Mbarara (oom-bah-rah-rah) is a friendly, bustling town (an accurate description, despite being used for every town in sub-standard travel writing) which seems controlled, as far as we can tell, by Marabou Storks. They perch like sinister old men on every roof top and water tank waiting to feed on human garbage, and the unflattering description on their Wikipedia page (presumably not written by Marabous) notes that they have bare heads because upon carcass insertion ‘a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood’. More crucially, the town holds our base from which to locate secondary schools across Mbarara and surrounding districts. A base with a single shower, an infrequent water supply, and a steady stream of loud Ugandan pop remixes from the auto repair shop below.
Our signs might not have been impressive, and they might have been written on lined A4 paper, but they did the job. At least they did once our team of ten intrepid airport welcomers realised that we needed an ‘EPAfrica’ sign as well as the Mbarara, Kisii and Kakamega ones. Probably because a sign saying the name of a Ugandan town in Uganda’s only international airport is a recipe for mistaken approaches.On Monday 1st July, we picked up the majority of our 43 project workers and researchers from Entebbe International Airport and drove them efficiently to the Red Chilli Hideaway hostel in Kampala. With 55 members of EPAfrica assembled (though ‘assembled’ is an inaccurately eloquent verb to describe the rush for bunk beds) our summer team sprang into action. Steve, Jess, Dan and Matt Purtill selflessly adopted the yoga stance of Individual Sitting Alone to safeguard as many separate tables as possible. Others of us spent the evening over-enthusiastically trying to explain to others that, despite eating spaghetti arrabiata rather than African food (Red Chilli’s excellent pizzas don’t offer posho (heinously known as ugali in Kenya) as a topping) and knowing too much about Made in Chelsea, we weren’t one of those NGOs. (We’re not, by the way).
At this point, we reached another first for EPAfrica, as Teams Kisii and Kakamega lurched gallantly towards the eastern border on their Easycoach stallions and Team Mbarara headed south-west, EPAfrica was split simultaenously across two countries. Three, if you count those poor saps in England.As dramatically as the programme, this blog now also splits in two, as we follow the pork-through-the-bus-window voyage of Team Mbarara along the Masaka road south-west of Kampala. To find out whatever became of Teams Kakamega and Kisii, who were last heard of at the Kenyan border (worried parents, fear not, this was a joke and your children are well), wait for the first Kenyan instalment next week.
In our first year in Mbarara, we are partnering with four schools: Nombe and Rutooma in Ibanda District, Shuuku in Sheema District, and, excitingly, Kakiika Technical School in Mbarara. After twenty years of operation as Kenya Education Partnerships, this is the first time we have ever worked with a technical school (subjects include Tailoring, Mechanics and Construction), and the first time we have entered a classroom deliberately containing a broken-down car. Our trio of project workers at Kakiika, Howard, Rosie and Sophie, will provide us with a report on the pioneering partnership later in the summer.After two days’ of on-site training, including the vital basics of the Nkore language (‘Osiberegye!’ (Good afternoon) ‘Webere!’ (Thank you) ‘Nshariraho!’ (Reduce the price!)), project workers met, on Friday 5th July, their head teachers and deputy heads at the first EPAfrica Head Teachers’ Conference in Mbarara. The four hour session gave us crucial insights into the Ugandan education system. Paul and Hannah, our project researchers, discovered lots about post-secondary education and absenteeism in schools, and we were privy to some strongly diverse predictions about the future of USE (Universal Secondary Education, Uganda’s aim for free school tuition). Relying almost entirely on two previous research visits and many informal conversations, we are fully aware of how much we have to learn about the education system here, and all of Mbarara’s project workers have been instilled with the importance of challenging all of our assumptions. That, and the importance of being quick in the central apartment’s single shower on weekends when 18 people are living there.