"One who sees something good must narrate it." Ugandan proverb.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mukumbwa Isaac: "I want my story to be an inspiration."

Meet Mukumbwa Isaac. 

We at Brain Tree are very proud of him. Mukumbwa was among the first students at Brain Tree when the school started in 1994. He finished Primary Seven at the end of 2001. Through the kindness of teachers at Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, PA he went on to secondary school with scholarship. At the time he entered secondary school, only 18 in 100 children of secondary school age went to school. Mukumbwa was certainly a lucky young man based on statistics in Uganda at that time. 

On December 20, 2012, Mukumbwa became the first person in his family to earn a degree. And not any degree, he earned a Bachelors Degree in social work and social administration! Congratulations Mukumbwa Isaac! Mukumbwa is now working for Retrak Uganda, helping children in need. The love and generosity that followed Mukumbwa through Brain Tree Primary School, secondary school, and college, is now flowing out to other children in Uganda. Love has no end.

I asked Mukumbwa if he would give me permission to share his story with the world but keep his name anonymous. He gave me permission to share, and also asked me to use his real name because as Mukumbwa said, “I want my story to be an inspiration to all those who have lost hope. I want them to know that there is hope at Brain Tree Primary School and that it is a true story”. 

Before Mukumbwa graduated, he volunteered with Retrak Uganda. Mukumbwa told me that “the former street boy you took in is now volunteering with Retrak Uganda an organization enabling street children to realise their potential and discover their worth. Therefore I ask you to continue being my mentor because your love changed my life. That is to say remember those days when I used to perform badly in class but you kept encouraging me, which made me improve and up to now I am always successful thank you so much. I promise to show the same love to suffering children”. 

Mukumbwa sent a lovely letter to thank me, as he often did over the years. I am often the recipient of gracious immeasurable gratitude. And I can not claim all of it for there are so many who come together to love the children of Brain Tree. I along with Mukumbwa am grateful. 

Hello, Madam Lori.   
Whenever I speak out your name I feel a lot of joy inside my heart because I am what I am now and what I am going to be because of your love and care you have for the children of Brain Tree School. I am glad to inform you that I have finished my course and I have been doing my internship with Infectious Disease Institute (IDI). I had a great time with them but I was called back by RETRAK Uganda to do some short term work with them. Whenever I am listening to the children’s painful stories tears flow out of my eyes. If it was not for you and Brain Tree School I would be among the street children to be listened to.          

This is a kind request from the bottom of my heart. I know you know how my performance started from senior one but God was with me that I managed to make it to the end. I want you to send a message to Brain Tree and Shipley School showing Mukumbwa's appreciation because Mr. Mukasa could stand in long lines to pay my school fees and could even travel to bring my bank slip to school even if my performance was not good but he continued to come. Tell him that I am grateful.   


Mukumbwa and his mother.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Once upon a time, I wished upon a star.

"And the star sang back to me, I wonder who you are
I said who I am is Love, Love I'll always be
And I sent the star a song across the Galilee."

Robbie Schaefer and members of the One Voice Community visited Africa this summer. The entire trip was devoted to children, both to improve and save lives. The journey started May 25th in Kenya, followed by a trip to Tanzania. Robbie and Co. made their way to Brain Tree in June. After so much travel and work in a few weeks, they arrived at Brain Tree fairly exhausted. And yet I know Robbie's heart lit up like the biggest firework in the sky when teacher Geoffrey play the traditional Ugandan harp and sang with Brain Tree students and presented Robbie's very own song to him, "La La Love". Enjoy Robbie, you deserve it!

Let your heart sparkle by clicking on this link to experience La La Love at Brain Tree:

"And gathering around, we sang beautiful and true
And it made its way from us and found its way to you
And it sparkled in your heart for all of us to see
Singing who I am is Love, Love I'll always be."

To hear Robbie's original version with posted lyrics, click right here:

Go ahead and sing along. It will make you feel great!

And if you want to learn more about Robbie Schaefer's work for children around the world you can do so right here http://www.onevoicecommunity.org/

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"A patient man will eat ripe fruit." African Proverb

From Africa to the internet, from the internet to Africa, no matter the direction both are much cheaper than airfare, but nowhere near as sweet. How fortunate it is though that in the absence of flying, surfing the web is pretty darn good!

It has taken a while to cultivate but now the Brain Tree Primary School facebook page is ready! A simple way to keep connected and informed with up-to-date news and photos is right here: http://www.facebook.com/BrainTreePrimarySchool

Something else is growing too. An updated website at www.braintreesesaw.org is ripening in the internet garden. Slowly but surely and sooner rather than later, there will be a harvest.

