Teacher Trainer Ssemaganda George

George on 10-23-17 at 11.45 AM

Ssemaganda George works to support in-service primary school teachers as a Coordinating Center Tutor (CCT) for Kyantale Coordinating Center within the catchment area of Ndegeya Core Primary Teachers’ College in Masaka, Uganda. We spoke to him on October 23, 2017.

Do your names have any meaning or story behind them?

The baganda say “sse,” someone who is a little bit superior. So Sse-maganda is a name that was formed after one of the kabakas some time back. He was traveling, then he was thirsty. He branched off to drink water from a well and there was a rock, so he sat on that rock and started to draw water from that well to drink. He felt comfortable when he sat on that rock, and said, “This rock is Ssemaganda. This rock is good for me.” It means “rock.”

So you are a Muganda by tribe. What clan are you?

Ngabi nyunga. Nyunga means someone who – I don’t know how you call them – if someone has a broken hand, he can massage you and make sure the broken part, the fractured bone, is healed.

Can you do that?

Yes I can, if it’s not complicated. I’m not so experienced, but if someone has sprained his joint, I just put a little bit of my saliva on the hands, then do this [rubbing hands together], and then over time you will see the person feeling well. We have simple and compound fractures, the one where the bone protrudes out. If it’s broken completely and it even appears in the skin, then I can’t do that one. I’d refer that person to the hospital for plaster of Paris.

We often hear Ugandans use different words to speak about themselves. They may say, “As a Muganda,” or “As an African,” or “As a Ugandan.” Is there some way you like to identify yourself or that you would like for other people to identify you?

I’m proud of [being a Muganda] because that’s my tribe, but I just feel I want to be an African. Not be so inclined to “Muganda, Muganda, I as a Muganda.” I’m a Muganda by tribe, and not a Muganda by language. My mother gave birth to me in Uganda, then she took me to Kenya, and I grew up from there where there are various tribes. I grew up with Maasais near Mount Kilimanjaro, and I grew up speaking Swahili. When I returned to Uganda, that’s when I started learning Luganda.

Do you think of yourself as African or East African?

East African. My parents were working in Kenya for the East African Community which became defunct. That’s where my family grew up.

How was living in Kenya? Did people treat you differently?

You know when you are young, children are children. They don’t mind whether this one’s of this tribe or this one’s of this. In fact, they even changed my name [laughing] when I was in Kenya. They looked for a Swahili word that resembles [Ssemaganda]. I was called at school Simaganda. Si is a negative connection, “not,” “not maganda.” And maganda in Kiswahili means “peelings.” So it’s not maganda, it’s not peelings! So they would ask me, “Simaganda. Basinini? If you are telling us it’s not peelings, then what is it? Is it a peeling of a mango? Is it a peeling of an orange?” It was funny.

I think the reason why my parents didn’t teach us Luganda while in Kenya was because as adults, there was a point where [other adults] would segregate them, saying, “these are foreigners, how did they come to stay with us here? How did they come to work?” Because my father was a head of an institution, was principal of an Outward Bound school. So in a way they could feel, “How could a Ugandan become a leader here in Kenya?” Not knowing that he qualified to have that job. The funny thing was my dad was a principal and my mother was a secretary to that institution! Outward Bound schools are in [the] U.S.. Colorado…my dad went to all of them. There is North Carolina, Minnesota…he used to mention them a lot. There is a number of them, I think five. He went to train in those schools. It’s an outdoor kind of program, focused on character training where you are taken to the wilderness and you survive in cold. So I got an opportunity because that school was close to Mount Kilimanjaro, so they would take soldiers from East African countries to go and climb Mount Kilimanjaro as a final part of the training they used to have. They had a ropes course, a variety of activities, but the school collapsed. When the East African Community collapsed, [the school] also collapsed. The funding came from all the three countries: Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, but when Idi Amin took over power in ‘70s, it collapsed. Now it’s Kenya running it. It’s still there. I visited it, but it’s not as it used to be.

How many siblings do you have?

We were seven, but one passed away, the youngest. We have twins by the way. I have twin sisters, Babirye and Nakato [laughing]. So three sisters and four brothers.

Where are you in position?

I’m the second [oldest]. Mr. Lubega here [at the Primary Teachers’ College], the one in Kalangala, is my elder brother.

Matthew: I knew it! Because you resemble each other. At one time I mistook him for you, and I felt very stupid.

No, you were right! ‘Cause you know, you can’t hide identity! There are some features we share [laughing].

What do your siblings do for work?

We are all teachers by the way, from the first born to the last born. I’m a CCT here, Lubega is also a CCT, then our third-born is a head teacher of a primary school, then there is Gerald who is fourth, he’s a secondary school teacher in Kampala, then we have Peter, he’s working with Airtel. He was a seminarian aspiring to become a Catholic priest, but he didn’t go through very well. His background is also as a secondary school teacher. Then my two sisters, the twins, are primary teachers. It’s a family of teachers!

Does that make it easier or difficult when you’re all together? 

