As I waited for 5 Senior Ugandan prison officers to arrive for day one of their five day MOE Coach Training Course I felt a mix of trepidation and excitement at what might be a challenge for me as a trainer. I had read about conditions in Ugandan prisons. Chronic overcrowding in facilities not fit for purpose and healthcare that is virtually non-existent. There were claims of human rights abuses and an unwieldy criminal justice system which sometimes even imprisons people on remand for more than 6 years simply as they await trial.
So what would these officers who work in such extreme environments be like and what will they make of our coaching course?
I do tend to approach each MOE course with joy and a great deal of optimism because, as anyone who has been on one of these courses will tell you, there is a steep learning curve and a transformative nature to the work that leaves people altered and usually elated. I wondered if our cultural differences might mean a different outcome in this case. My mission, I decided, was to make sure they understood the basics of coaching and took away at least something of value from the course.
They arrived wrapped up against the winter cold and responded with blank expressions when I said it was much milder than usual. They knew nothing about coaching as a concept and said they had been enrolled on the course as part of their 4 month secondment to the UK organised by the African Prison Project. They had no preconceptions or expectations.
They were very polite and quiet. Initially I wondered if they were engaging with the subject but then as we began the practical exercises and got to know each other it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. They had a voracious appetite to learn and to practice and to understand what it is to coach and to be coached and after the initial politeness and gentleness what emerged was evidence of keen, sharp, enquiring minds and a group not afraid of challenging themselves, me or each other, not afraid of delving further into the world of coaching. They were optimistic about using and sharing this new knowledge. They were also excited about how they might apply the principles to not only their work but also their personal relationships and individual goals. There were long discussions about use of language and reframing conversions, shining goals and noticing and using body language. The days flew by.
They confirmed that the reports about the Ugandan prison service were not far from the truth. But it was also clear that here were 5 people from that system who were filled with humanity, intelligence a willingness to change the status quo or at the very least do their bit to improve conditions for their staff and inmates. They discussed how coaching could lead to a cultural shift in prisons and, while acknowledging this could take a long time, one of the participants said he could envision himself introducing similar coach training courses to create hundreds, if not thousands, of coaches in Uganda. The female participants talked about trail blazing for women in the prison service. The coaching that they were receiving and giving allowed their own ambitions to come to the surface.
There was a great deal of laughter and fun along the way, loads of lightbulb moments and when we came to the end of three days I had made 5 new Ugandan friends and we all knew that we were all altered, as is the way with this course, and elated at the promise of change from future coaching conversations. Six weeks of coaching practice followed and they passed their final assessments with flying colours under the continued guidance of my colleague, Jeffrey, who has travelled the journey from MOE trainee to trainer.
Several months later, as they prepared to leave for home in time for Christmas, I was proud to hear them give an extra special mention to the MOE coaching programme as having been a particular highlight of their trip to the UK. A MOE mission accomplished, and so much more.