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 na├»ve 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:
www.volunteeruganda.org
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!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Food for Thought

Q15. Complete the proverb: "Half a loaf…."
Answer: "Half a loaf in the hand is better than two in a bush".
I couldn't agree more with the boy who has offered this sensible answer in the Primary 7 English revision paper and only wish I could give him a mark for such an inventive amalgamation of the two familiar sayings – but sadly, I must stick to the marking scheme which gives no credit for creativity – nor for amusing the marker…

It is Thursday afternoon and Independence Day in Uganda, so we have another public holiday. Although schools are officially closed I have spent the morning up in Kanungu watching the official celebrations with the Kirima children and now I am at home trying to finish the pile of exam marking I was given yesterday. It's been another long morning, this time of speeches, parades, march-pasts and salutes accompanied by a brass band so excruciatingly bad that you admire them just for being brave enough to appear in public. As the people joyfully celebrate 46 years of freedom from British rule I feel, as the only English person there, horribly out of place, like a very conspicuous gate-crasher at an extremely private party, and wonder if at any moment I will be hauled up in front of the soldiers and asked to explain myself, my country and all its imperialist machinations. But no, today the people are in far too good a mood to let the presence of a 'mujungu' – white person – interfere with their festivities and so I can sit back and enjoy myself along with everyone else.

The Kirima choir has been practising hard for today as, along with many of the other local schools, they have been invited to perform in front of the great and the good of Kanungu District Council.Ibsen, the teacher who trains the choir, has bought a new drum for the occasion, made in Mpambire, a traditional drum-making village along the road to Kampala. Earlier this week he showed it to the children proudly in assembly. "This drum", he says "this drum must be respected, do you understand?" He strokes the cow-hide lovingly. "If anyone.." he says in a voice tight with emotion, "…if anyone does not respect this drum, I will…" he pauses, searching for something bad enough that he can threaten "I will…" His voice trails off miserably as he fails yet again to identify a punishment weighty enough to fit such a crime. The children just nod their heads sympathetically; they have got the message. The drum will be respected….

I go to watch one of the first rehearsals, with the respected drum making its debut, held in the dusty stone-floored hall after school. The choir, children ranging in age from nine to fourteen, are in a huge semi-circle and Ibsen demonstrates the rhythm he wants them to clap, an incredibly complex syncopated beat that I cannot for the life of me master – although they pick it up effortlessly. One by one he introduces the body movements, the rhythm to be beaten by their feet and the song, in parts, that carries the whole thing along. Groups of children are selected to perform another set of movements within the circle and they pick up the choreographed sequences instantly. There is a mounting sense of drama and excitement as the drumming grows louder and the solo singer who is leading the performance dances ever more energetically and confidently. Ibsen prods and pushes, shakes his fist and shouts to get the effect he wants – no-one is allowed to be half-hearted. The children have an incredible innate sense of rhythm and seem totally at ease and uninhibited. There is not a snigger or a nudge from anyone as he gets them to stamp, wiggle and leap about, and I find it rather moving to see the adolescent boys and girls, at an age when most children are painfully self-conscious, working so seriously and proudly at these strangely primitive sequences without a flicker of embarrassment. Their performance on the day is faultless – despite the local madwoman who decides to join in with all the dances and is courteously ignored by the performers who just let her, wrapped up in her own little world, carry on enjoying herself.

