By a dusty red road, flanked by palm trees and tea plantations, deep in the lush green countryside of Uganda, two teachers are standing beneath a huge mango tree. One is the black, the other white. They are teaching a single class of several hundred children and adults.
Until the night before they had never met. This is Bugiri, one of the poorest districts in one of Africa's poorest countries, though one which is now making great strides in education, against great odds.
Down the road is Makoma Primary School. It has 1,050 pupils and just 10 teachers. In an average class 110 children cram onto rickety wooden benches. They have no text books, and only a few exercise books. Most pupils do not even have pencils. And yet you can hear a pin drop. The children listen and respond with a shining enthusiasm. Education, they know, can make the difference between a life of mere hardship and one of misery.
In the past many parents have been at best ambivalent about education. Why send children to school when they could be working in the fields, contributing at least something to the family's meagre living? So now a local organisation, Literacy and Adult Basic Education (LABE), teaches the adults too. This whole family learning initiative has utterly transformed the area.
There are 30 families beneath the mango tree. Babies sleep on the floor as their mothers learn about how to treat a snake bite. The Ugandan teacher at the front, Jerome Olame, has been explaining the facts. Now the British teacher, Debbie Scott, on a week's visit, is getting the villagers to act out a role play of the treatment. Everyone is laughing uproariously.
The young English woman is the head of drama at Bishop David Brown School, which despite its name is a state school in Sheerwater, in perhaps the most deprived area of the affluent county of Surrey. Deprivation, she is learning, is a relative business. And yet the project which has connected these Ugandan and British schools has had a remarkable effect at both ends - bringing a revolution to teaching techniques in Africa and helping get the UK school out of the "special measures" status to which Oftsed condemned it two years ago.
Ms Scott's visit to Uganda was organised by Education Action International, which funds LABE and is one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. The others are Children in Crisis and Practical Action. All are involved in trying to make the world a better place. But what the three also have in common is the bold and innovative approach they take in assisting people that the rest of the world tends to forget.
Sometimes that sense of being at the edge is technical. Practical Action helps poor farmers produce a cheap alternative source of household energy, making bio-gas from cow dung. It is building low-cost, flood-resistant houses in Bangladesh, and has pioneered earthquake-resistant ones in Peru. In Kenya, it has invented a tsetse-fly trap from blue cloth treated with cow's urine (both of which, it has discovered, attract the little pests). It has designed a new stove that drastically reduces the amount of wood needed for cooking, a boon not just for the environment but for the safety of refugees in Darfur where women are often raped while on long excursions outside the camps to look for firewood.
Sometimes the boldness is social. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, Children in Crisis is part of a consortium which runs a project to enable 170,000 children in 17 provinces to go to school for the first time. Since over half the pupils are girls, this involves overcoming traditional arguments - ("it's waste of money, they'll just get married anyway", "It'll fill their heads with ideas", "They'll meet strange men") - to persuade families to allow girls to go to school. While in Russia it runs an anti-drugs project it pioneered in Leeds premised, controversially at first, on the idea that there is no point in telling youngsters not to take drugs, but instead creating an interactive project which leads them to make more informed decisions about drugs for themselves. In Sierra Leone it uses the same techniques on anti-Aids work.
Sometimes it is cultural. Kabul has a vast, Soviet-style orphanage with 1,200 kids living in terrible conditions. It is a deeply corrupt place, where the 400 staff keep the children in squalor to boost the funds and donations in kind it brings in from abroad. Yet many of the "orphans" have parents who dumped one of their kids there because the family was too poor to support all its members. Children in Crisis supports income generation projects - buying goats, stone-cutting equipment, market barrows and looms - to give parents the income to bring their offspring out of the orphanage
Sometimes it is political. Education Action has a sophisticated programme in the Palestinian territories which does not shy away from sensitive issues. It runs a programme in Bethlehem to help women and children cope with the trauma of war and the psychological blight caused by Israel's security barrier. In Gaza it has taken on the sexism of Palestinian culture with a project which has upped the number of women represented in local, municipal and national authority positions from 3 per cent to 20 per cent in just a few years.
Children in Crisis is also unafraid to mix it politically. When changes in US aid policy threatened part of its work in Afghanistan, it got its patron, the Duchess of York, to write to Laura Bush and the US decision was rescinded. And it risks political controversy to work with the huge population of Tibetan nomadic yak-herders in the Western provinces of China. On these, and other aspects of the three charities' work, we will be reporting from the field over the next month.
All this work challenges accepted paradigms in one way or another. Debbie Scott discovered that at Makoma Primary School in Uganda, where she found a 76-year-old man sitting happily among children of 8 to 12 years old. He had never been to school before. Another later learner, a 36-year-old woman, told the British teacher how she had learned to count with seeds and now could count her chickens to quickly tell if one was missing.
