Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reflections on my time in Kamengo - Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls Club

I embarked on this journey with the best of intentions to upload postings to my blog every couple of days but it did not quite work out as planned. Long days working on the medical mission, evenings spent 'dissecting' the day and completing necessary statistics, and intermittent internet access meant that the blog (as some of you who looked for it have already worked out) never happened.

I am back in Gatineau, Canada now and trying to sift through my photos and experiences to convey some of my experiences while in Uganda. First - apologies - it was near impossible to get my head into a space where I could contribute to this blog while I was away in Uganda. 

Those of you who know me well, know that summer is not my favorite time of year - yet I knew, as soon as I landed in Entebbe that I would need to learn to 'embrace the warmth'. Arriving at 11pm at night, Jimmy assured me it was 'cool' yet there I was, flushed, red face and already sticky - and that pretty much continued through the whole time I was there.

The morning after we arrived we made our way out of Kampala in a two-van convoy. Roads lined with small businesses, many operating out of packing containers or very fragile looking sheds. 

This was my first of many experiences of Kampala traffic (horrible) and the lack of seat-belts in vehicles (scary). It was time for me to relax and trust the local driver Miro (who was amazingly patient and steady on every journey). While malaria is indeed responsible for many many deaths in Uganda – road accidents must be up there as the top cause of injury and death.


The community of the Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls club welcomed us to Kamengo with music and dancing and we spent this first weekend getting to know our surroundings and the many many young people who used the Boys & Girls Club as a community center each day. Both boys and girls are talented drummers and dancers and it does not take much to get them into music making and moving.

This first day was spent hanging out at the Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls club and trying to take it all in. I learned a lot from just watching the kids play - I do not think I have seen kids play together  with so much joy and with so few props for a very very long time.

All of us had brought special little things we thought would give some fun to the children. On this very fist day we learned that it did not take much to engage them. Little stickers, stick on tattoos, taking photos and showing them on the iPad. There were countless examples of how the children - big and small - played together. While  there might be little that these young people have to call their own - few have shoes and many over the two weeks wore the same item of clothing each day - they generally play well together and appear to get genuine joy from play - ensuring each gets to have a go and supporting the little ones as they struggle to master skipping, basketball etc. It was watching the children and young men and women play each afternoon that I witnessed the incredible impact of the Agnes Zabali Boys and Girls Club - a safe space where the young can build community through play and learning (there is a homework/computer room). There are always older students present and they play a critical role in supporting the younger ones and being amazing role models.

Dr. Ashleigh's stick-on tattoos were a real hit

One of the mission members brought out a $2 plastic skipping rope which was a real highlight and the kids - big and small - took turns turning the ropes and at times there were up to 10 girls and boys jumping together - below I think I captured 7 at once. By the end of the week the skipping ropes had passed their use-by date and fallen apart but they gave a lot of joy while they lasted (Note to Self: next time bring more sturdy skipping ropes).

The resilience and joy I witnessed on the Agnes Zabali Boys and Girls Club basketball court was a valuable lesson for me. Such talent, energy and community - and all this most likely on one meagre meal a day.

Seven Girls skipping in unison with one of Dr. Kate's skipping ropes

The Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls club is the creation of my friend Jimmy Sebulime's late mother Agnes. Agnes worked tirelessly to bring back to her village some of the benefits Jimmy and his brothers and sister had experienced from growing up in Ottawa. A group of us in Canada support 150 students to attend school and I and the pleasure of meeting most of these students and some of their teachers and parents while I was in Kamengo.

My goal moving forward is to to organize alternative practicum for teacher candidates from Ottawa university to visit Kamengo each year and work with students and teachers in the local elementary and high schools.

While in Kamengo I visited a number of schools and met the principals. We had time to think through together how we could support them from a  distance and through Ugandan-based practicum.

Sister, myself and Geography teacher
 The local high school - St. Brunos has both boarding and day school students. many of the students who are part of the Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls Club attend St. Brunos. Students study long hours and teaching is very much 'chalk and talk' with students copying copious notes that the teacher has written on the blackboard from the one and only text book in the school! They follow the British "O" Level and "A" level system and although Uganda has a national curriculum (and an associated web page) I am yet to get hold of actual curriculum documents.

