The day we dedicated John Paul Secondary School started early. By 8AM we had showered, primped, eaten and were on the road headed to Chelekura. Bishop Odongo, his driver, Nancy and I led the way in the bishop’s SUV while our friends Jim and Linda with Sister Salome and their driver followed in another. There was a high level of anticipation as we spent the next hour driving into the deepest, darkest, heart of Africa. Then suddenly we were there. As the vehicles came to a stop there was a rush of people towards us and a building crescendo as the women started waving their arms and “u-ul-lu-ing”. Bishop Odongo formally greeted us and welcomed us to Chelekura and then led us off to see the school. Thus began the dedication and grand opening of John Paul Secondary School, the main reason for our trip to Uganda. The school Nancy and I had built and dedicated to our fathers. As we processed toward the school it became both humbling and embarrassing very quickly. It was like the parting of the Red Sea with crowds opening so we could pass but at the same time prostrating themselves and stretching just to try and touch us. To many, especially the young we were the first white people they had ever seen.
When we got our first look at the school we couldn’t believe it. It was so much more than we had anticipated.
A brick building covered with plaster and a metal roof, newly painted in bright colors with blackboards in place and desks shared by two students all lined up in neat rows.
It has seven classrooms, a library, headmaster’s office, assistant’s office, secretarial station and a room for the teaching staff. It looked wonderful to us and we didn’t tire of touring each room, even if most are not yet occupied – the school is just beginning to accept students and the school year was just starting. There is still work to be done. After drilling seven times (with no success) to find water we are now installing a water collection unit with three 16,000 liter underground cisterns. Also, because of the extremely rocky area the latrines – three for the boys, three for the girls and two for the staff – have been more difficult than expected to build and are not yet completed. Most of the students have never seen a latrine, so this will be a new experience for them when they are finished. The headmaster led the tour of the school and we met and spoke to each of the students enrolled in the first class. We also met each of the teachers on staff. There are eight in all and a very impressive group of young enthusiastic men and women. When we finally left the school we walked across a field to the primary school where the students were waiting to sing songs they had written for us.
We thoroughly enjoyed the singsong African chants they had written for us and didn’t mind when they started into their second song but the bishop quickly stepped in and put an end to the singing. His rationale -- “they’ll never stop”! As we moved to the church for the dedication mass, we encountered a group of women comprised of the mothers and grandmothers of the students of the school.
They also had written a song for us and were ready to break into it when the bishop firmly put a stop to it. Enough frivolity, off to the church.
St. John the Baptist Parish is the only evidence that we were in a village. The total buildings numbered four. There were no houses to speak of, just a few squatters. The church itself is new having been built in 2004.
It is quite the edifice with seating for about 800. It was packed, not an empty seat,
and every window and doorway was occupied with more people straining to see inside. They had been waiting patiently for us in the hundred degree heat for hours – singing songs and celebrating. Then the mass started, celebrated by Archbishop Odongo in all his finest regalia. After the mass there was a series of interminably long African speeches, all delivered in English (the official language of Uganda) but then also translated into Swahili for the elders who didn’t understand English. First was the Headmaster, then the Deputy Minister of Education for the country followed by Father Michael Omongot – the parish priest –and finally Bishop Odongo gave the closing remarks. The extended time in the heat had by now gotten to Linda and she was forced to take a respite in a cooler area to keep from passing out. At about the same time Linda left, Father Michael called me to the front of the altar with the caveat “don’t be afraid”, the people of Chelekura want to show their appreciation for the marvelous gift you’ve given them. As I got to the front of the altar about half the church (between 400 / 500 people) got up and rushed forward. Each person wanted to shake my hand, and every single one had something to give me. It was a very humbling and touching experience. These people, who have so very little, each with a gift from the heart.
The first lady handed me a live chicken, the next a small coin, an egg, another coin, a paper bill of a few Ugandan Shillings and on and on. After about ten minutes Nancy came to my side announcing “you look like you can use some help”. The first gift a young boy tried to give her was a live turkey almost as big as her -- which she declined and I had to take. And still they kept coming. Then I heard Nancy say “Oh my god Paul they’re giving us a goat and I saw a young man giving her a rope leading a goat (it actually was a sheep but we are so stupid we didn’t know).
Eventually they finished and we were able to retake our seats. Then we heard another of those wonderful African chants as the ladies who had wanted to sing to us and were denied by the bishop sashayed their way up the center aisle. This time they were not to be stopped. Dressed in all their finery, the danced and sang their way directly to the front of the bishop, where they paused and got their song in. That was when Nancy leaned over to me and said ”You go girl”. We had been given 7 chickens, 4 turkeys, 9 eggs, 4 doves, 3 baby birds, 5 jars of natural honey, bags of millet, casaba and peanuts, $15,000 Ugandan Shillings, a huge stalk of plantains, a pineapple and of course the sheep. It was an incredible expression of thanks and generosity. As Jim said “a life changing experience to witness”. It wouldn’t be the last time he felt that way.
At the conclusion of the mass, we had one duty yet to perform. We processed from the church to the school where we had the official blessing, dedication and ribbon cutting. It wasn’t on a grand scale as the opening of Oprah’s school but to us it was much more meaningful. It was very emotional as we heard the bishop first pray and then dedicate our school --- John Paul Secondary School ---honoring both our deceased fathers. Then to the applause, cheering and u-ul-luing of the people the bishop and I together held the cuticle scissors that cut the toilet paper ribbon and opened the school. Then, the official ceremonies completed, we relaxed had some lunch and talked and took pictures with all the kids.
Eventually it became time to leave and head back to Mbale. The return trip was the same – Nancy, Bishop Odongo and me in one vehicle. And in the second Jim, Linda, and Sister Salome in the other with the added cargo of all the animals and gifts in the back of their car, except the sheep which they returned for the next day. It was a wonderful day, a life-altering experience.