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Report #3 from Aaron Silver-Pells (BBI Volunteer in Kyarumba)

Posted: Sat, October 29, 2016 | By: Volunteer

Wuthi friends!

Mwunaio? (How are you all?) I like all of you and I wanted to write to you and tell you about everything that has happened. I am warning you now that this is going to be a long letter. If you want the short version: it’s hard teaching anything when you have nothing, I’m having a lot of fun and learning a lot and also setting up an Overpopulation group.

First, some background. This area is the home of the Lhukonzo people who are a Bantu tribe. 95% of the students I teach are the sons and daughters of farmers who have been farming here for a very long time, but who only recently have been introduced to the modern world. Their grandparents did not know what writing or money was.

What happens is that students learn Lhukonzo at home and are then taught English at school. Thus almost everyone is bilingual. The area was colonized by the British who built a railroad to the nearby city of Kasese and this is why most people speak English. English is also the language which 95% of all written material is found in. The “dominant” tribe in the region before the English came were the Buganda and their language is Luganda; many people also learn Luganda. The “international language” for Africa is Swahili. This area is close to the Congo border and so some people also speak French or a language of a Congolese tribe. Thus, it is not uncommon for people to speak multiple languages here, especially if they are educated and live in the city. A person may know their home language, Luganda, English and French. Or they may know their home language, English and Swahili etc. Etc. In school, they emphasize English and, later on, Swahili.

Most people raise goats and grow coffee, bananas and beans on the slopes of mountainsides. The region is VERY poor, but it is still a part of the global economy: the coffee grown here will find itself in the cups of people in Seattle and London through networks of trading companies and middlemen. You will find here more machines and artifacts made around the world than you might suspect including machines to grind coffee, motorbikes, cellphones, t-shirts, plastic stuff and TVs and DVD players. Their is an emerging prosperous, “business” or “middle class”, which usually does not see itself as being very prosperous, but which is wealthy in comparison to most others who have nothing.

Unfortunately for the vast majority, health, education and high wages do not usually find themselves here. Books can cost more than the amount of money it takes to pay rent for a month and many people struggle to pay rent. HIV is rampant and the amount of money it takes to treat malaria makes it prohibitively expensive for the people most effected by it. They have electricity for some but not running water. This is a poor and marginalized region in a country ruled dictatorially and which is recovering from war. The 80’s and 90’s were characterized by wars between the Ugandan government and NALU and the ADF. Wars which left this region devastated. The rebels are still in the hills although no one thinks they will return quickly. Because of AIDS and the wars, around 10-15% of the children here are orphans. One of the cheapest things you can buy here is alcohol and drugs and there is a very bad addiction problem in the region, especially involving alcohol which runs at around 15 cents a drink, enough for even a poor person to afford.

The organization I’m working with, Brighter Brains is building and adopting schools in the region which is a very good thing since there is very little money for food let alone education. We’re a humanist organization, the very first atheist charity in the world. This is very significant because Uganda is exceptionally religious. In a land where the only book many people read is the Bible, we are attempting to give the kids here a good grounding in science and ethics. Because labor is so unbelievably cheap, we have been able to build schools from the charitable donations of Westerners through individual donations and crowdfunding. I was able to build a classroom in honor of my father for 900$.

Personally, what I’m doing here is teaching humanist ethics to the children. We have ten principles which are Equality, Tolerance, Respect for life and property (free markets), Sharing, No Domination, No superstition, No War, Conservation, Democracy and Education. This is a very different sort of education than the students are used to getting. Mostly, what they learn is Right and Wrong, Respect for Authority and Rote learning.

The people are incredibly receptive to these ideas and also incredibly grateful. They know the West is able to do much more than what they are able to do in their villages, kingdoms and country, but they have little idea about what it’s all about. They are much more likely to become acquainted with Justin Bieber or Rihanna than Voltaire, Milton Friedman or Albert Einstein, because that’s what the economy brings in. When people are in trouble, they work hard and they pray, but rarely go to the library.

