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OU on the BBC: African School - Making the Series

Updated Tuesday 8th August 2006

Persuading people in Masindi to open up to the camera proved to be a lot easier than leaving them behind, as the African School team explain in Making The Series.

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Children at Kamurasi school Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

"Are you free on Monday?... Good, how would you like to go to Uganda, find a primary school and make eight half-hour programmes about it?" It was an exciting and terrifying opportunity.

Uganda was chosen because it had recently introduced free universal primary education and was anglo-phone. But nobody knew quite how anglophone: would we be able to understand them? Would they be able to understand us? In the event their English was more correct than ours and full of very proper expressions like ‘morale-boosters’ for football fans and 'Madame the Headmistress'. We quickly adapted and we hope that audiences do too with the help of a few subtitles.

Arriving in Masindi was like entering a 1950s timewarp. Adults we met addressed us as "sir" or "madam" even though they were usually much older and wiser than us, and kids were really well behaved. On our round of primary school visits, kids stood in unison wishing us good morning, while the younger ones gave us a regimented ‘clap clap wave’.

It was charming but making a documentary series would mean getting past the politeness. On our slightly embarrassing attempts to get to know the kids, it was obvious that they spoke only when spoken to and then not much. We would have to include older kids and a secondary to make the series. We wanted the two schools to be mixed state schools in the same community. Masindi was the community we knew best and Masindi Secondary and Kamurasi were clear choices with engaging headteachers on a mission to improve their schools.

The start of filming was a nervous moment – most of our contributors had never seen a documentary, let alone a documentary crew. In fact this turned out to be a blessing, they had no preconceptions about our motives, did not try to second guess us and were open and up front right from the start. It would be easy to wince with embarrassment as Mrs Mukasa describes the environs of her school as a "slum" or one of pupils as "an example of a peasant farmer". But addressing problems head on and dealing with them openly is how they do it in Masindi. PR and spin doctoring are alien concepts which is refreshing to film and something we could really learn from over here.

Much harder than getting embedded in the schools was leaving them. We had come in and taken advantage of people’s openness to get to know them quickly but intimately. They had revealed intimate details of their difficult lives, which we lapped up during filming, but were able to do little to change afterwards. We made substantial donations to each school and knew that in principle we could not get involved with helping individuals. However that is easier said than done when you are confronted with an elderly grandmother in need of hospital fees or one of your contributors who can’t afford their exam fees and will therefore have to find more school fees to repeat the year.

Ed Kellie's first trip to Uganda to research the series was made possible by a Department for International Development (DFID) Travel Bursar, in a scheme run by the Commonweath Broadcasting Association.


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