This article was written in my student days and originally printed in the Leeds Student newspaper on 27/2/04.
A hygiene freak, I hated hot weather, emitted impressively high-pitched squeals in the presence of most insects, and didn’t like children much. Initially, teaching in a rural Ugandan school didn’t seem particularly alluring. Nevertheless, I’d dropped out of University ten days before Fresher’s Week with an unprecedented desire to do take a year out to do something radical and worthwhile. That very day, I signed up for a four volunteer month project with the reassuringly expensive ‘Africa Venture’ gap year company. Over the next ten months I raised about £5000 by working for IKEA and by writing off to companies, trust funds and millionaires. Recent lottery winners and Tom and Rita Naylor were kind enough to donate most of the costs.
As the days ticked away, I began taking a vaguely dodgy anti-malarial called Larium. The ‘Larium Victim Support Groups’ on the internet and tales of lasting brain damage and depression did little to reassure me about the 90% effective one-a-week tablets. Already I’d learnt that hard way that taking them on an empty stomach was a painfully bad idea. Half a dozen jabs and two days of packing later, I was set to go – my nervous inexperience reflected in the 40kg suitcase I packed containing ‘just the essentials’ (including 8 bottles of shower gel, 30 packs of polo mints, 6 tubes of toothpaste, washing up gloves, thesaurus and washing line.)
21 of us were to be teaching in pairs across Uganda , and preceding the placement was a week on safari in Kenya and a week of training. The safari was admittedly superb, although it certainly emphasised my position as the five-star wimp of the group. Rumours of our camp being attacked by elephants in the night, a vicious dispute with a fruit bat, nightly ‘mozzie watch’ in our tent and getting our safari truck stuck in the middle of the Masai Mara at nightfall caused all manner of stress and panic. “Come along Tom”, said my teaching partner Dave, from Suffolk , “anyone would think you were in a third world country!”
Over time, I developed an improved tolerance to unreasonably large creepy-crawlies and achieved an impressive capacity to live almost exclusively on jam and bread. The reliably bland and stodgy local cuisine explained the lack of East African restaurants back home. Nevertheless, Kenya was certainly a feast for the eyes, if nothing else. It wasn’t particularly our close encounters with big cats, elephants, giraffes or zebra that impressed me. Having seen them for years on television, they just didn’t astound me as much as the rarer safari offerings. The highly comical warthog, the dinosaur-like monitor lizard and a brief visit from a 5ft stork were much more entertaining. The panoramic views of nothingness and the glittering night sky were equally impressive to my city dwelling self.
A fortnight later, after much ‘group bonding’, we caught the Akamba bus to Uganda . The change in scenery and climate over the ten hour journey was surprising. I always figured that neighbouring Kenya and Uganda would be practically identical – but Uganda was more humid, with more lush landscapes and red, dusty roads. We arrived at Bujagali Falls campsite, where a few weeks later we would be rafting down some of the best grade-5 rapids in the world. Dave and I left for our school in Mbale after eagerly devouring an English-style breakfast. Our host and Puff Daddy lookalike Brother Prosper greeted us at the rural Catholic Boys’ school – St Anthony’s and took us directly to our new ultra-humble abode, ironically christened ‘The White House’ – also appropriate since we were ‘mzungus’ (white men).
As we were left to settle in, I hastily began to plan the quickest way back to England , whilst Dave inspected the three-roomed shack, complete with ‘occasional’ electricity, single cooking hob and the long-drop latrine from hell. Much could be written about the unique eco-system, repugnant smells and unidentified creatures of our long-drop – but the descriptive limitations of English and good taste restrict me from giving an accurate explanation. The walls in our new home didn’t touch the corrugated-tin roof, meaning that during the night, bats would circulate and occasionally urinate on Dave’s face, much to my amusement. Meanwhile the various outdoor wildlife continued to keep us both awake, particularly the boisterous turkeys and the ‘bullfrog chorus’ with their late night karaoke sessions. In addition to the anti-malarials, our repellent coil burners, impregnated mosquito nets, ‘Doom’ room spray and repellent gel meant that only the most double-hard-brave of parasites would be feeding tonight. (Yet despite our extensive efforts, and against all the odds, I still got malaria 10 months after coming back to the UK ). Meanwhile, the constant heat was great for our solar showers and tans, but caused strange black ‘rolls’ of dirt to be produced whenever the skin was rubbed. It paid to have a sense of humour about hygiene and illness, wearing underwear for 5 days running and making 12 visits to the latrine with dysentery in one night are things you have to laugh at, or you’ll cry.
