This summer I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a teacher training fellowship in Uganda with Limited Resource Teacher Training (LRTT). During my time there, I was able to lead workshops and provide individual professional development to elementary school teachers for whom professional development is not an ordinary part of teaching life, as it is in the US. Here, although we tend to roll our eyes in the teacher’s lounge and complain about the current PD topic, there is at least acknowledgement that teaching is a skill that requires continual updating and renewal of practice. In Uganda, the schools struggle for basic resources. Even the one chalkboard eraser in the school I worked in had to be shared among twelve classrooms, so systematic teacher training is not a common practice.
‘The teachers I was privileged to interact with sought to perfect their craft with only a piece of chalk and their desire to help their students to make a better world for themselves.’
When I attempt to distill my LRTT experience into a single memory, there are so many images that come rushing into my mind. Could the defining image for me be the smiling children singing to me every time I entered their classroom? Or the picture of the teaching staff sitting in the dirt-floored teacher lounge eating a lunch of posho and beans? Or perhaps the colorful dresses of the village women walking along the packed red clay roads carrying baskets full of tomatoes, or mangos, or masses of tea balanced upon their heads? Or maybe the magnificent landscapes of banana trees, villages, mountains, and crater lakes? While these images will remain with me always, the one picture that returns to me again and again when I contemplate my month in Uganda is that of two men on a motorbike with a very fat pig balanced between them…presumably on their way to the market in the village. Our van erupted in delight when we passed that boda-boda along the bumpy road to our mountainside lodge in Kanungu. (Boda-boda is the word in the local language for motorbike. Apparently, one can ride from border to border on just one tank of gas…thus boda-boda.) We all hurried to grab our cameras and cell phones in order to capture the unexpected scene. We referred back to the incident frequently during our weeks together, and there was some disagreement as to whether the poor creature was living or dead as it lay trussed between the two men who were transporting it. (As for me, I am pretty sure I saw its foot twitch.) That particular image returned to my thoughts often as I contemplated my time with the teachers in Uganda. Because it seemed to have so captivated my mind, I began to undertake a kind of forensic examination of it in an attempt to excavate some insight hiding there. And I believe I have begun to unearth the message my subconscious was trying to send me.
Life in the rural Uganda that I came to know during my admittedly short month in that beautiful country is very difficult by western standards. Lack of money and resources and education and infrastructure means that people have to work extremely hard to make a life for themselves and for their families. The teachers I was privileged to interact with sought to perfect their craft with only a piece of chalk and their desire to help their students to make a better world for themselves. At night, they returned home to prepare their lessons, tend their livestock, carry water home from the village well, work in their gardens, wash their clothing in buckets, and prepare their evening meal… if they were fortunate enough to have one. Several of the teachers lived at the school during the week because they were unable to afford the boda-boda transport fee that would return them to their home every evening. One such gentleman had a new daughter at home whom he was only able to see once a week. He spoke wistfully of missing her very much, but was passionate about working hard so she would have more opportunities in her life. Others I met during my stay lived equally focused lives. My birding guide for an adventure at Lake Bunyonyi worked for the resort full time and also found time for his “project”…an orphanage he had founded in his village. When I questioned him about how he had come to know so much about birds, he pointed to his precious tools of the birding trade, binoculars and field guide, and he told me he had learned about birds and had became a guide after purchasing his equipment and studying the field guide. Then he asked a question of his own. He wanted to know how much I had spent on my own equipment. I had to think a bit before giving him an estimate of $300. His next question to me stopped me a bit short. “Yes”, he said, “but how much did you have to sacrifice for it?” A fair question coming from a man living in a country where the average annual income is under $150. My $300 had come at no real sacrifice to me. I have every material thing I need and almost every material thing I want. The cost of my equipment represented two years of income for the average Ugandan. When we spoke of his orphanage, he explained that in order to make a better future for his children, there must be sacrifice. The sacrifice of the cost of equipment and his time allowed him to earn money as an expert guide and thus have more resources for his “project”. The theme of sacrifice was one I heard again and again.
The founder and director of the school where I worked during my fellowship with LRTT was a somewhat intimidating gentleman. He and his wife decided after retiring from the classroom as teachers, that they would spend their retirement building a new school from the ground up. He was rightly very proud of his school and demanded excellence from everyone associated with it. I sat through a staff meeting where he took all of his (very excellent and dedicated) teachers to task about not getting to school early enough every morning to “get their minds and hearts ready for their children”. When he spoke, we all listened. Intently. “We must always remember that we are professional teachers. We must always work hard and sacrifice for our children.”
It seemed that everyone I came to know at anything other than just a surface level had a very similar story. After my LRTT experience, I was joined in Uganda by my husband for a safari. After days of conversation with our driver, we learned that he had degrees in both microfinance and business administration. He had used his skills to work with a company that provided education to families about health and sanitation, family planning, and working together with other villagers to improve the quality of their lives, but the income was not enough to support his own family. So now he works as a driver and, on the side, continues his “passion work”, as he calls it. One of the safari lodges my husband and I stayed in was in a beautiful but remote location overlooking the Nile. The manager of the place was also an excellent cook, and I joked that she should leave that place and open up a restaurant. She very seriously told me that she would never leave, because the profits from that lodge were used to support the school and orphanage next door. The idea of sacrificing in the present for the betterment of the children’s futures was pervasive and humbling.
So, as we western teachers tumbled from our vans every morning at our schools, we brought with us our adventure seeking souls, our desire to make a better world, and our hope that we might somehow use our own training to be a small help to teachers who share our love for educating children. And if we also brought with us our entitled attitudes about our own personal comfort, our judgements about the “right” way to do things, and our fixed mindset about personal growth, it was unintentional. Unfortunately, living in the world we call home, our tolerance for discomfort, both physical and emotional, has been largely untested. And most of us came to understand that our ability to walk in the shoes of another is directly related to how painfully our toes get pinched.
And so I come back around to our two friends and the pig that was either breathing still or was recently expired, riding to market on a boda-boda. In this one image, so much about my Uganda experience is brought into focus. The solutions these beautiful people find to the problems they face seem, at first glance, to be a bit quaint and perhaps make us smile. And the solutions these talented teachers have found to dealing with the lack of resources in their classrooms could at times baffle or frustrate us. But while their own solutions made complete sense in their world, they still enthusiastically and humbly sought our advice in improving their classroom practice, and they were beyond eager to implement any new strategy we suggested (For more on teaching strategies, see 54 Empowering Teaching Strategies blog). They solve their problems by using the best of whatever they have at hand and by working together and by sacrificing for the betterment of the children. And while they solve the daily problems of living in a country with still developing infrastructure and a largely subsistence farming based economy, they still willingly sacrifice their personal comfort and fulfilment to pour their time and energy and knowledge and love into the next generation. They desire a future for their children that allows them a happier, healthier and less difficult life; one with more opportunity and less want.
I, of course, do not know the future. But I have faith that, somehow, these people will get that pig to market.
Written by Karen Cahall
LRTT Fellow, Uganda Bwindi
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