‘Uganda? That’s in Africa, isn’t it?’ How Elizabeth McHale battled family discontent to seek adventure in The Pearl of Africa

It was a cold, wet day in November when I put my key in the lock of my front door and thought, ‘There must be more to life than this. What opportunities are just around the corner?’ I put my bags down, took off my coat, poured a glass of wine and I logged on to my laptop. And, to be honest, I didn’t even know what I was looking for?

A new challenge, excitement in my life. As I perused the job section on TES.com, one job jumped out at me, SEND teacher in Uganda. Did I know anything about Uganda? No, except that it is in Africa, something I would have to clarify more than once before my eventual departure. An email was sent to the HR manager requesting an application form. The rest, as they say, is history.

When I told family and friends I had accepted a teaching post in Uganda one name kept popping up, Idi Amin. Plus, phrases like ‘war and conflict’, ‘third world country’, ‘disease, drought and famine’. At my cousin’s christening, my uncle, now 70+ years old, gave me a firm talking to.

“Africa is no place for a woman by herself, it’s dangerous and Amin has left it in economic chaos.” The one statement that still makes me smile is, “What are you parents thinking of, letting you go to Africa!” My family and friends have never visited any part of the African continent and neither had I. What has astounded me is how huge the African continent is.

Uganda, The Pearl of Africa, a truly fitting name, has been kind to me. From the moment I arrived, the people have been sincere, generous and welcoming. Ugandans are fun to be around, always laughing and smiling. It is not surprising that Uganda was named in the top five destinations to visit in 2017.

My school is in the capital city, Kampala. Kampala is a wondrous fusion of smells, sights and sounds.  Drivers hooting, boda bodas (motorbike taxis) weaving in and out of traffic, people crossing roads, merchants selling their wares and food being cooked on the side of the roads.

Like any other place in the world, human nature being what it is, there are safety measures that you must take. Use your common sense. Don’t drink too much unless you have a lift home, take boda bodas from a registered stage (a bit like a bus stop), keep jewellery simple, only take out enough money that you may need.

In Kampala there are international restaurants, bars and clubs. One night I can eat Italian, the next Ethiopian and the following Indian. No famine here or economic chaos. You can dine at local or Muzungu restaurants, I have eaten at both.

My advice is to try the local restaurants, get out of your comfort zone. Be prepared for plenty of carbohydrates in the local dishes. Heaps of matoke, Irish potatoes and greens. If you crave junk food, you can always go to KFC or Pizza Hut!

I am teaching in an international school. It’s run by the owner, referred to as the director, a principal and several deputies. The school is a business. It is a for profit school. There is investment in the education of the students, but sometimes, not always, making money does come first.

The awareness of SEND in Uganda is only now coming to the forefront. Great strides are being made but there is a still some way to go. You need to bear in mind that Uganda is a few years behind in their awareness of SEND and struggling learners.

SEND and differentiation have made their way into everyday vocabulary within my school. Teachers are aware of autism and dyslexia for example, plus what differentiation means. Attitudes are changing as understanding about the needs of struggling learners increases. The teachers that I’ve interacted with have asked questions about ‘my children’ and how best to support them in class.

Within the classroom there is room to experiment with teaching methods, and this is supported. The assessments still need completing but how you interact with the students and teach them is up to you. Creativity is the new ‘buzz’ word in my department.

I am known as the woman who collects trash. You see my department does has a budget, but it is limited. Creating resources from trash helps with the originality found in my department.

As it is a fee-paying school, home to 60+ nationalities, students can be just as fussy as their parents. Many students have drivers, employed by their parents, who bring home cooked lunches to school at midday. My reaction when I heard of this spoke volumes. But it is considered to be the norm to bring meals from home, so they’re still hot.

Be ready for parents to question everything. Why is the homework schedule so light? What is the point of a classrooms without walls? Emails and phones calls. Boundaries need to be made but, once they are there, support from home is tremendous.

Parents just want to be kept informed, know about the progression of their child and how best they can be supported at home. Take full advantage of this as students will cooperate more once they know you speak to their parents.

However, some students are left at home with a maid or house help. This is due work commitments. Business meetings in the Middle East, Europe and America can take parents away from Uganda for weeks at a time. This is considered the norm and takes time to get used to. 

Take time to get to know your students, their likes and dislikes. Listen to them, find out about their way of life, the culture found ‘up country’ where their jjaja (grandmother) lives. If they are in trouble, you will be their first port of call. Teach them about life outside of Uganda. They enjoy hearing stories from your home. And, on a side note, be prepared for some of them to have visited more countries than you!

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