A few weeks ago, a friend (and fellow volunteer) asked me to write an article for the Peace Corps Uganda Newsletter. Apprehension overcame and I procrastinated. The newsletter is a place to talk about your work to assist others with their projects. For me it is one thing to write a blog post, a general stream-of-consciousness; however, the word newsletter raises the bar. The safe route of “look at me and my glory” isn’t my style so I turned the ignition in my progressive Cadillac. Sure, the engine turned over a few times without a full start but the old friend started eventually.
An afternoon later, I finished my article (attached below) and felt the long-lost happiness of college when the long-awaited moment comes to press the “print” button. I’m still not sure if the newsletter will publish my piece, as it doesn’t hit the usual tone of contributions. Can’t win ‘em all.
This Tuesday, I sat down for lunch at a local eating joint: a small hut that serves millet bread and meat—this occasion brought the ever-so-tasty vertebrae of beef, a long shot from fillet. In between literacy with kindergarten and life skills with 7th graders, I began reading to pass the time. Mealtime is one of the only opportunities to read in public because it is culturally taboo to converse while eating, as it may induce choking episodes. However, the local director of an orphan project soon interrupted my reading.
Odongodia Bruce (pseudonym) runs an organization that welcomes muzungus around the world to come and work with his “kids.” Most come and build houses or churches or playgrounds, only staying a few days or a few weeks (max) before going back with the feeling of accomplishment and ties back to sponsored schoolchildren. “Hello. I’m sorry. I forgot your name?”
“Yoga, da. Biai bo ijo? Mam acie, ekakiror Omoding. Hello, as well. How are you? No problem, my name is Omoding,” I responded half-heartedly. Bruce is a traveled man and sees himself as a class higher than villagers. I didn’t wait for him to respond before gathering my book and Jack Spade to depart for a friend’s shop to wait out the remainder of break. However, after ten minutes, Bruce showed up at the shop buy a few things, sparking a discussion with other people about the failure of schools in the village.
“My kids in Kampala read at the level of a child in P7 here in the village. I think I will open my own school to show the teachers here how to properly teach. I go many places, you know. I see where education is going. I understand the turn towards the “global village,” he sighed.
I sat through the mini-homily, holding my tongue until he coined the term global village. “That is rubbish,” I began. “The children in the village can’t read English because their language of instruction is Ateso. They learn to read and write in their native language and in P3 they begin to learn in English. You can’t expect them to read at the same level as a child in Kampala because Kampala children speak English from birth. Their whole family does.”
The debate lasted a while, spanning issues of globalization, education, voyeurism of bazungu who come to Africa for a few days only to return and perpetuate the notion of “needy Africans”, international aid in Africa, etc. It attracted a crowd of people. I came away knowing my article exactly appropriate for the kind of person I am: an idealist. We don’t all have to be the same (language, appearance, education, morals) to come together. In fact, coming together with differences is the only authentic way to unite. If the same, there is no need to unite because we already are “one.” Enjoy the article.
One Nation, Many Cultures?
The first day of school is frightening for children everywhere: separation anxiety, friendship formation and the fabulous bejeweled lunchbox (or pencil case). With all this change, imagine entering a classroom that doesn’t reflect your culture or speak your language. In both America and Uganda, this is reality for countless students; however, our education systems differ in measures taken to guarantee culturally responsible education.
Before Peace Corps, I worked in a limited English proficiency (LEP) kindergarten with multiple languages represented. Mandated by the school district, I taught using English, struggling to reach my LEP students and constantly worrying whether I participated in the eclipse of their culture.
Historically, immigrants and Native Americans in the 1700s founded bilingual schools, teaching in mother tongue while learning English. These schools preserved oral traditions of many cultures.
The push for English-only education began with WWI’s “Americanization” of settler populations and continues today. According to the US Dept. of Education (NCES, 2006), 18% of schools offer bilingual programs, a rate that continues to decrease despite increasing LEP student populations (3.8 million in 2004). Furthermore, voters overturned bilingual education laws in California, Massachusetts and Arizona, which account for half of America’s LEP student population.
America’s turn away from bilingual education questions the nature of our society: is America a melting pot with a common national identity or a mosaic of people with distinct customs and cultures? Can culture exist after language is lost and, if so, is it the same or is some culture “lost in translation?”
Arriving in Uganda, I found the rollout of thematic curriculum: a progressive education policy mandating local language instruction for Primary 1-3. An attempt to reconcile my classroom guilt, I began working with local P1 classrooms, modeling participatory methods and introducing literacy activities. Instead of witnessing cultural empowerment, teachers struggled to reclaim their culture from Uganda’s educational roots.
Missionaries began Uganda’s formal schooling system. Whether they chose English because local languages were oral rather than literate or because they lacked the cultural integration Peace Corps holds in highest regard, I don’t know. However, until thematic curriculum, teachers relied on English methods for all content areas. Now, they must rediscover and teach their culture.
Teachers have trouble finding local language equivalents to English words. When curriculum calls for “traditional song” teachers look confused. They assert methods taught at colleges don’t prepare to instruct a culture; rather, to enact curriculum. Thematic sets a foundation that teachers must relevantly modify to pass onto students. Through community outreach and teacher collaboration, the process of reclaiming culture is now in progress.
Uganda’s past may be a picture of America’s future: an effort to construct a national archetype in the name of progress but at the cost of culture. I can only hope to bring back (and share) this country’s courage: the decision to lionize all 53+ cultures to preserve unique languages, practices and histories of the past and of the people. Ultimately, this is what education is all about: the people.
Statistics from: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Public Elementary and Secondary Students, Staff, Schools, and School Districts: School Year 2003-04 (NCES 2006–307).