Hill school founder, volunteers donate skills in Uganda.

by Barbara Wybar

Ed.note: Chestnut Hill resident Barbara Birks Wybar, a mother of four, was a teaching assistant at Germantown Friends School and then taught second grade at Chestnut Hill Academy for 10 years. But in 2007, Barbara left her house on Rex Avenue to go to a village called Bududa in Uganda, East Africa, where she has been the driving force behind the building, staffing and operation of the Bududa Vocational Institute (BVA), a school that now turns out graduates who can earn a living, something that was barely possible before when the village had no school. She also raises funds to feed AIDS orphans.  

In late January, 2020, I traveled to Bududa, Uganda, with local volunteers Ron Kanter of East Falls and Jim Sharp of Glenside, both in their 70s. We had met many times previously around my kitchen table, and we even bought our air tickets together.

They came with the intention of helping in the carpentry department and wherever they were needed. Ron, a videographer, brought all his essential video and audio equipment.

Before setting off, we skyped with the head of the Bududa Vocational Academy (BVA) carpentry department, Godfrey Sakwa. This is the school in Bududa I help support. Jim and Ron wanted to understand how things were made by Bududans, who mostly use hand tools. In our first call, we were presented with a list of the electrical carpentry tools the BVA carpentry department would like to acquire.

I was a bit shocked at this long list. However, thanks to a substantial donation from the Rotary Club of Toronto and funds from a generous donor in Charlotte, North Carolina, we were able to purchase all the tools on the list in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, which is where we met up with Godfrey.

The eight-hour trip to Bududa, traveling in a small van with all of our luggage, the tools and groceries that are unobtainable in the village, was cramped, to say the least, but we made it and still in good humor, which is what these two wonderful men brought to the table, as well as a positive outlook at all times.

Before long they had both explored opportunities to help at BVA. Ron, the videographer, found a chance to pitch in with the graduates of our school and seize the opportunity to film them working at their respective trades.

His videos are poignant, to the point, short and sweet. They tell a story. My favorite part is that of Fatuma, a recent young tailoring graduate who has her own tiny stall in one of the market areas in Bududa. Ron managed to film her sewing on her treadle machine, pedaling away with her pretty feet while recounting her hopes and dreams.

Ron then filmed another BVA success story, Nicholas, a Nursery Teacher Training graduate who started working at a local private school in Bududa while doing his teacher training. After student teaching, he was hired full-time. The school, called Prime Academy Elementary School, recognized that Nicholas was a fine teacher. Now he is teaching sixth grade. Ron has captured his story on video.

These videos are now on our website, bududa.org, and they reflect, in pictures and words, the reality of what we are accomplishing in this remote rural Ugandan village. Besides his videos, Ron wrote a blog, starting months before going to Bududa, and he kept telling his story after he got home. Whenever he wrote something new, friends of his would donate to BVA. This has been heartwarming, and these donations are still coming in.

Now let me tell you about Jim Sharp. Wow! He accompanied Ron, who remarked, “If I’m a carpenter, Jim is really a carpenter.” Jim owned and operated an architectural woodworking company in the Philadelphia area for many years, and his aim was to offer his services to our school for a month. He had no idea of what he was getting into, but I knew that both of these men would be much loved by all the people who work and study at BVA, and I was right.

Jim poured his heart into the work he was so well versed in. We have rarely had such a volunteer. He saw the needs and set about meeting them.

He started with a workbench. The existing workbenches were pretty terrible. He did not criticize; with his positive attitude, he just got on with the job at hand. He drew up the plans, ordered the wood and used mainly hand tools but sometimes electrical ones to fashion a wonderful workbench for the carpentry department. We then ordered a powerful vice for it.

Once we had a workbench, the teachers and students saw what a difference it made, so they proceeded to make two more, and Jim left the money to buy two more vices.

The tales like this go on and on, but I’ll just tell one more. While Jim was making the workbench, he realized it was difficult to find the necessary tools as they were all stored haphazardly in wooden boxes. It took him 15 minutes to find a screwdriver, so what did he do?

He figured out how to mount all the tools on the wall of the carpentry department office. In a matter of days, 35 chisels, 15 saws and many more tools were mounted on the wall. They were now easy to find, and everybody was most impressed.

These then are just some of the things I can tell you about these two marvelous, talented, warm-hearted, local men who came to Uganda for the month of February. The tangible gifts they left behind are incredible, but the intangible gifts are even greater. Their love and appreciation for the people of Bududa cannot be valued, but it is an outstanding legacy.

I know that Ron and Jim feel the same way I do: what we have learned in Bududa about another way of life and set of values far surpasses our contributions in teaching Bududans.

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