'We became immersed in village life'

After King's School Canterbury, friends Chrissy Stoodley and Sarah Johnson spent their gap year teaching health awareness to Ugandan schoolchildren
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The Independent Online


The careers officer asked what I wanted to do with my gap year, and I knew I wanted to go to Africa. I had to raise nearly £3,000 - £2,800 for the programme, and the rest for spending money and equipment - so I worked in a private school in Eastbourne to make money.

I knew Sarah well at school, but I didn't know she was going to Uganda until I met her at the briefing session in London. I was going to a remote African country for nearly nine months so it was reassuring to have someone I knew with me. We flew to Entebbe, and minibuses took us to the training area in Jinja. There were about 30 of us from overseas and the next day we were joined by the Ugandan volunteers. That was the biggest buzz ever: they were the same age as us and wanted to help their own people in the villages. They helped us so much - I would not have been able to integrate into village life so well without them.

After training we were split up. Sarah was in the group that stayed in Jinja and I went to Mbale, which is much higher up, so we spent a few days acclimatising. Then we were split into groups of four - made up of two overseas volunteers and two Ugandans. We were placed in a primary school and a secondary school, doing awareness lessons about AIDS and about growing up.

I remember one girl of about 14 putting her hand up and saying, 'Is it true that if you want to have a boy child, you take a hot bath when you're pregnant?' I said, 'Well, if you have a hot bath, do you turn into a boy?' I heard them all suddenly understand, and say ooohhh...

The 11-year-olds were so bright, so clever. Some of the 17-year-olds had not bothered to go to school for years. Girls and boys would not sit next to each other in class because that suggested a relationship between them. I was teaching sometimes 180 children in one class. It was daunting but after a couple of lessons I had got used to it. The school was Christian but most children were Muslims.

The children knew a lot more about AIDS than British children because they lived with it; someone next door had probably died from it. We had to describe anatomical words and I remember my Ugandan partner, a girl called Kisha, drew a penis on the blackboard, and they laughed and laughed. Then we organised a day with the local health centre and they brought a wooden penis and showed how to put on a condom. The children had never had such frankness. These were 17-year-olds, and they had no idea about contraception.

I met Sarah again in the school holidays, in a backpackers' lodge in Kampala. We planned to travel a lot but I was ill for a couple of weeks. I did get some travelling done though - it's good to have friends when travelling around.

I wanted to immerse myself in village life. The villagers taught me how to carry water cans on my head and gave me a big drum to collect rainwater. I learnt that they are very happy with the little they have. There is such abundance in England; we complain when they don't have what we want on the supermarket shelf.

Chrissy is now studying theology at Durham University


A lot of my friends were going backpacking and I knew I did not want to do that. In Uganda I met people travelling through, and they took so much from the country and did not put much back. I knew I'd get more out of it if I worked with the Ugandans. I raised the money by working and bombarding everyone I knew with sponsorship requests.

I'd expected to be going with a whole lot of people I didn't know, and I was going for such a long time and would not see my friends and family for nearly nine months, so it was comforting to have someone I knew to talk to about it with. There were a few shocks in Jinja at first, like cockroaches and no running water. They taught us how to teach, and about cultural barriers. We taught health education classes. You also teach other things - they reckon they have a free teacher and want to use her. One of the most rewarding things I did was to teach creative writing, because their teaching methods are all chalk and talk, and I and one of the Ugandan volunteers got them into the idea of how to tell a story. You have to be accepted by the teachers as well as the pupils, and also accepted in the village.

I found myself being the first aider at the sports day. That was horrifying - it wasn't that well organised and you had students running the 2,000 metres at midday in the African sun. Fights broke out between villagers, which were not very pleasant to see.

Often people assumed I knew what I was doing because I was from the West, when I didn't. When an AIDS charity visited I realised how many people there had AIDS. I got to know an 11-year-old girl who came and sat on my doorstep. Both her parents had died of AIDS and she had HIV. She came to me because the children were bullying her about having HIV.

Some of the teachers used the cane, though they are not allowed to. The last thing you wanted was to take a child to the headmaster because he would cane them. I got into the habit of reporting children to the deputy head who did not use the cane. I made it clear I didn't like it but you had to maintain a relationship with the teachers.

I'd do it all again. There were some amazing moments.

Sarah is now studying modern history at St Hugh's College, Oxford

Chrissy's and Sarah's programme in Uganda was arranged by Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW)

Interviews by Francis Beckett