Sunday, August 14, 2005

About This Blog

This blog is presented below, on one large web page, in reverse chronological order. Here is a table of contents in the actual chronological order, with brief descriptions and links to a separate page for each entry. You can click any image to see a larger version of it.

Tuning Up - July 9 - Pre-trip notes on African music

Kilimanjaro to Ndutu - July 18 to 24 - On safari in Tanzania

Western Serengeti to Fort Portal, Uganda - July 25 to August 3 - Safari, then gorillas in Uganda, then first days at Kasiisi School

Kasiisi School Days: Dominic's Walk - August 5 - A student's long daily walk to Kasiisi School

Teaching and Learning at Kasiisi School - posted August 11

Kanywara School, and Kiko Too? - posted August 13 - Nearby schools that are, or may become, funded in part from America

Kasiisi School Days: Teaching with Beatrice - posted August 14 - Chicka Boom Boom! among new friends

From Fort Portal to Kampala in 10 Million Years - posted August 14 - Larger context including geology, ecology, change, and challenges facing Uganda, her people, and her schools

What Next? - posted August 14 - How to work best with colleagues and friends in Uganda and America?

What Next?

Entebbe, Uganda
Sunday, August 14, 2005

What are the best ways to work with Ugandan colleagues and friends for the benefit of all?

In our understanding and observation, one overarching principle has emerged during Elizabeth Ross's experiences with the Kasiisi and Kanyawara schools in Uganda. Permanent change can come only from the inside, only from the people themselves, never from the outside. We on the outside can only prime the pump to the best of our ability, and sometimes advise carefully based on our own knowledge and experience. We on the outside can never know the full story as the Ugandans themselves do. We cannot exercise good judgment on our own about what will work and what will fail. Therefore:

Fundamental principle: The Ugandan people must themselves make all decisions about allocation of resources that come from the outside.

In particular, we on the outside must not seek to help individual people directly. We must only deliver resources - money, goods, time, other things - to those people in Uganda who are in the best position to make well-informed, effective, far-seeing decisions. Elizabeth's experiences have shown this to be true again and again. We can advise in cases where we have direct experience, for example in certain applications of technology. But we must not take on actual decision-making, however tempting that might be.

Kasiisi School, Kanyawara School, and any other local school or schools that might become “adopted” by us in America, are all overseen by a School Committee that meets at least once each term and that follows progress both informally and formally. Committee members include the schools’ headmasters/mistresses, a designated teacher representative from each school, the chairperson of the parent-teacher organization, and two or three members elected by parents. The current Committee for Kasiisi-Kanyawara is chaired ex officio by Professor John Kasanene of Makerere University, husband of Kasiisi headmistress Elizabeth (Lydia) Kasenene. Professor Kasenene, an indefatigable organizer and get-it-done person, works with Richard Wrangham on chimpanzee research at Kibale.

The school committee is now considering, or might soon consider, any of the below areas as being worthy of near-term investment of funds raised in American and/or provided by the Ugandan federal government. The areas are listed in no particular order.

Shelter: Any school has to provide shelter from the elements. Elizabeth Ross, with direct and indirect assistance from many people, has brought Kasiisi and Kanyawara schools from teaching outdoors under trees to where these schools are today, fully sheltered with only relatively few structural improvements seen as being critical.

Water: Both schools have water collection systems for runoff from roofs. Both systems are broken, and both are truly repairable only with some significant investment. Local people have either sabotaged the systems, or the systems were not designed and/or built properly. The primary challenge with water is to provide it reliably during the two dry seasons as well as the two wet seasons each year. The secondary challenge is to provide water that is not co-opted by nearby local residents, and not sabotaged by them out of malice or out of a sense of deep-down unfairness: "why should those children from far away get to use water that comes from sky and ground here where I live, but I am not allowed to use it at all?" What then is the right approach to providing water at the schools? Only the local people themselves can see all of the complexities and find the right way.

Food: It is well known that effective learning requires good nutrition. A small minority of students at the schools appear to eat enough during the day to stay alert and engaged. Their families simply do not have enough food. Cate Wrangham-Briggs, Elizabeth Ross's sister-in-law, is investigating funding for a program that would feed each P3-P7 child once per school day. This would seem to be an essential next step. Again, only the local people will understand the full details of how to accomplish this. What foods will really work? What about workers to prepare the foods and deliver them? Where will food be stored? Can food be supplied without also supplying water?

Security: Schools suffer from frequent break-ins and theft. Though most windows have heavy steel bars, the openings are large enough for hands to reach in or even small children to wriggle in. Often, posters and other materials hanging on walls are torn down, perhaps maliciously. Water systems are broken. Books would be taken if offices and library rooms are not secured very carefully. Kasiisi has a night watchman who is not always punctual or reliable, and this partial security services costs real money. How then to protect a school, especially on weekends, when the cost of 24 hour security services becomes prohibitive? One thought is to build housing for teachers on the school grounds. An occupied house or apartment next to a water system is enough to deter nearly all ill-wishers. At the same time, offering housing for teachers will tend to attract better teachers and keep the better ones nvolved and engaged in the school. New staff housing already has been built near Kanyawara School - but not on the school grounds - and it is under active consideration at Kasiisi.

