World of a dif­fer­ence

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EILEEN Byrne ad­mits she had some ap­pre­hen­sions about what lay ahead af­ter vol­un­teer­ing to work for five weeks in Ugan­dan school, but now wouldn’t change a sin­gle minute of her ex­pe­ri­ence.

The for­mer Prin­ci­pal of St. Joseph’s Na­tional School in Glenealy was one of six teach­ers tak­ing part in Global Teach­ers’ Pro­gramme over the Sum­mer and found some com­fort upon reach­ing the cap­i­tal Kam­pala when she recog­nised the friendly face of for­mer teach­ing col­league, Kevin Kelly.

Kevin now holds the ti­tle as Ir­ish Am­bas­sador to Uganda and for­merly taught along­side Eileen in Glenealy.

From Kam­pala it was a gru­elling eight hour jour­ney on board a rick­ety bus be­fore reach­ing the tran­quil vil­lage of Kamwenge.

While Eileen was ini­tially shocked at the im­pov­er­ished con­di­tions, she at last found con­so­la­tion in the fact that there didn’t ap­pear to be any sig­nif­i­cant class di­vide.

‘I re­alised, that there at least, there wasn’t that heart­break­ing di­vide you en­counter in other third world coun­tries where the poor are forced to beg for crumbs that the rich dis­card. In Uganda every­one was poor and got on with life as best they could.’

While many class­rooms in Uganda cater to over 100 pupils, Eileen found her place­ment was in a rel­a­tively small school out­side the vil­lage with no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter. She was also the first white per­son many of the na­tives had ever met.

‘My freck­les were al­ways a huge source of cu­rios­ity,’ she re­calls with a wry smile.

Her brief was to work with the head­teacher, in­spec­tors and school man­age­ment to help draw up a School De­vel­op­ment Plan for pri­or­i­ties al­ready iden­ti­fied.

‘I found there was a very strong em­pha­sis on aca­demic per­for­mance in pri­mary schools with mid-term and end of term ex­am­i­na­tions set for each class. Ac­cess to secondary school ac­tu­ally de­pends on grades achieve din the pri­mary cer­tifi­cate and must be taken by all Grade 7 pupils.

‘Un­for­tu­nately, the fam­i­lies of many chil­dren who pass the grade can’t af­ford the cost of books, footwear, uni­forms or lunches.’

Tu­ition fees were abol­ished last year but many fam­i­lies still strug­gle to come up with the ¤65 a year it takes to ed­u­cate a pupil.

It also didn’t take long for Eileen to no­tice that the con­di­tions in the class rooms dif­fered com­pletely from those back home.

‘We had nowhere to work ex­cept on a mud floor and I soon re­alised the school had far more ba­sic needs like a ta­ble, chairs, some stor­age space and shelv­ing. To keep the red equa­to­rial dust down, the floors had to be smeared with a mix­ture of cow­dung and wa­ter ev­ery week,’ adds Eileen.

How­ever, thanks to the do­na­tions of fam­i­lies and friends, as well as the gen­eros­ity of the Wick­low and District Lions Club, Eileen was able to get a car­pen­ter to make fur­ni­ture and li­brary shelv­ing. The school was also able to buy the nec­es­sary sand and ce­ment to re­place the mud floors. This project will be mon­i­tored by Link Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment.

She was also able to start a bee­hive project to try and gen­er­ate money for chil­drens’ lunches and other needs of the school. The project con­sists of three starter hives which will be pi­loted by two teach­ers who have al­ready been trained.

Pupils will be trained and en­cour­aged to start a hive at home to help pro­vide money. Eileen ex­plains, ‘Kamwenge is an area very rich in flora and has a warm balmy cli­mate with an av­er­age of 25 de­grees all the year round, which means 15 kg of honey can be har­vested from each hive twice a year and sold in a lo­cal mar­ket.’

It wasn’t all work for the group ei­ther. At the week­ends the Ir­ish teach­ers would meet up again to go on tours and ex­pe­di­tions of some of the finest scenery the trop­i­cal land has to of­fer. Now back home in Ire­land, Eileen still looks back on her time in Uganda with noth­ing but fond mem­o­ries. ‘It was a hugely re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and not just be­cause of the glo­ri­ous ex­otic weather. Through liv­ing with host fam­i­lies, we were given a grass roots in­sight into the de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges that the coun­try faces. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence was very hum­bling.

‘I re­ally en­joyed be­ing im­mersed in many as­pects of lo­cal life and cul­ture not nor­mally ex­pe­ri­enced by vis­i­tors or tourists.’

If any­body is in­ter­ested in vol­un­teer­ing for five weeks next sum­mer or would like to know more about the Global Teach­ers’ Pro­gramme then please con­tact, ring (01) 2841414 or cal into their of­fice at 23, Crofn Road, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin.

Eileen with fel­low staff mem­bers out­side the Kamwenge Pri­mary School in Uganda.

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