Friday, 3 April 2009

The Long Road Home

It is considered very bad form to show any kind of annoyance or anger in Uganda. This makes for a very pleasant environment both at work and out and about: everyone is courteous, patient and friendly and it is rare to hear anyone
lose their temper even under considerable provocation. This week, although I think of myself as quite a patient person, I feel I am enduring a kind of inward trial by culture; the English part of me feeling severely tested at times and the Ugandan influence trying desperately to keep the peace. Perhaps it is time I went home after all...

The power has been off for most of the week so I have spent five evenings in darkness, trying to keep myself occupied doing crosswords by flickering torchlight. On Friday morning it returns, but, the local radio says, it will be turned off again at 7pm. Desperate to get home in time to use my laptop and maybe even my hairdryer, I wait for the boda-boda after my day at the High School. Eventually it arrives, an hour and half late – but the driver (not Ham today as he is ill) is full of smiles and apologises so charmingly that I swallow my annoyance and decide to try to be more Ugandan than English. A few miles from home the fuel runs out. "I will be back very soon!" my driver – who only looks about fourteen and drives like a maniac – calls cheerfully as he heads off on foot towards the nearest village in search of petrol. Civil war is breaking out in my head. "This is Africa" I keep reminding myself. "These things happen..." Saturday beats all records for things running out: we lose first the gas as we are cooking supper, so we have to use the charcoal stove outside; then the electricity while we are eating, so we have to light candles; and finally, as we start the washing up, the water – for which there is no fall-back situation other than abandoning the dirty dishes. "We have a saying in England" I tell Justine and Novias " ...which goes 'You have to laugh or you'd cry' ". Fortunately we all laugh – all that is left to lose now is our sense of humour and we decide we had better hang on to that...

On Sunday it is Divine Grace's baptism and I have been told that the service will start at 8.00am as it will be a longer one than usual. As godmother I dare not be late so I set off bright and early for the half-hour walk to the church - only to find that at 7.45 no-one else there. "It's at 9.00, not 8.00!" Jenna greets me happily as she arrives a good deal later with her arms full of white-clad baby - and without much difficulty, since this is such a happy occasion, I manage to quell my unbending English sense of punctuality and revel in the wonderful African easy-going approach to life... The service is lovely, and the celebratory lunch afterwards a lively village event: sensibly, a 'thanksgiving' collection is taken after the service – in lieu of gifts, which don't really exist here - for everyone to contribute towards the cost. The Ugandan formula for entertaining is very straightforward: you ask all your friends to come and lend a hand and bring plates, and you always serve the same food, whatever the occasion – a wedding, a party, a school celebration or a funeral. There are several forms of carbohydrate – matoke, rice, potatoes, posho, millet pudding; a little stewed meat or chicken; ground nut sauce; and maybe a vegetable like dodo or cabbage. Dessert is always pineapple, eaten on the same plate as your first course. "The gravy gives it a good flavour!" as someone tells me enthusiastically. This formula has a lot to recommend it: you never have to think what to serve, there is no desperate flicking though recipe books for the perfect combination of dishes, and no frantic searching in the shops for triple-distilled verjuice, pomegranate chutney or whatever the latest culinary fashion is. As a guest you know exactly what you will be getting and can look forward to the dishes you particularly like. The cooking is straightforward and can't really be spoiled so even less confident cooks can manage it. On balance, maybe I am beginning to feel a bit more on the Ugandan than the English side of things today – sitting in the dappled sunshine under the banana trees with the hens clucking around my feet, the glass of freshly-squeezed passion fruit juice that I am drinking surely tastes better than any champagne ever could....

This has been my last week of teaching and so has been full of farewells and of touching gratitude and affection. It is just like retiring all over again! On Thursday there is a special lunch at the Primary School followed by a wonderful presentation of traditional dances and 'appreciation songs', as is the custom here: these are speeches set to music, in effect, and children take it in turn to sing a verse in between rousing choruses of thanks. To hear 'mosquito nets and textbooks' set to music is quite a novelty and 'our friends in England who have made us so healthy' is another oft-repeated line of song. In the inevitable speeches I am asked to please thank everyone on my return who has helped to improve things so much at the school: they now have an embryonic library, and books are (thanks to the ones you have sent) becoming part of their everyday lives, which is such a joy to behold. I have resolved to send regular 'book parcels' to both the primary and the high school and if any of you feel you could occasionally send one too it would help so much to build on what has been started. Life in the Nursery classes has been transformed by the toys they now have and love so much! I already have a lump in my throat before I arrive at the College for my final French session in the afternoon and the emotional 'au revoirs' from my lovely students with oft-repeated "Oh la la! Je suis desolĂ©e!" On Friday I make my last trip to the High School. It is as 'the mujungu on the motorbike' that I have become known around here and I know I will miss the friendly waves and greetings I get on the way quite as much as the beauty of the journey to the school – not forgetting, of course, the students themselves who I have so enjoyed teaching and for whom I now feel such a strong sense of responsibility and commitment. After lunch - and another touching farewell ceremony - I go on to Nyamarama School which has, courtesy of the Net-Book Appeal been given bunks and mosquito nets which today I am seeing in place for the first time. Again, I receive many expressions of grateful thanks on behalf of all of you who have helped to swell that appeal – and I can only echo these very touching sentiments which I wish you could have been be there to receive yourselves. On Sunday I will be flying – yes, a new small-aircraft service has just started to fly tourists between Kampala and nearby Kihihi so that they can get to Bwindi without the dreadful journey by road – to the capital to spend a few days with Hamlet working on the book. The school lorry is bringing all the boarders and staff from the primary school to the airstrip, about an hour's drive away, to see me off; most have never seen an aeroplane so this will be quite an outing for them – and quite a send-off for me!

Thank you for showing such interest and support for what I have been doing here and for your compassion and generosity towards these children, who endure so much hardship and suffering with such enormous resilience and cheerfulness. The time I have spent here has added not merely a whole new group of people to my life but a whole new dimension: I have learned more than I can ever put into words and will always be grateful to have had this extraordinarily rewarding experience. It has been absolutely wonderful to be able to give, because of your help, the staff and pupils some things that they need and want and to know that in small ways their lives have been improved. There is so much I could say to try to sum up my time here; but I am inclined to just leave the weekly diary and all the little incidents and observations that I have tried to capture to speak for themselves. I am sure that, if I possibly can, I will come back – after all, I have a baby godson to consider now, as well as a high school full of young people to champion and provide for....

The long evenings in darkness have given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on all that has happened over the last seven months, and also the time to listen to a lot of music. One track that I have grown particularly fond of is called 'Pearls' by Sade – a beautifully haunting song which starts "There is a woman in Somalia" – you may know it. Sitting in the dark listening to that and recalling some of the things that have happened here, I find my thoughts shaping themselves into a poem. Perhaps I have fallen victim to my own creative writing lessons! Picking up the little girl by the side of the road the other week was, I realise, a powerful metaphor for giving aid – and most especially for the transformational nature of sponsorship: so I have decided to end this, my final blog entry from Uganda, with the poem. It is dedicated to all the courageous children here; and to all of you, who have stretched out your hands to them so compassionately - and may, I hope, find it in your hearts to do so again and to help CHIFCOD to continue its marvellous work out here....


There is a child
Fallen by the roadside
Crying in the dust
She is waiting
Waiting for a stranger
Who will help her to her feet
Wipe away her tears
And take her by the hand

There is a child
Scrabbling at his mother's grave
With a small hoe
He is waiting
Waiting for her to waken
And chase the howling shadows
From the eternal darkness
Of her absence

There is a child
Sleeping on the ground
She is dreaming
Dreaming of an angel
Who has wrapped her in a blanket
But she wakes shivering
To the cold dawn
Of a new day

There is an orphan
Yearning to be a doctor
Longing to save the lives
Of other children's parents
He is waiting
Waiting for a pencil
So that he may form the letters
That whisper his name

There is a small hand
Waiting to slip into yours
So that you two may walk together
Along the stony road
The power of your hand
Will shape her future
The imprint of her hand
Will mark your soul

Sunday, 29 March 2009

High Hopes and Sweet Dreams

With barely three weeks left here I find invitations flooding in: today I am to be Guest of Honour at the Great Lakes College morning service on Sunday and have then been invited to lunch with a member of staff from the Primary School. I am getting the hang of being a Guest of Honour now and have prepared a longish speech, which is what is expected, to deliver in the middle of the service. Unfortunately a torrential downpour of rain thunders down onto the tin roof of the chapel as I begin and I am very glad of all those years of taking assemblies with young children which have taught me how to project my voice above competing noises - though today's deluge gives a whole new meaning to the word 'deafening' and in the end we have to sing a few loud hymns until the worst is over and I can resume where I left off……