Staff improvement: Except for the very brightest of children, learning is no better than the teaching used to guide it. The Kasiisi and Kanyawara teachers are highly motivated and effective. But their own training and backgrounds are often limited. There is a large amount of room for expanding and refining teacher knowledge and skills. A key direction could be to fund more advanced training for teachers, or more numerous and advanced seminars and in-service training. The teachers are more than willing to put in time. The obstacles, as always, are resources, time, organization, and specific plans to achieve the improvements. Where in the relative priorities should teacher improvement be? Again, we believe that only the local people can make the right judgments.

Health: Any number of health initiatives could be viewed as absolutely necessary. Malaria kills 80,000 people every year in Uganda. Proportional to population, this would be equivalent to nearly 1 million deaths per year in the US, which would of course be an enormous health issue. Use of mosquito nets could significantly reduce the number of parents and children affected by malaria. Could this be the most important investment for health? The HIV infection rate in Kabarole District is relatively high. Sufferers can rarely afford anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that can dramatically prolong useful and productive lives. Investing here could have major impact, as could extensive new preventive measures. The current Ugandan initiatives on HIV are focusing on abstinence for prevention. In another direction, providing special latrines for girls in P6 and P7 (corresponding to our grades 5 and 6) could keep many girls in school who now drop out to deal with the problems and challenges of entering adolescence. This could be a very cost-effective investment.

School materials: The school library is locked unless there are teachers or other staff members in close proximity. We did not see any children check out items from the library. There are many, many old textbooks. There are also very many excellent materials ranging from wall maps to globes to textbooks. There have never been enough textbooks for the numbers of pupils at the school. Would this be a very high priority direction of investment? We did not see children reading on their own, which might suggest no, but the reason we didn’t see them reading could be the lack of books for all, i.e. a vicious circle.

Electricity: Power is more expensive in Uganda than in the US (as are gasoline and other petroleum derivatives – gas is $1 per liter). Electricity is a prerequisite for teaching about modern technologies and applying those technologies. But the costs may be prohibitive for now, and the question of security remains for any electrical or electronic devices that may be brought in.

Student scholarships: There are currently some 27 scholarship students from Kasiisi and Kanyawara in secondary schools in and around Fort Portal. A year of day or boarding school costs between $150 and $500, plus costs for uniforms, books and other materials. Each scholarship student represents a shining hope for a family and a child. Possibly the best thing that could happen to a school like Kasiisi is to have a graduate succeed in a highly visible and remunerative fashion. Such cases elsewhere have galvanized entire communities to focus attention and resources on their schools, seeking to gain similar rewards. Placing money in scholarships could be the single most important kind of investment. Again, as with all forms of investment, only the members of the community, as represented by the School Committee, are in a position to make good decisions about whom and when and how much.

There are undoubtedly several more areas in which funds from any and all sources could be very usefully invested. We on the outside can provide funds and a certain amount of advice, but permanent progress can come only from the hearts, minds and efforts of the Ugandan people themselves. Our brief experience in Uganda has made us confident that her people are more than sufficiently capable and devoted to bring such progress. We hope we can be a part of it, and that we can enjoy and admire successful outcomes along with our new-found Ugandan friends and colleagues.

From Fort Portal to Kampala in 10 Million Years

Entebbe, Uganda
Sunday, August 14, 2005

To be alive is to change. Actually, to exist at all is to change. If nothing changed, what evidence would there be of the passage of time? The Navajo have no nouns, only verbs: for example, they know only of "mountaining", which is a process of earth and rock rising and then eroding and eventually disappearing.

Standing on a high hill near Fort Portal, one sees wave after wave of steep hills and valleys (photo) coursing west to the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains. The high Ruwenzoris, higher than the Alps, remained completely invisible during our 10 days at Kasiisi School. Only the foothills showed themselves once in a while.

Ten million years ago, the Ruwenzoris did not exist. What is now the Congo Basin stretched all the way across central Africa, along the Equator, to the coast of what is now Somalia, Tanzania and Mozambique. The very heavy rainfalls found now in the Congo carried on winds all the way to Africa’s east coast. Deep jungle spanned the continent. The Ruwenzoris rose some 10 million years ago as two contintental plates pulled eastward and westward away from each other under the surface of East Africa. The rending opened the eastern and western sections of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. This rift extends northward all the way up to and including the Dead Sea. A huge dome of magma welled up between the Rift Valleys in Africa to create the high elevations of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Volcanoes were, and are, everywhere across the landscape. Gigantic pressures and gradual movements folded the steep hills around Fort Portal, pushed the Ruwenzori high into the sky, and left a wide shallow basin now filled with Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world after Lake Superior.

These processes continue today. In our brief lives we cannot see the changes, but they continue at the same rate as they have for millions of years.

There are active volcanoes today, the Virungas, along the border between Uganda and Rwanda some 75 miles south of Fort Portal. About 10,000 years ago, numerous volcanoes erupted at and very near what is now Kasiisi School, covering the this region with rich ashes that were compacted and then eroded into extremely fertile soil. These events happened just a few moments ago in geological time, and well within the collective memories or myths of the peoples who lived here at that time. (It would be interesting to research what those collective memories or myths are.) Many of the volcanic cones here are now filled with water that is hundreds of feet deep, forming the beautiful crater lakes of Kabarole. Among the most beautiful of them is the one at Ndali Lodge, which is perched on a knife-edge volcanic rim 13 km southwest of Kasiisi (photo).

