Discover yourself in Africa

Bob Doe followed 20 British teachers to Uganda for an experience which transformed their lives and renewed their enthusiasm for the job

LAST year, when The TES was full of stories about overworked and demoralised teachers, we published an unlikely offer. Give up your summer holiday, go and live in a mud hut in an African village for five weeks (expenses paid), eat the local food, use the fly-ridden latrines (if you are lucky), and teach classes of up to 200 in schools with few resources.

If I was mildly surprised by the temerity of the offer, I was flabbergasted by the response of TES readers. More than 1,200 contacted Link Community Development, the charity running this "global teacher" scheme as part of the school improvement programmes it supports in South Africa, Ghana and Uganda.

Are UK teachers mad or boundlessly committed to doing good, I wondered? Or had disillusionment reached such a point that "anything must be better than this"?

To find out, and to ensure we had not literally sent 60 of our highly-valued readers to the White Man's Grave, I decided to spend some of my holiday last year following the 20 teachers who went to the Masindi district of Uganda. And, inspired by what I saw, I devoted even more of my holiday this year to a return visit.

Ostensibly, I was there to report dispassionately on the success or otherwise of the scheme. But in reality I was mesmerised by the beauty of this fertile paradise where even fence posts take root and grow. I was inspired by the friendliness of its much-troubled people and by the courage and generosity of these global teachers.

The state of the schools is appalling. Many of the teachers are untrained and only educated to GCSE level. And until now the headteachers lacked any clear model of leadership. There did not even seem to be a particularly strong tradition of turning up for work. But then in this AIDS and malaria-plagued country illness and death are ever-present. Transport on the dirt roads of this remote area is also notoriously unreliable.

The pupils are a different matter. Many trudge miles to school barefoot with nothing but a banana leaf to shield them from drenching tropical downpours. They sit patiently in class - often on the floor - in the hope that a teacher will turn up and teach them. Though there are often 1,000 pupils or more in a seven-class primary school, there is no such thing as playground duty. There are no accidents or fights, even though Uganda's troubled past and present has created many displaced people and mixed tribal groups and religions.

Global teachers cannot hope to transform the Masindi school system in five weeks. But they do give a tremendous boost to the morale of their Ugandan colleagues. They provide important role models and by demonstrating active teaching methods and greater pupil involvement in learning, they are helping to end the reliance on passive, formal and ineffective chalk-and-talk.

The vast resource problems of these schools are never going to be solved by donations. But global teachers helped their Ugandan counterparts to make their own teaching aids from local materials. The white plastic sugar sacks used on the nearby cane fields make durable posters, and measuring sticks can be made by marking papyrus reeds from the local swamp.

But the biggest transformation is amongst the global teachers themselves. They develop an enormous respect for these poor but strong communities and the self-sufficiency of hardworking Ugandans who survive without even basic amenities.

All the global teachers felt they had gained far more than they had given. Many seem to discover themselves in Africa. Several told me that before they went, they had been unsure whether they wanted to continue teaching. This experience had reminded them what was important in education. A year after visiting Uganda, one teacher said: "There is never a day that goes by when I do not think of it."

It was something very similar that took me back.

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