Three hours on – the average length of a service here – I am more than ready for lunch with Alistidia, who is married to another teacher and has a baby son. They live in a simple, bare little two-roomed house with no electricity (so they are happily indifferent to the fact that it is off yet again today) and despite their double income are clearly still poorly off. Teachers are not well-paid here and as both are fairly newly qualified they as yet earn very little. However, in true hospitable Ugandan style they serve up a hen in my honour, which here is the equivalent of a fatted calf and definitely a special-occasion treat: a chicken costs three times as much as a kilo of beef here, despite invariably being well into middle-age and very scrawny. Various neighbours appear as lunch is being served and soon there are eight of us and the baby squeezed into the tiny room, most on the floor although I have been allocated a chair – clearly I am G of H again. It is unclear whether the other visitors have actually been invited or simply smelled the food and decided not to miss out on a good meal: here no-one is turned away. Plates are shared and somehow we all manage to eat our fill . Having had so little meat recently – once a week at the most – even the scant three mouthfuls that my bony portion of chicken offers transport me into gastronomic heaven and I even find myself taking it in my hands to chew thoroughly in the manner of my fellow-diners - although I draw the line at noisily sucking the bones as they do. I am clearly not quite a Ugandan yet….

Later in the afternoon I set off to see Jenna, the school bursar. Jenna is in her forties and has one son, a teenager who boards at his senior school so is often away. She is, unusually for a woman here, divorced and financially independent. She supports several members of her family and her house seems always to be full of children and adults who are related to her in some way, a number of whom are living there either permanently or temporarily. Jenna has now added a baby to her household: not her own but her niece's - and therein hangs a tale. Last year, the brother of this girl died, aged only sixteen. He had complained of a pain in his thigh and was taken into hospital where nothing could be found wrong with him despite many tests. His condition deteriorated and he was eventually sent home where he died a few days later. Sadly, if a diagnosis cannot be made here the word 'witchcraft' is often whispered – the perfect let-out in a difficult case like this one. Perhaps because of this recent tragedy or perhaps just out of fear, his teenage sister, finding herself pregnant, told nobody. Uganda is very like the UK in the nineteen fifties: abstinence is strongly promoted, contraception is not available for teenagers and abortion is illegal. To have a baby out of wedlock is a disgrace: back-street abortions are common and there are many deaths resulting from these. Jenna's niece managed to hide her pregnancy from everyone and simply went into labour one day in January – having taken her 'O' levels the month before and done extremely well. Her mother, still mourning her dead son, was too shocked to cope with the situation. The girl herself wanted only to go back to school and showed no interest in the baby. So Jenna has semi-adopted the tiny boy and is cheerfully reconciled to the broken nights and the tiring routine of caring for a baby again. Both Jenna and Alistidia have nursemaids who live in, in both cases a girl from a very poor family who has dropped out of senior school and is glad of a job where she gets meals, somewhere to sleep and probably a tiny wage as well – certainly a better option than an early marriage. Most families, if they are a rung or two up the poverty ladder, employ a girl to help in the house and it is ironic that live-in help, an arrangement that in the UK is the preserve of the relatively wealthy, is here an accepted way of helping both one's own and another family. Jenna's baby is very, very small with perfect, delicate features. She is feeding him on cow's milk as powdered baby milk is too expensive but he looks none the worse for that. He is dressed all in pink today – a colour which here has absolutely no gender distinction at all – and she tells me that he is to be named Divine Grace as she thinks he has survived only by God's intervention and has perhaps even been sent to replace the dead brother. As we talk, she asks me if I would agree to be his godmother – and despite some misgivings, since I have never felt that I have carried out this role very well in the past, I feel I cannot possibly refuse - especially as I suddenly remember that today is Mothering Sunday. What better way could there be to celebrate the day, I ask myself as I walk home, than to acquire a god-child? The baptism is to be next Sunday – the date of a family Christening at home that I am sad to be missing, but will by this strange turn of events, be mirroring here in my African parallel universe….

Sadly, unbelievably, my second term here is drawing rapidly to a close and I have, of course, been giving a lot of thought to how I can carry on supporting CHIFCOD once I am back in England. I have been asked, and have gladly accepted, to join the board of trustees in the UK which will give me an ongoing involvement and responsibility for CHIFCOD affairs. However, I also feel I should like to play a specific role in the organization and have some clear goals to bring back with me. Dearly though I love the younger children, it is the High School that has affected me the most profoundly while I have been here. Having been so closely involved with its foundation I feel a special bond with it as an institution, and see how greatly it needs support in these early years of its existence. But far more than that, it is the pupils themselves who have impressed and touched me. They enter adolescence and adulthood already bowed under the heavy burden that poverty has laid upon them; yet they have such hopes for their future, as all young people must have – and, without support, so very little chance of achieving them. They work incredibly hard both at school and at home, and suffer the daily humiliations that being poor brings, with great dignity. Talking to some of them again this week I hear more stories of heart-rending hardship. One boy – a double orphan who lives with his 90 year old grandmother (surely a record age in Uganda!) – tells me, when I ask him how he pays for everyday essentials, that because he has no money for soap to wash his clothes he asks his school friends if he can use their water when they have finished their laundry. As a yardstick for measuring poverty it does not compete with starvation, but in terms of dignity and self-esteem surely washing your clothes in someone else's dirty water marks a very low point indeed – especially when you see the filthy brown soup that the dust turns it to here. This lovely, good-natured young man has no sponsor – the only person he has in the world is 'my helpless grand', as he refers to her, whose land he cultivates during the school holidays to earn enough to keep the pair of them and pay his school fees. "But my name means 'hope'" he finishes, smiling cheerfully….

Following last week's blog, and even before its existence has been announced, a first donation to the Orphan Fund has already been sent in: my two generous sisters have agreed that one will give the money to the other as a birthday present but that it will be sent directly to the fund, and I thank them for setting the ball rolling. However, quite a few other people have also said they would really like to help this group of children and it is therefore my intention, and indeed my commitment, to try to raise enough money each year to fund free places for all the orphans and destitute children in the school – currently about fifty. I hope it won't mean that I have to run the London Marathon – although it may yet come to that and I will do it if I have to…! However, there are children in the school who are almost as poor and as disadvantaged as the orphans themselves and I want to help them too. One way to ease their burden is to provide more of the essential items that they need for boarding, the most expensive of which are the foam mattress and the blanket – a requirement at all boarding schools in the country, whether government or private, and not just the High School. Another plan is to set up a hardship fund which can be administered by the wise and all-seeing Headmaster, John, so that children who urgently need essential items like shoes, soap, stationery, underwear and clothes, can be given them.

Today, therefore, I would like to announce the formation of an association called The Friends of Great Lakes High School whose aim is to support and champion the school both financially and in all sorts of practical ways too. Anyone may become a Friend by donating to any one of the following appeals – or indeed to more than one:

Sponsorship: This remains the single most effective way to support both the child and the school. Only about a third of High School pupils have sponsors and many orphans are still waiting desperately for one. £180 a year which can be paid as a monthly payment of £15, will pay for a child's educational costs and school lunch. Target: to find a further 100 sponsors for High School pupils. Can you help?

The Orphan and Hardship Fund: this fund is to provide free places for single or double orphans (and other destitute children) throughout their time at the High School. In the case of sponsored children this would mean covering all their boarding costs; and for the unsponsored, the whole of their school expenses. Some money each term would be put into a Hardship Fund to help any children in the school who cannot afford essential items. In the fullness of time I would like to set up a bursary fund to support orphans at university and college too.
Target: £5000 per year - ambitious, but I hope possible!

The Blank-Matt Appeal: £20 will buy a good foam mattress and a blanket for a child at the school. These would be school property and be passed to new pupils when others leave. Not having to buy them will be a tremendous support to poor families, and for the pupils who have no blanket, and some no mattress, a huge blessing and comfort. What better gift could there be than to give a child a good night's sleep? Target: 200 'Blank-Matt' donors: also ambitious – but if every blog-reader did it……

Willing to Help?: If, like me, you know that your will needs updating, please, please consider making a bequest to VolunteerUganda. In this way you can truly become a guardian angel and leave a tangible gift behind that will hugely benefit the poor of Uganda.

