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Shanita Chronicles: The Origin of Our Name

Updated: Jan 30

She had big, curious eyes, wearing a torn shirt and only one sandal on her feet. Unlike the other children in the place, she didn't seem concerned at all when I approached her. She didn't speak English, but it was clear to me that the girl was brilliant for her age - sharp, mischievous, and intelligent. We began to connect through smiles and a camera, two useful tools that have bounced me through disasters and crises in recent years, between desperate edges around the world.


Lior Sperandeo Founder of Shanita.org



An Encounter with Inequality

I met Shanita in North-Eastern Uganda, in a small picturesque village with mud houses and thatched roofs. I had come there to document the water crisis in the region. Sick and emaciated children, elderly women carrying immense weights on their heads, mosquitoes everywhere, and the only drinking water coming from puddles shared with the animals.


As I navigated through the harsh realities of life in the village, I couldn't shake off the stark comparisons flooding my mind. I couldn't help but envision my own nephews and nieces, blessed with opportunities and a future brimming with possibilities. Their education, hobbies, and access to basic necessities stood in stark contrast to the challenges faced by Shanita.


The discrepancy in prospects was glaring. While my loved ones had the luxury of dreaming and exploring their potential, Shanita's future seemed predetermined by the constraints of her circumstances. Without access to education, her chances of breaking free from the cycle of poverty appeared slim, a reality that weighed heavily on my conscience.




A Plea for Help

At the end of my stay in the village, a man approached me, stuttering broken English. It was Shanita's father, asking for help. He looked at me with a downcast gaze, saying they were very poor and asked if I could help him send the girl to school.


In that moment, the only money I had with me was a crumpled $50 bill, the surplus from the visa fee at the entrance to Uganda. Without hesitation, I handed it to Shanita's father, hopeful that it would help pave the way for her education.


As I wrapped up my project in Uganda and made my way back to Kampala, thoughts of Shanita lingered in my mind. Would she truly have the opportunity to go to school? Had my impromptu donation made any difference at all? With a few days left before my flight, curiosity tugged at me, urging me to revisit the village and see the impact of that solitary fifty-dollar bill.


I enlisted a local friend of mine and together, we returned to Shanita's village, where we found ourselves seated outside her family's humble abode. Despite the language barrier, the warmth and resilience of Shanita's parents spoke volumes, their faces etched with the hardships of a life marred by poverty and adversity.




A Change in Plans

$50, roughly equivalent (back than) to 150,000 Ugandan shillings, held the promise of transforming Shanita's life, offering a glimmer of hope amidst the shadows of poverty. However, as the conversation unfolded, it became apparent that the money had not been earmarked for her education. Instead, the funds had been allocated towards purchasing a goat, a decision aimed at bolstering the household's economic stability.


I felt a sense of relief at this revelation, it was accompanied by a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. Who was I to dictate how they should utilize their resources? What did I truly understand about their daily struggles and aspirations? I grappled with my own privilege, acutely aware of the stark disparities between our lives.


But if Shanita's education was still a priority for her family, I was determined to support them in a more meaningful way. Turning to my local connections for guidance, we set out to navigate the complexities of enrolling Shanita in school. Together, we identified a reputable institution within close proximity to her home. I covered the registration fees, along with additional expenses for supplementary materials and her school uniform. The list of requirements seemed endless, spanning from basic stationery to unexpected necessities like soap and sugar. Despite it all, I remained steadfast in my commitment to ensuring Shanita's access to education.


On my final day in Uganda, I made a poignant return to the village to deliver the news to Shanita's family: she was now officially enrolled in school for the upcoming year. I proposed a collaborative effort, expressing my readiness to sustain her educational journey indefinitely if they ensured she attended school regularly and completed the year. Their joy was palpable as we exchanged heartfelt farewells, leaving the decision and responsibility firmly in their hands.


