Sunday, October 31, 2010

Painting Royal Pride Academy

‘What have you done today to make yourself feel proud?’ goes the ‘theme’ song of The Journey to Excellence, familiar to those of you in Scottish education.

For most of us, the answer would be ‘precious little’.  For the children of Mutungo, close to the port area of Kampala, the idea that they would ever have anything to be ‘proud’ of would, until quite recently, have been empty dreams. 

Despite its grandiose title, Royal Pride Academy is a school for some of the poorest families in the city.  Living in the Mutungo slum area does not give you the best start in life.  Its ramshackle dwellings are built around a swamp and joined by winding paths of hardened mud.  Piles of garbage collect on open patches of ground.  While some more substantial houses are being built, most houses are cramped and in poor condition. 

Looking down towards Mutungo
For the last six years, the low wooden buildings of Royal Pride Academy have provided nursery and primary education for about 200 children.  It’s a community school, provided by parents and well-wishers, and operates outside the government and district structure.  It shouldn’t really exist, and it certainly shouldn’t need to exist.  Uganda has universal primary education, and education should be free for all children of primary age.  Indeed, the Mutungo area has two government schools, but two are nowhere near enough.  There just aren’t enough schools.  What makes it even more difficult for parents is that, like almost all schools in Kampala, these schools charge unofficial ‘top up’ fees.    Such fees can amount to at least 30,000 Ugandan shillings - £9 or so - per term, little enough by our standards but way beyond the means of most of the local families.  So, until Royal Pride was set up, many of the children in Mutungo did not go to school.

Current wooden building
The school was the inspiration of Godfrey, a trained teacher who is now the headmaster, and his wife and another teacher.  Godfrey himself had been brought up in desperately poor circumstances in Namuwongo, the subject of one of our recent blogs.  His family had been unable to pay for any education for Godfrey or his siblings.  One day a member of a local church found him and one of his sisters scavenging through a rubbish heap and offered to pay for them both to go to school.  That simple act transformed his life.  Godfrey decided that he would pay back that debt by helping others just as he had been helped himself.                                                              

Godfrey in his headteacher's office
Royal Pride has to charge fees to keep itself going, but only claims them from those who can afford it.  Fees range from five to 30,000 Ugandan shillings per term (3,500 shillings is about £1). Many of the children, for example, those who are orphans or from families with very limited income, do not pay anything. Quite a number of the children come from families affected by HIV/Aids, or may, indeed, be HIV positive themselves.  A number of them are brought up by grandparents, who may be responsible for bringing up a number of children, and may be in poor health themselves.  The teachers receive very little pay but are highly committed, often coming in to provide extra teaching in the school holidays.

Despite its very limited resources, the school has had a notable impact on the local community, providing a service beyond just schooling, an relatively unusual concept in most Ugandan schools, and one which reflects its motto: ‘Education with a difference’.  And the community, in turn, provides what support it can.  A local farmer, now chair of the school management committee, provided the land on which it is built. 

So, what has all this got to do with Stuart and me?

You may recall from an earlier blog – the Namuwongo clean-up - that VSO volunteers engage in projects beyond their formal work, as part of their cluster activities.  The family of one of the volunteers has been providing support to Royal Pride over the last year or so, through getting involved in school activities and, with their wider circle of friends and family, providing some material support such as books and playground equipment. 

One of the priorities for Royal Pride has been improving the accommodation.  The proximity of the swamp has meant that the classrooms were full of mud and the roof leaked badly so the classes were often disturbed or had to be cancelled. You may recall that Uganda has a lot of rain.  

Still damp, despite the sun.  Note the cane classroom divider.
These poor conditions spread disease to children who are already vulnerable. Our colleague and his family raised some funds from the UK and put in some solid foundations, which elevate the classrooms above the mud.  The next stage was to build the walls, around the existing ones, and finally to provide a roof.  This work is close to completion.  The accommodation will still be very modest, but it will be a considerable improvement.
New brick walls being built around the old wooden ones, on a concrete base.
Where our VSO cluster came in, is that last Saturday we helped with some of the painting.  Parents had made desks out of recycled wood which needed to be sanded and painted.  

...and after.

And the old tyres which children play on during breaks were also looking a bit shabby and needed to be brightened up.  So it was on with the Marigolds again!

