Personal, Travel

The 3 Things I learned in Africa.

It’s currently 4am on a Sunday morning and for reasons I can’t explain on the internet, I am awake.

I’ve been away from Africa for a week now and although what I left was a luxurious (not very gap year) holiday in Zanzibar, it had been a month since I left my placement at Ibaako Primary school in Busesa, Iganga district, Busoga region, Uganda.

A mouthful? Wait till you get to know about the other 13+ tribes.

A little background info:

I left Singapore at the end of January to start a 5 month adventure in East Africa, starting with a school placement as a primary school teacher in Uganda. This would be followed by some travelling in Uganda itself, Kenya and finally, Tanzania, which will be the subsequent posts after this one.

I decided that before we delve into the beautiful photos of the children and scenery of of various parts of my trip to East Africa, I should write a reflection on my experience and share with whoever wants to read this; the 3 things I learned in East Africa.

Lets start with:

1. Gratitude

Coming from a more than comfortable home meant that growing up I had everything I could ever want given to me; shoes, bags, rainbow coloured pens, billabong skater shoes. You name it, and I could probably get it. One of the perks of a. being the youngest in the family and b. the only girl.

Although I had my fair share of family issues and hardships during my childhood (it may not seem like it but for those who know, you know), what some of these kids have to go through made all my problems disappear. And the best part? They always have a smile on their face coming to school.

Who else remembers dreading that first day back after summer or christmas holidays? Walking into class – you were happy to see your friends, yes, but studying? Oh hell no. Why would anyone look forward to that? I was 10, you were 10, my students were 10.

I never expected any of them to jump with joy about the thought of coming into school but when I walk into the classroom, their eyes light up and they scream “Good morning madam, we are primary 4.” and I will say “Good morning and how are you?” and they would reply with “We are very well thank you madam.” This always made my day.

Most of them had just come back from Christmas break, which would mean they were working for their parents, most likely, and if not, playing the whole day or just doing nothing. But now they had to put on their uniforms, which we all know were never made to be comfortable, pack their books and report to a slightly damaged looking school in the middle of nowhere.

Uganda has this programme called the U.P.E, which was established in 1996 that states that :

“Under this programme, the government commits itself to providing primary education for a maximum of 4 children per family. In order to comply with Uganda’s constitutional requirements on affirmative action in favour of marginalised groups, 2 of the 4 must be girls, if a family has children of both sexes. In addition, if a family has a child with disability, he or she must be granted the highest priority in enrolment under this programme.

The government pays the school fees for the children. It also provides grants to be spent on instructional materials, co-curricular activities like sport, and the management and maintenance of utilities like water and electricity.” (http://www.eenet.org.uk/resources/eenet_newsletter/news4/page7.php)

This is called progression. And yes, the government does pay school fees for the children. But there is no water in this school. And there is no electricity. Some schools do have them, yes, but not the one I went to.

I’m telling my story and my experience and if anyone else has a different story, please tell yours so please – take this all in with a pinch of salt because I’m just explaining what I saw and felt first hand and it may be different for other people.

One problem with this constitution is that most of Ugandan families have more than 4 children so they have to choose which children go to school and more often than not, it’s the boys that get priority.

This already creates an unequal divide amongst the number of boys and girls in the school that I taught at. Although in some classes, it is more equal, the total number will always have around 2x more boys than girls.

I hope you can envision what kind of environment and competition the children, and especially the girls, in this school are facing.

If not, maybe this can give you a better picture:

Most of my students didn’t have any shoes, but they still ran for their life when they played football or track – Rocks? Hot ground? Sand? Who cares? Sport = happiness and they will give their all for what they like.

Some didn’t have enough space in their books – so they would write on their covers.

Their pencils? Always down to the nib. Have you ever used your pencils until they ceased to exist? Because I don’t remember doing that.

Their pens? If they ran out of ink, they would just use their saliva to “create” more ink from the leftovers that were stained on the sides of the tubes and voila, new pen.

The care that they have for their things, because of the simple fact that belonging to them made it their responsibility, put 10 year old me to shame. It made me think – how much of my junk do I really need? Now i’m not about to throw everything in my room away because having things is part of the society that I grew up in and I honestly do not think this trip was not supposed to “change” me but instead, teach me that what I do have I should be thankful for.

2. Time.

Something about the Ugandans, or East Africans in general – they like to take their time.

Now this can be interpreted in a negative way, where people could complain all the time that nothing happens as fast as it should and yes, sometimes it can be frustrating, especially when you have somewhere to be or you’re stuck in a hospital for 4 hours (another story for another time).

But in my opinion, I find it somewhat beautiful. Before you call me a dreaming hippie, hear me out.

Time is precious. I think we can all agree on that. We can all also agree that as we get older, time seems to pass by like the cars on an F1 circuit. Bloody. Fucking. Fast.

What the East africans like to do is prioritise time spent with the people that they care about above time itself. I’m not saying that they’ve figured out a way to slow down the clock so that there are more hours in a day to do things… But what they do do is take their time with the people that they spend time with, because the interaction that occurs between themselves and the other people is more important than the hours going by.

Of course in this day and age we need to always be hustling because the fight to succeed is getting more difficult day by day, but taking time for the ones that you care about should always be more important than school, work or even time itself.

Time will never be given back so I guess what I’m saying is that I’m starting to learn how to give my time away.

3. Love.

There are various types of love. We have familial love, love for our friends, infatuation, lust, head over the heels in the clouds kind of love, forbidden love and the list goes on and on and on.

The kind of love that I felt in Africa was more of a community love. In the village that I was living in, everyone seemed to know everyone but adding on to that – instead of just a casual wave, people were actually genuinely interested for your well being. I’m not talking about a short 5 minute conversation where small talk is passed back and forth and then you both walk away.

I’m talking looking after your children because I understand that you have to work and what yours is mine. That kind of love. People in the community seemed to look out for one another without wanting anything back in return. The teachers treated me like I was one of their daughters and the children treated me like I could have been one of their older siblings.

Comparatively, in Singapore, unless you actually know the person well enough, people walk by each other everyday with their headphones plugged in – ignoring everyone else and their destination is the only thing on their mind. Which is understandable because in such a busy city, you have to keep hustling and you think there’s no time to stop and talk to anyone.

But I think we could all benefit from a few conversations with strangers once in a while, right?

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