World of a difference
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 email@example.com, 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.