And just maybe one day, the story of how Kyanja got its name will be published. Countless hours and days were spent editing the documentary (months ago, last year actually!) only to discover more of the story is needed from the elders of Kyanja village. With so much going on at Brain Tree the Kyanja story of the past is on hold while the Kyanja of today is growing like a banana tree. And because Uganda grows as much patience as bananas, it has taught me that waiting for what is good to ripen on its own is the only way to sweet success.

A patient woman eats ripe fruit too. (Lori Proverb)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A seemingly insignificant scoop of ice cream.

Throughout my twelve year relationship with Uganda seemingly insignificant events often have remarkable consequences.  Not so surprising as I look back, but at the moment each one unfolds I am amazed. Apparently it's not just me with these types of experiences. It runs in the family. Last night I read my seventeen year old daughter Carolynne's college essay, the one she wrote to go along with her Skidmore College application for the early decision process. I was surprised to learn that a seemingly insignificant scoop of ice scream in Uganda changed her life. One never knows what supposedly trivial every day thing will transform your life forever.

About eight years ago Jjajja Nanjego gave me the first material gift in our relationship. And yes, it was something simple. And a bigger yes, it changed my life. Forever.

Jjajja Nanjego gave me 'the old property'; a hand embroidered table cloth. She also gave me a bag of simsim (roasted sesame seeds), and a crinkled carefully crafted letter.   In it she called me ‘Grand Daughter’.  At the time I received the gifts I thanked her and matched her big smile, but noticed there was an uneasiness in the hollow of my stomach.

Before I left Uganda a few days later, I found myself wishing Jjajja hadn't given me these gifts. I understood why she wanted to thank me. Her orphaned grandchildren attend Brain Tree for free and the school has uplifted her village, her family, her life. It all made sense and yet the uneasiness followed me home

At home I have several table cloths. Seven of them at least. And lots of food in a well stocked pantry. I  like using a table cloth on my kitchen table but rarely do. Our old cat Rusty likes table cloths too and figures when I use one it is for him; to give him a soft place to sleep. Any table cloth on the kitchen table is instantly turned into a fabric of feline fluffy fur, an unwanted addition to any and every meal. These days, table cloths usually stay in a drawer and Rusty stays off the table.

Now I had another table cloth and I didn't want it. 

I suffered for weeks over that table cloth. It had nothing to do with Rusty.

How could Jjajja Nanjego have given me one of her only material possessions and food? I thought my heavy feelings had to do with Jjajja and the poverty she lived in. She has nothing, few possessions if any, no money in the dilapidated brick hut with the rusting metal roof and earthen floor she lives in with her orphaned grandchildren. She could have sold the table cloth for much needed income but instead she gave it to me. She could have fed the nutritious simsim to her grandchildren but instead she gave it to me. She could have simply said 'weebale nyo' but instead she honored culture and tradition and shared what little she had with me.

The honor felt a like a burden. 

Here in my well furnished solid stone house with updated roof, beautiful hardwood floors decorated with Persian carpets, Jjajja's table cloth haunted me. While I suffered in comfort I am certain that at the same time, thousands of miles and an ocean away, on top of the hill in Kyanja Village in the bare and broken brick hut where Jjajja lives, when she sat on the damp earthen floor inside, and thought about her gift to me, the memory warmed her heart and made her smile. As the weeks passed I lived through dark nights of the soul. For Jjajja, her days were made brighter.

Ironic isn't it. 

And then one day that table covering uncovered something long hidden in my life. I understood the stuff that didn't feel good to me turned out to be my stuff. It had nothing to do with Jjajja. Or her table cloth. Not the simsim either. Amidst all the stuff on the outside of me, I discovered something about the inside of me.

I had poverty in self worth. 

What had haunted me all those weeks was a belief that I didn't deserve Jjajja's gift! Material abundance was all around me and yet I took one of the only things she owned. Heavy with guilt I believed that I didn't deserve the honor she bestowed on me. I was so unknowingly caught up in my own lack that I could not appreciate the beauty of her gift, her culture, her tradition, and how it made her feel to give me a gift. I couldn’t even appreciate the greatness of my work at Brain Tree. 

As the awareness about my lack of self-worth grew, my perception of a seemingly insignificant table cloth changed. 

Finally I could see how beautiful the table cloth was! Two rows of white yarn loops trimmed the edge of a white square of cotton. Forming an inner square were four groups of pink and red flowers that grew among stems and leaves of yellow and green made from thousands of stitches.  

Finally I was curious. How had it remained so pure white while being the ‘old property’ in a land where red dust is everywhere? Who made it? and when? How long did it take to be made in a life that was over burdened with duty? What is its story?