I would say at some point it makes it easier depending on what we are doing. If we are having a family meeting, we deliberate on issues impacting us. There are situations where it becomes a little bit difficult because now we are all facing the same circumstances working under the same profession, so if, let’s say, my salary has delayed, it has delayed for everyone. Though [my salary] is more than the primary teachers, we are all affected in the same way. When we are discussing job-related issues, you find that they cut across the same thing. We wish some of us were lawyers, doctors; we could hear different stories from each other!

Do you have a wife or children?

I have a wife and four children. Two boys, two girls. The first boy is in Senior Four, then the next boy is in P4, and then the third born is in P2, and then the last one [laughing], the youngest one is at home. She is about to make three years. Very stubborn! [laughing]

How did you meet your wife?

Oh! Very interesting. She was a student here at the college. I delayed to marry; I was a CCT from 1997 under this college. My wife is a teacher [laughing]. I delayed to marry ’til I was 37 in 2008. She was a student here, and I supported her to complete. I looked outside teaching and I said, “Now, if I marry a nurse, we won’t connect very well. If I marry a police woman…” [laughing]. I need someone who understands me very well.

How did Ndegeya start?

The government wanted to improve on PTCs attached to religious foundations, so politically it was challenging because the Anglicans, the Church of Uganda, said, “We have a PTC, you can improve on ours!” There was Kyamaganda, that was now Catholic-founded, and Kabakunge which was Muslim-founded. Which one should we improve? They phased out those colleges. Muslims said, “We have only two colleges! If you phase out Kabakunge, then we would have only one!” So the government said, “Okay, let’s leave it.” The government under the assistance of World Bank and USAID purchased land and started constructing Ndegeya Core PTC, a unifying college which is not religious-founded and nobody would claim, “Why are you leaving us?” It was political because the district was charged with the responsibility of looking for land. The Chairman LC5 was the owner of this land. They said, “Let’s have this college where the land is spacious. It’s large enough and there’s water you can harvest from the swamp.”

What is your professional experience?

I qualified as a tutor in 1995, then I worked in Misanvu [Primary Teachers’ College], then I joined the TDMS [Teacher Development and Management System] program. TDMS was designed and funded by USAID to develop the teachers through training them, refreshing them, and improving the managerial skills of the schools. Teachers can be well-qualified, but headed by someone who has no managerial skills at all. TDMS was targeting both headteachers and classroom teachers, including the School Management Committee members and PTA members.

Core PTCs were very new in Uganda [in 1997]. I think it is an American concept because the funders then felt that having a teacher-training college that does only pre-service has limitations. Who is helping to train teachers in the field?

So we said, “Okay, let’s have a teacher-training college that has two functions: outreach service program and pre-service program.” We could have our agents who are CCTs out there, helping teachers to grow professionally. Once they [graduate], they will find CCTs out there to see how they are performing, reminding them of some skills or aspects that they are not implementing. Even for those who are already qualified and have been in the field for long, they need to be refreshed, and that’s how [Continuous Professional Developments] came to be a function of CCTs.

How do you decide which teachers to meet in which schools?

I decide by myself as a Coordinating Center Tutor. I don’t target only the newest teachers; I target all teachers. I target particular schools. I say, “Now let me go to school X and see what is happening.” Some schools will call to request for the CCT and say, “We have failed to implement the thematic curriculum. We suggest that you come over and meet with us as a staff and help us to demystify some continuous assessment,” and you go in.

You can also look at your program and see that there’s a school which you have taken long without visiting, so you say, “Let me go there and see what is happening in that particular school.” So you visit that school, you talk to the staff, you visit classrooms, you observe, and then you discuss with the teachers. They tell you their challenges, and then you also tell them what you have observed, you share with them, and together you chart out the way forward. You compile a report with them, and you maybe move to another school.

So a CCT is a self-driven kind of job. I think we were given that freedom because of the catchment area. If I have over 100 schools, it’s very difficult to reach 100 schools. Even if I decided to visit one school each day. So you decide by yourself and plan and visit certain schools that have requested you and you have taken long without visiting.

There was a Peace Corps Volunteer who said, “George, how many schools do you work in?” I said, “I’m in charge of over 130 schools.” She told me, “Why? For how long have you been a CCT?” I told her, “For like 15 years.” Then she said, “Why do you keep doing this stupid job?!” Then I asked her, “How stupid is my job?” “It’s the most stupid job! How effective can you be when you are in charge of 100 schools?! As a CCT they would have given two or three schools so that you frequently visit those schools and support them.” That has implications. That means we would have more CCTs and the government cannot do that because that means expenditure. You’re having more employees and you have to pay them, to sustain them.

What is a coordinating center? How is it used?

In terms of buildings, there’s a residential house for me as a CCT, a resource room, a small room, and a small office space so that ideally, I’m supposed to develop the resource room so that teachers can come and look at displays, pick ideas on some materials I’ve developed for them as a tutor, and then they adapt it into their schools. Then if there are trainings, like workshops, I mobilize the teachers to come to that central place, the coordinating center, and they sit there and we go through the intended topic for the day, and then we [have an exhibition] in the resource room.