Although I do not return to the UK until mid-April, next week will be the last episode of the blog as I know my final few days will be incredibly busy. I hope that many of you, having been my travelling companions and shared this voyage of discovery with me over the last seven months, will now consider continuing that bond by becoming a Friend of Great Lakes High School too. I cannot tell you how much the support you have already given – in the form of sponsorship, providing mosquito nets and text books, making generous donations, sending story books – has meant to the children here, and to the adults in their lives too. You would be amazed, and deeply moved, to see the effect that this kind of giving has on another human being. I have felt so very fortunate to have been the channel for your generosity. It has made me realize that apathy and indifference are amongst the greatest of human sins: and that the parable of the Good Samaritan – which you have exemplified so strongly – is perhaps the most powerful story in the history of mankind….

I have set my hopes high, I know, in launching this ambitious appeal. You have given so much already – but if you can give just a little more, how wonderful that would be. For that young man whose Rukiiga name, Twinamatsiko, does indeed mean 'hope', I dearly wish that, with your help, I can find a way of giving him and many others a warm bed, a secure future at school – and some soap…

Cheques, made out to VolunteerUganda, can be sent to: Dr Karen Sennett,23 Langbourne Avenue, Highgate N6

To sponsor a child please go to and follow the link to the High School

Credit card donations may be made via the High School link on the website. As most people donate money in whole pounds, adding 50p to the total will indicate that it is to go to the Orphan Appeal, and by adding 20p that it is for the Blank-Matt Appeal.

News of the High School and regular progress reports about the appeal and other matters will appear on the website from now on so please check it regularly!

You may also email me if you would like to become a "Friend" at: so that I can send email reports to you. Email addresses will be treated confidentially and will not appear as a list when group emails are sent.

Thank you so much for your wonderful support – the photos show a group of orphans at the High School, my new godchild, and the boy with no soap...


Saturday, 21 March 2009

Power Struggle

The weekend starts inauspiciously: there is no electricity on Saturday morning and Justine has heard on the local radio that it will not be reconnected until Monday. Little do I know that it will, in fact, be off for most of the coming week and that I shall spend several long evenings in total darkness listening gratefully to podcasts….
This is a blow as I have earmarked Saturday to work all day on the book, and my laptop's battery has all but run out. Determined not to be thwarted I hit on a plan: I will walk up to Kanungu and take my laptop to a small shop that does a steady trade in charging up mobile phones: they have a generator so should be able to recharge the battery. As I set off I get a phone call to say that Sunday's projected trip to Lake Bunyoni, a local beauty spot, has been postponed for a second time due to car problems. Trailing up the hill in the heat I feel a bit disgruntled at these unscheduled changes to my weekend plans - but suddenly I hear a clear child's voice singing the hymn "This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it" so loudly and happily that I cannot resist peering through the hedge – where I see a small boy pushing a huge wheelbarrow full of stones up a steep path, singing his heart out. If he can be so cheerful with all that he has to contend with, then surely I can be too: I carry on with my journey with a renewed spring in my step feeling chastened, as I so often do, by children's uncomplaining stoicism and good humour here…

On Sunday Internet Emily has invited me to visit her parents' home which, she assures me, is not far from Kanungu – but distance, like time, is a pretty elastic concept here. They are peasant farmers and very poor so we set off with a bag full of provisions - rice, tinned milk, millet flour, tea - to supplement the vegetables they grow. We travel by boda-boda; Emily assures me that we can both fit onto one motor-bike to save the expense of taking two – a good idea in theory but, as she is amply built, quite a challenge, especially going up hills (for the motor bike's engine) and down hills (for me, as I feel like the filling in the middle of a sandwich being firmly compressed between two pieces of unyielding bread). It is far from comfortable so I am relieved when, about forty minutes or so out of the village, the motor-bike turns off the road and down a stony track, eventually coming to a halt at a dead end by a little outcrop of houses. "Now we are footing" says Emily cheerfully, and 'foot' we do, for a good hour; uphill and down, through dense green banana plantations, past fields of groundnuts and beans, the track becoming first a narrow path and then no more than a barely discernible line through grassy undergrowth. The mud houses nestling deep in the plantations become fewer and there is a growing sense of isolation as we head further and deeper into the rolling countryside. We pass some families - immaculately dressed, even here, in frilly white dresses and pressed-Sunday-best – on their way to a tiny corrugated-iron roofed church on top of a hill, who all greet Emily warmly but stare at me with undisguised curiosity. White people do not often venture this far off the road, clearly….

"We are close!" Emily says at regular intervals – and finally we really are and she points to her parents' house, its rusty tin roof a landmark red amidst the pervasive green of the landscape. The extreme simplicity of the house (built by her father and brothers), with its stone and mud walls and earth floors is set off by immaculately cared-for grass borders and exotic flowering shrubs bearing gorgeous tropical blooms that grow wild here but would cost a small fortune in florists at home. Her parents are delightfully welcoming and hospitable and despite the language barrier we get on famously. Both in their fifties now, with their five children either grown up or nearly so, their smallholding is clearly becoming something of a burden to them now: the land is all steeply sloping and arduous to maintain, and water has to be fetched from a stream in the valley below their house as there are no taps nearby, involving a steep climb back to the house with the heavy jerry cans. Nevertheless, as Emily takes me round it feels like the Garden of Eden: giant avocado trees shade us as we walk, their branches laden with shiny fruits; great bunches of bananas cluster above our heads; pendulous jackfruit and purple passion fruit dangle provocatively before us, and pineapples thrust their thorny crowns from clumps of foliage. Neatly thatched bee hives are lined up beneath the trees and baby goats gambol through the thickets of sugar cane. There are orderly terraced rows of sweet potatoes and ground-nuts, dodo and beans: all this is managed alone by Emily's father. The prices they get for these crops are, he says, very low and so he cannot afford to employ anyone to help him; but so far from any road, transporting the produce to market must be gruelling in the extreme for him. We eat a simple lunch of rice, dodo greens and eggplants, the small holes that pepper the tin roof creating a lacy pattern of sunlight in the dark, bare room in which we sit. When it rains, they tell me, the water pours in through the rust-holes drenching their bedding and few possessions; but the cost of replacing the metal sheets is far beyond their means and for now, at least, they must make do with strategically-placed bowls to catch the worst of the water. I wonder what happens to anyone who falls ill or has an accident - or a baby - such a long way from vehicular access and Emily says that people simply have to be carried on stretchers, whatever the distance, to the nearest road – and some must presumably die before they reach help. Laden with bags of avocados and pineapples we make our way back late in the afternoon and wait for the boda-boda, wondering how we will manage with our cargo of fruit to somehow accommodate as well as the two of us. A grizzled-looking man with most of his teeth missing comes up to talk to us as we wait and tells me proudly that he has two wives and twenty-three children . "I have one house up there" – he points to a building near the top of a hill "..and one down here" – he points to another house in the valley not far from where we are sitting. "My life is up and down, up and down!" he says, waving his hands from valley to hilltop – and with that number of children one can only imagine that it is more down than up most of the time….