 

Finding Purpose

In recent years, my journey has intertwined with various humanitarian organizations, where my role as a photographer and communication consultant has allowed me to delve into the depths of Humanitarian Aid. Shanita's story captivated me, serving as a catalyst to challenge cynicism and reignite my faith in the power of meaningful change. My vested interest in her path is fueled by a genuine curiosity about the outcomes it may yield.


Since our first encounter, I've made a concerted effort to maintain a connection with Shanita's family during my trips to Uganda and neighboring countries. Despite initial discomfort, our interactions surpassed superficial differences – they saw me beyond my outward appearance or financial status, and I gained a deeper insight into their lives beyond economic constraints. Through this shared journey, a profound bond has blossomed.


Today, I'm proud to share that Shanita has emerged as a true prodigy, defying the odds by skipping a grade within just a year of grappling with challenges. Fluent in English, she navigates her studies effortlessly while forming meaningful friendships along the way. With each passing year, her horizons expand, revealing a myriad of opportunities that were once beyond her reach.




Education for All

During one of my visits, I learned that Shafik, Shanita's brother, had reached the age of five and was ready to embark on his educational journey. Feeling a strong desire to extend my support, I reached out to a close friend who I thought might be interested in joining me. After sharing the entirety of Shanita's story, I posed the question: would he and his wife consider funding Shafik's education? Without hesitation, they agreed, demonstrating their unwavering commitment to making a difference.





In that instant, a realization struck me like lightning: this wasn't just about one or two isolated incidents; it had the potential to sprout into something monumental, a beacon of hope for countless children deprived of their basic right to education and enlightenment due to poverty, discrimination, gender bias, displacement, and other injustices. And if one friend stepped forward, who's to say others wouldn't follow suit? Perhaps even family members, neighbors, acquaintances, and supporters?


From that point on, I've seen Shanita's story as a pilot, meticulously observing and assimilating lessons from each hurdle and triumph.


However, I understood that I couldn't face this challenge alone.




Uniting Forces

During my travels, I've had the privilege of meeting and being inspired by numerous remarkable individuals making a difference across the globe. Among them is Shiri, an educator and social activist who has become like a sister to me over the years. Our paths crossed in diverse locations: from working together in the impoverished neighborhoods of Mumbai in 2014, to collaborating on volunteer projects in Ethiopia and Uganda. One particularly memorable experience was when we found ourselves caught in an earthquake together in Mexico City, amidst an educational mission she spearheaded, an event I had the opportunity to document and survive.



Lior Sperandeo Founder of Shanita



Over the years and throughout our journey, I shared with Shiri my adventure with Shanita. Together, we asked questions, identified problems, built plans, devised economic models, and enlisted local professionals who shared the same dream and could lead the project locally. We utilized all the tools we had gathered over the years and established an organization to advocate for children's rights. In Uganda and subsequently in other places (yes, even locally).

In recent years, we quietly and diligently worked on a practical pilot project in Uganda with friends and family who joined organically. It bore fruit beyond our wildest dreams.


In 2019, we went public.




 


Paving the Way

This year marks Shanita's entrance into fifth grade, alongside dozens of other children benefitting from our scholarship program. Each child in the program is backed by someone, much like myself, who recognized the significance of bestowing upon them the most invaluable gift: education and enlightenment, all for the modest sum of $50 per month.

It's a gift that stands the test of time, impervious to corrosion or damage, irreplaceable in its essence, and only grows more valuable with each passing day.





As the "sponsor" facilitating Shanita's educational journey, I'm acutely aware that it's she who truly educates me.


My heart brims with gratitude for the invaluable lessons I've absorbed, continually enriched by her journey – lessons that have profoundly reshaped my life and imbued it with profound significance.


Dear Shanita, may you thrive and conquer your dreams.

I, along with 250 other supporters, stand unwaveringly by your side.


Lior


Lior Sperandeo Founder of Shanita
Shanita | 2023


For more information and to join the scholarship program, click here.


 


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