Memories Of When This Teacher Became a Student

I am a self-professed “process geek”. There’s nothing I like more than getting to the bottom of a broken or messy process and figuring out how to fix it. Whether it’s in a restaurant, a bank, a hospital, or an airport, I’m constantly on point — looking at what’s going on and thinking about what I would do if I were asked to help.

Usually, of course, I’m not asked. (Not outside work, anyway.)

But in 2009 I was invited to join a small team from the Ontario Public Service to go over to Uganda to lead a workshop on process improvement.

This happened because the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency paired various developing nations with Canadian provinces, who then worked to share best practices and help the developing nation grow and prosper.

It was one of the most memorable times in my teaching career.

I know there are many issues with the government of Uganda and its policies. I also know that I met lovely, kind, and caring people when I was there.

Both of those things can be true at the same time.

I recently came across a blog I kept of my time in Uganda, and the colourful memories and experiences came flooding back, so I thought I would consolidate some highlights and share them here.

I hope you enjoy this snapshot of my week in this extraordinary place in which I learned so much in such a short time.

The Beginning

Things started off fairly uneventfully after a 27-hour journey from Toronto to Entebbe via Brussels.

After a good night’s sleep I took off with my hosts and we drove out to the jungle.

I had to keep pinching myself.

I was going to THE JUNGLE.


I was not going to be in Uganda long enough to make the trek to see the gorillas, so instead, we went to Mabira, which is a Luganda word meaning Large Forests. At 300 sq km, it is the largest stand of indigenous forest in central Uganda and used to be victim to illegal cutting thanks to high demand for timber and rubber.

Thankfully it is now protected.

I won’t bore you (ok me, actually) with all the details of the birds (apparently it’s a birder’s paradise) and trees, but I will tell you with great excitement that I saw a dozen or more red-tailed monkeys!

If only I had an iPhone X back then… Think of the pictures I’d have!

The workers there were most anxious to make sure that I saw what I came to see, and were very helpful. “Madam, did you see the monkey? It is cold so you may not see them.” Or, “Madam, look here please, here is George.” (I named the monkey George, which they took very seriously.)

They said it was cold.


It was at least 20C, but this was cold for them.

I was glad because the cool weather apparently makes THE SNAKES go underground. “Oh, if it was sunny I would tell you not to stand there, but it is cold so don’t worry.”

This brought me great comfort.

Sort of.

With my hosts in Mabira

We had a lovely tea break there, listening to the rain and the birds and the monkeys — it was very peaceful — and then made the trek back to Kampala.

Now we were told this trip was a half an hour when there is no traffic.

What we were NOT told, was that there is always traffic and that when it rains you should have a four-wheel drive vehicle.

We did not have a four-wheel vehicle.

Halfway up the hill leaving Mabira, our van got stuck. Steven tried several times to bully his way out of the ruts, but eventually, we all had to climb out of the van and wait by the side of the road (this is where I heard about the snake situation) until a dozen men on four boda-bodas came to rescue us.

(A boda-boda is a motorcycle, renamed because of their frequent use as transportation of choice for illegals crossing the border between Uganda and Kenya. Border-to-border became boda-boda. And yes, a dozen men on four boda-bodas is quite a sight.)

About a half an hour later the problem was solved and Steven and our van came flying up the hill as we jumped out of the way, splashing the iron-rich red mud all over ourselves.

We were very glad we didn’t have to ride boda-bodas back to town (although it was surely tempting and would definitely have been faster), and so began the long journey.

It took 2.5 hours to go 55km thanks to traffic and some non-existent traffic laws, frenzied drivers, ambivalent pedestrians, and enormous potholes.

View From The Hill

One evening I reflected on the view as I sat on the balcony of my beautiful hotel room at The Ranch overlooking Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake.

I was told the rate was $115US per night, and for this I got three meals, impeccable service, a huge room with beautiful furniture and an exotic mosquito net (which was not needed, thank goodness), an enormous bathroom with rain shower, business desk with wireless internet, sitting area, a tiled balcony overlooking a beautiful garden, and, in the distance, the Lake. Oh, and the view of a little village.

