Earlier this summer, Sarah Siaw, Howard Chiu and WQ spent ten weeks in Uganda and Kenya on one of the programmes offered at Oxford - Education Partnerships Africa. They share their experiences below:
“I want to spend my summer doing something meaningful!”
If you’re anything like me, you probably had two instinctive reactions to those quotations. The first was approval and identification – yes, helping people is good and rewarding (for both volunteer and beneficiary). But the second reaction pulled against the first – caution, it says, that sounds a little idealistic. Maybe you, like me, have heard of too many community service stories gone wrong. There is an important place for skepticism in volunteer work: does it really make a difference? Does it degrade local culture instead of celebrating it? Does it leave the community with, instead of satisfactory shelters, a slapdash thatch roof that will require constant repair (or, worse, replacement) by the inhabitants?
Both these reactions are right. And that’s why I was on the lookout this summer for a project that was different from the others. I didn’t want a feel-good 10-day trip to <Third World Country> to contribute <skills I don’t possess>, with flights and accommodation costing double the monetary value I brought to the community. But besides this aversion, I didn’t know what I was looking for. So at Freshers’ Fair in 2012, I doubtfully approached a booth labelled ‘Education Partnerships Africa’ thinking, Oh, one of those, and a year later found myself on board a flight to Uganda, Africa as an EPAfrica project worker. Hopefully the following description of what I did for the next 70 days will show you why EPAfrica proved, despite my skepticism, to be just the kind of team I wanted to be working with. WQ and Howard both did the same project but at different sites, and I’m sure they’ll gladly elaborate their own experiences if asked.
I and two other project partners were headed for a secondary school (Shuuku Vocational Secondary School - SVSS) in rural Uganda. It is a co-ed secondary school nestled between the rolling hills of Mbarara.
I barely knew either of my project partners, but we were going to spend the next 70 days living and working together for one purpose only: to improve the quality of education at SVSS. EPAfrica focuses on sustainable development in schools, targeting 6 main areas:
But how? Frankly, we had no idea. We had basic information about the school but our budget had been deliberately left undecided – we wanted to put the sum to the best possible use by first getting to know the school inside out. A week after arriving in Uganda, we drove for two hours in a 4-by-4 over potholes and dirt tracks into the village where we’d spend the next two months. Picture small, square cement huts, most selling produce outside (usually tomatoes, avocadoes, eggs), and wide dusty streets.
Something I wasn’t personally prepared for was how much we’d be stared at. As we walked in the village people would stare at us, unsmiling and unabashed, and occasionally address us with cries of ‘mzungu!’ (‘white person’). My hopes that they would get used to us and begin showing more friendliness were disappointed; the stares followed us every single day for 2 months and were never more friendly than that first day.
Eventually I came to realize that unsmiling faces are not, in Africa, signs of hostility. I learned to meet their stares with smiles and their shouts with a friendly ‘good morning’ in the local language, and sometimes – not all the time, but often enough – the stony face would melt into a jovial grin. Now and then, someone would mistake my ‘good morning’ as an indication that I was thoroughly fluent in Runyankore and babble on in excitement. I’d give a helpless shrug, they’d laugh at me and wave me on my way.
Our first few weeks at the school were spent getting acquainted with its workings as intimately as possible. We met the administration and various staff; discussed student concerns with the school prefects; sat in for lessons. We poked our noses into everything we could think of, from water supply to staff salary to disciplinary system. Most of the time, we didn’t know what we were looking for until we found it: a complaint about dormitory hygiene – a visit to a disorganized library – realizing, while invigilating, that the English examination paper was riddled with errors.
About our third week, we began deciding how to spend the £2700. I don’t want to bore you with details about our expenditure, so here’s a quick list: we installed clocks in all the classrooms, bought a ton of new laboratory equipment, bought keyboards for the school’s computers, added new textbooks into the library, printed notes for three departments, taught the secondary 4 girls how to make affordable, comfortable and reusable sanitary pads, organized a Careers Day, etc.
But not all of our contributions were physical. I spent days in the library completely reorganizing and cataloguing its 4,000+ books. We created a new staff post – Careers Teacher – and designed a method for the school to keep track of its graduating alumni. We created a report based on our lesson observations and presented it to the staff, in an effort to encourage active learning techniques, instead of the dictatorial ‘chalk-and-talk’ which was the most popular (and least effective) style of teaching.
Spending 2 months at the school, and having full flexibility with the budget, allowed us to ensure that the changes we made in the school were (1) holistic, in the sense of being bolstered by supporting initiatives in other areas of school life, and (2) sustainable, in the sense that the school would be both able and willing to carry them on.