Is there anyone else working from the coordinating center?

I’m all by myself in my coordinating center. Each tutor is attached to a coordinating center and he is by himself as a CCT there.

We have 47 primary teachers’ colleges across Uganda. I think Ndegeya Core PTC still has 22 coordinating centers, but now they fall under different districts. You might find that Kabulasoke has 30, Shimoni has 40, so there are a number of us, only that we are understaffed, so some coordinating centers were vacant. Some of the pre-service tutors were asked to care-take, so one day [of the week] they go to that center and do some work there and come back to teach [at the PTC].

Do you usually stay at the coordinating center?

Yes. I sleep in that house and work there. But now, when I have activities like being involved in school practice, for pre-service, I shift. My home is nearer than the coordinating center. And on weekends I travel back to my family and stay with my family, my little children. So I’m trying to juggle between the coordinating center and my home. But before I was married, I was solely at the coordinating center, Kasozi in Rakai District. I was there 24/7.

I was dismayed; I visited it in June, and it is defunct. Everything has been destroyed totally. The windowpanes are broken, it’s only the mission statement which I painted which is still there.

Kasozi CC in Rakai
Kasozi Coordinating Center in Rakai District

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The favorite part of my job is the experience I’ve acquired from it, working with various kinds of people. I’ve seen teachers in classrooms teaching. If someone would ask me to start a school of my own, I know where the best teachers are! I can single them out: one from this school, two from that school [laughing]. I know where good teachers are with a positive attitude, trying to do some work. Being a pre-service [tutor], you are limited only to these students here [at the college], but out there, you interact with district officials, with LCs, with parents. You get to know what exactly is happening on-ground. Why is it that people are not providing children with lunch? Why is it that people are not giving children shoes? You get to know that, to see what is on-ground.

Are there parts of your job you don’t like?

Yes, I have a number of them. One of the least favorite parts of my job is the mode of transport. I’ve ridden the motorcycle for almost the last 20 years. I didn’t know the impact of a motorcycle until I got a problem with my lower back. The government would probably give us small vehicles if they knew what we were doing in the field because the motorcycle is really terrible. I didn’t know that if you keep sniffing this cold wind with dust, it causes pneumonia to your lungs, and I’ve already started experiencing all that. Ideally, initially, when the TDMS program was started, the project then had recommended CCTs be given small vehicles, but the [college] principals refused. They said, “Who will manage them? That would be very expensive! How can you give these small people? A motorcycle is easier, it can reach everywhere…” And the project was redesigned.

In fact, we started by riding bicycles [laughing]! I have seen some of them in the storage. They have kept them up to today. It’s a museum [laughing]! “Roadmaster King.” We started riding bicycles, but because of the terrain being so hilly and schools being distant, we were not effective. So they said, “Okay, let’s improve and give them motorcycles,” which quickened the process, but again, everything has an advantage and a disadvantage.

I worked with two American Peace Corps Volunteers that time, 1997-98, and the policy was for them not to use motorcycles. They would ride bicycles, walk to schools, and I asked them, “You people, why don’t you ride a motorcycle?” Because I thought motorcycles were manufactured in the West. They said, “We have mopeds in the U.S. but we don’t use them.” They told me it is dangerous for an American to ride a motorcycle in Uganda because in the U.S. you drive on the right side, and here we drive on the left side.

After many years, I’ve now started seeing the impact of riding a motorcycle.

Do you find that when you go to a school, are you more interested in certain grade levels or subjects?

When I go to a school, I’ve come for the school, for everything. I’m a sports scientist, physical education, [but] I come with an open eye, an open mind to see everything in school. To empathize with the children, I make sure my mind is set as a P3 child: If I have understood, that means the children have also understood. I look at how they respond to the teacher’s instructions and so on. If the teacher is mean and difficult to them, I will probably share that with the teacher and commend the teacher where the teacher is doing very well. So I don’t have specific subjects. I’m at the school, I’ve reached the school, and I’m there to look at everything.

At times I go to the children’s restrooms to see their hygiene. They say, “No, don’t go on that side!” You know, sometimes they stop you. They say, “this is for teachers!” I say, “Don’t worry.” Because I want to see if the one for children is, you know, filthy. I make sure I draw the attention of the staff. I say, “Look at this. Because you don’t care that what is for teachers is fine, you don’t care what is happening on the children’s side. So, how do we…?”

Do you ever interact with private schools?

Yes, especially if activities like workshops are center-based, we mobilize them to come. Sometimes private schools invite us. They say, “CCT, we’ve heard the thematic curriculum has changed, we need your input on that,” or, “We hear there’s EGR [Early Grade Reading] methodology, could you please come over and orientate us on that?” So you come over and give them an overview. Of course, they don’t have the materials because they are not funded [by the government], but at least they get an idea of [government programs]. You say, “the most important thing for you is the methodology. You need to know how to teach Literacy Hour, you need to know how to develop the life skills…” You give them tips, summarize it, and advise them to mobilize and visit those schools which have implemented and see in a way of comparing what you have taught them and what is actually being practiced on-ground.

