It must have been early in my final year of university. A student stood up at the end of a physics lecture and asked if anyone was interested in going to Uganda to teach. I’d been to Crete before. And Malta. And I’d visited France a few times. But this was something else entirely and the idea appealed. I applied and was interviewed by a committee of fellow students. They took me to The Eagle and we had a pub lunch – I thought that was a real extravagance at the time.
We did quite a lot of fundraising and I remember that I was in charge of purchasing the mosquito nets. I left this a bit too late and we nearly didn’t get enough. I learnt my lesson and have kept a notebook from that day to this in order to record all of the things I need to do. So I learnt a transferable skill.
We flew Olympic Airways to Nairobi. Our contact collected us in a pick-up truck and we all rode in the back. This was a mistake because at pretty much every intersection, people would come up to the truck and try to pull our bags of our backs. We eventually made it to the place we were staying. The trip had been organised through a link between an Anglican church in Surrey and its equivalent in Uganda and so we stayed at an Anglican medical centre in a Nairobi slum. It was there where I went out for a beer before bed and was bitten by a mosquito.
The next day we took a bumpy bus ride across the border to Kampala – with a photo stop at the equator – and, from there, a mini-bus to Kanungu. The plan was for all of us – I think there were twelve – to stay in Kanungu at the weekends and work on a water project. Then, in the week, we would bus out to various villages and teach. I was stationed at Kambuga. Our bus arrived in Kanungu at 5.00 am on a Monday, just before dawn. It played extremely loud Zairian music because in Uganda at that time, Zairian music was cool.
We took Lariam to protect us from malaria. It’s a slightly psychoactive drug which, when coupled with the odd rat running up and down your mosquito net, made for fitful sleep. I had two classes. I taught maths to a class of 50 and maths and physics to a slightly smaller senior class. Each morning recess, we drank sweet tea made with boiling milk until someone hit a old car wheel with the tyre removed in order to signal the start of class. I had chalk and a blackboard. I copied diagrams of U-tube manometers from textbooks in order to teach “O-Level” physics. I demonstrated the concept of centre of mass by tipping over a chair. I put on a fake African accent because the students seemed to understand me better.
On my second day, I noticed that some students were reading a magazine during the physics lessons. I remonstrated with them and was met with utter confusion. When I told the story in the staffroom, one of the teachers explained to me that these were the students who didn’t take physics. Oh, I understood.
At the end of my time I wrote a test which seemed to involve carving diagrams with a needle-like device and using a funny typewriter. The exam itself was taken in the yard as a long-horned cow gently ambled between the rows of desks. And I wondered, darkly, what good I was doing.
You see, the previous physics teacher had died of AIDS. When I left after my two-month stint there would again be no physics teacher. Was this really of any benefit to the kids of Kambuga? I could see the benefit to me and I could see their thirst for learning. Government schools in Uganda were not free. Although they didn’t cost much to attend, it was enough to put-off many students. Some of the senior year were in their early twenties, attending school sporadically when they could afford it.
And we never really did any work on the water project. As willowy westerners at altitude, we were exhausted after our first and only attempt.
We were not particularly religious as a group. The core organisers were evangelical Anglicans but they put no such requirement on the recruits. In Ugandan Anglicanism, alcohol was frowned upon – a bit like it is in Methodism – and so we were discouraged from drinking. Nevertheless, one Saturday evening the non-religious section of the group ventured up the street to a bar in Kambuga. There we each sank a couple of bottles of Nile Special. The next morning we felt rough and put this down to the beer.
Tom was rougher then me. He stayed in bed while I ventured on to a lunch that a local church family was hosting. It was there that I collapsed and had to be taken back to the community centre where we were staying. I lay in a bed next to Tom. He was a medical student and, although there was no way of confirming it without visiting a hospital several hours drive away, he reckoned that we had cerebral malaria. The timing suggested that we were bitten in Nairobi.
We knew that this particular strain of malaria was Lariam resistant because we had been taking our Lariam. We had supplies of quinine with us and we did not know whether it would be quinine resistant too. It was all we had and so we took it and waited to see what would happen.
As we lay in our beds, a group of locals from the church came to visit us. “Please God,” they asked, “do not take these young men from us at this time.” I joked with Tom about it to redirect my fear.
Luckily, the quinine started to work. Tom and I were stuck at the community centre while our friends went off to teach. Quinine disrupts your balance and so the journey to the long-drop toilet became quite an epic. We were hungry and we ate little bananas and drank passion-fruit juice.
The group reassembled the following weekend and one of the leaders let the cat out of the bag. We weren’t really in Uganda to do good works. That was part of it but the real mission was to get us heathens to reconsider our views about God. The stunning Milky Way that lit the night sky and the beautiful young people, eager to learn; they were an emotive backdrop.
I came out swinging. “So,” I asked, “tell me this. If God made me human and I make a very human mistake – I just call it wrong, weigh the evidence and reckon that there is no God – then I’ll go to Hell? Even if I live a good life and try my best?”
“Yes,” I was told, “because heaven is a relationship with God that you develop through Jesus. Without that relationship, there is no heaven.”
“That doesn’t sound fair to me,” I said, “If that’s your God then you can keep him.” So there was no spiritual awakening.
But something else stuck with me. Initially a vague notion, the idea of training to be a teacher caught fire inside of me. I liked explaining things so that students could understand, so that they could see the world differently, in powerful ways. I liked seeing their minds working, asking them questions, hearing their answers and taking their queries. I loved being this tour guide who showed them wonders they had never dreamed existed, things that most people who have ever lived have never known.
If there is a God out there then one day we will meet and I will say, “Thank you for making me a teacher.”