North East People

Teaching in Uganda

Two prefects on a school trip
Audio version of this article.

During my Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) course at the London University Institute of Education, I applied to teach in Uganda. I think that that was because my great, great, great uncle, Alexander Mackay, known as “Mackay of Uganda”, had been one of the very first missionaries there in 1878.

In 1961, teachers in state schools in Uganda (still a British protectorate) were civil servants so I became a member of Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service.

I was shipped out to East Africa aboard SS Windsor Castle via Gibraltar, Genoa, the Suez Canal and Aden, then to Uganda from Mombasa to Kampala by train.

I had been posted to Nyakasura School, a boys’ secondary boarding school just outside Fort Portal in Toro, western Uganda. Although the school was only a few miles north of the equator, it was over 5,000 feet above sea level and there were quite a few days in the year when warmer clothing was necessary. The peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains (called before Ptolemy’s time “The Mountains of the Moon”) were tipped with snow. We teachers had fireplaces in our houses and were able to burn eucalyptus logs in the evening – a wonderful aroma. The local villagers had no fireplaces in their dwellings and so the smoke from their fires filled the whole building; as a consequence, nasal and lung cancers were fairly common, causing too many younger people to die before their time.

The school had no mains water or sewage and no grid electricity. Water came up to the school by means of a ram pump placed in a nearby volcanic lake; electricity was provided in the morning and evening by a diesel-engine generator. My fridge was powered by paraffin.

Before I came to the school, I decided that I was not going to follow the common Mzungu practice of hiring servants: I would do everything myself, as I had in the UK. And this is what I told the couple of men who on my first morning turned up at the door looking for work; on the second morning, there were about ten men imploring me to employ them; and, on the third, about 25 or 30. I thought, “If so many people want to work for the meagre wages which are what the other teachers tell me I should pay, I should change my mind; I should become an employer.” And so I took on what the Bazungu called a “shamba boy” (gardener) and a “houseboy” (cook and general factotum). The term “boy” was, of course, a complete misnomer: they were both men.

At that time, only 2½% of boys got secondary education; for girls, the proportion was even worse. The families had to pay school fees, which meant that, even if a child passed the entrance exam, they could not enter the school if the family could not afford the cost.

With the exception of the woodwork instructor, who was a Ugandan, the teachers were British or American, of whom there were just two. We were all male, again except for the two American women. And we were all called “Europeans” in English (Bazungu in Rutoro), much to the Americans’ irritation. Four of the male teachers were married, none with children living with them; so, although it is usually incorrect in the UK to say that a wife who has no paid employment outside the home “is not working”, it was true of these Bazungu wives at Nyakasura School.

The school had been founded by a Scot from the Church Missionary Society. So, of course, the school uniform consisted of a khaki kilt, a white shirt, red footless stockings (“footless” because many boys had no shoes) and, when the temperature fell below 60°F, a red jersey. Prefects wore leopard-skin sporrans (see picture below).

After I had been at the school for a few weeks, I proposed to my girlfriend, Anne, who was working as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in London. She accepted and flew out to join me. When I say “to join me”, that was at first not quite true: in the evangelical atmosphere of this church school, it was considered absolutely improper for her to live with me until we were married. What we had done in the UK was one thing; what we could do at Nyakasura School had to be completely different.

So we got married in (to the Headmaster’s disappointment) a civil ceremony in Fort Portal. We spent our honeymoon in Queen Elizabeth Game Park, just a few miles down the road from the school.

The wedding guests (Anne and I in the front row holding hands)

I’ll be telling you a little bit more about Nyakasura in the next chapter of these memoirs.

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