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….