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Teaching the invisible children

Mar 4, 2011
by Brian Thompson, '95

Flagler graduate and high school teacher plays a part in rebuilding Uganda’s devastated educational system

The classrooms Jenni Peters saw in Uganda were vastly different than the ones she left behind at St. Augustine’s Pedro Menendez High School.

She had never known bare-earth floors — where students bring cups of water to pour on the ground so the dust won’t billow up. She had never seen classes with as many as 80 students crammed on rickety wood benches with few, if any, school supplies.

And of course, she had never heard students tell horror stories of Africa’s longest running war — the hardship of life in displacement camps; family members murdered; even being forced to fight as child soldiers in the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that has been battling the Ugandan government for more than two decades.

“Some of their stories were hard to process,” said Peters, a 2007 Flagler alumna who now teaches high school English. “One student told me about how he was working in the gardens and the LRA came and shot his dad in front of him. Another student’s parents had both passed because of AIDS. So seeing those things, that was difficult.”

But Peters wasn’t there just to hear stories about Uganda’s violent past. Rather, her six weeks last summer were spent as part of a teacher exchange through Invisible Children, an organization that is raising awareness about Uganda’s plight while also helping to rebuild the war-torn nation’s educational system.

The exchange partners international teachers with Ugandan counterparts as a way to share skills and ideas. The organization’s goal is to bring classrooms in Uganda to a competitive standard by enlisting volunteers like Peters who are willing to share with and train teachers there.

Peters, who graduated from Flagler with a degree in secondary education and English, said her involvement with Invisible Children is simply an extension of her passion for teaching, as well as her belief that education has the power to improve lives and even heal a nation as desperate as Uganda.

“We were teaching, but more importantly, we were paired up with a teacher,” she said. “It’s an exchange — an exchange of ideas, an exchange of curriculum.”

Peters said that long-term, forward-thinking approach attracted her to the group.

“These 11 schools Invisible Children focuses on, some of them have been displaced, all of them have been affected by the war and because of that, their standards have just fallen so low,” she said. “To these people, education is their way out.”

A different, dangerous world
Peters became involved with Invisible Children while in college after seeing one of the group’s documentaries about the LRA.

“It was one of these things where this kid was crying over his brother who was killed, and you see these thousands of kids sleeping in a bus stand trying to hide,” she said. “It kind of tugs at your heart strings.”

Since 1986, the LRA has been battling the Ugandan government in a war that spread to three other countries, and at its height forced almost 2 million people out of their homes and into miserable displacement camps. More horrifying, LRA leader Joseph Kony built his army primarily by abducting children, some as young as 5, and forcing them to fight the government as child soldiers. It is said as many as 90 percent of Kony’s fighters were kidnapped children, and over the years thousands found themselves on the front lines as rebels.

The conflict gave rise to what were known as “night commuters.” Parents in the displacement camps fearing their children would be abducted often sent them on long, nightly walks to nearby towns where they slept on the street, hoping to evade the LRA.

Security has improved in recent years as the LRA shifted south, and northern Uganda has seen greater stability. But thousands still live in camps, like the one Peters stayed in, and the wounds of two decades of fighting aren’t quick to heal.

To raise interest in its cause, Invisible Children produced documentaries on the conflict, the child soldiers and the night commuters. The group also holds events around the U.S. to appeal to high school and college students. In college, Peters got involved in a global “night commute” designed to model the nightly walks Ugandan children made from the camps.

She stayed involved after graduation when she began teaching English and intensive reading at Pedro Menendez. Going on the teacher exchange was the next logical step for her as she wanted to pass along to others her own passion and love for teaching.

In Uganda, she said, education brings a sense of hope to the desperation so many have experienced. She remembers times when Ugandan teachers were sick and the kids came to the international teachers to ask if they would teach them. “It’s something they value,” she said.

But the trip wasn’t an easy one. Peters had never been out of the country and didn’t even have a passport when she applied for the program 7,000 miles away from home. She stayed at one of Uganda’s first and largest displacement camps, Pabbo — a sprawling slum of ramshackle buildings, dirt roads and thatch huts where thousands still live.

There she taught teachers about reading strategies and other methods used in the U.S.

She went to an international conference that focused on emotional literacy, which is being implemented in schools where so many children need rehabilitation thanks to seeing family members killed, fleeing the LRA or even being forced to kill as child soldiers. Peters said the goal was to train teachers to help students recognize their feelings, deal with self-esteem issues, interact with others, build friendships and trust, and even learn conflict resolution.

“(Uganda) is not a place where you can just go to therapy every week,” she said. “So it has to be part of the educational system.”

Bringing something back
Peters said she expected to find Ugandans distrustful and wary of strangers after so much hardship, but what she found was the opposite.

“These people will extend an invitation into their homes and their lives and offer these friendships,” she said. “That was surprising.”

It also made it all the harder to leave. She said she built numerous relationships with teachers and students. Before she left, she filmed Ugandan students giving advice to her American students. Their message was simple: cherish what you have and work hard for it.

Peters said she has incorporated many things she learned from the trip into her teaching in the U.S., but most important she said is the idea that change is possible, and you can use your education for great things.

“It teaches people that it’s possible to make a change, as this organization has shown with its limited resources and grassroots approach,” she said. “So I’m teaching my kids here the power they have as individuals.

Peters is already thinking about returning next summer to Uganda, as well as hosting a reciprocal exchange where a Ugandan teacher would come to her school. This past fall a student from Uganda traveled to Pedro Menendez to tell her story.

Looking to the Future
Looking back on it, Peters said it’s hard to truly understand the situation in Uganda — the years of fear, the insecurity, the pain and especially the senselessness of it all.

“You see the scars of war everywhere — from orphans to kids with missing limbs,” she said.
Her own trip was marred by the death of an Invisible Children staffer, Nate Henn. He was an American killed in a terrorist bombing at a rugby field where hundreds had gathered to watch the final of last summer’s World Cup. Henn was to have met up with Peters’ group, and she said that event meant tighter security for the rest of her stay. More importantly, it gave her a taste of what Ugandans have lived with on a daily basis.

“We had that fear for the remainder of the two weeks, and that’s something they’ve had for 24 years,” she said.

Still, she was moved by a sense of hope in Uganda, in spite of the country’s still-desperate situation. Education, she believes, gives people hope — the possibility for a new and better life — and that is why she believes the small part she played last summer was so critical.

And while she admits it sounds cliché, she says the trip made her a different person and contributed to the best year she’s had as a teacher.

“It’s changed me in a lot of ways,” she said, “from just the way I see things to the way I teach my kids. I love it.”

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