This OZY Genius Is Making Education in Uganda Delicious
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Joel Baraka wants to give every student a chance to achieve their dreams.
By Liam Jamieson
In every corner of the world — rich, poor, rural, urban — if there are kids, there are games. Crucial for developing skills, making friends and learning, the power of games is well understood by Joel Baraka. The 23-year-old OZY Genius Award winner has bridged the gap between play and education at home in Uganda through his academic board game 5 STA-Z, bringing fun and learning to a community that has been deprived of adequate educational resources and opportunities.
Growing up in western Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Camp after his family fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bakara saw education as the path for a better life. Neither of Joel’s parents received any formal education, but they encouraged him to pursue one, saying, “When you start going to school, make sure you work hard, and maybe you can get an office job,” he recalls. Frustrated by the constant work required to maintain his home’s grass-thatched roof, easily damaged by wind, rain and rodents, Baraka set his sights on becoming an engineer in hopes that he could one day build a more durable house for his family. And he’s stayed focused on his ambitious goals, earning scholarships to study at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa for high school and now at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he is pursuing a degree in civil engineering.
But his studies are not his only priority. “It’s the community that has shaped me,” he says. As one of the lucky few to make it out of his refugee camp to receive a higher education, “I’ve always felt like it’s my responsibility to give back.”
Starting in high school, Baraka gave back through the same channel that had brought him success: education. Whenever he returned home from South Africa, Baraka volunteered as a teacher’s aid at his former primary school “I realized children in the front were very concentrated while the ones in the back were doing their own things,” he recalls. And with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:154 and a schoolbook-to-student ratio of 1:8 at the refugee camp, the obstacles for primary school students to advance are extremely steep.
Eager to inspire the next generation of Kyangwali students, Baraka seized on a study tool some might dismiss as counterproductive: games. “When you’re a child, it’s very easy to dream or hear your parents tell you you can be anything, you can be a doctor, and that excitement is a good feeling,” he says. “But children can lose track, they can lose motivation. Not every child gets excited about math, not every child gets excited about social studies, so to me it was more of a ‘How do I support children with their learning, but how do I blend in what they resonate with?’ And that’s play.”
Soon after beginning his college courses in Madison, Baraka created the board game 5 STA-Z, a product of his startup social enterprise My Home Stars, and the result of working closely with the teachers from his refugee camp’s primary school. Their involvement, notes Kate McCleary, associate director of UW’s Global Engagement Office, was key. “Joel’s work and participation has ensured that this project is truly being done with community input and support, utilizing local resources and expertise.” Baraka first mentioned his idea for an educational game while having dinner with McCleary and her spouse during his first semester in Madison. “His organization and game are both very much informed by his own lived experience,” she adds.
Like adding spinach to a child’s smoothie, 5 STA-Z is designed to give students the important stuff — the core curriculum of Ugandan education using modularized packages of English, science, math and social studies — while also being delicious. Incorporating dice-rolling chance and opponent-attacking jeopardy, the game engages kids and at the same time levels the playing field by encouraging students to participate even when it’s covering a subject they may be struggling in. And because each 5 STA-Z can accommodate five players, “if you bring 50 games, that means you can engage 250 children in groups,” Baraka explains. Rather than sitting passively while a teacher lectures in an overcrowded classroom, the students learn by interacting with one another.
When COVID-19 hit last year, 5 STA-Z took on even greater importance. While Baraka and other students across the U.S. adjusted to virtual classes, the picture in the Kyangwali Camp was very different. Back home, “people don’t even have phones, don’t have laptops, so online learning is almost impossible,” he points out. With many primary schools forced to close and no options for remote learning, what had been a tool for overwhelmed teachers to keep students engaged became a lifeline for children to continue their education during a protracted shutdown.
Teachers reached out to Baraka asking for more games while schools were shuttered. Adjusting to rigorous engineering courses online, “it was hard,” he says, “but the need to do it was even more important.” Travel restrictions meant he couldn’t return home, so he recruited the founder of the Ugandan nonprofit Donate A Book 256, Nelson Mugambwa, to the My Home Stars team. Megambwa became Baraka’s contact on the ground in Uganda, in charge of creating game packages and finding domestic manufacturers in Kampala. Another speed bump appeared when they realized they didn’t have enough money to meet the demand for the games. Baraka started a Gofundme, which raised over $12,000 in one month and boosted their production and distribution efforts. After partnering with two primary schools and providing games to over 600 students, more schools began to reach out, and Baraka was able to secure more funding, winning his university’s Wisconsin Without Borders award.
Looking ahead, Baraka is focused on graduating from UW and starting a career as an engineer in the construction industry for a few years to hone his engineering skills and build connections in the industry. “By then my hope is to come back and run My Home Stars full time,” he says. “But if by next year things are looking good and My Home Stars has grown to a level that it needs my full attention, I don’t see why I wouldn’t immediately graduate and run My Home Stars full time, especially if I see that I can continue to make an impact,” he adds. The project will always be personal for him. “Some of these kids are my neighbors,” he says. “It’s so amazing to know that I’m helping children from home.”
- Liam Jamieson, OZY Author Contact Liam Jamieson