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Posted at 12:34 PM ET, 09/03/2012

A 16-year-old’s worthwhile summer

This week students who haven’t yet returned to school will head back to class and summer will officially be at an end. Some will carry with them memories of fun in the sun, but a good number of young people will take with them lessons they learned from unusual trips/experiences. In the greater Washington area a growing number of teens are spending part of their summer in African countries working with children through one of a number of sponsoring organizations. Here’s one of the most moving stories I’ve heard about one of these trips, written by Della Turque, a 16-year-old junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.


By Della Turque

We had arrived in Uganda the previous day in an off-white van, our luggage strapped precariously to the top of the car as our driver, William, navigated his way through muddy roads. It was even a stretch to call it a road, when it was really a path choked with animals, with makeshift shops on all sides and kids darting across with wide eyes and smiling faces as they spotted muzungos (white people).

I had been glued to the window since we’d left the city of Entebbe for red dirt roads and much quieter villages, separated by lush forest. The landscape was like nothing I’d ever seen before — piercing beauty surrounding wrenching poverty. Our lead teacher on the trip, Bob Mathis, said, “It’s like stepping into the pages of National Geographic!”

I was in Uganda as an intern for the WMI — Women’s Micro Finance Initiative, and we were headed to Buyobo, a tiny village near Entebbe, to teach at the local primary school and help the women with their businesses.

On my first day of teaching, I was panicked as I walked — tripped is a better word — up the bumpy, uneven hill to the school. I was paired up with a boy a year younger and given vague instructions to be at the school at 8:30 a.m. to teach a P.E. class. The school was a series of low-ceilinged cement buildings in a circle, enclosing a large grassy field with rusty metal poles at each end that marked soccer goals.

Entering the classroom, I quickly realized I’d been separated from my teaching counterpart (he’d been sent off to teach another class) and I was to organize an “American game” outside for roughly 120 P1s (kindergarteners) to play.

As soon as they saw me, rows of children jumped to their feet and threw up their hands in the cutest rendition of, “You are most welcome vees-tas!” I was greeted that way every morning I taught at Buyobo Primary.

I did feel welcome, too. The teacher in the corner of the room told them curtly to sit down — “Thank you teeech-a!” The children in Buyobo don’t start to learn much English until P2, so you can imagine the blank stares I got when I announced we would be playing Duck Duck Goose.

Taking them outside was chaotic as well, and at that point I was feeling lost. What was I doing on the other side of the world, trying to teach easily 120 small children anything? I’ve always dreamed of teaching in a poorer area, thinking that’s where I’d be needed more, and have been told I’m good with kids, but as the kids chattered in a language I didn’t understand and pointed at me giggling, of course I wondered if I was cut out for this.

After we settled into a slightly rough game of soccer — I’d given up the “American game” concept and was standing on the outskirts to break up the frequent tussles over the ball — I noticed a little boy sitting alone under a tree. I asked the teacher what he was doing over there by himself, and she replied, “He has a sick leg.”

Walking over, I saw what she meant: a deep gash, the white of his bone showing, pus and blood dripping down his leg with a few ants running up and down it. His round, sad eyes looked up at me so mournfully as I asked how he got hurt.

He couldn’t tell me, but any kid in America with a cut like that would be screaming his head off. He was obviously in so much pain, lips trembling as he watched the other boys shout and trip over the muddy soccer ball.

I asked the teacher if they had any bandages or a first aid kit and not surprisingly, she shook her head. I knew there must be some at the house where we were staying, and offered to go get it, so I could clean and dress his wound. The teacher shrugged, seemingly unbothered by the whole thing. “If you like.”

Once the class was over, I tripped down the muddy path back to the house and back up to the school with a package of antiseptic wipes, gauze, and Neosporin.

It seemed stupid and so measly compared to what he probably needed. I called the boy out of class and he wordlessly allowed me to clean his gash and wrap it up, watching me silently. I handed him two more bandages, telling him not to pick at the gauze I’d just put on and explaining when it got dirty, to change it with the bandages I’d just given him.

I knew with a pain in my stomach he had no idea what I was saying, and that he’d probably lose the bandages soon after I left. I went to sleep that night feeling useless. I wanted to do so much, yet had accomplished so little. I hadn’t taught the kids any English, and that little boy was somewhere in need of medical care I couldn’t give him.

Before we left two weeks later, I’d learned that there is a Ligesue version of Duck Duck Goose — Cat and Mouse. I’d found a way to teach them a bunch of games, and found that Red Light Green Light was the favorite, since the field was an all-natural version of a Slip n’ Slide after it rained.

I’d learn a few choppy words and phrases in Ligesue, the language spoken there, and become friendly with the girls in my P3 afternoon English class, who came by the house after class. I’d talked to older students about HIV-AIDS, helped one of the women with her work separating coffee beans and gotten through a slightly scary visit from local police who showed up with guns and talked to us for a long time. I’d also come to love a little girl named Remy with a three-tooth smile and almond shaped eyes, who kept a piece of my heart when I left.

As for the little boy with the gash in his leg, I never saw him again. I asked around about him, but none of the girls or teachers seemed to recall or know who he was. I still wonder where he is and if he is alright, and maybe I always will.

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