One Hundred Students and a Piece of ChalkBy Mary Gormley, Kristina Troy, Aoife Marren and Emer O’Reilly (Student Teaching Volunteers June 2014)
Aoife Marren going back to basics with a piece of chalk and blackboard
On June 5th five wide eyed 4th Year Science Education students and 25 other volunteers headed for the small town of Nansana in Uganda. For many of us this day was the result of months of fundraising but somehow, even at the airport the reality still had not hit us. It was not until heavily armed guards greeted us at the airport in Kampala that we realised where we were going. Outside the airport as we poured into small minivans it quickly became apparent that in Uganda seatbelts and indeed general road safety did not exist. As the rickety vans sped down dirt roads, constantly swerving to avoid other vehicles, animals and children, the sound of hysterical laughter could be heard from many of the volunteers as reality started to dawn on us all. After a short while we reached our home for the next three weeks. As I carefully tucked myself under my mosquito net on that first night I felt entirely overwhelmed but tremendously excited for everything the next three weeks would hold.
The following day the seven secondary school teachers among the volunteers were assigned a nearby high school called Victoria High. We had been invited to a staff meeting, which began three hours late due to unbelievable monsoon rains. The issues discussed by Ugandan teachers were poor pay, challenges faced by teachers and discipline issues. This could have been any staffroom in an Irish school. However, as the discussion continued, problems such as malnourished students, lack of food for teachers and corrupt school management painted a much bleaker picture. The majority of the staff were delighted to see our fresh Irish faces and seemed genuinely interested in how the education system was run in Ireland. The school community was phenomenally welcoming and on that first day they refused to let us leave without eating the ‘special’ food they had cooked for us, their visitors. That evening, each of the seven secondary teachers discovered why it might not be so wise to accept the culinary offerings in a Ugandan school: until our stomachs adapted we might need to think twice before accepting a ‘special lunch’ the next time!
My initial impressions of Uganda were incredibly positive. From the moment we stepped of the plane our senses were assaulted by things we had never experienced before. Vibrant colours and exotic smells were the daily norms. However, the everyday struggles of the Ugandan people were heart-breaking to see and taking in this poverty and extreme hardship did not get easier as the trip went on. But from day one, right until our final day, the people of Uganda welcomed us with open arms. Looking back, I realised that in those first few days I fell in love with Uganda and now as I sit in my Dublin flat I am confident that I will return in the not too distant future.
Teaching in Uganda brought many surprises that I did not expect. Before we left for the three week placement we were told about the approx. 80 students that we would have to teach per class; we were told about the lack of resources that the schools had and we learnt about the privilege it was to attend school as a lot of families could not afford it. It was the little things that seem to be not worth mentioning that surprised me most. First of all, the lack of resources was not an overstatement. Most classrooms had only a blackboard and one piece of chalk. Surprisingly, the school had a small science lab with limited equipment and chemicals, but it was clear when we did use them in one class that they were not used very often and none of the students ever got a chance to use them themselves.
The methods of teaching in Uganda were very different to our experiences of an Irish classroom. It was all about transmitting information to the students, which mainly meant copying from a book to the blackboard for students to take down. The students were used to learning definitions and memorizing information but when asked to expand or explain, they were unable to do so. On the surface they understand a topic, but once you dive beneath the surface it is clear that they never asked the common questions asked by Irish students such as “Why?” Using the many different methodologies we had learned in our Education lectures and in our Teaching Practice, we set about planning for and teaching in surroundings that were very far removed from what we had become accustomed to.
Another thing that surprised me was that even in Uganda it was so essential for us as Irish and Ugandan teachers to work together. Even though we were bringing with us our knowledge from teaching in a developed country, some of the topics that we were teaching the students were not on the Irish curriculum so we needed the Ugandan teachers to help us to teach them. It was this relationship that not only enabled us to bring a different way of thinking to the students, but through it we gained insights about teaching and shared a new way of thinking with the teachers. The relationship we built up with these teachers was similar to that of any staffroom with everyone picking up ideas from everyone else.
On our first day in Victoria High it was commented on that we were seven female Science and Maths teachers. This to the people of Uganda was seen to be very strange as females did not normally excel in Science and Maths there. Because of this we were asked by the Dean of Studies and the Principal of the school to talk to all of the girls about studying Science and Maths in university and to promote the subjects within the school. I found it to be a fantastic experience as the girls were very eager to hear all about our studies and what it is like to study Science and Maths in Ireland. Some of them were very high achieving students and wanted to be doctors and lawyers but did not seem to know what subjects they would need to be good at to excel in such professions. I feel that us talking to them was a very worthwhile experience for the students as young girls need role models in their lives and for the first time I felt like a positive role model to these young students.
My most vivid memory from our three weeks teaching was our last class. We were making posters with the equivalent of 3rd year Irish students on the water cycle. It was an amazing sight and being very aware of the fact that this could be my last time standing in front of a class of Ugandan students, it became clear that they had come a long way in the three weeks. From the shy students that would only ever answer a question with a definition, we were now looking at engaged and energetic students who were now asking “Why?”