It was a wonderful day.  Parents and other members of the community worked away on the building while we splashed paint around with the help of the children.  

And how much brighter everything looked by the end of it!  The children slaved away and, with all of us working together, we transformed the physical appearance of the school.  

There’s still a lot to be done and the resources remain minimal by British standards, but the sense of community spirit was superb.  And what is more, the children can look around and feel that they and their education are valued.

Building blocks for the nursery.

I think every single one of us there that day would have been able to give a resounding answer to the question, ‘What have you done today to make yourself feel proud?’.

Community spirit after a good day's work.

We hope you like the photos.  There are more below.  Some are ours, and some were kindly contributed by our neighbour Romaine, also one of the VSO crowd.

Women work hard in Uganda.  Clearing the ground.
Taking time off to dance...

...and to play.

...with even the 'oldies' getting involved.

Uganda's future.

Onward and upward!

Brought by her big brother, she'll soon be here in her own right.

Bright, lively and deserving the best possible education.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Murchison Falls

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this."

This was my not infrequent thought in the days when, as English adviser, I used to traverse the length and breadth of what used to be Grampian Region looking for schools to advise.  My favourite route was Stonehaven to Alford, Alford to Rhynie, Rhynie to Aberlour (via the Cabrach) and then on up to the Moray schools.  My recollection is of rolling green hills dotted with sheep, high heather-clad slopes, deep glens with winding burns and, if I was lucky, the sun reflecting brightly from every leaf.  If I was unlucky, of course, on my way home it would start to snow at Rothes, I'd make a quick decision to aim for Huntly instead of the Cabrach and I'd end up crawling through snow drifts in the Glens of Foundland to arrive in Stonehaven four hours later.

The hills of Uganda aren't much like the hills of Aberdeenshire, though crawling through the sticky red mud on the way to the Murchison Falls shared some similarities with aspects of my earlier journeys.  The pick-up slithered from one side to the other of the murram track, threatening to topple our two impromptu passengers from the back of the pickup, guards who had hitched a ride from the gate of the park.  The rain poured down and I felt guilt-stricken about their sodden condition.  They should have been inside but the whole of the back seat was taken up with our luggage.  Every so often the road would tip us gently into a ditch, our wheels would spin and I would think, "Oh no, we're going to have to push." However, the sun eventually came out, our passengers reached their guard posts deep in the national park and we continued on our way.

There are not many baboons on the Cabrach.  There were a lot of baboons in Murchison Park.  You could see them as black specks in the distance as we rounded a bend. 

I would get my camera out as we crept up close and then just as I got the focus right, off they sauntered into the trees, tails raised in contempt, then laughed at us from the branches above.

Contemptuous baboon
And his satirical friend
And the sun reflected brightly from every leaf.

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this," I thought.  Well, not exactly 'paid', but a small 'perk' following our school visits around Masindi.  

Stuart wasn't too sure about the 'perk' side of things when he realised we were going to be staying under canvas in the Red Chilli camp.  I wasn't too sure myself.  The last time I'd camped had been in the Girl Guides, during a freezing south Yorkshire spring-time, inside a totally inadequate blanket sleeping bag.  Stuart's memories were of Scripture Union camp fifty years before, all heartiness and prayers.  As the only other option was a luxury lodge, the camp it had to be.

And, we have to say, it was just fine.  The tents were mosquito proof, we had proper beds and there was plenty of Nile beer in the canteen, all of which was more than could be said of the Girl Guides.  And there are definitely no warthogs in south Yorkshire.

Warthogs enjoying rich pickings at the Red Chilli camp
Next morning we rose early, ready for our expedition up the Victoria Nile. The birds were also early-risers, singing away as they darted across the camp.   First, though, we had a good breakfast of 'eggy-bread' and bacon in the company of a group of bright-eyed Peace Corps volunteers.  In their strappy tops, miniscule shorts and flip-flops, they demonstrated a touching belief that the great great great....grandchildren of the mosquitoes which killed Livingstone would somehow maintain a strict no-fly zone around true Americans.   Stuart and I felt no need to present such a welcome outdoor banquet to any members of the insect kingdom.  It was full-length trousers, long-sleeved shirts and ankle boots for us, together with a liberal anointing of the strongest possible concentration of DEET on the quarter inch of flesh remaining in view.  Thus prepared, we clambered onto our small boat and off we went.