I sat in this splendour and thought about what I had seen on my road trips so far in Uganda. Over the past couple of days I had been on a few, and all along the roads, whether in the cities or small villages, I saw people of all ages trudging to get their water for the day in gigantic yellow containers.

There was no running water in the villages, and people made daily treks to get their supply for washing, cooking, and bathing.

I saw crooked red-brick shacks piled together to create a neighbourhood, laundry hanging everywhere or spread on shrubs or the lawn, and chickens, goats, cows, and ducks roaming freely with barefoot (sometimes, but not always) children.

Women carrying enormous baskets of bananas on their head try to sell their wares to occupants of passing cars.

Tiny shacks were tilted at precarious angles, and the owner was usually perched on a stool inside waiting for someone to buy a phone card, a stick of sugar cane, a bottle of Fanta, an iron gate, a carved bed frame, a cut of beef/pork/goat, hats, clothing, or fruit.

I saw “Jesus is King Metalworks” and the car washing bay in the creek.

And everywhere, people, boda-bodas, and diesel-spewing trucks.

The view from my balcony was a little different. I watched a man and woman walk along the path towards the little village — she with an enormous pile of clothing on her head — and a group of four or five children came running towards them, jumping around them and then clutching their hands as they continued along the path.

Parents coming home at the end of the day?


Later I saw them kicking a soccer ball around, chasing the chickens and waiting for the sun to set.

It was positively pastoral, and the image is easily pulled from my memory of that time.

Goat on a Rope

At dinner one night a colleague decided to try some goat, and another asked if there was any rope in the meal, causing everyone to burst out laughing at some inside joke.

The story was that one day a visitor asked what would be polite to bring to someone’s house as a hostess gift if invited to dinner in Uganda. She was told “oh nothing — you are a guest!” numerous times, until finally, the person said, “well, you could bring food, but you would have to bring it three days in advance so I could prepare it.”

This brought a questioning look from the visitor, who was then challenged to maintain her best neutral smile when it was clarified, “you know, goat on a rope!”

The storyteller eventually let her off the hook by laughing and saying, “or you could bring a bottle of wine. We like the Western way too!”

I haven’t been able to look a the cute little frolicking goats in the field the same way since…

Another classic Uganda story involved understanding the difference between regular time (which is 7 hours ahead of Toronto time) and Uganda time.

On one visit, a guest heard of a parade that was to happen the next day. Wanting to experience as much culture as possible, she asked the taxi driver what time the parade would take place — “Oh, 4 o’clock, madam,” was the reply.

So, she duly reported to the proper location before 4 o’clock, only to find the place empty. She wondered if she had the right place, and then finally asked someone.

Guest: Isn’t there a parade today?
Local: Yes madam, but it is long over.
Guest: But I was told 4 o’clock!
Local: Did they tell you that was Ugandan time?
Guest: Is that different than the time on my watch?
Local: Yes, Ugandan time goes by the sun. The first hour after the sun comes up (6am every day) is 1 o’clock in the morning. The first hour after the sun goes down (6pm) is 1 o’clock at night. So 4 o’clock Ugandan time was 10 o’clock this morning to you.
Guest: I have a headache.

Funny enough, it happened to me too:

Ruth: Hi, can I request a wakeup call please?
Front Desk: Yes madam, of course.
Ruth: Ok, thank you. For 6:30 tomorrow morning?
Front Desk: Yes madam, room 61, correct?
Ruth: Yes, that’s perfect, thank you.
Front Desk: Goodnight Madam.

7:45 am.

Sun streaming through the windows, sounds in the outdoor corridor, and a rumbling in my stomach cause me to stir and then bolt upright and grab my watch. I have never dressed so quickly in my life, and was down in the classroom by 8:10 (we started at 8:30).

The Front Desk meant Uganda time, which meant the phone in my room would have rung rung about 12:30pm — my time.

Workshop #1

We started off with an “official” opening ceremony with formal introductions and remarks from the Rt. Hon. 2nd Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Public Service.

I loved his pattern of speech, the lilting tone that was so sincere and thankful for the partnership between Uganda and Ontario, and how he challenged his people to listen, “cogitate” (great word), and learn. The participants hung on his every word — clearly a popular man.

I found the group is fascinating — there were 25 participants, about a third of whom were women, and about a 75/25 split between staff and management in HR functions.

