Friday, 28 November 2008

Peace on Earth and Mercy Mild

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…..

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Bad Hair Day

"Some of you have come to school without combing your hair today. You look very untidy! Please remember to comb your hair every morning!"

I look around the sea of shaved heads and wonder to whom this remark is addressed. Can it be me…? No-one else, so far as I can see, has enough hair to cover their scalp let alone to pull a comb through; however, the pupils look appropriately chastened and run their hands over their heads in a gesture of compliance.

"What is more," continues the teacher who is taking morning prayers today "What is more, some of you have not cleaned your shoes today!". The children look down at their feet, many of them bare, others shod in a variety of ill-fitting, uncleanable footwear caked with the unavoidable playground mud, and shuffle nervously as the teacher glares at them. The same ritual takes place every day, once the hymns have been sung and the prayers said. As well as being reprimanded regularly for the state of their hair and their shoes the children are admonished for their untidy uniform – despite the fact that for many these are in tatters – and for not having washed well enough. A glimmer of understanding of this seemingly unfair and inappropriate daily haranguing is beginning to dawn on me: just because you are poor, the teacher is subtly reminding them, you don't have to lose your self-respect. If you were to have hair it would have had to have been combed; if you had shoes to wear you would be expected to polish them. Poverty is no excuse for letting yourself go: you can still take a pride in your appearance and look the world in the eye. Standards, even in the poorest part of rural Uganda, must be maintained....

Morning prayers is one of my favourite times of the school day. The children gather as the bell goes at 7.30am, and stand in their class lines on the muddy patch of playground by the hall: the drum beat starts and they launch into the first hymn, which is never announced but simply chosen and started off by any child who feels moved to do so. Two or three other hymns follow, everyone clapping, dancing, and singing enthusiastically enough to raise – well, if not the roof, then at least the delicate early-morning clouds under which we are gathered. Clusters of children quietly join the assembled group: some coming from their morning tasks of cleaning the latrines and dormitories, some from early morning prep, others just late. Soon the whole school is there from the tiny Nursery children to the gangly teenage boys at the top of the school – some as tall as grown men and, with their carefully trimmed moustaches and shaved chins, looking oddly vulnerable in their schoolboy shorts. Pupils volunteer to lead the prayers, usually three or four spontaneous and thoughtful stream-of-consciousness outpourings. Desire is praying earnestly for the sick today and ends her rambling prayer "Lord God, you are the doctor of all doctors, the nurse of all nurses and the patient of all patients." Or is that "patience"? Either way she has provided me with a new picture of God as a kind of Holy Trinity of health-care - doctor, nurse and holy (or should that be wholly?)patient - which I will treasure….
We finish with a prayer of thanks for the sponsors, parents and teachers and a rendition of the Lord's Prayer full of baffling Anglo-African approximations of the words – including the incomprehensible "..and forgive us our sessases as we sussessusussssessus against us" - and finally, a last hymn to round things off cheerfully before the daily notices are announced and the inevitable ticking-off about appearances delivered. The children are then sent to get ready for their first lesson at 8 o'clock. A new day has begun at the Primary School.

The term is moving rapidly towards its conclusion and next week the children will sit their end of year exams. These are set by the government and, rather like our National Curriculum tests, aim to measure standards across the country. The tests are also important because the staff at Kirima Primary will use them to decide about which children w ill go up to the next class, or 'be promoted' as they call it. Children who have done poorly throughout the year, but especially in these final tests, will be kept down to repeat the year. Some children will repeat several classes during their time at primary school and will reach P7 at the age of fifteen or sixteen. Sadly, these pupils often have learning difficulties that are simply not recognized, understood or helped. I visited one school where I met a thirteen year old boy who was still in the Reception class having failed to make the necessary progress one year after another. I wonder how many more years the poor disheartened boy will have to stay there before he gets the specific support that he needs – maybe something as simple as some individual help with learning to read…?

Children who have not learned to read fluently are usually kept down a year and are generally regarded, as they used to be in England in less enlightened times, as rather slow. Dyslexia, it would seem, does not exist here: whenever I ask teachers about its incidence I am met with a blank look. If a child fails to learn to read he or she repeats the year, and carries on with the drilling and copying that form the literacy programme until the penny drops. Books, apart from the occasional textbook and the Bible, are rare things indeed in Ugandan classrooms and reading books non-existent. This is partly, at least, due to practical considerations: school buildings are very rudimentary and classrooms generally have neither glass at the windows nor lockable doors – they are open to all comers and so nothing can be left in them apart from the bench-and-desk furniture; but in any case, in both the cash-starved schools and the children's very poor homes books are unheard-of luxuries. The children arrive at school speaking only Rukiiga and most never having seen or handled a book. Yet within two years they are having all their lessons in English and can read, write and spell in the language. Reluctantly, I have had to accept that children can and do learn to read without ever possessing a reading book, without having had stories read to them and without any individual help whatsoever. I find myself in the astonishing position of having everything I believed and held dear about the teaching of reading turned completely on its head...

Whatever would Uganda make, I wonder, of the great phonics debate that rages on in our schools in England, of the Literacy Strategy, the massive body of educational research, the political manoeuvrings, the in-and-out fads and fashions of the classroom? Here, refreshingly, none of these have the remotest influence. Here, we still live in the Edwardian era of education. We drill, we repeat, we chant. We copy, we scribe, we emulate. We work, work, work.

The children in P1 – Year 1 and the first official year of schooling – have six one-hour lessons a day. They remain in their classroom for the entire six hours apart from a half hour break at 10.00am and a lunch break at 12.30pm. There are no PE lessons, no movement, art, or choosing time; no time to draw, paint, construct or experiment. Each hour-long lesson – be it English, social studies, agriculture , science or any other subject - is spent at their desks, listening, repeating, chanting and copying from the board. They learn to read, I have deduced, by writing: they create their own reading materials and gradually, day by day, the words they write begin to make sense to them. By the time they start to write independently their spelling is remarkably good because they have never had the opportunity to write a word incorrectly: endless copying and repetition have implanted the correct form of the word for posterity in their brain. With six hours of copying from the board and endless repetition of lists of consonant-vowel patterns, day in and day out, they gradually build up to three-letter words, then four and so on. It is dull, but it works – for most children at least.

Of course, this method of learning to read has its limitations. Children learn to communicate largely in formal, functional, text-book English with the restricted vocabulary that goes with it. They do not learn the words needed to express their thoughts, ideas or feelings; nor the enriching descriptive words of the imaginative and creative writing forms. They do not experience the pleasure that stories bring nor the doors that they open into the mysteries of the mind and the ways of the world. It is as if they have been taught to read the Highway Code but never introduced to the countless exciting accounts of travel and exploration that exist, nor the tales of the fabled and fascinating lands that the roads lead to. Yet they crave for stories and their eyes light up when I take a book from my bag at the end of a lesson. The boarders have started reading stories to each other at night from the couple of anthologies I have brought with me and I only wish I had more for them to enjoy. Perhaps a trickle of book parcels will soon start arriving for them from faraway much pleasure they will bring if they do!