On Tuesday I go to the High School with Livingstone, who is the communications officer for CHIFCOD. We travel on his bright red motor-bike, a new acquisition of which he is inordinately proud, in a very Toad-of-Toad-Hall-ish sort of way. We go along at a fair old lick with frequent soundings of the horn and revvings of the engine. Will today be the day I fall off for the first time, I wonder, as we skid, lurch and bounce over the stony road…? But no, we make it to the High School unscathed and in record time for the day's work – not teaching, for a change, but interviewing pupils to find out more about their home backgrounds and to see how they are settling into the school. Today we are talking to those who are either single orphans (whose father has died but mother is still alive) or double. Some have lost their fathers to AIDS and I have learned to expect the answer many give when I ask "How is your mother's health?". "She is often ill" they say or "She is now weak" – and I know that before long they too will probably have become double orphans. In communities that are already poor, these pupils tell of pitiful poverty: one boy has no blanket to bring to school as his has been eaten by the rats that infest the room that he shares with his three brothers. Another boy's mother remarried when his father died and left him with his grandmother, who has ten other children to look after – and he has never seen her since. Many have no shoes, and no clothes other than their school uniform. Several have no blanket and just sleep under a sheet – even though it gets cold here at night. One of the best pupils in my English class, a bright, talented boy of seventeen, is a double orphan who, together with his brother, has lived with his 80 year old grandfather - who fought in Amin's army - since he was a young child. He has a pair of shoes, he tells me matter-of-factly, but took them to be mended some time ago as they had holes in them - and he has never had enough money to collect them. He recently went to give blood after a local appeal for donors and was discovered through the screening test to have hepatitis B; but no-one in the family has the money to pay for treatment. He wants to be an accountant and as he is extremely able he could easily achieve his ambition – that is, if he can get over his health problems, and if there will be anyone to help him pay the fees when the time comes: his grandfather is in poor health even now. He is an exceptionally nice young man, so diligent, quietly-spoken and uncomplaining. I have of course given him the money to collect his shoes – but if only I could do more for him, particularly to improve his health. Without exception these pupils say they prefer being at school to being at home: not because they don't love their families but because at school they are well fed (even the relentless twice-a-day beans and posho is a great deal better than their normal diet), can read and study in the evening because there is a light, can enjoy the companionship of their friends, and are not worn out by the relentless list of tasks they must carry out at home from morning till night – digging, growing crops, grazing animals, cleaning, cooking, fetching water and wood. One boy shows me the deep scars on his hands from digging; and more than one girl says that if she has to drop out of school because of difficulty with fees, as an orphan she will be forced to marry so that the 'bride price' can be used to feed the rest of the family – in effect sold into marriage. It is a strange irony that although the age of consent here is eighteen, girls can get married much younger and it is not uncommon for them to do so at fourteen and to have their first child soon after. Several of the pupils, girls and boys, say they want to be doctors 'so that I can save lives', and are working hard at science subjects in order to get the grades they need for university. But who, I wonder, will help them and pay for them to study if even the small amount they have to find to attend the High School is proving such a challenge? When I ask them if they have any problems each and every one says "I worry about the school fees" and indeed, several have to earn these themselves by growing crops, making and selling mats or by other means. How many children in the UK even give their school fees a second thought, I wonder? I come away determined to find a way to supply free places for orphans at the High School, and also to start a hardship fund for children who have no shoes, clothes, blankets or other essentials. In the entire day I have not heard a note of self-pity, nor a complaint, nor a hint of resentment about the bleakness of their lives. They love the school, their teachers and their headmaster and they are all so happy, and feel so lucky, to be there. I travel back in a sombre mood, deeply touched by the stories I have heard and by the sheer fortitude, and the desperation, of the young people who have told them. There must be a way of helping them further…..

As I hurry down the road from the Primary School to the College on Thursday afternoon for French with the Tourism students, I feel a little hand slip into mine. This is my friend Mary, a poorly-dressed scrap of a girl whom I picked up out of the road a few weeks ago where she had been abandoned by the group of schoolchildren she was with after she had fallen over. It is very rare to hear a child crying here and her pitiful wails prompted me to run back and help her up, dust her down and deliver her back to her companions. Since then she has treated me with a kind of proprietorial affection, regarding my hand as hers to hold by right whenever we happen to walk down the road at the same time and pushing away any contenders. We have strange little conversations, she talking in Rukiiga and me in English, neither understanding a word of what the other is saying, but both enjoying a sense of comfortable companionship and I marvelling at that mysterious, unquestioning trust that children place in adults. At the College gate we part company with lots of waves and I brace myself for the two hours of French that lie ahead. How exciting it is to teach a language! I almost weep with joy as the students come in today greeting me with 'Bonjour Madame, comment allez-vous aujourd-hui?' and later manage to translate, almost unaided, the sentence 'I eat fish but I don't eat meat'. What progress! Best of all is their love of singing: 'Frere Jacques' African-style, sung as a round but with much clapping to liven it up, is a very far cry from the sedate, rather plodding version I grew up with. They beg for more songs so this week we try 'Savez vous plantez les choux?' – perfect for a group of students for whom planting cabbages is second nature and for whom a hoe, 'une houe', is part of their daily life - and which from the point of view of Ugandanising the song, so conveniently rhymes with 'choux'…. Magnifique!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Skirting the Issue

Today is Saturday and I have a social engagement: I have been invited to visit Internet Emily's new residence. I should really say 'ex-Internet Emily' as she now has a new job: since developing her eye problems before Christmas she has had to give up computer work and now works for the Diocesan AIDS team, an interesting-sounding job which I am looking forward to hearing about. The Diocese has also found her accommodation, a room in the Mother's Union Training Centre which is where I am going to visit her today.

The Training Centre has only been open for a couple of years. It was paid for by a branch of the Mother's Union from - I think - Manchester, and is a praiseworthy venture. Women from local villages come here for three-month periods to train for one of three skills: tailoring, machine knitting or secretarial services. The workshops, complete with treadle sewing machines, knitting machines and office machinery are built around a courtyard where there is a dormitory, a shared 'kitchen' - in effect a storage area with a place for a fire - and a bathroom. Emily takes me proudly to her little home: as with most houses here, it consists of one room with an area curtained off for sleeping. Apart from her bed, the only other furniture is a chair: clothes are kept in a suitcase, a Ugandan custom observed even in quite well-to-do homes. People here have very few possessions and they give the impression that if the entire village had to move out they could all be packed up and on their way in ten minutes. Perhaps a trace of their nomadic spirit still lingers….
Over a glass of mango juice, which I guiltily realize is an extravagence in my honour (her work is very humbly paid), Emily tells me about her new job. The AIDS team is at the moment working in local schools to train selected volunteer students to be peer counsellors. Their brief is to encourage everyone to be tested for HIV AIDS so that they know their status and can be treated and given lifestyle advice if HIV positive. The biggest obstacle to progress at the moment is a widespread reluctance, amongst all age-groups, to be tested: even if both parents have died of AIDS teenage children will sometimes resist being tested, preferring to live in ostrich-like ignorance of the truth to having to face the consequences of it; and Emily's team is hoping to encourage much greater participation in the testing programme. Once all local schools have been visited, the team will go deeper into rural areas to find families where the children do not go to school, and offer testing and counselling. Another problem in the fight against the disease is that because anti-retrovirals mask the symptoms people increasingly do not admit their positive status, and there is a fear that the incidence is rising far more rapidly than the official statistics imply. Emily is clearly enjoying her new role; sadly her successor in the 'internet place' does not show her devotion to duty and the shop is more often closed than open. I have had to find a new venue for my emailing and now trudge up to Kanungu two or three times a week after work to my new internet friend Denis's establishment. This is a much more ambitious enterprise with several computers and a printer. The computers are ancient and look from their security marking as if they might have originated in some university department in the UK; but they work - most of the time, at least - and with a bit of a struggle will sometimes even let me post photos to the blog....

On Sunday I give myself the luxury of a lie-in and attend the 10.00 o'clock service at the church, which is all in the vernacular – the English service being at 8.30am and requiring an early start. Most of the villagers attend this Rukiiga service so the church is packed, and today the Kirima Primary School pupils are there as well. Sufficient, the little girl who is sitting next to me, has a nasty cold and blows her nose frequently and copiously throughout the first part of the service, using the skirt of her dress as a handkerchief. I pass her a new, neatly-folded tissue after the first bout of nose-blowing but she politely declines to use it, placing it carefully on the shelf in front of her then later putting it (mercifully still unused) into the collection basket – clearly preferring to continue using the method she knows best; which she does, frequently. During the sermon she snuggles up to me affectionately. As her skirt meets mine I sit very still and try to think holy and forgiving thoughts – and feel very relieved that I chose to put on something highly patterned and extremely colourful this morning….

I cannot, of course, understand anything more than the occasional word of the service but it is worth going just for the glorious singing – and for the spectacle of the collection. All sorts of things go into the collection baskets besides my tissue – small sweets, vegetables, bags of beans, pencils, bananas, a live hen (which I have followed up the road on the way here tucked under a girl's arm) – as well as a small amount of money. For most of the congregation giving in kind is their only option; but the spirit in which they give is nothing short of extraordinary - to call it enthusiastic fails to do it justice by a long mark. To the accompaniment of animated singing a representative from each part of the village takes it in turn to stand at the front of the church with a basket and one by one the groups of villagers, young and old alike, literally dance up the aisle to give their donations – then remain in front of the altar where they all dance, clap, sing and whoop for a few minutes before dancing back to their places to let the next group follow the same procedure. The drumming gets louder, the dancing more frenetic and then an old lady appears with a traditional painted shield and a spear and proceeds to parade around the church goading the congregation into presenting their offerings with prods from her weapon and loud cackles – a symbolic reminder, I suppose, of their tribal obligations. For twenty or so minutes the drumming and singing grow more insistent and urgent, the dancing wilder, and in the mounting excitement, exhilaration and fervour I wonder if at any moment they are all going to pour out of the church and declare war on the neighbouring village - but suddenly it is over. Silence falls; and moments later Holy Communion is celebrated with unimpeachable high church dignity accompanied by restrained, hushed choral singing of such beauty that tears fill my eyes. It is the most extraordinary, baffling juxtaposition of reserved Anglican ecclesiastical ritual and uninhibited African tribal spirit – and I find it very moving. Trussy, who is sitting on my other side, senses my seriousness and taking my hand starts to do 'Round and round the garden like a teddy bear,' – which I have taught the little ones – to bring me back down to earth, or at least to giving her a bit of attention. Soon we are all streaming out into the sunshine; three hours have passed if not quite in a flash then certainly in a mesmerising haze of surreal fascination and now it's time to go home to do some serious alfresco laundry: sheets, towels, and - most especially - highly-patterned skirts…

