The impulsive decision to make a trip to Africa was made shortly after an unsolicited email arrived in my inbox about volunteering in Uganda. I was already considering attending an Open Learning Exchange conference in neighboring Rwanda, so I decided to “volunteer” (by paying the prescribed fee to IFRE volunteers), and in no time at all a two week stay at a small and cheerful school was arranged for me, timed to follow on from the four day OLE conference in Kigali, Rwanda. It was an incredible experience. I found it amazing that the children learned as much as they did with almost no teaching resources (like reading books, or paper to draw on . . ), and (corny as it sounds), how well-behaved and infectiously happy the children were, as you can see from the videos further down the page.
The school consisted of two small buildings made from handmade bricks, divided into a total of six rooms, four of which were classrooms, in a village 13km from Kampala, the capital of Uganda . Electricity is not connected yet, and water was fetched from a nearby well in 20 litre yellow plastic containers. It was attended by about 50 children, most under 10 years of age. Not all the children were Ugandan – there were 2 refugee sisters from the Congo, and another girl from Somalia, (not a popular country in Uganda, after a series of terrorist bombings by Somalians). I had a class of 12 students of various ages, with a median age of about 8. The spartan rooms were not a surprise, though the neat uniforms, complete with shoes and long socks were. My first allocated task was sharpening pencils with a broken razor blade. Rubbers were shared – usually it was a rubber from the end of a pencil, often only one between all the students. A teacher commenced a lesson on a board, giving students a series of questions to answer, and from then I was on my own to do whatever I thought might be a good idea.
All lessons are in English, so students do all their learning while learning a second language. They learn English words at the same time as they learn the alphabet, with our standard “A is for Apple, Q is for Queen” examples of words using the letters. (While mangoes, avocados, pineapples and bananas are plentiful in Uganda, apples are more difficult to obtain and expensive).
A typical format for a lesson given by the African teacher was to write a set of questions on the board, which were then read aloud by the entire class together. Students then copied the questions into their books, along with the answer. Students who finished early just sat and waited patiently up to 30 minutes for others to finish. I started handing out felt pens and paper to these students from a notepad that I had. That was when I discovered that at this school paper is a luxury item, so the opportunity to do free drawing with felt pens was a special treat.
The school had approximately 50 books, and reading or even just looking at the books was a very popular activity. I was literally greeted by a sea of smiles whenever I brought the books into the room. What was interesting was that these children self-organized into groups without any intervention on my part. More skilled readers would read to other class members, while in another part of the room a small group sang the rainbow song and pointed to the words in the book as they sang.
These young students were also responsible for cleaning their room – sweeping, moving the furniture, and mopping the floor with a tub of water and a rag.
What did I do? Sometimes we went through vocabulary words such as pairs of opposite words, or themed words. Sometimes we went through tenses – I am walking, yesterday I walked, tomorrow I will walk. Sometimes we brainstormed to think of as many words as possible starting with a particular letter. I then tried getting them to combine some of the words into a sentence, but it was too difficult a task for most of them. Sometimes we did maths, ranging from venn diagrams to counting in 5’s. Sometimes I read stories, sometimes I told them fairy stories, such as Goldilocks and the three bears, selected for the opportunity to repeat simple phrases. I’m not sure they knew what a bear was, but they seemed to understand the story well enough. Initially I was concerned about giving them culturally appropriate material, but in practice I knew very little about their culture beyond the fact that it was primarily an agricultural community, and I was told that life expectancy is about 45. (According to the world bank it’s now 53). I discovered that these children were more familiar with my culture than I was with theirs. They already had an action song for Sleeping Beauty, and had verses to “The Wheels on the Bus” that I hadn’t heard before (The daddies on the bus say “Don’t do that”, and the children on the bus go wriggle, wriggle wriggle). Sometimes my class understood my English instruction, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t understand their strong African accents. I never learned why the smaller children from the younger grades were fascinated by the backs of my elbows, which they liked to touch.
The school provided two meals a day for the students. “Breakfast” was a small snack, often served with sweet black tea, although on my first day at the school it was “porridge”, made by thickening water with cornflour and sweetened with sugar. The main mean of the day was usually variations of rice, matooke (steamed green bananas, mashed and tasting a little like mashed potato), and beans. Sometimes the bland matooke was was enhanced with a nutty paste.
My short two week stay was an unforgettable roller coaster ride between delight with the eagerness and enthusiasm and happiness of the children I met, frustration with the challenge of providing quality teaching with limited resources, and amazement that some students had learned as much as they had in spite of the difficult conditions. A parcel of children’s books is now heading their way.