We are responsible for all schools. In fact, when I was in Rakai, we would support all secondary schools. They also have their own challenges. To me, “personally,” in quotes, secondary schools have the worst teachers I’ve ever seen. They don’t display anything. They just lecture to children. The only thing is to dictate the notes to children as they write, and that’s all. They don’t lesson plan, they don’t make schemes of work. So we gave support to them and said, “OK, so you’re teaching about chemistry, but it needs practical experience hands-on. Why don’t you organize an experiment?” and they say, “We don’t have those materials, we didn’t have time,” they come up with all those excuses, but we were also giving support to them.

What is the most common mistake or bad practice you see teachers doing?

Corporal punishment. They beat children when nobody is seeing them. Sometimes, if you have reached a class, you will hear a child crying in another class. Then you know, that child is not crying over nothing. He’s being beaten.

What do you do in that situation?

So at that moment, if it’s happening in another class, I’ll stop what I am doing here because that is more serious. I move over to that other class, and you know, tactfully, I put on a smile. Of course, when a teacher sees you, he knows why. You have come because you have heard this child crying.

So I move in, I call the teacher and I say, “Excuse me madam, can I talk to you outside?” Then I say, “Please, what is the problem? What has this child done? Is it poor performance, bad handwriting? That child is not a young adult. That child is a child. Encourage the child to practice handwriting, then you don’t need to beat the child.” So you talk to this teacher in a friendly way, not to blame, but so this teacher realizes the consequences of caning a child, and then you say, “Look at these children. Do you think these children got supper?” The teacher says, “I don’t think this child got. The child looks malnourished.” You say, “OK, if the child looks malnourished, it means the child is underfed, poorly fed. Do you think this child has both parents at home?” Then the teacher says, “I know this child does not have parents at home.” Then you say, “Now, where will this child get motherly, fatherly care from? Where? At home there’s no mother, here there’s no mother. If the child does not get it at school, it’s very, very appalling.”

So you talk to them. You say, “God forbid, if this child collapses, and I am here, what do you think would happen next? Because now I will also be held accountable as a CCT. The child was killed in school X while a CCT was in place!” So I show the teacher those issues and say, “OK, that means I will be the first person to arrest you as a teacher and raise the police because corporal punishment’s outlawed. I’ll raise the police so you are arrested. They will say, ‘the CCT was around when the child was injured, but the CCT made an effort to raise the police. He made an effort to arrest the teacher.’” Then you say, “If you can give the child a chance to enjoy school, let them just enjoy school first of all, and then learning will become easier.” [Corporal punishment] is one of the commonest issues.

And then lack of preparation and planning. It’s symptomatic. If you see a teacher caning children, go deeper and find out the technical aspect, the work-related issues: Is this teacher planning to teach the children? Does he have schemes of work? Lesson plans? Instructional materials? Then you find out this teacher has nothing of those kind. He doesn’t prepare, he doesn’t plan, so of course, a child gets bored easily because there’s nothing interesting. The teacher has not prepared lessons, so the teacher starts caning them instead. Those teachers who cane children are always not prepared to teach.

Is there anything that you feel that the Ministry of Education could do to address corporal punishment beyond what it is already doing? Is there anything else that needs to happen beyond the individual guidance and counseling of teachers?

Yeah, constant reminders. I think the government has tried. Like recently, have you heard of Journeys? Journeys Program is also trying to address [corporal punishment], which is very good. The only challenge is private schools are not involved in that, and caning is happening in private schools. They cane children because first of all, they are not aware of the policies, they think, “We are all by ourselves, we can do what we want,” so [we should] go to private schools and talk to them and say, “this is what is not allowed, and it’s unacceptable, so don’t do it.”

Do you think there’s a relationship between the absence of physical education and the presence of caning? 

There is a very big relationship because if there’s no break from classroom work, it becomes monotonous. Children don’t want to sit for long and listen to someone. They don’t want to be confined to a room. They want to go out, expend the excess energy they have, play, have fun, laugh. When they come back to the classroom, they settle. They feel relaxed. It’s only during break time when they try to play by themselves, and also at lunch. It’s fun for them. So there’s a relationship between that. Because now, if you’re confining children in class, you’re not changing the activity, giving them a chance to relax. They are looking at the chalkboard, writing down, copying down, repeating what the teacher is saying throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the month, then they will feel fed up with it and begin playing by themselves, and that’s when they’ll talk, and the teachers come in now. They want them to be subservient, to be quiet and obedient and disciplined, and yet they’re human beings.

The learners we’ve seen in Uganda are more well-behaved than any students we’ve seen in the United States, so it’s difficult for us to relate to Ugandan teachers’ insistence that their learners are “stubborn” and need to be caned.

[Matthew] told me about that. And yet they cane them! On top of being well-behaved! It’s because we don’t have exposure. I’ve never visited the United States. In Kenya, we share the culture [with Uganda]. Discipline is inculcated, it’s instilled in children from at home. We parents need to make sure our children are obedient to us, that they listen. Then the school system also contributes to that. But we don’t know they’re well-behaved. When they do something small, it’s overblown. It’s as if [they’ve] committed…I don’t know what kind of crime!

