This article was first written for Dispatches magazine in Kuwait in September 2009.
I thought I would post it here and then write updates on Valley View...
It is the smiles I miss the most.
When I was younger I remember Glasgow using the phrase ‘Glasgow, smiles better’ as a slogan to attract tourists. Now, I am not going to debate the friendliness of one culture over another, but I have never meet such friendly people of those I encountered during my first visit to Uganda.
I have been back in Kuwait for almost two months, after a summer in Uganda and the most vivid memory that stays with me every day are the huge smiles and greeting from complete strangers that were thrown to you at every opportunity. Every day I had to pinch myself…how did I end up here?
Well, as I am sure you are aware, there are two things teachers are known for…1.complaining (!) and 2. our holidays (and of course we still manage to complain about those too!). I decided that I needed to make the most of my long summer and spent many hours on the internet(…this gave me pleny of opportunities to complain!)to investigate charities that would allow me to participate in a voluntary project.
I ended up choosing to go to Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, to work with TAORP, (The Aids Orphans Rescue Programme), which aims to improve life in communities which are affected by HIV/Aids.
In my time there I visited four schools in the district, but spent most of my time teaching in Valley View Primary School in Nakabango, near Jinja, which of course I grew very attached to.
My first day was one of the most emotionally draining experiences of my life. It is extremely difficult to describe the difficulties that pupils and teachers face every day in village schools like Valley View. We have all seen so many images on our screens in our sitting rooms of those living below the line of poverty and we have in some way become immune to these. When you are actually face to face with such sights, however, it is all too real. Valley View has 2 large wooden huts which are used to house four Primary classes and one nursery class. One class was being taught outside whilst a new hut was being built and backboards were creatively composed of a piece of wood nailed onto a tree. As a teacher it was quite a challenging experience teaching in these conditions.
Day one saw me rip my shirt on a nail sticking out of one of the huts and trip-up over the stones on the unclear ground of the classroom. It seemed that I couldn’t cope with simple movements around the school, when everybody else took it in their stride. I brushed off my knee, and embarrassment and got on with explaining what a PSP player was, which all pupils at BSK(the school that I was teaching at n Kuwait) keep mentioning in their writing!
I cried all through my journey home on the “matatu” (the local bus). I knew that I would get used to the lack of resources and the dark huts and the dangers of nails and rocks, but the thing that really made me emotional was…that I didn’t want to! Should the teachers and pupils HAVE to be housed in wooden huts, should they have to wait until they got home for their one meal of the day, should they have to, when in this world, even in the midst of what we think of as an economic crisis, there are so many with so much.
All this seems very sombre but believe me, the school is a place of learning, of fun, of laughter and of life. I, of course was a great amusement to both staff and pupils and the enthusiastic cries of ‘Muzungu!!’(white person) would start as soon as I got off my boda-boda every morning. Mr. Hope the head teacher was always popping his head into the classrooms to see what strange things the ‘muzungu’ was up to, to make the class roar with laughter…some times it was a simple as blowing bubbles with the ‘star’ pupils and other times it was the pupils’ realisation that I did not own my own cow, even though I was a rich teacher…hilarious!
My time was not only spent teaching or painting classrooms, but whatever I was doing I would sure to be laughing. I had been warned about ‘packing my patience ’ when visiting Africa, but I did not find this to be the case. The pace of life was indeed slower, but this was a welcomed relief after spending three years driving on the 30(the highway in Kuwait, where you put your life at risk every time you drive on it)! It is true that when you walk or drive around Africa you will see people talking, sitting, waiting; if you come by hours later they have not moved. They are not bored, they are just savouring life around them, they are not anxious to meet this deadline or that one. Riding on a mutatu is a perfect example: these local buses only leave the stage when they are completely full; a great way to reduce your carbon footprint; keep costs low and to have a genuine excuse for a late arrival to work! I could arrive at exactly the same time from one day to the next, sometimes I would only wait 10 minutes and others 45. Nothing for it but to enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of Africa awakening, sit back and smile.
When I did want to speed things up a little, I took advantage of that fact that I was in the adrenalin capital of East Africa. My favourite extreme experience would have to be rafting grade 5 rapids down the Nile. Very exhilarating, I would even put this above, but just ever so slightly above, trekking the famous mountain gorillas on my list of ‘Must Dos’ if visiting East Africa.
Uganda is so much more than poverty and sadness.
Valley View is of course one of many schools in a community that is ever growing, yet does not have the means to support its growth. The more I worked at Valley View the more I found out about the work that TAORP does in the area. At present there are 2.1 million children in Uganda have been orphaned due to HIV/Aids. There are many NGO organisations trying to help in areas the government is unable to …or ignores. My feelings on that first day at Valley View Primary were not forgotten, but they serve as a reminder of what I felt when I first arrived; I did not want the conditions of Valley View and the lack of resources to become a norm. I want to be emotionally involved, hopefully this way I will continue to support Mr. Hope and his school through the work of TOARP. Are you involved..?