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A flavour of the tropics

Brendan O'Malley went to Uganda to find out what it is like to teach as a VSO volunteer overseas. It's the end of a hot day's teaching. The water and power are off, so there's no chance of a wash. But it doesn't fluster Jo Westbrook. She fills a pot of tea, walks out on to the veranda and sits down to admire the view from her hill-side garden.

Beyond the deep purplish-red flowers of a bougainvillea and the crinkled leaves of banana trees, the lush green Ugandan landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. Some tin roofs are visible but dense tropical foliage hides the mud and wattle houses on the edge of the papyrus swamp below and the cicadas in the undergrowth are raising their high-pitched rattle in anticipation of dusk.

Jo, 35, swapped the urban jungle of inner city London two years ago to work for Voluntary Service Overseas in this East African paradise where just about every exotic fruit you can think of is growing on a nearby tree - mangoes, paw paw, passion fruit.

Before, she was a head of English department in Wembley, rushing between traffic jams, classes and fraught meetings on curriculum changes that went on into the night. Now she criss-crosses the African countryside off-road on motorbike to train teachers, watch them in action in local schools, carry out research into gender issues, organise workshops, attend conferences and "network".

Like more than 900 VSO volunteer teachers posted around the world - whether Africa, Asia, the Caribbean or Eastern Europe - she has been sent to Uganda for two years to share her experience and ideas in a community where this expertise is in short supply. Newly qualified teachers will be accepted in some countries in subjects like maths and science, where these subjects simply won't be taught without them. But most posts are for more senior positions and give UK teachers a chance to climb the career ladder much more quickly than at home. With one or two years' experience a teacher can become a department head overseas, with several years' experience they can become a teacher trainer.

"We normally look for teachers with two or three years' experience, in fact the more the better," explains VSO's Lara Date.

Jo Westbrook says that, far from being a hardship post or altruistic mission, she sees her experience in Uganda as valuable to her own career development. "It's been so exciting for me. Professionally I've been stretched so much. I've been running workshops with adults, going over difficult concepts, and I have had to make speeches to huge halls of people. I'm a lot more experienced, a lot more confident."

The pace of life here is much slower and the comforts fewer. Local teachers work shorter hours but get paid little, taking one or two lessons a day for two or three hours. They often get paid late and with history still fresh in their minds - the country's civil war ended 10 years ago - they feel they have to rely on themselves, usually digging the land and growing their own food to get by.

For this reason the VSO volunteer plays a key role, as the one person with a regular income - enough to live on - and the time to spare to network. Jo makes it her job to mix with the leaders of the local women's and cultural groups in addition to attending meetings of the committee of the tutor training project run by VSO.

Three or four days a term she runs training days on gender, an important issue in this patriarchal society where women are marginalised. Polygamy is the norm, leaving most women to fend for a large family on their own, and women traditionally kneel in front of the men when they greet them. In schools there is a massive drop-out rate among girls.

In her "gender days" Jo encourages role-play to get teachers to look at how they talk to girls and boys and examine their cultural roles and expectations. She holds quizzes on the statistics she has helped gather from local villages and schools. Recently she jointly organised a national conference to share information on what the Government and other organisations are doing to address women's educational needs. "The [Ugandan] government is doing a lot with very little money, due to the international loan conditions, to push women's part in development," she says.

Despite her high-flying role, Jo leads an uncomplicated life in Mubende, which for her is one of the main attractions of the post. For instance, VSO banned the use of fridges by volunteers so as not have a luxury their Ugandan colleagues can't obtain, so afternoons are often spent at the market haggling for fresh meat and talking.

"I like the simplicity here. The choices are few: I stay in and read or I go down to the village for a beer and a chat. I like the fact that there's no television and there's a lot of time to sit and talk to people. If I wanted to do that in the UK I'd have to set a date in my diary up to six weeks in advance."

There are down sides, particularly regarding health, though medical care is one thing VSO definitely does not skimp on, providing it free to all volunteers.

At a get together of VSO volunteers in Kampala the night before, most had one illness or another - including bilharzia, amoebic dysentery and septicaemia - and many of them looked thin. Jo herself has a wheezy cough like a bad starting motor, from bronchitis, and the only other western aid worker in Mubende has had malaria six times despite taking the tablets.

Motorbike accidents also take their toll because in most places roads as we know them do not exist - they are either treacherously muddy and rutted or rocky.

Then there is Aids. The price of getting involved in the local community, befriending colleagues and neighbours is exposure to recurring tragedy. People fall ill and a lot die. In a polygamous society in which Aids is transmitted heterosexually, it can spread fast. Through her research, Jo Westbrook has found that 35 per cent of local girls aged 15-19 are infected - compared with 7 per cent of boys. "There are funerals every week. One friend goes to two or three a week, but there are also happier events," she says.

Each year around 6,000 people apply for VSO posts, 2,000 are assessed for suitability and about half of those are offered posts. Optional preparatory weekends are held in which volunteers are made to think more carefully about why they want the post and what to expect. Jo Westbrook thinks these are very worthwhile and should be compulsory because some people, despite the screening, still arrive with unrealistic expectations. Apparently some new recruits who came to the Ugandan capital, Kampala - where columns of ugly marabou stalks circle above the chaotic traffic - went home after three days because they didn't realise there would so many black people there.

Even teaching is a different matter in a more formal system where classes can number 70 or more and there are no lights in the ceiling or glass in the windows. If it pours down, which it can do frequently, and you planned a listening lesson, you can't do it, because the rain hammering on the tin roof drowns out the sound. Neither can you close the shutters on the windows because pupils wouldn't be able to see the blackboard.

"The volunteers don't go there for an easy life," says Lara Date. "They go there to share their skills and gain a better understanding of the culture of the people they are working with."

For further details contact VSO Enquiries Unit, 317 Putney Bridge Road, London SW15 2PN, tel: 0181 780 1331

Jo Westbrook has now returned to the UK

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