I have also spent some time in the Nursery this week. Nursery 1, the three and four-year olds, occupy a tiny room which is furnished with the same pew-like bench-and-shelf units, each seating five or six children – often more – used in the other classes. Seated in rows, the fifteen little ones sit and chant, sing, count and recite, sometimes making a circle at the front for some practical activities, for most of the morning. I watch a number lesson where they carefully count the stones that comprise their number apparatus : their only equipment other than what they find outside is a pile of slates which they use for drawing and scribbling. They have not a single item of play apparatus, not a book, not a puzzle nor even a few bricks. Yet their lovely teacher Diana keeps them happily occupied with a medley of songs and action rhymes – they know more English nursery songs than I knew existed, as well as many in Ruchiga – and a succession of other little activities and lessons. She is a remarkable teacher; patient, kind, firm, and endlessly cheerful and energetic. She has an air of serenity about her and even in such an impoverished environment always manages to look wonderfully elegant, bringing a touch of glamour to the bare Nursery classroom in her dusty Chanel suit which has doubtless made its way to Kanungu from some privileged wardrobe across the ocean. Robert, the other teacher who works in the Nursery, is another fascinating character. Tall, gentle and the oldest member of staff here by some distance, he is a passionate devotee of Nursery education, believing, as I do, that it underpins the whole of a child's future learning; he loves working with the little ones. He tells me one breaktime that his parents didn't send him to school, and so, desperate to be educated, at the age of fourteen he enrolled himself at his local school in Primary 1 (Year One) with the six-year olds and worked his way through the system, always eight years older than the others in his class, finally taking his 'A' levels when he was twenty-seven. He then trained for the Church then finally went into teaching as – he admits – a very mature student indeed. Between them, these two teachers create a wonderfully happy, nurturing atmosphere in the Nursery – but, oh, how much more they could do if they had some toys and play equipment!

I have been here for nearly five weeks now and my working week has settled into a routine: on Mondays and Tuesdays I teach at the Primary School, doing at least one hour-long lesson in each class from Nursery 1 to P7, and two in some; on Wednesdays and Fridays I work at the College; and on Thursdays at the Great Lakes High School. All of these present me with different challenges: the Primary School because of the style of teaching and the size of the classes (the two inextricably linked of course); the High School because, much as I like them, teaching secondary-age pupils is definitely outside my professional comfort-zone; and the College because of the amount of preparation needed for each of the two-hour lectures on Business English (to the Travel and Tourism students) and Communication Skills (to the Micro-Finance students) that I have to give each Friday. And all three because my only resources for any of them are a blackboard and piece of chalk! This week I have started supervising student teachers in their final teaching practice placements on Wednesdays and have felt much more on home-ground doing this – as well as enjoying getting to see an interesting variety of schools. I spend long hours in the evenings and at weekends making lesson plans and lecture notes – yes, the boot is on the other foot now, my former staff will be glad to hear, after having been the one requesting such plans for so many years! The advantage of working in three different settings is, of course, the variety it offers; and also the chance to get to know three different sets of staff and students. It's quite a demanding regime but, as my sister Dot said before I set off – "It'll be character-forming – and you're never too old to have your character a bit more formed!" .
I have started reading stories to the children in all the classes at the Primary School at the end of their English lessons and they really love this: it is a new experience for them. Even the older children are fascinated by picture books and are happy with the same simple stories that the younger children enjoy. There are no books, not a single one, in the school other than text books and even these have to be shared between six or seven children – there is one per bench in each class. There are no reading books whatsoever and, unbelievably, the children learn to read without ever having a book in their hands or a moment's individual attention. Of course, this is of enormous interest to me and you can be sure you will hear more about the subject in future blogs!

Walking to the Primary School in the mornings is always enjoyable; plumes of woodsmoke drift in the air as people start the day's cooking, the sun has just risen above the banana plantations on the hills opposite, and a little coterie of children gathers around me as I walk up the hill, some wanting to try out their English, others just content to walk along with me stealing curious glances as we go. My vocabulary is growing slowly and I can now say 'olireje' – good morning, and 'osibireje' – good afternoon, as well as 'agandi' , so can pass the time of day with the villagers, who are now getting used to seeing me and are always very friendly. Out here no-one would dream of walking past you without some form of greeting, even if you are complete strangers. Autumn must be arriving in England but here, so close to the equator, the days never alter other than in the amounts of rain that fall, and it is lovely to feel the sun on my face each morning and to have warm nights every night…