The continental plates under East Africa continue to pull away from each other. There is rising and falling now between the Rift Valleys. Volcanoes will erupt again near Kasiisi in a few hundreds or thousands of years. The people here will have have to adapt, to change their ways or quite likely their homes, to adjust to the forces at work around them.

Ten million years ago there were many kinds of apes, or their precursor mammals, along the Equator in Africa, from coast to coast, well adapted to the deep rain forest now found in the Congo but not now in East Africa. The rising Ruwenzoris became a barrier to the eastward movement of clouds and rain. The "rain shadow" on the east side of the Ruwenzoris, not far from Fort Portal, gradually became a relatively dry savannah much like the Serengeti Plain of nothern Tanzania. This was a enormous and challenging change for the apes. Many kinds of ape no doubt became extinct because their food sources and safe-haven trees changed or disappeared. Some apes survived, through chance adaptations in behavior or location.

Between 5 and 7 million years ago there was a split among three species of apes: the ancestors of today’s gorillas, the ancestors of today’s chimpanzees, and our own ancestors. The split very likely occured in western Uganda or western Tanzania, since these were along the boundaries of the changed climatic and geographic conditions that forced change among all affected creatures. New species form under the twin conditions of isolation and environmental variation . Today’s landscape, a mosaic of rain forests, savannah and mountains, differs from the environment of 6 million years ago mostly in swaths of human-tilled open land that have replaced rain forest.

A few miles away from Kasiisi School, in Kibale Forest, about 1,500 chimpanzees still live as they and their ancestors have lived for 6 million years. Another 70 miles to the south, in Bwindi, gorillas (photo) and chimpanzees still live as they have for equally long. There are about 5,000 total chimpanzees left in Uganda. A square kilometer can support about 2 chimps. Each square kilometer in Fort Portal’s district now supports about 300 humans. Near Bwindi there are as many as 700 people per square kilometer. Chimps are under extreme environmental pressure wherever they remain across central Africa.

Chimpanzees and gorillas continue to evolve just as humans continue to evolve, though probably at a much slower rate. The apes who eventually became humans began to walk on their hind legs about 6 million years ago. About 2 million years ago this line of beings began to craft tools from stone. Chimpanzees and gorillas also use tools, but they do not fashion them in the complex ways that humans do. About 150,000 years ago, fully modern humans began migrating out of this region of Africa to all lands around the globe except for Antarctica. The descendents of these humans are strongest and most rapidly moving agents of change in Fort Portal, across Uganda, and indeed over the whole planet.

What we see, then, in the landscape around Fort Portal is a profound mix of the effects of change. The very ground is brand-new geologically and could change any day. The people here are descended from others who migrated here thousands of years ago, most likely coming from the west. Bananas are the most common crop here by far, but people brought them to this region from points east only about 2,000 years ago. People also brought long-horned Ankole cattle here from somewhere in the north and east: these cattle look very much like the ones painted in ancient Egyptian tombs. Maize, potatoes and tomatoes arrived here from the New World no more than about 300 years ago. Explorers and missionaries showed up sporadically starting in the early and mid 1800s. Colonization came in the late 1800s. Around 1890, representatives of several European powers drew the political boundaries of what is modern-day Africa – and not one African person was present for this event. Most of the large trees around Fort Portal, including eucalyptus and many kinds of pine, are foreign and were planted for shade or for use as firewood and building materials. The British created massive tea, coffee, cotton and sugar plantations in Uganda, not because any of these were indigenous or part of the local agriculture, but only to use inexpensive labor for highly profitable commercial ventures. Plantations are alien to both the culture and ecology of this region. Thousands or tens of thousands of workers were uprooted from their home places and became tied to the plantations, not to their own people. This pattern persists.

Uganda became a free nation only 43 years ago. War has torn the country several times since then. The pace of change has increased in recent decades. Today’s people at Kasiisi, Fort Portal, and across the rest of Uganda face perhaps the most unsettling and demanding kinds of change that humans in this part of the world ever have.

The road between Fort Portal and Uganda’s capital Kampala was finally fully paved for its entire length only this year, in early 2005. The distance is 300+ km, somewhat more than Boston to Albany NY. Driving eastwards out of Fort Portal towards Kampala – "down shadow" from the Ruwenzoris and the rain forests – you pass massive tea plantations with Kibale Forest looming in the distance beyond them. Chimpanzees avoid entering and crossing tea acreage because they are exposed to danger and there is no food there. There are few vehicles on this excellent road early on a Wednesday morning, because the road has not yet had time to generate the flow of goods that it can support.

Going further east from Fort Portal to Kampala, the land gradually slopes downwards by some 2,000 feet of elevation. It becomes drier and less heavily covered with vegatation. The climate remains remarkably pleasant. The air continues to be hazy and pungent from land-clearing fires (photo), from fires for creating charcoal that sits in burlap bags along the road awaiting transport to Kampala, from smoke from brick-making kilns, and from cooking fires. Along the road are large granite outcrops – called kopjes – like those around Mwanza in Tanzania. The Kampala area is characterized by numerous small hills that are few hundred feet high and are separated by a few km from each other. Kampala is built on seven hills, like Rome. The road deteriorates as you approach Kampala, because this section is much older and has already generated a heavy flow of goods, which has led of course to much wear and tear. Kampala is a riot of color and motion and diversity. Internet cafes are everywhere. All manner of people, even small farmers and motorcycle taxi drivers, use mobile phones. Large commercial airliners – 767s and A330s – roar over the city as they take off from the airport at Entebbe, 35 km south. We had a superb lunch in a near-brand-new hotel. This is a modern, yet not quite modern, world.

