I am stopped in my tracks as I walk through Kanungu in the sweltering heat of Saturday morning: the unmistakable sound of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" – in Rukiiga of course, and with a joyful African swing – is blaring out of a loudspeaker outside the electrical shop. For the first time since I arrived here I feel a lump in my throat and a wave of homesickness washes over me: soon it will be Christmas and I will be with my family again, and suddenly I can't wait to be back with them…
It feels very strange to be thinking about Christmas with the sweat pouring off my face and my shirt sticking damply to my back. On Friday we had the Christmas service at the Primary School - this week, the last full week of term, has been taken up with exams - and it had the same air of unreality. There was Peace and Mercy in abundance however as there are several girls with these names at the school, along with Hosannahs, Glorys, Comforts and at least one Joy. Elsewhere, though, it would seem that peace is in very short supply indeed: thousands of refugees are pouring into Uganda from Congo now, just an hour's drive from here, due to the escalating violence; and the news from Mumbai sounds very grim indeed. The year is moving towards an uneasy conclusion….
Being in the tropics for the run up to Christmas has made me appreciate just how strongly the cycle of the seasons shapes our lives in England. How that one last day of summer, with its unexpected bounty of warm sunshine, gives way to a sudden autumnal smell of bonfires and dampness; how falling leaves whisper of coming frosty mornings, of chilly nights and cosy homecomings; how Christmas cannot arrive without there first being days when your breath festoons the air with plumes of white mist …
Here, so near to the equator, summer never ends. The leaves never fall from the trees and the flowers go on blossoming endlessly: it is as if we are stuck in a time-warp of unchanging temperature and unvarying vegetation; and no amount of waiting will move things on. Much as I love the heat, I am so looking forward to feeling a seasonal nip in the air and seeing a few flutterings of festive snow…….
In less than a week's time I will be back in England. I cannot easily put into words what the twelve weeks that I have spent here so far have meant to me. Clichés like 'fulfilling' and 'enriching' do not do it justice: perhaps I should say simply that, in keeping with many profound experiences in life, it has been at times challenging , frequently thought provoking, mostly very enjoyable - and hugely rewarding. I am so glad that I shall be returning in late January; I would be feeling very sad indeed if this were the end of my time here. I know I shall look back on this as one of the most life-enhancing experiences of my teaching career and indeed of my very existence, and I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to come here.
There have, of course, been many things to adjust to and many adaptations to make. Poverty, I have realized by living in its midst, strips away your options: you can no longer make choices about the way you live or what you wear, eat or do. Ultimately, you choose between being able to eat, and therefore stay alive, or choose something else – education for your children, perhaps, or medical care – and risk malnutrition and starvation. Finally even that choice is taken away from you, and chance alone – usually in the form of the weather - decides whether or not you eat. The people in this village live a life of almost mediaeval simplicity: they work the land, eke out an existence and survival is their unchosen goal in life.
My own choices, while of course on a very different, far more privileged plane, have also been dramatically pared down since I arrived here and the resulting simplicity of my daily life has been both a blessing and a challenge. Being released from the tyranny of the supermarket shopping trolley definitely falls into the first category. Buying food that has almost entirely been grown in or around the village, harvested the same day as it is bought and untouched by any chemicals, has been a delight. My diet has been repetitive and somewhat bland – but how much simpler life is without the endless possibilities on the supermarket shelves! I realize now just how complex and wearing the process of food shopping is and I am sure I shall feel faint with exhaustion for the first few days I am back with so many choices to contend with. I have, it's true, had to resort to some pretty strange protein-less concoctions when the cupboard has been bare: cold yam sandwiches are absolutely no substitute for cold ham sandwiches and I can't see the cooked carrot and cassava combo being a big hit at M and S either … but the upside is that I've effortlessly shed quite a few unwanted pounds so am looking forward to the party season happy in the knowledge that I can easily fit into size 10 again…! Similarly, wearing the same few clothes, shoes and earrings over and over again has been liberating – rather dull, but requiring very little thought. Having stepped outside my usual everyday life into this parallel universe has brought home to me very clearly the extent to which our lives are dominated by minutiae from the moment we rise until our buzzing heads hit the pillow at night. We are constantly bombarded with information, with a multiplicity of choices about every aspect of our lives, with noise, with urgency, with demands. It is not surprising that so many people become stressed and anxious and develop memory problems and a whole host of other symptoms, both psychological and physical. The absence of this information overload has been wonderfully therapeutic for me: life has been pared down to a simple, almost monastic routine. That is not to say that I want to turn my back on the comforts and choices of my life in England when I get back – I shall enjoy and appreciate them all the more for having been without them for a while - but is merely a realisation of the very high price we pay for the sophistication of our lives in the developed world ….
