Joanita Senoga stood on her parent’s porch in her native Uganda in the mid-1990s to teach reading, math, English and science to disadvantaged youth.
With her family’s help, she opened Circle of Peace School to teach 24 low-income and orphaned children in a small building with no bathroom and where meals were cooked on a dirt floor above an open fire.
The school now has 200 children in grades kindergarten through seventh grade and has bathrooms, two stoves and a small dorm for 30 boys and girls.
While raising money to keep the school open, the 39-year-old single mother of two also is a graduate student at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where she received a bachelor’s degree in education in 2006.
“I was a primary school teacher in Uganda. You had to pay to attend school and some kids didn’t have money,” said Senoga, 39, who began teaching at age 22 immediately after she received an education degree at Kibuli Teacher’s College in Uganda. “These kids should receive the best education as everyone else.”
Senoga said she enjoyed her two years teaching elementary school children in Uganda’s public school system in 1992-94, but there was a dreaded routine at the school:
The headmaster would come in and read the names of students to find out if they had their tuition. If they didn’t, they would have to leave the school.
In order to stay, students as young as 7 would ask to clean the school’s classrooms, hallways and offices. Some students sold food outside the school to other children who had money.
Senoga sometimes hid children in the closet or bathroom when the headmaster came to the class collecting money. She would be later asked to stop, or lose her job.
According to World Bank statistics, the per-capita income in Uganda is $370 and the country ranks 189th in the world. In comparison, the U.S. per-capita income is $46,000 and the country ranks 16th.
“Some kids’ parents just don’t have much money,” Senoga said. “That meant kids left the classroom crying. Some kids could not go home because their parents would beat them for not being in school.”
So she quit her job in 1994 to open Peace School, which had a limited number of textbooks, no bathroom and no furniture.
But she received help. Parents brought in food and water for the children. Children used the neighbors’ bathrooms. Senoga’s father donated a round table.
Two years after the Peace School opened, Senoga fled Uganda in 1996 after a man sought to force her into marriage. She left her two daughters, ages 2 and 7, behind to pursue a better life in America.
Senoga’s half-brother, Steve Wassaw, lived in New York and had friends in Virginia to help her settle in the United States. While she was on a bus and making a stop in Philadelphia on her way to Virginia, someone stole Senoga’s bags with her teaching documents, contact information and personal items.
Besides the clothes she wore on the bus, she had $50 and her passport.
Senoga finally arrived in Richmond to attend a religious conference. With no money, no job and no place to live, she sought assistance at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in the city.
Church officials allowed Senoga to work at the church and helped her find an apartment. In 2001, five years after she left Uganda, the church also assisted Senoga to reunite with her daughters. The oldest, Josie, 20, attends the University of Richmond and resides on campus. Senoga’s youngest daughter, Jemi, 15, lives with her in Richmond.
Senoga’s journey to the University of Richmond was cleaning the home of a professor, who encouraged her to attend the school.
Senoga received grants, worked as a custodian and then later at the university’s library to pay for her undergraduate studies.
While pursuing a master’s degree in library science, Senoga continues to work full time at the library and part time at Rosyln, a retreat center in Richmond operated by the Episcopal Church of Virginia.
“I don’t know how I do it,” Senoga said while laughing. “I have to set an example for my kids, but it hasn’t been easy.”
In regards to the Peace School, Senoga received a major boost last year from Ahead Energy of Rochester, N.Y. The nonprofit organization, which is housed at the University of Rochester, focuses on improving energy efficiency in African communities.
The company helped raise $20,000 to renovate the Peace School’s kitchen in February, adding a new floor, a stove with two burners and access to hot water.
“Joanita is one of these extremely big-hearted persons that wants to help you. You just can’t say no to her,” said Ahead Energy CEO and President M.J. Ebenhack. “She is a very impressive person.”
Senoga’s eldest daughter, Josie Senoga, is a 20-year-old sophomore at Richmond and praises her mom as a role model for “success.”
“Education is first and foremost in my mom’s life and is a great foundation for us,” said Josie, who’s pursuing a double major in leadership and psychology. “She went through a lot and it definitely makes me motivated. I want to be as successful as her and change the world as she has.”