Facing the Impossible?

Before coming to Gulu I spent time making developmentally appropriate materials—bright colored card-stock circles, squares and triangles with holed to thread shoelaces through—good for small motor development, color and shape identification and creating patterns. I’ve followed the advice of someone with expertise in war-torn districts of Indonesia. This should work for the youngest children at the primary school we’ll be visiting in northern Uganda. I imagine how much pleasure the bright colors will bring, am pleased with my thoughtfulness in taking the time to make ten generous sets, so that there will be enough for several small groups.

Then I see the classroom for the three and a half to five year olds. It is brighter than the others, with homemade posters on the wall—wild birds, our bodies, transport—and cards with big letters and numbers strung around. But the layout is the same. Roughly plastered brick walls with two big holes for windows, a blackboard up front, and rows and roses of bench/desks. These children are small enough that four can fit easily at each desk. A grid on the chalkboard gives the day’s attendance: 39 boys, 33 girls; total: 72. Seventy two! Seventy two pre-schoolers in rows of desks facing front.

Forget about activity centers, forget about creative curriculum. Here there are no manipulatives, no art supplies, no materials or equipment of any kind for fine or gross motor development. There is nothing for the children to do but pay attention. And this is a private school, the best in northern Uganda, they say, one that people struggle to send their children to.

Any well-trained early childhood teacher from the US would take one look and declare the situation utterly impossible. These teachers, however, do not have that luxury. As I watch and listen, I am amazed at what they are able to do under these impossible conditions. There is a lot of call and response, a lot of singing. They have chants with arm motions that call the group to relative quiet and attention. A few of the children get to work at the blackboard, a few more are called up to dance to a song about the letters. The teachers are gentle, appreciative, generally not harsh—just very firmly in control. Clearly they use favorite songs and chants to give the children something active to do when they get restless. These also serve the purpose of giving a little practice in English (another one of the tasks in this classroom, in case they didn’t already have enough!).

At one point there is a bustle in the classroom, as 72 slates and 72 pieces of chalk are distributed, to the children can practice the letter of the day. While the class has been run by one teacher up front, two others have been in the wings, and they now circulate, helping individual children as best they can. There are plenty of other times when more individual attention would help—little bumps and squabbles and acts of aggression, hurt looks and quiet tears. The teachers either don’t see or have decided that they can’t afford to intervene—the whole has to take priority over the parts. And there are also eager faces, children excited about being together, being led by someone who likes them, getting a chance to learn.

At snack time the little round plastic buckets that children have brought from home get distributed, then a woman brings in an enormous pot of porridge. Seventy two children wash hands at the spigot of a large barrel filled with water (they are very good about washing hands) and seventy two blue plastic cups of porridge are handed out.

The morning goes on. From noon till 12:30 there is relaxed non-instruction time, but the children don’t go out because there isn’t a good and safe place for them to play. Gradually parents or older siblings come to pick them up and take them home.

I talk with the teachers. They are acutely aware of the limitations of the situation. When I ask about what they need most, they say tables. If they had tables and chairs instead of these slanty narrow bench/desks the children would have some work space. Manipulatives and art supplies could be considered.

Most of the training materials I’ve brought are irrelevant to the situation, insultingly impossible to caring teachers who are doing the best they can. I find one idea that might be useful—a way to invite children to think and share their thinking as a book is read aloud up front. It is received gratefully; clearly they want to best for these children. I start thinking of how I can raise money for tables. And I quietly back away by ten sets of brightly colored cardboard shapes and shoelaces to take home. Someday they may be the thing that’s needed. But not yet.

The School Library: Lessons of Beggars and Choosers

I’ve come to the library of the best primary school in northern Uganda to find a simple story book to use for a little reading workshop with the teachers of the young children. I find two shelves crammed to overflowing with picture books donated by well-wishers from the west. This seems promising. But as I pull them out to investigate I begin to experience irritation, followed by disbelief, and growing despair. Pokeman and Barbie do their thing in print. The Berenstain Bears watch too much TV. The Care Bears help Santa Claus. 1950’s era Dick and Jane play in a lily-white environment. Cute kittens and mischievous mice have predictable adventures in pretty suburban houses full of modern appliances. I investigate the beginning chapter books: school children gross out their classmates, give their teachers trouble, angst over who has more stuff, and go on improbable high tech adventures with non-human pals. I want to throw up.

In this dingy little library, where the dust of the dry season coats everything, the aching poverty of the people is made even harder to witness by these shelves stuffed with bright shiny castaways from our impoverished culture. The students here come from families who don’t have indoor plumbing or packaged food for the most part, much less TVs or toy stores. Parents’ dearest wish is to scrape together enough money to send their children to school.

Where are the stories that are not full of western materialist assumptions or the white faces of privileged US children? Where are the stories they can begin to relate to? How can the modest little pamphlets with tales of Ugandan life that teach children to read compete for attention with these eye-catching books filled with bold colors, luxurious illustrations, and exotic seductive content?

A student comes into the library to collect the pitiful little pile of tattered texts that have to be shared among seventy or eighty classmates. At the end of the class they are brought back to the librarian to be carefully reshelved for next time. He is acutely aware of their value, and has tried to repair some of the bindings with heavy paper and glue.

There’s a dusty little shelf with stacks of papers so ragged that I could imagine taking my arm and sweeping them all straight into the trash. But the librarian gets there first. “These are our dictionaries,” he says. “They are very good. You can see how worn they are; the children use them all the time.” Now I want to cry.

He is wistful about their needs. It would be nice to have a few stools so the children could sit and read. He would be happy to get more reference books and world history. If people want to donate, it would be great if they could give 80 copies of a story book that is relevant to life in Africa. But what they could really use is money—money to make their own choices about appropriate texts and to buy enough for every child—rather than having to be grateful for the odds and ends we don’t want anymore and feel so virtuous about throwing in their direction.

How has it happened that even in the act of giving, we who are rich get the feeling of virtue that we want, at no cost to ourselves, while they who are poor get neither what they want nor what they need? Now I’m ready to kill. Instead, I sort with a vengeance, putting Pokemon, Barbie, Care Bears, Kidzilla, Dick and Jane, and so many others into boxes to be discarded—or perhaps used as wipes in the latrine, so as not to go to waste. At least there will be less crap for them to have to be thankful for, and more space on the shelves for the time when they can get what they really need.