While I am picking up crackling radio reports of more job losses and growing tension in the financial world in England, shortage of money is also taken its toll here this week. I find Internet Emily in tears when I arrive to do some emailing. She has had a bad cold and her eyes are now swollen and inflamed – she suffers from recurrent eye problems. She weeps as she tells me that she knows she should have her eyes tested but can't afford to go to Kampala to see an optician, let alone pay first for his services and then for glasses should she need them. She cannot even afford the fee to see a doctor locally and so faces the prospect of deteriorating eyesight and chronic pain and discomfort from the recurrent inflammation. 'Isn't there anyone who can help you pay for treatment?' I ask. There is no-one, she tells me: all her family are poor. I wish I had the money to help; but know that if I helped her I would have a queue outside my door tomorrow of other needy and equally deserving villagers; it is perhaps just as well that I am on a tight budget myself now and having to eke out my remaining shillings to make them last until I leave....

One of the teachers at school comes up to me at break. "Do you think there is anyone in England who would sponsor an adult rather than a child?" he asks desperately. He has two children at university and three at school and has to find fees for all of them from his modest teacher's salary. He also supports his mother and is paying medical bills and food bills for other relations. The only way he can increase his salary is by gaining a further qualification; however he can't afford the college fees to do this. He is buckling under the strain of his financial burdens. I have to tell him gently that this kind of support is not available from any organisation that I know of; and that anyway it would be an unworkable arrangement. He walks away with his shoulders sagging under the weight of his responsibilities. Here, anyone who has a job is expected to support and help the less well-off members of the extended family and it would be unthinkable for them not to do so. He has no alternative but to struggle on.

There are problems at the High School today, too: the violent storms a fortnight ago washed away the equipment that pumps the water to the school and they have no running water. The pupils are having to fetch water themselves for washing, cleaning, cooking and sanitation from the nearest tap one and a half kilometres away. The cost of the repairs will be thousands of shillings. No-one seems to know where that money will come from - but it will have to be found...

It is my last day at the High School today as the pupils have exams next week. I have so much enjoyed teaching the students here – more, perhaps than the younger children because I have found it so hard to adapt to the very formal methods used here with that age group. When I gather in their books for marking one pupil has written in small letters at the end of her work "God bless you, Teacher Julea". I feel very touched...

At morning break a plate piled high with deep-fried grasshoppers arrives in the staffroom with the posho. These are a prized wet-season delicacy and looked forward to with the same fervour as asparagus in England and truffles in Perigord. It would cause offence to refuse the proudly proffered morsels so, rather gingerly, I take a bite of one. It is delicious! I am soon wolfing them down along with everyone else. In size and texture they are rather like non-fishy whitebait; they are crisp, tasty and, of course, absolutely free. In such financially precarious times one must be thankful for small – and crunchy – mercies...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Net Gain

On Saturday I have planned a day out to visit Mweya, a part of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The day, and the money to fund it, have been earmarked for some time and I have been really looking forward to it. The Mweya Peninsula is a good deal further north than Ishasha (famous for the tree lions): it is a spit of land at the end of the Kazinga Channel which joins Lake George to the larger Lake Edward – two of the 'Great Lakes' in western Uganda. The peninsula has magnificent views of the snowy peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa, which stretch for almost 120km along the border with Congo. As well as the many game animals, over 610 species of birds have been recorded at Mweya, including 54 different raptors. I wish I had brought binoculars with me!

On Friday night I am kept awake not only by excitement but by unremitting torrential rain, and storms with thunder so violent that on one occasion the whole house shakes and my bedroom door flies open: will the trip be off, I wonder? Just as I am finally dozing off I am roused by the sound of the Kampala bus passing, and, as it does every morning at 4am, driving through the village sounding its blaring five-note claxon-horn to awaken anyone intending to catch it so that they can be ready when it returns in an hour's time after going to villages further into the hills. At 5am it is back with horn blaring again to announce its imminent departure for the capital. As a kind of roving alarm-clock for those who want to catch it there is no doubt that it is extremely helpful but for the rest of us it is an unsolicited and deeply unpopular pre-dawn wake-up call. Today, however I have an early start myself so feel slightly less uncharitable towards the driver then I usually do…

I am worried that the roads will be impassable because of the rain but Nicholas, the driver, assures me they will be fine and so we set off at 5.30am for the three-hour drive to Mweya. Elsewhere, I discover later, some roads have been washed away or blocked by landslides; but we are lucky and meet no obstructions. After the first hour the journey is through the National Park itself which means that we can spot elephants, buffalo, gibbons and a multitude of birds as we drive, as well as enjoy the tranquil landscape in the early morning light. The water-logged roads are full of hidden pot-holes and boulders and about half-way there we have an inevitable puncture – but better now than on our return journey at dusk when it is dangerous to get out of the car because of hungry leopards and lions on the lookout for supper…

At Ishasha we meet empty buses on their way to pick up refugees at the nearby border with Congo to take them to a designated camp at Nakivale. Despite its close proximity this is the first evidence I have seen of the conflict in Congo; even the national newspapers hardly give it a mention and Uganda, it would seem, is thankfully keeping well out of the troubles there.

Once at Mweya I take a leisurely boat ride along the Kazinga Channel, a wide expanse of water which is home to a prolific amount of wildlife. We see crocodiles basking in the sun, dozens of hippos out visiting each other in their groups, enormous water monitor lizards scurrying along the sand-banks, monkeys balanced on overhanging branches, buffalo bathing in the shallows, and, later in the day, elephants arriving for their evening drink and a meal of river-bank greens. A dazzling variety of birds appears along the shores as we drift slowly past: storks of various kinds, spoonbills and gonolek; pied, malachite and shining blue kingfishers; cranes and pelicans; weaver-birds busily extending their delicately suspended nests, menacing-looking African fishing eagles, white-bellied cormorants…the diversity is breath-taking.

On the drive back we encounter families of gibbons sitting by the road in lines looking for all the world as if they are waiting for the next bus, elephants grazing in the falling light, giant forest hogs out foraging and numerous kob and antelope nervously glancing around for predators. There is a glorious sunset against which the sharp outlines of the spiky cactus-like euphorbia trees are silhouetted dramatically and then, in the encroaching darkness, intensely bright stars appear in the clear, unpolluted skies. How lucky I am to be here and to have the opportunity to see these marvellous sights! It has been such a treat to have a day out and I shall return to work on Monday with my batteries fully recharged…

It is less than three weeks now until I return to England. The end of term here is on the 5th December and the new school year does not start until the beginning of February: a nice long break for me and for everyone else too. My initial three month 'trial period' is nearly over and I have been thinking about the next stage of my visit. There is no doubt in my mind that I want to return after Christmas, and, fortunately, everyone here seems to want and expect me to do so too. However, despite my best efforts to ignore it, the global financial crisis has had a significant effect on my budget for the year, as I'm sure it has on everyone's; so I will work here until Easter then will have to return to England in time to do some part-time teaching during the summer term rather than staying for the entire year as I had originally hoped to do. Although this is in many ways a shame, Hamlet has put forward an exciting proposition: he is very keen to write a book on the history of CHIFCOD in time for a big conference for the organization that is being held in England next September and has asked me if I would like to help him to do this next term. It means that I shall have to give up some of my teaching but it will be a project that I will really enjoy, and, if I can gather all the material and draft it out with him before Easter, I should, with the wonders of email, be able to finish and edit the book at home over the summer. All that practice writing the blog will no doubt come in useful!

