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Volunteering in Uganda: The Cherry on Top

By Heidi Gramlich Bryson

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When I received the invitation from the Peace Corps to serve in Uganda, I tried my best to suppress my expectations but my imagination still leaked out around the edges, painting a picture of what life might be like – no electricity, pit latrines, fetching water, teaching under a mango tree. An image that never crossed my mind was one of me in the capital of Uganda, sitting in the back of a beautiful, historic building, surrounded by larger-than-life portraits of the former lord mayors of Kampala and updating the social media page for a national spelling bee while videos were projected on the wooden wall of the hall above eager pupils revising their photocopied word lists. And yet, in that moment, I felt more the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) than I ever had marking papers by candlelight, teaching to a crowded classroom, hauling jerry cans, or trying ensenene (insects) in the village. Why? Because Uganda Spelling Bee, this brand-new, innovative, national program in partnership with some of the most amazing, dedicated, and caring Ugandans I’ve ever met, showed me that the beauty of Peace Corps was not in those isolated, individual pictures. It helped me understand the possibilities that can be reached when PCVs are not working independently but rather creating sustainable partnerships and using their skills and expertise to provide support for host country nationals who are identifying their nation’s needs and enacting positive change.

Sitting at the National Championship for Uganda Spelling Bee, watching pupils, teachers, family members, guests, and media pour in and be greeted by both Peace Corps and Ugandan volunteers, I thought back to my first meeting with Peter Mugogo and Aaron Kirunda, one year ago.

Ben, my National Co-Director, and I were in our second year of involvement with My Language Spelling Bee, a spelling competition in local language for Primary 3 pupils in Uganda. It was a Peace Corps program designed to promote first language literacy, boost the status of indigenous languages, develop orthographies, and provide teachers with professional development. It was a program that we were both immensely passionate about but that we knew was not yet, at that point, sustainable. So, when we heard that there was a Ugandan non-profit enjuba, interested in teaming up with us, we were thrilled.

We met at Peter and Aaron's offices of their organization enjuba in Kampala. As they introduced themselves and outlined their background, I could feel my excitement building. As Ugandans themselves, Peter and Aaron knew the challenges facing their country and passionately believed that the answers could be found in the 52% of Uganda’s population who are children below the age of 15. They personally lived the facts found in UNESCO’s data sheets on Uganda: first-language literacy, crucial in achieving second-language literacy and fluency in this country with over 63 languages, is misunderstood and devalued. English, as the language of wider communication, is often held up at the expense of children’s native tongues but is still immeasurably important to their academic and professional success. 71% of children are not finishing primary school in time and this is caused by, among other reasons, low competence, low literacy rates, and lack of interest. These are the issues that led Peter and Aaron to start the first nation-wide English spelling bee competition in Uganda three years ago, of their own initiative and out of their own pockets. They felt it was an excellent medium to address what Uganda’s youth needed – teamwork, leadership, and, most importantly, literacy skills – and believed that Peace Corps’ local language spelling competition was the missing piece.

Peter talked about devouring books his older sister had sent him from Kampala when he lived as a child in the deep villages of Uganda; Aaron told us how they only used positive words in their competitions and had the pupils compete in teams of three. Conversation grew lively as we talked about the vast array of benefits literacy can bring an individual and a community. We discussed the creation of Uganda Spelling Bee, offering both a local language and an English competition, and of how, with our combined abilities and manpower, we could reach both isolated rural communities and the most revered urban schools. We dreamed of igniting pupils’ curiosity and love of reading, inspiring them to stay in school longer, and helping them develop both pride in their mother tongue and improved competencies in English. We laid plans to conduct teacher trainings on learner-centered literacy instructional techniques and to offer spelling bees from the school to the national level. “However,” Aaron cautioned, “we must remember that the National Championship will just be the cherry on top. It will be great, but it is not what Uganda Spelling Bee is really about. The work, the change, the promotion of literacy – it all takes place before that.”

I snapped out of my reverie as the audience hushed and the first pupil stepped up to the microphone. In her knee-length skirt and green sweater, both freshly hand washed by her mother for her first-ever trip from the banana plantations of her village to her country’s capital, she nervously awaited the judges. Her peers from across the country leaned forward eagerly to catch the first word of the competition – “generator.” The room tensed as she reached the last two letters and burst into applause as she successfully enunciated the tricky “o-r.” She ducked her head, hiding her grin at the cheers. As she went back to sit with her beaming teammates, I could feel a smile begin on my own face. Hearing pupils playing “speller” and “pronouncer” in their hotel rooms the night before the competition, seeing educators and education stakeholders from across all of Uganda gathering together, watching children too young to compete playing along with their mothers on notepads in the audience…it was a day beyond anything I had ever dreamed Peace Corps could be. But I also knew that Aaron had been right. The giant trophy, the flashing cameras, the cries of triumph at the end of the day – Uganda Spelling Bee was not created just for these publicized moments.

It was created for teachers attending trainings on the weekends during their precious free time and on their own meager income. It was created for the pupils revising in their school libraries, whether they were reading by brightly-lit electric bulbs or by the sunlight streaming through the room’s wooden shutters. It was created for the parents who began reading the local language books their kids brought home and who realized that their mother tongue was being recognized as something valuable and as crucial to success as English. It was created for the education stakeholders raising up local languages, raising up literacy, raising up teamwork and positivity wherever they could. It was created for the pupil in that village school, standing up in front of their class, clearly, loudly, confidently projecting their voice above the drumming rain on the building’s tin roof. It was created for the reporter whose story on literacy appeared on page three of one of the biggest papers in the country. It was created for the kid who was sounding out a word for the first time, the girl who was breaking it into syllables, the boy who was putting together the meaning of the prefix "un-" all on his own.

These were not my original expectations; those images of my candlelit chores, culinary adventures, and classes under the equatorial sun were, in fact, all about me. PCVs played a part in Uganda Spelling Bee, just like they play a part in so many stories across the world, but I have realized that Peace Corps is not just about us. Uganda Spelling Bee is not about us. Uganda Spelling Bee is about peoples from two countries coming together with the same goal and the same passions, working to spread a love and understanding of the power of language, to recognize the potential and worth in that 52% of Uganda's population, to enable pupils to hold onto the right of mastering the language of wider communication while not losing their own. It is about change; it is about literacy; it is about hope. It is about the 500 schools, 800 teachers and education professionals, and over 35,000 pupils in Uganda who participated and threw their passionate support behind literacy, professional growth, academic achievement, and the belief that words can change the world.