It was close to 30C in the room, and yet most of the group refused to remove their jackets. They remained extremely interested and engaged — there was no shortage of questions, volunteers for activities, and serious thought (or “cogitation” as the Minister would say) on the issues.

Here’s an interesting story. What is your operational definition of “microphones”?

In other words, if you asked for microphones for a workshop, what would you supply? Well, we got a massive sound system, complete with speakers, a DJ, and music playing during the workshop right outside the door, complicated wiring, tables set up, and several sound technicians.

And, no microphones.

The Jam

“The Jam” is how the people of Kampala refer to their traffic.

The Jam, courtesy PC Tech Magazine

It’s not just like a bad day on a Friday before a long weekend on the 401 in Toronto or the 405 in Los Angeles.

It’s much much more — try to picture half a dozen or so roads merging into one and then branching off again into a different half a dozen roads.

Then picture no traffic lanes.

Well, there are lanes, but no one pays attention to them. (I asked my driver why 3 cars were side-by-side in 2 lanes, and he said it was necessary to get anywhere, otherwise it’s “too slow”. I’m sorry, I just can’t imagine it being any slower.)

There are also only about 5 (literally) traffic lights in the city, and they are ignored if a traffic warden or police officer is present.

Then all bets are off and you just race through and hope they don’t mind.

There are boda-bodas going in every direction in every lane, across lanes, the wrong way through lanes, on the sidewalks and up the medians.

There are buses and taxis and trucks and beat up cars and polished Mercedes — all inching, bit by bit, up the street.

Speeding is NOT a problem during The Jam, and yet we narrowly missed hitting a boda-boda at one point.

I guess when the Travel Clinic folks warned me that car accidents are the #1 cause of death in Uganda, they weren’t kidding!

Oh and the people!

Jaywalking is too tame a word for what goes on!

A little boy crossed the street quite calmly with cardboard trays of eggs on his head.

A woman and a little girl walked right in front of on-coming vans, a man in a business suit wove his way in and out of the cars and boda-bodas, and a man selling posters of the alphabet (A is for Axe here, not Apple) plastered his wares against our window.

And all of this is happening all at once in all directions.

Here’s a YouTube video of how it looks from inside the car:

I also got one photo — this doesn’t capture it, but it’s a start… all the boda-bodas below were going ACROSS the traffic!

Process 101

Anyone who has ever taught or facilitated a workshop knows how tiring it is — you have to be “on” all the time, supplying energy if the class gets tired, taking all suggestions and ideas and comments and turning them into helpful points for the class, etc etc etc.

And I had an incredibly engaged class , so it was go go go from 8:30 right through to 5.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I figured that the two tea breaks (30 mins each) and lunch break (60 mins) would give me oodles of time to relax during the day.

At each break, the participants were eager to pick my brain on all sorts of process-related items, as well as talk about things that had nothing to do with process and were more about just getting the job done within the confines of the Public Service.

At lunchtime, we had such a deep discussion that I left almost overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of the issues the members of the UPS were facing on a daily basis, and I wondered if my little workshop was actually having any real impact.

In the afternoon, however, I had a shining moment when I thought that just possibly I WAS having an impact.

I had just finished teaching a particularly complex tool, and I used an example that was a little difficult for folks in Uganda to relate to: the process for taxi dispatchers in getting cabs to customers as quickly as possible.

There was no such thing as a dispatcher in Uganda, there were only taxi stands, and so the concept was a little difficult for some participants to apply.

Most of the class took the opportunity to understand this process, and some had travelled widely enough that they knew what I was trying to portray.

One group, however, was really struggling, but instead of throwing in the towel, they decided to use the tool and apply it to a real example of a similar problem here in Kampala (the process for booking operating theatres in hospitals).

I thought it was brilliant — they were already applying a tool and finding it useful! They ended up being a real ambassador for the tool to the rest of the class.

This was my first lesson in cross-cultural references and how they can really block your message. It changed my approach to so many things in process improvement, both within the public sector and outside it.

Our Day Of Rest, In Which We Did Anything But

Our day off was less about scheduling some recovery time, and more about accommodating the public holiday of Martyr’s Day, on which Thousands of Christians in Uganda honour the memories of 22 Catholic converts who died for their beliefs at the hand of King Mwanga in 1885.

