The “Queen of Katwe” story of impoverished Ugandan kids working hard to succeed has some parallels with my experience forming a spelling team at the poor rural high school where I taught in eastern Uganda. I created spelling tests and chose the top students for a spelling team. Zurufa Nandutu was not one of the top kids but I knew from my English writing classes that she was a hard worker.
Zurufa is not one of the five orphans we support through Chanting & Chocolate. But she comes from a desperately poor family and appealed to me to help her finish high school and then study nursing.
I personally supported her for three more years of school, and then she asked if she could go to university for a degree in social work. Today I sent her money for her graduation from Islamic University on Nov. 15. I’m so proud of Zurufa.
That’s Zurufa in the spelling team standing second from left.
I told the spelling story in a post back in January but I want to bring it back because of “Queen of Katwe.”
Our team practised endless lists of words and then we challenged two prestigious schools in Mbale, the district capital about 5 km (3 miles) away, to what may have been the first spelling bee in the country.
On the day of the Mbale Spelling Challenge, I hosted our team to lunch at the guesthouse where I lived at Nabugoye and then we drove by minivan to Mbale Secondary School, a treat for the students who usually walked to town.
The spelling judges I recruited from the district school board came up with a tough list of words. Our team struggled and came in third. Afterwards, all the contestants drank soft drinks provided by a local distributor and received certificates of participation.
Every student also got a T-shirt from MTN, the top telecom in Uganda. The shirts promoted a service for youth with the slogan “Late chat 4 shizzle.” The irony of spelling students and their teacher to be wearing that didn’t hit me until much later.
Our students sang all the way back to the village. It had been a great day.