Like a wise owl, retired primary teacher Barongo Livingstone blinks in the bright sunshine and scans the hilltop grounds of Masindi Centre for the Handicapped in western Uganda. The mixed boarding school that he founded 20 years ago is one of only two in the country that provides free primary education for children with special needs. The school overlooks a lush valley, nine miles from Masindi town and halfway between the Congolese border and Murchison Falls National Park, where Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart filmed The African Queen.
Mr Livingstone's eyes wander past two cream-coloured classroom blocks and a group of children washing clothes, down to a smart new poultry shed and rows of neatly planted cassava and beans. The school's philosophy of self-reliance is plain to see. The 68-year-old smiles. "I feel a big achievement when I come here," he says.
The compound is unusually quiet for a school; half the 117 pupils have hearing impairments and use sign language. Another third have learning difficulties; eight are physically handicapped; and five suffer from autism. Many of the children joined the school late because their parents neglected them when they were young. Consequently, the school accepts children up to 18 and teaches them in mixed-age groups. They sleep in over-crowded dormitories without mosquito nets, and survive on a daily diet of porridge, boiled maize flour and beans. "The toughest challenge is feeding the children, so we started growing food as soon as possible," says Mr Livingstone. He hopes to vary the children's diet when the hens start laying.
To help the children fend for themselves, they are given vocational training in crafts such as leatherwork, tailoring and basket weaving, and taught to wash, garden and sweep. "Our mantra is 'disability is not inability'," says headteacher Eseri Kaija, who gained a diploma in special needs education in 1995, five years after she took up the post. To dispel the notion that disability is caused by witchcraft, she organises informative programmes on local radio, parents' days and home visits. "Many parents still have bad attitudes towards disability and believe it's better to educate an able child."
But it is not just the community that lacks knowledge about special needs.
Although Mrs Kaija has a good pupil-teacher ratio, only three of her 21 teachers have any special needs training and five have no training at all.
The American charity World Learning has funded some special needs teacher training in the past four years, but it is an area Barongo Livingstone is desperate to improve. This is where the centre's historic relationship with teachers in the Home Counties is proving invaluable. The link hails back to the 1960s when Mr Livingstone was training to be an infant teacher in southwest Uganda. During this time he developed a special relationship with his tutor Hilda Foster, a primary teacher and missionary from St Thomas-on-the-Bourne Church in Farnham, Surrey.
Mr Livingstone went on to work with physically handicapped pupils in Belfast during the late 1960s. The experience shaped his vision for a holistic primary school for disabled children in Uganda, with a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist and money for operations. "I had seen children with polio being neglected in Ugandan schools. When I saw how well equipped this school was, and how well qualified the teachers were, I thought, 'Why not start a school like this in Uganda?'"
Miss Foster was acutely aware of the lack of special needs provision in Uganda at the time; so when her protege approached her about opening a special needs centre, she supported him, and the Bourne Masindi Link was born. She raised the money to start the school in a one-room community centre, which doubled up as a classroom and a dormitory. From then until she died in 2000 at the age of 78 she spent a month every year training the teachers.
Miss Foster had a huge influence on the Farnham community, too. "Hilda was always concerned to encourage Masindi Centre for the Handicapped to improve its standards, and she inspired others to continue that work," says Nicola Davies, a former sixth-form college teacher who teaches IT, literacy and numeracy part-time at Coldingley prison, Surrey, and who chairs Bourne Masindi Link. In the past four years, Mrs Davies has evolved the link into a modern, mutually beneficial partnership by exchanging teaching ideas and sharing expertise.
As well as raising money from Farnham residents to provide the school with resources (electricity, vocational tools, a latrine and an occupational therapist), she has organised three trips to Masindi, recruiting around 30 secondary school pupils and sixth-form college students, teachers and health specialists from Surrey and Wiltshire. She also raised money so Mrs Kaija could visit three special schools in Surrey last year. "We are identifying strategies for learning, making links between Uganda and UK classes, and suggesting new ways of working. This has intrinsic value for our teachers," she says.
In 2002, Masindi Centre for the Handicapped had an influx of untrained teachers, so the Surrey visitors were asked to inspect each class and report their findings. "When you have been inspected yourself, it's a very useful exercise to be the inspector," says Nicola Davies. "It makes you look afresh at what a classroom environment should be, at what learning is taking place, and makes you realise the importance of lesson plans." Each time Mrs Davies returns, she sees the fruits of Bourne Masindi Link's work.
Teachers are using learning aids and pupils who have received specific help are beginning to blossom - for example, visiting physiotherapists have helped Gorretti Assiimwe, 13, who has cerebral palsy, to write with her foot, and former amputee Robert Musinguzi, 15, to walk with a new prosthetic limb.
The trips have changed the outlook of several students; four of the sixth-formers who participated in the first visit subsequently volunteered for charities in Africa and South America during their gap years. And Farnham college student Ellie Messham, who visited twice during her sixth form, not only decided to take a gap year to raise awareness of HIV in Uganda, but also changed her degree from mathematics to government and development studies (see box, "Inspired to act", right). "I think the biggest benefit is to the teenagers," Mrs Davies says. "They realise how life can be so different from theirs, less wasteful, and humble, yet productive, happy, and exciting."
Kevin Sandall, who teaches at Forest and Sandridge CE primary school in Melksham, Wiltshire, was equally bowled over. In Uganda, he taught computer skills and watercolour painting. "I was amazed by how little the school had. When I returned to England, everything seemed so materialistic, unfriendly and wasteful. I won't complain about the state of my mobile classroom anymore." Mr Sandall is drawing on his experience of Uganda to give his Year 4 pupils a positive image of Africa. "Everywhere we visited gave a feeling of community and friendship." He has used his photographs to revitalise geography and citizenship lessons, which has motivated his pupils to write to the Ugandan pupils and raise money for the school. "The Ugandans were some of the warmest people I have ever met and I'd love to go back," he says.
Nicola Davies, who is planning to return next year with a special needs teacher, couldn't agree more. "It is without doubt the most worthwhile thing I have ever done."
Is your school interested in creating a partnership with a school in a different part of the world? Join The TES Make the Link campaign. For more information visit www.tes.co.ukmake_the_link. For more details about Bourne Masindi Link email email@example.com or write to Eseri Kaija at Masindi Centre for the Handicapped, PO Box, Masindi, Uganda. Tel (00256) 77364693.Students Partnership Worldwide: www.spw.orgHow to set up a link: email Nicola Davies, firstname.lastname@example.orgBecoming a global teacher with charity Link Community Development: www.lcd.org.ukukgtp