While I was in Africa over the past month, I blogged with my team at Niteo Africa on our volunteer experiences in Odek, Uganda; I hope you had a chance to take a peak.  But, blogging “Coffee with Karine” certainly didn’t go as I expected.  In light of the unexpected gap in connecting, allow me a moment to regroup.

When I write “Coffee with Karine,” my purpose is to engage our community and deeply consider the education of children in what we call: #LearnForward.  In its simplest form, LearnForward is about the transformation of education.  It is about parent-student-educator coming to the table of learning and participating in a heartfelt conversation about what is best for children.  

While, LearnForward is focused on what is happening in North America, it is also informed by the a world-wide inquiry into how to effectively educate children.  I’m curious about the universal tenets.  My personal exploration is shaped deeply by my work with the most vulnerable children of the world in East Africa through my charity Niteo Africa.

We left off the conversation in the last “Coffee with Karine” with the question “why?”  The healthy exploration of why we do what we do?  

Why do I travel each year to Africa?  Leave my family?  Sacrifice big chunks of my summer?  Pay my own way?  Take Canadian volunteers?  Risk?  Why?  

Why do I eat foreign foods, deal with the side effects of malaria medication, fight with flesh-eating insects (that’s an exaggeration), and leave my pillow behind?  Why?

There are so many more “why?” questions.  “Why” Niteo and education and literacy?

I’d like to dig a little deeper with a story from my trip…

Have you ever woken up and not known where you are?  In this experience, there is a completely disorienting feeling, a frenetic spin of trying to ground, an urgency to figure out the difference between dream and awake.  There is a panic to make sense of it.  Then, you blink three times and the feeling goes away.  

While I was in Uganda I had this experience.  I woke up and I needed to blink three times.

Oh yeah…

I’m in Uganda.  I’m sleeping in a house dormitory at Kabojja International School.  I am under a mosquito net on a foam mattress.  I am looking out the window at the blooming Bougainvillea bush.  

Later, when I sit at the Source Cafe in Jinja with an iced mocha, posting pictures of teammates playing with the monkeys from our Nile boat trip, it feels enough like a tourist trip from my middle class life, that I can orient.  I don’t need to blink.  It is “normal.”

But, when we drive deep into the tenements of Jinja, Uganda to find a children’s library for the poorest of children, when I see their tattered clothes, their infected eyes, their malnourished hair, it is completely disorienting.  It is waking up and not knowing where you are.

Dylan Draper, 2014 Niteo Team Member, reads to children in Jinja

Dylan Draper, 2014 Niteo Team Member, reads to children in Jinja


I’m going to say something extreme here…

The trick is not to blink away extreme poverty!  Don’t blink it away!  

Why? Why do I do it?

Because I won’t blink it away.

These children are trapped in a cycle of poverty and oppression.  I won’t turn my back on them!  As an educator, as a thinker, as a mother, and as a human being, I must do what I can for these children.  

That’s why.

Hold the discomfort.  Hold the reality that children are living day in and day out in extreme poverty.  If you do, your life will be changed forever.

Here’s what happens when I hold the disorientation in those spaces:

I want to help the children of poverty in a sustainable way.  I believe in them and my Ugandan partners.  It isn’t pity, it is a relationship.  We all benefit.  

Then, I choose education as the platform!  I could choose shoes, clothes, bicycles, or nutrition.  I could bring medicine.  But, what is most aligned with who I am and offers the greatest chance of escape for these children is an education.  Others will bring food, medicine, shoes, and even school fees.  But, no one is bringing them books.  

Niteo Africa stands with the mothers, the teachers, and the caregivers to provide children with the gift of reading.  

A child reading unlocks imagination; imagination unlocks a new destiny.  Education offers the children of poverty the greatest opportunity for escape.  An education with literacy encourages a child to imagine, think critically, and create.   So, I bring books.

In the #LearnForward equation, it is a gift to me to hold the needs of others, unwaveringly.  The gift of remembering children in extreme poverty encourages grit and determination in me.  It invites creativity and optimism and connection.  

Don’t blink it away…make an offering.  

It may feel overwhelming, holding it.  Even now, you may feel overwhelmed looking at the pictures, trying to understand.  That’s okay.  It is normal.  I’m in the same boat.

Sometime today, just gather your loved ones, your tribe.  Tell them your thoughts.  Ask the children “What can we do?”  They have ideas.  But more importantly, they have heart.  Use that heart to motivate and generate action.  Do it together.

Let me know if I can help!  <3  If you need a practical idea, Month of Love is a simple tool that helps schools, businesses, and churches get involved.

Over the next few weeks, I will tell a few more stories, in more detail.  I hope you’ll join me for this inspirational journey.  #LearnForward!