As a result of what we had seen on television and what we had been told or heard, we all had some idea of what Uganda would be like. For us all, none of these expectations came true on arrival. The heavy and polluted air that met us, contrasted to the fresh air I had imagined; the green grass and heavy rain showers meant we saw more rain in Uganda than had fallen in the same period at home in Ireland; the energetic children that sang and chanted each time they saw us did not compare with the lifeless images portrayed to us though the media. Walking around the town of Nansana, surrounded by small businesses, overwhelming amounts of traffic and busy, happy people, we began to really experience life in Uganda. The people of Uganda were happy and we rarely heard them complain of their hardships and trouble. Life in Uganda carries on with people taking the best from each day as it arrives. It was a pleasant contrast to the complaining nature of the Irish people where even the weather, no matter what it is, can become a reason for bad humours and giving out! From the outside looking in, Nansana seemed like a place where life went on and people lived in the moment, happy and grateful for what they had.
Luckily, as part of the trip with Nurture Africa we had the opportunity to enter the homes of some of the children on their programme and speak with them and their parents or guardians. Being on the inside of these walls shone a whole other light on the lives of the Ugandan people. The poverty they experienced suddenly became a reality to us. It is easy to watch and see the good, but being in the middle of their lives, was quite overwhelming. As I sat on the floor of what I can only describe as a small shack and spoke with the family of nine who lived in this confined space, a wave of guilt came over me. They thanked me for my fundraising and described how I was helping to supply their four-year-old daughter with medication to allow her to live with HIV. I watched as the young child’s tablets were distributed; a few tiny pills were what kept her alive. I felt not only guilty, but angry when I realised the difference such a small amount of money can make and how in Ireland we waste our money on unnecessary “things”. This family didn’t need much; all they asked for was help to keep their family healthy.
It was only with the opportunity to visit some of the businesses set up thanks to the Sustainable Livelihoods Programme that we regained our hope and enthusiasm for the work we were doing. This programme provides families with small loans to set up a business so that they can provide a steady income for their families. The businesses were small, some selling fruit and veg, others cooking big pots of dinner which you could purchase, others had souvenir shops or sold coal. They were small businesses and when all takings were put together and divided amount the group, each family received a steady income. I thought it was an ingenious plan and have continued to speak highly of the programme since returning home. It allows people to do basic things like feed their family and send their children to school; educating their children so that they may get a job later in life and hopefully break the poverty cycle. Maybe that is being too optimistic, but keeping faith and high spirits is something Uganda has taught me. Apart from all the fantastic experiences it provided me with in terms of teaching, the trip has also changed my life outside of that. It has changed the way I think and the way I approach life. Going to Uganda, my job was to teach children – I never dreamed I would be the one doing the learning.
Our final 6 am morning call for school was also our final day in Uganda. Entering the gates of Victoria High, we were all experiencing mixed emotions about saying goodbye to students and staff members we had worked with over the past few short weeks. As we taught our last classes for the day, we were overwhelmed by the response we received from students as we broke the news of our departure. In each class we were bombarded with students handing us letters, hugs goodbye, asking us for signatures and cheers to show their appreciation for all of our work. It was not until we received such an applause did we realise that seven young teachers from Ireland had made a big impression in so short space of time. We received such hearty goodbyes because we showed students and teachers a different way to learn, methodologies that made learning enjoyable and memorable. To see the transformation that some students made from working as individuals to working in groups, having confidence to answer questions or even coming up to the board to write answers down was the highlight of our teaching experience and it made our send-off that bit more emotional.
Despite the constant repetition of the word ‘last’ throughout our final day whether it was referring to our last lunch in Nurture Africa HQ or our last walk through Nansana town, the reality of leaving Nansana was not sinking in. In our own ways, each one of us had became very accustomed to living in Nansana and many had become somewhat settled into their surroundings. At our final debriefing session, it became evident how the experience had affected us in many ways especially by making friends for life, not just with people from Ireland but with many in Uganda. This long distance friendship was marked by staff of Nurture Africa who wanted to show how much we touched their hearts by presenting us with artwork as well as sweet treats and kind words of thanks that will stay with us all. As the debriefing came to a close, many tried to disguise their tears with their sunglasses while for others, the tears refused to stop. And so, the pack of thirty volunteers regrouped for our ‘last’ photograph together as the sun setting over Nansana shone over us, as well as taking a glance around the Nurture Africa grounds, parts of which we had built.
Once the bags were packed, we sat in the gazebo until late in the night reminiscing about our time in Uganda. We all agreed that Nansana had touched us in different ways and people’s optimism and willingness to return in the future highlighted how positive this adventure had been. The arrival of our bus for the airport followed by several hours flying over seas, soon punctured the bubble that we had been living in for weeks. Family and friends eagerly awaiting our arrival in Dublin airport were met with thirty tired and emotional volunteers each ready to spill every detail of their rollercoaster experience in Uganda.
To this very day I cannot describe my experience of Uganda in a manner that does justice to the country. A camera cannot capture half the beauty of Uganda and its people – it is a place you need to experience yourself.