Uganda’s economy is currently about 95% agricultural, most of it subsistence, and about 2% manufacturing. How will Ugandans prosper in the midst of rapid global evolution? Education is the most powerful weapon of change in the world, said Nelson Mandela. The people of Uganda, as a whole, must become keenly aware of exactly where they are, and exactly what they need to do in order to find and hold an enduring place on our planet.

Kasiisi School Days: Teaching with Beatrice

Entebbe, Uganda
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Months ago, while taking an Anti-Bias class in Wayland, I met a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. When I told her that I would be traveling to Uganda in August, she said, "Oh, you will love the people." Our Bradt travel guide states, "Ugandans as a whole – both those working within the tourist industry and the ordinary man or woman on the street - genuinely do come across as the most warm, friendly and relaxed hosts imaginable." We have found my Congolese classmate and our travel guide to be absolutely accurate. We have loved the people here. The Kasiisi and Kanyawara teachers, in particular, stand out as among the most gracious people we’ve ever met.

The timing of our visit to the schools was not ideal from a Ugandan teacher’s perspective, given the pressure of exams on the near horizon. Even so, we were welcomed with open arms. Throughout our stay, we were delighted and touched by the ongoing openness and generosity of spirit we experienced each and every day. We will never forget the countless acts of kindness and friendship bestowed upon us. We leave our new friends with a heightened awareness that so much more connects us than divides us.

Whether the teacher was a veteran, as Livingston, with 21 years experience, or brand new to the profession, as Agnes, with only 4 months in the field, every teacher made an effort to reach out and connect with us both personally and professionally. We were invited to observe in all classrooms. Teachers were eager to hear our feedback, and were pleased by our responses. They wanted to hear all about our American ways.

So often, we observed teachers willing to go above and beyond what was expected, for the benefit of their students, and for our benefit as well. One P-5 teacher, Moses, arranged visits to the homes of two students and their families, and then accompanied us to both. He acted as facilitator, guide, translator, friend. We met Lillian (rightmost in the photo, with her sister Joan) in her home at the crack of dawn before it was fully light. Late in the day, we traveled to Dominic’s home and met his father. These visits extended Moses’s school day in ways we can’t even know.

We observed incredible energy, commitment, spirit, and good humor among these teachers. We also saw a willingness to take risks. One of the books we took along to Kasiisi was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. This story, told in rollicking rhyme, is a Kindergarten/Grade 1 classic about the letters of the alphabet climbing up a coconut tree. I asked Beatrice (photo), a fabulous P-1 (Kindergarten) teacher how she felt about risking a little chaos in her classroom of 99 very young students. Classes are very orderly here! Beatrice was game, so we jumped in. I began by asking the children if they could recite their ABCs. They responded by singing their version of the alphabet song. When I asked for a second round, and they sang it again with gusto!

I read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom aloud (photo), and on the second reading, the class was eager to fill in many of the rhyming words. I was elated with the happiness, responsiveness, and enthusiasm of these eager little ones.

I taught the children the following chant/response:

I said "Boom Chicka Boom"
(kids repeat)
I said "Boom Chicka BOOM"
(kids repeat)
I said "Boom Chicka, Rocka Chicka, Rocka Chicka BOOM!"
(kids repeat)

The kids loved it, and called right out with rousing 6 and 7 year old voices! We had been able to purchase 7 coconuts in Fort Portal, and after passing them around, and talking about texture and color words, P-5 teacher Andrew was kind enough to crack them open with a panga (machete). We carved out 120 small pieces, and each youngster experienced the brand new taste of coconut. More new words, first in Rutooro, then in English were added to the blackboard…We had made 200 photocopies of a Chicka Chicka response sheet in Fort Portal, and 99 bright eyed P-1's gasped when given their own sheet of paper to write on, and their own colored pencils to draw with.

Here’s one part of the story that will endure in our hearts...After each child had received a piece of coconut, Beatrice disappeared momentarily with 20 or so small remaining pieces. When she returned, we learned that she had shared these bits with Kate, her friend and neighboring P-2 teacher. Those 20 small pieces were shared equally among Kate’s 100 children! Instantly, we went to work cutting 100 more pieces of coconut, and by the end of break time, the task was accomplished. We repeated the Chicka Chicka Boom Boom lesson in P-2 that day, and experienced another round of success with Kate and her delightful children.

Generosity, sharing, patience, and respect are part of the fabric of this culture. We observed these qualities in the children daily as they shared colored pencils, as they waited for materials, as they listened attentively to their teachers and to their classmates. We observed the same qualities in the teachers as they supported our efforts, shared their time, children, and classrooms, and listened with interest as we described the resource books and materials we brought with us to Uganda.