In fact, there was one Peace Corps Volunteer who told me that after staying in Uganda for two years, she tried to teach in one of the schools in U.S., and she stopped. She decided to quit teaching because she was so used to Ugandan children who are obedient, who love to be near her. But in U.S., she told me that you could say to the children, “can you please carry over my chair?” “Why?! Don’t you have hands? Why should I carry over your chair?!” So the children will always reason out and question the teacher, so she felt, “These are undisciplined children, and I don’t want to teach.”

Another Peace Corps Volunteer told me that she walked along the street in the U.S. and every woman she met, she wanted to get a cane and beat them [laughing], scold them because of the dressing. She said, “I realized how my culture was a little bit changed” because she had stayed in Uganda and where she was deep in the village, she never saw people dressed that way. So she realized that, “These people, why are they dressing skimpily? Do they know they’re not decent?”

From your 20 years observing teachers, is there some lesson that sticks out in your mind where you were so impressed? Could you tell us about some great teacher or lesson you’ve seen?

Some time back, a teacher was teaching about the concept of time, so this teacher went and collected different wall-clocks, some even had Roman figures on them. She grouped [the learners] and put those wall-clocks on the table. She made stations and just let children touch and look at those wall-clocks and move the hands. She made children play with them and touch them and move them and look at them and said, “OK, shift to the other table so you see the difference between this one and the other one!” Then she asked the children, “What do you think the topic today is going to be about?” All the children raised their hands and said, “Time! Time! We’re going to study about time!” The teacher said, “Very good, so we are going to study about time. So what do we use to tell time?” So the kids said, “We have clocks! We have these ones! We were playing with them!” So she said, “How many hands do you see on those wall clocks?” “There are two! There are three!” So she developed the lesson and progressed like that. That was one of the best lessons I’ve ever seen. Hands-on, children having wall-clocks, you know, discovery. In their mind, they knew, this [lesson] is going to be about telling time. Then from there she started teaching them about minute hands, saying “which one is the shortest hand? Which one is the longest? There’s a red one, look at it.” There are many other great lessons I’ve seen, but that was one of them.

Is there any quality that all great teachers have in common?

They all have different strengths, but the biggest quality for me is attitude, the attitude towards work regardless of the circumstances where they are working in and all these challenges. You really see someone who loves the job, who has the job at heart. That is the best teacher to me. You just look at that person and you really see, he has come, he wants to be with these children, he wants the children to learn something. Some are good in mathematics, some are good in other subjects, but attitude is the most important thing. Does this teacher feel like, “Today I’m happy. I’ve met my children”? That’s one of the major things I look at.

How did you come to work with and for Peace Corps? 

I didn’t know about Peace Corps until I joined the TDMS program. In May 1997, we were being attached to coordinating centers. I remember my colleagues scrambling for coordinating centers near the town, where there’s electricity, where there is water, where there is good roads. I saw my name was attached to a center in Rakai District, and Rakai was renowned for HIV/AIDS. That scourge was detected first in Uganda. Actually, I was emotional. She asked me, “Are you remaining in Rakai District or we shift you to another?” But I insisted, “Madam, you put me at another coordinating center because Rakai is very far from my home!” She told me, “There is going to be a Peace Corpse,” that’s how she mentioned it [laughing], “you’re going to work with the Peace Corpse.” Then I asked her, “What is Peace Corpse?” That was my first time I heard about it – “Peace Corpse.” She told me, “It’s an American organization. They’re going to bring a volunteer, you work with that volunteer. I don’t see a CCT who would work better with an American than you ‘cause they need someone who is social to make them feel happy so they will stay and work.” I said, “Well, where I grew up, there were some Americans who used to come and play with us, and so I have a little exposure and I’m not worried about that.” I told her, “Madam, you leave me wherever you want.” So I accepted and remained there.

So from May we started training teachers, then in August, my first Peace Corps counterpart, Shane from Florida, appeared, so I went for training. He was given a Luganda name, Lukwago. So I met him, and I was very happy. We went to Luweza for training for these cross-cultural issues: how do you communicate, directly, sometimes indirectly, what do we think of Americans, are they strong and powerful and rich all of them, our perception of Americans, their perception about us.

1997 Counterpart Workshop w Shane at Luweza
A (blurry) picture of George (left) with his PCV Shane (right) at a Peace Corps training

That was my first interaction [with Peace Corps], and I gained a lot from [Shane]. I learned, first of all, I need to be truthful and open to him, and I need to tell him the way it is. I shouldn’t hide anything from him. I need to tell him, “This is wrong, this is correct.” I would not hide anything or tell him what he wants to hear. So Shane, he came in September, and I was staying in a very ramshackle house. The house was dilapidated where they had put me, but I said, “I have accepted, let me stay here.” So the district prepared a house for both of us, and when they heard that a Peace Corps Volunteer was coming, they quickened the process. That house was being built slowly, from January up to May, but around August, they quickly worked on it and improved on it because of the expectations they had [laughing]. So one of the things I benefited by hosting [a volunteer] was the house was improved because of him. When he came, we moved in because we needed to stay together for safety and security and to explain to him what is happening.

