Nicola T.

Uganda Blog 9. November 2018:

Initial Experiences and Impressions

My first time outside of Europe and already I’m straight in the middle of Africa, in the middle of Uganda and, for european standards, in the middle of nowhere.

First of all I would like to introduce myself: My Name is Nicola Sophia Tomlin, or as some people call me here “Atim” meaning “born from a foreign place”. I’m 20 years old and came here to volunteer as an English teacher after completing my Abitur at the Augustin-Wibbelt-Gymnasium in Warendorf. Which incidentally is the school that formed my connection to Uganda. For four years Sabine Schmitz-Hoevener was my English, Religion and class teacher. When she first told us about the project back in 2012 I immediately said: “That’s where I want to go!” So since then I have helped here and there with fundraising projects for St. Mauriz and got to meet Fr. Cyprian and other visitors from Uganda when they came to our school. Now, 6 years later I am here myself and can finally do my bit to help the project grow whilst at the same time growing myself as a person and as a global citizen.

Although when I glance over to the calendar, I know that I have been here for just under three months now, that time period just doesn’t seem right: it simultaneously is too little and too much. Too little to hold all the things that I have already experienced but too much to be the amount of time I’ve already spent here, everything still feels so new, so non-normal.

But before I get into how things are now, let me start at the beginning:
I arrived in Entebbe on Wednesday the 15. August after a tiresome 20 hour-long journey. Fr. Cyprian picked me up from the airport and we commenced our over 6-hours-long drive to Gulu. My first impression of Uganda was that it was hot and chaotic, to this remark Fr. Cyprian replied: “Welcome to Africa!” and I did in fact immediately feel very welcome. The following day, Cyprian showed me around the compound, which is a lot bigger than I had initially expected, introducing me to some of the people who work here as we went along. Everyone was very friendly and eager to tell me “you are welcome!” which in turn made me feel even more welcome.

One of the first things that struck me here, was the food. It’s so good! Most of it people grow themselves and the rest they buy from the local market. The food just tastes like “more”. The flavour is more intense, more potent, more real in a way. The pineapple, the watermelon, the passion fruit, especially the bananas, it all just tastes so much better when it hasn’t been shipped halfway across the world. And that’s just the natural taste of the food, the local dishes are another kind of joy entirely. Whilst in Europe we tend to have a whole organised dish. By that I mean we would have lasagna or pizza or schnitzel with potatoes and peas, hence dishes that are either cooked as one or are always served with the same companions. Here the individual components are ever reoccurring but in varying combinations. However, one part that always has to be present on Fr. Cyprian’s table is beans. Fr. Cyprian loves beans and celebrates this by having Pauline and Mercy, the ulternating housladies, cook them twice a day, every day.

Unfortunately, the Monday before I arrived here a close friend to the project, Vicky, died in an traffic accident. Overall she was simply beloved by everyone which was reflected in her funeral. The mass was two hours long and the huge church wasn’t able to hold all the mourners. When the coffin was buried the entire graveyard was filled with people, thousands of them.

I am told that when an old person dies here, it is not necessarily viewed as a mourning matter. Instead they celebrate the fact that the person was able to live a long and happy life. They laugh, sing, dance, crack jokes, a big celebration. But if a young person such as Vicky dies you can figuratively feel the weight of the sadness in the air. The fact that it was an easily avoidable motorcycle accident makes it even worse, a sickness could have been interpreted as the will of God. I didn’t know Vicky but nevertheless I’m certain that this is a funeral I will never forget.

A few weeks later I attended one of the other kinds of funerals, an old man in the nearby village had died. The experience truly was totally different and a sight I will never forget: sitting under a tree on a plastic chair, surrounded by hundreds of people dressed in bright, colourful clothing, watching a priest standing in front of a coffin, with dogs and chicken families running around beneath it. The priest was cracking jokes for over an hour to the point where everyone was laughing so hard they were crying, even the widow couldn’t hold herself together by the end of it.

