From Henfield to Uganda

Chris Gibbon, who lived in Henfield for many years where she raised her four (now adult) children, has been teaching in Uganda for the past three years. She’s recently accepted the challenge of a new job in this beautiful part of the world; this time as the head teacher of a brand-new primary school for children with disabilities and special needs. 

This exciting challenge has been a little delayed with the onset of Covid-19, but she has used this time during lockdown back in the UK to push forward with the planning and groundwork for the school. Chris’s new mission was given a fantastic boost when she secured a very generous donation of text-books and teaching aids from a local school which was closing down; in fact, a whole pallet-load! This amount of printed material isn’t easy to jam in the average sized suitcase, so Chris has successfully fundraised to cover the £700 cost of transporting them out to Fort Portal, four hours’ drive from Kampala, where the school is based.

Schooling in Uganda is very different to the UK system, with children spending seven years at primary level from age six before graduating to secondary education. The system of allowing free primary education (Universal Primary Education, UPE) is relatively new, there is a severe lack of teaching staff and in many schools it’s not uncommon for class sizes to reach 150 pupils. Even if children are able to take advantage of free primary education many children don’t graduate any further in their learning because of family and financial pressures, especially if they happen to be girls or if they come from rural areas. Great steps are being made, but as 80% of children live rurally and 35% live below the poverty line, a huge number of children are falling through the gaps. 

For children born with a physical disability the outlook is incredibly bleak and many are left to fend for themselves, even though they may be bright and perfectly able to learn. The school that Chris is helping to start will be quite unique in working to break down social barriers and educate these overlooked children.

It’s a far cry from Steyning Primary School, where Chris spent many happy years teaching in her role as deputy head before her move to Uganda. “The teaching structure is very different in Uganda, it’s very much ‘chalk and talk’ with vastly mixed abilities in one class,” explained Chris. “I am so looking forward to introducing some of the reading schemes and using the fantastic text books which have been donated. We still have lots of work to do, especially to address the practicalities of teaching young disabled children; we desperately need assisted seating frames, bean bags and wheelchairs. We really are starting from scratch so all the help we can get will make a huge difference.”

The school is part of an established charity called Kyaninga Child Development Centre (KCDC). It was created six years ago as a not-for-profit organisation to provide specialised and affordable assessment, treatment, education and support to children with disabilities and their families, to give them a chance to lead more independent lives. It was founded by husband and wife team Steve and Asha Williams when they realised their son, who suffers from epilepsy, needed help where none was available. Since then more than 3,000 children have been helped by KCDC.

This new primary school will come with an attached Special Support Centre, where children with disabilities can work alongside children without disabilities. There will be a speech, language and physiotherapy centre and there are plans to build a teacher training centre to address the desperate lack of qualified teachers in the area. Finally, there will be an outreach element to the school, to help those children who live rurally and would otherwise have no chance of even the most basic education.

The challenge seems to be enormous and would be overwhelming to most of us. But it’s exciting and the potential impact on many young lives will be life-changing. Chris sent us a simple story, which sums up the KCDC school and its vision of equality for children with disabilities in Uganda, and it goes like this:

“A girl was walking along a beach when she came across thousands of starfish stranded by the tide. As she came to each starfish she picked it up and placed it back into the sea. A man observed the girl and said: “There are so many of them, you can’t begin to make a difference.” The little girl replied as she placed a starfish in the sea: “Well, I’ve made a difference to that one!”

I was struck by one of Kyaninga’s ‘core values’, it is so simple, and yet sums up their mission: ‘Things get done by doing them’. They’ve found exactly the right person to lead this wonderful new school; Chris most certainly has the energy, enthusiasm and skills to ‘get things done’.

Emma Osman

If you’d like to help Chris in her quest to purchase essential wheelchairs, standing frames and adapted desks for children at the new KCDC school, you can donate on her Just Giving page here: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/bookstouganda

Find out more about KCDC here:
www.kyaningacdc.org