Saturday arrives – and a day out! I have arranged to visit Ishasha, which is at the south-western tip of the Queen Elizabeth National Park and only an hour's drive from Kinkiisi. Jenna, the bursar is coming, and Novias too, as, despite having been brought up only a few miles from the park, she has never been there – it's a luxury only tourists can afford on the whole, despite a reduction in charges for Ugandan residents. We have to leave at 6.00am in order to see the animals before the midday heat drives them under cover. Dawn is breaking as we drive along the quiet roads but already people are out and about – whole families including tiny children walking along the road in the semi-darkness on their way to work in the fields. The hilly banana plantations give way gradually to savanna and it suddenly feels quite possible that at any moment some creature might emerge out of the undergrowth. As we near the entrance to the park a herd of elephants does indeed appear in the long grass near the road and soon colobus monkeys, Ugandan kob and buffalo too. We are the first visitors of the day to arrive at the park and in fact barely see any others while we are there: because of its remoteness this corner is the least visited part of the enormous 2,000 km park. However, it is the only place in Uganda (and one of the few in the whole of Africa) where one can see tree-climbing lions and I am hoping against hope that we will be lucky today…

The park has many varieties of primates and we see gibbons and chimpanzees as well as monkeys, and huge numbers of antelope, warthogs and elephants. We find a family of hippos cooling themselves in the Ishasha River which runs through the park and provides the border with Congo; and at one point a huge 'monitoring lizard' as our driver Nicholas calls it, crosses the road in front of us. There is an amazing variety of brightly coloured bird, butterfly and flower species here and in a Proustian moment I am transported back to the stamp-collecting days of my youth when, I recall, the African stamps were always the most beautiful and sought-after, though the names of many of the countries, as the political fortunes of the continent have waxed and waned, have changed: Ruanda-Urundi, forever imprinted on my mind for its set of exquisite flower stamps, must now presumably be Rwanda.
The tree-lions prove elusive, however. Nicholas, who knows the park well, drives to all their favourite haunts – they have a liking for sycamore fig trees and we slowly circle round several dozen of these with no success. After a couple of hours we decide to call it a day - but Nicholas isn't going to give up so easily and insists on taking us to one last spot where he has seen them before. And there they are! A pair of huge lions, languidly stretched along a branch, one sleeping and the other licking its paws. This is a rare sight indeed and we sit watching them for some time while they in turn fix their eyes on us – though for rather less benevolent reasons, I suspect…. It's a sobering thought that, within living memory, such creatures wandered freely in the Ugandan countryside. A paragraph in the newspaper that I occasionally get access to reports that a 'marauding lioness' that had escaped from the Queen Elizabeth National Park has been shot after a two-week reign of terror in which it killed many farm and domestic animals – although worse was reported from nearby Ethiopia where another escaped lion killed and ate a man. Gruesomely, the paper reports that he was identified when his intact head was found in a field near to where he had been working…..

On a brighter note, the health pages in the newspaper always make interesting reading and in case any of you have scalp problems, I pass on this advice from the 'Your Questions Answered' column in the same paper: " Cow dung, urine and brake fluid are not effective, and may even prove dangerous, in the treatment of dandruff".

You have been warned!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Service with a Smile

Disaster! The heel has come off one of my indispensible black shoes and I must get it repaired…

Those of you who are acquainted with my footwear preferences may be surprised to know that the week before leaving England I invested – with considerable reluctance – in a pair of sensible, flat, sturdy black shoes. With a heavy heart I put to the back of my wardrobe the pink, the spotty, the red, the shiny and all the other frivolous pairs I have acquired over the years and left them to hibernate while I am away. Putting on the new pair for the first time when I arrived here took some effort and I was glad not to have a mirror to see how they looked. But from that moment they have barely left my feet (except at night of course…). They grip the gritty roads, disperse the red dust and repel the heaviest of rain; what's more they are blissfully comfortable – and in short have become treasured possessions. So it is off to Kanungu I trek this Saturday morning to get them repaired, I hope, at the shoemaker's shop. Robert, the only shoe-repairer in town, has a reputation for procrastination, however, and Novias warns me that she has been waiting for weeks for her shoes to be repaired; every time she calls in at the shop, he tells her they will be ready "very soon". Does he take bribes, I wonder? If the police do (more of that some other time!) then surely I can hope that shoe menders do too? I am desperate to get my shoes back into service…

