Saturday, June 27, 2009


Written June 23-June 26, 2009

First of all, RIP Michael Jackson. My day began with the report on the news and continued with the sounds of Thriller coming out of shop windows and a surprising amount of personal sympathy. Random shopkeeper and boda boda drivers have shouted their sympathy. I received a text message from the principal of Ahmaddhiya today starting with something more official and ending with his “heartfelt sympathy” for “the demise of the greatest star.” People assume that I am more affected by his death because he is from my country. Actually, it seems to me that people are bigger fans here than at home.

With that out of the way, I want to report on some of the experiences I’ve had in the schools so far. I have been getting settled in Ahmaddhiya Secondary School, and have (finally!) stared working with an NGO that I am very happy with.

At Ahhmadhiya, I have learned thus far that when teaching, the only thing to expect is for things not to go as expected. The first four lessons were on: human development, sexuality, stereotypes, and gender roles.

Human development went more or less according to plan. What shocked me was that they knew more about the reproductive system than I expected them to, which was a good thing.

Sexuality was a huge surprise. The session veered away from the curriculum a bit. We tried an activity that involved agreeing or disagreeing with a series of statements about. We only got through statement #2 before we were having a hardcore debate that touched on prostitution, the meaning of provocative clothing, and husbands mistreating their wives, among other things. Boy, did people have opinions. There was standing and some shouting involved. My dilemma was in defining my role in the discussion. Should I be strictly a facilitator? Should I share my personal opinions? Should I share my opinions but present it as a fact, since I know they will listen?

Stereotypes took me by surprise, too. I seriously thought that this would be a boring review for them. So I was shocked when no one could define stereotype. The definitions I got were just blatantly wrong. One girl suggested it was the life course from birth to death. I had trouble understanding one boy’s answer until I realized he was defining a stereo (as in the thing that plays music). So I abandoned the activities I was going to do and spent the class defining words like stereotype, discrimination, prejudice and stigma. Maybe it’s because civil rights, slavery, etc. is so embedded in US culture that we learn from a very young age the meanings of these things. Anyone else remember the “blue eye/ brown eye” activity in kindergarten? A product of different educational systems.

In general, I have found it challenging to teach a group of kids from a different culture than me. There are certain times when I realize my examples just won’t really work. For example, when talking about discrimination and prejudice, it is natural for me to want to talk about the civil right movement and slavery. But I don’t want to be constantly talking about the US. I want to relate the lessons to the kids’ environment. I was happy that when I asked for examples of discrimination, someone brought up Idi Amin’s treatment of Indians. After Amin, I did resort to talking about slavery and such. Actually I hesitated for a moment, thinking that racism against blacks would be offensive to a group of black kids. Then I decided that if anything, it would spark their interest.

I noticed that when talking about gender roles, some kids think in a different way that I do. During the agree/ disagree exercise described above, one girl and one boy agreed that men should make all the important decisions in a relationship. And while I initially thought it would be easy to refute this idea, hearing justifications based on religion and tradition complicates things. And when I talk about family relationships, for example, I am not sure I know exactly what they are thinking.

Finally, I want to talk about my start at the NGO. It is called Vision for Sustainable Development. It is a completely volunteer organization. They do a variety of work for a community called Bwaise. All of the volunteers (expect, now, for me) grew up here. One of their main activities is going to primary and secondary schools to teach about life skills and HIV/ AIDS. The past few days, we’ve scooped up our materials and marched like a brigade school to school. My first day took me by surprise because although I assumed I would start off observing since I hadn’t yet learned the ropes, I actually played as big a role as anyone. I was slated to be one of two facilitators. I could talk about just about anything I wanted but I hadn’t, of course, prepared anything. They suggested I talk about HIV/ AIDS. I was worried because although I have knowledge on the topic, I had not been prepared to give a lesson on it. I had some time during the first presentation to jot down some facts and attempt to create a coherent lesson. In the end, I actually thought it went pretty well. I proceeded to repeat the lesson at another school that day, and then variations on the lesson in four more schools over the last two days. The most interesting part is fielding questions at the end. Some of their questions really take you by surprise. There is a lot of AIDS confusion out there, it’s true. The interested reader can ask me for a list of the questions.

I am really impressed by the vision of Vision. Talking to them is really inspirational. As volunteers, everything they do is done out of the goodness of their hearts and the LOVE of the community they grew up in. The “office” is a tiny room located right within the community. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that it is important to the program to remain in the community, even if it means having a small headquarters. They work as a “family” and I have been officially welcomed as a family member. The team mentality is what I really love.

Today, we spent half of the day in a nearby clinic where we took nine girls with suspected STDs and possible HIV to get counseled/ treated/ tested. These girls were from a school we worked in yesterday. Some of them had anonymously asked questions that suggested there might be a problem. The Vision guys told them to speak to them after the session. They did, and today, action was taken. Just like that. I thought that was really nice. Shows that a day’s work actually has a positive impact.

I like showing off my Uganda knowledge with my new “family.” This includes local food, popular music, and my increasing store of Uganda words. I have found yet another group of people with whom to practice my Luganda skills. Will be fluent in know time (okay, maybe just “decent”). Today I tried a food called a kicommando (pronounced chi-commando) for lunch. It is a mix of cut-up chipati (a flat bready thing) and beans. Everyone kind of laughed when I agreed to eat one, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. Isaac later labeled it a “ghetto food--” something you eat if you want to fill up quickly and inexpensively. So I guess that was the funny part.

Perhaps one day I will tell them that I go by “Meghan” and not “Smith.” I may have mentioned previously that when I arrived here my family called me a combination of “Meghan,” “Lee,” and “Smith” before I set it straight. It is because they have a system of naming that is different than mine. I did feel compelled to tell the family because it sounded so funny to me at that time. But by the time I started work, Smith had actually started to sound fairly natural, so I let it go. And now I've embraced it as my name. You may call me Smith when I get home.

That’s all for my update.

Keep it real,



  1. This is incredible, Meghan! I'm looking forward to hearing more :-]

  2. Hey Smith I love it! I am glad you like Vision! It sounds like your work is perhaps more involved than mine, but we're getting the HIV/AIDS education on the road soon. It occurred to me today that these kids have had workshops, visiting instructors, and other NGO efforts their entire lives talking about safe sex and AIDS. I am now scared because they may actually know more than me. I'm living in my boss's house with two other interns (one from Germany and one from Japan- 3 continents in one house) and just settling in has been quite a great experience. We are cooking and cleaning like Africans... and showering probably less frequently because we aren't used to cold water yet.

    I hope all stays well! Can't wait to see you when we get back to school :)

  3. Happy Birthday, "Smith"!!!! Can't wait to hear how you celebrated, Ugandan-style.

    The Mullens