I learned about Twesigye Jackson Kaguri’s book, The Price of Stones, on the day my godmother died. I was, needless to say, having a horrible day. My godmother, a kind, loving woman, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer just a few months ago.
That night, I was browsing online, trying not to think and not to cry, when I came across an article that mentioned a book called The Price of Stones. The article said that it just might be Africa's Three Cups of Tea. Kaguri, the author of The Price of Stones had started a school for AIDS orphans in his village in Uganda, the Nyaka AIDS Orphans School.
I couldn’t believe it.
In the midst of my grief, my struggle about how to deal with the inevitable, how to love and lose and not lose the will to keep going, here was a sense of hope, of possibility—a reminder of the boundlessness of human strength and the need to persevere.
“I wished I could let go of my emotions and cry…But that was not wise. Were I to start crying now, I might never stop. Life must continue, even as death pulls us down.”
I first learned about the Nyaka AIDS Orphans School several years ago. Nyaka was new and in search of funding to expand its capacity—as it still is today. With the help of one of my teachers, I got in touch with Kaguri and gathered a group of students to raise funds for Nyaka. We raised several thousand dollars, enough to build a basketball court for the school.
Just a basketball court.
There are over 11 million children who have been orphaned due to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Over two million of these children live in Uganda. These numbers are so large, the suffering so immense, that it is almost incomprehensible.
Sometimes, I thought that my project to help the Nyaka School had failed. There were so many children who have lost their parents, who struggle for survival, who often go without food, clean water, and rarely have an opportunity to attend school. In the scheme of things, how could a single basketball court help them?
Kaguri grew up in rural Uganda, in the village of Nyakagyezi. Every Christmas during Kaguri’s childhood, a line of impoverished villagers gathered at the front door of his family home. Kaguri watched as, one by one, the villagers came up to his older brother Frank and asked for assistance. Frank wasn’t wealthy, but he spared what he could. The line of people seemed endless. The situation seemed altogether hopeless.
How does one find the strength to keep going in the midst of this magnitude of devastation? Unlike cancer, AIDS is preventable—in theory. But in practice, when AIDS is ravaging not just a village, not just a country, but an entire continent, how can someone possibly make a difference?
Kaguri founded the Nyaka School because he felt he had an obligation to give back to his village; he couldn’t stand by and watch AIDS destroy it. In 2008, the Nyaka School held its first graduation. The school currently has 216 students. Nyaka had a 100 percent retention rate this past year, and 100 percent of the students in the class of 2009/2010 passed their National Primary Level Exams, which is the test that determines whether or not students are accepted into secondary school. Thanks to Kaguri, these children now have a chance for success, and the village has been transformed. There is now access to clean water throughout the village, and the Nyaka Anti-AIDS Choir performs in the area, teaching about AIDS prevention.
The Nyaka School is a unique project. A universal primary-education system was implemented in Uganda in 1997, intending to provide free education for primary-school students. In practice, however, this system has not been very effective. Many children are forced to drop out of school because they can’t even afford to buy a pencil. The Nyaka School provides not only free education, but also free uniforms, books, school supplies, and two hot meals a day. AIDS orphans face a great deal of stigma in sub-Saharan Africa, which makes a school that is dedicated to educating them all the more uncommon.
Recently, I received an email from a man who is producing a documentary about the Nyaka School. He wrote that the basketball court that I raised money to build is one of the only flat surfaces in the Nyaka community and has been a lifesaver for a crippled boy named Allan. The basketball court is the only place where Allan can use his walker and keep up his necessary physical therapy. Last month, I went to see Kaguri while he was in Boston on a book tour. At his reading, he handed out beautiful new brochures for Nyaka, and a photograph of the basketball court was prominently displayed. Jackson told me that all of the big school events, including graduation and school parties, take place on the basketball court.
True, it’s just a basketball court, and Allan is just one boy, and Nyaka is just one school. But one is greater than none.
In The Price of Stones, Kaguri reflects that, upon learning that one of the Nyaka students is dying in the hospital from AIDS, “I wished I could let go of my emotions and cry…But that was not wise. Were I to start crying now, I might never stop. Life must continue, even as death pulls us down.”
Kaguri has persevered while death tried to pull him and his community down. He has proven that in the midst of devastating tragedy, there is hope, and there is the possibility of change.
Originally from Los Angeles, Isabel Kaplan is currently a student at Harvard University. Her first novel, Hancock Park, was published this summer by HarperCollins.