I have to wear my only other pair of shoes, my "church" shoes (which are of the unsuitable variety) to walk there and I slip and slither on the stony, dusty road as I go. I join the growing crowds of people walking to the market, some with wares to sell on their heads, some with babies strapped to their backs, most barefoot – including some very elderly women – so feel doubly self-conscious about my silly shoes as I scramble along beside them. Robert's shop, when I finally get there, is packed with black shoes: some in pairs and others randomly heaped together on the counter and shelves long separated from their partners, looking like some lonely-hearts club for shoes out on a singles night. At one end of his little shop is his table with shoe lasts, a sewing machine and the other tools of his trade; at the other his shoe-repairing stand. He greets me affectionately, as people do out here: "You are welcome! We love you!" is a typical greeting. And yes, he can repair my shoe today, with either a used piece of heel rubber or a new one, whichever I would prefer – rather like having a retread instead of a new tyre, I suppose - a choice I have certainly never been offered at Timpson's. A short time later my shoe is ready. "Thank you for choosing my establishment to get your shoe mended" he says gravely as he shakes my hand - for all the world as if he thinks that Kanungu is full of rival repair shops all vying for my custom – and I pay him the 3000sh – about £1 - for the new heel plus an expert shoe-shine job. If I walk with a slight limp, due to the fact that one shoe is now a good few millimeters higher than the other, who cares? I have my shoes back and all is well with the world!

The power is off all day today but no-one seems much bothered by this fact. Electricity only arrived here less than a year ago and few even of the houses that have it use it much, fearing it as another drain on their finances and another bill to pay( none of the school staff, incidentally, not even the Headmaster, have electricity!). This means there are very few of the everyday gadgets and machines around that are so much a part of our everyday life in the UK. Most I miss very little: never having been a great television watcher the lack of it doesn't bother me at all. No-one uses kettles out here: we have the luxury of a two-burner calor gas hob for cooking ( although most villagers cook over open fires) and we heat up water for drinks in pans – a bit tedious but perfectly manageable. There is no toaster, indeed there are no kitchen gadgets of any kind; and no hot water at the sink – we wash up in cold. The washing, too, is done in big bowls of cold water on the grass where there is an outside tap. I had forgotten the sheer effort involved in washing sheets and towels by hand! But things dry quickly in the hot midday sun, draped on the hedge, even if they haven't been very well wrung out. However, with so many quiet evenings on my own what I do miss is the radio. The reception up here in the hills is very poor and the wave-lengths change at different times of the day; so that although I have a wind-up short-wave radio – a very thoughtful birthday present – I cannot usually access the BBC World Service for more than a few tantalizing moments at a time. I sit on my bed, feeling like a secret agent in a war-film, twiddling the knob of the radio painfully slowly, hoping to find the exact perfect spot where I will be able to hear voices above the high-pitched whistling, the strange underwater gurgling sounds and the monstrous crackling. If I am lucky enough to find that spot then I must sit in precisely the same position, holding the radio stock still (regardless of the extreme discomfort this inevitably brings) as the slightest movement will result in losing the precious connection. The only benefit of this is that the global financial crisis has passed me by almost entirely – the price of bananas down the road is all I know about – for which many must envy me very deeply….

