Learning Experience

By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, May 21, 2006

John Wanda paused on the red mud trail. Above him his 75-year-old father marched on, effortlessly scaling the steep hill in his thick wool blazer. Below him, his guests, a group of Americans in ill-fitting rubber boots, struggled to keep up.

"There is no way I'm going over that bridge," declared Holly Hawthorne, the principal of Arlington Traditional School. The group had stopped before two narrow logs suspended across a swollen creek. Another woman, Beatrice Tierney, who runs Children's International Schools in Arlington and Alexandria, announced that she would not attempt the bridge, either.

Wanda guided the others across, then doubled back. Ignoring what the muddy bank might do to his dark slacks and bright white sneakers, he helped the women wade across, and they all continued up the mountain. They scrambled up vertical plots of coffee trees. They grasped at slippery vegetation.

They kept hiking.

"How much farther is it?" asked one of the Americans.

"Will they have food for us?" asked another.

"The school is just around the next bend," Wanda promised. He was sure it was. He remembered running up and down these paths as a child; the distance had never seemed long. But now every bend opened onto another grove of banana trees, another thatch-roofed hut, another woman stirring a pot over an open flame, but no school.

Rain was starting to fall, a daily summer event in eastern Uganda. Wanda could tell a heavy downpour was coming. He wondered whether it made sense to press on.

The Americans had already seen three other schools in the village that morning last July, including their main purpose for coming to Uganda: to visit a primary school modeled on Northern Virginia's best schools. Wanda, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had recently opened it using donations from these Arlingtonians and others. Now, seeing the rain speckle their shirts, he worried. One of them could easily sprain an ankle, or lose footing and tumble into the river below.

Somewhere up the mountainside, students from two crumbling government-run public schools were waiting to welcome the Americans with singing and dancing. Wanda wanted the visitors to see the smallest, poorest, most remote kind of Ugandan school. He needed them to understand what a contrast it made with the one he had built.

A passing villager with a machete stopped and cut down some giant leaves for umbrellas. When the path crossed another path, Wanda decided to give the Americans an out.

"They are still a distance away from where we are, and I know that some of you are tired and also hungry and may not want to walk in the rain for a long time," he said, "so if you feel like this is good enough for you, and you are ready to go home at this point, I'd like to hear from you." He indicated the new path downhill.

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