At first sight, this stretch of the Victoria Nile is not particular spectacular.  Broad and dark, it quietly meanders away from the Falls, down past the Paraa ferry through low forested hills and fertile green banks down to Lake Albert.  Here it decides it wants to go a bit further after all, Egypt for a change, so turns round, changes its name to the Albert Nile, and aims north to Sudan.  However, we were going upstream.  At Paraa, where you pick up your boat, the river certainly does look lazy and slow until you gaze into its depths and suddenly become aware of the enormous power of the wide strong currents.  The covering of froth gradually increases as you travel up to the Falls.  Pretty pink clumps of unwelcome water hyacinth float along too, at one stage clogging our engine so that we had to stop for them to be pulled out.  I tried not to think of hungry crocodiles.

At a casual glance, the banks looked completely devoid of any wildlife, hungry or otherwise.  However, it was not long before our guides pointed them out to our unobservant British eyes.  First came the hippos. 

What excitement as we chugged close to the bank - whereupon they all quickly sank below, eyes and ears only above the surface, keeping a careful watch on the interlopers.  

Cameras clicking, breath held, we swayed across the boat to record our amazement - that is before we realised that there were plenty of hippos, enough to satisfy the most obsessive of hippo-lovers, all the way up to the Falls.

"Enough hippos," said Stuart.

So what else did we see?  Lots of birds, of course.  (Dave, this section is for you.) We saw African darters, Goliath herons, African fish eagles, shoebills, piacpiacs, helmeted guineafowl and various other birds we were too ignorant to identify and too slow to photograph.  

African fish eagle keeping its distance
Helmeted guineafowl
Goliath heron

Shoebill (we think)
A big bird (purchase of bird book imminent)

We saw deer, monkeys, elephants and water buffalo.

Black and white colobus monkey
Young grey bachelor elephant, red with mud

We saw insects too: tsetse fly, responsible for depopulating this area of the Nile in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ubiquitous mosquitoes.  Don't believe people who tell you that mosquitoes only come out in the evening.  If they're really determined, as they are here, they will home in on you at any time of day, hence our addiction to DEET.

And, of course, we saw crocodiles, Nile crocodiles, lots of them.  They were particularly impressive when they dived from the bank towards our boat, sometimes sliding in quietly and slyly, sometimes bouncing down with an enormous crash that sent water splashing up in waves while we all ducked and our guides both laughed.

"Enough crocodiles," said Stuart.

Then we saw the Falls.  At first you think the clouds have come over and it's started to rain.  Then you realise it's spray, though you are still many yards away.  You can't go too near them, of course, though we did see some foolhardy visitors in a tiny boat, bobbing along at the foot.  But there the Falls were in the distance, pouring through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley Escarpment, and plunging 40 meters to the rocks below.  There may be higher waterfalls in Africa, but Murchison Falls impress through their sheer power.

By far the best way to experience the waterfall's majesty and raw force is to go to the Top of the Falls.  You bump along a mud and rock track, cursing the mosquitoes which home in on you every time you slow down to crawl past water buffalo.  You wind up the windows, flap around with the flyspray and pray the buffalo don't charge.  

Buffalo don't answer to Daisy or Buttercup.
Once you've parked, you walk for a hundred yards, and all of a sudden your senses are jolted into alertness: first by the thunder, then the gentle rainfall of spray and finally the awe-inspiring brilliance of all those tons of water roaring into the deep dark nothingness below.

The rain, the mosquitoes, the torrents of water rushing over rocks: it could almost have been Scotland.  

"All it needs is a distillery," said Stuart.

These warthogs hadn't attended the Tufty Club.
We bounced our way out of the park, dodging the warthogs and waving at the baboons.  In the distance the blue mountains of DR Congo hovered on the horizon.

"I can't believe I'm being paid to do this," I said.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Visiting schools in north-western Uganda

A flash of colour below our front wheels, and two small pigs were miraculously whisked from a very messy death.  Driving a dilapidated pick-up truck along the rutted footpath thick with sticky red mud was proving a hazardous experience.  The owner of the pigs smiled broadly and waved.  Her curiosity about the two mzungos (white people) on their way to her children’s school seemed to outweigh, if just momentarily, the fact that they had so nearly removed her family’s main source of income.