June 13 1997 Kasozi CC Rakai
George’s self-described “ramshackle” housing

I had been there from May til August when he came. Those three months, they didn’t recognize I was a CCT. Nobody knew about it. I tried to sensitize people, but they didn’t mind [me]. But once they saw I was working with a Peace Corps Volunteer, they said, “Eh! Oh! Are you also an American?” So in a way, I became visible. He was the first American Peace Corps Volunteer to work in that kind of setting, to work in schools. There were Dutch kind of people, Danish, but these were NGOs who were supporting orphans, staying in the district headquarters, and they would move just to meet parents and give them support, not exactly immersing in the community like what we were doing.

Then, personally, I benefited a lot from Shane because he would tell me honestly what he wants. “We need to keep time, we need to have a clear program for a day, for a month, for a term,” and so on. So we sat down, and we would make our program, what we are going to do for the next week. It helped me to improve on my planning so you have a clear picture of what exactly you are going to do. In fact, it’s from him that I learned how to use a diary. Up to today I have all my diaries [since] 1997. We would record what we would do on a particular day: we shall be in this school, we will do this for this amount of time, then maybe you have the rest of the day, downtime, go and do your own things.

Were you and Shane doing the work of a CCT?

Yes. We were moving to schools together. First of all, I took him for a familiarization tour to see these schools and the distances. He was also collecting data from those schools: how many teachers are in School X, how many children, what are their strengths, etc.

We had one bicycle. I would ride him, he would ride me, we would exchange. It was very interesting. One time we were caught up by rain on the way. It was terrible. All our books! All our records, everything got soaked up! We were showered. The road was so muddy and so slippery, our bike got stuck in the mud. For him, he said, “This is fine, George.” Because he was fresh from the university, he told me he doesn’t know whether those colleagues of his who are not Peace Corps Volunteers could ever get that experience: you get stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the bush, in the thicket somewhere, you are soaked by rain, there was nowhere to take cover, so we learned lessons from that. I asked him, “What do you think we didn’t do right?” We said, “We need to be prepared all the time. We need to move with raincoats, we need to move with rubber boots strapped to our bikes, we need to move with buveras [polythene bags] to wrap up our records.”

So he asked me, “George, what do you think? Do we proceed to the school? Do we go back?” I told him, “Going back, shall we feel like we’ve done the job? Let’s reach the school.” We didn’t have cameras then on these phones; we would have taken a photograph of that school. It was grass-thatched. We met kids standing by a building which was leaking, the kids were there with no uniform, and I told Shane, “Look at these children. What is their future going to be like? This is the school, there is no teacher around, they are soaked in rain, no shoes, books are soaked.” We looked at those children, and we were attached.

We stayed there and we tried to teach them. We prepared a lesson quickly, we planned a lesson and we were teaching them English vocabulary, to read, pronounce, and so on. We worked with them for some time until a teacher showed up. She felt guilty, “Oh, sorry, it rained!” You know rain is an excuse. So we said, “No, it’s okay since you’ve shown up. We’ve tried to teach these children,” then we went directly to the district and talked about that school.

Now I told you that with [Shane] coming, I became visible. We told them about the school. The district officials took us seriously, and we organized a trip with them. They took us in their vehicle to visit the school, and World Vision decided to construct that school. From that visit we made that day, soaked by rain, came permanent structures. It’s now a school which was well built.

George and Shane at Kasozi Residence
George and Shane at their residence in Rakai

So that was my experience working with Shane. He had a challenge: his girlfriend in the U.S. was missing him and she kept writing letters to him, sometimes phoning Peace Corps, until he asked me, “What should I do? I don’t want to lose my girlfriend, I don’t want to lose my Peace Corps experience. I need both of them.” Then I told him, “The best thing to do is to organize for her to visit you here so that she sees what kind of life you are living and what is happening here. You need your job, you need your girlfriend. She’s there, she has no clue what is happening in your life. As much as you explain, she needs to come and experience it.” Then he did that.

So when she came, they traveled by public means, and he could speak Luganda fluently, so she could see how he could bargain for transport and interact with the locals and so on, so she got the traveling experience. She came around to the schools, we showed her the work we were doing. So in a way, she was happy with that, and she went back home. He stayed for a few more months, but still she said, “No, come back home, that is enough.” So he said, “I have no choice, I have to go back.” He ET’d [Early Terminated], he left.

Nathan was my second Peace Corps Volunteer. He was in eastern Uganda, but he had serious issues with the community there. They could break into his house and steal his property, even poisoned his puppies, all these serious things, so the Peace Corps had to move him to my Coordinating Center until Peace Corps closed. He was removed and taken to South Africa. Other [volunteers] went to Kenya. [Uganda] stayed for some months without Peace Corps. I think the terrorists had started putting bombs in the buses, and Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated.

