Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Atheists and Agnostics Making a Difference in the World III: Daniel Loving and The Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda

Daniel helps Annet, 19, with her studies.
This is the follow-up post to  Bwambale Robert and The Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.  It is also the third in a series of personal profiles of Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists who are helping to make the world a better place.

I am focusing on people who are making a difference for others. They are examples of Humanism in Action.

Daniel was nice enough to take some pictures and send them along with his responses.  I'll be peppering this post with some of these.

Daniel Loving grew up in the Chicago area.  He was raised in a religious family.
"I was raised Catholic but around the age of ten I realized that I could not really lie to myself anymore. That was the beginning of my becoming an adult. I do not know why it was so easy for me to leave my beliefs behind. Many of my friends are very intelligent people and I have a great deal of respect for them but they did not lose their faith." 
"I think the catalyst for my losing faith was the value others placed on my intelligence. Growing up everyone including the Nuns who taught in the school encouraged me to develop my intellect. My intellect had a real social currency and would always ensure that I would be socially accepted and respected on some level even though I did not share their beliefs." 
"I am usually a very antagonistic person. Anyone who makes a claim should be able to back it up. Even if we agree."
I asked Daniel what his stand on God and religion are now and whether he considers himself to be an Atheist, Humanist or Agnostic.
"I really really hate labels. I believe things because I find the evidence convincing or an expert is able to produce results. Game theory explains why I do what I do. If you would like to ask me how I would handle a situation I would tell you very quickly."
He joined on with the Kasese Humanist Primary School on May 12 and this is his first ever long-term volunteer commitment.
"Before college I have some time off and I wanted a bit of a change from what I was doing and this was a perfect fit.  Everyone told me I would go through culture shock. If I did go through it, I have no idea when. I have adjusted very well here."


Since this is his first volunteering project overseas, I asked Daniel how he was coping with the changes in general.
"Things are great for me at least but death is a constant thing here.  People die here quite often."
"There but for the grace of God go I" frequently pops into my mind not so much as a reference to the Almighty but to the similarities I share with everyone I meet.  I frequently ask: "Why is it that this person is not as well-of as I am?"
Daniel is living very near to the school - just a fifteen minute walk away.  He has running water and (surprising to me) wireless internet.  The power is not 100% reliable and the bathroom situation is not what you'd expect.

Volunteering overseas requires some adaptation to different ways of living.
"I have just figured out how to wash my clothes by hand which will be a big step in me being socially accepted among the people they were starting to smell a bit too much."
"I can drink the water.  Most people can not drink it. I have a special stomach that has been in restaurants for several years."
"Another thing is the sweeping. I personally can not stand dust. I have bad allergies. But the good news is that I have figured out how to sweep and teach at the same time. The student usually laugh at me but it is alright."
As I chatted with Daniel over Google Chat - with my Keurig instant coffee machine a mere 10ft away- Daniel added this comment.
"I would love to be in Montreal right now.  I am going through latte withdrawal!"

Teaching Computers, Math and Critical Thinking

I asked Daniel what his duties were at the school.  He started out a wee bit sarcastic by humorously pointing out that his tasks are not exactly labor intensive.  But we'll later discover that this is not the case at all.  Daniel performs many duties above and beyond sipping tea.
"Well my duties are to drink tea and relax in the shade. My biggest problem is waiting for it to cool down. Sometimes it burns my tongue. I have also made far too many friends. Friends require attention of which I am usually short. Life is good but I have to go and teach the children, teachers and administration how to use the computers."
More seriously, his two main principle duties are teaching computers and mathematics.  He is also trying to set up a weekend adult computer training courses for the parents.  I asked him how important computer literacy is for Ugandans.
"Name me a job in the world that a computer can not improve and I will eat my shoes which have been spending too much time in cow dung as of recently.  I personally do not remember what m life was like before the internet.  It's information all the time at the tip of my fingers.  I swear to you that I would have given you two fingers from my left hand back in 1990 for access to Wikipedia. Developing computer skills will give every student the ability to be more productive and hopefully make more money and be better informed."
"Just having Wikipedia access would greatly beneficial to people here."
Indeed, there are several articles and resources on the web that also stress the need  for increased computer literacy in Africa.  Innovative pilot projects such as Digital Drums in Uganda and the installation of computer labs in Ghana and South Africa and Kenya.  Touch challenges that must be faced are discussed in  Basic Challenges Facing Computer Literacy in Kenyan Schools.

But an underlying goal to his work is to instill, as much as possible, skills for critical thinking, skepticism and the questioning of all information - regardless of its source.
"They asked me to teach about Humanism and I went in there and taught about evidence and why you should ask for evidence for everything you believe - even from the school administration. We always need to know 'why'."
Daniel says that most of the students are raised with religion at home and within the broader community.  The strong religious indoctrination can sometimes cause a clash of philosophies as it is the school's mission to counteract indoctrination and break the spell by encouraging active questioning of blind religious dogma.

There is a mosque just down the road from the school and there are constant inescapable reminders of religion even at a Humanist school.
"The Allahu Akbar is annoying.  They yell it over the loud speakers five times a day."
Daniel is attempting to use his presence as an extra resource to awaken minds that have sometimes been dulled by the numbing effects of rote learning.
"Since the student to teacher ratio is better here I am trying to get them to go in depth on subjects rather than training students to regurgitate information. There is a lot of rote learning and many of the teachers basically teach the children just enough to pass exams."
"But there is not much that can be done about that because they lack resources and are often hungry."