Finally I was awed by the beauty of a generous culture, a culture that exists in an ever present material poverty. A generous culture that includes graciousness and the sharing of what you have even if it is not much. A generous culture that acknowledges an individual who has given of herself for you, your family, your community. Finally I understood Jjajja’s generosity, her gift and the honor.

And all of a sudden, it felt good. 

A month of uneasiness was replaced by peace. Gratitude. Acknowledgement. The hollow of my stomach did not feel so hollow any more because I had a growing sense of self worth.  Jjajja’s gift was good medicine. It was healing me.

While I read my daughter’s essay last night, the memory of Jjajja’s Nanjego’s first gift came rushing back. How pleased I am that Carolynne’s experience at Brain Tree  was memorable too, but unlike her mother, her sense of self worth allowed her to have an immediate awareness and appreciation without weeks of suffering! With her essay, my daughter gave the college a more in depth knowing of who she is; a knowing that could not be expressed in transcripts or an interview. Reading it, even I learned more about my daughter! The college must have liked what they read too because I am happy to announce that Carolynne was accepted to her first college of choice! Skidmore College. Congratulations Carolynne!

From Carolynne, November 2011      

     The sun beats down on my shoulders; dust swirls around in the air, casting an orange hue on everything. Children’s laughter echoes throughout the buildings; adults chatter animatedly, excited about the day’s happenings. The queen of Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda, had visited Brain Tree Primary School and opened its cultural center just an hour ago. Everyone had been preparing for this opening for two weeks non-stop. 

     The jingle of the ice cream man’s radio burst through my thoughts as I watch a group of orphans scamper over to him. Plunging into their pockets, the children excitedly exchanged their last 20 shillings for a small portion of the neon sweet. I had never seen so many smiles, all for melted ice cream wrapped in old newspaper.

     As I stand with my mom and brother, children shyly begin to venture over, and ask to play with my skin and hair. Mouths gaping, the children listen intently as we explain snow and sleet. I begin describing my pets when I feel three gentle taps on my shoulder and a voice whisper “Madame Caroline”? Startled, I turned around and see Emily Tumuhairwe, an orphan who has been boarding at Brain Tree. She gently extends her arm to me, holding a scoop of bright orange ice cream. Colorful, melted drops run down her hand as she smiles and nods at me, signaling me to take the ice cream.

     Seemingly insignificant, this scoop of ice cream is what I remember and cherish the most from my time in Africa. I have been given ice cream before, but never from someone to whom one scoop could mean so much. Emily’s actions still resonate with me today. I try to appreciate the smaller things in life, and savor the knowledge of how insignificant an action of mine may change someone else’s perspective on life. Emily had very little, and yet she had spent it on me. I had never seen anyone so generous. Because of her, no matter what I am doing, whether it is going through the hallways at school, eating dinner at home or walking around town, I stop to do little things to help someone or make their day. I pick up pieces of trash, offer a smile to a stranger and give my friends the advice they may be looking for. I aim to be Emily in my community: generous, friendly, and thoughtful. It is through this that I maintain my connection with Uganda, and honor the gift she gave to me, despite my very different life and the very different culture in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Friday, March 25, 2011

On Ancestors: "I will reach back and draw them into me and they must come. For at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all." -Cinque, in the movie Amistad

     Eight months have passed since the opening of the Culture Center at Brain Tree.  After completing the story of the grand opening, I felt like my blogger days were over.  Or at least I was hoping. After the trip to Uganda, I was exhausted. Depleted. Burnt out. Blogging was the last thing on my mind.

     Now I am being called to tell the stories of the past eight months. How am I being called? Through people who want to know. Through my environment that is so creative, symbolic, and suggestive. Through the light of the last full moon that reminded me of an ancient African tradition honoring life. The moon will forever remind me that "We are stardust. We are love. We are united. We are one."

     When something wants to be birthed, a fire is ignited. This type of fire transforms into creation, creation of a new life. Like the Culture Center at Brain Tree. It helps too, when you are a conduit for creation; you intuitively know when it is time.

It's time.

    Africa has taught me stories don't disappear. Stories wait, sometimes not so patiently. They can easily wait for eight months. Sometimes they are put on hold due to sickness, modernization, or denial. They may be forced into hiding, but they are there. Waiting. Sometimes to the bursting point. Danger arises when after being unspoken for too long, they are forgotten. The elders that came to Brain Tree last year to help with the Culture Center were so full of stories. Uganda breathed a deep sigh of relief as tradition was given voice.  It's as if tradition had been forced to hold its breath for too long a time. Once the elders started telling stories, they couldn't stop. It was like oxygen to the flame. CPR for the cultural soul. A spiritual resuscitation. 

