Friday, 27 February 2009

Strange Antics


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 February 2009

Heaven Scent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Egg-layer


Walking through the village for the first time – on my way to Kanungu for the weekly shop at the market on Saturday – a succession of people call out and wave as I pass: "Madame! Welcome back!" or sometimes just "Well back!" or even "You were lost!" which I translate optimistically as "We missed you" – unless they really do think that I have been wandering about Uganda for the last few weeks trying to find my way back to the village….?

Half way up the hill a motor bike pulls up and as he removes his helmet (he is the only person I have met so far who wears one…) I see that it is the Reverend from the Cathedral. Is he going to ask me to preach on Sunday, I panic - already? But no, he wants to tell me that he has been moved to another church some way from here so won't be around very much. He is clearly unhappy about this and proceeds to pour out a tale of woe. He has been sent to an area beyond Kihihi, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a remote and fiercely tribal village - the Ugandan equivalent of being banished to Siberia. "It is a dangerous place" he says. "Because of the rebels and the fighting?" I ask. "No - because of the witch-doctors" he replies in hushed tones. "I cannot take my wife there or she will die. So she will remain here and I will travel back when I have the time". With fear in his voice he explains that every priest before him who has gone there has lost a member of his family: the local people do not like strangers in their midst and so the witch-doctors put a curse on a member of the priest's family so that they will leave – or die, whichever happens first. The last priest's young wife died suddenly and Reverend John is not going to let the same thing happen again. I try to gently suggest that all these deaths might have been from a conventional illness – a heart attack, perhaps, or an infection - but he is having none of it. "No, no, these men are very dangerous and powerful" he says. "They even do it to each other!" Once a curse has been put on someone, it can only be removed by another witch-doctor – and in a case like this they put on a united front of non co-operation towards the unwelcome outsider. Perhaps the Bishop will intervene and send him somewhere else if he explains his fears, I suggest? But no, he has been sent to this area actually because, he suspects, he has upset the Bishop in some way. Feelings run high in church politics round here and factions of supporters of one or other church dignitary mutter and murmur about each other constantly. I wonder what this mild-mannered man could have done to upset the Bishop so much. True, I have seen him take a call on his mobile phone during the Rural Dean's sermon on one occasion but this surely can't be reason enough for expulsion from the fold…? "I think I have been sent there to die" he mutters darkly as he sets off towards his new and unwanted workplace. It seems incredible that his Christian faith cannot sustain him and give him more confidence in standing up to these primitive forces: but, pondering on the complex nature of the human mind as I walk on up the hill, I reflect on how vulnerable we are and how readily influenced, whether to buy a face-cream that will knock years off our face or to trust financial institutions with our money ( I am guilty on both counts needless to say...). There are well-disguised con-men everywhere and none of us is immune to their persuasive powers, it would seem. Although people are reluctant to admit it, black magic is still practised covertly in parts of Uganda: in the newspaper this week we learn that eleven witch doctors have been arrested near to Kampala "in connection with the discovery of a headless body" - but I am hastily reassured by everyone I ask that nothing like that goes on round here….or does it, I wonder…?

On Sunday there is further gloom at the church: not only is the Reverend missing, but most of the hymn-books as well. Light-fingered (and presumably music-loving) members of the congregation have, over the last few weeks, been sneaking these flimsy booklets out at the end of services and today we have only a handful left to share amongst a congregation consisting of all the Kirima School children, the staff and pupils of another local school and everyone else besides. Nothing daunted we sing about a dozen hymns, mumbling incomprehensibly, making up words as best we can or just repeating the first line over and over again- a very feeble performance compared with the usual joyful, roof-raising experience. Worse, the visiting priest announces, there can be no Holy Communion today as the church has run out of funds and cannot even afford to buy the wine and the wafers. We trudge out into the sunlight feeling thoroughly contrite after a reproachful sermon based on the text "You have turned my house into a den of thieves" and with a shared sense of guilt that the few of us who can afford to have not been putting enough into the collection recently. Even holy places are not immune from credit-crunch misery, it would seem….

