Sunday, October 28, 2012

We wish you success on your exams!

I have been blessed with opportunities to participate in several cultural events this year. As I write this entry, my adrenaline from the day is only just depleting. Previously this year, I have attended a burial, a dedication ceremony, several meetings, several holidays, a few sports/music events for the school, and even one phenomenal wedding (which hosted over 2000 guests and was the greatest event I have ever encountered!) All of those events take place in one form or another in America as well; they were interesting to me because of my ability to compare and contrast my American vs. Ugandan experiences.

Today I attended a P-7 Leavers Examination Blessing. It belongs in an entirely new category of experiences. I have virtually nothing to which I can compare the day. Instead, I want to explain, paint the picture, and praise my fellow Ugandan colleagues for implementing such a feat.

A bit of background: P-7 is the final year in Primary school. At Mustard Seed Academy, this year’s P-7 class are the pioneer students of the school. The Leavers Examination is a National exam that all students must take before going on to Secondary school (our high school equivalent, with the first year being sort of like 8th grade). To word it differently, this year is Mustard Seed’s first year to have a P-7 class taking this exam. The fate of 24 students rests on their results, and therefore many steps have been taken throughout the year to prepare these students for positive results.
(To give an idea for the intensity/repercussions of this exam, think WASL meets SATs meets GRE)    

Prior to the examination, it is tradition in Uganda for a school to host the P-7 students, their parents, and all other stakeholders for a day dedicated to praying for the students to pass their exams. When I heard about this, I visualized these people standing/sitting in one room; a series of prayers would be said; sodas would be served; and the event would culminate after an hour. Instead, I got to witness something much more special.

When our car arrived on the school’s campus today, my eyes took in the sight of our P-7 children wearing pretty dresses, suits with jackets and ties, nice polo shirts, or neatly pressed school uniforms. I then noticed the stage of our auditorium had been decorated with flowers and lovely fabric along the back and side walls. There was a DJ set up on the side of the seating area, and many of the parents and staff were dressed to impress.
Ugandan DJ setup

The children got to sit at the “high table” which had been covered in a white tablecloth and was positioned in the front center row before the stage. On the stage sat a Father (representing the Catholics), a Reverend (representing the Anglicans), and two Imams (representing the Muslims.) Never in my life have I been a part of a celebration that included representatives from such varied religious backgrounds. They sat next to one another talking and sharing as equal members in this community; that alone was an honor to witness.  

High Table

Each religious leader took turns speaking to the children. They gave various pieces of advice ranging from, “trust God on the days of your exams,” to “read the directions before answering a question.” Then each leader passed the mic around a second time to deliver their prayers to the P-7s. I finally caved and started shedding a tear for the beauty of the moment when the children were asked to come forth to the stage to receive their blessings. At this point, they stood in a single file line while each religious leader blessed them one by one, one right after another. When every child had been personally blessed by each leader, they were asked to kneel as a group before the stage, and the Father sprinkled water on all of them.

There was something very powerful about witnessing these blessings. I have discussed on and off throughout the life of this blog about my walk with God. For me personally, witnessing the love, thoroughness, and crossing of religious-lines that went into blessing a group of children to take a test reaffirmed that I am on the right path. I think the representation of the religious leaders putting so much love and support into their blessings today is a great reflection of God’s presence in the lives of all those present at the ceremony.  

After the blessings, the children were asked to stand single file again so that parents, staff, and other loved ones had the opportunity to give them cards. These cards are very popular in Uganda—most of them say something to the extent of, “I wish you success in your exams!” We had prepared for each child a card, a pen and pencil, and a beautiful yearbook (masterfully designed by Joe). We waited for the line of well-wishers to expire, and then the five of us Bazungu stood up with our gifts. Someone handed me the mic and I read off the children’s names one by one as they hugged us, shook our hands, and received our gifts. My voice barely made it to the end—I was so chock-full of pride and happiness for these kids that tears threatened me the whole time. After the gifts and cards were distributed, a series of photos were taken with the kids and they got to have their moment of fame.

Some of the neatest events took place next. First, the kids were presented with cake. Some of the students were selected to say a few words, then all students came forward and formed a sort of arm-to-arm chain so that all 24 of them became one unit that connected to the student who cut the first slice of cake. Then, after the cake was handed out to all the guests, (side note: in Uganda this is not only done before the meal, but also “a slice of cake” means one forkful per person, which is okay with me because it usually tastes nothing like cake…or anything at all) the DJ started bumping the music and the P-7s started dancing on stage like you couldn’t believe! This was interspersed with a few other speeches and eventually (as I always seem to do) I was up on stage with them sharing in the euphoria.
Cutting the cake as a team

Eventually, the music died down and it was time to eat—they served P-7s first, which as kids, was a big deal for them. We all shared in a lovely meal that was followed by traditional dancing, drumming, and singing all done by the P-7s and younger students. At one point, all of the P-7 students sang a song about appreciating the work their parents, sponsors, and teachers have done for them up to this point. They made promises about not letting us down, and proving to us that as they move on in life they will always strive to reflect well on this school. It was neat to see during the performances, some of the parents would come up on stage and shake the hand of their child during a solo part, or if they were doing exceptionally well at the dancing. Most of our kids come from very poor (in more than just financial sense) households and some have even left their homes to live in the school’s orphanage—yet their parents were still present and still so clearly love and cherish their kids. Again, I was honored to witness those moments.

Hadijja leading part of the P7 appreciation song

The fate of these children’s futures rests on this exam. More so than if I hadn’t scored well on my WASL or SAT. More so than if I tank the GRE. For me and many other people in my sphere of the world, we can still have a decent and prosperous life without higher-level education. It would be a harder path to take, but the path is there for our taking. The situation is much different here. A lot of pressure rests on the shoulders of these 12 year-olds. A lot of work and preparation has taken place to set them up for success. They have studied, sacrificed, been blessed, and been honored…now it is time for us to let them go forth and do well.

Getting to partake in today was an absolute honor and possibly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Many things stacked together create that memory—the religious leaders joining forces, the children’s hard work and good character being evident, the community rising to support them, and the general splendor of the day will be ever present when I reflect on my year in Uganda.

With love,
Proud Aunt/Teacher to 24 P-7 leavers   


  1. Well another touching blog from you Kristen. I was sitting here with tears as I compared these students to those here in our society. Yours have learned all the wonderful things about love and caring for each other in a country which does not usually get a lot of love back from the rest of the world. It is truly a miracle that you have the opportunity to share your kindness and knowledge with the children of the school. You are truly a remarkable individual and emulate the beautiful virtues of your mom. Stay safe.

  2. Words fail me Kristen. I'm so happy you could share this day with our first P-7 class. And thank you for your beautiful description. I felt I was there also.