Food for Thought: Just twenty cents American buys three eggs for any child.

Three eggs cost around 20 cents US.
The United Nations World Food Programme states the following in its Overview of the situation in Uganda which it ranks as having moderately high hunger-level on the whole (20%-34% malnourishment).
"Uganda was ranked 161 out of 187 countries on the 2011 UNDP Human Development Index, with half the population living below the international poverty line."
Karamoja may be the most serious area for hunger in the country but Daniel sees the effects of malnourishment at the school every day.
"I would say nearly everyone at the school both administration and students is suffering from some level malnourishment. So sometimes a few times a day I go and get extra food for the students. It makes them more placid and easier to teach. If there brains are working properly I do not have to repeat lessons either. "
"There is more starch here than you can eat. They need B12 vitamin (e.g. meat or eggs). Three eggs will run you just around 20 cents American here."
There are self-sufficient farmers in the area who sell produce.
"There was one child who climbed a tree to get mangoes for me. He was a good ten meters off the ground on a hill. He does not go to school. He is under-sized for his age. He risked his life for a good 70 cents so I could have some mangoes. Really, if anyone has a problem with this they should do something about it. Don't act like you care and do not do anything."

Personal Stories

Daniel regularly meets challenges that are completely unrelated to teaching math and computers.  One day while we were chatting on the Internet he sends me a gruesome picture of what looks like a burnt leg.
"I get in that morning and this girl has fallen down. She is really crying hard. She is bawling and not the kind of crying just to attract attention either so I rush over to see what is going on. It looks really bad and is covered in dirt and grime. She can't walk so I carry her to the office which I had thankfully stocked with cotton and iodine. I spend a good hour cleaning and cutting away the dead skin. As I am doing this, I find out she is an orphan and her grandmother, who usually looks after her, is in the hospital." 
"She got the burn because she was trying to cook. I'm guessing that she's about six or seven years old. She managed to take care of herself enough to make it to the school fully dressed in uniform and everything on her own - even with this burn.
So after I am done cleaning the wound I find out there is no tape to bandage the wound and have to spend another hour tracking down adhesive."
"So I took those pictures to send to a doctor that I happen to know."
The theory is that she fell somehow onto a charcoal stove and severely branded herself. I asked him whether she was intentionally keeping the wound a secret from the school. Daniel's response made me realize just how much I take my family and the Canadian social safety net for granted.
"Who would she tell? She only has the grandmother and she was in the hospital."
This child has a damaged tooth.
Unfortunately, her father cannot
afford the $10 required to get it 
Daniel updated me today on the status of this little girl, who's name is Nisima.  He had gone to her house to visit her only to find her playing in the sewage.  He ended up taking her back to the clinic today to deal with possible infection.  She is doing well now.

Basic knowledge of germ theory in the area could be greatly improved with more education.
"Last night I was trying to explain to a person that putting water from a holy lake into someone's eye socket after they have had their eye removed is a very bad idea He will not even boil it."
The very same day he brought Nisima in for the burn, he brought another boy to the clinic who's knee was the size of a small watermelon.  He now seems to be getting worse and it's possible he had a stroke, as an entire side of his body is difficult for him to use.

How Can We Help?

Wyclif, 7, is exceptional at English.  Everyone calls him
grandfather because he looks quite old for his age.
The Kasese Humanist Primary School is doing fantastic work and is having a positive impact on the community.  But I wanted to get Daniel's perspective on its needs based on his observations as a fresh new face at the school.

"Well I have a list of things a proper computer room requires.  But there are many ways you can help.  If you would like to donate something specific the school has a large list of needs."
"The school needs everything from volunteers to cement to safety equipment to medical supplies and school books.  If you personally feel like you could provide something of value do not hesitate!"  
"Whatever strikes your fancy:  a real soccer ball;  proper (durable!) shoes for students;  geometry books or any electronic gadgets." 
"The teachers could use coffee or tea!"
I have set up a Kasese Humanist Primary School page.  It contains some links to information on how you can help the school.

Looking Forward

Over the next few weeks I plan to investigate how I can set up fundraisers and build links with reputable local Ugandan businesses to try and provide some of the following items to the school.
  1. Eggs (from local farmers).
  2. Medical Supplies.
  3. Pens, school books and USB keys.
  4. Durable shoes.
  5. Soccer balls and cleats.
  6. Anawine munches on some sugar cane.
  7. Fans for the classrooms.
If you know anyone who would be helpful with this, please let me know at

    There are many more items the school can use.  If you have anything you could donate, don't hesitate to contact the school.  These are just some things I feel I could work towards getting to them.

    I look at some of the items and wonder how I'd ever be able to send some of these things.  But hopefully this post will make some of the needs known.  Once the needs are out there, they become problems to be solved by dozens or even hundreds of people each with hundreds of connections and resources within reach.  Things can start falling into place. Great things get done and the impossible can become the possible.


    1. Thanks. Keep up the good work. Progress may seem slow, but to me, it is very clearly being made. New school location, computers, teaching strategy etc , all speak to progress. And , most of all the pictures of the children I knew---their cheeks are larger and their smiles as beautiful as ever.

      Mike Nolan


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