectady County

Students construct school, playground in Uganda

Nishtha Modi, Catherine Cooley and fellow students Umaru Barrie and Natalie Wallace wanted to learn

After growing up in Indian and American schools, University at Albany senior Nishtha Modi was shocked when she visited Uganda over the summer. “They don’t have textbooks. They learn what the teacher teaches them.”

Despite the conditions, Modi said the students are much more respectful toward the teacher than they are here and appreciate receiving an education.

Modi, Catherine Cooley and fellow students Umaru Barrie and Natalie Wallace wanted to learn as much as they could about Ugandan education during their two-week visit in August. They are in the process of building a primary school to educate more than 500 village children in Wairaka, a small village.

Modi is president of a community service group called Third World Impact, which partnered with The Giving Circle of Saratoga Springs to win a $25,000 grant to build the school from the Newman’s Own Foundation national campus community service challenge.

The idea stemmed from an experience that Modi had in 2010 helping out at an orphanage in Uganda for HIV-positive orphans. She wanted to build a primary school for the children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

The purpose of this trip was to lay a lot of the groundwork. The organization has the land and received approval from local authorities.

“We want to make sure we are following their laws and not trying to impose our beliefs,” Modi said.

The students also built the playground during the visit. The project, which would also include an office, dormitory and kitchen, will cost about $40,000 total.

The school is expected to be completed by next fall and will also serve as a rehabilitation center to help students who had previously been living on the streets. Some are HIV positive.

“A lot of them are addicted to drugs,” Modi said.

Many children don’t go to school because of the poverty. Also, parents are afraid their children will be kidnapped on the five-mile walk to school, according to Modi.

Families can’t afford to feed their children three times a day and many of them only eat a watery porridge, according to Cooley.

“It’s about as thin as you can imagine,” she said.

One of the things that struck the students the most was the contrast between wealth and poverty.

Barrie, a junior who is originally from Sierra Leone, said a lavish mansion would be located next to a mud-covered shack.

“Uganda is full of contradictions,” he said.

Barrie said he wanted to go on the trip to rebuild a sense of connection to his roots and do something more than just give a donation.

Cooley, who plans to go to medical school and would like to participate in Doctors Without Borders, noted that English tourists come to see poverty-stricken areas.

“People will pay thousands of dollars to visit it and you’re passing street children and orphans without food,” she said.

Despite the poverty, she said she was blown away by many of the families’ generosity, offering what little food they had to their guests.

“You feel awful. You’re eating half of their food,” Cooley said.

Also during the trip, the UAlbany students visited a Ugandan women’s prison. Cooley said she was surprised to find that the inmates have to bring their children with them when incarcerated. Consequently, the children learn very little and many end up turning to crime themselves. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

During a lighter moment, the UAlbany students organized a school Olympics with soccer, golf and basketball. Wallace said in an email the highlight of the experience was the interaction with the children.

“The kids have but a pair or two of clothes, questionable meals each day, HIV/AIDS or other potentially fatal illnesses, and a complete absence of personal possessions, and yet they are the happiest of any children I have met. They want nothing but to be loved by those of us who cross their paths, and for someone to provide them with the opportunity to learn and live more fully,” she wrote.

The students also taught the villagers how to plant a community garden so they can have fresh vegetables.

In addition to the $25,000 donation, Third World Impact has also raised about $4,000. Among the fundraisers they are planning this year at UAlbany are a soccerathon and student-faculty basketball tournament.

Modi, a biology and chemistry major, said this project has made her thankful for what she has compared with the people in Uganda.

“Our lives are so different just because I got lucky with where I was born,” Modi said.

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