The Pathfinders will miss Kasese, and Kasese will miss the Pathfinders. From the very beginning, we were welcomed into the Kasese Humanist Primary School (KHPS) staff not as volunteers but as full teachers. This, of course, put us in the best possible position to learn. About the students. About the staff. And about the community.
Our first lesson was in warmth, respect, and curiosity. As we visited homes of KHPS families on our first weekend in Kasese, we found that everyone used the phrase “you’re welcome” literally. They invited us to feel at home in Kasese, and all of them appreciated the work we were there to do. Whenever we arrived at a home, the parents or the children would bring out seats for all of the adults, and we would meet the children who lived there as nearly all of the other children of the village formed a circle around us. These were the same children who would shout “Muzungu!” whenever we passed, repeating the cry until we turned so they could wave enthusiastically. The same children who would fight with each other to hold our hands as we walked from house to house and who, whenever we were stationary, would stroke our arms and inspect every hair and freckle on them.
On our first Monday in Kasese we learned about Ugandan diligence. When we met with the head teacher to discuss the schedule for teaching, we found out that, on weekdays, the P7 students reported to school at 6:30 a.m. and left each day after 8:00 p.m. They were allowed to sleep in ever so slightly on weekends: until 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. Due to the hours of study, some students chose to sleep at the school, and if the head teacher hadn’t lived just across the football pitch, I suspect he might have done the same. Just like the Cambodian children who had to row for thirty minutes each day to catch the bus to school, the Kasese schoolchildren showed an impressive dedication to their education. We never once sensed that they resented the long hours.
The sense of optimism and joy retained by our female colleagues taught us about resilience. From the very beginning, our observation of gender dynamics in Kasese had us looking at each other in disbelief. When I offered to pour water for a female colleague before lunch (we washed our hands from a jerrican), she shook her head vigorously. “Men cannot pour for women,” she said. “Only women can pour for men.” Pouring water for washing is only one of many ways Ugandan women show their respect for men. Men are not expected to show their respect for women, and they do not. On several occasions, men remarked that confident and intelligent female colleagues were stubborn and immature, that they could not yet be good mothers, and that it would require the training of a husband to get them ready. Despite being treated as property within the structure of marriage, despite having to “repay” their husbands for their bride prices, despite being viewed as incapable of teaching upper-level classes, our remarkable female colleagues remained optimistic.
Our students taught us another lesson in maturity as they debated diverse topics each Friday. When discussing whether “people can be good without god,” whether “science has done more harm than good,” or whether “bride prices should be abolished,” students demonstrated the ability to argue from both sides of the issue and critique viewpoints (not each other!) intelligently and civilly. KHPS students may be a mix of Christians, Muslims, humanists, and traditionalists, but they are all budding global citizens who are accustomed to being challenged and challenging others respectfully. In most households and schools, children are robbed of the opportunity for valuable lessons in communication and comportment by adult figures who save weighty topics until students are mature enough. Not at KHPS. The KHPS teachers and administrators know that it is the topics themselves that facilitate maturation. Schools need only emphasize charity and empathy in considering such topics, and the respectful communication will necessarily develop.
As was the case in Cambodia and will continue to be the case wherever we travel, there was no way we could leave as big a mark on Kasese as Kasese left on us. But we certainly tried. Over the course of our time in Kasese, we donated school supplies, including chalk, erasers (called “dusters” in Uganda), more than 600 pens, hundreds of exercise books, a watch for the timekeeper so classes could move on schedule, sports equipment (including soccer balls, a netball, a volleyball net, and two whistles), and more than 600 hours of teaching in English, mathematics, science, computers, religious education, first aid, humanism, and physical education. In her computers classes, Michelle exposed many KHPS students to computers and the Internet for the first time. She also introduced them to the pro-science music of They Might Be Giants. “My Brother the Ape” and “Science is Real” were their favorites, and we overheard students singing those two to themselves toward the end of our time in Kasese. Ben shared his enthusiasm for science and organized experiments, giving the students a conceptual understanding of what they had previously only memorized by rote. Wendy introduced students to the concept of truly comparative religious study, helping students see the value not just in learning Christianity OR Islam but in comparing BOTH, alongside many other faiths that were entirely unfamiliar to them. Before Wendy’s brief tenure as the religious education teacher, the students were not aware that such a thing as polytheism existed, or that there was a large Baha’i community and temple in Kampala. For my part, I brought reading intervention strategies into my work with my P6 English students, who did not otherwise appear to have systematic reading instruction. As part of my writing unit with them, I found pen pals for them in the U.S. As a group, we were also in charge of the twice-weekly humanism seminars. We made these lessons very active, using games to teach students about the scientific method, communication, empathy, and the application of reason and compassion in everyday life.
Of course, our biggest legacy in Kasese will always be the relationships we created with our students and colleagues. When we arrived in Kasese, we walked into an interesting political situation. The majority of KHPS teachers are Christian, and all of the teachers had a very limited understanding of humanism when we arrived. Unfortunately, they initially associated us with a brand of humanism that rejected and poked fun at their beliefs while worshipping science. Through our respectful and inquisitive interactions with the teachers, we quickly demonstrated otherwise. Several of them, including the most outspokenly religious ones, asked us to teach them lessons on humanism, much like we did for the students two times a week. All of them came with us to see the wildlife at Queen Elizabeth National Park. (Seriously, all of them. 19 adults and two babies in a 14-person van.) Most of them asked us to help them set up email addresses and Facebook accounts so they can keep in touch. One of them has called us every day since we left Kasese (we think more of the teachers would have been calling, but she thought we didn’t want her to share our number). As for the students, several of them will be in contact with us via email with their questions about science and religious education. Some of them simply had too many questions for us to answer during our time there! Which is awesome. One student has already expressed a desire to come to college in the U.S. and work in Ben’s lab.
As a result of our time in Kasese, KHPS teachers and students alike have an increased understanding of what it means to be good without god. Before we arrived, their understanding of humanism placed the emphasis on the “without god” part. By the time we departed, they understood that the “good” was much more our focus, and that focus included respecting them as individuals, whatever their beliefs, and working with them to improve the world. THAT is Pathfinders Project.