Lessons from a Ugandan School

by Mari Robertson

(Story published in Anglican Planet May 3rd, 2014)

(Girls bidding farewell to their Canadian teacher; Mari Robertson, on her last day at Bishop McAllister College.)

I FIRST MET Canon Paul Jeffries fourteen years ago on one of his regular trips back to his native Canada from Bishop McAllister College in Uganda, where he serves as Rector. That first encounter planted a seed that, over the years, grew up into a desire to see for myself this Anglican school of which he spoke with such devotion. Having taught for 25 years in Canada, I was curious about participating in a different educational system. I knew I would learn far more than I would be able to offer. While the College has been operational for many years, and is academically equivalent to our high school, what clinched the decision for me was that recently an Anglican Seminary, or junior school starting at Grade Five, had been established. In February I was finally able to realize my dream. I was warmly welcomed at the airport in Entebbe by Paul Jeffries and the college’s Headmaster, Canon Caleb Twinamatsiko.

We drove five hours to West Ankole, a beautiful hilly region, which, even in that dry season, was green with banana, tea and coffee plantations. Cattle and goats grazed the countryside, while villages bustled with activity. At the school, the teachers and staff showed me great hospitality and invited me to feast on karo (millet bread) and matoke (plantain). 

Once rested, my six weeks of teaching in the Primary section of the Seminary began. Grade Five students live in residence. I arrived during the first week of the school year so was able to witness them checking in with the essentials for the term: a mattress and bedding for their share of a bunk bed in the dormitory, clothing, exercise books, a jerry can to fetch water morning and evening and a bucket for personal washing and laundry. It was the beginning of February and, except for visitors’ day in late March, the students were to say goodbye to their families until after Easter. As a parent of children back in Canada, I felt anxious for the new, younger students-- until I saw one of the most beautiful aspects of community life at Bishop McAllister. Older students in the Seminary show incredible leadership, guiding and caring for the younger ones as if they were their own younger siblings. No one is alone. The teaching staff worked in a similarly inclusive way. My name was added to the roster; I was missed if I did not make it for tea or lunch in the staffroom and, by the end of the week, I felt at home. 

Chapel services became largely student- led as the term progressed. One of the senior students would lead the others in Morning Prayer; others would read the daily scriptures, and some would select songs and initiate choral singing, accompanied by drum and often dance. Noon and Evening Prayer followed the same pattern, with younger students gradually feeling ready to read scripture, say a prayer or start a song. The training up of leaders knowledgeable about their faith was expertly enabled by Assistant Chaplain Joseph Tusingwire, a young man deeply grateful to the school he grew up in and calls home. 

He helped the students draw out the important message from the Bible lessons of the day, taught them the changing focus of the Christian year, and lovingly prepared younger students for their upcoming Confirmation. A typical weekday for young students at Bishop McAllister looks something like this.  Students wake up in their dormitories at 5:30 am and walk a short distance over to their classrooms for “Morning Prep,” which is a time to read, review their lessons from the previous day, and complete any corrections they need to make in their marked assignments. At about 7 o’clock they take their cups to get their morning maize porridge, then join their friends and teachers in the beautiful chapel of St. John the Evangelist for Morning Prayer. Classes begin at 8 am, and the curriculum is similar to the Canadian one for students of the same age: English, Social Studies , Science and Math. No second language is offered at this level, as all students are already in what could be considered “English Immersion.” Their first language is Runyankole, the language spoken in the Ankole region of Western Uganda. They begin English when they come to school, and all subjects and school activities at this level take place in English. It was fascinating to see the many similarities between their experience learning a second language and our approach with the French Immersion programs that  I teach in Canada. The emphasis in both cases is on authentic communication, debate and discussions, and public speaking to enhance vocabulary and fluency. They communicate enthusiastically in English, love to ask questions, and were very patient with my unusual accent and Canadian expressions. Social Studies  at this level focuses on Ugandan geography and history, and contains a Christian education component. Math and Science curricula are comparable, but with a much greater emphasis on animal husbandry and agriculture. The cycle of dry and rainy seasons plays an important role in life here and even in the scheduling of school holidays, when almost all students help at home with the planting and harvesting of crops like millet, maize and beans, as well as preparing food, fetching water and grazing any family cattle or goats. 