For Ms Scott too it was a tremendous learning experience.
"I went prepared to see misery and be overwhelmed," she says, "but I was overwhelmed for a very different reason. There was extreme poverty. Most of the children walk several miles to school and not one of them owns a pair of shoes. For many, the only meal of the day comes from the bowl of porridge at lunchtime, made from crops growing in the field next to the school. Some teachers have to miss school days to work in the fields to supplement their wages.
"Yet what stands out is not the poverty but their sheer enthusiasm for learning. It was their positivity, and how determined they are to turn their lives around. These people who have nothing, laughed and danced and sang and had a sense of commitment and community that we can only dream of. It was a very humbling experience."
And a very contagious one too. Back in England, Ms Scott's visit has galvanised her school. It is one of Surrey's most challenging schools, with pupils of 19 nationalities, 44 per cent of whom have English as a second language. When it was put in "special measures" two years back, only 30 per cent of the students got A-C results at GCSE.
Then, serendipitously, just as the Band Aid record was released last year, Debbie Scott received a leaflet in the post about Education Action and its programme to take UK teachers to Africa. The coincidence spurred her to action. She talked to the 11 and 12-year-olds in her tutor group who decided they would send the charity any change left over from their dinner money when they came back from the school canteen. The charity said £4 a month would pay for schooling two children in Africa. They committed to send that.
The kids began to talk about it to others in the school. "Suddenly there was a groundswell that everyone wanted to do something," said the new headteacher, Stuart Shephard, who was introducing a raft of changes. "It galvanised the place."
Classes began to correspond in their citizenship lessons with the pupils in Makoma. African dancing was introduced onto the curriculum. So was African drumming, particularly aimed at some of the school's more difficult pupils. Art classes developed an African focus. So did geography and religious studies. The school's 10 partially deaf students linked up with deaf students in Uganda. Even the GCSE food group began making cakes to sell in fundraising for Makoma.
Last week it all culminated in a grand concert, attended by the mayor, the local MP and the school's new composer in residence, Simon May, whose credits include the EastEnders theme tune. And the school was abuzz with sponsored activities - silences, stay-awakes, wearing pyjamas in class, as every student tried to fulfil a pledge to raise £10.
"We'd seen pictures of hungry children on the TV but they seemed different to us," said Rory, 13. "But now we've been in touch with them we realise they are just like us."
"I feel a lot more lucky now," said Charlotte, 12. "And when we realised how much you can buy for just £10 in Uganda it made us feel more determined to do what we could to help."
Teachers who had perhaps expected a harder or more cynical response were delighted.
"Deep down kids care and feel a sense of injustice," said citizenship teacher, Ginny Dalgarno. "There is a definite feeling that the students better recognise the diversity and worth of one another. And the African kids in the school are walking a bit taller."
Two days before the concert, the school found that Ofsted had taken it of "special measures". Its overall results are up - to levels of 90 per cent A-Cs in art and design, and 100 per cent in drama. An inspection of the school last month found, Ofsted said, "the teachers' unswerving ambition to ensure students achieve to the best of their abilities".
Stuart Shephard - praised in the report for strong leadership, an unequivocal focus on good teaching and decisive management of students - is in no doubt of the contribution the schools' work for Africa has made to all that. Charity, it seems, begins its work, at home.
Where your donations will go
CHILDREN IN CRISIS helps children affected by conflict, deprivation or other hidden crises. It targets forgotten children, such as those of the Tibetan nomads who are not receiving assistance from other agencies. It runs projects for whole communities hit by Aids in Kenya. It works with local partners to run health, education and child protection projects in Afghanistan, China, East Timor, Russia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, the Ukraine and the UK. The successful child-centred methodology it pioneered in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone is now rehabilitating schools and training teachers around the world.
EDUCATION ACTION INTERNATIONAL provides education and training for refugees and people affected by conflict. Formerly known as the World University Service (WUS) it supports a wide range of education projects including teacher development programmes in war zones and post-conflict regions such as Lebanon, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Sudan. It has pioneered new family-learning programmes in Uganda. And it provides practical help and advice to refugee doctors, engineers, teachers and other professionals to re-qualify to work in the UK and Europe and finds work placements and business courses for them.
PRACTICAL ACTION, was founded by Fritz Schumacher, the radical economist and philosopher who wrote Small is Beautiful. Formerly known as Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), its specialty is simple and ingenious low-tech solutions to the problems of poverty, particularly those exacerbated by climate change and market economics. Its solutions are innovative, affordable, sustainable and easily replicable so that ordinary people can create, apply and share ideas and skills in 19 countries including Bangladesh, Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
A Better Place: Christmas Appeal 2005