One day during a break, a few teachers and I sat in the shade of one of Kasiisi’s trees and talked about a wish list. Their requests included: safe and secure housing, a simple lunch for students and teachers, an opportunity for them to observe their peers, an opportunity to further their training, an opportunity to visit Uganda's national parks (the parks are included in the curriculum, but few teachers have visited them), access to crayons, drawing paper, and markers, money for additional exercise books (most students have just one for all subjects, making correcting difficult), uniforms for the choir, musical instruments, and finally, tennis shoes to wear when teaching PE. These seem like modest requests, but none are easy or simple to carry out.

When we left Kasiisi and Kanyawara, we were showered with gifts. A paper mache mango. A basket. Carved wooden animals for Field School. A handmade bead bracelet. Woven placemats. A beautiful, locally made school bag. Two avacados. A fresh mango. Freshly cut doodo (pronounced doe-doe). Doodo is a spinach-like vegetable that we came to love. A teacher remembered our fondness for it, and brought some fresh from her garden.

Most importantly, we left Kabarole District with the priceless gift of friendship, and a deep desire to return as soon as we can do so.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Kanyawara School, and Kiko Too?

Entebbe, Uganda
Saturday, August 13, 2005

Elizabeth Ross's husband, Professor Richard Wrangham, is director of the Kibale Forest Chimpanzee Research Station, where we stayed while working at Kasiisi School. Elizabeth and Richard first came to Kibale in the late 1980s. By the mid 90s they knew they wanted to help the children of the Station's workers to become better educated.

The nearest school to the Station was and is Kanyawara, a very small community found on only the most detailed maps. The school at that time consisted of one tree under which classes were held for a few students. As events turned out, Kasiisi School, about 5 km further away than Kanyawara from the Field Station going towards Fort Portal, became first in line for construction of buildings. But Kanyawara has never left Elizabeth's and Richard's hearts, and it too has prospered in the 8 or 9 nine years of progress in schools near the Station. The photo shows the wonderful mural at the end of Kanyawara's first building, and the original tree under which classes used to be held.

Kanyawara School is about half the size of Kasiisi School in numbers of students and teachers. Conditions are essentially the same as in Kasiisi in nearly all respects, except for two significant areas: the Kanyawara buildings are not as complete or solid as the Kasiisi ones, and there are now two staff housing units associated with Kanyawara but none with Kasiisi. The staff housing is a major step forward for Kanyawara, bringing higher staff satisfaction and motivation, and attracting the interest of stronger teachers. Good housing is difficult to find in these rural areas. The newest staff building is shown in the photo. This building will house 6 teachers.

Kasiisi and Kanyawara have always been partnered on the Uganda side of Weston's association with Uganda, though Kanyawara has received less attention. With our visit to Uganda, we hope to bring Kanyawara more into the limelight, as this school surely deserves.

Because of Elizabeth's successes at Kasiisi and Kanywara, other local communities have shown great interest in being "adopted" too for their children's educations. Current candidate schools are Kiko, which is a few miles north of Kasiisi and the site of large tea plantations (photo), and Kigarama, which is a small market town just up the road from Kasiisi.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Teaching and Learning at Kasiisi School

Entebbe, Uganda
Thursday, August 11, 2005

When children arrive at Kasiisi School between 7 and 8 AM, many or most carry out daily cleaning tasks, sweeping classrooms with grass brooms that they make at home (photo), picking up litter on the grounds, and so forth. Assembly on the football field is at 8 AM, followed by very orderly and very quiet streaming of children to their classrooms.

The school has 5 blocks of classrooms and offices. All have been built since 1997 through the tremendous good works of Elizabeth Ross of Weston, along with her husband Richard Wrangham and her sister-in-law Catherine Wrangham-Briggs. Funds have come from Weston Field School, Weston Middle School, First Parish Church and St. Peter's Church in Weston, and interested and generous families from Weston and other communities. The Uganda government began supplying additional funds after it became clear that this school was on a successful track.

One block of two classrooms remains unfinished. It has end walls and a roof, but no side walls. Side wall construction was designated as a project for local parents. Lack of time, funds and organization among them continues to delay this work.

Classes go from P1 to P7, where P1 corresponds to our kindergarten and P7 is equivalent to our sixth grade. Total enrollment now is about 1,100. Daily attendance is typically between 800 and 900, heavily skewed to the lower grades. On a recent day the attendances for P1-P7 were 200, 139, 128, 95, 109, 97 and 57 respectively. Children in P1 and P2 go home after 1PM, the rest after second assembly that convenes at 4PM.

The school year has three terms with 2-week breaks between successive terms. There is no long vacation as we have. The terms start in January, May and September. Right now the students at Kasiisi are studying for their end-of-term exams, which will commence in another week or so. Most of the teaching and learning right now is review (called revision here) and drill in preparation for exams.

The day is broken up into three sets of three successive 40-minute classes that go 8-10 AM, 11AM-1PM, and 2-4PM (for P3-P7 only). Subjects include English, mathematics, social studies, science, agriculture, home economics, and Christian religious education - Uganda as a country has been officially Christian since the early 1900s. As noted earlier, there are assemblies at 8 AM, 2 PM and 4 PM. The 8 AM assembly features the Uganda national anthem and the Toro anthem, from the Kingdom of Toro, which still exists in a strong ceremonial and cultural sense and is centered in nearby Fort Portal. The 4 PM assembly includes singing of the Lord's Prayer. The Friday midday assembly is dedicated to education about HIV and AIDS. Kasiisi School has its own heraldic crest. The school's motto is "Knowledge is Wealth".