Sufficient to say, I stayed in Mbale and began to enjoy myself after a month or so. We taught for a few hours each day and were free to meet up with the rest of the group and see the country at weekends. Over several weeks, we went trekking in the beautiful Sipi Falls , shopping in the busy, colourful markets of Kampala , swimming on the equator, saw chimpanzees on Ngamba Island , we relaxed on the paradisiacal Banda Island and visited the source of the Nile . Each destination was reached via ‘matatu taxi’ – 15-seater Toyota Lite Ace vans which usually accommodated about 25 passengers, 3 small children, a dozen chickens and a random goat. Drivers travel at great speed and pack more people in to make more money. For shorter journeys, bicycles with a seat on the back wheel are ideal – ‘boda-boda’ sounds lethal but is good fun and cheap…
…In between our exploits came the important stuff – the teaching. Our classes ranged from 30-100 pupils grouped by ability rather than age, all of whom rapidly quashed the myth that African children are well-behaved and ‘hang on your every word’. Some children, and their parents, were nightmarishly lazy about their education; some were impressively intelligent, whilst others were simply beyond help. English is the national language of Uganda (also home to 52 local languages), so most Ugandans speak broken English as a second language. If any of the pupils ever wanted a good job, they would require a good standard of English; our challenge was to improve their grasp, whilst negotiating the rather sturdy language barrier. Learning some Lugwere helped a great deal.
r lessons remained light, focused and were based on ‘chalk and talk’ – the kind of method they were familiar with. Discipline was maintained via public and regular canings, another colonial leftover. The male teachers were especially trigger-happy with administering, sometimes random, beatings. We preferred a ‘make-‘em-laugh’ approach to maintaining class control, although found that wielding a cane as a visual threat, but obviously not using it, was an effective deterrent. In fact, my favourite punishment was making the class clown wash my clothes. Finding the perpetrator when upset occurs was never a challenge as Ugandan children seem to have no loyalty– if we needed to know who stole a pen, all the class would laugh, shout and point out the unlucky suspect.
From the government to newspapers and even the other teachers – no-one spoke perfect English, so we eventually stopped teaching about grammar and punctuation and concentrated on vocabulary. Sometimes we would do lessons on other random topics such as World War II (which was news to them), world geography (always a big hit) and astronomy (which included concepts such as the planets which the class actually refused to believe). I recall explaining that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, only for one of our innocent students to shout out “Master Tom, is he still there?”
When we weren’t teaching, we often found ourselves in meetings – which always ran on ‘African time’, meaning they might start 4 hours after being scheduled. Notorious for bureaucracy, Ugandans would be happy to have meetings about meetings, and the first 20 minutes is always spent planning the meeting. Indeed, time has little meaning in Uganda , and it’s the same story for distance and direction. “Is Jinja town far from here” means nothing, as for Africans, something that is a day’s walk away is not far. If one were to enquire whether you “can catch a taxi from here”, the answer will always be yes, regardless of the truth, as apparently Africans simply hate to disappoint. At least you can always depend on African honesty, with charming bluntness during a very bad hair day, a fellow teacher remarked, “Tom, you do not look nice”.
Stereotypes about Westerners are also understandingly widespread, thanks to TV and colonialism. Trying to convince a native that you’re not quite as rich as they think you are, or that we have beggars in England too, leads only to laughter, disbelief and another casual request for cash. They also seem to think that all Britons have government ties and can easily ‘pull strings’ to allow them to return with you; whilst the idea that you’re personally acquainted with all Western celebrities (Beckham, the Queen etc…) seems perfectly reasonable. Listing misconceptions about back home was one of the things which kept us sane. For example, concepts such as double glazing, homosexuality, food shopping (instead of growing), unpredictable weather, gap years, authorities not carrying guns, our lack of ‘Boda-Bodas’, vegetarianism or the idea that teachers can be jailed for caning a child were all either hilarious, beyond their comprehension or both. Everyone we met was curious about Britain , and each one of them dreamed of coming here. It was a bit heartbreaking, in a way.
As we became more integrated into the community, the true realities of African life began to emerge. Being a Catholic School , Brother Prosper was reluctant to let us teach about HIV and AIDS, which are endemic across the continent. We had to respect his wishes, even when we learnt that a family of four of our boys lost both parents to AIDS during our visit. We took the bereaved family to the city and treated them to a few games of pool and a burger bar.
Towards the end of the placement we were invited to witness fascinating spectacle of the mass adult circumcision festival, which occurs every two years. We stood on a Pepsi truck and saw thousands of Ugandans celebrating, marching and dancing. Each year, 25,000 teenage boys mark their entry into adulthood by this, often brutally unhygienic, public procedure, which includes no anaesthesia. Although female circumcision is now illegal, it continues for males from the ‘Bugisu’ tribes and is based on passages from the Old Testament. As we left the festival I found myself in the middle of a crowded, unscheduled public circumcision, a guy around my age was circumcised right in front of me with a blunt butter knife. He bore the pain for five minutes, despite it being clear that the procedure had gone wrong and his manhood was effectively fully ‘skinned’. I left, feeling somewhat queasy and helpless, with an hour of video film for some painful future viewing.
All the clichés about friendly faces everywhere, in-your-face poverty, random wandering cows, hustle, bustle and endless hassle are all true, some more than others. For example, I didn’t fear pillage and hostility around ever corner, but actually felt safer in the village than I did back home. East Africa is a land of contrasts – Kenya has gorgeous, sprawling national parks in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, amazing beaches and wildlife, as well as the world’s biggest slum, Kibera. Meanwhile, landlocked Uganda also has a violent history but despite the ongoing disputes in the North, is a peaceful, beautiful and welcoming place – great for young travellers and eco-tourists. With its lush terrain and hard-working people, it should be a prosperous country – but due to ignorance, debt, corruption, drought and unfair trade laws, it remains one of the worlds poorest.
* Due to HIV/AIDs concerns, the government is now trying to prohibit circumcision.
* Unfortunately, our schools were dropped from the ‘Africa Venture’ project.
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