by Len Lear
It is hard for those of us who live in privileged communities like Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy to imagine what life is like in a Third World village with no running water, no electricity, no luxuries and virtually no necessities, maybe even no schools. And so it is shocking to discover that people who have always enjoyed the former comfortable lifestyle would willingly, even enthusiastically give up the former to embrace the latter.
But that is what David Kern, who has just retired from heading up the lower school at Penn Charter, and his wife Karen Vaccaro, also retiring, are doing as they are about to leave Philadelphia to take up residence in Uganda, a landlocked country in East Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world.
According to Wikipedia, about 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. “The average Ugandan woman spends nine hours a day on domestic tasks, such as preparing food and clothing, fetching water and firewood and caring for the elderly, the sick as well as orphans. Women on average work longer hours than men, between 12 and 18 hours per day, with a mean of 15 hours, as compared to men, who work between 8 and 10 hours a day.”
Kern and Vaccaro are going to the village of Bududa to join Barbara Birks Wybar, a Chestnut Hill resident who in 2003 went to Bududa, which at the time had no schools, and founded the Bududa Learning Center, which has graduated more than 850 students since then with marketable skills such as bricklaying, carpentry, tailoring, nursery teacher training, computers and hairdressing. There are currently 135 students in the school. A 2015 survey found that 97% of the graduates were employed, self-employed or doing further studies.
The village of Bududa looks like something out of National Geographic magazine. Women carry their belongings on their heads. An occasional cow is moved along with a stick. Children are always hungry, and it is about 90 degrees or more every day of the year.
“The kids are so malnourished,” said Barbara, “but they are still fit and strong. They do a lot of hard work early in the morning, and then they walk two to three miles to school. It’s a real wakeup call for people from Europe and North America. Two-thirds of the world lives this way.”
This is not the first time that Kern and Vaccaro have gone to Bududa. In 2003 they and Wybar and five other volunteers went there to help start the building of the school. Between 2003 and 2007, either David or Karen was in Bududa for six to eight weeks each year helping with the school. In 2004, the couple and their 10-year-old son, Derek, spent six months in Africa, including six weeks in Bududa.
“It’s not clear how long we will stay,” said David, “but we anticipate at least six to 12 months.” The couple will be helping the school become more financially sustainable, helping to track the school’s graduates, consider expanding enrollment, etc.
“David is an administrator par excellence,” said Wybar, “so he knows about administration of schools. I am just a teacher. Karen used to run the orphans’ program, The Children of Bududa, for us, so her knowledge of this program can do nothing but boost our performance at every level.”
Since starting it, Wybar has raised over $1 million for the school, whose current annual operating budget is about $125,000. “In addition,” she said, “we need money for capital improvements to continue to construct campus buildings.
“The most important component is money. With money we can hire good management. Until now I have been responsible for raising all of the money from friends, acquaintances and a few small foundations. We must create a system to raise funds professionally so we can be the recipient of support from larger foundations.”
Wybar, who is in her 70s, graduated from McGill University with a major in art history and psychology. She never worked in either field, but she insists that she used some of what she learned in psychology courses in her teaching career. She taught third grade for two years in London, England, but left in 1987 to come to Philadelphia, where her then-husband, Michael, was in the insurance business.
They moved to Mt. Airy, where she lived until 1999, and she then moved to Rex Avenue in Chestnut Hill. (Michael left in 1993; the couple had four teenagers at the time.) Barbara was a teaching assistant at Germantown Friends School and then taught second grade at Chestnut Hill Academy for 10 years.
But Barbara left her big, comfortable house on Rex Avenue and has since been living for a part of each year in Bududa, where she has none of the 21st century conveniences that the rest of us consider second-nature, not to mention barely enough food to survive. (“I have never seen an obese person there,” she said.) In addition to building and maintaining the school, Barbara has raised substantial funds to feed starving AIDS orphans.
Many of Barbara’s local friends have helped with the fundraising. For example, Martha Repman, former librarian at the Chestnut Hill Library, sent requests to her address book people, which brought in several contributions. Other friends forwarded the request. Residents of Bududa live in mud huts, although many now have doors and windows that were made by graduates of Barbara’s vocational school.
Most people in Bududa eat one meal a day, but if they do not grow their own food, they do not eat! They rarely eat meat. “We had two boys, Julius and Simon, who had nothing, no food, sleeping on a mud floor,” said Barbara in an earlier interview. “Julius said he was going to join the rebels in Kenya (terrorists), not because he wanted to hurt people but only because he knew he would be fed. But he came to our school instead. Now he is a carpenter with the biggest smile. And a job maker! He has his own shop and can make a door a day! He can sell it for about $35, although he only gets $5 or $10 of that.”