After two months and 36 hours of travel, I made it back to the US with a journal full of experiences and half-answered questions. Two months is not even close to enough time to understand life in Uganda and Kenya, but having seen it through the eyes of our friends in AVSI, in Memoriste Domini, and in the Missionaries of San Carlo has made all the difference. I was often overwhelmed by the differences in culture and standards of living, but those who have chosen to start a life there have shared another way of facing even the most complicated circumstances.
During my last week in Africa, I visited the AVSI schools in Nairobi, Kenya. Like the Luigi Giussani Schools in Uganda, these schools want to educate in a way that fosters the freedom of the student, according to their infinite value. As I did in Uganda, I interviewed many teachers and found again the necessity of the relationship between teachers and students. The schools are slowly changing the way students and teachers view themselves and each other.
The schools and other efforts in Uganda and Kenya are incredible and moving, but still I wondered, ‘Why come all the way here? Why answer the needs here? Why not go somewhere “easier”—the needs in inner-city DC are real too!’. Maybe it is simple, but in asking these questions I found that our friends in Uganda did not go there because they wanted to change the world or be adventurous, they went because someone there asked them to and they simply said ‘yes’. This ‘yes’ is visible in those working for AVSI who move their families from Italy, but it is also just as clear in the Ugandans who have become their friends. They have shown me—as they hope to show the students—a kind of freedom that comes from following something that is asked of you. I hope to live and teach with the same ‘yes’. For them it is Africa, for me this year it will be Rockville, MD, but our ‘yes’ in front of our students and in front of life can be the same.
The Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE) is doing incredible work in the field of literacy. They are currently assisting Luigi Giussani teachers and outside teachers (who come for trainings and diplomas) in teaching literacy. They are also working in the area of research to understand how to better teach reading and writing. The question is enormous, but the heart of the work is in changing the culture surrounding what it means to be educated. For literacy specifically, this means communicating that the value of reading is more than just decoding—it can change one’s perception of life.
Though incomplete, my understanding of literacy in Uganda has somehow framed my time here and maybe it’s just the teacher in me, but the importance of being able to read is frequently on my mind. There are a few main reasons teaching reading is such a complicated task in Kampala.
Many literacy researchers and teachers have found that even if reading and writing in English is the end goal, it is better to teach these skills in a child’s first language. Within the city of Kampala residents are from a few different tribes. With each heritage comes a language and this incredible diversity makes it impossible to teach in anyone’s first language. In fact, for many of the Luigi Giussani teachers, Luganda is their first language, while many students speak Acholi. So this is the first complication.
Another complication is that many students have not mastered their first language. That concept blew my mind when I first came here. Why this is the case is still not entirely clear to me, but it seems that with the level of economic poverty children are coming from, spoken language. This is not to say children do not speak, but for many it is an informal communication that may not be a full comprehension of any one language.
The last complication I have seen is that the way schools traditionally teach literacy in Uganda is through repetition and memorization. In other words, many students are able to decode sentences (i.e.- read the sounds), because they have memorized the letters and sounds. Decoding is critical for literacy, but if the meaning of a sentence is not grasped it is almost useless. Reading comprehension needs to be more explicitly taught. It is only with reading comprehension that students can practice critical thinking skills.
For good reason, LGIHE emphasizes the need to teach critical thinking skills. Without the ability to think deeply for oneself, it is very difficult to apply what you have learned to life and to think creatively about problem solving. These are life skills not confined to the classroom. In Kampala, literacy and critical thinking can not be taken for granted, and so, LGIHE and the Luigi Giussani schools are working to take on the task of teaching literacy to our students, according to a more complete understanding of education.
Priscilla leaves an impression every time I get a chance to talk to her. She is so incredibly thoughtful and so sure of herself that I can hardly believe she is so young. She is also a teacher at the Luigi Giussani Pre-Primary and Primary School, which means I was lucky enough to interview her for my research.
The second of four children, Priscilla is responsible for taking care of her two younger siblings, but she is also busy working towards a university degree and teaching at the primary school, all at the same time. Priscilla graduated from the Luigi Giussani High School in 2016 and will graduate from university in 2019. I asked her how she manages to handle all the different things going on in her life and she said, “It can be very difficult to balance, but everything is given to me, because I am loved”. This is the beauty of Priscilla — she is so sure of her worth, because she has seen how loved she is and so all the complications of life are seen in a new light.
