On Time [Adult Literacy Programme]

On Time [Adult Literacy Programme]
28th July 2017

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

~Bob Dylan, Time Passes Slowly | New Morning, 1970


Throughout my placement here in Busembatia, Uganda, time has been central to the entire experience. There is something quaintly and quietly off about the time here, in many ways. People keep time differently, even tell time differently than I am used to back home. Moreover, time passes fast and slowly. Days pass fleetingly and weeks last for months and months last forever and are out before you notice it.

It has now been six months, almost to the day, since I arrived. Time ground to a halt for the first weeks, when everything was new. I would arrive a little before 2 in the afternoon, fully prepped for my introductory sessions with the women I would be spending months with. Knowing I knew not what to expect, I expected at least that my eagerness would be met. It was, even if it did not take the form of punctuality and a nervous energy to match mine. Joseph and I sat, as we would sit many times from here on out, waiting with poorly veiled impatience. Waiting for the student to get ready, to arrive, or to finish doing whatever else it was that required her attention more pressingly than our arrrival. How am I ever getting through my lesson plans, if 15 minutes, no, half an hour of the session are spent waiting and drinking tea? How will Sumeya ever learn how to form the present perfect, if she is missing the lesson on the present and past simple? Why is my class at Townside not ready until 4.40 when we so clearly said 4 pm, and why is everything going so infuriatingly slowly?

“Am I making an impact?”

Worries like these came and went, and were rooted in an underlying one: am I making an impact? Surely if things are not moving at my pace, and if lessons and meetings and office work are not conducted by my standards, I cannot be satisfied with the results, measured against those selfsame standards.

As I slowed down to meet the pace of African rural life halfway, time sped up around me. Soon we were three months in, and then four. With the start of the monitoring and evaluation tools we developed I began to notice real results. I knew what test scores the students would get before they sat down to take the test; I had designed the tests myself and knew every last word of English my students knew. I knew also that my lessons on adverbs and directions were too easy and my lessons on modal verbs and comprehensive listening too hard. For this I did not need the M&E, but by getting the hard results, along with the number of outreaches I had done – 108 by the time I leave here – and the number of individual women I have taught – 53 – , I could let go of them. I am making an impact and I have the numbers to prove it. Trees have a habit of obscuring the woods from vision.

“These events touched a part of me I did not know was there”

July rolled around and my father emailed me: one more month and I would be back. We had been here 5 months. Where had my days gone? Ah well, I thought, it is time to wrap up and move on to the next project. When weeks later it was still July, three things happened. I taught Ruth how to write her name, received a short note from the formerly illiterate Irene that she would miss a session because she had visitors, and was given a lenghty letter by Mary, a primary school drop-out, thanking me for my teaching. These events touched a part of me I did not know was there.

I felt sceptical for the longest time, seeing nothing change despite our best efforts. I have not lost all scepticism and believe I ought not to. Development work is taxing and rewards rarely and frugally. It therefore has to be your kikopo chai [cup of tea, in Lusoga – red.]. That being said, the events of the last two weeks have transfigured my scepticism into an optimistic kind of patience. There is no hurry. We have all the time in the world, even if we don’t. For some rewards, time does not touch.


This is teacher Jamie, signing off, it is time.

My thanks go out to Mary as well as my other students: many blessings, blessings, blessings to you too.

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