Writing the blog has been a perfect way for me to record my experiences here both for my own benefit and also to share with friends, family and - as people have passed on the link - a growing number of other people too. Many of you who read the blog have said "How can we help?" and I have given a lot of thought to what, in addition to the urgently needed support given through sponsorship, might be achievable: and so I have decided to launch a sort of 'blog plea' to all of you who read it which I have called The Net-Book Appeal. The name springs, as you will read below, from the two items which I hope we can collectively provide for each child at the primary school. But it also, coincidentally, is the name of the tiny less-than-A4-size laptop that the blog has been written on, so is doubly appropriate. Shortly before I came to Uganda a very kind friend bought me my little Netbook, and I have been hugely grateful for it. Without it to tap away on in the long, quiet evenings I suspect that I would have been very bored and possibly a good deal less happy here as a result. Without it the blog would never have been written and the opportunity to involve so many of you in the life of this remote village would never have arisen. So, with grateful thanks to a generous friend, I give you: The Net-Book Appeal!

A mosquito net, treated with chemicals for life, can be purchased from a specialist company with a branch in Kampala for £5. A school text-book, again available in Kampala, also costs £5. If everyone who reads this were able to contribute £10 as their gift to a child at Kirima Primary School then I am sure we would quickly find the two to three hundred of each that are so badly needed. A mosquito net might well save a child's life, and certainly a great deal of suffering; and a text book would hugely improve their educational experience, as they waste so much time copying work from the board that could so much more easily be accessed, and enjoyed, from a textbook. From my experience of teaching here myself I cannot express strongly enough the frustration of only having four or five textbooks to share between fifty children or more – and in some subjects none whatsoever; and for the older children it presents serious difficulties in delivering the curriculum at all. Try to imagine teaching maths or studying texts in English or teaching the science subjects without text-books: it is an unimaginable struggle for both teachers and pupils. Godfrey, the headmaster of the school, when I asked if nets would be a welcome idea said simply: "It would be a great blessing". Similarly, in his quietly passionate way he said that the need for textbooks is "very desperate". These children receive nothing at Christmas: how wonderful it would be if we could all give one extra present this year so that each of them would find their life changed in a simple but significant way for the better when they return to school in February. Of course, if you feel that you can give to more than one child then multiples of £10 would be very, very welcome. It would be marvellous to be able to extend this appeal to the pupils at the High School too. Malaria is no respecter of age: as I write a student is just recovering from a near-fatal attack of cerebral malaria. The High School students, also, are in urgent need of textbooks – especially as they start preparing for public exams.

I shall personally handle the purchase of both the nets and the books when I return to Kampala in late January and through the blog I will keep you up to date about the appeal's progress – and the children's reactions! Cheques should be payable to Volunteer Uganda, and sent to: Dr Karen Sennett, 23 Langbourne Avenue London N6 6AJ ; or you can donate by credit card on the CHIFCOD website: .You can either pull down a sponsor form which has a one-off donation form at the bottom; or click on the 'donate now' link. Within a few days there should also be a specific link for the Net-Book appeal.

It will mean a very great deal to me to be able to leave a tangible legacy behind at the end of my time here and if you can make a contribution to the appeal I will be so enormously grateful. To my family and friends I would like to ask that you donate to the appeal in lieu of giving me a Christmas present this year: I can think of no gift that would please me more. And if any of you are still considering sponsoring a child, please, please do so: the need is very urgent at the moment as the new school year approaches, especially for students hoping (if they can get a sponsor) to go to the High School.

Several of you have also asked if you might send some books to the school to help them start a library: the children crave for stories to read and it would be wonderful to provide a supply for them. Similarly, the older pupils at the Great Lakes High School have told me that they have no books at all to read in their leisure time and would so much love to have some - especially bearing in mind that they have no TV or computers to entertain them. Shipping books out in bulk is one option but collecting and then sending them a complicated and costly process to set up. What I would like to ask, therefore, is whether everyone might look on their bookshelves and find two or three outgrown or unwanted books in good condition, parcel them up and send them directly to either the Primary or the High School. Picture books for younger children, story books or reference books for the older ones at the Primary School, and any of the classics or fairly unsophisticated (and suitable!) novels for the High School students would be very warmly welcomed indeed. The cost of postage would be a few pounds but if sent surface mail should not be too expensive. The idea of a steady trickle of books arriving over the next few weeks and months is an exciting one and, if enough people took part in this 'send a book' scheme then a really substantial number could be acquired for the schools. For both the day children and boarders this would hugely enrich their lives. They beg to borrow the few books that I have brought with me and I fear they will be in tatters by the time I leave after such intensive enjoyment! The simpler the text the better for the younger children as their English skills are still embryonic; and a little care regarding the content and style would be helpful bearing in mind the very sheltered upbringing these children have. I feel excited at the possibilities of this scheme: if everyone were willing to send off a modest parcel what a fantastic result there would be!

The addresses are:

The Headmaster, Kirima Parents' Primary School, PO Box 50, Kanungu, W. Uganda

The Headmaster, Great Lakes High School, Katete, PO Box 50, Kanungu, W. Uganda

Thank you, if you feel able to, for supporting this appeal. Christmas here is celebrated only by returning to one's family home, attending church and having a meal, for most - though not all - containing meat; but it is looked forward to with the same eager anticipation as our own much more lavish festivities. Father Christmas does not come to this village: perhaps we can collectively do his job for him this year and bring something into these children's lives that will be a real and lasting help to them….

The blog will continue until I come home in early December and hopefully when I return in January too: thank you for being such encouraging, supportive and compassionate readers over the last twelve weeks and for all your comments and emails which have increased my pleasure in writing it hugely. I am sure that this beautiful country and its lovely people will go on providing me with all sorts of impressions and experiences to share with you for some time to come – and I hope that you will continue to enjoy reading about them.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Morning Glory

I have started to travel to Great Lakes High School on Thursdays by boda-boda (motor-cycle taxi) – the car journey is just too expensive because of fuel costs and besides, this is a much more interesting way to get there. The school is some way from Kinkiisi in quite remote countryside near a little town called Katete; the journey takes about fifty minutes and travelling there by motor-bike is a truly lovely experience. Ham, my boda-boda driver, picks me up at 7.30 (yes, he has a brother called Shem although their father is not called Noah..) and we set off with the cool morning air in our faces, past roadside verges blue-hued with tumbling morning glory flowers, barefoot children on their way to school, women with babies on their backs and hoes on their shoulders, herds of giant-antlered cows, tiny roadside villages and acres of banana trees. We travel up (engine on) and down (engine off, to save fuel) the green hills passing mist-shrouded valleys below, with the dark mountains of troubled Congo to one side and, far ahead in the distance, the flat plains of the Rift Valley. The motor bike sails over the potholes and boulders, cowpats, mudslicks and piles of stones, skirting and dodging the larger obstacles deftly. Women generally ride side-saddle here but I feel much safer sitting astride the bike which attracts even more attention and shouts of 'Mujungu! Mujungu!' (white woman) from the children than I usually get – it is clearly regarded as not quite proper…