     An interview with one elder is waiting for me to edit and publish into video format. The old Muzeeyi told me the story of how the village of Kyanja got its name. He may be one of the only people alive who knows that story. It's locked inside my video camera waiting to be set free.

     If a story is silenced, it doesn't die but instead turns into something that may cause problems. Like a needed wisdom that remains hidden. Or like a fire, that instead of being tempered, rages to the point of combustion.  

     The first sentence in the book "The Africans" by Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui, PhD is "The ancestors of Africa are angry." Angry? Yes, because as the west and religion have moved in over the years, traditions are lost, ancestors forgotten. Mazrui says the process off modernizing Africa is a process that includes 'dis-Africanising Africa'. The stories need to be told and the ancestors are to be given their respectful place. When they aren't, they get a little upset. Whether one believes it or not.

 I believe it. They won't be angry on my account.


     What I do know is this: I've been given great appreciation for most of the positive change that has come to Brain Tree. I won't deny gratitude or my participation in the creating of that positive change, so I simply say 'welcome' to every 'thank you' I receive, a 'kale' (kahlay) to every 'weebale' (waayybahlay).

     Being thanked gives me pause to remember the countless friends and supporters who also do good for Brain Tree. When I trace all the goodness back to its origination, there is no end. That's why my praise starts with the ancestors.

     The gratitude logic goes something like this: I'm thanked for helping Brain Tree. I wouldn't have known about Brain Tree if it wasn't for Martha Mukasa. If it wasn't for Martha's Aunt and Uncle giving her a place to live when she arrived in America, she probably would not have come. If it wasn't for the American Consular who approved her visa, she never would have gotten on the plane. If her family members didn't scrimp and save for the $100 that paid for the consular interview, she would not have had the interview. If Agnes Mukasa didn't start Brain Tree in 1994, none of us would have been given the opportunities to save children's lives and educate them. If Ssalongo Lule and other village elders didn't approve of a new school, Brain Tree would never have started. If my mother didn't follow my father out to California when he tried to escape from domestic life, I would not have been born. If not for the courage and/or desperation of my Italian and German ancestors who spent countless days and nights on rickety old ships that sailed across the Atlantic, well, who knows.... And so it goes.

     I am grateful to everyone.  I appreciate and honor the ancestors. Without them, none of us would be here. Their wisdom lives on when we open ourselves to it. The ancestors have the wisdom and we have the means to use their wisdom for good. We exist because of them, and without us, there'd be no reason for them to exist in the form (or lack of form) as they do.  Today I honor those who have come before us and realize that by doing so, I honor and acknowledge a mutually supportive and sacred relationship.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"The path to your heart's desire is never overgrown." Ugandan Proverb

Today I sent a thank you letter to the Queen of Buganda. In a summer of firsts, this too is a first. I never wrote a letter to royalty in all my life. At first, I wasn't sure the best way to go about it. But then, it seemed reasonable to me that if one writes a letter from the heart, it will be appropriate in any circumstance, especially a royal one.


July 19, 2010
The Private Secretary to the Nnabagereka
Her Royal Highness Queen Sylvia Nagginda
Bulange Mengo
P.O. Box 58
Kampala, Uganda

Dear Madam,
  Greetings of the highest kind I humbly and joyfully present to the Queen. On behalf of my children Carolynne and Patrick McKenna, and the entire community of Brain Tree Primary School - Kyanja, I offer heartfelt gratitude to Her Royal Highness for officially opening the Culture Center at Brain Tree on Saturday, July 3, 2010. Indeed it was a day that the ancestors, elders, community, and children will not soon forget! 

   Though I have been in Uganda several times over the years, this summer was the first such time I shared Uganda with my children Carolynne and Patrick. It was this mother’s dream! Having Her Royal Highness grace our grand opening with her appearance and appreciation raised the event and the importance of the Culture Center to a level of magnificence that even I did not dare dream of.  How the Queen accepted the gift of the friendship bowl directly from the hands of my children has been etched in this mother’s heart forever! I am deeply grateful.

I offer profound appreciation for the gift of your presence, your supporting words, and all encompassing smile that day at Brain Tree - Kyanja.  Thank you very much for all that you do for children, the people of Uganda, and our global community. Though we come from many diverse cultures, we are truly all made from the same stardust; we are one. Life is best when we stand united.  Thank you for showing so many how to do just that. Blessings to you and your family, always.
    Sincerely yours

Lori Ann DiGuardi