If a reduction of choices has been enjoyable in some areas of life, in others it has been less easy to manage: adjusting to the lack of any kind of entertainment for example – be it ready access to books, or the radio, television, the company of friends and family, cultural events, music – has, for this length of time, been a good deal more difficult than I had anticipated. Even going for a walk is regarded as odd here: walking is a mode of transport, indeed the mode of transport for most, and not a leisure activity. There is quite literally nothing to do here that one does not create for oneself. How lucky it is that I am used to my own company, and especially that I have had the chance to travel quite a lot in developing countries, sometimes alone: I would have found this whole experience much more difficult otherwise. Even so, I have to admit that after so many years in a very busy job with almost no time to do as I please, I have found the unstructured hours after work here have often hung heavily on my hands – something that would have been the case to a degree, I suspect, whatever I had been doing but multiplied a thousand times by being in such a remote spot - and this has been probably most difficult part of the experience to get to grips with. People do not have leisure here: when you have to gather the wood for your cooking, dig up your next meal and fetch every drop of water you use, there are no empty hours to while away: you simply work and then sleep. Being in the different and fortunate position of having a fixed working day I have had ample opportunity over the last three months to explore the no-man's land between solitary leisure time and extreme boredom, sometimes straying across the boundary from one to the other almost without realizing it…. Thank goodness for my laptop, for email, for mobile phones, and for the many hours of podcasts that my thoughtful daughter loaded onto her redundant iPod and sent out to me…! I can't describe the pleasure with which I have listened to 'Farming Today', 'Woman's Hour', 'From Our Own Correspondent' and other favourites since it arrived, especially without the incessant crackling and whistling that I get from the radio. Thank goodness for the blog too: it has not only given me a project to work on in the evenings; it has also become a sort of proxy companion to whom I can relate my experiences and confide my observations, as well as being a link with friends and family as far apart as Brisbane and Barnstaple!
I have thought on more than one occasion of how hard life must have been for the missionaries who came out to Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries (my grandfather among them) and for the explorers and early settlers too, living in hostile and often dangerous environments without any way of communicating with home, with no modern medicines, no gadgets, and with not even the means of knowing what was happening a few miles away let alone on the other side of the world. I have also thought of the thousands of students who bravely set off to do voluntary work each year as part of their 'gap year' – it can by no means be an easy option for school-leavers and they have my respect!
So in summary: low points – resident mouse in my bedroom for three weeks and resultant lack of sleep; dried bean stew every day and sometimes twice a day; crackling radio; shoes filling up with water during downpours – and, lowest by a long way, seeing children being caned. High points – rising to the challenge of teaching seventy children in one go; listening to the glorious singing at morning prayers; hedgerows full of colourful birds, flowers and butterflies; unlimited pineapples; daily sunshine; and, top of the list, the lovely, lovely children and adults.
If ever I have felt the least dispirited, I have discovered that the solution is simply to walk through the village. Within a minute of my setting foot on the dusty red road voices start calling out to me - from passing children with their sing-song "How-are-you-I'm-fine", from unseen villagers concealed behind the banana trees or in dark doorways calling "Hello Madame Julia!", from the old man bent over his sewing machine outside his little house and his wife who cackles delightedly when I respond with "Nijay!" to her "Agandi!" – every step I take is punctuated by a friendly greeting. Sometimes a passing truck will stop and a head appear from the window asking how things are going for me; and at the corner of the road a tiny girl, always in the same grubby dress, runs towards me each time I pass calling "Mujungu! Mujungu!" with her arms outstretched for a hug. The old women, in particular, greet me warmly – perhaps recognizing me as one of their generation, although I find it hard to return the sentiment as most are toothless, gaunt and with backs bent by a lifetime of carrying heavy loads. They speak no English but come up and grasp my arm, talking fervently in Rukiiga and all the time shaking my hand and patting me with child-like friendliness. It is poignantly noticeable how few elderly men and women there are: living to old age is the exception rather than the rule here and the few who achieve it seem to have an almost iconic aura about them…
By the time I reach the school, where the children hanging over the fence to watch the world go by wave and call to me, my heart is singing. And this litany of salutations does not stop at the school gate: the staff always greet me with such warmth, as they do everyone, each one giving me a friendly hand-shake as I meet them, each enquiring about my well-being, each smiling broadly as if my arrival has already enhanced their day…..who could not be happy in such an environment as this? The warmth and friendliness of the people towards me has been very touching; and their fervent faith, their compassion towards each other, the proud generosity of their hospitality and seemingly indestructible cheerfulness, a lesson in exemplary humanity. Trite as it may sound, I shall come away from here a better person than I arrived because of it: these people who have so very little in material terms, such a lack of comfort in their lives, so few pleasures, so many desperate needs, have given me the one thing that I could not pack into a bag and bring with