Words to Know

Our research requires us to find a place where we can divide 70 people into numerous groups and conduct several activities both simultaneously and confidentially. In tiny communities like the ones we are visiting, schools tend to be the only places that fit the bill. As a result, I spend most of my days in the field sitting inside Ugandan elementary schools. Classes are out for the summer, and as a result, I have plenty of time to take in my surroundings.

Today’s site – Butelenge Primary School – was a complex of several buildings surrounding a courtyard. The buildings were brick with iron roofs, and each classroom had windows, though none had glass. Each room was crammed full of ancient-looking wooden benches, with a single blackboard in front. A few posters – some printed, some hand-written – adorned the walls, which were painted a now-dirty yellow. In short, this school was decidedly above average for those that I’ve seen. At the bottom end, schools here are little more than tiny thatch huts with no seats or supplies; sites where thirty children spanning five to fifteen years of age cluster around a single teacher attempting to teach arithmetic without anywhere to write a number.

In Butelenge, the first thing that caught my eye was the world map on the wall. A world map is a staple of any elementary school classroom, but it’s interesting to see how world maps vary. My seventh grade geography teacher posted on her room’s wall a world map centered on Australia, which itself was absurdly large in size. Her point was simple; maps reflect subjective perceptions as well as objective realities. The map I saw today was the African equivalent; Africa was smack dab in the center, and the bloated continent vastly outstripped Eurasia in size. It was, to me, an interesting reminder that all groups are convinced they are the center of the universe (though, for better or for worse, the notion is more true for some groups than others, and certainly less true for Africa than in other places). The map was hand drawn, though – apparently, money for such things as world maps is not forthcoming from the Ugandan government – and looked like the crudely drawn maps of 15th century explorers that you see on the history channel than anything you can find in National Geographic.

Another thing that drew my attention was the number of posters promoting abstinence and virginity. Simple maxims like “virginity is good” were hung all around the room. Some posters went into more detail, offering the “have sex and die” sort of slogans and factoids that would be familiar to any sex-educator in an American red-state. The fact that Uganda’s school are filled to the brim with young faces hints, or course, at the limited effectiveness of such messages.

What really caught me, though, was one poster in the corner of the wall labeled “English.” I have yet to meet a Ugandan who speaks English as his or her first language, but it is nonetheless the national language and the main language taught in schools. A few sheets on the wall went through basic grammar. Another, entitled, “Words to Know,” listed about twenty-five English words and their Lugandan equivalent.

I’m not sure what would make this cut if I were listing the twenty-five most important words for an American primary-school student to know. I am sure, though, that there would be few overlaps with this list. The first column on the poster was terms relating to agriculture, the second, household economy. Undoubtedly, words like “coffee” and “sewing” are useful to any Ugandan. Apparently so too are “coffin,” “widow,” “orphan,” and “shot dead,” which rounded out the third column. How sad to think that the first words a young Ugandan should know in order to interpret the world around him or her have to do with death and suffering.

Most children in Uganda don’t make it past primary school. A big barrier is school fees. Another is their parents’ need for labor assistance on the farm. I can’t help but think an even bigger one is the very nature of the places where they are sentenced to spend their childhood. In a context where orphans and coffins are everyday, it’s hard to imagine that school is anything more than damage control, and attempt to save children from a fundamentally impossible situation. I’ve been following the progress of my best friend, Jordan, as he works to teach underprivileged kids in Phoenix (teachinthevalley.blogspot.com). Although Uganda is 10,000 miles away, I can’t help but think there are similarities in how we expect teachers to battle not just against ignorance – which they are trained to fight – but also an entire upbringing that makes success seem almost impossible.

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