My time volunteering

My posting was Kiira College, Butiki, an all-boys boarding school, about 10 km outside of Jinja, Uganda. Like the other secondary schools in the area, the college was situated on a hill with a magnificent view over Lake Victoria, spoilt only by the chimney and white plume from the copper smelter situated by the lake. The White Nile, which leaves Lake Victoria at Jinja, was only a few km from the school and in those days it cascaded over the picturesque Bujagali Falls, now disappeared since the construction of a dam. Although virtually on the equator but being at over 1000 m altitude with generally a gentle breeze blowing much of the time from the lake to the school, the climate was almost ideal. My tasks were to teach second-year students mathematics, physics and chemistry as well as take my allocation of PE lessons. Fortunately, I had obtained text books for these subjects that had kindly been given me by the headmaster of my old school, Kind Edwards VIth, Southampton. Some of the boys that I taught could not have been very different in age from my 21 years.

The headmaster, Robert Freak, and teaching staff were all British, except for one Canadian. I shared a bungalow with another VSO, Robert Parsons. As VSOs, we were each expected to run a school society; Robert ran the African Cultural Society and created a group playing typical Ugandan instruments (a xylophone and drums). I was asked to take charge of the Exploration Society, the mandate for which seemed to be to organise weekend trips away from the school which provided me with wonderful opportunities to see more of the country. We went rock and mountain climbing, visited local sugar-cane and soap factories and went on safari to a game park.

The impact of my placement

It is difficult to judge this objectively. The feeling I had at the time was that I had benefited more than I gave, because I could not have had a more enjoyable year. I readily adapted to teaching and, from the response, felt that I did it reasonably well. When I subsequently met one of the boys whom I had taught, Stephen Paul Kagoda, who at the time was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Yoweri Museveni’s government, he did say, unprompted by me, that I was a good teacher. He obviously had made a successful career. I sometimes wonder what happened to the other boys whom I taught in view of all the killings that took place under, first Idi Amin, and then during the subsequent guerrilla war.

My unforgettable moments

There were too many to list, so I will only cite two. On two occasions, I was invited to spend a day in the village of one of the boys, which was a rare privilege. His father was the local Church of Uganda priest who wanted to show me how to make bark cloth, a material that was apparently used traditionally as clothing and bed covering. I was greeted by the boy’s mother and sister, both older than I was, who, much to my surprise and embarrassment, knelt before me. They served me matoke (boiled green bananas, a staple food in this part of Uganda) and groundnut sauce, which was delicious, unlike what the boys prepared on Exploration Society trips! I was given a chair and a spoon to eat with; the rest of the family sat on the ground and used their hands. By the end of the day, I had produced a reasonable looking piece of bark cloth; but I also bought a very nice piece which I subsequently used as a bed cover for many years, before donating it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

The other example was when I was teaching physics. The topic was pressure and I wanted to demonstrate atmospheric pressure. In the normal way, I filled a glass tube, sealed at one end, with mercury and confidently predicted that the height of the mercury once I inverted the tube into a dish of mercury would rest at around 76 cm. Once again, I was surprised and embarrassed, as the mercury rested at around 66 cm. I had not taken account of the fact that we were not at sea level!

The impact my placement has had on me

Someone said to me, ‘you won’t stop talking about it when you return’. He had been a VSO a few years earlier and, at the time, I had just been accepted to teach in Uganda. His prophecy came true; for a while after my return to the UK, I must have annoyed my friends with my continual talking about my experiences. But for me, they were seminal. Even now after 55 years, I still feel a certain nostalgia for my year as it did have a major impact on me. Certainly the teaching experience stood me in good stead for my subsequent career in which I often had to give presentations—it gave me confidence in front of others. It also made me more self-reliant which was important as on return to the UK I started a PhD research programme. Above all perhaps, it created an on-going desire to help the developing world—I have subsequently provided workshops, training courses and evaluation missions in the course of my career to several dozen developing countries particularly through the International Atomic Energy Agency, part of the UN family of organisations.

Kiira Collage, Butiki


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