A day in the life of...

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Amid the distractions of tropical storms and ringing mobile phones, this vocational training specialist helps teachers in Uganda to develop the skills and self-esteem of vulnerable students

I have been volunteering in hot, dusty Gulu in northern Uganda as a vocational training specialist for two years. I was a secondary teacher for 20 years in the Home Counties before my wife and I signed up with volunteer organisation VSO.

I work on the youth development programme (sponsored by the UK Department for International Development) at the Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute, delivering vocational training to vulnerable people aged 14-35. These students - mostly unschooled - are a mix of orphans, former child soldiers, child mothers and people living with HIV.

Although English is officially the national language, there are more than 50 native languages. Most students can't speak English and certainly can't read it; about 10 per cent have never held a pen. We mentor staff, supporting them to vary their teaching styles. Group dynamics are poor, so we try to build confidence. Planning skills are also undeveloped - I'm told there is no word for "plan" in Luo, the local language.

Today I'm facilitating at a teacher training day five minutes' drive from my house. Uganda is an extremely religious country so the day begins with prayer. This is followed by introductions - and with 38 delegates this takes a while.

We break for elevenses: tea with five spoons of sugar, accompanied by a boiled egg, a banana and chapat (spongy chapattis). Ugandan food tends to be bland but substantial.

I'm joined by two of my students, John and Irene. John gets around in a battered tricycle wheelchair, crawling through doors he can't fully open. Restoring students' dignity and self-esteem is vital. Irene recounts how a Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) landmine destroyed her lower leg. When her husband saw her injuries, he abandoned her and their children. But thanks to the training programme, Irene has set up a hairdressing salon. John earns a living in electronics and repairing phones. Our motto is "Disability not inability".

Lunch is served. It's posho (boiled maize flour), rice, spaghetti, boiled cassava, boiled beef, gravy, beans and boiled greens. The delegates pile their plates high.

Our guest speaker today is the coordinator of the Gulu Disabled Persons' Union. We discuss respectful language, advocating the use of the phrase "a person with disability", rather than other, more offensive terms. It's a lively workshop.

Our tea break is followed by a ferocious tropical storm; it's difficult to hear the final session over thunder and pounding rain. Darkness engulfs us, apart from the light emitting from ubiquitous mobile phones. Preventing delegates from answering them during workshops is an impossible task.

With the training day over, I make my way home through alarming rivers of red water and mud. I notice a new petrol station has opened nearby and the owner is celebrating with friends by singing hymns and chanting blessings.

My wife and I join a farewell dinner for a fellow VSO volunteer at Gulu's only Indian restaurant. Meals can take up to three hours to arrive, so we made sure to pre-order this time. On our journey home, we notice that the petrol station celebration has turned into an all-night party - there will be no sleep for us tonight.

For information about volunteering with VSO, visit www.vso.org.ukbethevolunteereducation

Your day

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