With most of us having never visited East Africa before, we had no idea what to expect on arrival to Entebbe. Approaching the airport we were all glued to the plane windows, trying to catch our first glimpse of the African landscape. It did not disappoint: the airport is on the shore of Lake Victoria so we were greeted with breathtaking views of lush green fields dissected by tributaries and rivers all flowing into Africa’s largest lake.
Our passports (eventually) stamped, our EPAfrica journey could officially begin. Some isolated cases of Ebola in Uganda over the previous weeks had forced us to relocated to Kakamega, Kenya, so our travels were far from over. A few rounds of luggage-Tetris later we had managed to cram all of our equipment and project workers into a bus and headed off towards the Ugandan-Kenyan border.
A coach journey may seem a hassle in the UK but it’s a completely different experience in Uganda and Kenya. In a way, it’s the perfect introduction to the next few months: Ed Sheeran blasting through the bus speakers (to our surprise he has quite the following in East Africa); a visual crash course on the diversity of landscapes and lifestyles of the region. From bustling cities to small road-side establishments; the only consistency is provided by brightly coloured ‘Safaricom’ and ‘Airtel’ shops that pepper the road-sides and ‘boda-bodas’ (taxi-style motorbikes) weaving through traffic.
In Kakamega we quickly transformed our shared house into a mass bedroom with mosquito nets and sleeping bags webbing every space available. After a brief ‘acclimatisation period’ the rest of the week saw us complete various training exercises aimed at best preparing us for the months ahead. Three highlights of the week were: losing our long-drop virginities, dousing ourselves in freezing bucket showers, and building friendships. Many of us signed up for this project knowing very few of our fellow project workers, so the training week was the perfect opportunity to get to know each other before heading off in our trios. In the space of five days we went from struggling to remember each other’s names to knowing maybe a little too much about each other — it’s fair to say this first week has been a great success.
On a more project-based note, we truly got our first taste of life as a project worker when we visited an EPAfrica ‘graduate school’ and were greeted by waves of ‘Hello’ and ‘Mzungu’ (Kiswahili for ‘white-person’) from, seemingly, every child in a 5 kilometre radius. It was truly humbling to see how excited both the students and staff were to meet us, as well as the lasting success the previous projects had on the school. This was our first insight into East African schools and thus a great learning experience.
The following day we partook in the annual headteachers’ conference. Headteachers from partner schools met to discuss the issues they faced in education. The day included good company, good food (ndazi) and good fun (playing bingo with teachers). More importantly, the headteachers took the opportunity to network, sharing ideas and contacts across many different schools. The importance of this sharing became clear when our school wanted to set up a house system; another teacher at the conference had already successfully set one up and was eager to share their experience. The day was a great introduction into the challenges that Kenyan schools face. Many of these link to funding; for example Kenyan children without birth certificates can’t be added to a school’s system so the school fails to receive funding for them. Cultural issues – such as female teachers being unable to discipline male students — were also a main part of discussion. The conference gave us a great introduction to some key themes of our following weeks.
Most of us came to Uganda not knowing what to expect, but our first week was a great success. None of us has contracted malaria (yet), we all still get along and amongst all the fun we even managed to learn a thing or two.