Part One of Our Day of Rest was all about shopping and souvenirs. We started off at something called “The National Theatre”, which I figured was literally a theatre or performing arts centre, with a few kiosks with knick knacks for sale.

Not so.

There was indeed a large building, which I suppose could have been a performing arts centre inside, but we didn’t go in.

We drove around back where there were perhaps 2 dozen little booths with a variety of colourful beads, carved goods, shirts, dresses, shoes, spears (yes!), bongo drums, and carpets for sale.

The call as we passed each one was the same — “You are most welcome! Please come in and look!”

Most of the booths had the same things for sale, but we had a great time looking, and bought several little things.

The pricing is amazing. It’s approximately 2,000 Shillings to one US dollar — most souvenirs amounted to a dollar or two at the most.

We never tried to haggle — how can you haggle over a few cents?

Me With Our Driver/Bodyguard Steven

From there we went to a sports store so I could buy a football shirt in the Ugandan team’s colours (The Cranes) for a friend of mine.

You would think we were rock stars in that store. Our driver took us to a specific place where I could find the shirt, and the sales clerks — all young women — were thrilled to have us take their picture, support their team and just say hi. We gave everyone Canadian flag pins and they were so proud and thankful to have them!

Next stop was the local fruit and vegetable market.

This place was not for the faint of heart, and we didn’t go anywhere without Steven.

 In fact, I was pretty much glued to his side.

It was really quite spectacular, but also a little upsetting. Rows upon rows of caged hens, roosters and chickens were stacked on each other (imagine the smell), and several were standing in the hot sun in the sand with their legs tied together so they couldn’t get away.

The large hens were 14,000 shillings — about $7 — which I think is a lot considering you have to butcher it yourself. Perhaps the locals wouldn’t pay as much.

There were even small calves standing in the hot sun, waving their tails to ward off flies, and unaware of their fate. (I know — I’m ridiculous. This is how people eat. I get it. I’ve seen one too many Disney movies and I give every animal a personality. Mea culpa.)

On to the nice things about the market.

The ladies were wearing the most beautiful clothes in brilliant hues. Head dresses, aprons, shirts, skirts — all in pinks and blues and yellows. And everyone was smiling, happy to see us (and our money).

Most let us take their pictures (it was necessary to ask) although one or two said no.

There were boxes of eggplant and zucchini and ochra and tomatoes and potatoes. Baskets with dried peas and lentils.

Hanging bags of spices, pieces of vanilla and cinnamon, and everywhere bunches of bananas — standing in a corner, hanging up, broken into smaller bunches or whole as they came from the tree.

Pineapples, mangoes — oh the mangoes! Hundreds of them piled high and cut open so you could see and smell how fresh they were.

Bikes went by piled with bags of corn, more bananas, and furniture (yes, furniture).

People were desperate for us to buy from them, and although we bought some vanilla, we mostly tended to hold on to our wallets very tightly and stick with Steven.

There were times when crowds around us got a little crazy, and we backed slowly away and headed to the truck after that.

Next, we stopped at a local store for some groceries (we all wanted to stock up on tea, coffee and sugar — all local products and all fantastic), and then headed back to the hotel for an hour before:

Part Two of Our Day of Rest was at the home of a friend of one of our group.

This lovely couple were originally from Pakistan — well, he is actually the third generation born in Uganda, but she was born in Pakistan and has lived in Uganda for 32 years), and they had us over for a BBQ.

Their definition of BBQ is not quite the same as mine — amazing fresh tropical juices, beef kababs, rice with tomatoes, spinach, chicken curry, parsley potatoes, naan bread, garlic bread, mangos with chilli, bread pudding, and a pasta dessert made out of vermicelli noodles.

We laughed a lot, despite the gathering storm clouds and loud thunder, and before you know it we headed back to the hotel again in preparation for:

Part Three of Our Day of Restinvolved a whole lot of tribal dancing, singing, drums, and storytelling.

We went outside of town to an amphitheatre that hosts a troupe of dancers — normally they only perform on Sunday nights, but tonight, being a holiday, they had an extra show.