But if all is not well in the church, then at the Primary School there is great rejoicing. At a special assembly I officially hand over the boxes full of text books and the toys for the Nursery to much clapping and excitement. When I make the announcement that the boarders will soon all have mosquito nets there is an audible squeal of delight and an outburst of spontaneous applause. It is a lovely moment, and I quickly tell them that it is not I who has provided all these things but children and grownups in England, who have sent them with love and friendship to help them with their school life. The staff are as delighted as the pupils, I think, and the text books are put to immediate use in the morning's lessons – "We are very grateful, Madame Julia, to your good friends who have done this" they say, shaking me by the hand vigorously one by one. Dennis, the deputy head, finds me at the end of the day and relates, almost with incredulity, how for the first time he has been able to give the class maths text books and tell them to turn to a page and get on with the work. " I didn't have to write it all on the board!" he says exultantly "and they all worked so hard! This is wonderful!" I then spend some time with Godfrey opening parcels of books that have arrived from England (and indeed Australia!) – lovely books of all sorts, stories that have clearly been carefully chosen to be suitable, reference books, books about sport and nature – they are delightful and just right, and I am glad to have the chance to look at the names of the senders on the back and to be able to think of each one with a personal "Oh, how good of them!" – some close friends and family, others whom I haven't seen for a long time, past pupils and parents for example. I know these cost a lot to post but truly, each package is a wonderful gift to these children and will bring so much pleasure. More are on their way, I know; the post here is very slow indeed and I myself have only just received a parcel that was posted to me last October! The Nursery children are fascinated by their new toys: slightly in awe of them at first, they examine them carefully piece by piece as if unsure of quite what to do with them - but they quickly get the hang of them and love them so much that they cry when they are put away and say they don't want to go home! The staff seem as enthralled as the children with the construction kits and sit happily making models alongside them lost in a world of their own. "I think I should have been an engineer not a teacher!" Robert beams proudly, admiring his complex arrangement of cogs and wheels…

At the High School too there is great excitement at the arrival of their new text books, and the news that they too will receive mosquito nets shortly. With all the building work and improvements that are in progress, there is a sense of great excitement about the place and they hold a special assembly out in the sunshine in which they sing a newly-composed song of thanks accompanied by a traditional dance with much whooping and clapping to show their appreciation. Once again, I tell them, it is not I who has made these things possible but the combined efforts of many people from far across the sea in England: I am only a representative for them. Everyone – staff and pupils alike – is palpably grateful and I only wish you could all be there to see this happy celebration and know how much your support means to them. Spirits are high in this little corner of Uganda!

For me, returning to the village for a second time has been so much easier than the first and it has been almost effortless to adjust back to the simple way of life here – indeed, quite a relief after the over-indulgence of Christmas. Even the fact that the hot shower has now, due to some defect in the chancy Ugandan wiring, been reduced to a cold one, hasn't caused too much anguish - washing my hair under the chilling cascade does take a bit of stoicism but I tell myself that it's really no different from going swimming: one gasp and the worst is over. Buying 'Joy' toilet paper again – so undeniably well -named, since vastly superior to the only other brand available which resembles a kind of grey sandpaper – and yesterday's newspapers, now thoughtfully available in two choices, 'read' and 'unread', both at the same price - and all the other endearing eccentricities of Kanungu shopping life, has been a pleasurable voyage of rediscovery especially when accompanied by the warm greetings of the shopkeepers. The diet, too, has quickly become familiar again. I have, alas, missed the short mango season but aubergines are abundant now – round, fat, purple ones rather than the tiny white eggplants we ate before. However after consuming aubergine stew five nights running, and with nothing much to add to them bar the odd tomato, even this favourite vegetable has begun to pall. So eating a boiled bantam's egg today brings a degree of pleasure totally disproportionate to its small size and I savour every mouthful. Eggs are a luxury here: they are expensive as although many people keep hens they do so mostly for breeding and, when they are past that, eating – tough and chewy though they have become in their old age. To eat two eggs at one sitting would be regarded as the height of extravagance so an omelette here is a delicate little thing requiring a good deal of supplementary support from the ubiquitous matoke and rice – but oh, so delicious! Hamlet and Kellen's hens, meanwhile, have been confined to their henhouse since the owner of the neighbouring banana field has complained about their trespassing and bad behaviour: their vigorous pecking and careless foraging have allegedly uprooted the bean seedlings growing under the trees. Fowl play is suspected....