Although in theory the new wet season has begun there has been no rain for nearly a fortnight. A haze of red dust hangs in the air above the road and each time a vehicle passes a violent cloud of it is thrown up from the dry gritty surface, shrouding any unfortunate pedestrian in its wake in a choking miasma. Clothes, shoes, hair, ears, eyelashes have all acquired a powdery patina of rusty grime which no amount of washing seems to completely remove. Along the roadside the drooping vegetation coated thickly in brown dirt gives the appearance of an alien autumn having arrived; while in the fields the young crops, desperate for moisture, are beginning to wither and die…. Appearing like a genie out of the swirling red mist a motor-cycle stops beside me on Tuesday and to my surprise I see it is ridden by a white man of about my age.As he introduces himself I immediately realize who he is, Hamlet having talked about him several times. He is an American doctor who has set up a mission hospital at Bwindi, where the 'Impenetrable Forest' is home to some of the last-surviving gorillas in the world. Bwindi – about an hour's drive from here – is an area of Uganda that receives many tourists most of whom come to see the gorillas - the price of the 'gorilla pass', $500, acting as an effective means of controlling the numbers. But it is not for the tourists that Scott and his wife have set up the hospital: their work is with the Batwa Pygmies who live in the area. Until about 2000 years ago it is thought that eastern and southern Africa was largely populated by the Batwa people, who are semi-nomadic forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers (what a lot of hyphens!). Their numbers having dwindled to a few thousand by the 1930s, most were living in the Impenetrable Forest until it was gazetted by the then colonial government to preserve the last tracts of dense forest left in the country and to protect the gorillas. The Batwa were evicted from their communally-owned forest lands and have ever since struggled to re-establish themselves, facing discrimination, hostility and ridicule. Their small size (rarely growing beyond 1.5 metres) and lighter skin colour, coupled with their non-agricultural life-style, have set them apart from the communities in which they are now forced to live and the remaining two thousand or so of these ancient inhabitants of the country live a life of persecution and hardship, unable to make a living in their traditional ways and ostracized by their neighbours. Scott and his wife are, he tells me, soon returning to America so are only here for a few more weeks after eight years in the country supporting the Batwa. "We never intended to stay this long – maybe you'll do the same!" he laughs as he rides off, disappearing as if by magic in a puff of red smoke….

By strange coincidence, his words echo those that I have written only moments before meeting him in an email to a friend: I am indeed beginning to feel that, were it not for other considerations, I could quite happily carry on living and working here for much longer – years, maybe. As a teacher there are endless ways in which I could make myself useful and, having now grown accustomed to the system here I feel much more confident about how to subtly and gently influence the way things are done to make learning more interesting and accessible for the children. For example, with the aid of a kit put together for me by the learning support teacher at Highgate Pre-Prep, Janet Mills, I have started 'extra help' sessions in the lunch hour at the Primary School. My 'small group' of pupils who need help with literacy skills consists of twenty-five children sent along by their teachers– and that is after I have shown the door to all the others who have decided they don't want to miss out on something new even though they are perfectly good readers. With such a large number I can do little on an individual basis but hopefully 'Jolly Phonics' will work its wonders and give them all a bit more confidence… I am aware, too, even more keenly than I was before, of how adaptable we all are as humans and how surprisingly quickly - relatively speaking - we adjust to new environments. I no longer have the sense of shock that living amidst such poverty initially gave me – and while by no means immune to the daily struggle of peoples' lives here, I feel I now have a far better understanding of the context that determines and delineates their existence. On a personal level, and without intending in any way to romanticise poverty, there is something very appealing about living an extremely simple life and turning one's back – if only briefly - on the hedonistic consumerism of the developed world. And, having escaped the worst of the British winter this year, the thought of living somewhere perpetually warm is very attractive indeed….

As I walk down the road today to buy some 'Irish' – the Ugandan name for ordinary as opposed to sweet potatoes, which are now in season – I meet Annah, the head of the education department at the College. "We have a new intake of students" she says enthusiastically. "Can you lecture the teaching diploma students for us, starting next week?" I explain that I will be returning to England quite soon and that it really won't be worth my starting a course for such a short time. "Never mind!" she says cheerfully. "We can delay the start of that course until you return from your holiday." "But…." I begin – and then stop. Oh dear – maybe this is why people stay for eight years: it's just too difficult to say goodbye....


Saturday, 7 March 2009

Census Sensibility

Hamlet and Kellen have had to return to Kampala. As they leave Hamlet asks me if I would mind deputising for him as Guest of Honour at the High School's Award of Offices ceremony on Sunday. The outgoing school captains and monitors are to be awarded certificates of achievement and the new officers officially sworn in: these things are taken very seriously here and elections have been held after vigorous campaigning by the candidates, with full democratic process observed. There is a long list of offices which in addition to the usual leadership posts offer such opportunities as health monitor, food monitor and time-keeping monitor – the latter possibly the most challenging that any Ugandan organization could offer….

I should know better than to arrive at the stated start time, 9.30am – but as Guest of Honour I feel that I must set a good example and be punctual. I am delighted to be making the 'heavenly journey' for a second time this week; by now I know the route well and have given my own pet names to familiar landmarks - Rwanda Viewpoint, Morning Glory Corner, Blossom Boulevard, Bird-swoop Avenue, Frog-croak Hollow, Pot-hole pass – and despite the heavy overnight rain, Ham gets me to the High School unmuddied and relatively shevelled - if that is the opposite of dishevelled. I am met by a relaxed air of general unreadiness and the secretary in curlers. Hair curlers, usually large straightening rollers, are tantamount to a fashion accessory here – women shop in them, walk round the village in them and even sit down to dinner in them. Perhaps they are part of her outfit today rather than a sign of tardiness, I speculate to myself? Certainly everyone has dressed up for the occasion in no uncertain terms, with the deputy head, a very attractive lady at any time, in an outfit that would not have been out of place at the Oscar ceremonies, complete with a pair of glamorous silver stilettos. Even in the smartest clothes I can muster and my boldest accessories I feel distinctly under-dressed, and definitely under-pressed: the hot-charcoal iron rules supreme here and men's shirts and trousers, however decrepit, have creases so sharp that you fear for your safety…

The ceremony starts a couple of hours late but even then the secretary's curlers are still in place and the invited local dignitaries have not arrived: it turns out later that, due to some typing oversight, their invitations stated 1.00pm as the starting time – so they turn up at 2.00pm, just in time for lunch. A long service with lots of wonderful African-style singing and dancing and a fifty-minute sermon poignantly reminding the congregation about Lent and the virtues of hunger and self-denial, moves seamlessly into the ceremony itself and, of course, many speeches, hand-shakes and exhortations. Each monitor is sworn in, bible in hand, with a degree of seriousness that would not have been amiss at Barack Obama's inauguration and, in thanks for their service, the outgoing officials are given the Ugandan equivalent of the silver trophies or shields we are used to: a humble plastic plate or a glass beaker each. When the turn comes for me to make my speech, I experience an unexpected stirring of emotion. Seeing this hall full of young people already so proud and committed to their school, a Headmaster so passionate about the success of it, a staff so determined to achieve the best by their pupils, and knowing that it has been created almost entirely by the efforts of Highgate School pupils and parents is very moving – all the more so when, as a local man reminds me later, he can remember this site being the stamping ground of elephants and buffalo, it having been reclaimed from the Queen Elizabeth National Park less than fifty years ago. The Headmaster in his speech reminds everyone that "even tiny Nursery children worked to raise the money to build this school": it is such a marvellous achievement, and seeing the new buildings going up around the campus – thanks to further generosity by parents – hugely uplifting. The Headmaster announces that, in order to give very poor local children the opportunity to attend the school, a number of day-places will be offered at a very low cost – the local radio has just broadcast this news so more new pupils should soon be arriving – and this is a wonderful development. I am thrilled to see that my new 'sponsor daughter' Asanasi, despite only having arrived ten days ago, has already made such an impression that she has been elected as a class monitor. She looks so happy when I see her! Ronald, the other recent arrival has also settled in well –and now has a sponsor, I am delighted to report. The Headmaster introduces me to another newcomer, a girl. "This is Happy" he says – and proceeds to tell me of a life anything but happy which has led her - both her parents having died – to simply turn up alone at the school last week, miles from her home town, and ask for a place. She has no-one to speak for her and has brought nothing with her. Another girl has offered to share her bunk with her as she has no mattress; so the two teenage girls sleep head to toe together for the time being, and someone has lent her a uniform. I promise to bring the money for her mattress and other items with me on Friday; and I say that I am sure that I can find her a sponsor. Is there someone reading this who might help this girl – who shows every sign of being a determined, brave individual? Double orphans are a heavy burden on already impoverished families and it would seem that she simply has no-one to care for her…