Curriculum changes in Uganda every 5 years or so. The national primary curriculum comprises two very large volumes. Teachers prepare their daily lessons based squarely on the curriculum. There is little improvisation outside its guidelines. Classes at Kasiisi are conducted in the local language, Rutooro, for P1-P4 and entirely in English thereafter. Children begin English classes in P1.

Kasiisi has 18 teachers plus an assistant to headmistress Elizabeth (Lydia) Kasenene. Like the children, the teachers walk to work from nearby apartments or villages. Some ride bicycles. Teachers and police are among the lowest paid civil servants in Uganda. A primary teacher earns about $80 per month on average. Paychecks often arrive late. Few teachers are married. Most teachers are sharing their incomes with their extended families.

Headmistress Elizabeth runs a very tight, clean, organized and disciplined school. It is the highest-rated primary school in Kabarole District, which has some 100 primary and secondary schools serving about 600,000 total population. Elizabeth drives her car to school, which is probably quite unusual in this rural area.

Much or most of the work done at school in America by assistants and custodial staff is done at Kasiisi by students, including gathering and organizing printed materials, moving chairs, cleaning the rooms and grounds, and so forth.

Teachers come extremely well prepared for their lesssons, in our observation. Classes are organized similarly across all grades. The teacher drives everything, starting with a verbal/oral introduction to the lesson's materials. Everything is done through recitation in unison. After an initial introduction the teacher will stop speaking after every few words, say "what?", and the children will respond in unison with the word or short phrase that is being elicited. The teacher continues by writing a few examples of the lesson subject on the blackboard in chalk. He/she will ask for a volunteer to read one of the examples. Many hands shoot up. No child speaks until called on to speak. The selected child stands and reads, or recites, or spells, or whatever is called for. The teacher and students work out the examples together.

There is extraordinary discipline, yet almost no calls for discipline or order from the teacher. In our many hours sitting in classes at Kasiisi, we saw only one or two very brief and very matter of fact statements to children related to discipline. When the teacher leaves the room the children remain almost totally quiet, only a slight whispering among them, hardly enough even to hear. On one occasion we sat for some 20 minutes after the teacher had been called away to meet visitors; the class of 60+ students remained absolutely quiet and calm throughout - and it was not because we were present - we asked, and we saw similar things happen later in our visits.

After presenting and reciting examples interactively, the teacher writes several more related questions on the blackboard. Children copy them verbatim into composition books, in pen, and write the answers down. The teacher circulates among the students and corrects their work as it is being completed. Much of the marking happens right then and there. The teacher will finish marking the composition books later, during school hours. Children take their books and pens home with them each night. The children use only these composition books except for rare special occasions when textbooks or other books are made available. In nearly all cases, there are nowhere near enough books for each child to work from his or her own.

During recitation, if a child does particularly well, the teacher calls on the students to clap. They respond vigorously with clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, CLAP. This kind of praise is quite rare, maybe once per class. Teachers do not praise effusively, and they also do not criticize. If a responding child makes a mistake, the teacher matter of factly goes to another volunteer. There is a distinct rhythm and pace to the teaching and learning. In classes of 30 to 100+ students, the approach and the techniques seem to work very well. Maybe the Ugandans have found, through long experience, the best way to work in very large classes of children who are mostly learning in a second language, English.

Children ask no spontaneous questions, and teachers apparently never solicit questions. Teachers in P4 and above will sometimes speak quickly in the local language, Rutooro, to make a complex point or to ensure that they are understood. The teacher will call on a child to get an eraser from the next room and clear the blackboard, which is not a real blackboard but actually a special black paint on the cement wall. Children are often taken out of ongoing classes in ones or twos to do some small job like moving chairs from room to room.

In the face of many, many obstacles unfamiliar to us, these teachers and these schools are doing an extraordinary job of preparing the next generation. It's humbling, and exalting, to see such effort and such skill and such dedication being applied, day in and day out, with the most rudimentary of materials.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Kasiisi School Days: Dominic's Walk

Near Fort Portal, Uganda
Friday, August 5, 2005

We are about 15 miles from the Rwenzori Mountains, snow-capped at 18,000 feet and only 25 miles from the Equator. These are Africa's fabled Mountains of the Moon. But we cannot see them through the haze, mist and clouds, except for dim outlines of foothills.

Two nights ago an earthquake roared through the rain forest. You can hear it coming, like a very fast but short train racing at you and then as quickly gone. The nights are otherwise quiet with only Colobus monkey calls, occasional hoots from chimpanzees, distant thunder, and densely packed insect sounds.

Dominic, 12 years old, awakens around 4:45 AM, not by a clock but by a sure knowledge that now is the time to start the day. This has been his schoolday routine for 7 years. He is the third of five children and a very good student. He dreams of becoming an airline pilot. His father's small shamba - plantation - is 10 km by path and road from Kasiisi School. The nearest electricity is 2 miles away and unavailable.

