Thursday, September 9, 2010

Can You Spell I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E?

For my Fiction Friday friends: This isn't fiction, but since it is Friday, so I'm linking up anyway. :) Back to regular fiction next week, Lord willing!

Imagine you are entering a room approximately ten feet wide by twelve feet long. You step inside the door, slip around the corner, and side-step past dozens of hands reaching out to touch yours. Finding just enough space to turn in front of the chalkboard and face the owners of those hands, you look into a collage of little faces -67 of them, to be exact- all crowded along 6 benches nearly the same width as the room, each with a taller bench-like desktop. The children, ranging in age from six to nine, are in many cases literally sitting on top of each other. Here and there a toddler sleeps in his brother’s arms or clings to her sister’s back. Three or four animal pictures appear on a wall near the front, behind Budesta, the smiling teacher of this group. You have just entered the P-1 class at Smile Africa.

Eli the eagle puppet and I were privileged to address these children, introducing the verse, “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shelter of Your wings.” (Psalm 17:8) Later, Norma and Andrea, teachers from our team, reached in from the doorway to assist with a craft, which simply involved using a glue stick to glue the Bible verse on an apple cutout, and the cutout onto a tongue depressor making a fan. It was extremely difficult to direct this simple craft, since the children are totally unfamiliar with using glue and we had no way of reaching most of them to help. Were they ever proud of the finished product, though! Jane and Cheryl, our nurse and nurse practitioner, who saw several of the children in the clinic that day, read the Bible verse over and over again for children determined to memorize it.

Believe it or not, Budesta teaches the second most difficult class at Smile Africa. Another teacher, Joyce, teaches 90 - 100 children ranging from 8 months through 5 years! Sure, she has an assistant most of the time, but clearly it is impossible to even meet the basic needs of so many children in that age group. The children are much more self sufficient than American children, however. They all arrive at Smile Africa on foot each morning (or on the back of a sibling), after walking up to three miles to get there. Their reward is a cup of rice porridge for breakfast and a bowl of rice for lunch, a bath twice a week, new clothing occasionally, and a lot more love than they can find anywhere else.

Smile Africa’s school may not be typical of education in Ugandan, but conditions in government schools are often not a lot better. In 1997 UPE (universal primary education) was instituted by the government. The number of students in primary schools has increased 149% since that time. Unfortunately, the schools were ill-equipped to deal with such a surge, the teachers were overwhelmed, and many of the students since that time have been passed through the primary grades despite the fact that they are unable to read. In 2009 the percentage of students that passed their P-1 exams was 6.7%, and that was a considerable improvement from the previous year!

Poverty and hunger are two factors that greatly affect school attendance and performance –even for many of the teachers. In fact, teacher absenteeism stands at 30%. For their hard work and nearly impossible tasks, teachers are paid little, and transportation is often a problem. Most can’t even afford a bicycle. Children frequently come to school hungry, unable to concentrate or reason, because of their lack of nutrition. English is the national language, but most children speak only in their tribal tongue. This makes both teaching and learning even more difficult.

Even though all children are now allowed to attend the government schools tuition free, there are many costs associated with school attendance. Parents must provide a school uniform and all books and classroom materials. Many can’t afford to feed their children, let alone provide them with such “luxuries.”

It was such a privilege to meet approximately 100 Ugandan teachers at the conference we held for them in Tororo. They were delightful, and so grateful for everything we did for them. We came to realize that they are just like teachers everywhere. They want to have the tools and materials they need in order to do a good job. They truly care about their students and want to know how to help them learn.

Planning a teacher conference was challenging, considering the limited amount of time I had spent in Ugandan schools. Additionally, the schools I had previously visited varied greatly, and none were government schools. Still, with plenty of prayer and consultation, the conference turned out well. The teachers were attentive and asked plenty of questions.

In planning the conference, we went through the Tororo District Minister of Education. She invited the teachers from both private and government schools. It was a good thing, too, because Museveni, Uganda’s president, came to Tororo the week we were there, on the same day our conference was to begin. We were told that it would be disrespectful to hold an event while the president was in the city. However, the Minister of Education disagreed. Since it was a government sanctioned event benefiting teachers, we were expected to go ahead with our plans.
In step with characteristic Ugandan formality, the conference began with speeches by Rhobina, the education minister; Tororo’s mayor; Sanjay, a Ugandan parliament member; our director, Denise Matthews; Pastor Ruth of Smile Africa; and myself.