I’ve been nganemuyigha lukeluke lhukonzo (learning a little Lhukonzo). This is a very difficult language to learn! Even people here tell me that they have some trouble speaking it and that the form of Lhukonzo they speak today is different from the Lhukonzo of their grandparents. Undoubtably it’s been very influenced by English and also other African languages; there are a lot of African languages by the way and the truly literate people in the cities speak an average of 5 by necessity. What makes Lhukonzo difficult is that many of the verbs get very long and complicated. They don’t use pronouns all the time and instead change the verb to reflect who or what it is directed towards. They also have tenses for the near future and far future and tenses for the near and far past and adjectives also conjugate depending upon the noun it modifies. This is a very complicated process and there is probably at least ten different ways you can conjugate an adjective depending upon the noun.

Despite this, the pay off for learning even a little is big because people REALLY love it when you speak their native tongue. It’s like saying “here, I’m going to take the time to come to come to your house instead of waiting for you to come to mine.” Mostly, in this world, if an African wants to communicate with a Westerner, they have to learn a Western language. When a rich person takes the time to learn even a little of the culture and language of a poor person here, they really take it in stride. People are always very happy and impressed when I say wawukyire (hi) to them.

Teaching Ethics here is difficult for several reasons. The first is that I have nothing to teach with to speak of. If you ever teach in rural Africa, I highly recommend that you look up teaching tools for teachers with “limited resources”. What this means is that I have a dilapidated chalkboard and chalk to work with. The kids have pens and notebooks. That’s it. There is very little paper or miscellaneous materials. There is very little construction paper or markers. There is no internet. There is no audio/video equipment. Even if there was it would be useless because there is no electricity. Significantly, there is no books for students and books for teachers represent significant investments that they probably would not purchase if could not earn money from them.

The second reason it is difficult is that the kids are unaccustomed to doing anything like pairwork or group work in school. Here, the teacher is an authority figure to be obeyed. Repetition and route learning are the norm. Ethics is a subject where kids have to learn critical thinking and where you have to question right and wrong very deeply. The kids here are taught not to question, not to think too deeply and to obey. I’ve had to lecture people in the schools we “adopted” because they caned students routinely. I’ve seen teachers at the government schools pick up rocks and make threatening gestures toward the students because they want them to disperse. What I’m attempting to do is plant the seed of critical thinking which is something that few will teach these kids.

The third reason it is difficult is because school is the only place these children are getting access to anything resembling modern learning. At home, they learn about raising goats, hoeing and hauling water. They do not get the extra coaching most American students get from their anxious parents who wish to see their kids get into top colleges. The public library is very poorly attended, costs money and is not very well-equipped. The books are under lock and key and I haven’t seen very many people reading them. Their parents cannot afford school fees of 10$ let alone buy books.

The fourth reason is that the students are not learning in their home language but in English which is understood, but not always well understood, especially in the context of ethics which uses lots of big words. Because of this, lots of my lessons revolve around teaching vocabulary. Things like “philosopher”, “free market”, “inequality”, “choice” and “tolerance.”I try to modify my accent and speak slowly but I admit that sometimes I forget. I also have to be careful to use as small words as possible. You will recall that New Englanders are FAST, not slow english speakers. Maybe somebody from Texas would be easier understood.

A fifth reason that children have a hard time learning is that they do not always eat. The schools are so poor that they cannot always provide lunch. The schools Brighter Brains has built from the ground up are located in town and have their own land, 10 and 9 acres respectively. They also have their own small libraries and vocational shops which is a very big deal here. The people in town are much more food secure than the farmers and the schools we “adopted” have no land. I am teaching in the rural village though. Thus, many times, the kids go a day without food or only eat one meal in a day. These are the poorest children born to farmers who often have many more children than they can afford due to historical reasons. Hungry children are not good learners. We are currently attempting to start purchasing goats and land for the schools and fund more of the children so that they can eat everyday.

