Graduation. A much anticipated day of exhilaration, joy, and fear. Exhilaration for completing a long sought after goal. Joy for celebrating with family and friends and being free from school. And fear for the unknown future. These feelings are the same whether you’re graduating from a mechanical engineering program in the US or a vocational school in Uganda.
A few weeks ago, class 8 graduated from Child Voice International (CVI). These 12 girls completed CVI’s 18 month program where they not only learned tailoring, sweater weaving, saloon (hair styling), catering, bakery, business, and agriculture, but they also learned how to take care of themselves and their children, how to interact and work with others, and how to overcome traumatic experiences in their past. Most importantly they learned how to grow close to God.
These teenagers had come to CVI frightened, hurt, and helpless. They’d been told they were worthless. Their families couldn’t afford to send them to school. They had no way to support themselves. Many lacked even basic understandings of hygiene for themselves and their children. But because of the CVI staff’s skill and patience and God’s transformative power, these girls changed. Maybe it was the smart-looking hair or the makeup, but when I looked at each of these graduates, I saw not vulnerable girls, but strong women. Women prepared and determined to go out into the world to make a good life for themselves, their children, and their families. They’ll find jobs, start businesses, dig gardens, and impact their communities.
The days leading up to graduation were a frenzy of excitement as the whole center prepared for the big day. The girls plaited each other’s hair; made donuts, chapatti, and bread to serve their families; crafted sweaters and dresses to sell and show off their skills; and ironed their gowns and uniforms.
Like any Ugandan event, graduation was a long, tiring, but inspiring day filled with speeches, dancing, singing, speeches, food, and more speeches. I still had typhoid, so I was exhausted and had a splitting headache by the end of the day, but it was definitely worth it. The schedule said the event should start at 10 (but everyone I asked gave me a different start time :) ), but it didn’t really start until after 12, and many of the guests didn’t arrive until after 2. Early in the morning, tents and chairs were set up in the field, the DJ hooked up his speakers to a generator, a giant cow was slaughtered, and the mobile catering company set up under the mango trees. I was amazed how many people came! Throughout the day, more and more people from the graduates’ families, former students, local government officials, and their guests kept trickling in. We listened to speech after speech (CVI works closely with the local government, so it’s important to respect them and let all the officials share their thoughts) interspersed with songs and traditional Acholi dances until finally around four o’clock the cow had finished cooking and lunch was served. Everyone filed past the serving tables and heaped their plates high with rice, Irish potatoes, posho, chapatti, meat, and cabbage. (oh, and don’t forget the soda!) As the girls finished their plates and the music played, they started dancing until the speeches resumed, then it was time to pass out certificates! As each of the girls’ names was called, their families ran forward and swarmed them with hugs as they shook hands and received their certificates. As the sun was beginning to set, the graduates all gathered and cut the cake complete with flaming candle sticks and a bursting confetti popper! In typical Ugandan fashion, the cake was cut into small chunks and passed around in bowls for everyone to take one. Finally, the families all lined up with gifts (most were hidden in brightly wrapped boxes, but there were a few chickens) and the girls went forward one by one to accept them. Some walked maturely across the field smiling while others ran and slid onto their knees and engulfed their families in giant hugs. The DJ continually played, “Congratulations and jubilations; I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.” As the party died down, the photographer who had been taking photos all day reappeared after traveling to town to print pictures to try to sell to the graduates and their families. Since most people in the village don’t have cameras or smartphones, they rely on photographers like these to document momentous occasions.
That night, after all the families and guests had left, we played Queen of Katwe for the girls. We strung up a sheet and pulled out the projector and speakers to make our own outdoor movie theatre. Queen of Katwe is an inspiring true story of a Ugandan girl named Phiona who grew up in one of Kampala’s slums selling maize but became an international chess champion. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it! The girls absolutely love it! We’ve watched it about 9 times now…if I haven’t played it in a little while, they’ll start quoting the movie and exclaim, “Paige, we miss Phiona!”
The next morning, the girls woke early, packed their things (which somehow all fit in two trucks), and were driven home. I was so sad to see them and their children go, but they were so excited to leave and start their lives. They are some of the strongest women I know—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have no doubt they will be able to conquer the unknowns of the future. I believe they will provide food for their families, pay school fees for their children, and impact their communities economically and spiritually. These girls will always hold a special place in my heart—I may not see all of them again, but I’m thankful for everything they taught me about love, joy, faith, and strength.