Adventure is everywhere in Africa. I even found it in an elementary school, which has always been the tamest place that I know.
When I was a kid in Vancouver, school rarely felt like an adventure. I remember teachers trying to excite us by saying enthusiastic things like:
“Lets go on a math adventure!”
But such phrases never kept me or any kids engaged for long, especially if the only adventure in the math lesson was a worksheet that had jungle characters around the edge. Adventure was a dream amidst novel studies and during art class, where imagination lived. Imagination was the only glimmer of adventure in my experience at school. It lived outside of the cement walls and in some far off land of untamed nature and space to move around and explore or create.
After exploring the Kakamega forest and surviving the puff adders and elusive leopards Joe I returned to Uganda. It was the beginning of school term right after the Christmas break. I was set up to teach grade 5 at a local elementary school in the town of Jinja through the Ugandan rugby union.
I honestly felt quite nervous. I was a new teacher with very little practical experience and I would be responsible for 40+ students with little resources. Leading up to my first day I wondered often about how I was going to do it, because it was up to me to make a difference and come the rescue right?
Wrong. The western myth of being a sole hero fell short. I needed a village to help me. Luckily a wise and dedicated grade 7 teacher graciously took me under his wing. He introduced me to the school and showed me my classroom. This room was rectangular with only a cement floor and a dusty, dark blackboard. There were no lights, no projector, no books or posters or anything with colour to enhance learning. The only other thing I had in the room were a collection of hornets nests that lived in the ceiling (which were three times larger than any I had ever seen).
I observed many classes in the school and the structure of lessons were different to what I was used to in Vancouver, there was a lot of memorization and very little hands on activities. But after observing I soon saw why. Can you imagine doing a hands on experiment with 40+ students all in a row and cramped knee to knee? I surely cannot.
The first attempt at teaching I had a lot of gigglers in the class probably because I was young, I didn’t speak their local language and I was a mzungu (white person). Although I looked different and spoke with a different accent the students listened dutifully as I stumbled through a lesson about the germination of a seed. I quickly learned being in the classroom was a challenge so I created a science unit that allowed me and the students to survey the compound of the school to create a vegetable plot that the school could use for food.
This science unit really became a science adventure and not one confined to the lab. The mentor teacher led me to the supply room. A pile of rusty machetes and hoes lay forgotten in a corner amidst piles of books.
Are the students really allowed to use machetes at school? I asked my friend.
“Certainly” he said confidently “It is not a problem.”
“Ok,” I said wearily, my mind whirling. Sharp objects at school? Machetes given to ten year olds? This is different! I thought as we lumbered to the fields with the pile of tools. I tried to organize them but chaos swiftly ensued. There was hectic hacking and girls giggling by the side and aggravated groaning and immaturity that I would expect from kids at home.
I stood wide eyed and concerned then started micro managing them, an ingrained teacher strategy that is sometimes useful. But this method wasn’t working. I turned to the other teacher who seemed totally casual. So I joined him and watched him direct the students with a wave of the hand. I was thankful for his ability to communicate with the kids much better than I. Before long the hardworking 20% of the class got the plot cleared and marked off for planting the seeds.
At one point I joined the students and used the hoe along side them. They found this very comical and some cheeky students gave me pointers as I attempted the work.
The gardening allowed me to connect with the students easier and it was satisfying to see the transformation of the land. What started as a meadow of weeds where snakes might like to hide became a fully functional and abundant little space to cultivate. It was amazing to see how rapid the seeds grew to full harvest. A true testament to Winston Churchill’s description of Uganda being the Pearl of Africa.
All of these experiences shaped my understanding of what teaching in a different country means and the importance of entering in with grace. I had ideas about what it would be like to teach in Africa, most of them were passed down from television or word of mouth but these examples only offered one story. I found that every experience teaching in this school was different because every school is a unique combination of students and teachers and resources that combine to make it what it is, many stories of many people. A school is a community. The teacher is only one piece in the greater puzzle. After the unit I came to believe gardening was the bridge that connected us and our cultural differences it was a language in itself that helped me communicate to the kids in that school.
This experience also enhanced my writing and helped me create a vivid sense of place in my novel. Wisdom like this is more precious than gold. A little gift from a land a far that sheds light on the importance of unity and stepping out of the inner circle to build bridges instead of walls.