Sunday arrives and I am up early, determined not to be caught out as I was last week. The College service is at 9.00am: I have had a personal written invitation stating as much, as this is a special 'thanksgiving' service to raise money to buy a keyboard and sound system for the chapel. I arrive promptly only to find that 9.00 is a very approximate start time and a few people are just beginning to set up the keyboard and speakers that have been hired for the day to demonstrate what an asset they would be. A family of birds that nests in the roof swoops in and out as we sit waiting – the building is largely open at the sides as it would be unbearably hot otherwise under the tin roof. At 9.45 we start singing hymns to pass the time – a medley of cheerful gospel-style favourites accompanied by the usual drumming – while people drift in. The two-hundred-odd boarders from Kirima Primary School arrive at about 10.00, more people saunter in, then a while later a priest arrives; and at about 10.30 the service officially starts. This is the very elastic 'Africa time' that I have been warned about! I am more than ready to sit down after 45 minutes of energetic hymn singing - but that was just the warm-up. Still to come are unhurried welcomes and introductions, songs from the children, songs from the choir, hymns for the rest of us – all full of lively clapping, dancing, waving and swaying – as well as, ingeniously absorbed somehow into the middle of all this, the usual order of service. Unused to having an accompanist the choir starts all the singing off rather than the other way round leaving the keyboard player to try to identify the key they are singing in. This involves a lot of trial and error and he usually finds it by the final verse, having effectively ruined the rest of the music with his loudly amplified chromatic wanderings through many keys to get there. The speakers are plugged into several old car batteries as there is no power again today, and from time to time they pick up the keyboard player's mobile phone power-surges which then pulsate through the hall violently. I suspect that I am not the only one who prays that, while of course we all want the money to be raised for the new equipment – Lord, let it not be too soon…

It's 11.30 by now and the sermon is about to begin. Any hopes that this will be short are soon dispelled: just as I think that the preacher – whose delivery is passionately evangelical and longwinded – has finished, he starts to repeat the whole thing in Ruchiga for the benefit of those whose English is not good. The college Principal, has, I note, nodded off beside me and who can blame him? 12.15 arrives and the sermon finally ends; the priest taking the service, however, obviously feeling that the visiting preacher hasn't made his point well enough, reiterates much of what he has said then adds a few points of his own. The gist of their messages is first 'give' and secondly 'plan', both worthy sentiments but neither necessarily improved by the tortuous elaboration to which they have been subjected ...

But now comes the most entertaining part of the service: the collection. Money is given by some but the less well-off have brought produce instead – sticks of sugar cane, pineapples, passion-fruit, eggs, papaya – and even a live hen. These are piled up by the altar, the hen (legs tied together) sitting on a heap of pineapples. We still have the communion part of the service to come which takes place to the accompaniment of loud and reproachful clucking; and at last, at last, at 1.15pm we reach the final blessing. But can we go yet? No! We now have to auction all the produce so that these offerings can be turned into cash. The hen goes first, and I decide to buy the sugar cane for the school children who have sat quietly and uncomplainingly for over three hours and definitely deserve a reward (you cut it into short pieces and suck out the juice). The atmosphere becomes decidedly lively, raucous even, as successive items go up for sale and at 2.15pm I eventually stagger out clutching a bag of passion fruit and a pineapple, unsure whether I've been to a church service or a combination of a concert , a lecture, a party and an aerobics session. I'm exhausted!

I walk up the hill with Mercy and her friend Excellent Jolly (surely the happiest name in the world!) from the Primary School. "Did you feel the earthquake last night?" they ask. I'm relieved that I didn't imagine it, fearing that my juddering bed and rattling windows might merely have been the product of the nightmare-inducing Lariam pill that I take once a week on Saturdays to prevent malaria. I find out later that it registered 5.2 on the Richter scale and had its epicentre in nearby Congo. Because of the weakness in the Earth's crust beneath the Rift Valley these tremors happen quite often, apparently. A moving experience of a different kind to add to the many others I'm having here….