A few minutes later Dominic steps outside and starts his walk to school. It is cool, damp, pitch dark, and mostly cloudy with a few stars faintly visible in the breaks. The first few hundred yards are very steeply uphill past his family's banana trees mixed with harvested maize stalks, avocado trees, coffee bushes, pumpkin/squash vines, cassava bushes, pigeon peas, tomato plants and potato plants. A few acres of small-holder tea surrounds and buffers the shamba's food crops from the nearby forest.

One night a few months ago near here, a chimpanzee from the forest hunting along the edges of shambas killed a very small child, not with any intent of attacking humans but only seeking food. This was a very rare event, symptomatic of tensions that arise when humans press upon the edges of the forest. Vastly more dangerous to humans are the hippos and elephants found in abundance in western Uganda.

At the top of the first incline, Dominic whistles quietly to summon his two nearby school companions. Both soon whistle back and they join for the next 3 km stretch to the main road. The path winds upwards with a sharp dropoff to the left that goes down to a very small pond 60 meters below. The hill to the right is crested with pine and eucalyptus trees, which are exotics here. Both sides of the road are lined with elephant grass two meters or more tall. The path is deeply rutted and barely wide enough for one vehicle. It takes 4-wheel drive to get to this spot, and only one in thousands of people here has such a vehicle. The path continues upwards and downwards past numerous shambas, and then turns gradually down to the main road. The intersection is marked by a few small huts and a line-building of one-room cottages that share successive side walls. One of the cottages is a duka, a small shop that sells sundries. Most of an hour has gone by. It is still completely dark.

The main road is already busy with pedestrians and bicyclists, nearly all heading in the same direction as Dominic and his companions, towards Kasiisi School and well beyond it the large town of Fort Portal. There are no lights other than from a very occasional car or van or lorry. The main road, like nearly all roads in this region, is humped and gouged with potholes. The surface is clayey volcanic dirt and dust, varying from a terra cotta red to a latte brown from mile to mile. Water stands in the ditch and in many of the potholes where thundershowers passed last evening. The road is wide enough for two vehicles to pass safely, but the holes and ruts and traffic make most such passings a series of quick dodges and maneuvers to minimize potential damage while maximizing speed. Motor vehicles advance in quick bursts with as-quick slowdowns or stops to avoid people, other vehicles, or road conditions.

Within another kilometer, Dominic and his companions have been joined by another 20 or 30 students from Kasiisi School. The school uniform is blue shirts for boys and blue dresses for girls. Nearly all students wear their colors. Many wear overclothes against the morning coolness and dampness. Most are barefoot. Some like Dominic wear shoes and socks, others wear sandals. All carry their school work in the form of composition books with multiplication tables and so forth printed on the back covers. Some carry their books in their hands, others in small packs or backpacks. Some students - maybe one in five - carry lunches with them. Some carry drinking water in small plastic jugs.

Morning light is now breaking. Cocks are crowing in every direction. The road is crowded, and there are now nearly 100 Kasiisi students in scattered groups of a handful to tens. They talk and sometimes sing as children will. Students from other nearby primary and secondary schools are mixed in. Kasiisi is a large and very good school of over 1,000 enrollment and draws pupils from relatively far away, as far as Dominic and ever farther. Most parents seek to send their children to the best available school, especially given that primary education is free in Uganda outside of basic supplies such as uniforms, composition books and pens, for which families are responsible. Some of the non-Kasiisi students split off from the road towards other local schools. Some of the secondary school students in the groups will walk 20 more kilometers past Kasiisi School to their schools in or near Fort Portal.

By 7 AM it is fully light. Villagers have brought out goats and cattle to graze along the road, tethering them to posts or to trees by the leg or neck. Nearly 200 Kasiisi students are now on this road, which is one of three that converge near the school. The air is acrid from exhaust fumes, road dust, and the lingering remnants of fires used to burn off fields for the next planting, which is about to start now at the beginning of the year's second rainy season. There is heavy vehicle and bicycle traffic now. The most common sound is the clink of a bicycle bell. Students often have to hop off the road and stop when oncoming cars or vans or motorbikes swerve near them to avoid holes or other vehicles. The road is everywhere lined with shambas, dukas, and small dwellings, a new one every 50 to 150 meters. Most buildings have corrugated steel roofs, some have traditional thatching.

There are electrical wires along this road. Electricity costs more per month in Uganda than in the United States. Wires were strung only this week for the first time on poles along the road closest to Kasiisi School. It would take two new poles to bring power to the school. The real challenge, however, is paying for the electricity once it arrived, and protecting electrical devices and materials from theft or vandalism.

The students arrive at the hill below the school at about 7:30. On the right side of the road and down a very steep 100 meter hill is a bore-hole pump that serves this local village and the Kasiisi School. There is no readily available water at the school, none for washing and none for drinking. Dominic is one of a group of children who this week are tasked with carrying water up to and across the road, and then another 200 meter path steeply uphill to the school, in the early morning and again at midday. This water is only for washing, not for safe drinking. Older students like Dominic carry 10 kg jerry cans, smaller students only up to half that.

Dominic and 900 or so other students assemble just before 8, in bright sunlight, on the football field. This week's teacher in charge addresses them, and the principal might do so as well, about moral considerations, attention to task, goals, objectives, proper behavior and so forth. Classes start at 8 AM. There will be two more assemblies during the day, one after the noon break and the other at final dismissal around 4 PM.

