Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pictures... FINALLY!! #2

Good Morrrrrrrrrrrrrrning Vietnam!!

Huh? Vietnam? What a weirdo.

So, I realize I am a complete D.B. for not posting as often as I had said I was. Something about having internet at your fingertips makes it less novel. My tiny little USB-modem lets me sign onto the net daily (if I so desire) and do all my really important Development Work... checking facebook, gmail, and the current deals on (that's right folks. Even running away to Uganda won't protect you from wanting to know what the most current "bottomless sack deal" is. Treat that website like heroin. To avoid addiction, avoid any and all contact from the start). In all seriousness, it has been a great addition to my lesson planning, but I abuse my privileges thoroughly.

To be quite honest, I have two posts completed. One has been done for a week and consists mostly of the pictures you will see below. The other is a piece I wrote recently, am really proud of, but don't want to release to the public... yet (I have my reasons). Give it another week, and I should be able to put it up.

Ok, so what has been happening. Last time I posted, I was somewhere between the first and second week of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. As of late, however, the newness has worn off, and the work has begun. THANK (INSERT NAME OF HIGHER POWER HERE IN ALL CAPS), as I was beginning to get bored, episodes of SCRUBS were taking over my life and with that I was feeling a bit numb.

Don't get me wrong. The first month was good in that I was able to move my things into the house, get organized, get my kitchen set up (no more starving for me!), and roam the community meeting people. I began developing a daily routine. I had my up days. I had my down days. I wrote about it a bit in my journal. The entry is as follows:

“As you might expect, my “me time” activities span the productivity spectrum. There are times when I am the stereotypical newbie-PCV, fresh into the honeymooner period; I am running around chatting with everyone and exploring the community (basically an informal version of PACA’ing my face off). And then loneliness strikes; I am rendered useless, convinced that if it wasn’t for my eyes holding them up, the walls of my house would fall in on me. Below are a few of activities I have found myself immersed in on any given day.

Play the guitar. I am finding Africa to be the perfect place to sit down and force-feed myself music theory, memorize the fret-board and mix it all up with some traditional village song. I’ll be a Ugandan Joe Pass in no time.

Kill bugs. My weapon, depending on their size: the palm of my hand, a hammer or “The New Project Design and Management Training Manual” (FINALLY USEFUL!!).

Clean bugs off the floor… usually a week after their demise. What can I say? I’m a gross boy.

Explore! I don’t have a bike, so I’ve taken to slipping on the Chaco’s, filling a nalgene with guarded-water and heading into the hills. These hikes get me far away from the aggressive Boda shouts of “Mujungu!” or “Mpa ssente!” (which are notably on the decline) and into the deep village where they are replaced with the ohmygod!I’vejustseenanalbinoMutooro-“BYE MUJUNGU!” exclamations of young children. These hikes allow me to take note of the communities’ less visible natural resources, meet new people (which often means putting out rumor-mill hotspots: “No, I am not here to buy your land!”), and mapping out foot paths that will later become some killer single-track when I do get the mountain bike.

Play with my hoe (dig in my garden). This is an absolute HIT among my neighbors and one of the better bonding experiences with my community thus far. Best compliment (or sly insult?) I’ve received in Uganda: “You’ve become a farmer.”

Literally, staring at the wall. This is usually in the morning, just before getting up. The roosters have been doodle-doing for at least an hour, and I am in a half-dazed state comfortably situated between MR (Mefloquine Reality) and , well, MR (My Reality)… the difference often negligible.

Work out. Whether hiking to the top of the nearest hill in search of a view, trail running pretending that I am running from cannibals, or lifting using my homemade TRX system, I’ve found that remaining physically fit is a pillar of my mental health... duh. Unfortunately, in Kahlil, Steve, Josh and Jacob's eyes, I'll always be a fatass. Bastards.”

Since writing this, I have reintroduced jogging to my routine a few times a week, and I am tossing around the idea of doing a half-marathon in Kampala sometime in November. That is a BIG maybe.

So what has happened recently?

For one, SCHOOL STARTED!! Last Monday I was given my classes and got right into work. I teach S5 (equivalent to U.S. High School Senior / First year of community college) Physics and Mathematics, and I also give S1 (equivalent to 8th grade / 9th grade in America) computers. I am EXTREMELY lucky. S5 and S6 levels are at the A-level, meaning that you have to take a test after S-4 to get into them. This means that the number of students in their ranks drops significantly. Instead of 60-120 kids in a classroom, an A-level teacher will have 30 or less. As sciences are despised by students in Uganda, the numbers in those classes plummet. Physics or Mathematics tacked onto a class acts as a beautiful filter, and those who brave their waters are typically the sharpest kids in the school (there are exceptions). Long story short, my physics class has 5 students. My math class has 15’ish. And of course, my computer class has around 70.

So which are my favorite classes? You tell me:

I conduct my S5 lectures as if it were a college class. I take a few pages of notes and examples. I go to class, lecture, get animated, throw things, do experiments, joke with the students, create an active environment, etc… after class, I give one of the kids my notes which are then passed around to be copied over the next week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have it set up so that I have 1-1.5 hours in the computer lab with the two classes (recitation) where I have loaded electronic copies of physics and math texts for the students to read. On those days, they read ANYTHING they want, write problems down, and we work them together on the blackboard.

