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Sunday, January 29, 2023

A PLE primer: why the Uganda national exams matter, and Bundibugyo results

 On Friday, Uganda released the results of the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE). Uganda's school system has 7 grades of Primary School, P1 to P7, and then students sit for a national examination in four subjects: math, English, social studies, and science.  

  • About 830,000 students finish primary and sit for the PLE exam to qualify for secondary school.
  • 350,000 students were secondary finishers in 2022 (O level, "Uganda Certificate of Education" UCE, taken after Senior 1 to Senior 4, 4 years of general education in at least 8 subjects, approximately American grades 8-11) and 
  • a bit under 100,000 finished advanced secondary (A level, "Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education" UACE, taken after Senior 5 and 6, two years narrowed to 3-4 subjects, approximately American senior High School/junior college level). This qualifies them for Certificate, Diploma, or Degree programs in trade schools or Universities. 
At each level, the national exam determines the placement for the next level. PLE for moving from Primary 7 to Senior 1, UCE for moving from Senior 4 to 5, and UACE from Senior 6 to University (or trade school). PLE results come first so that we can start admission processes for Secondary; UCE and UACE results should be out in a couple weeks.

The entire system is actually in flux, with ongoing school assessments becoming part of the transcript, a greater emphasis on projects, experiments, critical thinking, breadth, rather than a heavily memorised set of facts on these national exams. But for the 60 years since the country gained independence, the system has still been heavily influenced on what the British Empire left here. Uganda values education highly. Having descendants, and enabling those descendants to survive, succeed, and honour you, I would say drives much of culture. So the three huge national exams (PLE, UCE, and UACE) are the measure of much of life, and their release is front page spreads and gets as much online chat fervor as football.  

Remember Uganda had the longest school shut down in the world for COVID, 2020 exams were delayed into 2021, and it wasn't until 2022 that we actually had a full normal school year (which is a calendar year pattern, typically 3 terms January to November with the longest break around Christmas). 

OK after that primer on the context, you can see that for an NGO that pours much of our development effort into a secondary school to improve life in this district, we are equally tuned into the PLE results. We will get our next Christ School S1 class from this pool of PLE takers; we will be measured as a school based on our students' UCE and UACE results. WE CARE about the spiritual and human development of our students, their humble embrace of service and truth. But that's harder to measure . . . and parents care about scores, so we do too. 

This year, 56% of students leaving Primary 7 in Bundibugyo scored in Division 1 or 2.  That is good news, and a huge change in 30 years.

We have gone from being the district at the bottom of the table (we were the dead last district in the country in PLE performance in the early 90's, which along with the unwritten language needing Bible Translation, drove our mission to choose Bundibugyo as a place to invest our work). Now we are in the top half of districts. We have two "grandson" type relationships with P7 students this year, the son of the late Dr. Jonah Kule and his wife Mellen, Jonah Junior who was born a few months after his dad died of Ebola. And the firstborn son of Ndiyezika Edison, a young orphaned kid we met almost as soon as we moved to Bundibugyo and informally fostered, who graduated from CSB and later married Juliet who taught there. Both Jonah Jr. and Arthur got excellent, top-grade scores. I am so proud of their work, and so thankful for all the ways our supporters have donated and prayed and enabled us to help this place, and these two. I have felt so amazed and gratified about them all weekend.

Our CSB Leadership team has already been meeting this week to prepare for the new school year, staff will report this week and students the following week. We hit the ground a week ago running into 2023 . . . (if you support us, you should have had a mailchimp from us this past Monday).

Jesus promises to make all things new, to end the tears and loss and death. We have a long way to go. But surely this is one sign of hope. Many of our CSB graduates have become primary school teachers over the last two decades. Nutrition has improved. We have had several missionaries who have focused in promoting literacy in primary schools. Slowly but surely, Bundibugyo is becoming a better place for children to be born and grow and learn. That makes so much of the hard parts worthwhile.

(a smattering of CSB photos below from the last year or so . . . will catch up blog on more of 2023 this week, so check back!) 

Friday, December 30, 2022

December 30th connecting West Virginia and Western Uganda in hope of glory in spite of logic

 88 years ago today, my grandmother gave birth to her 15th and last child, my father. She had her first daughter in her late teens and my dad when she was in her early 40’s, and I am certainly glad she poured herself into her family in ways that few would think makes sense now. As we watched the World Cup final, the commentator described the come-back turn-around play as “illogically glorious”, a phrase that beautifully describes life (and anyone who gets Laura Marty’s updates saw that it resonated with her too!). A couple who lived on the edge of poverty and already has 14 children would not seem to be making a logical choice for one more. And yet, 88 years later, we can see some of the glory that followed. My dad lived 71 years as a faithful, generous, wise, loyal, steady, ready-with-laughter, firm presence in our family’s life and this world, blessing hundreds and thousands of others. 