Peace Corps re-opened in 2001, and I was very lucky. Because of the recommendations made by my counterparts, Peace Corps decided to involve me in technical training with the new volunteers. So I was taken in as a technical trainer to Peace Corps. I did that training in 2001-2002. 2003, the Ministry blocked me; there were issues, and they didn’t allow me to go. 2004 they allowed me to go and train, 2005 they didn’t allow me [laughing]. 2006 they allowed me, then the Ministry stopped it completely. But the problem was also from the College here. They stopped me.

What areas of technical training were you handling?

CCT work: in general, what is the CCT job like? Because Volunteers were attached to coordinating centers. They were our counterparts, so I had to give them the perspective: what is the job like, what are the challenges you are going to find, what is it like working with a Ugandan counterpart. I don’t know all [Ugandan counterparts], I don’t know how they are going to treat their Volunteers, but you can at least expect A, B, and C. The ideal of CCT work and what is actual, and why. If a CCT is not visiting all the schools, don’t say, “He’s not effective!” There could be a reason: the number of schools in the catchment area, delayed or minimal funding, or sometimes we communicate indirectly. We’re not open. Someone thinks you will figure out [that] politely he’s telling you “no.” Instead of saying straight “no,” he’s saying, “You know, we shall see.” So those are the issues I would bring in.

I was handling the technical aspect and also the language aspect as a trainer. Technically, what is the language? If a teacher says this, what is that? I would give them the language used by teachers in schools.

Would you like to share any memories about being a Peace Corps trainer?

I remember those little things. There were two volunteers who decided to remove their shoes and walk on grass. I said, “Why?” It was their first time to step on that type of grass. Then it started raining. There were those who decided to sit, and they were showered by rain. They said it just felt nice.

Those are some things, to a Ugandan, I would think it’s childish and stupid. But to that person, if he’s getting that experience, if he wants to feel it, you would look at it and say, “he’s appreciating the vegetation, the showers. He’s appreciating nature.”

The Americans that have come to Uganda have really appreciated [nature]. I remember going to pick the new volunteers from the airport in Entebbe. We would spend a week relaxing and getting rid of jetlag. Then we would begin orientating them before going to homestay and the training center. When one volunteer came to arrivals, she looked up and screamed. I remember very well. She looked up and screamed. Tears were now dropping. I said, “What’s the problem?” She even sat down. She said, “There’s no problem.”

She saw stars for the first time. She was 23 years old, and she said, “For the last 23 years, I have never seen stars where I grew up because of smog and lights everywhere.” She said, “It’s like someone picked [the stars] and threw them up there.”

What was the most challenging thing about working with Americans?

The challenging thing is you must speak the truth, and you should be knowledgeable about the thing you are talking about. If you don’t know it, then declare, “I don’t know.” It’s challenging to us Ugandans.

And also, being sensitive. I’m seeing Matthew, I’m seeing Victoria, but what could be bothering her? Does she need to be by herself now? Is there something going on and she doesn’t want to open up? Am I giving too much unwanted attention? This was challenging.

What was also challenging was that I didn’t have the exposure. I hadn’t been with Americans as an adult. I don’t know how the education system works, I don’t know whether what I’m doing is good or correct, so you are reading the other person to get to understand that person. But it’s easier for those who have been to America and been with Americans. When they talk to Americans, they are talking from experience. “I was in Michigan, and this is what I observed,” you would really see that the person knows. So it is easier for that person than for a person who doesn’t have that exposure. That was the most difficult part of it.

But again, the training helped me a lot because sometimes we as Ugandans, there are certain things we do and think that what we have done is normal, and we don’t even realize that we have done it. I know that with Americans it is the same. There is when you find you have done something and you don’t even realize what you have done. The working styles are different, the way you look at things [is] different.

I remember there were times where you [Matthew] had just come, and you were attached to the [English] Language Department. We met out there with some tutors, and they didn’t ask you the areas you would like to take, but they were saying, “No, we are going to give you this topic!” I was like, “M-m. These people. It’s unfortunate.” I thought they would say, “Now Matthew, you have come. You are welcome. This is our Language Department. We are going to work together with you. Now, which areas would you feel comfortable handling?” But it’s like, “This is what we expect you to do, we are going to give you this topic.”

They call it “with-it-ness.” We need to be aware of the environment. Peace Corps helped me a lot. When I worked with Peace Corps, sometimes we are seated here informally in a meeting: the driver is seated here, the askari is seated there, the director is seated here, and we are sharing. When we are talking about going to visit sites, the driver says, “Oh, there will be a program for visiting site A,” when we are talking about the security issue, the askari knows that, “Oh, this is a security issue,” and everybody’s aware. That kind of setting, I feel it was [more] productive than, “I’m the principal, I know it all. You people who are below me, sit that side.” It’s a challenge. Sometimes I talk. “What would it be like if we have the cooks here?” And they’re like, “Have the non-teaching staff here?!” As if the non-teaching staff, the cooks, don’t have any valuable ideas to put into an organization. So there are certain things we do. Sometimes we could be right, but we miss a lot by doing that.

