Last summer, I was fortunate enough to undertake a volunteer trip with Camara Education to Uganda. Camara is an Irish charity, founded in 2005, which is dedicated to using technology to deliver education to disadvantaged communities in Africa. Camara is a West African word that means ‘one who teaches with experience’. Indeed, founder, Cormac Lynch, believes that education is the key to helping people in developing countries break the cycle of poverty they find themselves in. Basically, we take in old computers, wipe, refurbish and load educational software onto them before shipping them out to schools in Africa. A great organisation doing some amazing work, so was delighted to be given an opportunity to participate!
Camara operate in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Lesotho, Kenya and Tanzania. Each year the charity send out a group of volunteers to train teachers in a variety of technology skills, PC maintenance, networking and multimedia, to name a few and that’s what brought me to Uganda! After undertaking training in the Camara workshop in the digital hub in Dublin, and with the Irish Volunteer Association, Comhlamh, 6 of my compadres, Rana, Bairbre, Shane, Mick, Carmel, Sinead and I flew out to Africa on the 3rd July. Tugende (let’s go) !
Our first stop was Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia, and from there we made our way onto Uganda’s International Airport, in Entebbe. Entebbe is located about 30km south of the capital Kampala, on the shores of Lake Victoria. There we were met by our co-ordinators, Alex and Grace and were introduced to our driver Chris, and what was going to be out wheels for much of our trip, a little Matatu. Basically a Matatu is a Hiace converted into a little mini bus. Extensive travel on Ugandan roads, most of which were unsealed, has left me with a new found respect for the Hiace suspension (along with the North Kerry road infrastructure!)
We taught in three towns, over a period of four weeks. All the schools we taught in had labs with computers supplied by Camara. Having been involved in the process of computer refurbishment and shipping preparation, back home, seeing the end result of Camara computers being used in schools, like this, was fantastic!
Our first teaching destination was a dusty little town, located in Western Uganda, astride the equator, called Kasese. First impressions of Kasese were of red earth, intense heat, people everywhere going about their business or just sitting outside and the smell of burning fires…. We stayed in the aptly named White House where were well looked after by a guy who called himself ‘Black Jesus’. Was pretty basic….. food….. mmmmnnnnn….. but was clean and had this great little balcony at the front from which we could watch the goings on of the town and the sun setting behind the mountains.
We taught in two schools in Kasese. The subjects we taught were basic ICT, Moodle, PC Maintenance, Linux, programming and my speciality Networking. Kicked off networking class with a practical and by the end of it many of the students were a dab hand at making network cables! First week was intense, but as the days went by and lesson plans came together we got on a roll. Learned that the bit of Kerry banter (which I now realise is a grossly under appreciated skill in this country of ours.. ) goes a long way towards establishing rapport! Language wasn’t much of an issue. Uganda is a multilingual country, with a variety of what are called ‘Bantu’ languages mostly being spoken in the areas we visited. However, as Uganda a British colony until 1962, English is widely spoken, and is indeed a common language for Ugandans who speak different regional dialects. Key challenges became evident pretty quickly, gauging different ability levels in the classroom and catering for all but the enthusiasm, energy and resourcefulness of the group was contagious! The biggest challenge we all faced though, was teaching computers during electricity outages. Only 10% of Ugandan homes have electricity, hence people spend hours gathering firewood to cook their food and candle light is still widely used to provide household light after dark. Most days, we experienced outages of one sort or another, so a good deal of improvisation was necessary. However, Ugandans, in general, tend to have a laid back approach towards tacking problems. Thankfully this did start to rub off on us, as the weeks went on and when the power went down, managed to teach classes using laptops and blackboards, when required.
Our students were mostly teachers, local volunteers and university students. The whole idea is that when the Camara volunteers leave, the teachers pass the learning onto others and so the learning continues. Everyone was so warm, enthusiastic and egar to learn. It is indeed surprising how much we have in common, despite coming from different cultural backgrounds. At the end of the week, we had an awards ceremony and were overwhelmed at the level of gratitude and appreciation that was expressed.
We spent our second and third weeks teaching in the Camara hub and a school in a buzzing little town called Fort Portal, nestled on slopes of the breathtaking Rwenzori Mountains. The Rwenzori’s are fondly referred to as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ and border the Eastern Congo. Because of altitude, the town provided relief from the intense dry heat of Kasese. Camara’s vibrant and energetic Uganda Company Director, Karolanne (hails from Cavan), took us under her wing for the two weeks! Plenty opportunities were had to work with both Irish and local volunteers in the hub, where we all got to share our knowledge and experiences.
By the second week we were all well settled into our teaching roles and adapting to the erratic electricity supply. Also, the area around Fort Portal is home to some breathtaking scenery from lakes to parks, so we got to do some sightseeing and a safari at the weekend. The second weekend, we made a twelve hour cross country trip to see the mountain gorillas in Bwindi. It was a crazy journey, but so worthwhile! Only a handful of visitors are allowed to visit the gorillas daily, and spend a max of an hour with them, so as to not disturb their natural habitat. We were sad bidding farewell to Fort Portal but onwards and upwards to our final destination, Mubende, another little dusty town, located in central Uganda. Some of our classes were based in the local primary school, which housed a Camara computer lab. Again, we were greeted with the same enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. And between classes we got to play football with the kids.
Too soon our trip came to end and we had to bid farewell to Uganda. We left with fond memories, a sense of achievement and warmth from the people we met which will stay with us always. After coming back, it also took a bit of time to adjust to not having my eight constant companions around too. Not only did we work well together, but had become good friends by the end of it! Overall top experience, certainly recommend it and will definitely be back! Keep up the good work Camara!