The theme of the conference was “From Gravity to Grace,” and Aaron, our keynote speaker, addressed both subjects, gravity and grace, skillfully. Norma addressed the entire group on learning style; Wendy and Michelle on teachers as counselors. Andrea did workshops on learning disabilities and reading and writing; Norma on life skills, Wendy on math and the environment. I did a workshop on early childhood programs and environments, and another on learning through music.

At the end of each of our two days, we provided the teachers with a delicious buffet style meal. On the final day we distributed books, maps, posters, and other educational materials to a representative of each of the schools. The excitement over these items was an amazing thing to witness.

King’s Primary School is located near Bunambutye, in the Sironko District, a mountainous region. The rainy season caused many landslides and extended past its normal time this year, making our travel to the school “interesting!” To complicate things, we loaded six large bales of mosquito nets onto the roof of van already packed with passengers. As we drove through deep, muddy ruts in the road, we literally leaned the opposite direction the van was leaning in order to counter the top heaviness of the mosquito nets. The other van, lacking our added weight, got stuck periodically, and we lost our spare tire a couple of times. It sure made us appreciate the fact that their teachers had traveled to Tororo two days in a row to attend our teacher conference!

By the time we reached the school the children had stayed past noon, when the younger students normally return home. They put on a delightful program of music for us, and we visited all of the classrooms, playing the flyswatter math game and doing a craft and puppet lesson. It was with great joy that I heard some of the children read from the Bibles we gave them when we visited last year. This made the entire trip worthwhile!

Our gifts to the students this year were bananas and mosquito nets to protect them from malaria, which has been more prevalent than usual, due to the longer rainy season. It was such a blessing seeing them walk home with these life-saving nets.

Another school we visited was Royal Palace Primary and Nursery School. The children of this school also sang and danced some special songs for us. Pastor Steven and his wife, Rozelyn operate this school in their church building at Mile Eight Village.

The most extraordinary school we visited was a prison school, taught by the prisoners, themselves. (see previous post for more details on the prison) I have never seen students who took their education more seriously. Yet many of these grown women had never attended school outside of prison. Most of the students were still at Primary school level, just learning to read and write. The school is held in a solid building, nicer than most of the schools we visited, but educational materials there are almost non-existent. The women pleaded for our help in providing them with needed teachers, supplies, and work and study materials.

Finally, we visited Entebbe Early Learning Center. This is a Christian school that provides an education for many children who need protection and assistance. Nearly 100 students are boarded at this primary school. The children here presented a lengthy program for us, after which we visited their classrooms, teaching them, playing games, answering questions, and listening to more of their music and recitations. The students here were bright and engaging, and their classrooms were better equipped than the others we visited. Still, their teachers feel a need for more training and information. Unfortunately, they were unable to travel to the teacher conference we held in Tororo.

Can you spell I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E? From our perspective it would seem a relevant word to describe the obstacles faced by Ugandan teachers, parents, and students alike. Yet most Ugandans are optimistic. They believe that education is more attainable than ever, and they count on it for the future of their children and their country. The hope and enthusiasm for learning expressed by the teachers and students we met is unquenchable. It is also contagious. It has infused me with a passion for helping them achieve their goals. Just a little encouragement and a few simple materials make such a difference. As you can surely appreciate by now, one teacher in Uganda has an impact on an unusually large number of young lives. It is my desire, first and foremost, to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and then to share His love with them in practical ways that they can pass on to their students.

I am excited to see how God will lead and provide in the area of education for Heart of God East Africa. Here is a link to Heart of God International-East Africa. My recently published educational report appears in the September issue. If you feel lead to join us in providing more training and materials for Ugandan students and teachers, your contributions will be much appreciated! Please contact me for more information, or contribute directly through the HGIM website. You will be a blessing, and will also be tremendously blessed in the process.

Even though this post isn't fiction, I hope you will hop on over to Joanne's blog at An Open Book and read the stories of those who joined Fiction Friday today.


  1. Wow - what an amazing experience you and the team had, Sharlyn. I am SO glad you shared it here today. Blessings to you, and praying for these kids and teachers.

  2. Thank you for sharing this with us. It was a good reminder of how big our world really is, and how many people need our help and prayers.

  3. Amazing....I would love to do this someday.


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