For example, improvements in the school’s physical resources – e.g. laboratory equipment – were matched by widening the students’ conception of what awaited them after graduating, so that they would be more motivated to study (instead of allowing newly purchased equipment and textbooks to languish unused). This, in turn, was made sustainable by creating a new post of Careers Teacher, in charge of maintaining the alumni network, giving careers counselling to students and organising regular Careers events at the school.
One of our proudest accomplishments was a School Constitution. Its origin remains a mystery. One day, one of our friends asked us, “Does your school have a constitution?” “No,” we replied, alarmed, and immediately began working on one. A couple of weeks later we asked to see his school’s constitution, to which he replied confusedly, “What is a school constitution?” To this day we don’t know if we misheard him that first time, or whether his subconscious genius birthed this incredible idea through a slip-of-the-tongue.
Either way, it proved extremely helpful. It gave us a way of streamlining all the school’s major administrative processes in one focused document. Through meetings with the school authorities, we drew up a list of staff roles and responsibilities, determined the procedure for awarding bursaries and the conditions that would have to be met, drafted a list of school rules and corresponding punishments, and typed out the teacher’s code of conduct – all in the name of the School Constitution.
To be honest, I felt at times that I was completely under-qualified. What did we know about running a school or handing out needy student subsidies? But we had fresh pairs of eyes, we had ideas that made sense, and (perhaps most importantly) we were there. In other words, we were the most qualified people the school could access. So we did our best and turned this fictitious idea into reality. That task taught me courage.
I’ve spoken about this project as if it was all work. That would be a lie. Over the months, we had an amazing time getting to know one another and the staff and students. Our school had a Culture Day, at which students put up the most beautiful cultural performances, and at which we also performed (and were, unsurprisingly, outperformed).
We visited a student’s home and were treated to a DVD of rock songs from our childhood (think Linkin Park, Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte). We played cards with teachers and threw a dinner for them. We danced with the students. One week was a holiday week – Howard climbed partway up a mountain, WQ witnessed the fabled wildebeest migration in Kenya, I languished lazily in the waters of Lake Bunyonyi.
There is one more thing that I loved about EPAfrica Through it I met the most wonderful people – and, even better, got to work with them. Our school’s director, James, founded the school in 2001 with his personal money and financial support from people who believe in him. It opened with under a hundred students and now has over 900. He is one of the most upright, discerning and insightful men I know, and it was my honour to work with him. He’s not just a good administrator. He buys medicine for students who can’t afford or access it when he goes into town and, under his direction, the school takes in a very high proportion of vulnerable students (an estimated 200 of 900 students are complete orphans – many of whom can’t afford their fees and are sponsored by the school). As a result, James has to work hard to make ends meet for the school – for example, going all the way to Nairobi to buy lab equipment from a cheaper supplier. In our months at the school, he rarely left work before 9 p.m. at night.
Jean, a history teacher at our school, was tasked with looking after us ‘whites’. She prepared lunch for us while we were at the school, and forewent many hours of sleep working on history revision notes that we would type out and print for students to use, since there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. (The notes were eventually about 160 pages long, and she handwrote most of them for us to type out, being computer-illiterate herself.) At our Careers Day, she told the students something they needed desperately to hear: that career choice should not be determined solely by parental pressure. “You need to think about what your strengths are,” she said. Instead of pursuing a professional degree, she chose teaching because she loves it and is good at it. She’s been with the school since it was founded.
Robert, the Director of Studies at our school, invested personal money constructing a chicken coop for the school, so that the school could have a poultry farm (important both for agricultural demonstrations, and also for the students’ diet, which was only maize and beans, three meals a day). He did this while supporting four sisters with his income and funding his own course (agriculture) at university.
To me these people are visionaries, legends. It is tempting to pride myself on my little volunteer trip to Uganda until I remember that they wake up every day to substandard living conditions and still manage to pull themselves out of their own worlds. They’re not just doing their jobs, setting some money by, stopping at the minimum. They go above and beyond for the students, working overtime and on weekends. Their dedication is unrivalled by that of any teachers I’ve seen, in the UK or in Singapore. Teaching doesn’t pay well; that’s not why they do it. In the words of our Director of Studies, Robert: “Don’t be selfish, unless you want to sell fish.”
I can’t sum my summer up in any better way than saying that EPAfrica was the best community service experience of my life. I firmly believe that it is a model that works. It changed me. More importantly, I think it changed the school, for the better. If you are looking for something meaningful to do this coming summer, I hope you seriously consider it.
Sarah has written extensively about what EPAfrica does and the charity’s model, and it is a model that we keep in mind as we work in our various schools. I had the opportunity to work in a technical school as opposed to a purely academic secondary school (like the one Sarah was in), and the students did very different subjects. Putting it into the context of the Singaporean education system, Kakiika (pronounced ka-chi-ka) Technical School was like the ITE among the other secondary schools within our educational landscape.