Dad holding my sister by his mom, with me in front, circa 1965

Christmas is an illogically glorious celebration of a birth on the other end of the fertility spectrum, not the 15th to a mom over 40 but the first to a mom under 20, unmarried, unhoused by politics and decrees, in an occupied territory and chased after the delivery by terrorising soldiers. “Let it be to me”, Mary said, when the scandalous, dangerous inconvenience of a pregnancy was announced to her. She believed in the glory to be revealed, long before there was any logical evidence of it. She believed in the illogical, mysterious connection between her infant and the limitless power of the God of all creation. In the possibility unleashed by the presence of divinity and humanity melded, the reversal of entropy into all-things-new life.

As 2022 draws near to closing, we are grateful to be following the illogically glorious footsteps of that same baby and that same story. Christmas spent on a different continent than most of our kids and both our moms, in a community tenuously vulnerable to rebel incursion (the ADF causing troubles again), hosting refugees from Congo (grateful to Forests for arranging connection and response), juggling pandemics (Ebola finally settling to zero, but COVID and malaria and a thousand others still bringing sorrows), struggling to provide for their families (the desperation of poverty has been so evident in this month as our team receives request after request for assistance). We’ve been up to our necks in end of year budget shortfalls and changes, in new required compliance with new Ugandan tax laws, in sorting out contracts for Christ School and World Harvest Mission where we push for just raises without knowing how God will provide the cash (about 60 employees, so it’s important!). Around our Area we have teams visiting in the hospitals, carolling in villages, agonising over language or schooling decisions for kids, planning cross-cultural festivities. None of us are globally remarkable, and yet . . . glory shines, if we have eyes to notice it. 

As we turn to 2023, that’s on our hearts. May we have eyes to notice the subtle incarnation, the glory in the unexpected, hidden, illogical corners of our world. God’s presence 2000+ years ago came with clues for those who were looking, but always a choice to attend to it or not. Incarnation is ignorable. The hard losses and miseries of this world seem much easier to notice . . . but when we look, we see the hungry fed and the the lonely enfolded into families and the kids on the margins receive door-opening educations and the persecuted rescued. My dad was a person who could see the good in spite of the struggle, and gave generously throughout his life and beyond it. If you received our paper Christmas letter, check the needs there or follow the links here or in the sidebar to BundiNutrition and Christ School Bundibugyo or the Myhre fund if you have end-of-year giving that you want to direct into the illogical glory of small thing transforming the world.

pre-Christmas glory at campsite two QENP, an old tradition 

Bundinutrition team Christmas party

visiting neighbours the 23rd

Team Christmas Eve at our house 

Team singing Hark the Herald for Christmas service at Bundimulinga church

Another local tradition, new matching Christmas outfits sewn by a friend

visits from kids who travel home for the holiday

Grateful for the patience they showed to endure a hike with me on the 26th

Blessing the District with land they agreed to use for public good, Merry Christmas to Bundibugyo

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Wounds that Heal, pouring out the soul, and Advent week 4

 After a LOT of hopeful Isaiah build up to the coming promised one as light, a descendent of the the best king ever, a shepherd who seeks out the wandering and makes a road through the wilderness, a righter of wrongs . . . chapter 53 must have slammed into expectations pretty jarringly. Because the glorious one we are holding on to see is presented there as an unattractive, weak, victimised person. Even lambs for the sacrifice sound too fluffy and pure for the describers in chapter 53. The messiah would not be a winner. He would not be a superhero. He would be scarred and depleted and killed. 

The followers in the first century didn't get this any better than we do. Perhaps Mary and Joseph began to grasp the very dangerous outsider path they had entered when they were homeless for giving birth, and fleeing from murderous soldiers. 

But Isaiah 53's lamb's wounds are not punitive. They are restorative. The one who comes and pours out His soul does so with cosmic consequence, the beginning of a reversal of all that is harmful, painful, sad, wrong, despairing. His suffering is our healing.

