While Dale and I worked on the trenches, people arrived to erect an open-sided tent in the school yard. Once the tent was up, they moved benches and chairs from the classrooms into the shade of a nearby tree. Women tied balloons to the tent poles and set up a table with refreshments. We even had a cake for the children. In Uganda birthday cakes are not a tradition, but this cake was to symbolize their birth from orphans to students.
We had invited local church leaders, teachers, community leaders, citizens, and guardians of all the registered orphans. I had also invited the Honorable Minister Professor Mondo Kagonyera from Kampala.
Maama used to tell stories about how Mondo had grown up in the same poverty as many in the village, but through his own efforts excelled in school and worked hard to pay his own school fees. He had been a hero and role model in the Nyakagyezi area. We all wanted to grow up to be like him, but none of us children ever suspected what he had lived through.
Mondo had managed to survive through the turbulent years of Idi Amin's tyranny from 1971 to 1979, when public officials, including the Archbishop, Chief Justice, Vice Chancellor of Makerere University and even Amin's own wife were murdered. He witnessed Amin's overthrow and the upheaval that followed: rigged elections, the return of the Obote régime and economic chaos. At a time when the military barracks became killing centers and there was no protection for property or life, he endured. And when a civil war erupted in 1986, resulting in the overthrow of the Uganda National Liberation Army and putting the country into the hands of Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement, he continued on.
The village doubters were already talking about Mondo's visit. "A government minister will not show up in a small village like this," they said. Of course, they had also doubted there would be a free school for orphans in the first place.
Mondo not only showed up, he arrived early with his escorts in his government Land Cruiser. Dale and I were dirty and sweaty from digging our trench. Mondo, casually but neatly dressed in a short sleeve shirt and dress pants, greeted us as if we wore immaculate suits.
"Agandi," Mondo said as he approached.
I climbed from the trench and wiped my hand on my pants.
"Nigye," I said, shaking his hand. "I am sorry, but I am unprepared to greet you. The celebration is not for a couple of hours."
"Oh, yes, I know," he said. "I was so excited and happy about what you have done I could not wait. I had to come early to get a tour before the function."
I introduced him to Dale and we walked him through the classrooms. They were simple brick-walled rooms with gravel floors and few furnishings. I told him we were continuing to raise money and would soon begin the next two classrooms.
"I am amazed at how much work you have accomplished in such a short time," he said. "I do not know how you manage to live in America and get this completed here."
Mondo knew as well as I, it was not easy. Among his other accomplishments, he had attended the University of California at Davis. Of course, it had been many years since he lived in the United States, but the experience must have provided him a broader view of Uganda and the problems our country faced. I suspect that was why he so adamantly supported education and worked to stem corruption.
Nearly five hundred people gathered that afternoon to witness a revolutionary event, the opening of a school that offered not only free education, but free books and uniforms. At the beginning of the ceremony, orphans gathered before the crowd in their purple and white uniforms. We had chosen purple because it symbolizes happiness.
I recognized some of the students. Olivia's father died when she was nine years old. Onesmus lived with his aunt, where he harvested coffee, tomatoes and eggplants to sell. Denis had been chastised and beaten by people who knew his parents had died of slim. Both Moreen and Hillary's parents had died when they were very young.
The orphans sang first. The choir from the local Seventh Day Adventist Church followed. Then local students sang, danced and recited poems about their life experiences. District officials made speeches using a portable microphone, one announcing that there were now more than 4000 AIDS orphans in the area around Kambuga.
That put things into perspective and my happiness dimmed. Giving sixty orphans a chance to go to school had seemed a staggering achievement only a moment earlier. Now it left a sour taste. Only sixty out of four thousand!
When Professor Mondo took the microphone, everyone applauded, even those who doubted he would arrive. Taata puffed his chest like this was all his doing.
"I would not have normally been here in this busy time of year," Mondo said. "But given what Twesigye has done, I had to come. I only came to say thank you because so many people in the world are selfish, even those who have much money have not done what this young man is doing. We need more people like him, and today all I want to say is thank you to him, his wife and his parents who raised a responsible man."
That changed my mood again. In fact, as he continued his inspiring speech, my heart soared. It had been two and a half years since Beronda and I had first made plans for the school against all odds. Yet, here it stood before me, two small rooms offering hope to children who had nothing.
I thought of Taata watching over the building process, rejecting inferior stones, haggling down the price of sand. Then I thought of Dale coming to Uganda to dig a trench, and Mondo coming from the city to give a speech, of Mike Riley changing his sermon to promote the school, Emogene Collier pledging from her social security check, and hundreds of other donors back in the states. This is the true price of stones, I thought.
On January 2, 2003 a purple ribbon was cut to officially open Nyaka AIDS Orphans School "For Our Children’s Sake". The crowd burst into applause.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Price of Stones by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri and Susan Urbanek Linville.
Copyright © 2010 by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri and Susan Urbanek Linville.
Listen to our interview with Jackson Kaguri here.
This program aired on June 28, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.