Pupils I'll never forget

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Geoff Fenwick takes delight in the great strides made by an ex-pupil

In the early 1960s, I taught in a large primary school in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. During my last term there I was asked if I would take a nine-year-old into my class who was unhappy at her current school.

Susan had contracted polio, her legs were in callipers and she had to use crutches. Her teachers and their helpers, out of misplaced kindness, had persisted in carrying her for any journey longer than a few metres.

Susan was a bright girl and had little trouble with her work, but she was taciturn and seemingly bored. During her first week I noticed her twiddling her thumbs and gazing at the ceiling. "Come out here dreamer," I called, "and let me see how you are getting on." She hauled herself to her feet and clattered her way to my desk. For the first time, I noticed a smile on her face. I was treating her like a normal pupil rather than an invalid.

Susan's greatest trial was understandably a physical one. It consisted of the 10 steep stone steps that she had to negotiate to reach the toilets, the assembly hall and the gym. She had to make this journey at least four times a day and needed supervision to ensure that she never toppled. Often, as I held on to her shoulder, I would see the beads of sweat on her forehead as she struggled in the heat. "Keep going Susan," I used to say, "you are climbing Kilimanjaro every day."

For years after I left, Uganda was in turmoil. Idi Amin's brutal dictatorship was followed by civil unrest, and then the Aids pandemic that reduced the average life expectancy to 42. Sadly, it is likely that some of my former pupils are now dead.

About two years ago I was asked by friends to help support a Ugandan policeman who was building a house for the orphans in his family. I sent a donation and asked if he knew any of my former pupils, including Susan Makumbi. He replied that Susan had become a prominent politician and at some time had been her country's minister of education. "Well Susan," I thought, "you certainly kept climbing Kilimanjaro." The small, carved wooden zebra that she gave me 40 years ago still rests on a shelf in my house.

Geoff Fenwick taught in primary schools in England and Uganda, becoming a deputy head. He subsequently worked in two colleges of education, a polytechnic and at John Moores University, Liverpool, where he now holds an honorary appointment

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