 My sense is that the students study long hours, rely on rote learning and much of this is ineffective or at the very least inefficient. We would often see students walking home at 9 or 10 pm after studying. I spent sometime with students at the centre trying to make sense of how they were approaching their work and I gained a real appreciation for the need for strategies and resources that would support them across many subjects.  Few if any classrooms, even in the high school, had electric outlets and the principal of St. Brunos key request of me was for a data projector so they could teach more effectively in the computer lab. The lab itself had few working computers and all were rejects from a  large insurance company in Kampala from when the company upgraded.

Children walked everywhere and most often you would encounter them on way to and from school. There are  quite a few elementary and a couple of high schools in Kamengo and I managed to visit a number of them when I could get away from the clinic. Although education is claimed to be free - it is not - every school has its costs.

Not an easy activity in glaring sunshine
At one elementary school I visited children were carrying rocks and stones to fix a bottom step that had eroded away - there are no maintenance staff or janitors - the children maintain their school as best they are able to.  The school facilities are very, very basic with limited access to running water and if there is electric power - it is sourced from solar panels.

Elementary schools cost the equivalent of CAD$60 per year which in North america seems like a very small amount. However, in Uganda the average annual income is around CAD$1,500 so it represents a significant commitment. Schools have large classrooms and many old bench-like desks where, depending on the age group - three or four students sit together.

In the elementary classrooms I visited the children were often by themselves - teachers, who are very poorly paid and largely untrained do not always arrive at school. In some classrooms colourful hand made charts declare the numbers from 1 to 100, days of the week, months of the year etc.

When the teachers are not there the children take turns at the front of the room with a stick - pointing to numbers on a chart or words on a chart - they call out the number or name and the whole class repeats it. This pattern is repeated around every chart in the room by one child - and then starts agin with another.    The children seem content to do this repeatedly, each of them having a turn.

I was not totally surprised by the state of education - it reminded me of time spent years ago in Papua New Guinea but I was saddened by it. The children are so keen to learn, so thirsty to encounter new ideas and so very very willing to study very long hours.

I had the opportunity to sit down with principals and look at the recommended or required text books across levels and curriculum areas and they reminded me so much of content I was learning as a child some 50 years ago. To me the content in the elementary curriculum was quite challenging and this was made even more so by the lack of resources and the teachers' dependence on teaching off the blackboard. Even science is taught off the blackboard - it is not experienced in labs, or within the world around them. Math manipulatives are unheard of and teaching outside the classroom is not an idea that the teachers are familiar with. One thing I did learn was that textbooks (of which each school had none, 1 or a maximum of 6 copies of texts for any particular subject) are published in Kampala and are relatively cheap (all below $10 and many around just $5) so this is something I am really hoping I might be able to mobilize support for perhaps through partnerships with local Canadian schools.

The schools I visited were welcoming and would love to have more teachers and teacher educators from Canada visit - which of course is my hope in years to come. The students are very receptive to new experiences and learning - they are respectful and a delight to interact with. Outside of school they work hard and they are very much aware that many young people like them in Kamengo do not ever get to attend school - so they cherish the opportunity. 

It is difficult as an outsider, from a country with so many opportunities and so much wealth in terms of educational resources - to know where to begin when wanting to assist with education in Kamengo. My first step was talking with principals, teachers and students so I could understand better what THEY wanted, not what I thought they needed. They taught me that we need to work with what is there and to work locally - as change on a national level to curriculum for example, is slow and unlikely in coming years. There is a national curriculum so the principals advised I begin there - they need text books and the teachers need teaching resources, units of work designed around the curriculum objectives and other resources they can use to make learning more accessible.

I learned that there are three key areas that I am committed to working on over coming years:

  • Continue to work with the Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls Club of Kameng Ottawa Committee to sponsor children and youth through elementary school ($60/pa); high school ($200/pa) and university ($1,000/pa).
  • Raise money to purchase Ugandan texts for local schools and for the Agnes Zabali Boys & Girls Club study room.
  • Return to Kamengo each year on an Education trip with teacher candidates, professors and teachers from the University of Ottawa who, during the year, will have prepared resources for teachers and students across different curriculum areas. The goal would be to develop resources that will stimulate higher order thinking but that can be utilized without reliance on technology.
I would welcome anyone to join me on this journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment