Coming Alongside for Literacy (Part 2 of 3): Reasons and Benefits

I wrote the blog post, “Coming Alongside for Literacy (Part 1 of 3)” a while back, before we visited America and when Uganda was experiencing its second national lockdown. It detailed a supportive model we began implementing alongside local literacy teachers in their primary school classrooms. When we returned from the U.S. at the end of January 2022, and schools in Uganda had fully reopened, this leadership group of teachers approached us and said, “So what’s the plan?” We didn’t really have a concrete plan yet – I was back in full swing at CSB, starting the first complete school term we would experience since moving to Bundibugyo in 2019. Alexis was helping manage the transition back for our family, shuttling our oldest kids back and forth to CSB for some classes, and settling into the hustle and bustle of life here. She was also teaching part-time at our mission school – RMS. So we simply said to our friend Vincent, the liaison of the group, “Why don’t you make a plan and show it to us and we’ll see?”

A few days later he brought an ambitious proposal that included a 3-day training for 50 teachers representing 10 different schools. We would feed them breakfast and lunch, and since they would be on term break at the time, we would “facilitate” them, which is the local way of saying “appreciate them for coming and help them with some money for transportation,” since nobody has cars and must hitch a ride on a boda (a motorcycle taxi). In their proposal we would buy a few of the curriculum books, 1 per school. We collaborated with the group and decided to reduce the number of schools, but make sure every teacher that taught the lower grade levels was invited, so we could go deeper into each school. We reduced the amount for facilitation but increased the number of curriculum books to one per teacher. How could teachers really implement a new program well without the basic resource of a teacher’s curriculum guide, we reasoned. Mutually we had agreed upon a plan, consensus was reached, and we shared with our team leaders to get their input and approval before moving any further. After acceptance of the plan, we gave the literacy team the green light to begin inviting teachers and purchasing the supplies with our financial support.

In the previous blog post, “Coming Alongside for Literacy (Part 1 of 3)”, I emphasized that these teachers are the ones impacting their communities, and we are partnering and supporting them in that journey. You will notice that we are not the ones teaching kids to “Sound it out with me, d-o-g, dog.” Often, missionaries do many things and help many people, and that can be super beneficial. On our team in Bundibugyo alone, our colleagues disciple and perform surgeries, they give food to the hungry and preach the Gospel, they help babies breathe after birth, design and build clean water systems and SO many other good things. Yet these missionaries also come alongside to train and support Ugandans to do the work as well, and that’s the fuller vision. In this post, I want to highlight what is possible when relationships and the resources reach a critical point where we can come alongside our local partners so they can bring transformation to their own people. And in the next post we will see various challenges to that level of development work as well.

Four Benefits of Coming Alongside

1 – SCRIPTURE and SERGE VALUES: Our organization, Serge, places a high value on community development and developing local leaders. This stems from Scriptural realities that all people are created in God’s image, and have equal value and worth. There is no reason that our Ugandan friends are unable to lead this work, or to implement effective programs. When they are supported and wind is blown into their sails, it dignifies them in ways that God teaches us to regard each other. Galatians 6 says to “bear each other’s burdens” while each one “carries his own load”. There are responsibilities (loads) that we are all responsible for and should not shirk or abdicate. And yet there are also times or circumstances where the burden becomes exorbitant. In those situations we are called to help our brother or sister. We believe that coming alongside when resources are scarce and training is non-existent is a Christ-like way to bear the burdens of our Ugandan friends alongside them.

2 – FEASIBILITY:

Even if we wanted to and thought it would be best for us to personally lead the trainings (which we don’t), so many aspects would not be feasible. In fact, some would be downright silly and embarrassing. On Day 2 of the training, as Alexis was participating and observing (and chiming in occasionally), she noticed some discrepancies in the vowel sounds being taught. But she sat back and listened, asked a few questions along the way, provided some clarity, and ultimately knew that these were the teachers who would be teaching young Ugandan children. These teachers, whose native or heart language is not English, were learning the complex rules of one of the most difficult languages in the world. And then they would be tasked with teaching that challenging language, whose rules are seemingly outpaced by the number of exceptions to the rules, to little children whose heart language is also not English. So of course they were having some challenges with the “ee,” “ea,” “i-e” and “e-e” sounds. If Alexis interjected every second that there was a slight difference in how we say something in America, there’s no way teachers could learn the nearly 100 sounds that were taught in the 3 days. Besides, in America alone I’ve heard New Orleans pronounced at least 4 different ways, so surely English can sound a little different in the nearly 60 countries where English is the official language (such as Uganda).  