me: friendship. They have not batted an eyelid that a complete stranger has come to live in their midst for no apparent reason but have accepted me into their community with unqualified warmth. The children, equally, have been an absolute delight to teach and get to know, and I have been quite relieved to discover that out of range of a stick they are as mischievous and spirited as children anywhere in the world. I adore the Nursery children and although they only speak Rukiiga we manage to have a lot of fun together with them chattering away to me nineteen to the dozen, blissfully indifferent to the fact that I have no idea what they are saying. Again, the stoicism of the children and their ability to be endlessly cheerful and uncomplaining in lives that hold so much hardship has been a chastening example to me. The teenage children in particular fascinate me: they seem to have no 'attitude' at all towards adults and are respectful and courteous at all times. They are both very unsophisticated, in our terms, and yet at the same time extremely worldly: they can cope with huge domestic and practical responsibilities and many will be married and producing children when barely out of school. Not for them the adolescent years of experimenting, developing their individuality, going out enjoying themselves, pursuing their interests, nurturing their talents – they are expected to behave like an adult as soon as they start to look like one, and to help care for their families, work the land and take some of the burden off their parents' shoulders. When I asked some of the older pupils at the primary school recently what they enjoy doing in their free time (such as they have), one of them said "We play with our friends". How lovely, I thought, that they still enjoy playing! But then I realized that she had said 'praying', not 'playing' (r and l are often confused) – and that is how it is here: religious activities are really the only opportunity for social networking and, even at the College, the only singing , dancing and partying the students do will be in the form of religious gatherings or celebrations – a far cry from the average university campus in the UK and, needless to say, without a drop of alcohol in sight….
Somewhere, though, things go wrong here and I have been trying to work out how and when the corruption and exploitation that seem to be endemic, as in so many African countries, gets a hold on such seemingly honest, straightforward and devout people. I talk to Alex, one of the young teachers at the school who has been bemoaning the dreadful corruption and asking me how bad it is in England. I feel that it is no idle boast to say that corruption is virtually non-existent for us. Crime is one thing, and of course we have more than our share of that; but corruption a far more insidious and pernicious thing to deal with and we should perhaps be more grateful than we are for a police force, legal system, health service and political infrastructure where bribes are not the daily currency of decision-making. Alex suggests, probably rightly, that when you are very poor you will seize any opportunity to make a few shillings and you cannot afford to have too many scruples about how you do it; and anyway, we both agree, the "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality must break down even the most well-intentioned citizens when they have themselves for so many years been on the receiving end of this kind of exploitation…. But there is some good news too: Internet Emily has just returned from four days in Kampala: her brother found an eye clinic run by a charity where she has had free treatment – and acquired a much-needed pair of glasses. She is all smiles: and so am I, both to see her so happy and, selfishly, because now she is back I won't have to make the hot, uphill journey into Kanungu any more to send emails or post the blog….
Thank you, so very much, for following the blog faithfully over the last twelve weeks and also to the many of you who have passed the link on to other people – I have gradually realised that more and more friends and contacts have been reading it as the weeks have passed. There has been a marvellous response to the Net-Book Appeal already and I would like to take this opportunity – rather than the CHIFCOD treasurer having to do so personally - to thank everyone who has made a donation. Again, this includes all sorts of people that I had no idea were even reading the blog and I am so grateful to you all. I will of course let you know what the final total is and just how many children will be sleeping peacefully under their new nets in February, safely out of reach of mosquitoes – as well as how they are enjoying their new text-books! The link has now appeared on the website; could I suggest that you use this for 10 pound donations or multiples of ten up to 40 pounds; but that for larger amounts (I say this not just out of wild optimism but because I know that one or two people are having fund-raising events) a cheque might be better so that the treasurer knows it is for the appeal and not for general funds?
There has also been a fantastic response to the plea for books, and parcels are already on their way from both the UK and further afield – and I hope that many more will follow…I will keep you posted! I return to England on Friday 5th December and then come back to Uganda towards the end of January when, time permitting, I will restart the blog.
I have been marking exam papers again this week. In the 'Complete the Proverb' question on the P5 English paper, always guaranteed to raise a smile, the pupils have come up with some wonderful inadvertent variations on our well-known sayings – which, of course, they don't really understand but have tried to learn parrot-fashion. "Where there's a will… there's a wolf" might be a useful reminder for lawyers dealing with legacies; and I like the suggestion that "when the cat's away…. the mice will pray" – presumably that the cat will not return at all. But I leave you with my favourite which those of you who are having a change from turkey at Christmas may find thought-provoking: "What's sauce for the goose… is sauce for the gonads"!
Have a very Happy Christmas – and mind how you handle those nut-crackers…..