Daily classes continue until late afternoon, with breaks for lunch and tea, followed by Evening Prayer, games and communal chores such as fetching water. Evenings include another prep time in classrooms to finish assignments and consult with the teacher on duty. School lunches and suppers are posho (maize paste) with beans. Unlike in Canadian schools, mealtimes are never rushed. Students sit outside on the grass, enjoying their dinner while they relax and socialize with friends. Soccer is everyone’s favourite sport, with students gathering on the Headmaster’s front lawn to watch broadcasted matches on his TV. Boys practise their soccer skills at every opportunity, while some girls favour netball, but everyone gathers down at the school pitch for weekend games. Running is also a popular sport, with a yearly Rector’s Challenge, instituted by Canon Paul Jeffries, marking the Easter season. My experience was a joyful one from beginning to end with many transformative moments. On the first Saturday after my arrival, I made my way down from my cozy guesthouse to the school chapel for Morning Prayer, wondering what the weekend held for young Ugandan students away from home for the first time. The prayers and songs were enthusiastic as always, but with an even more carefree, Saturday morning feel. As my white face was still a new one, the younger students curiously looked back to where I was seated to see if I was able to follow their prayers and participate in their joyful music. They offered me help and exchanged smiles as they could see my joy at being among them. When the day’s work was assigned, I joined a group of students sent down to the swamp to gather papyrus to decorate the chapel. The children chatted to me about the plants and animals living in the marshy lowlands around their school hill, pointing out the fishing pond and the clay bricks dug out of the swamp and now drying in the sun. They showed me how to select, cut and expertly fasten the papyrus heads to carry back up the steep, dusty hill. 

Two hours later, after many songs and stories to pass the time while separating and spreading the leaves, we had a beautifully fragrant carpet of papyrus covering the dirt floor of the chapel. The shared memory of working together to bring beauty to our place of worship, along with the lovely fragrance of the fresh papyrus, made our time together at the next morning’s Holy Communion Service all the sweeter. 

(Photo: Praise, Grade Nine student, picking passion fruit)

On another occasion, I accompanied girls down to “Canon’s Well” to fetch water in jerry cans. A daily chore became a celebration as they stopped to pick passion fruit for me to taste, climbed guava trees and lazily hung off the branches. 

They acted as my interpreter when we met and exchanged stories with a Banyankole farmer. Hearing about their experiences with the world around them prompted me to ask them to write me letters during our classes together about themselves, their families and Uganda to share with my own students in Canada and members of the churches who pray for them. I came to treasure these as they provided a way for me to know each of the students and serve as a precious reminder of their unique personalities and situations now that I am back “this side.” Finally, there is the cumulative memory of the six-week teaching routine, in some ways so comfortable and familiar to someone who loves young students, yet in other ways like nothing I had ever experienced before. It is all part of me now: what they called “winter”; early morning study supervision in the dark and (relative) cold; our time reading and discussing stories together under the shade of the huge Eucalyptus tree in the compound; quiet times gathered under the stars praying and singing together after evening study; finally saying Orarege (goodnight) to the boys and accompanying the girls up the hilly terrain to their dormitory. The delightful curiosity, energy and hopefulness of each of thee now-beloved students I was privileged to know and work with will stay with me until we meet again. Oh yes, I am going back. 

Student letters  

Dear Madam Mari, How are you and how is your life? For me I am okay here at school. My name is Aryamanya Walter. In our family, we are five people. I lost my father and mother. We live with our grandmother and she cares for us very well and tells us how to be in future. We are two brothers and one sister. I like helping at home in some activities such as digging and washing utensils. I like playing football very much. I wish that when I am in Senior years I can become a footballer. My best subject in school is science and I do it the best that I can. I would like to be a doctor or an engineer in my future. In Uganda, we have many attractive things. There is Mount Rwenzori which is snow-capped. It is one of the highest mountains in the world and is a tourist attraction here in Uganda. We also have Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This is favourable to mountain gorillas. I wish you a safe journey and God bless you. Greet for me all your friends in Canada. Yours sincerely, Walter 

Dear Teacher Mari, I first greet you in the name of Jesus Christ. I want to tell you that we have a big family and we celebrate many feasts. We have animals like cows and goats. Our first born was officially made a Doctor, and our second born is a Reverend. The others are in secondary and then others like me are in primary. I live in Mbarara town, and my best subjects in school are Math and Science. I like them because they are the important subjects for me for my future. I like to eat millet and chicken as my favourite foods. At home I like to cook with my mother and sweep the compound. My mother always tells me to participate in house work. I would like to share my favourite verse in the Bible and it’s found in Matthew 7:7. It says: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive and anyone who seeks will find and the door will be opened to those who knock. “ Thanks for listening to me. Yours faithfully, Kellen

My prayer for Walter and Kellen and each one of the students I met is that through the work of Rector Paul Jeffries and staff at Bishop McAllister College and Seminary, as well as through your prayers and support, doors will be opened for them and they will know God’s abundant grace in their lives. 

Ways you can support the work: 

Many students at Bishop McAllister College and Bishop McAllister Anglican Seminary rely on sponsorship to be able to complete their studies. Approximately $400 Cdn ensures them tuition, residence and meals for one school year. Many sponsored students spoke to me personally of the gratitude they have for their Canadian benefactors. These young people work hard and have great hope for the future. Canadians have made a huge difference in their lives and are bringing about positive change in Uganda through them! 

View the school’s website at www.bishopmcallisteranglicanseminary.com 

Student Sponsorship information is available through the Parish of Sackville, N.B. at 125 Main St., Sackville, NB, E4L 4B2 (506) 536-0897.

Mari Robertson is a teacher and member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Sackville, NB where she lives with her family.

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