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It takes a village to build a playground

Iacocca Intern Manraj Matharu ’15 builds more than rural Uganda’s first playground

When bioengineering student Manraj Matharu ‘15 applied to go to Uganda on an Iacocca Internship, he dreamed of not only returning to the land where his parents were born, a country he himself had never been, but also being able to improve people’s lives.

"At our first ‘Team Uganda’ meeting," he recalls, "I saw a genuine interest in wholeheartedly aiding others within the team. In that moment, I knew that this group would go above and beyond."

Before leaving, the team had raised more than $1,800 through online fundraising to transport supplies to Uganda with them, including lancets, blood glucose test trips, rubber gloves and gauze for the local clinic and coloring books, crayons, tape and sports equipment for the Pathways Development Initiative (PDI) school where the team would be working.

Manraj took on an assignment as a microfinance intern with PDI, working to create a village savings and loan association, where community members could pool resources and individually take out small loans to start businesses, educate their children, and otherwise support local economic development.

And when Manraj discovered that the David Zaale, director of PDI, had been seeking to build a playground at the PDI Education Center for years, Manraj swung into action.

In parts of the world where the operation of schools themselves often relies upon the intense dedication of a few staff members and public, often international, fundraising, playgrounds can be seen almost as a luxury. Yet play is critically important for the social, emotional, cognitive and physical development of children, no matter where they live. Manraj drew up dozens of sets of plans until he was satisfied with a project to propose to Zaale, who was immediately on board.

"Especially in one of the poorest countries in the world," says Manraj, "a playground is a place that allows a kid to be a kid."

A playground built, a community lifted

Manraj began by making the school’s structure itself more stable. In many sections of Uguanda, walls are made from cow dung and water. To increase their longevity, Manraj added a layer of cement and weatherproof paint to the exterior of the school.

But a boring-looking playground just wouldn’t do: a colorful explosion of murals on the school walls was the plan, and Manraj would accept nothing less – even though the local hardware store could only provide white paint.

After several trips to Mbale -- a two-hour car ride in both directions -- by Manraj and Kelly Austin, assistant professor in the department of sociology at Lehigh, the painting project could begin in earnest. Manraj enlisted the other Iacocca Interns to help with the painting; a base coat was quickly laid down, and then festooned by murals on the exteriors of the school buildings.

With his colleagues busy painting pictures of fish, cartoon characters and animals, Manraj began working on the development of a massive playground adjacent to the school. The playground plans included swings, a rope ladder, a tunnel, a traditional ladder and a tire ladder, all perfectly sized for elementary schoolers.

Because of the scale of the project, Manraj hired more than a dozen workers to work on the construction of the playground. Local workers were accustomed to wages of less than 5,000 USh a day -- about $1.50. But Manraj and team opted to pay them double to quadruple that rate to help the village to build up its saving and loan coffers.

"We hired local Ugandans so the project would contribute to the economy, but would also teach an everlasting skillset, and boost morale," says Manraj. "We specifically sought workers with troubled pasts, typically those who were recovering from alcoholism, to provide them with an opportunity to learn a new trade, and expand their credentials. We also felt it gave them a chance to inspire their sons and daughters by putting their own own blood, sweat, and tears into the first playground of Bududa District."

The serious business of building fun

In rural Uganda, there’s Home Depot or Lowe’s to deliver materials to the job site, of course. Manraj and his workers had to walk more than two miles to the top of a nearby mountain to cut down trees – and then carry them back to the school. There, they would cut the lumber into planks to serve as fort floors, ladder rungs, and tunnel walls.

Beyond the lumber expeditions, the building process itself was simply arduous. Manraj hired a local professional carpenter to help with specialty work. But everyone got to pitch in on the really fun parts of the project --  sawing logs, digging post holes, nailing together railings, weaving rope ladders and creating a roof to shield the children from afternoon rains.

With time running out before the Lehigh team’s flight back to the U.S., it was "all hands on deck" to finish the playground. Manraj kept busy with construction, several of the other interns used YouTube to research how to hand-weave a cargo net, others applied the finishing touches to the murals. As a final step, the entire team worked together to paint the playground equipment that stood where nothing but an empty field appeared before.

And as the sun set over Bududa District that Sunday night, everyone went home exhausted and satisfied: the playground was no longer just a cool idea or a work in progress, it was reality.

Climbing and exploring

The following Monday, the Lehigh team arose bright and early to say their goodbyes to the community and new friends they’d made over the summer, and there was one thing left to do. David Zaale and his wife, Elizabeth, had walked the one kilometer from their home to the school, to see the product that was finished just that previous evening. The children were in class, busy learning their mathematics and English lessons for the day. But when the Zaales and the Lehigh team arrived, the children were brought out to launch the playground.

"The moment the students were able to climb onto the playground, and just be kids, my heart melted," Manraj recalls. "The neverending days of strenuous labor, multiple injuries, and empty bank account were entirely worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing."

-Talia Dunyak '16 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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