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Mar 25, 2009

A joint American-Ugandan program aims to transform impoverished children into third-world leaders.

By Tara Kyle

If you’re a poverty-stricken eight-year-old living in an American slum, your main threats come from mean streets, subpar nutrition and failing schools.
If you’re eight and poor in Uganda, add the risk of AIDS—which has infected nearly 6 percent of the population—and the possibility of being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that converts its captives into child soldiers whose first combat mission may be to kill their own parents.
When Kamoga Moses was seven, his father died in an auto accident. With his mother, three sisters and brother, he moved to a slum area of Kampala, where he was exposed to drugs, prostitution and “all kinds of things you don’t want your child to do,” he says. Soon, he had dropped out of school and was working full time at menial labor for about 75 cents a day.
“I felt that I was in a lost world, and that I had no hope,” Moses recalls. “I felt like, what was the meaning for me in this world?”
Then, Moses got very lucky. He met Stephen Shames, an American photojournalist who has made documenting global poverty and children’s issues a cornerstone of his life’s work. His foundation works in conjunction with the indigenous Ugandan group Concern for the Future to create better lives for primary and secondary school-aged kids through the nonprofit organization, LEAD Uganda.
Last month, Shames brought Moses and another recent high school graduate, Katongole Godfrey, 18, all the way to America, to look at colleges, raise money and meet American students.
“Life in Uganda for most teenagers is really hard,” Godfrey says. “When I came to New York, I was really overwhelmed to see how everything is fast, everyone is doing his or her business, and they really think about time. So I think that’s something that needs to be done in Africa.”

Birth of a Cause

In 2000, during a trip to photograph AIDS orphans in Rakai, Uganda, Shames was invited by villagers to attend the funeral of a widow who had left behind five children. The orphans ate barely a meal a day, living off a small plot of land that had been mortgaged by their parents to pay for drugs and medicine in the final months of their lives. 
“They were wonderful kids and very smart,” says Shames. “But they were just barely existing.”
He began giving them small amounts of money for food, then school fees. “I wasn’t thinking big. But just as an individual, I fell in love with these kids.”
Gradually, he became more involved in the lives of these children and others, which culminated in 2004 with his founding of LEAD Uganda. The organization’s ambition is defiantly immodest: to raise the sights of Ugandan children beyond simple competence and comfort toward high achievement. In effect, they want to raise the future leaders of Uganda.
Today, the youngest child of that Rakai widow—Sarah, who was then just 11 months old— routinely ranks first or second at Uganda’s top primary school.
She is one of about 70 at-risk children who have been sent by LEAD Uganda to elite schools typically populated by the tiny fraction of Uganda’s population born to privilege: the children of lawyers and doctors, cabinet ministers and bankers.

Head of the Class

“What’s the point of just barely making kids literate and sending them to substandard local schools, so that when they graduate, they really can’t get jobs or go to college?,” asks Shames.
A man brimming with energy and optimism, Shames is convinced that there are “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of little Barack Obamas” being lost to poverty in Africa—kids whose potential he considers critical to solving such global problems as disease, poverty and climate change.
At first, Shames’s students were not wholeheartedly welcomed into their schools, where leaders worried about disciplinary problems or lower test scores that would detract from the schools’ reputations. 
But the LEAD Uganda kids have proved them wrong, making their way into leadership roles and getting top marks. Two of them have even been accepted into Johannesburg’s African Leadership Academy, one of the continent’s most prestigious schools.
It is also one of Africa’s most expensive schools: LEAD Uganda could only afford to send one, thanks to donations.

Back from the Brink

Uganda will need these kids. A country landlocked by neighbors Sudan, Rwanda and the Congo, its people endured the brutal dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since 1986, under the reformist government of President Yoweri Museveni, the country has been making progress fighting AIDS while meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of implementing universal primary education.
Still, Uganda has a long way to go. The government’s war with the LRA has been raging for over 20 years, resulting in countless killings and mutilations and tens of thousands of abductions.
The violence, which is concentrated in the north along the border with Sudan, has compelled 1.7 million people to leave their homes for internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Even among those who are not displaced, many of Uganda’s young have to leave school because they can’t afford the supplies or clothing, and need to work to help feed their families.
The war has also created many orphans. Only a handful of the LEAD Uganda kids have both parents living, and two dozen of them are parentless, living either in child-led families or with grandparents whose frail states they must also support. Those in LEAD Uganda are encouraged to treat each other as brothers and sisters. Some of them call Shames “daddy” or “uncle.”

New Horizons

Now 18, Moses just graduated from one of Uganda’s top boarding academies, St. Peter’s Naalya, where he founded a debate club and was elected to a senior role in the student government by the children of Uganda’s elite.
If you ask him what he wants to do with his life, he’ll talk about telecommunications engineering or logistics and procurement.
Not everything has changed.  Moses and his family still live in their old neighborhood, in a one-room dwelling surrounded by open sewers.
But they have cause for hope in the future. Moses’s older brother completed high school and works in Dubai, making several hundred dollars a month. And his younger sister is now attending Moses’s alma matter as an eighth grader, thanks to LEAD Uganda.
Perhaps most importantly, Moses and his family have a different set of expectations now—for life and themselves. They credit LEAD Uganda and Shames for that.
“He pushed us and pushed us, and kept advising us. He really did something that’s incredible for all our lives,” Moses says. “I didn’t have self-esteem, but now I have it. I believe I can do anything.”

Extracurricular Expressions

In Uganda, childhood recalls more than school days and summer vacation. See how some of the LEAD Uganda kids illustrated their own lives.

Ongom James
A 14-year-old veteran of the Pader IDP camp, James lost his parents to rebel violence and malaria. He sleeps without a mattress, but is an A+ student at Uganda’s top high school, King’s College Budo.

Oweka Saviour
Saviour used to travel with a group of other street kids, wearing rags and stealing money and fruit. He missed two years of school before joining LEAD Uganda and finishing first in his fifth-grade class. He now attends Seeta High and passes time studying and playing football.

Nakeyune Sanyu
After the death of her parents, Sanyu raised her younger siblings, searching for food and often skipping meals.  Today, she attends the highly ranked Seeta High, and dreams of becoming a doctor to help fight the AIDS crisis.

Katongole Godfrey
Godfrey, who once worked ten-hour shifts in a rock quarry, is a recent high school graduate with an A+ national exam score on his record. He mentors younger students and was a member of his school’s debate club.

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