Saturday, 4 October 2008

A Sweet Girl Named Desire


(with apologies to Tennessee Williams…)

Tuesday is Eid and despite the fact that there are very few Muslims in this part of Uganda it is a public holiday: in the country as a whole 11% of the population are Muslim and 85% Christian. However, until the morning itself there has been no confirmation from the District Education Office that schools should close for the day so staff and pupils have mostly arrived. After prayers and singing, the day children are told they may go home: 'Go straight home, mind, and don't play in the mango trees on the way' the Headmaster warns them. I find myself wishing that I knew where these were as I would love a mango but have seen none since arriving; perhaps I should follow the children and find out. I, for my part, am relieved to have a day off as I have developed a nasty sore throat and cough and have almost lost my voice. Having spent years building up resistance, as teachers of young children do, to every known virus in England (and frequently boasting that I never get ill) I have now succumbed to a hefty Ugandan one: many of the children here have runny noses and hacking coughs. Fortunately my 'medical chest' contains cold remedies but I shall resist using my one precious course of antibiotics unless I really have to.

This week's teaching at the Primary School has gone well and I feel I am getting into the swing of things. In addition to several English lessons I have one class for science for which the topic is 'Personal Hygiene'. I take along various items from my sponge bag as visual aids but I quickly realize that few are familiar to the children – for some, possibly not even the comb and soap. Children here have virtually no hair; their heads are shaved or they have just a very fine covering of hair until they are in their teens or older. It is quite difficult to tell girls and boys apart because of this; but it certainly takes away the worries (so ever-present in the UK) about headlice and explains why the bottle of shampoo I have brought along causes such a stir. The toothbrush and toothpaste, similarly, are objects of great curiosity and when I ask how many children have ever seen a toothbrush before not a single hand goes up. A twig, peeled of its bark, is used instead and judging by the gleaming white teeth the children have, and the good state of the adults' teeth too, this method is highly effective. Of course, a diet almost entirely free from sugar must help, although I do wonder how they get sufficient calcium since dairy products are virtually non-existent and milk a great luxury, even for young children. At the end of the lesson I teach them 'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush' (so that we can do the washing actions) but have the greatest difficulty explaining what a 'cold and frosty morning' is – never mind a mulberry bush. To explain frost to children whose climate is never less than warm, and who have never eaten ice-cream nor even seen a refrigerator is something of a challenge! Collecting in their books for marking at the end of the lesson is a salutary experience too; a pile of seventy is quite bad enough to carry, let alone mark, and I quickly work out that even if I only spend two minutes on each it will still take over two hours to complete the task…

One little girl, Desire, stands out from the rest of the class. The phrase "bursting with enthusiasm" must surely have been invented for her: she is bursting out of her dress, her shoes, and almost her own skin in her determination to give answers and share what she knows. She is a funny scrap of a girl, scruffy and unkempt but her answers are always correct and her responses lightning quick. When I drop my chalk, it is she who rushes forward in a flash to pick it up; and she is out of the door before I have even finished asking the class where I might find a board rubber (and returns with a piece of screwed-up paper – I should have known better…). At the end of the P3 science lesson she hangs back until the other children have gone then asks shyly if she may smell my bar of soap, which she does with closed eyes and a look of undisguised pleasure. I wish I could give it to her but I know it would only cause difficulties. However it is in assembly that I notice her most for here she really shines. The singing is usually led by any child who volunteers on the spur of the moment to sing the first line of the hymn and then the first line of each subsequent verse so the other children can follow the tune and the words. Desire is only in P3 and as an eight-year-old would not normally take on this role which is generally that of a P7 child. However she bursts into song boldly and unselfconsciously as the hymn, a lively favourite in the local language, is announced and everyone follows her lead; and, taking herself to the front of the assembled children she breaks into a little dance in time to the music as she sings, clapping in time to her swaying steps. Her face glows with self-absorbed delight as she carries the entire school along with her verse after verse; until eventually the teacher has to tap her on the shoulder to ask her to bring this seemingly endless song to a close, and she skips back to her place smiling contentedly. I marvel at her sweetness and at her sheer zest for life: she is an exceptional little girl. She is one of the fortunate minority, I find out later, who has a CHIFCOD sponsor to pay her school fees, buy her uniform and pay for her board which means that she should be able to continue to the end of her primary schooling even if the crops fail or some other financial disaster befalls her impoverished family. For her and for many others though, secondary education is not guaranteed. It is a good deal more expensive to sponsor a child through secondary school (though still a very modest sum by our standards) and, understandably, fewer people commit to this. I wonder to myself - will this bright, talented, sparky girl become just one more of the numberless children who drop out of school at secondary level because a sponsor did not materialize for her? Details about sponsorship can be found on the CHIFCOD website: www.volunteeruganda.org and I urge, indeed beg, anyone who might have it within their means to do so to consider this – especially at secondary level. In terms of an opportunity do something worthwhile for a fellow human being it could hardly be bettered. Desire, and so many others like her, deserves the bright future that could so easily be hers – but might so easily be denied her. So much hangs in the balance out here….

