After spending months at home or abroad, those returning to Vassar in the Fall may find the campus little different from how they last saw it last. For Christine Howlett, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Vassar, her time away has changed her entire perspective.
Howlett spent a total of five weeks in Nansana, Uganda teaching music to schoolchildren. In her two separate trips during her sabbatical and the following summer to the landlocked Sub-Saharan nation, she volunteered for the Ashinaga Foundation, a Japanese organization that seeks to provide “educational and emotional support” for orphans in around the world.
“It’s the furthest thing from Vassar you can possibly imagine in terms of the poverty levels and their regular daily lives,” said Howlett.
Howlett, who has been at Vassar since 2003, left hoping to lay the groundwork for a possible future collaboration between the Ashinaga children and the Vassar choir in the next few years. Accompanying her during her second and three-week-long trip were Vassar students Malinda Reese ’16 and Samantha Smith 14’.
Each one of the over sixty children in the Ashinaga school, which is called the Ashinaga Uganda Rainbow House, has lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. The children now live with a guardian, usually a relative. For a couple of the children the school lunch of posho (ground cornmeal) and a high-caloric bean soup is the only square meal they receive the entire day.
The children, said Howlett, are grateful for everything the school gives them. “They really did understand what a gift it was compared to the hundreds of other orphans who don’t get to go to school.” Ashinaga will pay for the tuition and supplies for those who are accepted to the school, but will generally take only one child per household. It is important to Ahinaga, said Howlett, to spread what limited supplies they have such a poor community.
The connection between Ashinaga and Vassar started with 1912 publication of “Daddy Long-Legs,” written by Jean Webster, class of 1901. Webster’s novel tells the storyof an orphaned young woman who is able to attend college similar to Vassar thanks to a scholarship provided by anonymous benefactor.
President and founder of Ashinage, Yoshiomi Tamai, remembered having “Daddy-Long Legs” read to him by his older sister after he lost his mother in a hit-and-run accident. In 1978 he capitalized on the book’s popularity in Japan (Ashinaga translates to “Daddy-Long-Legs” in Japanese) to launch his humanitarian foundation. And when the Ashinaga Foundation reached out to Vassar, the college gave them Howlett’s name.
Howlett was excited by the prospect of bringing two schools so different together in a choral project. When she arrived in mid-April for her first visit she found that her greatest challenge in teaching was the language barrier. Uganda’s official language is English. The more widely spoken language however, and the one which most the children speak is Luganda, an indigeonous language.
The English the children could speak sounded heavily accented to Howlett’s ears. So for the first weeks she required a translator. Only once when she began writing the lyrics on the blackboard, did the children begin to learn the song, as well as a few new English words.
To get the children to sing the right notes Howlett, in a sort Sub-Saharan reimagining of “The Sound of Music”, taught the children solfège. That’s the do re mi fa so la ti do. This was breakthrough. “They would come in when they were supposed to be outside playing stand by the blackboard practicing their solfège,” said Howlett.
Reese and Smith assisted Howlett with choir lessons, but most of their time was devoted to their own work. Both came as part of the Ford Scholars Program, which paid them a stipend for their work, while the Ashinaga Foundation covered the cost of travel and lodging.
The two Vassar students documented their trip through blogging and spent time preping older students who were potential Ashinaga candidates to study abroad.
The favorite part of Reese’s day was the 20 minute walk every morning and evening through the town from their hotel to the school. Said Reese, “We got to take the same route and meet the same people, and it ended up feeling like we were getting into the rhythm of the community a little bit.” Of the school, she added, saying, “Even now, I think of those kids everyday.”
Back in Poughkeepsie, memories of the Nansana and the Rainbow House stick with Howlett, too. “I came back from the trip feeling overwhelmed by all that I saw. When I got to my apartment and looked around I was like, ‘why do I have all this crap? I don’t need any of this.’” said Howlett.
On Thursday September 5, Howlett met with her chorus groups and shared some of the pictures she had taken and told her students some of the things she had seen. It was her first rehearsal since she had left over half-a-year ago. She said, “I’m always excited at the beginning of the year, but it was different last night. I guess I just felt so grateful to be back.”