(September 6, 2001, Gazette)

Three weeks in Uganda

Performers outside the National Theatre in Kampala

Uganda seemed a long way away in both distance and time as we waited for our luggage at Torbay. The four weeks (less 29 hours) had passed quickly but it seemed like a year since we had left St. John’s. This paradox in the perception of time and the 35 hours of travel left Gerry Porter and I feeling a little confused and eager for sleep. But being greeted by our families and some friends provided enough excitement to take the edge off the fatigue. We were home.

(L-R) Albert Johnson, driver Ben Muwanga and Gerry Porter.(L-R) Albert Johnson, driver Ben Muwanga and Gerry Porter.

On July 25, Gerry and I travelled to Uganda to facilitate workshops for 40 Ugandan educators on integrating technology into their curriculum and instruction. The workshops are part of the Curriculumnet project at the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) in Uganda. The International Development Research Centre, the Open Learning and Information Network and the School of Continuing Education provided support for the initiative. The experience was humbling yet exhilarating, leaving us with a great appreciation for our hosts and the challenges they have set for themselves.

Our first stop was London where we were to stay 36 hours before departing for Niarobi. Friday night (July 27) found us at Heathrow once again to catch our flight. By 8 a.m. the next day we had crossed the equator and were preparing to land at Nairobi. Then a quick flight to Entebbe where we met our Ugandan hosts and left for the Kampala Sheraton, our home for the next three weeks.

Ugandan studentsThe participants approached their new experiences in computing with impressive energy.

By Tuesday, July 31, our workshop was well underway, having completed the first two days of training. Communication proved more difficult than I had imagined. I had not considered the potency of our accents, both theirs and ours. But, we worked on it diligently and made considerable headway as the week progressed.

The workshop was held at the NCDC in Kampala. The centre’s computer facility housed 12 computers of mixed vintage. The 40 participants working with us for the first week had to sit on occasion, four and five to a computer. Despite the crowded surroundings we covered basic computer skills, such as file management, word processing, presentation software and spreadsheets. We also discussed learning theory, integrating information and communication technology into their instruction, school wide technology planning, and creating and maintaining online learning communities.

For many of the participants, it was the first time they had sat in front of a computer and they impressed both Gerry and I with their approach to the work. We have rarely dealt with a group who took on a new computing experience with such zeal. We had a difficult time getting them to leave the computers for breaks. They were persistent, focused, and eager to explore the potential of the software.

Friday of our first week marked the end of the workshop for 24 of the participants. Sixteen others remained for the next two weeks to work on curriculum development projects in four areas: primary social studies and mathematics, and secondary geography and mathematics. Our hosts were anxious to mark the occasion and planned a brief ceremony on Friday afternoon to signal the end of the first session and open the next.

Week two of the workshop found us back at the NCDC working with 16 participants on instructional design and media production. I covered the basic components of the instructional design process, dealing specifically with how the process related to their context. Gerry took them through a grueling course in HTML. Again, the participants took to their work with impressive enthusiasm.

Mackerere University, KampalaMackerere University, Kampala

By the third week, the participants were ready to start creating content to share with their colleagues via a Web site that is to be one of the products of the project. On Monday morning we worked out a plan for the site and started creating content for it that afternoon. By Friday, we had a site that we could demonstrate for the Secretary of State for Education and Sport who attended the closing ceremonies that afternoon.

Our weekends were also well planned. On the Saturday morning between week one and two, we met with the staff of the project to discuss the sessions of the first week and plan the next. On Sunday we were taken to the source of the Nile, which is in Jinja, a city of 500,000 about 80 kilometres east of Kampala. The Ugandan countryside that we saw along the way was an impressive array of things that grow. The second most important natural resource in Uganda, after the people, is the ground they walk on. The soil is good and the variety of crops grown in this country is amazing. I have never seen so many versions of green. But the lush rolling hills hide some difficult living conditions. Many of the people in rural Uganda are poor, surviving on subsistence farming. But progress is being made and the prognosis is hopeful.

The Marabou Stork
The Marabou Stork

The next weekend found us at the Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe. The centre is home to a number of indigenous species that have been rescued from poachers and traffickers in wildlife.
Our experience was brought into sharp focus just before we left for the airport to return home. We were told that four or five years ago the government of Uganda enacted legislation that introduced universal primary education (UPE). This means that four children from each family were able to attend school without paying school fees. On our way to the Entebbe we stopped at Buganda Road Primary School for a brief visit. The school had been intended to accommodate 500 students from primary levels 1 through 7, our grades 1 to 7. Because of the government policy of UPE, the school currently accommodates 3,000 students in classes that average 100 to 110 students. There are approximately 40 teachers on staff.

One of the loins in the exhibit at the Entebbe wildlife Exhibition Centre
One of the loins in the exhibit at the Entebbe wildlife Exhibition Centre

Ugandans have had difficult times since they gained their independence from Britain in 1962. They are currently working diligently to build their society and create a viable economy. The complexity of the task that they face is staggering and universal education for its citizens is only one part of the solution, but a very important part and a very good place to start. I could not help but be impressed by the courage and determination of the educators that we met, and humbled by their energy and diligence as they worked to improve their school system. I hope that in some small way, we were able to help them along their journey.