Ten years after graduating from Middlesex University, primary school teacher Harriet Namusoke has returned home to Kampala, Uganda, intent on energising the country's education system.
Along with her partner John Senteza, Harriet has established the Basena Agro Creativity Centre with the ambition of encouraging creativity and appreciation of the environment in schools and the community at large.
"Play nurtures creativity and learning through play is fantastic," says Harriet, who left Middlesex with a first class Bachelor of Arts degree in Primary Education.
"Children are playing and learning at the same time and this is something I really want to strengthen among Ugandan schools. Learning does not only take place in the classroom."
After much hard work, Harriet and John opened the centre in April 2013 and now it regularly accommodates up to 60 children on day trips from nearby schools.
The centre also hosts workshops for local teachers which are designed to encourage and equip them to be more creative in their approach to teaching. The sessions provide an opportunity for the sharing of ideas, teaching experiences and resources.
Basena is complete with a junior library, an ICT/numeracy room, an outdoor play area, a theatre/hands-on room and a garden that has more than 60 different plants and vegetables growing and is home to a flock of chickens.
By offering a different kind of learning experience from the traditionally strict, test-based approach adopted by many schools in Uganda, the centre hopes to inspire even the most reluctant learners
"In Uganda, like in most emerging economies, the emphasis in education is mostly on grades and so creativity suffers," explains Harriet.
"The quality of education varies enormously from the premium schools compared to the majority, where the resources are meagre and conditions rather poor."
It is this latter group of schools that the centre predominantly aims to provide for but as they often struggle financially, Harriet knows that the centre needs to secure funding so that it can keep offering services without charging.
The centre is in the process of applying to become a registered charity in the UK but, until now, everything has been paid for out of Harriet and John's pockets.
All of the centre's books and equipment were purchased during weekend trips to charity shops and car boot sales in the UK, while the modest computer room makes use of the couple's personal laptops.
"We are so proud of what we have achieved so far in this very short period of time and we can only imagine the sky being the limit when more well wishers come on board with more materials and expertise," Harriet says.
A project 20 years in the making
Growing up in Kampala, Harriet always knew she wanted to be a teacher, and after completing her training at a local teachers' college she worked at three schools before becoming Deputy Head of Infants at Kampala Parents School, a primary school she herself attended as a child.
Moving to the UK in 1993, she found that she couldn't teach as she did not hold a degree, so she enrolled in Southwark College to study for a diploma in pre-school education – and it was here that Harriet developed her passion for creativity and learning through play.
However, it wasn't until Harriet began working in the crèche of the Positively Women charity for HIV sufferers in Islington, North London, and her boss encouraged her to go to university and retrain as a teacher, that she decided to apply to Middlesex.
After graduating, she took a job at John Donne Primary School in Peckham, south-east London, but was still making regular trips home to see family in Kampala. After one such trip, Harriet left with a burning desire to give something back to her home country, and the plan to create the Basena Agro Creativity Centre was formed.
Ambitious plans for the future
With the centre now beginning to establish itself, Harriet is delighted by the positive impact it is having on the local community, the extent of which she had not anticipated when she first began working on the project.
Many local women and schools who have visited the centre have been inspired to grow their own vegetables or rear chickens, which is helping the community save money and become more sustainable.
"When we first thought about the idea, I was really only focusing on the children having been a teacher for such a long time, but it has had a big impact on communities in a way that we never imagined," she says.
"We have children aged from three to 12 coming to the centre on school trips and engaging in all activities in the five different departments, but the centre is fast turning into a place where parents bring their children to spend quality time with them at weekends too.
"The long-term goal is to energise teaching methods across Uganda, see more creativity in schools and produce more creative and rounded pupils. In order to achieve this we plan to open more centres across the country and further afield."
However, Harriet and John cannot do this alone and they are constantly looking for people to get involved; whether trainee, retired or practicing teachers, or volunteers who just want to help out, offer funding or provide equipment and supplies.
"What keeps us going is that look on the children's faces when they log on to the computer for the first time, put a seemingly impossible puzzle together, build a Lego skyscraper or realise that the sugar they drink everyday comes from the sugar cane plant," Harriet says.
"We would be delighted to welcome anybody to the Basena Agro Creativity Centre for an inspiring experience."
If you would like to get involved in the Basena Agro Creativity Centre please email Harriet.