June 16 2010 12:00 AM

Author chronicles building schools in his homeland


Twesigye Jackson Kaguri’s book was already brewing about the same time Craig Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” went to the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list; with a little luck, panache and old-fashioned pluck, the Okemos author may also climb to the top of that list.

“Three Cups of Tea” is the wildly successful book about an unlikely hero building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Kaguri’s “The Price of Stones: Building a School for My Village” is about a transplanted Ugandan who was destined to give back by building schools for HIV/AIDS orphans in his home country. Both books make you feel just a little guilty about $100 cable bills.

How Kaguri’s book ended up being published is just as unlikely. In 2003, after giving a sermon in an Indiana church about his experiences, he was approached by Susan Urbanek Linville, a journalist (who ended up being his co-author), who asked, “Have you ever thought of writing a book?” Then there was an agent who didn’t represent non-fiction, but after reading the manuscript decided to take a shot. Of course, there’s Kaguri’s publisher who already had the Mortenson book but decided to take a chance on a similar book.

“It was all by God’s design,” Kaguri said, but then again, parents who are able to send their children to school in Uganda (often at great personal cost) look at it as an investment.

“It’s Social Security (and) Medicaid all rolled up. Parents send us so we’ll come back and take care of them.”

Kaguri who is readying some clothes to send to his father, said taking care of elders is “expected.”

What wasn’t expected is that Kaguri would dedicate his life to building schools for orphans in his home country, which is reeling from decades of war, poverty and disease. Estimates place the number of Ugandans with HIV/AIDS at 15 percent of the population of 31 million, and more than 2.2 million children have lost one or more parent.

Kaguri knows that the only solution is education. Not only is he dedicating his life to the cause, he turned his life topsy-turvy when he quit his Michigan State University development job recently to work fulltime on fund raising for his dream to build hundreds of schools in Uganda. Kaguri’s book was recently profiled in Time magazine, which elicited a wave of donations.

In 2001, Kaguri decided he would build an orphan’s school, opening Nyaka School in his home village of Nyakagyezi in 2003. A recent library addition was paid for from his share of the book advance.

The tuition-free school opened with 60 students, some of whom would run seven miles each way to attend.

The book details not only the transformation of the young Kaguri, who became an international scholar, but also the seemingly impossible obstacles he overcame to build a school.

 “It is a beautiful job getting people to realize a dream they wanted, but didn’t know how to go about it,” he says. “My new career gives me a sense of purpose. I miss Uganda every day.”

He said his No. 1 goal now is raising money to keep the existing 407 students in school.

“Without schools, lives go to waste completely. But what we do now is just a drop in the ocean. We risk losing a generation of children who can’t turn back.”

One of his goals now is to enlist the Greater Lansing community in fundraising and activities: “That way we are changing lives on two continents.”

Monika Dietrich, an MSU graduate and soon-to-be medical student, spent six weeks in Uganda doing nutritional studies. “It was one of the most concentrated learning experiences of my life,” she said. “The daily life is so different. It changes what you do and what you want.”

She said one obvious difference is the concept of time. “Things happen when they happen. You have to take it slow.”

Heather Simon, who teaches sixth grade in the Holt Schools, has worked with the Nyaka school to create a pen-pal program with her students. Last summer, she spent two weeks at the school, taking with her hundreds of toothbrushes donated by her students.

Simon also said "The Price of Stones" helps us all understand conditions in Uganda. “There is so much death, juxtaposed against how one person can make a difference.”

Both Simon and Dietrich plan to return to Uganda.

Kaguri said that in America, children are worried about whether the television is highdefinition.

“In Uganda, a 9-year-old is living alone in a house with no electricity," he said. "It puts things in perspective."

Twesigye Jackson Kaguri
Co-author of "The Price of Stones:: Building a School for My Village"
2 p.m. Saturday, June 19
Barnes & Noble
8333 Grand River Rd.,
East Lansing
(517) 324-3926