Many thanks are expressed during the morning to "our friends in England" – especially for the new text books that have now transformed the library from one tiny cupboard to a whole shelved room with labelled subject sections. Wonderful! The Headmaster also publicly thanks the senders of book parcels from the UK for the school: a few have arrived and have been so much appreciated. "We want to promote a reading culture in this school" he says. The students urgently need more fiction books to read, though – the handful that they have just aren't enough to go round. Could I make a plea for more parcels containing a few paperbacks – any good 'young adult' stories, simple classics or adventure stories – from charity shops or your own bookshelves? One boy has especially requested Shakespeare plays! Many books have arrived for the primary school, which is marvellous – but few for the older pupils. The address is Great Lakes High School, PO Box 50, Kanungu, W.Uganda. A hundred parcels each containing two or three books would fill those yawning library shelves – and so much enrich the lives of the pupils. I should not keep asking, when people have already been so generous, for more - but if you could see the desperation for resources you would hopefully not mind my begging for just a bit more help….

I have started the book about CHIFCOD that I am writing with Hamlet and it is proving to be a fascinating and absorbing story to document. What began with three families starting a little Nursery school for their six children in a tiny mud village house fourteen years ago has grown into an organization running four primary schools, a high school and a college as well as reaching deep into the communities in which these institutions function to support families in all sorts of non-educational ways. For example in 2004 CHIFCOD (which stands for Child to Family Community Development), with the support of a Lottery grant, brought fourteen tap-stands to the village supplying 40,000 people with water. This grant also paid for a village ambulance to be purchased and a three-year health education programme set up to raise awareness of disease prevention, safe sanitation and domestic hygiene. CHIFCOD has also set up village banks, a micro-finance company to fund small businesses, a grinding facility where villagers can bring their grain to be milled and all sorts of other projects. All of this has been achieved through the determination, vision and energy of Hamlet Mbabaze: it is at once the story of one man and yet also that of the many people who have enabled him to achieve that dream for his community – and still do so today. CHIFCOD is supported by groups from America and Germany as well as several different parts the UK; wherever Hamlet goes, it would seem, he inspires those that he meets to become a part of his unquenchable ambition to improve the lives of the children and their families in his homeland. Gradually I am piecing together the complex picture of how and why the different schools came into being. Each one is supported by a different group of people: Nyamarama School was built largely through American supporters whom Hamlet met when studying there, while Rutenga school was created with funding from a German church that he once visited. Members of St Michael's Church, Highgate formed the Friends of Kirima organization which helped build and expand Kirima School; and the High School was, of course, created with money raised by Highgate School. Other churches and schools– in Hull, Kent, Guilford and London – are also affiliated to the organization, as is the Rotary foundation: many, many people worldwide have contributed to this community transformation – even more now, through the blog - and though most will never see for themselves what has been achieved they have all played a part in its remarkable story. With so much in the world to disappoint our opinion of humanity, a story like this speaks of the best of it: a worldwide reaching out to those in need with no expectation of gratitude or recognition, done simply in a spirit of compassion and trust. I feel privileged to be one of the few people to witness first-hand the reward of so much generosity - in time as well as money – and of such sheer human goodness….

As part of my background research I trek up the hill to Kanungu one hot afternoon to visit the government offices, hoping to get some statistical information about the district. After allaying some initial suspicion about my request –after all, why should a mujungu be snooping around asking for information about the local population? – I am eventually entrusted with the 2002 census return. It makes fascinating reading: I learn that only 4% of the population in Kanungu district live in housing deemed to be made from 'permanent materials', 80% depend on subsistence farming for their livelihood and 99% use firewood or charcoal for cooking. Only 4% of the population are over 60 – which means that if I were Ugandan I would be one of the lucky few of my age still alive, a sobering thought. The statistics on literacy are a damning indictment of the system: 29% of those who have attended school are illiterate - compared with only 23% of those who never attended school! The statistics about poverty are equally grim; only 28% of children have a blanket and 37% of the population own a pair of shoes. Less than 2% own all the household items deemed essential for basic welfare and 37% own none on the list. Of course, this information is several years old now; but from anecdotal evidence little has changed. For most, life is a daily struggle to survive….

Marking P7's English homework has given some light relief from statistics and French verbs, however. We have been learning about nouns with gender differences and as usual there have been some inventive variations on the language as we know it. It makes a lot of sense, I feel, to call the masculine version of a Duchess 'a Dutch'; and a 'gandress' would seem sensible to team up with a gander. I'm not sure that a female heir, however, would want to be known as 'hairless'; but, far worse, pity the poor counterpart of a bachelor – who, one child writes, is called a 'sphincter'. An open-and-shut case for getting married, I'd say….

Friday, 27 February 2009

Strange Antics


Great Lakes High School is in a magnificent setting: built on a slope, with sweeping views in all directions, the land surrounding it is dotted with giant ant-hills – some as much as seven or eight feet high – which give a strangely lunar effect to the landscape. The ants who have created these mighty edifices are large (by ant standards, at least) and reddish-brown, and during the rainy season they are at their busiest, often to be seen in their orderly, military-like columns swarming across the school campus searching for new territories to conquer. As I arrive at the school on Friday I do not notice a whole battalion of the creatures busily amassing around my feet as I chat to a member of staff and within seconds they have scaled the dizzy heights of my legs and burrowed under my clothes. Instantaneously my entire body feels as if it is on fire: it is as if a thousand tiny red-hot needles have punctured my skin giving a sensation that is neither itching nor pain but can best be described as excrutiating physical distress. The school secretary who clearly knows these creatures well, calmly tells me that I must remove all my clothes immediately, and, shepherding me into a half-finished cloakroom with no door, hands me a dust-sheet to hide behind and leaves me to it. Modesty and caution take second place to desperation: I tear my clothes off frantically as the burning, stinging sensation reaches a pitch of unbearable ferocity – and then knock, pick and bludgeon the attackers off my skin. What felt like a thousand of them turns out to be a mere couple of dozen, but a few have taken refuge in my hair and continue their torment until – having hastily re-dressed – I seek the secretary again who expertly picks them out one by one. Miraculously, and as suddenly as it struck, the agony is over, and I go off to my first lesson a trifle dishevelled but none the worse for this startling prelude to the working day. I pick my steps very carefully for the next few hours….

There is a new girl at the High School. The previous week, when we arrive at Nyakabungo School for the 'grand toilet opening', we see an elderly man and his daughter waiting at the school entrance. Having heard that Hamlet is visiting that day, the father has brought his daughter along to plead for a place at the High School: she has missed the required grade for entry to the school by a few marks, but he is convinced that she is a bright girl and will do well if given the chance. They have dressed in their best clothes, he in a threadbare suit and shirt, tie and hat; and she in a clean, shabby dress. There is something about their determination and dignity that I find very touching. Perhaps, I suggest to Hamlet, it is possible that the Headmaster will give her another assessment to see if he thinks she has the potential for the High School? Hamlet relates this proposal to the pair: they look relieved and grateful for at least a chance. By Friday she has been offered a place and has moved in – everyone boards at the school as it is so remote – and certainly from her performance in my lesson, she is coping well. She is the youngest of a large family and will be the only one to have had a senior school education. The Headmaster tells me that on the day of her assessment she quietly pleads with him to let her stay. If she returns to her village she knows that she faces a future of working in the fields and early marriage: but she wants to study and get qualifications: "This is my only chance" she says. He, too, decides that she should have this opportunity and agrees to keep her. A sponsor has to be found for her, though, or she will not be able to stay as her father is extremely poor; so I decide that I will do this. Someone brings her to the office and when I tell her that I am going to be her sponsor she hides her face in her hands. I wonder if she is embarrassed, or overcome by surprise, but when she takes her hands away and looks up I see that her face is shining, glowing, with happiness. Sponsoring a pupil like this for their senior school years – five at the most – has this amazing capacity to transform their life and I wish that every sponsor could see that look of sheer joy lighting up 'their' child's face when they are told the news. Other pupils are not so lucky and some are absent today: a few weeks into the new term pupils who have not paid are sent home to 'look for their fees' as the phrase goes – making it sounds as if the money might just turn up under a bush or behind a tree – and, sadly, some may not return. Small though the fees are, they are essential to the running of the school – to pay the teachers, buy materials and to provide food, medicine and basic care; and the many children without sponsors walk a tightrope from term to term, never sure whether they will be able to return to school or not. Because the High School is so new, very few of the pupils yet have sponsors; so if you feel that you would like to bring that bright beam of hope into a life that has undoubtedly already had more than its fair share of darkness then please, do go to the website and click on the link. That £15 a month is an investment with a return far beyond any price that the stock-market – even in happier days - could ever offer: the certain knowledge that you have given the chance of a better future to a young person who has no-one, but no-one else in the world to give them a helping hand….