This was the Ndere Centre in Butuukirwa, and I had not had this much fun in a very long time!

Ndere Centre in Butuukirwa, courtesy of

There were perhaps 30 performers, an equal number of men and women, in beautifully coloured and authentic costumes and head dresses.

They opened with gentle singing that built gradually and added flutes and guitars (not modern guitars, but original instruments that are more like harps) and many many drums.

I had goosebumps!

And the singing was so beautiful — kind of like the group Black Mombazo that did a record with Paul Simon a while back — it actually brought tears to my eyes.

Again, if only I had an iPhone X back then…

The host for the evening was also the director, a drum player, and an occasional dancer, not to mention comedian.

He told stories in between each dance that shared local history from the tribes around Uganda and more often than not also delivered a message on appreciating diversity, balancing action with thought, and valuing life.

At the end, the audience was invited up to dance with some of the performers and celebrate music and joy, and so I got up with most of the rest of our group and tried very hard not to embarrass myself — eventually I just didn’t care and I shook my booty like everyone else.

What a lovely Martyr’s Day (that sounds funny, but you know what I mean) and a great way to spend my last night in Africa.

The Last Day

A friend and colleague of mine is a teacher and he commented a while ago about about how amazing it is, as a teacher, to realize that your students “get it” and that you’re making a difference.

Today that happened to me over and over again, and the 9 hours of class time went by in a flash.

In the first several days I had had a moment or two of self doubt — there was so much to be done there, so much frustration on the part of really good people who wanted to make a difference and din’t know where to start, and such pleading in their face as they asked for help.

I wondered if there was anything that my little workshop could possibly have done to help out.

Yet all day there was excellent work going on — people were standing and pointing and using flip chart paper and masking tape and laughing and working together.

The Commissioner, who had been difficult to convince to participate in activity report-outs, was all up in the mix, helping out and working in partnership with his table mates.

I sat with each table in turn, helping people turn theory into application, hearing about the issues they are trying to work on and sharing our own similar experiences.

We spent most of the afternoon talking through processes, applying additional tools, and understanding what the next steps might be.

The energy and enthusiasm was astonishing — I am not sure when the turning point was, but there certainly was one.

Perhaps it was after lunch.

One of the participants had been late in the morning and I told him he would have to sing the National Anthem for the class. I had threatened that before, but this time, I meant it.

He was so good natured, and so he stood and cleared his throat.

Then without prompting, the entire class stood as well, and they all sang together — the beautiful words and rich tones of the anthem gave me goosebumps — surely this was a highlight of my trip.

There was a real feeling of camaraderie with the class and they seemed to fall-in and work together so well after that point.

Eventually, though, the day had to end.

So, after a wrap-up, a reminder that they are now all “experts” because they have had more training than anyone else around them, and some action planning on their next steps, we ended the day.

I was presented with many gifts when I left — a series of monkeys carved in ebony, the first one called George (after my red-tailed monkey) and the rest also with “G” names (Georgina, Gulu, etc), a picture of a tribal woman doing the dance I “mastered” last night, a conference table with carved animals sitting around it, etc etc.

It was lovely and so thoughtful — each gift had a meaning derived after only a week of working with the Uganda team.

There were so many shining moments , and at the end, the comment from the Commissioner really touched me:

“We hope Madam Ruth comes back again, because has worked with us, sat with us, and really cared about our processes as if they are her processes. She is more Ugandan than many Ugandans.”

It was a humbling week, and shaped me as a teacher. I still use examples of that time in my courses, and hope that some day I will go back again.

Ruth Henderson is co-owner of Whiteboard Consulting, and focuses on ways to make things better through a wide spectrum of business activities including sales, marketing, customer service, and financial operations, although her specialties are Coaching, Training, and Business Process Improvement. She’s a podcaster, blogger, process nerd, and loves to call Toronto her home.Find out more about her
Ruth Henderson is co-owner of Whiteboard Consulting, and focuses on ways to make things better through a wide spectrum of business activities including sales, marketing, customer service, and financial operations, although her specialties are Coaching, Training, and Business Process Improvement. She’s a podcaster, blogger, process nerd, and loves to call Toronto her home.Find out more about her

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