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Global Traveler Seeking Out Uganda Mountain Gorillas finds life-changing encounter

In 2007, Michigan Tech alumnus Jim Tanis ’56 ’58 and his wife, Jan Tanis, were honeymooning and globetrotting. They went to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and finally Uganda, where they sought out mountain gorillas. It was in Uganda that a life-changing encounter seemed to seek them out.

Brian Turindwamukama, a child from a small village of Bwindi, sold them a carved gorilla. After chatting, they were surprised to hear he had email, and they began communicating with him when they returned home. Eventually they helped Brian through secondary school. It seemed children in Bwindi had been devastated by war, AIDS, malaria and abandonment: orphans abounded, and opportunities were scant.

The Tanises asked Brian what his village needed. “He came up with a wish list,” Jim Tanis said. “A secondary school and library, agricultural development, and everyone in the village learning to read and write. We chose the last one.”

So, the Tanises established the nonprofit Bwindi Community Program and started sending village children to the area's private primary school, as the public schools are of poor quality. The sponsored students are doing very well, the best in the district, as a matter of fact.

“We started with 21 students,” says Jan. “The cost per student is about $375 per year for primary and $500 for secondary, and that includes the schooling, boarding and uniforms. At primary school, medical coverage is included as well.”

Boarding is important, Jan says, as that allows students to focus on schooling instead of taking care of siblings or working in the fields. It’s a long school year; they attend from the end of January until early December with three breaks.

“How many will come back to school after the first break?” a nervous Jim asked Brian. “They all will,” was the reply. “They get three meals a day.” Many of the boarders have no homes, no place to go, and some return to school malnourished.

“The director is trying to place the kids with foster families over the breaks,” Jan says.

The first cohort of sponsored students is proceeding to the secondary level, which is more like a high school with some junior college. “If they don’t test well in primary, they are not allowed to advance to secondary,” Jan says. “And they are tested again in secondary to advance.”

“We are up to 70 students now,” Jim says. “Forty-seven in primary of the school's 380 total enrollment and 23 in secondary of 1,000.” Sponsors come from the US, Argentina, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. The Bwindi Community Program aims to sponsor 12 more secondary school students every year.

“Some of the donations have been unique,” Jan says. “A girl from Massachusetts sent us all of her money from her bat mitzvah. She sponsored a girl for two years who had just lost her initial sponsor.”

Two boys from Connecticut, ages 12 and 14, took all of their school's leftover supplies at the end of the year and shipped them to Bwindi with the Tanises on their latest trip this April. They will continue to do so, Jan says.

“It’s amazing what they can use,” Jim says. “Solar-powered calculators are very popular, as the school has no power.” Sometimes the teachers scavenge through the donations before the students can get to them, Jan says. “They have so many needs.”

The village schools teach more than academics. The students learn about sanitation, nutrition, gardening, manners, respect and hygiene. “On this latest trip, we took 432 toothbrushes. It’s the first time they ever had one,” Jan said.

This all takes more than a couple of humanitarians to coordinate and sponsor. They have a great board working with them, Jim said, and they have high hopes for the future: maybe buying more land where the school is located and building new dormitories.

As for Brian, he is finishing his education at a college-prep school in Iowa.

“After his first terrifying airplane ride and negotiating O’Hare airport, where he finally saw a familiar face, he was okay,” Jim says. “Even the car ride to Iowa was an adventure.”

He’s visited the Tanises in Arizona, and there is only one problem: he can’t get enough of movies on TV (he had none in Uganda or at his Quaker school in Iowa).

More information is available at BwindiCommunityProgram.org .

Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.

By Dennis Walikainen
Michigan Tech News
17-May-2012

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