In describing how she came to this understanding of herself, Priscilla said it began with her teachers at the LGHS. In them she realized she needed to depend on others to understand who she was. When Priscilla’s mom passed away, her relationships with her teachers showed her the possibility of beginning a new life. That was also around the time she met the movement of Communion and Liberation, and so realized that through her teachers she was meeting Christ. This is the fact that she most sure of in life; it changes everything for her. The way Priscilla teaches is a reflection of this. She wants her students to have the same experience with her. She wants them to be free to discover life with her. She wants them to know that they too are valuable and loved.
This ability Priscilla has to comprehend the meaning of life so fully flows into her work as an English teacher. She chose to teach, because for her is it a calling and a way to continue to better understand herself. She chose English because “it is where [her] passion lies”. She told me, “I don’t want to teach something that does not correspond to my heart”. In fact, when I began to ask her about English and literature she had so much to say. Her favorite novel is Oliver Twist, but her true love is in poetry and writing poetry to express her life. She promised to share one of her poems, in which she expresses the beauty of life.
Before I closed my interview with Priscilla, I could not help but ask one more time how she could be so happy with so many difficulties past and present in her life. She just smiled and said, “I am happy, because I have met Him. I am loved and I am chosen”. Priscilla has shown me a better way to teach, but even more so, a better way to live.
The first time I went to the Luigi Giussani High School and received an official tour it was clear to me that the mission of AVSI and all of our friends here is alive there. The school acknowledges the humanity of each student in everything from the structure of the building to teacher relationships. Schools around the world could learn from their philosophy, but particularly in Uganda, where they are an anomaly. Every teacher I have spoken to (and there are many because my research involves teacher interviews) emphasized that the other schools consider punishment to be the only road to learning. Instead, when a student enters LGHS they walk into a bright mango-colored entrance hall — the size and color intentionally signs that all are welcome. From there they meet teachers with whom they can have a “free and open” relationship, as opposed to one of fear.
After my tour, I had breakfast with three students and one teacher who shared their experiences of being at the school. Like the women of Meeting Point International, they were signs to me of a seemingly impossible rebirth. Gladys even said, “I was born at the age of 14 (when I started at LGHS) because that is when I started living”. Each one pointed to Christ as the reason for the change in their life, but first they pointed to their relationships with their teachers. “That first day a teacher gave me a smile that made my knees go weak. No teacher had ever smiled at me or asked me what my name was,” said Gladys. She goes on to share that these teachers want to educate their hearts before their minds. Anita (who is much younger) had a sense of this, as well. She told us, “If I am educated it’s not only about books, but also, I discover my talents. I discover who I am”.
And again Vincent affirmed this sentiment; “They educate us about who we are and what is the meaning of life”. First, the school addresses the humanity of the students — their heart, their identity. From this education of the heart, flows a greater willingness to learn. The school does not punish like the other schools and yet their students learn and behave, for another reason. Betty is an English teacher who explained that her relationship with her students is in some ways like a parent or a friend. She said, “There are times when your students are showing you they need something else and humanly you have to see that”. As I prepare to teach in September, I am learning so much from these Ugandan friends and what it truly means to educate.
At the heart of my experience in Uganda is the experience of over 2,800 women living in the slums of Kampala, who have started a new life after meeting Rose Busingye — affectionately known as Auntie Rose. Auntie Rose is a nurse who like many others sought to medically assist the population of HIV-positive women fleeing violence in the North. Many of these women come from the Acholi tribe and this fact combined with their illness made them generally unwelcome in Kampala. Today one of the worst slums in the city is named the Acholi Quarter and it is just on the edge it that I met the women of Auntie Rose.
When Auntie Rose discovered that many of the HIV positive Acholi women were selling the medicine that could keep them alive, she wanted to understand why. She realized that these women lacked any concept of the fact that they are valuable — and so why bother with this life that has caused them so much pain? In her own words, Rose describes a different position in front of life: “I am not defined by my limits, but by my personal relationship with God who makes me and makes me as an infinite desire of Him.” She understands that she is infinitely valuable.
Rose founded Meeting Point International to affirm that these women also have value, they are loved, and they can be happy. And they are so happy! I went with a group of six or seven others to meet the women and about 100 of them welcomed us with shouts and (literally) carried us into Meeting Point, where they had prepared multiple songs and dances to express their joy and welcome us into it. Their traditional Acholi dances were beautiful and impossible to imitate, but incredible to be surrounded by. When they sang, I was especially moved by a song recounting the individual sufferings they have faced, but always returning to the refrain of “Rose Saved Me”. Life is still difficult, but as one woman shared she was “reborn—given a second life” when she met Rose and realized she was not worthless. That same woman kept repeating over and over “that is enough”.