After a while we turn down a smaller, quieter road and in the sudden hush of the deserted countryside the air resonates with bird-song. Brightly-coloured birds with wonderfully evocative names – the Cinnamon-breasted bee-eater, the Chestnut-bellied wattle-eye, the Red-tailed bristle-bill – swoop in front of us on the path then disappear into the lush greenery that is punctuated only by the iridescent crimson blossoms of the flame trees and the snaking red path of the road ahead of us. We, and everything around us, are bathed in benevolent early-morning sunlight: the line of a poem by Robert Graves comes into my mind, "….swims warm and golden over me, the sun's plenipotentiary". This will surely be one of my favourite memories of Uganda…

I arrive at the school, hair streaming, eyes streaming, nose streaming, just in time for my first lesson at 8.30am – fittingly, on poetry today. I feel inspired! Now that I am getting used to it, I begin to wonder why I didn't train as a secondary teacher – I am really enjoying working with this age group so much. But it's far, far too late to think about that now and I am just grateful for this opportunity to do it for a while. The pupils have asked especially for some help with poetry as they simply don't understand it as a form. All those Facts that have been forced upon them have left precious little opportunity to develop their creative side; they find the imagery in poetry, the subtlety of the meaning and the lack of clearly defined rules baffling - and it is my mission to convert them all into poetry-lovers over the next few weeks….

It is coming towards the end of the academic year here and in February there will be a new intake of students at the High School, many of them from Kirima Primary School. On Saturday the Year 7s (P7) at Kirima have their leaving service to which their parents are invited, along with all the boarders and a few special guests. The school hall and grounds have been given a thorough spring-clean (by the students themselves of course) and the stage - a raised concrete area at the top of the hall - has acquired a makeshift altar and some decorations. Fairy lights have been strung up (these do not work but still give a festive atmosphere), along with some Christmas bells, tinsel, and branches draped with toilet paper. The effect, though a little eccentric, has been so lovingly created that one cannot help but admire it. We are blessed with a dry, sunny day which means that the special lunch that has been planned can take place outside: everyone is in good spirits. Shoes have been polished, uniforms washed and at 10.30 the service begins, taken by 'the Reverend', as everyone refers to priests here, from the local church. The boarders, even the five and six-year olds, have been sitting quietly in the hall since 9.30: the service was scheduled to start at 10.00 – but this is Africa! I have begun to identify a particular philosophy, equally applicable to a church service, a meeting or a social call, which goes "Why try to fit into an hour what can be expanded to fill an entire day?" – there is nothing, it would seem, that cannot be improved by being taken at a very leisurely pace. The leavers' service, which is followed by speeches, singing, lunch, then more speeches and more singing, eventually ends at 5.00pm – a long sit even by African standards! The lunch is a special-occasion feast including meat, a rare luxury: there is stewed goat, rice, matoke and peanut sauce – and a bottle of soda each for the leavers. No part of the goat is wasted and the portion I am served contains some dubious-looking white tubes amongst the chunks of meat: I decide that this is a meal that will benefit from being eaten without the aid of spectacles. The goat tastes delicious, and if some mouthfuls are a bit rubbery – well, the peanut sauce helps them down. One doesn't leave food in Uganda…

As we embark on the second round of speeches the Headmaster leans across and asks if I would be kind enough to make a short speech myself. "When?" I whisper. "Now" he whispers back. I do as well as I can with my impromptu delivery – clearly a little too well, in fact, as a few minutes after I have sat down the Headmaster leans towards me again and whispers "The Reverend from the Cathedral has just asked if you would give the sermon tomorrow at the morning service". The phrase 'shooting oneself in the foot' springs to mind: this is clearly an invitation for which refusal is not an option. I have been asked to give all sorts of talks in my time but never, to date, a sermon: the last time I was in a pulpit was to read a lesson at the Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral about fifteen years ago and that seemed bad enough even with the reading already provided. I walk home mulling over the possibilities and wondering on which of the sermon-styles I have experienced here so far I should model my own. Should it be of the bible-fumbling-ten-texts variety, or perhaps a passionate discourse like last week's, in which the preacher was so affected by the intensity of his own message that we had to sing an extra hymn in the middle of the sermon to allow him a few minutes to stem his tears and recover his equilibrium…? In the event I go for something simple, short and child-friendly and hope that while it is good enough, it is not so good that I will be asked to do it again for a while…

On Monday and Tuesday the P7 candidates sit their Primary Leaving Examination, a national test similar to Common Entrance. There are four papers in the core subjects which are sent off to Kampala for marking by external examiners. In January the grades will be published: these are from one to four, with a 'U' for failures. Kirima usually does very well in these, with most children achieving Grade 1: it is one of the top achieving schools in the country. It is not hard to see how, despite their bare classrooms and deprived backgrounds, they manage to do so well. The P7 children rise at 5.00am every day ready for their first prep session from 5.30 to 7.30am and this is often in the form of extra coaching from the teacher who is on duty with them (I wonder how either pupils or staff would react to a 5.30 start in England…!). They have extra maths and English lessons after school each day, another prep session from 7.30 to 9.30 each night, lessons all day on Saturday and some on Sunday too. The staff input is enormous and the children's tireless perseverance quite formidable . Some of them taking the PLE are already in their mid-teens, having either started school late or repeated years because of slow progress. For them and some of the younger pupils too, this may be the only educational qualification they get so the results are important. The drop-out rate from senior schools is extremely high and many children simply have to start full time work on the land to help support their families. Other luckier ones will go on to a senior school and take 'O' and 'A' levels if their parents can afford to let them study or if they can get sponsors.

The exams, which take place at a local government school, evoke the same responses that they do anywhere in the world: there are complaints that the papers are too hard, that some questions were unfair, that some weren't on the syllabus; but they aren't disastrous. As soon as the second day of exams is over the P7 pupils are free to leave. Those who live locally come straight back to school, pack the meagre trappings of their seven years of life there into their little tin trunks, roll up their thin sponge mattresses and leave. Others will be collected the next day, or catch a truck (the local equivalent to a taxi) home if they are some way away. All this is done in a very subdued way: there are no tearful goodbyes, no embraces, no 'keep in touch' handshakes with staff. The pupils simply pick up their belongings and go, dealing with what must be for many a huge emotional upheaval with the customary Ugandan lack of drama. It's time to move on to next phase of their lives…

I find this quite difficult. Although I have only been at the school for a few weeks I already feel fond of these children and have to restrain myself from going up to them and giving them a hug. But this is not how things are done here. The staff, who have nurtured and cared deeply for them for so many years, display an apparent indifference to the occasion and keep a low profile. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that neither adults nor children can afford to show or even to feel too much emotion on this or any other momentous occasion, when their lives are at all times so precarious and so permeated with hardship…

One girl, Florence, does come and seek me out. She has learned that a member of my family has become her sponsor and she wants to thank me. "God has answered my prayers" she says simply. She is a lovely girl, very bright, diligent and determined. She wants to be an engineer: an ambitious choice for a village girl whose parents, as she says in the letter she has given me to pass on "are living a peasantry life and so they are poor". She is always top of the class and there is every reason to hope that after a good secondary education at Great Lakes High School she will go on to university and achieve her ambition. She has been waiting for two years for a sponsor and there are many more still waiting. I feel so touched by her relief and gratitude: there is optimism in her eyes and some certainty in her future now. I know that quite a few people who read the blog have become sponsors in the last few weeks and to all of them I want to say: your money could not be better spent - these children are so deserving. Every day at morning prayers the sponsors are remembered with special thanks. Your support may be the one factor that will lift a child out of the relentless cycle of poverty in which so many families are trapped. Thank you.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Matters of Life and Death

Hamlet and Kellen have returned to Kinkiisi suddenly as there has been a death in the family: an elderly uncle of Kellen's has passed away. Funerals take place quickly after a death since there are no mortuaries outside of the larger towns; so families have to gather without delay. The funeral is taking place in Kellen's home village which is about an hour's drive from Kinkiisi. The service is at the deceased uncle's house since people are buried on their own land here – or "in the garden" as someone puts it. On the day before the funeral, the morning, in fact, that the death has been announced, a group gathers at Hamlet's house to make the long walk to the village, which is not on any transport route. Novias, who is related to Kellen is going and also her two cousins, both studying at the college. A few other people also set off with them, all apparently related in some way to the family. On the day itself Hamlet's jeep fills up with yet more relations who have appeared, as it seems, out of nowhere. The term "extended family" is beginning to take on a whole new meaning.

The kinship groupings in Africa have long been a subject of fascination for sociologists. Here in Uganda they are particularly interesting because of the large number of distinct tribes that have survived intact, each with its own language and traditions. Thirty-three languages are spoken in the country and there is no common language except for English. This causes all manner of problems and perpetuates a tribal insularity which, whatever its merits, must certainly be difficult to manage in an increasingly global social order. If a Ugandan moves to a different part of the country – to go to university, to get a job, to marry – then he or she has to learn the new local language. Although there is some common vocabulary between languages within the same area, the similarities are not great enough to enable an easy switch, certainly from one part of the country to another. Visiting politicians, speakers, church leaders or businessmen have to speak through interpreters to reach the many people who don't speak English fluently in the regions they visit. Television, films, radio and indeed any public communications have to either be in English or dubbed. In the east of the country, which has always been more cosmopolitan, Kiswahili is widely understood; in and around Kampala, Luganda and other languages of Bantu origin are fairly interchangeable; and in the extreme northeast Karimojong, a language with a vocabulary of only 180 words is used – which would seem to make it the obvious choice for a common language if only for ease of learning it! But elsewhere you are stuck with the language you were brought up with. It means that all formal and legislative communication must be delivered at a very regional level and local government holds a good deal of power as a result. It's a chicken-and-egg situation: people tend to stay within their local area or move back to it for ease of communication; therefore the adoption of a common language is very slow indeed to progress (and anyway no-one has decided what this should be). The government has recently compounded matters by insisting that children should all be taught to read and write in their local language rather than English until they are eight: as a result their English will be poorer, their local language stronger and the tribal bonds ever tighter. As a self-generated means of maintaining political stability this is pretty effective: the country is divided into small, tight-knit groups none of which can communicate very effectively with each other and none of which, therefore, can gain any significant amount of power. The rivalries that can occur with such devastating consequences - like those between the Hutus and Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda in the recent past - are not something that trouble Uganda. The civil war in the north between the Lord's Resistance Army and government forces, however, has led to 10,000 deaths in the last two decades and terrible instability and hardship for the people caught up in it – but that is another story….

Within each tribe are clans: groups of people linked by kinship or marriage, some closely and others extremely loosely and distantly and no doubt more still who are simply part of the community and become honorary family members by osmosis. The clans gather whenever an opportunity presents itself: a birth, marriage or death, or any occasion that merits a celebration. Funerals are particularly momentous and no-one in the clan would miss the burial (for there are no cremations here) of one of its members. Marriages, too, are big - very big – occasions, with hundreds of guests. Although there is an official guest list the expectation is that roughly double the number invited will attend and a wedding 'committee' of family members makes the complicated arrangements for catering and accommodation – and even transport for the poorer members of the clan.

Florence, the bursar at the College is getting married in Kampala in ten days' time. Church weddings (for the better-off) are similar to those in England with the bride in the traditional white dress and the groom's supporters in identical suits, shirts, ties and even shoes. I, along with my colleagues, am invited to contribute towards the expenses of the wedding, for which purpose a list has been drawn up – an exhaustive catalogue including the cost of the hire of the hall, band and clothes; transport costs for the entire family; and presents for the couple including, in the traditional way, the livestock and crops to be given. Should I sign up for a cow, I wonder (no, too expensive, surely..?); or a sack or two of flour? A few crates of soda perhaps (alcohol does not figure…) or the mother-in-law's bus fare? People choose their own partners here but marriage is nevertheless a serious business arrangement too. The groom's family has to pay a 'bride price' which is measured in animals, land and crops and takes considerable negotiation before the bride's family agrees the terms. For urban brides the livestock is these days largely symbolic and the monetary value is given in lieu of the real thing – although one of Florence's male colleagues says quite seriously when this is being discussed "….but surely every woman needs a cow to milk doesn't she?" - to which I can think of no suitable reply...

Women – especially in rural areas – tend to marry very young, something that the government is trying hard to discourage. Schools everywhere are painted with slogans – over doorways, on fences, on classroom walls - exhorting children to break away from culturally-entrenched patterns of behavior. It is somewhat unnerving to arrive at a primary school and be greeted by a sign saying "Say no to early marriage" and " Don't accept gifts in exchange for sex" – and, over and over again "There is no cure for AIDS". The impact of AIDS on Uganda, as on so many African countries, has been devastating: over one and a half million Ugandans have died from the disease. In the late 1980s Uganda was regarded as the worst-affected HIV/AIDS country in the world but has been remarkably successful in tackling this damning statistic and the incidence has now stabilized at about 7% of the population. The ABC approach – abstain, be faithful, use condoms – has been hammered home through schools, churches and government programmes and a huge effort made to encourage greater openness, and a willingness to be tested and to know one's HIV status. However, people are still reluctant to admit to being HIV positive and it is impossible to know how many children, and which ones, are HIV positive in any school, Kirima included. Free anti-retroviral drugs have been available since 2004 but for many the cost of transport to access these remains a deterrent to using them, particularly in the war-torn north of the country. It is estimated that 80% of Ugandans are unaware of their status: the optimistic statistics, one fears, may be considerably wide of the mark. There are two million orphans in the country, largely as a result of AIDS, and 20% of these are double orphans. We are talking about this in the staffroom and a teacher recounts the story of a pupil in a secondary school where he used to work who was always falling asleep in class. The boy, who was in his early teens, refused to give any explanation for this so one day the teacher followed him home. He found that this young boy was mother, father and breadwinner to his orphaned brothers and sisters and that when he got home from school he had to singlehandedly cook and care for them as well as grow the crops: he was constantly exhausted by his duties as head of the family but desperate to finish his schooling. "He was a clever boy, too", the teacher adds. I wonder what has become of him and the many, many like him for whom the heavy burdens of adulthood have fallen so prematurely onto their young shoulders.

At the College this week the students ask me about what jobs children have to do in the UK. They seem rather shocked when I say that actually, they don't really have to do any jobs apart from a few chores: childhood is a relatively carefree time and most children just play, develop different skills and interests, and concentrate on their schooling. I add, fairly light-heartedly, that the disadvantage of this is that some children leave home unable to do their own laundry or cook. "But they can use a hoe can't they?" one student asks. The hoe could be Uganda's national symbol: every man, woman and child learns how to use one and it is an essential part of their lives. There is even a saying that goes "Welcome a guest for two days but on the third give him a hoe" which I think I may adopt over the forthcoming Christmas period…! The notion of the average British teenager wielding a hoe does not inspire much confidence, however. Our children can operate a computer; Ugandan children can grow crops. Which of these skills, I find myself wondering, is the one that will serve a child best in tomorrow's uncertain world…?

Finding out about healthcare generally has, as with education, thrown up a good deal of confusion and hearsay. Immunisation against the common childhood diseases is, it seems, provided for all babies and there are a small number of government hospitals where some treatment is theoretically free; but the shortage of doctors and other trained staff, together with woefully short supplies of drugs and other medical supplies, means that treatment is very limited and extremely basic. "All you will get in a hospital is paracetamol – if they haven't run out of those as well!" people scoff. Ambrose, one of the administrative staff at the College recounts over lunch one day that he was involved in a motor cycle accident not long ago and broke an arm and a leg. He was taken to the regional, supposedly state-of-the-art, government hospital for treatment where he lay on his bed in agony for an entire week without receiving any treatment: his broken bones were left unset and he was not even given a pain-relief tablet. He eventually managed to get the attention of a doctor who told him that he wasn't officially on duty so couldn't treat him; but if he paid him privately he would find a sling for his arm. Ambrose's family found the money to transfer him to a private clinic where his limbs were put in plaster and, thankfully, he made a complete recovery. Others are not so fortunate. For people with chronic illnesses, he says, the position is particularly dire. Diabetics, faced with the cost of both insulin and syringes, and patients with high blood pressure, cancer, and a host of other treatable conditions very often resign themselves to inevitable early death because they cannot afford to even start the long-term treatment required. There is an acute shortage of doctors too: they are poorly paid and many go overseas as a result. Our local district of Kanungu has just two doctors to serve the 100,000 odd people in the area. I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that I don't fall ill in the coming weeks…

The only way to get effective treatment, indeed any treatment, it would seem, is to pay privately. Many drugs destined for government hospitals find their way into private clinics instead and there is universal consensus that corruption undermines the health services as much as it does so many other areas of Ugandan life. People cannot afford to buy medical insurance so they just have to pay for treatment as they need it – or else they resort to traditional remedies which are much cheaper. All surgery has to be paid for: my colleague Justine's widowed mother had to sell her small piece of land to pay for her leg to be amputated, and this is a common story. As always, it is the poor who suffer the most; the average life-expectancy of between 39 and 49 years (figures vary according to the source) speaks volumes about the shockingly poor levels of healthcare in the country and the many, many people – adults and children – who, without access to treatment, simply die unnecessarily. When I tell people about our health care system in the UK they are open-mouthed with disbelief. "You mean if you get taken to a hospital they will treat you without payment? That you can have an operation free? That there are doctors in every town?" For women, the fact that pain-relief and medical intervention are available for labour is greeted with amazed envy. Abandon any notion that childbirth is easier for a woman who works in the fields than one who sits behind a desk in a smart suit: over and over again girls and women speak with dread about the pain that it is their lot to endure and the lack of any support whatsoever with childbearing aside from that of a traditional village birth attendant….

Alice, one of the teachers at Kirima Primary, has a three-month old baby and has just returned to work. Twelve weeks is the statutory maternity leave for a teacher here, and you have to split your salary with the person who is covering your job. She dashes back to her little house near the school to breast feed her son at break, lunchtime and in the afternoon and leaves him in between, unattended, to sleep. Here this is regarded as perfectly acceptable; her neighbours keep an ear open for him and can come and fetch her if needed. Having seen that I have a camera she asks me shyly if I would take some photos of her baby and have them printed when I go back to England for Christmas. This is my first official engagement as a photographer and I only hope I can meet expectations! I go round to the tiny house she shares with her husband, also a teacher, and the baby – one room divided into a living area and a sleeping area, screened off with a curtain. Every day she brings a torch into school to recharge the battery, 'for when I feed him at night' she explains – as they have no electric power. We chat about the amount of washing babies generate and she is fascinated by my description of a washing machine – she would love to have one but acknowledges regretfully that she probably never will…

Back in England my own particular clan has been celebrating quite a few birthdays recently. Here, however, there has been no evidence or mention of a birthday since I arrived – although by the law of averages there must have been a substantial number amongst the school population. I ask in the staffroom one breaktime whether anyone there celebrates their birthday, even in a small way. " Not really" shrugs one member of staff. "Only special ones like twenty-one" says another. Robert, the Nursery teacher, tells me that he doesn't even know when his birthday is: his parents, he says, were so illiterate that when they registered the birth some time after the event they had no idea of the date – only that it was early in the morning. He found out the year by going to the record office: 1945; but that is as much as he knows. "So I can't celebrate it" he says cheerfully. 'Internet Emily', when I ask her the same question looks wistful. "When I was at school," she says, " my friends used to club together to get a bit of money to buy some milk and they would make a cup of tea for all of us to drink together in the dormitory". There was no cake and no presents but even that little celebration clearly made her feel special. "Now I just remember it on my own" she finishes, a little sadly. The children at the school don't appear to do anything at all: their families are just too hard-pressed to buy even a few sweets or some other small treat. "The really lucky people," says Gloria, one of the younger teachers, " are the ones who have their birthday on December 25th as they share their birthday with Jesus. They always have a special day with nice food to eat too!" At home people with Christmas birthdays tend to regard themselves as unlucky since they feel they miss out on having their own full birthday entitlement. It's all a matter of perspective…..

There have been torrential rainstorms this week; we are in the middle of the wet season and I am getting used to the pattern of the downpours. The atmosphere becomes progressively hot, still, and unbearably humid; then just before the rain begins the temperature suddenly drops. The banana leaves start to make ominous crackling and knocking noises as they bang against each other in the rising wind and then, quite suddenly, sheets of water start to fall from the sky as if some huge floodgate had been opened. Rain this heavy causes damage: recently there have been some particularly violent hail storms a little higher into the hills which have washed away the crops and destroyed many banana and matoke plantations. Hamlet has had to send maize flour to his mother as she has run out of food: the old, and the subsistence farmers, both of whom live on the crops they pick daily, are at high risk of starvation if they have no family to support them. They have no money to buy food and rarely manage to store any for times of need. Even the root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes which usually survive these storms have rotted in the water-logged soil. The coming months look very grim indeed for the rural poor.

The extreme weather has, tragically, claimed a young victim: a student teacher at the College was struck by lightning and killed instantly on Friday night during a ferocious storm. She was lying in her bed when it happened; a freak accident that no-one could have predicted or avoided. The funeral takes place the next day and she is buried almost before people have heard of her death. Nobody talks about it much: death, even one as sudden and as sad as this, seems part of the fabric of everyday existence here and people accept its cruel arbitrariness with quiet resignation. Life, however precarious one's hold on it, must go on….

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Hard Times

"Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else"
How Mr Gradgrind would have loved Uganda! By pure chance – it was the only copy of Dickens I could find at Heathrow – I am reading 'Hard Times', having decided to bring with me some rather more challenging reading matter than my usual diet of Booker shortlisted novels; and the opening words might surely have been written by the Minister of Education himself…

Uganda has an impressive National Curriculum, published only last year: detailed, rigorous and forward-looking, it includes provision for creative subjects, for gifted and talented pupils, for PE and sport, and for group teaching. However, it is an idealistic and unrealistic pie-in-the sky document and impossible to implement: class sizes are far too big, there are many too few teachers and there is no money for resources. I have been told that there is not a single qualified PE teacher in the entire country: sport, as a non-academic subject, is seen as a luxury that cannot be afforded in a qualifications-obsessed society. What is taught in schools, therefore, is facts, facts and more facts, with no room for the 'imagining' that Mr Gradgrind so hated, nor for dialogue, for investigation, for creative expression or for independent learning.

Observing trainee teachers for the last three weeks has been a largely dispiriting experience. The lessons are formulaic, repetitive and dull. In each one, whatever the subject, a handful of facts is taught through drill, chanting and imitation: this is called "the experiencing phase" of the lesson. The children are then given a written exercise which they copy from the board, "the evaluating stage". Those who finish sit and wait for the rest of the class to catch up, sometimes spending as long as half an hour doing nothing. Today I watch a student taking a science lesson with P1 (five and six year olds) on 'dangerous animals' which runs along the lines of: "Here are three dangerous animals: snake, elephant, lion. Repeat after me, snakes, elephants and lions are dangerous animals. These words say snake, elephant, lion. Everyone read them. Snake, elephant, lion. Now stand up and repeat them when I point to you " (this takes about twenty minutes to get through the entire class). "Now complete this exercise in your books: write the names of three dangerous animals." There is only one resource in the room and that is the teacher; the teacher's only resource is the official textbook. The textbook is dull, dry and stereotyped; ipso facto, so is the lesson. But believe me, every child can name three dangerous animals when it comes to the mid-term test and that is all that matters…! This pattern is repeated throughout the age range: facts are taught, repeated, chanted; then copied from the board, memorized and regurgitated in tests. The children work in silence and the teacher marks their books as they finish. There is no opportunity to help children who are struggling: this is a sink-or-swim environment and the less able just have to look after themselves - or copy from their neighbours. It is an approach straight out of the Victorian era.

Teachers do a two-year training here, for which they only need the equivalent of GCSEs, leading to a teaching certificate. After this they can go on to do a diploma and then a degree if they so choose. Many work towards these further qualifications at the weekends or in the holidays – they are the only means of getting a promotion and earning more than the very basic salary that they start on. Finding some students to observe, however, has not been plain-sailing by any means. On Friday morning I make the long, hot walk to Kanungu with the college lecturer I am working with only to find that the school we are visiting has decided, unilaterally, to have a day's holiday. "We have sent the children home to refresh their minds" the Head tells us, a trifle defiantly. When we return to the school this week many of the children have been sent home again, this time because their parents have not paid their fees. They are given half a term's grace after which their children aren't allowed back until they have paid what is to us a pathetically small sum of money – a few pounds, no more –but to a peasant farmer often an impossible amount to find. However, today I strike lucky in a little school in the next village where five students are taking turns to teach a Reception Class (Nursery 2) of eighty children. The children are seated on a dozen or more benches which, when the time comes for written work, become their tables: they simply kneel on the stone floor behind them. These four and five-year olds are incredibly well-behaved and go through their chanting and drilling diligently. When it comes to their written exercise, however, the sheer practicalities of making sure each of the eighty children has a pencil and a book, can see the board and has a space to work in is a logistical nightmare for the teacher. Monitoring their progress, likewise, is impossible: the more able manage the task, finish and get a tick. The rest of the class struggle along, some doing nothing, others managing a few indecipherable scribbles. And so it goes on, lesson after lesson, and school after school. The impressively good behaviour of the Ugandan children, while it does have something to do with the way they are raised, also has a lot to do with the stick that the students carry in their hands: corporal punishment is still used widely here.

A few days later I am booked to go to two tiny schools high up in the hills in a village called Kajugangama. The lecturer I am working with and I go first to Kanungu for fuel. Two goats have draped themselves round the petrol pump: an informal way of telling us that there is no fuel today. After a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiating our driver reports that he can get a jerry-can of fuel for twice the usual price (and that is high enough..). All eyes turn – hopefully – to me. The car is refuelled and off we go.
The road we take winds up through the hills rapidly becoming more rocky and rough until it finally reduces to a single track made almost impassable by the recent heavy rains. The first school is reasonably accessible but to reach the second we have to abandon the car and walk down a narrow path through banana fields for about a kilometre. I begin to wonder how a school could possibly have been built so far from a road, but when I see it I understand – it is a tiny two-room building made entirely from mud. This is a 'parent school' built for and by the families who live in this isolated spot but woefully underfunded as few of them can afford to pay any fees. The two classes, one for the younger children and one for the Reception/Year 1 age group, have a wall between them that reaches only to door height so noise carries from one room to the other unimpeded. I watch a student on her first teaching practice taking the Nursery class – a loose term for pupils in their first year of schooling ranging in age from two to five – which has sixty pupils crammed into the small room. I don't know whether to feel more sorry for her, as she shouts to be heard above the hearty chanting from the class next door, or for the two and three-year olds on the front benches who, along with the rest of the class, are being subjected to a lesson on subtraction. They sit for an hour, these tiny tots, struggling with 9 take away 5 and suchlike, work far too difficult for any of the class but especially for them. Bundles of sticks for counting are given out as they start their written work, once more using the benches as tables, and in such a cramped space I wait with bated breath for someone to be poked in the eye. But no, the only casualties are the sticks, which several children have started to chew, probably not having had any breakfast. There are clear signs of malnutrition here – swollen abdomens and scalp lesions – and the people are obviously very poor indeed. "How did you feel the lesson went?" I ask the student at the end of it and, depressingly, she says she thought it went really well...

It has taken me some little while to make sense of the complicated schools system here. There is a large number of schools, one round every corner, it seems – but then there is a very large number of children to educate. (People here, even my teaching colleagues, are astounded to hear that in the UK it is usual to only have two or three children as eight or more is quite common in rural Uganda.) First there are the government schools: no-one has a good word to say about these as they are very understaffed so classes are enormous, often with over a hundred pupils. Teachers are, it is said, demoralized by the intolerable burden this presents; rumour has it that in many schools they arrive late, take it in turns to have days off and do not set written work because the marking is impossible to deal with. Children do poorly; they receive no food during the day so arrive hungry, work hungry and leave hungry if they cannot provide for themselves. The secondary system too is buckling under the strain of also trying to provide places for all the children who need them and it has just been announced that all secondary schools must now operate a double-shift system with children coming for half a day only. This system is widely disparaged: children get half the lesson time, teachers get double the work load, resources and facilities are put under huge strain. In the government's defence, however, it must be remembered that this is a country where 87% of the population live in rural areas, most of them subsistence farmers who do not pay tax. There is little revenue, therefore, to fund public services such as education and health.

Not surprisingly, parents who can possibly afford to do so send their children to private schools, often called 'Parent Schools' since the parents finance them through very modest fees; and these are everywhere. Some are church or religious schools – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim – and others not. They bear absolutely no relation to our concept of a private school: they operate on a shoestring and facilities are very basic but at least have the advantage of controlling their own destiny. Standards are generally higher in these schools, classes smaller and children are usually fed at break and midday. Kirima Primary is one such a school. In both government and private schools uniforms are compulsory, and in most schools parents must provide stationery too. Boarding facilities are provided at most schools because children have to travel such long distances to get there; but again, these are nothing like the boarding schools in the UK. The children sleep in three-tier bunks in overcrowded dormitories, do their own washing and a variety of other jobs around the school, like the cleaning, and do schoolwork before and after school and at weekends to keep themselves occupied. Boarding is a popular option: the children get extra schooling and because fees are minimal it is often almost cheaper for parents than having to feed and care for them at home. Far from feeling upset by the amount of schoolwork the children do – prep sessions for the older pupils start as early as 5.00 am in some schools that have electricity and 6.30am at most (and staff have to supervise them!) – parents see this as an opportunity: education is the only way out of poverty for their children. In a society such as this childhood as we know it does not exist and children have to be much more robust emotionally. I have hardly heard a single child cry since I have been here, although they have much to cry about. They are far, far less needy and demanding in terms of the attention they expect from adults than children in the developed world. Life is tough and they do not expect it to be otherwise: self-pity is not part of their emotional language. The youngest boarder at Kirima Primary is five and several are only six; the only concession to their young age is that they are allowed to sleep in the bottom bunks, and be in the same dormitory as an older sibling if they have one.

In both the government and the private schools resources are in shockingly short supply. Classrooms are bare and dingy with only scrappy home-made wall charts of letters and numbers if anything at all. Textbooks, where they are found, are shared between many children. There are no art materials nor any science equipment, certainly up to the end of year 7 – not a magnifying glass nor a magnet in sight. Talking to a physics teacher who works at the local government secondary school, he says "In Uganda we do everything in theory - so it's no wonder that we produce engineers who can't put things into practice!"
All the schools I have been into use stones, sticks and bottle tops as counters in maths lessons. In most schools children have to bring their own pencils and many carry a razor blade to sharpen them. My heart is in my mouth as I watch tiny children slicing away at their pencils with the sharp blades then slipping these back casually into their pockets. How would risk assessments go down here, I find myself wondering…?…

Yet, despite this depressing catalogue of shortcomings, the children do somehow learn to read, write, count - and speak English too. They work extremely hard and, in the absence of any other distractions from the hardship of their lives, actually seem to quite enjoy their lessons. And they sing: every lesson I have seen up to Year 5 has begun and ended with a song, often with one or two in the middle as well if the class is getting restless. To hear them sing is an absolute delight: they have clear, loud voices and everyone, but everyone, takes part enthusiastically. It seems to be a kind of therapy for them, uplifting, soothing, cheering, unifying – and raises them, these rows of impoverished, overburdened children, into what I can only describe as a state of joyful liberation. It is not hard to see where the gospel music of the oppressed American slaves had its roots…

So where does a volunteer from England fit into all of this? How, coming from a school and a culture so educationally privileged and progressive, can a teacher like me contribute anything of use and value to a situation which, in reality, needs a massive injection of both money and political will to change it by even one iota? Certainly not by any aspiration to 'do good' : the very term 'volunteer' hints at both an assumed superiority in the giver and a perceived deficiency in the recipient and I have quickly realised that tact, sensitivity and humility are the most essential qualities I can bring to my new workplace. A school like Kirima Primary , despite its material needs, is a very successful and happy one when judged within its own context. As with any successful school, it is the strength and commitment of the staff team that makes it what it is. They work incredibly hard, sometimes a seven-day week if they are on duty at the weekend. All I can offer is support and friendship to the teachers, giving them a few extra free periods each week to cope with the massive workload and – genuinely – to express my admiration for what they achieve in the school. Much as I might prefer a more child-centred approach to the teaching there I know that my methods would be useless with such large classes and with so few resources. For the children I am a new and friendly face and a different kind of teacher who can help them with their English, teach them something about a different culture and bring a little variety into their predictable curriculum. The older students at the High School and College, now they are getting used to me, love to ask questions, often rather naïve ones, about life in the UK – or 'your place', as they call it. Is it true that if you have more than four children they will be killed? Does childbirth hurt as much as it does here? Do English people get AIDS? Do they eat matoke and grow bananas? Is it really true that there is no 'bride price' paid when people get married? And can it be possible that all the roads in your place are made of tarmac…?

The important thing I can do, apart from building stronger links between Highgate School and the CHIFCOD schools, is to raise awareness in the UK of the challenges people face here and hope that CHIFCOD may as a result get more financial support for the tremendously worthwhile projects – far beyond just schools, as their website shows – that they operate out here. If a few more children get sponsors, if some textbooks and storybooks can be purchased, if even one child less gets malaria through acquiring a net, then I shall feel something positive has come out of my time here. People attribute very generous motives to me for coming here but I know that I shall take back from the experience far more ( my weight aside!)than I have put in, and that my reasons for coming are just as much selfish as altruistic, if not more so…

Today, Saturday, I have taken myself for a long walk through the banana plantations towards the next village. Small houses nestle amongst the dense foliage of the trees and I stop at one of these to chat to a woman called Patience and her four young boys. She is keen to show (and sell me) mats and bags she makes from dry banana tree leaves so I step into her little house. On the bedraggled sponge-foam sofa is a fifth child who lies there with grotesquely contracted limbs drawn up towards his body and head lolling. "His brain does not work" his mother tells me matter-of-factly as she tries to disperse the flies that persistently settle around his mouth and nose. He is about four and obviously severely brain-damaged. He cannot walk, feed himself or indeed move at all. I ask Patience if there is a school, maybe a boarding school, where he could be looked after. "In Uganda? Of course not!" she says. I ask how she will manage when he is older and bigger and she simply shrugs her shoulders. There is a small handful of special schools in the country for children with physical handicaps such as blindness; otherwise, to all intents and purposes, special needs do not exist here and children who cannot cope with mainstream schooling simple stay at home to be cared for by the family. I ask what the boy's name is and, innocent of the dreadful irony of her reply she says "He is called Ambitious".

Hard times indeed for this little family, and for many others like them….

Footnote: You can help CHIFCOD move up the Google website ratings and therefore be more in the public eye by accessing this blog through their website:
rather than directly. The blog is easy to find on the front page and it shouldn't take any longer than doing it the usual way. Every little helps!