During her year giving away money, Betty got to know Twesigye Jackson Kaguri (who goes by Jackson). He was born in a village in Uganda, walked seven miles to school each day (and then back home again), eventually went to university, was then invited to attend Columbia University in New York, married an American, and got ready to buy a car, get a job, and settle down.
Then (there is always a "then" in these stories, isn't there?), his older brother died of AIDS, leaving three orphans back home in Uganda. His sister died next, leaving another orphan. "Grannies" all over his village were charged with raising the children left by the AIDS epidemic, and they didn't have schools, healthcare, clean water, food, the works. Jackson went back, he and his wife used the $5,000 they had saved for a down payment for a home to build a school for orphans of AIDS. They eventually built another. They hired a school nurse. They built a library. They built a 17-acre farm for food. They built a clinic. They brought education and health and hope. And now, in a village where Jackson didn't touch a book until he was 22 years old, children use solar-powered computers. Betty wrote about the Nyaki AIDS Orphans School here .
In addition to being an excellent writer (and one of the funniest and biggest-hearted people I know), Betty is the "First Lady" of Oglethorpe University (her hubby is prez). As such, she is involved with a group called the Oglethorpe Women's Network, which, in partnership with the Georgia Center for the Book, brought Jackson to speak. I met him last night and listened to him tell his story, in a beautiful museum gallery on the Gothic castle-like campus of Oglethorpe University, in the Brookhaven section of metro-Atlanta.
The dark red walls, lined with Marc Chagall sketches as its current exhibit, created an intimate enclave as Jackson held up a pencil at the end of his excellent and moving presentation (which, most moving to me, included a photo of blackness with a small candle flame on the bottom, as Jackson told us how he filled out his Columbia University application with a flame like that as his only light, and the constant fear that he would accidentally set the application on fire.)
Jackson told us to think of that 2-cent pencil and the fact that children all over the world are dropping out of school each day because they can't afford to buy one. He then showed how, in his family of five children, his father would snap a pencil in five pieces and give it to each child so they could attend. This was dramatic. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. They could now all go to school. He said how the oldest got the eraser, and as the youngest, he never once got it. Driving home, I was grateful, for the first time in my life, for the simple decadence of an eraser.
I was also grateful for books. And ever so coincidentally, two things happened yesterday, prior to my going to this event, and without me knowing they would be connected.