The staff have lunch in a classroom and I am enjoying getting to know my new colleagues as we eat. They have wonderful movie-star names – Godfrey, Anton, Warren, Gloria, Victoria, Robert, Justine – and are mostly young and all very friendly. One question you never ask here is "What's for lunch today?" because lunch is the same every day. There is a pot of dried beans plainly cooked in their own juices; and posho, the maize porridge drunk at breaktime which when left to cool, sets into a solid mass that can be sliced or broken into chunks. We sometimes also have matoke (cooked plantain) as an extra treat. We all wash our hands outside first, taking it in turns to hold the big yellow water carrier marked 'staff' for the next person in the queue and to pour water over their hands onto the grass – there is no soap or towel but it's good just to rinse off the morning's chalk dust and grime. Somebody sends a child off to find me a fork – not that I have asked for one, but I am quite relieved not to have to use my fingers as the others do as I know I would make a dreadful mess with the beans! Despite the simplicity of the diet here I feel I am eating quite healthily. A typical meal in a middle-class Ugandan home would usually consist of several starchy foods – sweet potatoes, rice, matoke perhaps; some vegetables such as carrots or cabbage and either bean stew or a small amount of stewed meat. The meat, despite long cooking, is invariably tough and chewy and chicken generally a pile of little bones from which you must try to extricate a few mouthfuls of sinewy flesh. For the majority of the village people here, though, meat is only eaten at most once or twice a year – at special celebrations like weddings, say - and all of the good produce they grow is sold to give them the cash for basic day-to-day essentials like clothes, so they eat extremely poorly. For people with the cash to buy them, pineapples and bunches of tiny sweet bananas are everywhere, a limited choice of starchy root vegetables available, eggs fairly easy to come by and a kind of sliced bread which I can best describe as like the gluten-free loaves you buy in health shops – spongy, dense and apt to stick to your teeth – quite widely available. Dairy products are nowhere to be seen as without refrigeration they just don't keep; so the diet is very low in fat. A special variety of Blue Band margarine that will keep unrefrigerated is the only spread available – slimy and bright yellow, it has little to recommend it – so it pairs up quite well with the bread! Oddly enough, there is nothing I really miss or crave for; even the big bar of chocolate I brought with me remains unopened in my suitcase. In the context of such poverty food ceases to be the higher-order, pleasure-seeking activity it has become in the developed world. Boiled potatoes with a tasty pink sauce made from peanut flour has become one of my favourite dishes but on the whole eating is a functional rather than a gastronomic experience here and the world of the foams, mousses and amuses gueules of Michelin-starred restaurants seems a million miles away. This is not to cast aspersions on haute cuisine – I am the first to enjoy a good meal ; more an observation about the curious place of food in our lives - and our ability to adapt our expectations to new environments! What's more, it's over three weeks since I had a glass of wine and my body seems perfectly content with unremitting bottled water, somewhat to my surprise – I hope to come back in December a few pounds lighter and thoroughly detoxed!


Dear Blog Followers – thank you for your comments and emails which I have found so encouraging. I'm surprised and delighted that so many people are taking such an interest in the blog – it's something I really enjoy writing and it's great to be able share my experiences with you!