This Advent season, as all Advent seasons, that is good news. The ADF attacked Ntoroko crossing the Semliki river about 50km north of us, a group of 40-ish rebels, on Tuesday. The Ugandan army responded quickly and definitively and we're already back to calm, but a stark reminder of the stakes of warfare all around us. A day later a family came to describe the life-threatening birth disabilities of their newly born baby and we went to examine him, pray, and refer him for emergency surgery at one of the two medical centers in the country that can handle it. That evening we got a threatening letter from the lawyers representing the family that unjustly reclaimed land the mission bought decades ago. Every day desperate people are asking for money for preparing for Christmas. Insecurity, illness, injustice, poverty . . . these four hardships are not just words, they are the fabric of everyday life all around us. 

Into that world, the lamb who was despised and rejected and killed but in the process re-set the path of the universe to all-things-new . . . is good news indeed. Something worth watching for, Advent and always.

And as we are left to keep slogging through the already-but-not-yet of His having come but still to come and bring this process to completion . . . nothing brings us more Christmas hope than a visit from one of our kids. So I'll throw in a few photos this week that point to the very healing that Christmas begins, the making right of all the separation and sorrow of the world! 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Righting the wrongs and bringing us home: Advent week 3

 From the 700 year old prophecies of Isaiah to the birth-night proclamations of angels, "do not be afraid" seems to be one of the primary messages we need to hear. Given smouldering lethal virae and intractable conflicts and sorrowful losses all around us, it DOES seem to be a message that bears repeating. Along with, do not give up. It's been one of those stretches so far in December where the world weighs heavily.

But what strikes me most about these fear-not messages is that I want the dependent phrase to be a reassuring explanation of "don't be afraid because nothing bad will happen, this won't hurt, you won't suffer, you're safe".  But almost every time, in the subsequent phrase the only reassurance given is "for I am with you, you are mine, I'm in this story."

We need to hear that.

Our team is studying Isaiah, and a major theme is that God's presence is a reckoning, a judgement, a righting of all that is wrong. That's what Mary celebrated in her magnificat, the poem declaring that her child would actively topple the powers that be, the oppressive system that marred their lives. Which Isaiah points to too: the blind will see, the tears will be dried, death will be no more (chapter 35 for instance). A deep change in the universe that results in some immediate visible evidences but also sets in motion a transformation yet to be seen. Some of that happened in communities in occupied Palestine during Jesus' life, as a result of his presence. I know that God passionately wants to heal the world but from my human perspective, I have to imagine that Jesus in the flesh personally threatened by Herod's soldiers, personally fleeing from danger to Egypt, personally working to feed the family, personally asked by the blind and lame to fix their problems, must have felt compelled on a new level. After Lazarus died, he wept. There's no substitute for incarnation in seeing the wrong and feeling it and personally wanting to make it right, which is the essence of our chosen life. Many organisations send money, send experts for a week or a month, establish parameters for a project. And we see the good of those things, this week for instance the way that has driven maternal and neonatal death reviews that generates data and awareness. But being personally present, knowing the particular pregnant mother and her dreams and fears because we live here, that's the Serge path that we walk . . . 

Which to be honest has been a doozy this December. 

To embrace the value of reckoning, you have to be immersed in the reality of not-right, to live at the unraveling fray. In the last few hours, an acquaintance whose wife died of a chronic terminal disease, a friend we've worked with closely now weeping because her daughter was not promoted to the next class of the school she wants to attend in spite of passing grades (everyone did so well that her decent results still put her near the bottom) leaving this family with few options, another very old friend here with a major financial ask for his kid's educational support, another with a devastating eye injury from a fight that broke out at a burial, another being chased off the family land.  All people we've known for years, decades even. It's been a couple of weeks of pummelling sorrows. They sound hard when typed out; knowing the people and confronting the wrongs face to face is even heavier. And our little dog, Nyota, who followed us on a run six years ago as a lost puppy in Kenya, died Sunday night. She'd been dwindling from causes unknown, and didn't respond to treatments the local vet and we all tried. Minor compared to the human consequences of disintegrating creation, but a grief nonetheless. And as leaders, we have also had to carry the hard choices of balancing budgets, determining salaries, anticipating taxes, wrestling through murky systems, deciding on limits that disappoint and hurt people we care about. And the heft of all the above is happening within a few miles, so when added to the hard choices and sacrifices of our entire Area of workers in Serge ... we feel our powerlessness to fix just about anything.

Budget Meeting days at CSB, agonising on how to remain accessible to the poor and just to our staff.

