This summer holiday, a group of over 20 Highgate pupils and 3 staff members embarked on a trip to visit the Great Lakes High School and associated primary schools in the Kanungu district of Uganda. In the months leading up to our departure, Mr Pullan, who was leading the trip, had set up a Padlet page, essentially an online noticeboard, for us to share what we were looking to gain from the experience, and, of course, to reveal whatever concerns we had, which ranged from worries about mosquitoes to those about unsuccessful lessons. However, one goal resonated deeply with us all; we all wanted to be able to actually make a difference, however small, to the lives of the children we would encounter.
And, soon enough, we were off: following two long days on dusty roads in equatorial heat, we reached the Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Kirima, where we were welcomed by our host, Hamlet, director of the charity responsible for running the schools, and, not least, the Bishop of Uganda. He shared with us his vision for friendship between our schools and the importance of learning from each other without the burden of historical prejudice, reminding us that we were following in the footsteps of several years of Highgate pupils who had gone to Uganda and had themselves forged real friendships.
Before teaching, we were introduced to the pupils we were to get to know over the next week. Our first impressions were characterised by their energy and infectious smiles, as they greeted us with a lively song and dance. They did invite us to join in, but we soon discovered that perhaps our talents might lie elsewhere!
The next day, Highgate pupils were rapidly thrown into teaching lessons at the High School, and managed to engage our pupils with enthusiastic delivery of topics ranging from projectiles to the Japanese art of origami and a brief history of the British monarchy and parliamentary system. I myself taught a lesson on Ancient Greece with another friend, and the appreciation of our teaching was palpable, which in turn inspired us to return each day with more innovative lesson plans.
Having said this, not all of our lessons were as successful as we had hoped; some of us who had tried to broach outside their normal way of learning with the introduction of group work and drama performance experienced some minor difficulties, but, nonetheless, it was an important learning curve and definitely gave all of us things to work on by the end of the day. Indeed, each day, teaching came a little more naturally and we started to enjoy ourselves, and to hear the odd French and Mandarin word or phrase that we had taught them days earlier spoken between students in break time was an amazing feeling, and reminded us of why we had wanted to come. While at Great Lakes, I was struck not only by the depth of knowledge from the pupils, but also by their unfailing readiness to learn new things and strong desire to discover more about the world beyond Uganda.
When the weekend arrived, the school routine was interrupted, and we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the families of some students at Great Lakes in their homes, and to experience their daily lives first-hand. I walked a goat, collected water, and even helped prepare a meal with Loyce, a girl my age who attends Great Lakes, and her family, and witnessed a snapshot of the challenges that are endured by millions of families just like Loyce’s across Uganda. Things that I, and my classmates, take wholly for granted, like shoes and immediately available running water, were lacking. With only a fire for heating, cooking was suddenly difficult, restricting their family to only one meal per day. But what I think hit me hardest was finding out that many of Loyce’s brothers and sisters did not have the opportunity to go to school, as it dawned on me the harsh reality that many parents in Uganda face; choosing which child will have a formal education. And yet, in the face of this adversity, Loyce’s family welcomed us with open arms and a smile, and were truly willing to share with us all they had. I will never forget that day.
On Sunday, we joined the school’s church service and were treated to an uplifting display of traditional song and dance before responding with our own rather quieter and altogether more reserved rendition of Lord of the Dance. Later that morning, we were fortunate enough to witness the unveiling of the new Sixth form dormitories for girls and boys, named Highgate Queens and Kings respectively, and as a group, we were truly moved to see the gratitude their school community showed towards us. I think this really showed us how the funds generated from the biennial Highgate sponsored walk has had a direct impact on pupils’ lives, allowing more young people to remain at Great Lakes for more advanced studies in the Sixth form.
The afternoon saw the highly anticipated Great Lakes vs Highgate football match, as well as the inaugural netball match, which strengthened the bond between our two schools, and, throughout the day, the opportunity to interrogate us as visitors was clearly relished by the students, enabling us to learn more about each others’ experiences, families and ambitions for the future.
As the week unfolded, we also visited Kirima Parents’ primary school, and other primary schools in the surrounding area, where we sang traditional English nursery rhymes and joined in with playtime activities with the young children. At all schools our donations of uniform were received with touching gratitude.
There was a real sense of sadness on the last day when it was time for us to leave and we realised that we had truly made friendships in our time there, a true testament to the openness of the Great Lakes pupils. We were told many times that one trip a year is definitely not enough, and were touched to receive written messages of thanks from our new friends at the school.
But what did we learn? As we began the drive down Highgate Road for the final time, I left keen to maintain this commitment we have to these students. Over the past two weeks, I had seen how the money that is raised on the sponsored walk, albeit quite an easy task for us here in Highgate, really matters to the lives of students, who long for many things that I really take for granted, like having stationary and textbooks I can keep, and whose parents simply can’t afford the school fees of only £45 a term. I realised how very lucky I am to be able to go to a school like mine, but even more importantly I discovered that from this privilege arises a responsibility, and that from those to whom much is given, much really is expected.