In fact there isn't a written word or number in sight among the rows of dried fish stalls, displays of colourful kitengas (wraparound skirts), heaps of imported second-hand clothes and huddles of squatting women selling food. No price labels; no sales placards.
Bundibugyo has no culture of literacy. Most people cannot read or write and until recently the two local languages were never written down. The obstacles to learning in remote undeveloped areas like this often appear insurmountable - the World Bank reckons that among all the adult literacy programmes it supports in the developing world, only 12 per cent of learners become functionally literate.
But in 61 villages around Bundibugyo ActionAid, a British-funded development agency, has begun using new teaching methods with outstanding results. The method, called REFLECT, involves people directly in their own learning; all the reading, writing and number work is based on group discussion and self-made materials about issues which matter intensely to daily life - such as the causes of ill health and food shortages. REFLECT has been tested simultaneously in Uganda, El Salvador and Bangladesh for nearly two years; in all three countries between 60 and 70 per cent of the course intake is now literate.
ActionAid is now spreading the technique among its 20 programmes in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It has presented its findings to a symposium attended by Overseas Development Minister Baroness Chalker at London University's Institute of Education - and to the World Literacy Conference in Philadelphia this week - in an effort to encourage other organisations to replicate the scheme. It is also looking at adapting the technique for children.
The World Bank itself has asked ActionAid to help draw up a new adult literacy policy and is considering lending funds to help Uganda and Bangladesh dramatically increase the size of their REFLECT projects. Tom Eisemon, the bank's senior education specialist in Washington, says it is one of the "better documented success stories" on how adult education can be used to promote broader development.
The Bundibugyo region is one of the toughest nuts to crack. In 1993 when ActionAid first researched the needs of the local people, it concluded that the greatest problems were its isolation, the marginalisation of women and the resulting closed economic and social systems.
The town is virtually cut off on its eastern side by the great curtain of hills known locally as the mountains of the Moon, and to the north by Lake Albert. To the west is nothing but dense equatorial rain forest, some of it inhabited by pygmies, and the Semliki River, which snakes through the great western rift valley casting off oxbow lakes in its wake and marking the border with Zaire.
The only way in is by a perilous grit and mud road zig-zagging around the edge of the mountains; a route often made impassable by heavy rain and occasionally by rock falls.
Confined by the geographical barriers, the polygamous population is exploding with 261 people per square kilometre, compared with the national average of 85. Men have two or three wives - or more - and some have so many children they don't know all their names. Many die young because of malaria, cholera and dysentery, although their condition is not helped by their cramped thatched houses made of mud and bamboo.
The rising population means the soil is overworked and deteriorating. Everywhere there is the thick green vegetation of planted crops - coffee, cocoa, palm for oil and above all bananas (matooke). But the yields are down and there is no room to expand into the forest, which has been designated a national park.
A backwater long neglected by the government because it was too difficult to get to, there are no Tarmac roads, no telephones, little electricity. There is a hospital but bad roads and a lack vehicles make it difficult to get to. And schools are too few and far between for children to reach by foot when tropical rains swell the rivers.
After its initial four months of research in 1993, ActionAid decided the key to change was to increase awareness, particularly among women, of how they could improve their own lives. "They don't realise they have a problem, " says James Kanyesigye, a tall Ugandan with a revolutionary's zeal, who set up the REFLECT programme in Bundibugyo and who now co-ordinates it across Uganda. "We chose literacy as an entry point so that people could become aware of their predicament."
Conscious of the high failure rate of adult literacy classes ActionAid called in David Archer. Archer, who now heads ActionAid's International Education Unit, had worked for six years in Latin America and knows the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian champion of the rural poor who linked literacy to radical social change. Freire believes learning literacy should be about more than words; it should be about the learner's world - a pupil-centred process enabling people to examine their situation and discover their rights. He promoted the idea of by-passing primers written by urban middle-class elites, espousing instead the use of pictures or photographs relevant to the learners. From these, key words could be examined and their syllables analysed as building blocks for constructing other words.
His ideas were popular in the 1970s. But followers of his philosophy have been criticised for reinventing the primer with standardised pictures, and for using mechanical teaching methods.
Archer took Freire's philosophy one step further by combining it with ideas from another development guru, Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University. Chambers advocates a form of group self-appraisal in which villagers research their own needs rather than let outside aid agencies set the priorities for development work.
The result is the REFLECT system in which participants jointly create their own learning materials - initially by drawing maps, matrices and calendars on the ground using leaves, sticks or nuts as symbols and later using words and numbers on paper - to record and examine problems important to them.