Since its founding, Meeting Point International has grown to support the HIV affected men, women, and children (in particular the orphans) throughout the four slums of Kampala. From the starting point of friendship and belonging, Meeting Point has three main objectives: to assist those suffering from HIV/AIDS, to alleviate poverty, and to promote all levels of education. The Luigi Giussani Schools (where I spend much of my time) is a fruit of the work of Meeting Point and the desire of Rose’s women to have a school that shows their children that they have value too. Another focus of Meeting Point is supporting the small business ventures of the women. These are just a couple of the many ways Meeting Point has offered a community for growth.
The form of support is somehow secondary to the love and affirmation Auntie Rose relentlessly gives. The sufferings of “Rose’s women” are some of the most painful experiences I have ever heard — but they are happy. There is no explanation beyond the infinite, indescribable love of Another. To be frank, it makes no sense; there is no other way to justify their joy!
There are four big organizations here in the capital of Kampala that are in someway related to my work. In a certain sense the most important is The Meeting Point International, which was started by a woman named Rose for women in the slums — to put it very simply. These women then asked for schools for their children and so began the Luigi Giussani Pre-Primary and Primary School, as well as the Luigi Giussani High School. Out of a desire to contribute to the education and professional development of Ugandan teachers, the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE) was born. And the last crucial organization is AVSI, which supports the first three, in one-way or another.
My “home-base” for work is LGIHE. The institute has taken on the incredible task of aiming to instruct and provide professional development, which will improve the quality of education in Uganda. In everything they do they focus on conveying the infinite value of every person. They do this through diploma and certificate programs for teachers and administrators, as well as, workshops for the teachers of the schools they oversee. From what I have seen at LGIHE and the schools, by helping teachers discover their self-worth they are then able to convey this message to their students, thus changing the school environment.
When I am at LGIHE, I work with their team on finalizing curriculum. I also help with the research of the institute, which right now is focused on understanding how best to teach literacy to the students of the two schools. I am also working on a personally developed research project, which will investigate the mission of these schools and how this changes the way their teachers teach. This is incredibly important for me, as I prepare to teach in September. I am interviewing and observing the teachers and already I have seen that these schools are unlike any other in Uganda. Through this research, I am trying to understand why they are so different.
Even though my work is focused on the teachers and schools, it is impossible to disconnect that from the other organizations — particularly Meeting Point. My next post will try to express how incredible Auntie Rose and her women are.
I wanted to come to Uganda to understand teaching from the perspective of LGIHE (Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education), but I had barely been here for two days before I realized that six weeks would not begin to scrape the surface of what life in Uganda is, and therefore what the work of LGIHE is a response to.
But I am here and my short “journey” has begun, so that’s my starting point. It is not and will not be anything I expected, but I think because of that fact it will be even more beautiful. So far, I have learned much more about how to live then how to teach.
They call me Mzungu, which officially means foreigner (but really just “white person”) and this may seem like a small detail, but when the babies run to me to touch my skin and hug me to see if I am like them, I realize that being the “other” in many ways defines my life here. First of all, that experience with the kids happens all the time and I don’t feel sad, because I am different — I know I am very different! — I feel loved because they have acknowledged how different I am and take care of me who knows nothing about their world.
And I mean really nothing… I can’t buy lunch from the stalls on the streets alone, because I would not know the food or the prices; I can’t walk anywhere alone, because it isn’t safe when I don’t know the way; I can’t speak their mother tongues and I don’t know where to buy a mousetrap for our new roommate. But I have been helped with all of these things! Not once have I not had someone to turn to.
My life here is a series of moments where I am in awe of how incapable I am. Right now that can be really frustrating, but I hope I can have the conviction of Therese of Lisieux, that in being like a child in front of life and in front of Jesus, begging for help will teach me something more valuable than the comforts and independence of a summer at home.
A recent grad from Boston College, I will be spending the next two months in Uganda seeing my studies of education, psychology and human development in action. I am lucky enough to be volunteering with and learning from the community of educators at the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE). My days will consist of everything from classroom observation to educational research to exploring the culture of Uganda (and Kenya for a brief visit!). I would love for you to follow along for what I am sure will be a crazy beautiful summer!