The very day that I have written this paragraph an old woman arrives at the house in the evening. She has walked for four hours, from a village called Rukungiri not far from the High School, to see Hamlet. Hamlet is out but she is given some food and a bed for the night and in the morning she explains to him why she has come. Both her son and his wife died when their two children, a girl and a boy, were very young and she, who is herself a widow, has cared for them ever since, working on her neighbour's land to earn enough money to put them through primary school. The girl has left home now but the boy, who did well in his Primary Leaving Exams, desperately wants to go to secondary school – and she has no money. She is now in her seventies; her health is failing and she cannot earn enough to support her grandson, who is called Ronald, any longer. She has come to beg Hamlet to give him a place at the High School. She has no money for uniform, or for the few things that each pupil must bring to the school – a thin foam mattress, a blanket, a tin box, a washing bowl, some pens and a bible. Hamlet asks her if she has anything at all that she can sell in order to make a contribution, however small, to Ronald's education. "I waited to come here until I had nothing" she tells him simply. "And now I really have nothing left - no hens, no land, no money – nothing at all." Hamlet and I give her the money for the school equipment and he tells her to send Ronald to the school the next day : he will have a place. But Ronald – and so many others like him whom the school has not the heart to turn away – as you will have guessed, needs a sponsor…..

I have a new challenge this term: at the College they are desperate for someone to teach simple French to the Certificate in Tourism students. Because French is spoken in neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Congo, these students, who may end up working there, need a basic grasp of the language – but there is no-one to teach it. On the strength of having been overheard passing the time of day with a visiting French-speaker last term I am appointed to the post: if only all jobs were so easy to come by! I tell myself that even I, with my say-everything-in-the present-tense-and-have-a-go-at-the-rest level of competence, am surely better than nothing – but I may yet be proved wrong. I turn up nervously on the first day expecting to teach the same two-hour lesson to two different groups – but discover that I am to have the same group I had in the morning again in the afternoon, necessitating some frantic lesson-planning and feverish vocabulary practice in the lunch hour with the aid of my tiny phrase book. Mercifully, the students seem content with a lot of counting, simple greetings and a few useful expressions, and we end the lesson saying 'maqnifique!' enthusiastically to each other many times over, happy in the knowledge that everyone can say one thing at least. Whether I shall be able to sustain credibility for the rest of the term remains to be seen - but for the time being at least, tout va bien…..

Of all the CHIFCOD establishments it is perhaps the College – or Great Lakes Regional College to give it its full name – that has had the greatest impact on the wider community. School leavers in the area have in the past had to travel to other parts of Uganda to attend college or university and the added cost of transport and residential accommodation on top of the fees has deterred most of them from pursuing further education or gaining a professional qualification. Building the College in 2004 was an ambitious but far-sighted project for CHIFCOD and has proved a huge success. Local students can attend as day pupils although boarding facilities are available for those who want them. Schemes have been set up to help students to earn their fees as they study: keeping bees, growing crops or raising livestock such as pigs, for example; and courses run at weekends and all through the holidays for people who have a job already but want to continue with their studies. There are vocational courses – for which students can study for a certificate or a diploma – in subjects such as teaching, tourism, micro-finance, office skills and agriculture; and degree courses in agro-business, accounting, social work and business administration, to name but a few. The College provides employment for the local community and attracts business and customers for local shops: it is altogether a very good thing for the area. Hamlet's vision for the future is to gain University status for the College – which would make it the only University in the whole of the extensive Kanungu province and bring even more opportunity and prosperity to the area. This would involve a substantial building programme to provide more lecture rooms, facilities and accommodation, and perhaps a performing arena to promote the arts and local culture. It might be possible to offer short courses on development and Ugandan culture for university students or indeed anyone from the UK or other countries who wanted to do research or work in the area; or to invite visiting lecturers from universities abroad for short periods – a vision for the future that would bring an international flavor to the College and raise its status even further. As always, lack of funds for capital projects stands in the way of achieving this dream at the moment – but in the meantime many young people are being given the opportunity to qualify for jobs that, just a few years ago, would have been beyond their wildest dreams – and that hopefully will give them an income and financial security for the rest of their working lives…

Hurray! At the Primary School the mosquito nets have arrived! Life never being straightforward, half of them have first been delivered to another school a few miles away who are, understandably, reluctant to part with them. However, they eventually are all safely returned and each pupil is handed their net in a special assembly and they are then taken to the dormitories. There is great excitement as they are attached to the underneath of the bunks above – or the ceiling, in the case of top-bunks – ready for use. The children are thrilled – it is not just mosquitoes that will be kept at bay but all the nocturnal creepy-crawlies including my own pet-hate, a sort of large hornet-fly with an elongated black body and menacing drone that circles round like a low-flying glider then suddenly dive-bombs towards you. Ugh! The new wet season is just beginning and the mosquitoes gathering force – so the nets are here at just the right moment. Everyone – children, staff and parents – is hugely grateful. Even if just one child less gets malaria as a result of the nets it will be such a worthwhile achievement – but I am sure that many attacks will be prevented and perhaps lives saved too – a pupil from the school died from malaria less than two years ago and many, many have suffered the illness. Thank you, on behalf of everyone both here and at Nyamarama School too, where they have also been supplied along with their new bunks – it is a wonderful gift to them.

Hamlet has acquired a goat, a gift from his nephew whose wedding he has recently helped to organize. The handsome black-and white creature quickly settles in and does an efficient job of cropping the grass around the house – mowers do not exist here, of course, so grazing an animal removes the necessity of laboriously scything the grass by hand. I have grown rather fond of him and the friendly bleat he gives me as I pass him. On Sunday he disappears, though, and as we sit down to eat in the evening I ask where he has been moved to. All eyes turn hungrily to the large, delicious-smelling pot of stew that has arrived on the table. Oh no – surely not…? There are times when I could so easily become a vegetarian….

Friday, 20 February 2009

Heaven Scent

Ham arrives on the dot of 7.30am on Friday with his motor-cycle, ready to take me to the High School. It's a joy to make this journey again after the long break and to feel myself being gently submerged, almost drowned, in the enveloping greenness of the landscape as we travel into the remote hills ahead. Dotted along the way is a particular variety of tree that at this time of year opens white blossoms in the early morning that give off a powerful scent – a ravishing fusion of frangipani and gardenia – and as we travel through it the air is perfumed with clouds of its heady, almost overpowering fragrance, adding a new enchantment to this already intoxicating journey. Far from any village, the people who live in the tiny houses nestling amongst the banana trees, though, live a hard and isolated existence. They are visibly poorer, the children dressed in grubby ill-fitting clothes, the adults thin and stooped. Few vehicles pass this way – we meet the occasional bicycle, one weighed down with a load of bricks, its owner labouring to push it up a hill – a Herculean task in the rising heat. A small family sits by the roadside breaking up stones by hand, the size of the pile of pebbles barely changed when we pass them again on the way home, still sitting there, still patiently banging stone against rock, rock against stone. There are women walking to market in Katete, huge baskets of pineapples and potatoes serenely balanced on their heads. Ragged children run along the verge waving, stick in hand, following herds of goats and cows to the fields. There is almost nothing here to tell us which of the last five centuries we are living in; a dreamlike air of timelessness hangs over this unvisited, untouched corner of the country….