A narrow squeak
Our wheels spinning, we skidded our way through the maize.  Then, all of a sudden, there we were driving right across the ‘playground’ until we juddered to a halt outside the headteacher’s office.  Children surrounded us on all sides, laughing and waving.  The flurry of our arrival was repeated several times over the next couple of days as we went from primary school to primary school with our Link and VSO colleagues.  Both NGOs have been a long-standing presence in the Masindi area.  We were visiting to see the impact they had made on the quality of education in local schools.

It's so much easier without any glass.
At first sight, the quality of the accommodation was much the same as it usually is.  We saw the familiar holes in the classroom walls and the lack of doors and windows, making them unpleasant and even dangerous places when it rains.  

Once a teacher, always a teacher: Stuart in full flow in wall-less classroom.
Some of the buildings had lost roofs or had even collapsed entirely.

Only one school had a water supply.  The rest were dependent on rainwater, water the children brought to school with them or access to the standpipe in a local village, often half a kilometre or more away.  One had electricity in the headteacher's office.  The rest were without, and would be unlikely to get it for some time.  We didn't bother asking about ICT. Uganda's target is 20% of the country having electricity by 2015.  However, we also saw signs of recent improvements: a row of classrooms here, some new pit-latrines or a new water butt there. 

New and old
And there were other signs that schools were trying hard to raise the standards of education they provided.   All the schools had boards outside the headteacher’s office indicating the attendance on that day.  

Attendance is a major issue in Uganda, for both teachers and children. Teachers may have second jobs or take time off to collect their pay from the bank, sometimes twenty miles or more away, a good distance if you are walking or cycling.  Children may be kept at home for chores like looking after siblings or animals, going to market, scaring birds or planting crops.  Or they may be sick with malaria, water-borne diseases or HIV-related conditions.  
They should have been at school...
The teachers we spoke to talked about their attempts to persuade parents that regular attendance was important.  In one primary school, out of 963 enrolments, only 495 children were present.  At another, out of 400 children, only 179 were in school.  Mind you, it was pointed out to us by our colleagues, enrolment figures are not always accurate.  ‘Ghost children’ may boost official school rolls and therefore attract increased funding, not entirely unknown in Scotland!  And to be honest, as in Scotland, teachers must sometimes breathe an unofficial sigh of relief to have a rather lower class size on the day, though in Uganda the differences may be between the 200 P1 children officially enrolled and the 68 actually present in class.  The publication of attendance on blackboards is an important step in recognising and dealing with the issue, and raising awareness within the local community.

Discussing P3's learning under the mango tree.
We were impressed with the sense of commitment to children and desire to do a good job shown by both promoted and unpromoted staff.  Link and VSO volunteers have expended considerable effort on running curriculum workshops and helping schools develop improvement plans.  To be honest, we drew a blank at actually laying our hands on any bits of paper.  However, we could see pretty good evidence that improvement was planned and, we were reasonably sure, taking place.  Sometimes the evidence was on the walls.  

In one school, the depute admitted that only the headteacher knew where the improvement plan was.  Needless to say, the headteacher was absent, as in virtually every school we have visited since we arrived!  However, the depute was able to tell us about the school’s priorities: reducing child labour, improving the attendance of both children and teachers, reducing school dropouts, improving the assessment of learners’ progress and developing better links with the community.  This final priority, of course, underpins all the rest.

The issue of dropouts is an interesting and challenging one.  A lot of girls stop attending school in P6 and P7, because of the impact of sexual abuse, the prioritising of domestic chores and/or early marriage.  Many children of both sexes drop out because of poverty or lack of motivation.  The curriculum is heavily geared towards rote learning of factual information for the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE).  The dropout rate quoted can be as high as 50%, with about 30% of children on average sitting the PLE and about 25% passing.  Not only are the syllabus dry and the classes far too large, it is also difficult to prepare for the exam if you have no books.  We heard that some schools may charge parents 1000 shillings or so every month for practice papers (about 35 pence), well beyond your means if you are a subsistence farmer.  Not only do the high dropout rates prevent universal primary education (UPE) becoming a reality, they also threaten the implementation of universal secondary education.  Children enter secondary school on the basis of a pass at PLE.  It is also an entry requirement for many jobs.  If children don’t get as far as P7, they have lost the opportunity to sit the PLE unless they return later on.  Uganda has banned repeating of classes, so the extent to which children have mastered the curriculum so far and learnt the necessary skills to progress can vary very widely across any particular class.  The school day is long, from 7.30 or 8am until 4.30 (for younger children), 5 or even 5.30.  Children walk long distances to get there.  Sometimes it is just easier not to go to school.

