After the awesomeness of my first volunteer experience working at an animal sanctuary in Thailand back in 2010, two years later, I was looking for another chance to get involved with a program somewhere.
I stumbled across volunteeruganda.org, a teaching program based in south-west Uganda and I knew this was it.
In June 2012, I flew in to Entebbe International AP, hungover from the previous all-nighter in Istanbul and completely unprepared for what lay ahead. There, I was met by 30 other equally unprepared individuals and thus the adventure began.
Teaching was simultaneously exactly what I had expected and totally not what I had expected.
My tiny school, Kazuru, was nestled among the hills, in between a field of maize and one of pineapples. It was a rather gruelling yet beautifully scenic 25 minute trek from the volunteer lodge. Every morning, the three of us, wove through the jungle-y backyards of local families, greeting the curious toddlers peeking from the safety of doorways, Agandi, and the ancient grandmothers- who spent their days weaving mats on the doorstep, tried to catch the baby goats without getting speared by the horns of their protective mothers, and sung the patriotic songs taught to us by our students, while chasing each other up and down the tread-worn path. It was all very ‘The Sound Of Music’ but it’s totally what we did.
In terms of actually teaching, my over-confident self soon realised teaching an English, Maths and Science curriculum to kids who’s English is so poor they weren’t sure where their elbows were located in a game of ‘Simon Says’, is hard. And frustrating. And the whole no-resources-other-than-a chalk-board-and-chalk (sometimes not even chalk) makes it just that little bit more hard.
The first week, I was stressed. I felt way out of my depth. My class was so shy I couldn’t get a bloody word out of them, all my presuppositions about African kids being uber-excitable and singing and dancing incessantly were crushed and I had no idea what to do.
So began a phase of trial-and-error which continued until my last day teaching. I tried bingo, they were bored. I tried Pictionary, they called out the answers while they were drawing. I tried reading comprehension tasks, but although they could read the words out loud, they had no idea what they meant. Sometimes, bereft of ideas, I shamefully reverted to the local teaching style and just copied out the questions from the textbook onto the board and left them to work in silence.
I knew I needed to find a way to bring the class out of their shell, but how? I’m not the kind of person who enjoys performing and I’m always slightly conscious of making a knob out of myself, so I was nervous, to try and bridge the silent void. But, not wanting leave Uganda feeling like I hadn’t manage to connect with my kids at all, and in the words of Australia’s most celebrated criminal, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, I decided to “harden the f*@% up” and do something about it.
It started with a song (and I’ve never claimed to be a world-class singer), ‘Father Abraham’, and it involved a lot of limb-waggling. At first, the kids just looked, ever-silently at me, like I was a crazed lunatic mid-psychotic episode, but slowly the smiles spread, as they too began to hop around the classroom waving their right arm, then their left, then a leg, then hopping from left foot to right foot while still trying to sing this bizarre rhyme about Father Abraham’s seven sons. I started laughing. Watching them all try and simultaneously oscillate both arms and both legs while shouting (as opposed to singing) this random christian song which had absolutely nothing to do with arms and legs! I couldn’t even sing the words anymore I was laughing so bad, then they started laughing, and the whole thing just descended into a fit of giggles. And At last, the ice was broken!
From here, things improved dramatically. I was starting to get a feel for the kinds of activities that engaged my students. Turns out, they were absolutely mad about spelling bees! Where, before, I couldn’t get a single student to so much as raise a pinky finger to answer a question, during spelling time I had 15 little fists punching the air, the other arm thrusting an exercise book at me, accompanied by urgent whispers of “Teach-a! Teach-a!”. They also went crazy over this game I made up under the guise of an English Vocab Activity. I called it ‘Corners’ and it basically involved me giving each corner of the room a name (i.e. colours, fruits, vehicles) and screaming them as loud as I could, followed by a mad dash to the designated corner. Last one there, your out! Although this has probably never been said by any teacher, ever, my favourite moments were when my class just forgot about The Rules and acted like the kids they were.
There were a couple of times I may have slightly veered from the curriculum to have a little fun with my students. I came up with a lesson called ‘Conversational English’… which would have been more accurately titled ‘How To Talk Like A Bogan Australian’ and, by golly, did I get a few laughs out of that! I can’t imagine what the Ugandan teachers must have thought, lounging on the grass outside my classroom, as they listened to an absurd chorus of “HOWW AARE YAAA?” and “WHADDAYYAA DOOOOINN?” but, to be fair, I actually got this activity from a TEFL book, so I do not accept any responsibility for its lack of educational value!
There were also times when my frustration at their ingrained approach to learning got the better of me. I knew it wasn’t their fault that their primary focus was getting the answers correct by any means possible rather than actually learning how to deduce the answers. After all, this is often the only way they’ll pass their exams and avoid the Ground Hog Day fate of being a 5th grader forever, like many of their peers. But one day, after countless, repeated warnings they were under no circumstances allowed to look at their textbooks for answers during a times tables game, I caught one boy, Dominic, stuffing the torn out cover of one up his jumper and I lost my cool. Big time.
I stood over my class, gesturing wildly, as I launched into a furious lecture (of which they probably understood 5%) about the need to actually use their minds rather than reading the answers all the time or they were never going to learn anything and they would never get jobs and make money to support their families. I felt really horrible after that. I wasn’t angry at them I was just pissed off with the whole bloody system. To make it up to them, we spent the rest of the afternoon playing games.
When, all too soon, our last day of teaching rolled around I wasn’t ready to leave. I had only just begun to create an effective routine with my class and identify the things we needed to start working on to really improve not only their English but their learning skills. I was overcome with this feeling of fraudulence. I had rode in to this school thinking myself a white knight in shining armour, single-handedly paving the way for the next generation of Ugandan professionals, only to pick up and abandon them the moment any progress was made. And now, these kids would have to start all over again with a new teacher, and what if the new teacher was shit, and more time was lost not learning anything.
I left, in the midst of an ethical crisis, vowing that next time I would be far more prepared and commit far more time and far more resources.
It wasn’t until many months later that my guilty conscience was appeased. A Facebook post by the organisation, Volunteer Uganda:
Volunteer Uganda 2012 in numbers:
8000 lessons taught to 2000 children and 400 teachers from
over 20 schools in southwest Uganda.
Made possible thanks to the 159 volunteers from 11 groups working
on 6 different projects, all with the same aim:
To support communities in Uganda in their efforts to rise out of
poverty to help bring about permanent, sustainable development
It is by no means a perfect solution, a 100% fix, because there isn’t one. Obviously. There never will be. It’s just a small step in the right direction. And I realise and accept that most of the kids in my class still won’t go to college, or even secondary school, but what I now understand is that what has been achieved by the organisation over the last few years is a shift in attitude. Education has become a much more urgent priority. The sunken wheels have begun turning.