Stefan O’Gorman: Reflections on Ten Years of Partnership

Stefan O’Gorman: Reflections on Ten Years of Partnership

Stefan O’Gorman is a member of staff at William Morris Sixth Form. He used to be a student at the school and in 2007 was part of the inaugural visit to Kigezi High School in Kabale, Uganda. This April marks the tenth year of this trip and here he shares some of his reflections on the past decade and considers what kind of impact the trip has had and how he thinks it has affected those who have been involved.

My general interest in Africa perhaps stems from my childhood, when I would study maps and complain to my dad that the borders between African states were “crazy!” – the lines weren’t like they were everywhere else but perfectly straight, “like they’ve been drawn with a ruler!”

When, as a seventeen year-old student at William Morris Sixth Form (WMSF), the opportunity arose to travel to Uganda, the ‘straight lines’ of my childhood maps returned to me and I became enthused about the prospect of seeing for myself the supposed ‘dark continent’ I’d also read so much about in colonial literature. The trip was to establish the partnership between WMSF and Kigezi High School (KHS), in Kable, south-western Uganda, but before travelling it was understandably hard to imagine what this partnership would look like and a more general excitement about equatorial Africa took hold.

Ten years later, after several trips both independently and with WMSF, I look back at my maps and smile at Conrad’s heart of darkness which is anything but a ‘dark’ place on a map but a lacustrine, bucolic region in which nestles vibrant towns and plentiful hills of green and low-hanging cloud. The volcanic peaks of the Virunga mountains indicate the high altitude where the climate is cooler, causing the students at KHS and other local schools to bemoan the ‘cold’ – a source of real dispute with the WMSF students who can barely believe what they’ve heard as they sweat through layers of sunscreen lotion.

This region, on the tri-nation border of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC, is where friends of mine speak Rukiga or Kinyarwanda, guzzle sodas as often as possible and argue about which Premier League football team is the best before dismissing the debate altogether in favour of a real match between themselves on any available patch of grass. These people have names and families and memories and negotiate their way through all of the same vicissitude everyone else does, and I’m thankful to WMSF for providing me with the platform for establishing these friendships and assisting me in navigating away from the pitfalls of assumptive African stereotypes.

Amongst the many virtues of the WMSF trip to Uganda, one of the foremost benefits it has delivered has been to its own students. From the first trip onward, every single student who has taken part has gained so much, from simply being offered a wonderful opportunity to experience another culture to being stimulated to re-shape their own ambitions as a result of new perspectives formed on the trip.

As a direct response to experiences in Uganda, one student has decided to become a teacher, one has spent the last decade travelling and another has been prompted to realise and acknowledge his own Ugandan heritage, and has travelled back independently to his extended family’s home in Gulu, northern Uganda. Clearly, the Uganda trip has a profound impact on the lives of the WMSF students involved, and these fortunate students acknowledge this impact and WMSF’s responsibility for it.

As for me: I’m halfway through an MSc in African Politics and my major study is on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It’s fairly obvious that WMSF has had a huge role in forming that interest. Visiting genocide memorials with WMSF and speaking to survivors of ’94 is inspiring and an experience unimaginably immersive while it lasts and unforgettable when it’s finished. I have reservations, however, in determining horror and violence as fundamental aspects of my experience of contemporary Rwanda.

Similarly, I’m frustrated when pressed about what ‘difference’ I’ve made in Uganda, as though being African automatically makes the people I’ve met clients and being British automatically qualifies me as their patron. One of the outstanding memories I have of the trip is a discussion with truanting KHS students, which they turned into more of an ad-hoc lecture about South Sudanese rebel groups – a topic I’ve written about for my course – so who is the beneficiary then? It seems the answer is clear but not concise, for there are certainly many beneficiaries on all sides of the partnership.

The role of WMSF teachers is important. Whereas the students take part as unskilled non-professionals, the staff are qualified to offer their skills and their expertise. The work that teachers and support staff from WMSF do is invaluable to KHS and their efforts in collaborative teaching and learning is welcomed and appreciated. The sustainability of their work over ten years has encouraged increased participation in the partnership with KHS, and the success they’ve had in achieving effective exchanges of resources and skills has prompted the foundation of several other projects in Kabale, many of which are run in tandem with staff from KHS.

This collaboration is vital so that work can continue year-round, but equally important is the function of reciprocity, which allows WMSF to benefit from KHS. WMSF is incredibly lucky to have such an effective partner school in Uganda, and the trip seems to have developed into an integral part of the school calendar. WMSF students are fully-informed of the partnership with KHS and through the hard work of the teachers and students who’ve been on the trip, the message transmitted is an extremely positive one which promotes an image of KHS as a functional educational body and the students and staff are represented not as subjects of pity and sympathy, but as aspirational individuals and inspirational educators.

Informed understanding of the partnership, however, hasn’t always been apparent; it has been achieved through sustained work by staff and students. In the build-up to my first trip as a student in 2007, I collected donations from students in the WMSF cafeteria and courtyard. This proved to be successful until one student refused and challenged my endeavour by suggesting that the money spent on the trip would be better off spent by a simple transfer to the KHS finance office. I had to remind the accuser of two things: the donations were not for KHS but in fact to assist financially less-fortunate students from WMSF in their attempt to raise enough money for the trip; secondly, the purpose of the trip seemed to be misconstrued by this student who assumed that we were simply a source of provision.

The partnership is a mechanism for sustainable development of both schools, and for the benefit of both KHS and WMSF students and the efficacy in achieving these goals is drowning out the tired old accusations of ineffective aid provision. British and Ugandan schools aren’t necessarily these binary constructs in which one is effective and the other ineffective. The truth is that both have their triumphs and both have their struggles, even if they’re of a different variety sometimes, and both can assist each other. To assume otherwise does a disservice to skilled Ugandan teachers and brilliant Ugandan students, and is deleterious to the progress of British schools which can be enriched by a partnership such as the one between WMSF and KHS.

The model that WMSF and KHS have developed will hopefully prosper and in another ten years perhaps the mutual development I’ve discussed will appear yet more evident. In order for this to be achieved, however, and in order for future generations of WMSF students to benefit so massively, sustained funding and support for the partnership needs to be effected, not assumed. Long-term projects run via the partnership need sustaining, which requires continuity of staff and student interaction. Reflecting on the past ten years, it’s this, the interaction, which strikes me as the fundamental source of any mutual development.