It is not all glorious. I am realizing quickly that there are a shit-ton of gaps to fill in these subjects. I'm currently discussing derivatives and their application to motion in a straight line, and I'm seeing students stuggling with plotting y = constant and y = mx + b. This makes me cry a little inside, but I am getting over it.

I conduct my S1 lectures like a Ugandan: overworked, underpaid, and loaded with three times as many students PER CLASS as s/he should be. I show up. I write the facts that the students need to memorize on the board. I discuss the facts with the students. They smile and nod as though they understand. I ask them “are we together.” They respond collectively with “YES.” When I ask individual students, however, they respond with the Ugandan beat-around-the-bush response for “no.”

Me: “Are you with me?”

Student: “Somehow.”

When all the facts have been presented. I leave the class, and I return a few hours later to a different classroom and begin the same exact period over again. It. Is. Terrible. Having only been in class for a week (but having compared notes with many other volunteers), I believe the minds of current secondary school PCVs are being wasted in these lower level secondary classes. A projector and a timed power-point presentation would be a better investment for schools teaching a curriculum geared only to a test.

I am conflicted. On one hand, I am a PCV, fresh from America, who wants to make classes fun, interesting, worthwhile, and I want to help my students with critical thinking (precious and rare here). However, the system in Uganda is not set up for “thinking.” It is set up for “regurgitating.” Kids memorize a fact, you ask them about that fact and they VOMIT it all over your face as if they were Webster himself with the flu. Ask that student what that fact MEANS or to apply it and, well, let’s just say you’d have more luck extracting the answer to your question from a vacuum tube. This extends ruthlessly into the sciences explaining why kids here hate them…


Prime example. My S5’s yesterday were in the computer lab reading about math problems. There was an example about adding fractions that went like this: A/B + C/D = (AD + BC)/BD. The three boys looked at me and said, “Master, is there an easier way for me to remember this?” I told them, “yes, there is. Ask yourself WHY it is that way, figure out that WHY, and with that knowledge you can solve any fraction problem you come across without the formula.” We then proceeded to discuss like-denominators and common factors. This just goes to show that A-level students are programmed to memorize instead of understand… how could they not be? They are the survivors of 11 SWALLOW!-and-PUKE! Years of “education.”

Back to it. I am conflicted. One piece wants to do things like I would do it in America. The other realizes that I simply can’t. Or can I?

This is where I feel incredibly lucky. At the S1 level, I am working with 70+ students/class who barely understand English. I am teaching computers from a textbook (and Wikipedia). These kids will not touch a computer until they are in their late second or even third year of school. What can I do? Not a whole hell of a lot. I give them the material, they memorize.

But at the A-levels?! THERE IS A CHANCE!! These kids WANT lectures, they want EXAMPLES, and they want EXPERIMENTS and real world application. For the first time in their schooling, they want to know WHY they are learning certain subjects. And I am thrilled to show them. As I said earlier, I am trying to make the class as interactive as possible, and my favorite question in the WORLD out of them is, “But master, Why?” (though I am still getting used to the whole "Master" thing. I mean, I know I'm awesome, but in America, it was an unspoken truth. [Methinks my grandfather just had a stroke]). The more and more I hear, “WHY?” the more I feel like we are getting somewhere. And a few of them have really caught on that the key to math and physics is repetition: Problems, PROBlems, PROBLEMS! Which is what the recitation is for.

Wow. I have written a lot. I guess this is what you get. One long-ass post once in a while or shorter, more often posting.

So that is my life right now. We are in our second week of classes, and already the nervousness of being in front of the kids has gone. Instead, I feel excited while up there, and the classes (besides S1) are fun. Planning for the classes sucks, but teaching a well thought out lesson makes it all worthwhile.

Oh, since being here, I’ve been asked by men and women at the market to teach them English. To this I have replied that I cannot do individual tutoring to all of Kyenjojo but that I would be happy to teach a group (I say this using broken rutooro and miming). Last week, after being approached yet again, I decided to look into starting a club or seeing if I couldn’t incorporate the English department at my school. I thought it would be a good opportunity to connect students at Kyenjojo SS with the community, and a great way to keep the program sustainable when I leave. So I spoke to the head of the English department about it. As she sounded very interested, I got a translator at the market and explained the initial plans: If a group of 10-15 people can be formed and they can agree on a time to meet, and I will provide a classroom and lessons. My administration agreed to the initial plans yesterday and have granted me classroom time on the weekends for the class. THE BALL IS ROLLING!! More as it progresses, later.

I am beginning to feel like I am not just IN Uganda.

I am WORKING in Uganda, FOR Uganda.

I love and miss you all (especially you Michelle!),


P.S. I just reread the post, and I just want to add that for the most part, I love my students. There is a bitter tone about my recent writing, but this isn’t focused on the kids. The kids are victims of, as I put it earlier, a broken system. I have my theories on the politics behind the broken system, but as a PCV, I am forbidden to express these in public forums. If you are interested, individual emails to can be answered in a few short sentences. Again. I love my kids. But I definitely have some rage directed towards the machine we are working in here.

P.P.S. And now? PICTURES!! Nope. Wait. I deleted the stupid things while copying between the word document and the blog page. DAMN. Forgive me. I'll post them soon. Sorry about the deceptive post title: I had to do something to get you to read it :)

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