Final Sunday with just Senior Six (A level completing students) sharing testimonies and worship.

Departing students post-last-exam this week

Lots of end-of-year contract, report, analysis, planning time in the World Harvest Uganda office with John.

About a week ago, Lindi (on log table) and Nyota (on floor) keeping my company during my morning Bible reading and prayer time. They have been a faithful consistent presence. 

A few days before she died, Nyota was not in pain but we wept many times over her.

Our mission kids wrote us the sweetest notes about Nyota. It meant a lot.

I was the "mystery reader" for 1rst and 2nd grade at Rwenzori Mission School this week.

 Two above phots are the last day of RMS, yesterday, celebrating Christmas spirit but getting work wrapped up too. We still need a classroom assistant for February to May 2023 and a new teacher to join by August.. . . (if you have any Christmas wishes to spare throw that one in for us).

Advent in Bundibugyo makes the longing for the wrongs to be put right starkly center-stage. Every hard story makes that longing sharper, and the proximity and duration of living in the mess shatters any illusion that it's a bit removed or that it's solvable by us. We need the Messiah to finish what He started, to lay waste to evil . . .  and to transform the wasteland into a garden.

Because the reckoning is just the beginning of the promised work. The all-things-new that we wait for is actually a homecoming. The imagery of the highway in Isaiah 35 implies it is going somewhere. It is going home. Advent leads to Christmas. The wrongs put right are not just a means of making the world more orderly, it's a process of making the world more homey. Redeeming the creation--including us--into a place of beauty and thriving. I think that's what twinkle lights and greenery and colourful ornaments preview. A home we are invited to return to that is where we truly want to live.

Home is a complex concept for many of us, straddling places and interlocking circles of families, always leaving something out until the final promises of Revelation 21 come true. As hard and sad as the last two weeks have been, they also make the promise of home one that we want to draw people into here and now, and one that we want to cling to for ourselves. Only one of our five can come home to Bundi this Christmas, but we can't wait to pick him up in less than 48 hours now at the airport. And this week I found my heart deeply thankful that the other four could be together, which truly seemed more comforting and important than any more of them coming here. Also super thankful that both of our sisters manage once again to enfold our moms into their family celebrations, since we can't this year. And that we can keep our hearts and doors open to team family who miss theirs. 

Wrongs made right, and the road to home. These are two of the lenses for understanding the Christmas story, given by Isaiah, celebrated in the Gospels, and treasured here in 21rst century East/Central Africa.

This is 15 years ago, just before Dr. Jonah died of Ebola on Dec 4 2007. Another wrong that we long to see made right, the end of Ebola and the restoration of his family and justice and mercy in Bundibugyo.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Advent 2: the labor of planting a fragile branch in this earth

We have a mulberry bush just by the door, thanks to Lesley Stevens who lived in this house for a few years. I am grateful to her quite often, as we search the branches for a dark, ripe berry to snack or to freeze for adding to smoothies . . . the tropics are amazing for fruit and we have bananas, papaya, mangos, even avocados in our yard, but berries are harder to grow in the heat, so those handfuls bring us a lot of joy. On Thursdays when the kids come for pizza, they often scour the branches for berries to add to their own "desert pizza" creations. More joy. So, this being Uganda, a month or two ago when Scott had trimmed the bush back, I took a half dozen branches and stuck them in the ground down by the clothesline. Literally a branch shoved into the grassy dirt, but equatorial rain and sun and abundance means several of them seem to be alive, sending down roots and growing their own leaves. Recently we picked our first two berries from the transplanted branches. 

The mulberry bush by the door

A day with a good harvest!

one of the branches, bearing fruit

That's the image of the branch in Isaiah. The promised one does not appear with a flash of alien super-hero power, he comes as an embryo, made of the same substance as us. An idea, a concept, an unseen truth that became flesh. A small fragile piece of humanity connected to long lineages, literally stuck into our earth to grow. Mystery of God, for the first time, visible and palpable to humans. Fullness of grace, transplanted. 

A flashing miracle of sudden presence might have sounded like a more sure bet than the painful labor of giving birth two millennia ago, or even now. Isaiah 11 speaks poetically and confidently of the branch, but for the word to become flesh and dwell amongst us the picture in Isaiah 26 is more realistic: trouble visits, a woman in labor cries out, the time draws near and the sharp pains are upon her. Giving birth, literally, but also a metaphor for the deeply personal costly effort that Jesus' presence required of Mary and requires of us. In chapter 26, the gruelling process is entered with hope but no guarantee that the outcome will be more than wind. That's faith's exhausting toll.