Furthermore, the lead teachers engaged the participants in ways that only they would know how to do. Much like we might say, “1,2,3, eyes on me .. 1,2, eyes on you” in an American classroom, or in an elementary professional development session to gain attention, they have their own cultural equivalents. Most of these center on appreciating or thanking each other, something we realized is not as strong of a cultural value in the U.S. apparently, based on the inordinate amount of time these teachers engaged in these thanking activities. After sharing or presenting, all the participants often give “flowers” or “sodas”, or even “cows,” … full body motions and sounds to appreciate each other. There are no golf claps or finger snaps here, it’s loud and energetic and truly appreciative. We would have butchered that and probably offended people by our pace and lack of public, effusive appreciation in the ways they are used to. 

Also, much of the power lies in these teachers, who teach right here in local schools, being the ones to say to their colleagues, “I have been doing this. I teach like this with this curriculum to my students”. The participants can’t sit back and say, “well that sounds great for Gulu” (where the lead teachers were initially trained themselves). Or, “Of course that’s how they do it in America, they have all the resources there”. Instead, they see their peers emphasizing the feasibility and necessity of teaching phonics right in their own backyards. That has power to transform.

3 – IMPACT: From a purely practical standpoint, even if the above mentioned aspects were not important (which they are, immensely), practically speaking we can only do so much directly. Providing the training ourselves would have its flaws, and is perhaps unhelpful and seems unnecessary based on the previously stated points. But a related idea, and one the we explored last year during COVID school closures is, “Why not run camps and teach students directly? Alexis is a teacher after all!” Certainly this was intriguing, and we explored the possibilities of tutoring, small groups, even literacy camps where Alexis taught the kids. And in a supplementary way, alongside the teachers’ work, it can be helpful and useful. But ultimately, from a utilitarian standpoint, that can only go so far. Her time is limited, so even an hour a day is not much based on where these students are coming from academically. And, when schools are in session, the students are gone most of the day so there isn’t really an available window of time to interact with them. Where these kids are at educationally shows that so many have immense needs. So who do you work with directly and how many is feasible and where do you start and … one question leads to another which leads to another. Ultimately, we determined that her directly teaching Ugandan students was not going to be the most effective strategy. Let’s say she could teach a camp group of 30 students. That’s great, for the few weeks they are on a term break. But ultimately they’ll all go back to their schools anyway. It might feel good as a missionary to say you did something like that, but the real impact is in helping their teachers learn how to teach reading phonetically to help not only those students that Alexis might have helped, but so many more also. Whereas she could theoretically teach 30 kids for a few weeks during camp, and that would feel good in ways and look nice on Instagram, the teachers who were recently trained collectively teach over 2,000 students, all day, every day, for an entire year!

4 – HUMILITY: A final benefit, and truly this isn’t an exhaustive list, is not just for the teachers or the students, but for us. As missionaries, and as westerners, there’s something unfortunately ingrained in our DNA about being the heroes. We love a good hero tale, and we love our heroes – from Batman to Buzz Lightyear. But the problem is that the real story is not about us, and when we think it is then we short-circuit the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. All hero tales point to the true protagonist, our Savior, Jesus. When we come alongside, it helps to frame reality and remind ourselves that God is writing the story, and we are minor characters in the plot, extras, here one minute and gone tomorrow. God is the one who is “making all things new”. It is God’s kingdom that is coming, not mine. God is the one who is bringing people together from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” not me. It is God, as a heavenly father, who is adopting people to be sons and daughters, and who cares about the whole of them completely and deeply. I can’t truly say that. So as we come alongside, it positions our hearts in a place of humility, trust, and partnership with God in His work with total dependence on Him to carry it through. Coming alongside places us in our rightful positions, not as American heroes coming to the ends of the earth to save unfortunate souls, but as unmerited, grace-receiving sinners who are called to be an ambassador of God, telling and showing others the goodness and blessing that only the Creator of the universe can give through his son Jesus. Rather than the deceitful and destructive hero mentality, may we always maintain the biblical and helpful attitude and worldview of our true identities in Christ.

If you are interested in coming alongside us financially, as we come alongside Ugandan teachers who teach Ugandan children how to read, click HERE.

And stay tuned for the final post in this series, “Coming Alongside for Literacy (Part 3 of 3): Barriers and Challenges”.


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