At 4:30, Dominic and hundreds of other pupils will begin their walks home. Darkness falls by 7 PM, not long after he arrives home. Near the Equator, dawn and dusk times hardly vary. Dominic will have walked 20+ km today, over 12 miles. He will have hauled 20 kg of water - unless the well is dry, which it was yesterday - and he will have attended up to nine 40-minute classes in science, mathematics, social studies, English, agriculture and religious education. His final exams are coming up in two weeks. He has national qualification exams in October and November. If he passes them, he is qualified to go to secondary school. If he fails, he has no recourse. He will almost certainly pass. But secondary school is not free in Uganda, and his family cannot afford to pay for it. He may be a candidate for a scholarship.

Dominic is one of thousands of students in similar situations in Uganda, and one of millions in the world.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Western Serengeti to Fort Portal, Uganda

August 3, 2005

On July 25 we traveled from Ndutu to the Western Serengeti, to a tented campsite along the Grumeti River about 40 km east of Lake Victoria. The trip was via Seronera in the central Serengeti, where we waited patiently for a reclining cheetah to take a Thomson's gazelle, but the cheetah proved more patient than us and the Tommy lived to another day (we hope). Near Grumeti we met the wildebeest migration - thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them, with perhaps 1 zebra for every 10 beests. Wildebeest low like cattle, zebras honk like donkeys, as their Swahili name punda milia, donkey with stripes, would suggest. A curious kind of music, day and night. Our camp was under 100 yards from the mostly dried up river.

Nighttimes at Grumeti brought out the lions. The first of our three nights, one nearby male, about 200 yards away - we saw him mate earlier with a lioness - roared out his territorial rights every 15 minutes or so. The second night two male lions of that pride roared from a somewhat closer distance. Both nights the hippos came out late to browse the grassy banks emitting their own striking song, a resounding whoop! followed by a laughing haw haw haw haw. The third night three male lions did tandem roaring about once every 5 minutes all night long, from about 50 yards away. Their roars are enormous, starting with a repeated rolling blast and ending with a series of almost coughs, all loud and riveting nearly beyond imagining. Something primal keeps a human wide awake during this - or an equally primal knowledge that they're only addressing other lions, and food is everywhere nearby, allows a human to sleep like, well, a baby. Depends on the human.

Meanwhile, our guide Peter Jones took us on numerous game drives. We saw several kills that lions had carried out minutes or hours before. Always in the truck, one gets to within as little as 10 to 15 feet from a 300 pound lioness with blood on her face or within 50 feet of a 450 pound male lion. Things are touchier when kills are involved. At one kill we saw over 60 vultures lined up to get their portions of a zebra that four lionesses had killed, among them a 3-legged lioness who had the first take at the carcass. Life and death are everywhere apparent. The ground is stewn with bones and skulls and fairly frequent full skeletons. There are hoofprints on every square foot (did I say that already?) and life in every conceivable form crawling, sliding, swimming (huge crocodiles in the river pools), climbing, flying, rooting, diving. And death within inches everywhere around.

Peter Jones ran a spectacular camp with fine dining every night complete with fresh greens, wines, and fresh-made everything. Hendrick our chef uses a propane range and an oven made from an overturned tub on acacia logs to make extraordinary meals. We'll post photos later. It's all quite unbelievable.

On July 29 we drove from the Serengeti to Mwanza city on Lake Victoria. There we flew in a chartered turbo-charged Cessna 206 (cool little plane!) along the shores of Lake Victoria to Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to clear immigration, and from Entebbe to Ishasha in far southwestern Uganda, where we landed on the airstrip in QEII National Park. (At Entebbe we walked on tarmac right by the helicopter that crashed a day or two later in Sudan, killing the Sudanese senior vice president.) Dennis Maboya was our most excellent driver for 5 days after that, to Bwindi and then Fort Portal.

Bwindi. It's under a mile from the Congo, at 4,000 to 8,000 feet. It means a dark and potentially murderous place. The full name is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. About 300 of the last surviving 700 or so mountain gorillas live here. We trekked up on Saturday and Sunday to see them. The first trek was highly strenuous, in deep jungle just like the name says. Armed guards and trackers led the party of about 12 people. After anywhere from 1 to 3 hours you come face to face with the creatures. Indescribable. You must see it yourself to absorb it fully. You are 10 to 20 feet from a 400 pound wild gorilla, the male silverback, who could care less and who carries on eating with his females and children around him in the dense vegetation. You can photo, but no flash bulbs. Speak quietly, move quietly. The gorillas, "only" 7 million years removed from us evolutionarily, are strikingly human and extraordinarily appealing, from playing children to apparently daydreaming adults.

On Monday we drove to Kasiisi School near Fort Portal, Uganda. We stood astride the equator for a few minutes - of course - having seen lions lying in trees along the road on the drive. In literal terms we went from mid-winter in the sourthern hemisphere to mid-summer in the northern hemisphere. Yet everywhere we go the climate is brilliant, as the British say: warm and maybe a touch humid during the day, cool and brisk and fresh at night. The elevation remains about 5000 feet and we are in the dry season.

More next time on Kasiisi primary school and its environs, which are yet another revelation. The kids left for Kampala and Boston this morning, and we're off to Kibale Forest later today.