Uganda is in the middle of a major curriculum review.  We will be giving the details of this for those of you who are interested, in our LTS blog on Glow, the link for which is at the top of the column on the right.  So far, the most significant changes have been in P1-P3 where a thematic curriculum is now being implemented.  One of the most controversial aspects of the new curriculum at these stages is that it is delivered in children’s local languages rather than English.  Uganda recognises 56 local languages within its constitution, a figure increasing to 60 or 70 if you take local variations and dialects into account.  About 40 of these languages do not yet have a written form, so Language Boards across the country have been set up to select, define and record language forms within dictionaries and elsewhere.  Of course, that still doesn’t solve the problem as school children need access to textbooks and other reading matter which have not yet been written.  Another major challenge for a country with little money to spare.  Other complexities include the fact that some areas have more than one local language, particularly if internally displaced communities from the north have been relocated there.  And of course, in middle class areas of a city like Kampala, children are almost always fully bilingual, with English being to all intents and purposes the ‘local’ language.   In the latter case, of course, English will probably be used from P1, and it may also be used in the former case where its adoption helps to defuse potential tensions among language groups.

So very significant national developments are taking place at the moment, almost always supported by international aid (most commonly from the World Bank, UK, USA, Ireland and the Netherlands).  And the NGOs are doing their bit too, which brings us back to Link and VSO.  We saw a good bit of evidence of the impact of Link’s Global Teacher initiative.

In some cases, UK teachers had worked in Ugandan schools, and vice versa, sharing practical learning and teaching approaches, in particular, active learning and learning games.  Sometimes, partner schools had raised significant amounts of money and had helped to make concrete improvements.  For example, we saw pit latrines built specifically for girls, ‘tippy taps’ (which enable children to wash their hands even if there is no running water), school desks, coloured markers and pencils and inflatable globes, all funded by children, parents and staff in UK schools.  They had made a real difference to the school experiences of Ugandan children, both in and out of the classroom.

New pit latrines and water butt for the girls, courtesy of an English school
Just one word of caution, though.  There is a danger of cash-strapped Ugandan schools focusing on financial benefits and material improvements which can be difficult for schools in less privileged areas of the UK to provide.  Poor though Ugandan schools are, partnerships should, above all, be about sharing professional skills and developing the awareness of global issues among children in both countries.  Our children would be quite surprised by the degree of responsibility expected of Ugandan children.  From the earliest years, they clean their own classrooms and may have significant duties such as keeping the school grounds clean and tidy.

Even the nursery class bring their brooms to school.
I think some Scottish parents would, however, baulk at the prospect of their P3 offspring being responsible for ‘slashing’ the grass on the playing field!  I hope the teachers count all the fingers and toes at the end of lunchtime!

We were very pleased to be able to visit a school which acts as a model to other local schools.  It has benefited from its status as a factory school and from its links with an English primary school.  Headteachers in all the primary schools we visited in the Masindi area regularly observed classes and advised teachers.  In this school, expectations were particularly high.
Lots of ideas for English composition in P6.
Classes were still large, though, a combination of the effects of UPE and the school’s attractiveness to local families beyond those employed in the factory.  I counted 80 or more in a P6 class and there were 117 in each of the nursery classes.  Books were still in short supply – one between four.  In other schools, there had been no books at all in most classes.  And the teachers we saw were trying to encourage children to think for themselves.

More display than usual and free play area in the corner of the P1 classroom
We saw evidence of some creative approaches, for example the use of display in the classrooms (sometimes using sugar sacks), and, more striking, exhortatory or informative paintings on the gable ends of the school buildings.

So, we came away from the north-west acutely aware of the very significant challenges facing all these schools.  However, we were also impressed by the efforts which were being made to make the best of whatever resources were available.  Most of all, we were impressed by the pupils.  These bright, lively young people deserve only the best.