Not surprisingly, they faced the stigma that a technical education is inferior to a purely academic one, and that the prevailing view of society was that technical school was for the students who could not make it. Of course, it is not something that can be changed overnight, but we still tried our best to challenge that notion by bringing in people who had been there and gone on to establish successful careers for the school’s Careers Day.
Much unlike the “mainstream” schools, Kakiika offers 4 courses: Blocklaying & Concrete Practice, Carpentry & Joinery, Tailoring & Cutting Garments and Motor Vehicle Mechanics. Lessons are a throwback to the Singaporean education system of the yesteryear, dictation and rote learning featuring largely due to the lack of resources – the school did not have many textbooks and the teacher will usually be the only person in class with a copy.
Of course, our time there was not just all work and no play. We had quiet mornings to take in the scenery around the school, there’s a Holiday Week included in the middle of the 10 weeks to give us a breather and some time off from the school, as well as the occasional jaunts into town to do some groceries and grab some snacks. I stayed within the school as the school had kindly allocated us one of the teacher accommodations, and we even had dinner parties where we had the teachers over and we cooked for them!
Much has been said, but I'll let the pictures convey the thousands of words running through my mind as I recall the exciting events of the past 70 days.
Entirely unexpected reminders of home kept us going strong and made for the most interesting of discoveries, even though Singapore (to many people) is still effectively a part of China.
The man himself, spotted in a bookshop (left), and a car advertisement involving our own Marina Bay Sands (right)
Brings a whole new meaning to a human flag during the restringing of the pole used for flag raising (left) and Domo-kun makes a surprise appearance in another incarnation (right). In case you were wondering, it’s a charcoal stove!
Surprise! A feature of staff meetings everywhere (left) and an especially encouraging road sign that almost seemed like it was erected in response to my awesome sense of humour (right)
Since Sarah and Howard have given such vivid accounts of our work in East Africa, let me provide a more personal narrative on the eight weeks I spent living in Nyanko, the not-so-little village in which my school was located.
Three days after a matatu (kind of like the primary school minivan buses, but 3 times as crowded) unceremoniously deposits us in the dusty, riotous hub of central Kisii, I meet Henry. Henry is the head teacher of the school where I will work for the next two months. He is pleased to learn that I have an intelligible name (I introduced myself as ‘Wei’ since ‘WQ’ is not generally pronounceable outside of Singapore), but bestows me a local name, ‘Kerubo’, as a gesture of goodwill and friendship.
‘Kerubo’ hails from the ekegusii (Kisii dialect) word for a swampy place; it is a popular girl’s name and will serve as my name for the next 10 weeks. I only later realise that ‘Kerubo’ doubles as a (somewhat) forbidding metaphor for a lady who is tough.
Although I try to be Kerubo I cannot change the colour of my skin; the lilt of my voice marks me as distinctly foreign. It is difficult to be the centre of attention in a remote, hilly tribe where people surmise from the sturdiness of your shoes and the crispness of your shirt that you are rich and that you should ‘assist’ them. Difficult, because the guilt which accompanies the recognition that they are –in some small way- right cannot erase the futility of attempting to sponsor an entire country out of poverty.
In town I sense the suspicion with which my ethnicity is viewed— I am Chinese, and China has just entered into an extensive web of exploitative contracts with Kenya. Back in my village Kerubo makes up for this by stopping to greet everyone on the road in the local language, playing with the children in church and visiting the elderly at their homes. I am aware that the school with which I work is woven from the same fabric of ties and traditions that my village is cut from, so I try to endear Kerubo to its custodians.
Yet I realise also that the school is stitched together with values and goals of its Catholic sponsor, and bound up in the rules of a faceless national authority. So now Kerubo must navigate the currents of the three sub-cultures which animate the school, on top of my own (pre-Kerubo) principles and goals. It is a challenge I relish and I spend countless hours listening to teachers, head teachers, cooks, church elders, butchers, carpenters and children of all sizes. (Of course I also spend time haggling over prices of beakers with shopkeepers and on the computer recording book titles.)
In the end I think I do, somehow, become Kerubo. There is a change in the way my head teacher speaks to and of his staff. The new lab technician greets me with a salute and asks if he’s doing a good job (he is). The influential local businessman catches me after my last weekend at church to convey the people’s thanks to Kerubo for helping the school; an unfamiliar little boy trails alongside me as I walk home to tell me that he will be sad to see Kerubo go on Friday. Ten weeks is far too little to become the person a village school can rely upon for years of success, but maybe (just maybe) it was enough for Kerubo to inspire some small change in one small village’s school.
More information on EPAfrica can be found at http://www.epafrica.org/.