One decade, one African village

22 July, 2013

Is significant change too much to expect?

Ian Thornton

Last week Ian Thornton was in Uganda for a Wellcome Trust-led meeting, and visited the village where he lived & worked as a teacher. Had anything changed in Nambulu after 9 years?

Last week I was in Uganda for a Wellcome Trust-led meeting near the capital, Kampala. I also took the opportunity to go back to the village where I lived and worked as a teacher nine years ago. I wanted to see if anything had changed in Nambulu after almost a decade.

So much is written about Africa’s development – with a smorgasbord of opinions from those in “Dead Aid”, to the Sachs/Gates aid evangelists, or the RCT crowd that want to break every intervention down and test it piece by piece. It can be hard to separate rhetoric from reality sat here in London. Earlier this year, the Economist special headline read “African lives have already greatly improved over the past decade” so I went to see for myself, in a sample of one rural village I knew well, whether this was true.

Nambulu is one hour north of Mbale, Uganda’s 5th biggest city. After winding my way up the dirt road into the hills, I arrived and went to the secondary school to formally ‘announce’ my visit. Fortunately, one of my former pupils was now a teacher – and this did huge amounts to smooth my passage. With the Deputy Head’s blessing to ‘feel free’ I started my investigation.

So what had changed? In short, very little. The primary and secondary schools had a new building each – but still not enough chairs, teachers, or teaching materials. I’d arrived unannounced and there was very little teaching going on: there are four classes in the secondary school and the three teachers present were all sat in the staff room chatting. The new ‘library’ was locked.

I asked some of the locals I knew about how their lives had changed, and went to introduce myself to the primary school teachers now living in ‘my’ house. They’d moved in in 2009, and like me, had no running water or electricity. Talking to them, it transpired that they hadn’t been paid since May either.

Had I expected too much? Almost certainly. I was probably influenced by my experiences working in India’s cities, where the buzz of ambition and massive infrastructure projects scream of progress.

Or is it just that the change in rural Africa is too subtle to see through such crude investigation? A couple more children surviving their childhood malaria, a handful of people who have not got HIV by following their ABC – neither would have been obvious to me but both would contribute towards achievement of the MDGs.

I left feeling energised about the importance of our education systems work but otherwise disappointed – both at the lack of visible improvement in peoples’ lives, and more, much more, at the lack of discontent around the rate of change. Nearly ten years of Government money (lots of donor money too), little progress and an overwhelming sense of polite resignation from the villagers…

Please tell me this doesn’t echo your experiences?

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