At the High School a new intake of pupils has arrived, many of whom I know from the Primary School. I have an extra class to fit into the day – and the attendant marking – so the time passes quickly. This term I am teaching creative writing: something that is on the syllabus but seemingly ignored by their previous teachers of English, since none of the children has ever, they tell me, written a story – and not a single one understands the terms 'fiction' and 'non-fiction'. To help them to learn how to express their thoughts and feelings I suggest that they start by writing about their early childhood memories. Reading them out at the end of the lesson is fascinating: there are tales of being bitten by snakes and falling out of mango trees, of running away from school and being beaten when found – indeed, many refer to being beaten both at home and at school. Several remember being breastfed, not surprisingly since mothers feed for several years here; and one vividly recalls being aware of having no teeth and keeping her mouth closed so that people wouldn't notice this deficiency of which she says, she 'felt ashamed'. One boy describes his first visit to Kampala with his parents where he was so overawed by the huge buildings and bright lights that he thought he was in heaven – the Heaven – and asked if they would be visiting his dead grandfather. Most touching of all are their descriptions of bereavement, which, despite their lack of writing experience, eloquently capture the bewilderment of a young child encountering the death of a close relative – something that is rare in our own lives but here is inevitable. "I remember my grandmother who died when I was still young" says one. "I thought she was sleeping when I saw her; I did not know that there is death and I waited for her to wake up but she did not. I saw people putting her in the soil but I thought they were planting her. I waited and waited for her to germinate and grow again – but she never did." Plant cultivation is part of every child's life here and what could be more logical than this boy's innocent, yet hopeless, expectation? More heart-rending still, one teenage boy writes "My mother died when I was about two years old and I was not told what had happened to her. I thought she was just sleeping and after her burial I got a small hoe and started trying to dig her out, crying 'Mummy, mummy, I want you!' ". That bleak image of the distraught little boy scrabbling desperately at the grave with his hoe is one that will always stay with me, I think; it epitomises the suffering, more suffering than most of us will experience in a life-time, that lies beneath the cheerful stoicism of the children of the very poor …..

We have been without electricity and water for over two days now. Cuts happen regularly but usually only last twenty-four hours so as we enter the third day this is proving to be a bit of a trial. Losing electricity is merely inconvenient – usually a good excuse for an early night and the chance to read Dickens by torchlight, or listen to the rather erudite podcasts of University lectures, interspersed with an eclectic mixture of disco dance tracks, sacred choral music and excerpts from 'Mamma Mia' that my daughter has inventively put together on my iPod for me. Being without water is more difficult and one quickly realizes how much a household gets through in a day merely for washing, cooking and cleaning purposes. We have come to the end of the rain-water that has been collecting in large tubs - and in which the hens enjoy a cooling flutter from time to time - and now we have just one jerry-can that has been sitting under the outdoor tap collecting drips of water and which is now, thankfully, full. I go to fetch this but find to my consternation that I can barely lift it from the ground. It is a standard twenty-litre container, the size that adults and older children use to fetch water all the time: I had no idea how heavy that amount of water is. It weighs at least as much as a very large suitcase, probably well over twenty kilograms. I would not be able to heave it past my knee – how on earth, I wonder, do women and children lift these onto their heads and then carry them for anything up to two kilometres, sometimes more? True, younger children carry smaller ten litre containers but even these must be extremely heavy. I wonder what damage it does to the back and neck: difficulty in walking is a common disability in later life here and one can only imagine that the pressure on the spinal cord from years of carrying this weight must be a contributing factor. The shock of the realization of the magnitude of this daily, commonplace task keeps me awake at night: the term 'fetching water' has taken on a new significance. When I talk to Justine about it in the morning and ask how children, especially, manage it she merely shrugs her shoulders and repeats that telling phrase, heard so often here when referring to some aspect of hardship in people's daily lives: "They are used to it……"

On Monday night Hamlet and Kellen return from Kampala with some visitors from England, a young couple who have started their own charity to support one of CHIFCOD's small day schools in a remote village called Nyakabungo. They have been raising money for, amongst other things, a new eco-toilet block to be built in place of the conventional pit latrines that have collapsed underground after heavy rain; and today is the opening ceremony. This is, unsurprisingly, the first time I have been to the official opening of a toilet: no trouble has been spared, however, and there is even a ribbon suspended across the entrance with scissors at the ready for the guests to cut it. Someone has been lined up to take a photograph, and the entire school has gathered around the small building in readiness for the ceremony. These toilets are – in every sense of the word – ground-breaking: without going into too much detail, they have been designed to separate solids from liquids and the urine is collected in a tank and sold to local farmers to use as a natural fertiliser. Having marked so many agriculture papers, this comes as no surprise to me: urine is widely used – added to the soil, rather than sprinkled on the plants, I hasten to add – to replenish nitrates and other minerals, and as such is a saleable commodity. The hope is that this new system will pay for its own upkeep and even contribute to the school's income. Songs are sung, speeches are made and the ribbon is cut; then the chief guests are invited to try out the new facilities – with the doors closed, thankfully, and no photographs taken – and the toilets are declared officially open. Ugandans are very matter-of-fact about bodily functions and the entire proceedings take place without a shred of embarrassment or coyness, indeed, everyone is highly delighted with their new combined business opportunity and eco-friendly facilities. Suddenly the term 'liquid assets' has taken on a whole new meaning….

By strange coincidence the English comprehension exercise I am studying with Year 6 at Kirima Primary School the next day bears the title 'Sanitation'. This is my first lesson using the new textbooks and it is bliss not to have to write up the long and complex text on the board in its entirety, as I have had to do in the past. Comprehension texts are a very different thing in Uganda from the evocative, descriptive passages, often excerpts from literary sources , that we use in England. They invariably are about an aspect of daily life, often with some kind of moral or social message so that the children are getting a sort of 'two for the price of one' lesson, practising their English skills while learning something useful at the same time. Even exam papers take this approach and it seems shocking at first to see passages about domestic violence, bad teachers or nasty accidents - with equally bizarre vocabulary to accompany them - set for this purpose. The list of questions from today's text include giving definitions of the words 'diarrhoea', 'dysentery', 'cholera' and - by way of light relief – 'man-hole cover' and 'breed'. The latter causes some difficulty as the sounds 'l' and 'r' are often confused here; one child warns " If you cut your finger, you will breed" – something to think about as you chop the onions. The passage gives useful reminders about personal hygiene, water-borne diseases and waste-disposal – all tackled without a hint of discomfort on the part of the children, although I do find myself wincing, professionally speaking, when hands go up cheerfully asking for the spelling of words like 'watery excrement' or 'frequent vomiting', and I start to long for a few obscure metaphors, a bit of puzzling symbolism or just a good old euphemism or two...

Today's lesson, though, is usefully timed as tomorrow some of the older children are going on a school trip – a rare and very exciting event. They are going to Mweya, the section of the Queen Elizabeth National Park that I visited in November, to see the wildlife, the salt lakes and other geographical features of the area. At assembly this morning the Headmaster gives a few words of warning: pupils should be careful about what they eat as there are outbreaks of both cholera and anthrax in the area they are visiting, and they should on no account pick up food from the ground or buy meat on skewers – a popular roadside snack – as anthrax is spread by eating the 'bush meat' of dead animals from the game parks. Aside from that, and a cheerful reminder that the lorry leaves at 3.30am so that they can arrive in time to see the animals in the early morning, there is no particular advice about what they should or shouldn't do, bring or wear – not even shoes. What a world away from the safety-obsessed preparations for school trips in England! To carry out a risk-assessment on this particular visit would be a nightmare, requiring an entire book of 'severity of risk multiplied by likelihood' sheets: seventy children being driven in an ancient, battered open-top lorry for four hours over diabolical roads, for a start - and standing all the way; the risk of being eaten by a lion, trampled by an elephant, swallowed by a crocodile or crushed by a hippo (all unlikely – but possible); of bites by snakes, ticks, monkeys or tsetse flies (ditto); of catching rabies or bilharzia, to say nothing of cholera – no-one in their right mind would consider such a trip if they had the slightest anxiety about the perils lurking round every corner. But fortunately Health and Safety, consent forms and personal liability have not yet arrived in this part of the world to spoil the fun of the day and everyone is looking forward to what for many will be their first, maybe their only, visit to this beautiful part of their country, and to all the excitement that the day will hold. "Would you like to come with us?" the teacher organizing the trip asks me. The prospect of getting up at 2.30am is not an enticing one – nor the long, upright-sardine-style journey in the bone-shaking lorry. "I'd love to, but sadly I'm teaching all day at the High School" I say in tones of regret. "Maybe next time….."

There has, alas, been one crushing disappointment this week. The visitors have brought with them the weekend papers which, even after barely three weeks here, I fall upon ecstatically. Imagine my excitement when I see that there is an article entitled "The Top 100 Blogs" in one of them! Surely 'Uganda Diary' will be there…? But no, sadly, my blog has not yet made it into the charts – neither mine nor 200 million others that exist in the world. But that's not going to deter me – and at least I learn something useful from the article: the word 'blog' is a derivative of the term 'web log'. I always thought there must be a good reason for such an unappealing name - and now I know…