Aaron Friedland at Semei Kakungulu High School in Uganda. Friedland has written the book The Walking School Bus, both as a first reader but also as a means to generate funds for students to access education. To get it published, he has started an Indiegogo campaign. (photo from Aaron Friedland)
During high school and elementary, “it was too easy for me to miss school,” said Aaron Friedland, currently a master’s in economics student at the University of British Columbia. In other parts of the world, children walk great distances to attain an education.
“Five years ago, I wrote a children’s book called The Walking School Bus,” Friedland told the Independent. It was “written with the realization that students in North America really take access to education for granted.”
It was on a trip to Uganda and South Africa, he said, when he really began to understand “the distances students had to walk to obtain an education and it was startling.”
Data from the Uganda National Household Survey Report 2009/2010 indicate that 5.5% of children aged 6-12 do not attend school because it is too far away, and the average high school-aged student must walk a distance of 5.1 kilometres to the nearest government school, more than 10 kilometres every day.
“I wanted the book to serve a purpose and the purpose was twofold. I wanted it to raise awareness … that students have to walk,” Friedland said about The Walking School Bus. “But I also wanted it to be a means to generate funds for students to access education and so, in that case, I’d say the school bus itself is metaphoric and it represents access to education.
“I submitted my manuscript to a publishing house just under a year ago and it was well received, so we started moving forward. But, in order to really have a book come to fruition, it costs quite a bit of money.”
On Nov. 9, Friedland started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 to cover the costs of publication, “everything surrounding the book,” which includes editors who specialize in children’s books and the illustrations. The campaign runs for 60 days.
The Walking School Bus has the capacity to “act as a first reader and, while it does have a picture book component, I’d also like it to serve as a coffee table book and a symbol for interfaith collaboration,” said Friedland.
Friedland’s concern about and involvement in interfaith work began in 2010, when J.J. Keki, a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya Jewish community and founder of the Delicious Peace fair-trade coffee cooperative, was invited to King David High School. Many students, including Friedland, “formed a pretty special bond with him.”
A bond that continued for Friedland. “When I was in first year [university] – while all my friends were going to Mexico and hilarious holidays – I went to Uganda with my family,” he said. “It was an amazing experience for us. We benefited so much more than the ‘recipient’ community. I recognized quite quickly that our aid had been negligible, but what it did for me was it provided me with a clear trajectory, which guided me for my four years at McGill.… At McGill, I started working with the Abayudaya community in Uganda, specifically with Delicious Peace…. What most amazed me – and my rationale for getting involved – was that they employed an interfaith collaboration model in which they united these previously disparate communities, the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, and formed one solid frontier in which they collaborated. In collaborating, there were a variety of positive spillover effects … you see higher levels of economic prosperity in that region on Nabagoya Hill than you do in comparable areas, you see how there is much more religious tolerance.”
About his experience in Uganda, Friedland, who has worked with UN Watch, said, “I have only seen the us-against-them mentality, and this is one of the first times I have ever seen this collaboration.”
About his most recent trip to Uganda, Friedland said, “Essentially, I have been working with three schools there as well as King David over here, kind of empowering their educational sector in the interfaith forum. And the three interfaith schools I’ve been working with are the three I’m the most motivated to help provide school buses.”
While interviewing students in Uganda, he said, “One of the girls that really stood out to me was a girl named Miriam, a lovely Jewish girl from [Semei Kakungulu] high school, an 18-year-old. She was telling me that, when she walks to school, she walks six kilometres in either direction. And, in extreme rainfall events, which is pretty much all of the rainy season, she will cross a river to school and, when she goes back, the river is often flooded and she cannot cross back, so that night she’ll spend at a friend’s.”
Friedland added, “When I think about the struggle that our counterparts make to go to school and we do not – we don’t have that drive. That is something I’d like to impress on people in North America. I’m not saying you have to feel bad, just appreciate your access and your ease in getting an education and take it seriously.”
The website thewalkingschoolbus.com was created by Friedland to support the book and bus project, and sales of T-shirts and various other merchandise go towards his efforts to increase access to education. He said, “I think, as a Jew in Vancouver, in a more liberalized society, that this is the model that we should be going for … we should be supporting interfaith.”
Friedland has most recently worked with a team to connect King David’s Marketing 12 class with the entrepreneurship class at Semei Kakungulu. About his master’s degree, he said he will likely be writing his thesis on “the positive economic spillover effects from interfaith collaboration and employing interfaith collaboration, as an economic development growth model in other places, particularly Israel.”
Zach Sagorin is a Vancouver freelance writer.