The teachers here are in general very “patriotic.” and don’t always get paid the 1$ or so that they earn a day. The reason is that there is no funding from government and their salaries are dependent upon the whim of people with no money. Parents will often yank children from school to do farmwork, because they lack money or because they don’t like sending their children miles away. This last problem is significant because people live kilometers apart and there is no such thing as public transportation. The kids often must walk on slopes for miles to reach school. Many of the orphans, of course, have no one to care for them so it’s very hard for them to get to school. The government is not interested in funding education very much and there is no such thing as “free school.” This means that the government schools miss most and schools like ours pick up the tab. For instance, out of 250 students enrolled at one school, less than half pay the 10-30$ school fee but the teachers teach them anyway. Government schools are also in bed with the church and the government mandates that all schools must provide a religious education. While I was here, the government also banned sexuality education. The teacher’s generation was even worse off than they are; because of this, few teachers know what an electron is, cannot teach about safe sex, but are required to learn and teach that Jesus died for our sins.

Think about that.

I’m not sure that I’m doing as good a job as I could be, but everyone likes it anyway because this is the first time they’ve been exposed to many ideas. People are so excited about the book I’m teaching from that everyone demands it from me. I’ve visited 8 schools so far and taught in five. When I go, people are incredibly sad and don’t want to see me go. I’ve introduced lots of new terms and ideas into their heads including “economic freedom”, “racism”, “sexism” and importantly “the scientific method.” Schools here will teach science facts, but rarely do they teach the essence of the scientific project of knowledge creation or important ethical ideas related to choice, freedom, nonviolence and tolerance. That’s what I’m doing.

I hope I have not scared you too much, but I do want to illustrate to you some of the challenges that rural Africans have in joining the global economy and in getting a good education. The work we are doing here is making a big difference in the lives of alot of people. If anyone ever tells you that Africans are dumb, just remember that the deck is stacked against most. For me, the experience has so far been very positive. Everyone treats me like I’m part of the upper class, which, in a strange way, I am. I’m richer, taller and better educated than anyone else here; the minimum wage jobs I’ve held pay more than the dream jobs of these people. The little experience I had in a lab in college is a more comprehensive science education than many of these people can ever hope to achieve. I hope it doesn’t go to my head, but it’s been nice to experience what a high social status looks like.

The good thing about this is that I can use the status I have as an educated, “rich”, Omuzungu to help people think about some of the problems that they have in this area such as overpopulation and gender equity. I’ve started a group to tackle this issue. The central problem is that there is not enough land to feed everyone, although overpopulation is related to other issues. What happens is that their culture encourages the men to have many wives which multiplies the population quickly. People are farming on hills on slopes and their is a big soil erosion problem. As it is, people can’t afford to feed their children and if there is not some serious work to stop overpopulation and start soil conservation, the land will quickly be exhausted as people chop down all the forest for farmland. The other option is for people to move to cities, but many of the cities here do not have enough jobs for people. Unemployment is a big, big problem.

What the group is doing is getting lots of people in the village involved to educate people about the issues that large, poor families face and to encourage people to 1. stop early marriage 2. marry only one wife 3. educate their daughters . 4. practice abstinence and family planning methods. We also want to help make it easier for people to access birth control as it is difficult to get. The first meeting had a big turnout with 18 people so I’m very excited! Our first project, put together by Leosio and Julius, the fine head teachers at Vision Care school, is to have students sing and put on a play in the market square about the problems that people face when they have too many children. John Kasibirihe, the local director of the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative, a coffee processing facility, is taking leadership of the project when I am gone. With the support of such people, it’s easy to do good work!

If you want to learn more, go to the website at and check out the various projects that are ongoing. If you want to be super awesome, share this with a few friends and raise awareness that there are humanists doing good works here in rural Uganda. If you ever want to visit Uganda, I can give you lots of good advice.

If you want to support my Overpopulation class, you can PayPal funds to — funds will pay for materials to teach the class, the music and dance instructor, and condoms for the BBI clinics.

Thanks for reading!

Aaron Silver-Pell


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Brighter Brains Institute is a 501(c)3 non­profit, tax­exempt organization in the United States. Our EIN is #46­3953105.


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