The first years of my formal schooling were not that exciting. At all. Whether this was day school or boarding school. I went to both for my early elementary education. I was originally in day school but it became too difficult to get me to and from school every day. We didn’t have a car so we had to use public transportation and my mother’s job was 8 to 6. Boarding school was believed to be better those days (even now, I assume). It was also more expensive. There were several boarding schools, not many, established at the time, and mostly administered by missionaries from the religious orders. Most were Roman Catholic.
I was lucky to be admitted to a private Catholic girls’ school for primary level education. At least we were constantly reminded how lucky we were by the headmistress, who was an Irish Nun. She was extremely violent, both verbally and physically to the children. We were absolutely terrified of her. There were a few other white European Franciscan Sisters who taught us together with a number of Ugandan teachers. The other nuns were not so much into violence, a lot of verbal admonishment perhaps, but that’s usually as far as it went.
This blog article is an ode to one of the Franciscan nuns, Sister Christine. To celebrate those role models, who can positively transform a child’s life, even in difficult conditions. I don’t remember her full name. But it is thanks to her that a lot of us children became interested in and got hooked onto reading. Books, lots and lots of books. She used to bring books from Northern Ireland, that were no longer being used by some of the schools there who offered to donate these. They did us a world of good.
We had to read a new book every week, and exchange it for another the next week and so on. Sometimes, we had to explain to her (and the class) what we had read about and what we had learned from it.
I was nine years old at the time starting primary four, and for every new lesson, Sister (as they preferred to be called), would arrive with boxes of books rotating from another class. There would be a general rush, not so much for love of reading, but to get those books which had the most pictures in them. You had to fight to get the biggest book, with the most colourful pictures in it. One day, I was late, and I found only a few books at the bottom of the box. They did not have any pictures in them. Not even on the covers! When such a scenario occurred, children would be forced to share books with pictures in them rather than read a book with just plain text!
That day, I took the plunge and picked a book called ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel.’ On top of not having any pictures, the text was rather small. Not the large, feel-good fonts for young children. Feeling rather sad that this was what I had to contend with, I started to read. It was incredible. I could ‘see’ the images of the Pimpernel’s daring exploits flash through my mind! I had never experienced this before, having had to rely on pictures before to tell the story together with the words. This time round, the mental visions compensated for and went beyond any drawings that I could have hoped for. I could ‘see’ pictures for every scene. I read this every day when I could, enjoying this new profound experience until I finished the book! At the end of every book, there was usually a list of recommended similar texts or books. My next one was a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. I found this too, and from there worked my way through whole sets of Dickens. Without pictures.
I later discovered that these were simplified versions for young readers, and as a teenager found complete editions for titles I had already come across. Which I also read.
My primary school classmates became suspicious of a child who could read books without pictures and didn’t seem to mind. I stopped fighting for books whenever the boxes showed up. I could read anything. They would ask, ‘Why do you read them?’; ‘How can you read a book without pictures?’
My performance during the first three years of primary school had been dismal. I was rotating somewhere at the bottom of the class. However, with my new found love for reading, I found that I could also read my school books, with or without pictures. This was a much more rewarding experience than when there was a teacher in the classroom, pointing with a stick, beating or shouting. Of course, I could now remember things. My performance shot up that year, from dangling near the bottom of the class to the top. That term, I was fifth (out of my class of near forty pupils). Even I could not believe it, considering I had never nurtured any hopes of performing well in class. I thought I was destined to be at the bottom! My mother could not believe it either, I think she thought it was some sort of mistake. But it happened again, the next term, the next year, for the rest of my primary school education through secondary school. My new normal was now between first and sixth position in the class. If I could read it, I could know it. It didn’t matter the subject. Maths, English, Geography, History, I could read them all. All because of a love for reading instilled in me at the age of nine!
Later though, my high performance streak started to decline, somewhere in late secondary school as I became complacent. I thought that ‘it’ would just continue that way. I realised later of course, that one has to keep working at being excellent. Even when you think, ‘this is me now’. I now encourage my daughter, my nieces and nephews to read. I take them browsing in bookshops, they get to choose what they like, as long as it’s age-appropriate. I am teaching them, you can educate yourself, on your own, no matter the age, no matter the subject.
Be an inspiration to an African child today!!!