In fact, even in our education system, you see it. The teacher is the one who is the sole provider of the knowledge, the children are that side [of the classroom], and you think it’s you who is in charge, who knows everything. So when I see Volunteers, I sit down and say, “Do these people realize that someone has come? He also has ideas we need to tap.” You [Matthew] are not here for long. If I was to stay in Pre-Service, you would always be challenged because I would be asking you questions related to your education system and our education system, and “this is the topic I’m going to teach, what do you think if I do it like this?” so that I benefit from you more and we share. That’s what I would do [laughing].

Was there anything that you felt could be improved in Peace Corps?

My recommendation is Peace Corps needs new blood. We keep receiving new Volunteers, and that means when you get different people coming in. They have different skills, different knowledge. Likewise, Ugandan Peace Corps staff should also change. I think they did it to some degree. By retaining the same trainers over years and years, they are missing out. There could be Ugandans who are out here who are good at language, who are experienced in A-B-C-D. New blood from [the PCV] side, new blood from [the PC Staff] side. I was there, I’m out of there, and the program is still going on. But there are people who are still working there for years and years. Sorry to say, [but] once they die or they are off, that means Peace Corps will now say, “Now what do we do? We had a trainer who had worked for so many years and he’s gone! Where do we get another one?” It’s building capacity and exposing more Ugandans to Peace Corps.

What is your favorite thing about Uganda or about being a Ugandan?

I think culture. The culture itself is beautiful. There are things the Baganda do, and they have scientific reasons. If Waswa is born from another family and he’s a twin, and Nakato is born from another family and she’s a twin, then they’re not allowed to marry each other. These are brother and sister to each other. In a way, I think there was a kind of genetical science in their mind: when two twins get married, what do you think will happen? Probably these twins, their forefathers could have been related somewhere, so they will not allow that to happen even if you have different clans. I think that is good.

I’m George Ssemaganda from Ngabi clan; I cannot marry from Ngabi clan. Anybody, even if I don’t know that person, so long as she mentions the name: Namatovu, that one is my sister, I can’t marry so that we don’t do in-breeding. They don’t give you the reason, but it’s what they had at the back of their mind.

Do you have any professional goals for yourself?

Professionally, my goal was to be promoted, and when I joined teaching, the working conditions were very appalling. There were many children, we were understaffed, and we were poorly paid. But I did it. I stuck to the job, and I realized that if I don’t promote myself, no one will promote me. That’s why I struggled to climb the ladder: Grade III, Diplomas. Because in a way I felt if I acquired these qualifications, someone in Uganda will realize, “This person is growing professionally.” But it’s not working out now. So my professional goal was to work, get experience, and get promoted.

What would that promotion be? What is the next stage for your career?

Deputy Principal Outreach because now I’ve worked for outreach for so many years. But if it comes and they say, “Deputy Principal Pre-service,” fine! That promotion is what I have in mind. That’s what I’ve worked for. My dad was a principal of an Outward Bound school, so I would admire him when I saw him leading staff, managing that institution.

What are your personal goals?

I want to live a reasonable life. A life that I feel, “OK, it’s worth living. Here I am: I studied, I have a job, all the basic needs are met.” I don’t want to be a very rich person. All I need, I have it. Health-wise, I’m OK.

Do you think the desire “to live a reasonable life” comes from being a Roman-Catholic?

Yes, there is a connection there because a reasonable life cuts across. There are things which you need to be as a Catholic: truthful, trustworthy, grateful. I patiently wait. If something comes and blocks me, I just say, “OK, maybe it’s what God has decided for me. Let me have my hands off.”

What do you like doing for fun?

Running [laughing]. Running and jogging in the morning is something I’ve picked interest in. It’s very nice, if you do it regularly, you feel like you’re energized for the day.

What do you hope for your children?

First of all, I don’t want them to be teachers. If anything, one of them should be a teacher, but I don’t want them to be a family of teachers like us. I want to break that trend.

I want to make sure they get the best education. I’m struggling with my work because of the education background. I’m a victim of two education systems: Kenya’s and Uganda’s. In a way, it impacted me. In both Kenya and Uganda, I was in government schools. So I’m taking my children to private schools. I’m struggling to make sure they go to private schools so they get the best education and open up the opportunity to pursue other careers. In fact, my boy is in Centenary College Kitovu doing his O-level exams. My first-born is aspiring to be an engineer. My second is saying he wants to become a doctor. My girl is in P2; she hasn’t yet told me [laughing]. But I want them to think beyond.

Teaching is a good career. I think teaching is one of the best jobs because you teach others and see them succeed and challenge yourself: why can’t I also succeed like them? I used teaching to make sure I advanced and studied.

One thing I’m proud of in being a teacher is my children are exposed. I’ve put a library [in my home]. I have shelves, newspapers, children’s books. My little girl picks a book and brings and says, “What is this? What is this?” She interacts with books at an early age. So it has helped them because by the time they move to school, they read very fast. They love to read, and that’s what I’ve done.

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