Since then, I have been to multiple other big events, one bigger than the next. An Ordination, the St. Mauriz feast day and most recently the 100th Anniversary of the Uganda Martyrs in Paimol. This was by far the biggest of them all and quite possibly the biggest gathering of people I will  attend in my entire life.

As the legend goes Paimol is the place where two young, Acholi catechists were killed for their christian faith in 1918. They became Martyrs and their sacrifice helped spread Christianity in Uganda.

As Fr. Cyprian was rather busy I attended it with some of his friends. We arrived the night before, cooked and had a fun evening together. I was surprised to find that during the night a huge party was taking place around the altar in the very sport that the Archbishop would stand and hold a four-hour-long mass just a few hours later. That night it rained as I slept in a not-so-waterproof tent on a mattress that seemed determined to soak up all the liquid it could hold. Obviously, I hardly slept. But honestly that didn’t matter. Around me everyone was wet and muddy and tired but so happy and grateful to be there and that feeling was infective.

Going to these big events I always realise how different Ugandans can be from Europeans; content with the little things, faithful, helpful and community orientated. Not that these characteristics are not present in Europe, they are but usually it takes a lot longer to see them. You have to build up trust over time, whilst here I am quite often immediately invited into people’s homes and hearts.

However, recently traveling to other parts of Uganda, namely Jinja and Kampala, has showed me that these characteristics are not necessarily ubiquitous in Uganda. Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, for instance is very different, I would say: crazy. The amount of people, the traffic, the prices, the poverty clashing with the wealth, the sheer size of the city, it all seems very foreign to me. Coming back to my small, familiar Gulu, where I know the streets, the places I like to go, how to deal with boda drivers, how to phrase my sentences so that people can understand me and where I can greet in the local language felt like coming home.

That trip made me realise, despite all the ups and downs, how thankful I am to be here and to call this place a home after a mere three months.

Uganda Blog 26.January 2019:

Trying to be an English teacher 

As mentioned in my first blog, I came here to work as an English teacher and although the school year has finished now and all the kids have gone home for Christmas holidays I would like to tell you about that journey. 

To speak truthfully I didn’t come here expecting to work as an English teacher but more precisely as a teaching assistant. After all I don’t have a degree in teaching and have only ever tutored one child at a time, so I have next to no experience in teaching. My only qualifications are being a native English speaker and having gone to school in Germany, what does that count for? 

Well, according to the Primary School’s headmistress that qualifies me to teach 70 kids in Primary 7, the graduating class, aged 13-15. Doing anything else would just waste everyone’s time. 

And so I started work as a fully independent English teacher. In my first few weeks the kids were off on holiday. There were, however, 300 communion children on the compound. Thus the eldest children (P6-P7) were told to enter into a classroom and be taught some English. I scrambled to piece together a lesson I thought might be suitable for a wide array of English skills consisting of tongue twisters, songs and short stories. I was expecting maybe 30 kids in my class, all my endeavours to find out exactly how many kids to expect remained fruitless with the endless reply being “I don’t know, maybe ask …” 

When I entered the classroom for the first time I was, well, shocked to find that there were way over 70 kids squeezed into the class with a far greater age variation than expected, 8 to 16-year-olds, eagerly awaiting a lesson from the white foreigner. Apparently, when the news had got out that a muzungu (someone with pale skin) would be teaching, everyone wanted in on the action. 

Saying that they were “eager” doesn’t mean that they were easy to control. I entered that first lesson and the next few literally trembling and left sweating like a pig and wondering what the hell I was doing here. It got better with time, although I am certain that many had no idea what I was saying most of the time due to my British accent which was completely foreign to them. 

Soon I started teaching the P7 kids. Thanks to my previous lessons I had a large array of class introductions prepared which worked well to break the ice and get the kids involved. However, I still struggled to get them to engage in the lessons the way I was used to it in Germany. It turns out they were not used to this teaching style, most teaching here is less interactive and more of a lecture. Many were still quite scared of me as a white foreigner, I explained time and time again that I was here as a volunteer and what that meant. 

