The 237 students of Bigodi Secondary School in Uganda will soon be able to study in a new classroom thanks to the efforts of two Michigan State University graduates who on their own have raised nearly $10,000 and leave today to complete their project.
The students, Kirk David Mason, of Lansing, Mich., and Sarah Scott, of Bethany, were inspired to build the project through the life of Benson Bamatura, a Ugandan conservationist who died early last year.
Scott, who has a degree in zoology, met Bamatura while in a student exchange program in 2013 in Uganda.
When Bamatura died, he left behind five children. When researching options for ways to honor Bamatura, the Bigodi officials offered to ensure an education for Bamatura's children in exchange for the construction of a classroom.
Strictly tapping into their own personal network of friends and family, plus some fundraisers in Lansing, Mason and Scott were able get just about $100 shy of their $10,000 goal.
"We tried company sponsors, but since were weren't a nonprofit, there wasn't much interest," Scott said. "A lot of companies were like, 'it's a great project, but since you're not a nonprofit, we're not going to donate.' It's all been about friends and family."
Their trip will encompass more than building the classroom. Both are certified to teach English in a foreign language, so will instruct teachers on English. Mason, a documentary filmmaker with a degree in media, will make a series of short videos for students around the world to learn more about conservation and that part of Africa's natural habitat.
Both Mason and Scott have arranged with their former schools -- Pavilion locally and Mason's school near Lansing -- to establish pen pal programs with Bigodi students.
There is also an arts program project they're pursuing with the Wyoming County Arts Council.
"We hope to build a bridge between two different cultures," said Mason, who is making his fifth trip to the region.
The school is in the midst of wildlife sanctuaries and near Africa's own "Great Lakes" area (such as Lake Victoria, which feeds the Nile) and among the conservation topics Mason plans to explore with his films are the issues effecting those lakes as well as our own Great Lakes.
Other topics to explore include regional sustainable food programs, sustainable agriculture and work on a documentary about food systems and food provisions.
"We e-mailed as many people as we could think of to make as many connections as we can," Scott said.
They hope to raise even more money to either generate funds for school supplies and books or perhaps also build a second classroom.
Mason sees the trip as a responsibility to fulfill because he's benefitted so much from his education. Scott's motivation is similar.
"I feel very fortunate to get the education I've received," Scott said. I want to be able to give back."
And she didn't want to just be all talk, either.
"I've always wanted to be able to do something like this and then actually stick to what I say I'm going to do, because a lot of people say, 'oh, let's do this' and then don't actually do it," Scott said. "I wanted to actually make something happen."
The trip, Scott believes, might also be a good career move.
"Pretty much all of Uganda is a biodiversity hot spot, so I’m really excited to just work in that environment," Scott said. "I’m hopefully going to be networking. There’s a lot of research that goes on in that area looking at primates and there are thousands of species of birds there, too, so it’s a pretty exciting place to be as a zoologist. I’m going to make as many connections as I can and hopefully find more work in that area, too."