North East People

Teaching in Uganda: Part 2

Some of the class of 1962
Audio version of this article.

In 1961-1962, I was a teacher of English at Nyakasura secondary boarding school for boys, which nestled by the snow-capped Ruwenzori mountains in western Uganda. In the rainy season, the clouds used to build up on the western slopes and then, at about 4 o’clock every afternoon, would pour over the top and drop their rain on us.

The boys were eager to learn. Each one bore on his shoulders a heavy responsibility, for his family had sacrificed a lot to be able to gather together the school fees to enable him to come to Nyakasura. I remember a boy called Nkojo. He had the offer of a sixth-form place in one of Uganda’s most prestigious schools but if he took up the offer, the family would not be able to send their two youngest children to primary school. What should he do? In the end, they decided that he should take the place, finish the course, get a well-paid job and thus be able to pay for his siblings to start school. (It was not unusual for children to start school at 7, 8 or 9 years old rather than the “normal” age of 6, which meant that our first form often had boys in it who were up to three years older than the “normal” age of 13.)

Unless they were Muslim, the boys had to go to chapel every morning and twice on Sunday. The school generator came on every morning at chapel time to provide electricity for the organ. But, because I considered myself an agnostic in 1961 and therefore did not attend these daily services, I decided to use the electricity to give the Muslim boys extra practice in oral English, using my tape-recorder as an aid. The Reverend Everard Perrens, the Headmaster, called me into his office and told me to stop this practice. First, it was not fair on the Christian boys that the Muslims should get this help. Second, I should be in chapel, not teaching at home. And third, “The electricity is on in the morning, Mr Walker, so that we can praise God. It is not to be used for academic purposes.” So thereafter, whenever my wife and I heard the generator kick in every morning, we used to exclaim, “Ah! God’s electricity!” and use it for whatever secular purpose we wanted.

Another example of the evangelical nature of the school occurred in my second term there. The headmaster had decided that the boys needed some gingering up so he invited a missionary to come to the school for a few days to perform the gingering. I decided that, for once, I would go to the chapel service and listen to what the missionary had to say. He gave a rip-roaring sermon which ended with “Boys, either you can go up up up to see the sweet face of Jesus Christ Our Lord or you can go down down down to the deep dark depths of H E L L !” The next day, a boy came to me for advice: “What should I do, Sir? The missionary told us that, if we prayed to God, we would see the sweet face of Jesus and be saved. I’ve prayed and prayed, Sir, but nothing has happened. What am I doing wrong?” I told him that I really couldn’t answer that question and that he should ask the missionary. I asked the boy a few days later what the missionary had said. “He told me I wasn’t praying hard enough, Sir.”

I went to the see the Headmaster and told him that, in my English classes I was attempting to teach clear thinking, rationality and analysis. Yet here was a boy who was trying to understand a clear direction and had been offered an absurd explanation when he had asked for help. The Rev Perrens did not really get what my problem was.

There was rather a nice little story told about him. First, I have to set the scene.

In Uganda, ever since the first missionaries arrived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there had been intense rivalry between the Protestant missionary organisations and the Roman Catholics. If the Protestants built a church on one side of the river, the Catholics would build one on the other side; if the Catholics set up a primary school in one village, the Protestants would set up a primary school in the next village. And so it was in our valley: the Church Missionary Society were running Nyakasura so across the valley the Catholics had built a seminary, run by the missionary order known as the White Fathers. A new principal had arrived at this seminary so our headmaster went across to greet him.

“A glass of wine?” said the Father, offering something that the Fathers had grown in their own little vineyard.

“No, no, thank you. I do not partake of alcohol.”

So the Father offered a cigar, made from tobacco grown in the seminary gardens.

“No, no, thank you. I do not smoke.”

“Here,” said the Father, plucking a flower from the vase on his desk, “smell this.”

As I mentioned in the first part of Teaching in Uganda, the teachers’ wives did not work. At that time none of the couples had children living with them, they had a “houseboy” to do all the work around the house and a “shamba boy” to look after their garden. But my wife Anne could not stand the idea of such idleness. She was a nurse by profession but the school had no post for such a person. There was no Matron as there would have been in a public school in Britain, and no school nurse as there might have been in a British state secondary school.

One of the servants on campus came to us one day asking if we could help his niece to learn some English. “OK,” said Anne. “Just ask her to come round to the house tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.”

The next day, the little girl came to the door accompanied by a couple of little friends who had heard about the English “lessons” and wanted to participate. And the day after that, along came a few more and then more – until Anne had a full class and was having to turn children away. You can see some of them in the photo above.

Well, it couldn’t last. Rev Perrens asked the Ministry of Education to send him a teacher of English who at least called himself a Christian and could replace me. So the Ministry suggested that I transfer to Gulu in the far north west. There were two reasons that I had to say why I didn’t want to go there: first, I had been to the Gulu school to take our hockey team there for a match and had had very bad breathing difficulties because of the dry dust in that region of Uganda; and second, because Anne was pregnant and needed to be near the main hospital in Kampala for the birth. The Ministry acceded and I was posted to Kitante Hill School in Kampala. I took up my position as Head of English a month before Uganda achieved independence on 9 October 1962.

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