Because this has been a week of labor, searing sorrows that we hope bring forth more than we can see. We're struggling to balance the budgets, to conclude the calendar year, to plan for 2023, writing and signing contracts with a dozen mission and several dozen Christ School employees. Negotiating, listening, trying. Having hard conversations with a few that wrench the heart. Personal and virtual meetings, hard stories to pray for and carry across the six countries in our Area of supervision. Determined to trust God's story even when we can't see around the corner of how God will provide, determined to push everything an inch closer to goodness even though a thousand forces seem to push in the opposite direction, determined to not give up but to let some things go with open hands. Juggling paperwork and rules and taxes and details. And weeping over our little dog Nyota that followed us home one traumatic morning six-plus years ago, and now seems to be dwindling towards death in spite of treating for everything locally treatable. It's been a lot.

But the message of Advent is that in the pain of these labours, the Word enters our reality. In the struggle of faith, God is enfleshed. 

A 23 year labor of love that God let us see beautiful results from this week: the staff of Christ School  on the last day of school (still have some exams, but last full day for staff) after a prayer walk to THANK God for the miracles and mercies of 2022, 


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 2022: the paradox of walking in darkness to see light

 We all want to see the glorious sparkling lights, not exactly something we have to be talked into. As we turn the corner from Thanksgiving to Christmas, today marks the Sunday where Advent begins. Even yesterday we put up a couple little strands of partially functional much-used Christmas lights, which we rush to unplug every time the power goes our so our batteries don't bottom out. Still, 'tis the season of anticipation of what is coming, of waiting and hoping for good. Like a traveler scanning a web site brochure, or a shopper reading on-line reviews, those originally waiting in Advent had ancient prophecies to pin their expectations to. The entire nation of Israel after the defeat of exile held their collective breath for a change in the plot. And Isaiah the prophet wrote repeatedly to give them glimpses of the coming reality. Including, in chapter 9, a great light.

Bring it on.

But, Isaiah says, the light shines on people living in darkness, in gloom, in the land of the shadow of death. 

Chapter 9 speaks of yokes, burdens, rods, battles, blood, oppression. Not sure that sounds so Christmas-y. Unless, of course, you happen to be living in a land battling Ebola, or in one of our border countries with drought, famine, rebel warfare, displacement, intractable poverty, injustice. In the real world, in other words. Where the shadow of death is undeniable. And where Christmas comes as shockingly good news. 

Advent wreath waiting to be lit

It's raining here, mud and gloom feel palpable, particularly as electricity flickers on and off, and the water line remains interrupted. But this is the exact place and time for a strand of Christmas lights, for unreasonable faith to shine into the narrative. 

 We have the privilege of living in 2022 so that we can look back on both the anticipatory darkness of centuries of longing, and the light that shone in Palestine. We can read pictures of what-would-come painted for the ancients in Isaiah 9:1-7 and 49:5-6 . . . and the picture of what did come in the testimony of John 1:1-9. And yet, at the same time we must acknowledge that shadows remain in our own era and hold onto a hope for the light to come (Rev 21:22-25). Because the darkness is not a sign that the light has been defeated. It's a sign we're in the right place to wait for it.

Waiting for light, example 1 of 4 in last day  .. Miss Michaela, beloved teacher, has to go for a couple months to raise more support and see her USA family. Dark times for first grade. But the light on the horizon is that she agreed to come back for another 2 years!!!

Example 2: baby with a life-changing disability, but hope on the horizon as we refer for surgery and care.

Example 3: Melen (far right) has known more than the shadow of death, she felt the weight of it most achingly during Ebola (a week from today we will reach the 15th anniversary of Dr. Jonah's death). But she smiles with hope that the son she was pregnant with at the time will pass his exams finishing primary school well enough to keep on the path to be a doctor like his dad.

Christ School, perhaps the place we smack into the darkness most often and yet the place where the hope of change and hope rests. Today the Senior Six class had their last regular Sunday preaching service, and Scott spoke from John 13. As we say goodbye to them like Jesus did to his disciples, we not only preach leading with a servant-disposition . . . we demonstrate it as Jesus did by washing their feet (Madame Topista, deputy head teacher; Scott, Chairman of the Board; Peter Bwambale, head teacher, and Patrick, Director of development; in front of the 33 graduates)