Additionally, it was difficult at times to keep them all attentive, I tried numerous different strategies to reach all the kids in my class. With 60-70 children in a classroom at a time most were not going to get the attention they deserved. I tried introducing voluntary tutoring lessons, splitting the class in two according to their previous grades and teaching them individually twice a week. This worked well for a while and I noticed that especially the weaker group enjoyed the calmer class environment and to be given the chance to participate more actively in the lessons, once they built up enough confidence to do so. Soon, some even started raising their hands when the whole class was present. 

Another noticeable aspect was that the weaker group consisted mainly of boys whilst in the stronger group over 80% were girls. I found that to engage the boys more in class it would help to specifically ask for a boy to answer the next question.

Another problem I faced was that quite often when going through the rows I would find that some weren’t taking notes saying that they were missing pen and paper. This went on for some weeks until I decided to just go and buy 70 exercise books and pens from my own money. They were excited to receive their new supplies but soon these started getting „lost“ and „stolen“ as well. 

With time things got easier and I started to enjoy the lessons more and more. I grew more confident and learned how to explain things to the kids and how to make sure they engaged and understood it. Not that it was all plain sailing weather after that, far from it in fact. There was one time when two boys started fighting in my class and another where kids continued to leave the class to go to the toilet until I was more or less alone in the room. 

However, looking back, I would say that my main hurdle wasn’t the teaching itself but the general organisation and communication in the school. And I am still not certain that I have fully understood how information gets around, at least it always managed to skip me. I would not seldom enter the classroom only to find no one there, „they had been given a few days off/ had exams/ were at an assembly and no one had thought of telling me.” This would of course always completely mess up my teaching plan. The difficulty in preparing things was also connected to that. Sometimes the teacher with the keys to the library just couldn’t be found and I remember one instance where I had spent the whole morning preparing a worksheet on my phone for the lesson taking place that day. When I went to the office to print it out, it turned out that they didn’t have wifi and no data left on their phones. In the end to get the document from my phone into my hands we had to embark on a complicated adventure through multiple laptops, printers and mobile wifi stations. But, mid-way through the lesson, I did hold 70 copies of my worksheet in my hands. So you do get stuff done, it just takes somewhat longer.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching those children and I am sorry that it has come to an end. 

I grew to love these kids and look forward to my lessons with them. I started introducing more songs and spending more time with them in the evenings as well. 

Our bond only grew stronger when we all went on a trip to Murchison Falls National Park together. I had been to the park before and was thus able to fully concentrate on the kids. And it was a joy to behold. The night before all the kids slept in the dormitory and we left early the next morning. We had two buses with 82 children overall, made up of 20 K3 kids, the graduates from the nursery, and 62 P7 kids. Every teacher was assigned 5-6 children to make sure they didn’t get lost in the park. We did the game drive first and then drove to the top of the falls. They were so excited to see the environment and many of the animals for the first time. They all wanted to take pictures with my phone of the elephants and giraffes and of course have pictures taken of themselves as well. On the way back in the bus they sang the whole way through and to my delight all the songs that I had previously taught them.

This is one of my favourite memories of my six months in Uganda. I think that looking back, despite my worries about being an unqualified teacher, I was able to add value to the kids’ lives and education. On the one side by introducing them to some other teaching techniques and on the other side by motivating them and giving them a sense of pride. Having had a muzungu teacher is something many still like to talk about later on in their lives. Many have told me that they thoroughly enjoyed my lessons and were recalling the things I taught them during their exams. So, although I’m still critical of executing tasks in a foreign country that you wouldn’t be allowed to execute in your home country, I am convinced that having experienced a good education myself prepared me for spreading knowledge effectively on my part. 

I would finally like to thank everyone who made this experience possible. First and foremost Fr. Cyprian of course, who shared his home with me and supported me in all my little projects. Special thanks also go to Pauline and Mercy for caring for me during my entire stay and preparing the most delicious food for us three times a day. I also thank the entire St. Mauritz community in Uganda and Germany for welcoming me into their lives and church. And finally I would like to express my thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Schmitz-Hoevener for making all of this possible in the first place and supporting me throughout. 

I hope to revisit the project in the near future.