The syllabus can be changed or reordered by the learners. In Bundibugyo, the 30 units include topics such as natural resources, mobility, gender workload, and budgeting.
The self-made materials then become the focal points for group discussion which lead to both literacy and numeracy work - looking at the keywords and syllables and similar words, analysing number data and so on - and collective decisions on what development action to take. "They start thinking about change and where it is leading," says James Kanyesigye. "Eventually they agree on whether to challenge the issue on their own or whether they need out-side support. That's where ActionAid comes in." It could be the learners want to counter deforestation by setting up a nursery to grow trees for firewood, construction or fruit, so ActionAid calls in a treeplanting expert to give advice and loan seeds; if they decide to improve health care, they would be put in touch with the relevant officials to demand training for local midwives.
In a wattle and thatch shelter in Bundimorange village, a class of 16 women - the one male learner is away - is meeting to study unit 3 of the Bundibugyo REFLECT course. It's on population. Mapu ye ka aka (Lubwisi for "household by household map") is written on the blackboard and the learners are sitting on planks suspended between large stones, while tropical rain pummels the ground outside. Five of the women have a baby sucking at their breast.
The facilitator asks one learner to draw an outline of the village, the river and the main paths on the floor with a stick. One-by-one the women, giggling with shyness, draw a circle for their home placing in it the right number of nuts and beans to represent the number of adults and children living in the house. It soon becomes obvious that there are more children than adults in every home; at this point the facilitator prompts a discussion about whether it is important to have lots of children.
"If we have many, when we take them to dig, they dig a wider area of land, " says one. But most of the answers are negative. "When there are few, if you produce [babies] according to your income you can afford to educate them"; "When they are sick, if there are few you will be able to meet the cost of treating them, but if there are many you are liable to fail."
"Why has the number of children grown more and more?" asks the facilitator. Because sometimes even younger girls are producing, explains one woman, gaining in confidence. Since the AIDs epidemic has decimated parts of Uganda, men have been keener to ensure their women are virgins. And because they are young when they start having children, they reproduce for more years. Medical treatment means more children survive, another woman reasons.
The discussion moves on to the value of spacing the years between births - so that mothers can regain their strength, babies can breast-feed longer and husbands will not look at women as being old - even if they are young - and so turn to another woman.
They all agree spacing is a good idea and know they need to walk to Bundibugyo hospital - which takes up to an hour in a four-wheel drive - to get family planning. Later, they will insist that the ActionAid fieldworker sets a date for a family planning expert to come and explain the issues to the villagers, including the men.
Meanwhile, the facilitator looks at the key word for this topic, abaana (children), breaks it up into syllables, writes them on the board so that the learners can copy in the soil and chant them out loud.
They count the number of children and adults in each homestead and write the number on the ground. Then he examines other words using the same or similar syllables.
The literacy element will help these women in two ways: first, when they go to the hospital they will be able to read signs and instructions; second, and more crucially, they have taken a concrete step towards advocating change in their own lives, as their husbands will discover at the village-wide meeting.
James Kanyesigye used Freire's picture method when he trained in Kampala - and saw how it failed. "We put all our energy into adult classes that started with 30 people and after two months you would have five or six left," he says. By contrast, around 20 graduates from each of the original 61 REFLECT classes are now attending post-literacy classes where they review complicated issues such as the level of profit, investment and work required to produce different crops. They are also setting up savings and credit groups and will use their literacy skills to fill in the right forms, learn book-keeping and decide for themselves how best to invest their loans.
Sixty-seven new REFLECT classes started last year with an average of 30 members, and last month a team of REFLECT graduates from Bundibugyo was trained to spread the technique to other parts of Uganda.
ActionAid's aim is to enable two-thirds of the adult population - the over-14s - to become literate within three years of the project starting.
Whether the impact lasts will depend on the field team's efforts to create a culture of literacy. James Kanyesigye, who estimates he speaks around 20 languages, has helped write the first dictionary in Lubwisi and English, a book on civil life in Lubwisi and a health booklet in the other local language, Rukonzo.
Library boxes have been placed in each village to store reading material, and villagers are being encouraged to exchange letters and write newsletters which can be reproduced on a home-made silk screen duplicator.
One knock-on effect is a 20 per cent increase in enrolment in local primary schools since the adult classes started, though there is still a high drop-out rate. And in areas where schools are difficult to get to, villagers pay the literacy class facilitators to teach their children in non-formal lessons. Early signs of more efficient farming techniques and improved health practices confirm that with literacy comes a better quality of life.
The Overseas Development Administration has published a paper on REFLECT. For more details contact David Archer, ActionAid, Hamlyn House, London N19 5PG. Tel: 0171 281 4101