Breaking Pencils

Breaking Pencils

STOP!! Read our story. Thank you. Grandma.

Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, becomes decidedly exuberant and affectionate when I mention my former college classmate Allan Schwarz, founder of the Mezimbite Forest Centre:

“Ah Allan! He and me are like brothers – we are doing African development work on the same holistic principles. He and I hugged each – we cried together, we laughed together. I met Allan at Segal Family Foundation annual meeting. We were on a panel ‘Africans for Africa'”

Twesigye J. Kaguri breaking a pencil

Twesigye Jackson Kaguri goes by his middle name “Jackson” for convenience. Jackson says he owes everything good and positive and productive in his life to his parents’ willingness to buy and to break pencils:

“We were five brothers and sisters. My childhood memories are about waking up in the morning and finding that my dad had gone and purchased a No. 2 pencil – which for us as a family, was a lot of money. That is why he could not afford 5 pencils – one for each of us children.

However, the school rule was that you had to have a pencil – used or unused – it did not matter – to attend our school. We would be turned away if we did not arrive at school with a pencil.

So dad broke this No. 2 pencil into 5 pieces and handed each of us 5 children one fifth of a pencil stub. With a fifth of pencil, I didn’t have to sneak into school and risk being kicked out.

There are children in Africa right now, today, in 2012, who do not go to school because they do not have one-fifth of a pencil.

This act by my father launched my schooling. It is not the university degrees or the scholarships that I have received that have powerfully propelled me to do the work I do today. It is my father’s simple and profound act of breaking No. 2 pencils.

If people in America and elsewhere want to understand the depth of educational need in Africa, they need to stop and think about this one fact:

Today, Twenty Twelve (2012), there are many children in Africa who cannot attend school because their families cannot afford the price of admission which is one-fifth of a pencil. Let me repeat that: There are children in Africa right now, today, who do not go to school because they do not have one-fifth of a pencil.”


Twesigye Jackson Kaguri was born and raised in Uganda in the small village of Nyakagyezi. At a very young age he demonstrated an unquenchable desire to learn, which led him to study at and graduate from Makerere University in Kampala.

At this time he co-founded the human rights organization, Human Rights Concerns, to help victims of human rights violations in Uganda and educate the public about their rights. In the 90s he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University where he studied Human Rights Advocacy.

Over the years he has been involved extensively in international community efforts as a human rights advocate, fundraiser, and inspirational speaker.

The lesson from Nyaka is not in that it builds schools for hundreds of children or provides pencils or school lunch, it is in the fact that all the teachers and nurses and grannies care.  

Allan Schwarz

In 2001, Kaguri founded The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project in response to the devastating effects of AIDS in his hometown. The organization, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, provides free education to children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. In addition to two schools, it also operates a library, desire farm and nutrition program, medical clinic, clean water system, and a support program for the grandmothers who care for up to 14 children at a time.

Since founding the project, Kaguri has also become an author.

In “A School for My Village” he shares how he came to build the first school and the struggles he faced during the first few years.

In 2010, he resigned as Interim Senior Director of Development in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University to focus full-time on The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project.

Kaguri has been named a Heifer International Hero, recognized in Time Magazine’s ‘Power of One’ Series, and spoken to the UN about his work. When not visiting the schools in Uganda or working at his office in Okemos, MI, Kaguri travels the country to speak with students and supporters about the organization.

He is the co-author of The Price of Stones, Building a School for My Village (Viking, June 14, 2010), with Susan Urbanek Linville.


The Kutamba School, Runkungiri District, Uganda

A Holisitic Approach to Education

Jackson takes what he describes as a “holistic” approach to educating the close to 600 orphans that he has worked with in the Nyaka School (purple uniforms) in the Kanunga District and Kutamba School (green uniforms) in the Runkungiri District, some eight miles south of the capital of Uganda, Kampala.
Karim: Having both your parents die of HIV/AIDS is devastating enough. But then to have to be able to focus upon your schoolwork without a real sense of home and nurturing family must be an added burden for the child. How do you see the child through this trauma, Jackson?
Jackson: The children have already experienced a great trauma and tragedy. So the first focus for us is not the schoolwork but to restore some semblance of a sense of home. And for this we have an army of grandmothers to look after these orphans.

one of the 6,500 strong grandma army

Karim: Are these grandmothers necessarily related to the orphaned children?
Jackson: Not necessarily blood related. Some are related but many are just grandmothers who care about all children in the community. We have a network of some 6,500 grandmas which we split up into about 90 groups that serve the two districts where we have our schools – Kanunga and Runkungiri.
Karim: How do you integrate the lives of the grandmothers with the orphans?
Jackson: In the two district communities we have built a total of 157 huts in which grandmas and children are housed. This gives the children a sense of family and home and community. In addition, we provide these families with two meals a day. We farm about 17 acres of land in the area which means we can grow our own food and feed the community.
Karim: What about clean drinking water?
Jackson: We have worked with Rotary International to build a Clean Gravitational-Fed Water System in the local mountainous regions of the districts. After securing mountain springs in the higher regions we built a network node of water pipes which flow from the gravitational inclination down to the local community where the drining water is accessible by over 25,000 people in the community.
Karim: So, no mechanical pumps that can possibly breakdown and require replacement parts?
Jackson: Exactly. These are old-fashioned running pipes that use the gravity force to have the water end up in local taps strategically located in the community.
Karim: How are you handling the residual threat of HIV/AIDS that killed many of the parents of the children you serve?
Jackson: Well, we have been hiring nurses to address this issue and that led to a more comprehensive healthcare program for the children. And now that program has grown into a fully-fledged clinic for the children and also for those members of the community who are too poor to afford any healthcare. We also provide sanitary products for the girls because in many parts of Africa a girl is not permitted to go to school when she has her period. And keep in mind that many of these children must walk some 7 to 15 kilometers in order to get to school.
Karim: How would you describe your basic development strategy?
Jackson: The development strategy is very much like Allan’s at Mezimbite Forest Centre. Allan has spent close to 20 years listening to the needs of the local community. We do the same. We listen. You and I have discussed Karim, how inadvisable it is for African development models to be incubated in the cozy comfort of an Ivory Tower that is completely detached and disconnected from the realities people have to deal with on the ground. Our development models are molded and crafted from the authentic needs and constructive aspirations of our local communities.

Kutamba Primary School, Runkungiri District, Uganda

Karim: How do these aspirations look for the immediate future?
Jackson: Our immediate future aspiration is to build a secondary school. We are finding that the nurturing that our children receive at the primary schools that we run is not always sustained when they leave us for other secondary schools. So the most natural solution to this problem is to build our own secondary school and thereby extend and expand our sense of continuity and our spirit of community.

Nyaka Primary School, Kanunga District, Uganda


Leave a Reply