At the Primary School I enjoy being reunited with the children and hearing their charming, old-fashioned, misspelled names again – Apophia, Daughter, Liry, Penlope (sic), Shillah, Moreen, Babrah, Scovia, Miliam, Shallon, – and, of course, getting back into the teaching routine. Today I have been asked to help them write replies to letters sent by a school in Yorkshire and I suggest that they try to describe their home lives and what they do after school: this of course, makes chastening and sometimes moving reading as they describe – quite factually and unemotionally – the realities of their leisure time: fetching water and firewood, grazing the animals, washing, sweeping, cooking and digging. One ten year old boy says "When I reach home I fetch water and wash my clothes and also my sister's. Then I go to sell pancakes to look for my school fees. After selling pancakes I give the money to my mother and then it is late and I go to sleep". Another says "I live with my stepmother because my mother went back to her father's house. My stepmother does not love me as well as her own children. But God cares for me". When parents divorce, the mother is sent back to her parents, regardless of whose fault the breakdown was, and the children stay with the father. Sadly, mistreatment by the new stepmother is not uncommon and existing children often become virtual servants to the new family, or, as in this case, feel unloved and unwanted. Some are even less fortunate: "I don't have parents but I have a guardian. I am female and an orphan and each day I thank God that I am still alive" one young girl relates unselfpityingly. I do get a few smiles, though: from Obed who says he enjoys playing 'folly-ball' – the perfect description for one particular team sport I can think of – and Precious who says she 'cleans the house by moping'- presumably a few tears help to shift the dust. One letter even ends with an unexpected reference to me: " Teacher Julia always teaches us English and RE and she is a well-behaved woman" - so you can all stop worrying about what I have been getting up to!

It's lovely to be back….

Friday, 6 February 2009

Spending Time in Kampala

I look out of the window of the aeroplane at the still, white landscape as we prepare for take-off and heave a sigh of relief. It is the Tuesday after "Snowstorm Monday" and it looked uncertain at one point whether I would even make it to Heathrow, let alone Kampala. But the car ride to the airport has, aside from a detour due to an accident, been uneventful and the flight is on time. Compared with this first hurdle, getting my luggage onto the plane intact has been infinitely more stressful. My two cases are packed to bursting with toys, books, footballs, skipping ropes and teaching materials and both, I suspect, are well over the weight limit. Heaving them onto the luggage belt as I check in I feel as apprehensive as a wayward member of Weight-Watchers standing on the scales after Christmas dinner. "This one is 6 kilos over the limit" I am told disapprovingly by the stern lady at the desk. "You will have to take something out – or pay £40 for each extra three kilos". "They are full of things for children at a poor rural school in Uganda" I say pleadingly. "Couldn't you make an exception?" As she shakes her head and tells me tut-tuttingly about the airline's strict baggage policy I make a quick mental check of what I might remove. Should it be the three large packs of mature cheddar cheese that I know Hamlet is so fond of? The four heavy tomes I have ordered from Amazon for Godfrey's MA course? The large tin of biscuits I have brought as a late Christmas present for the staff? In any event, I am determined not to leave behind a single item that is for the children. Ah! How about my least favourite item in the case: my new pair of heavy, sensible shoes…? As I agonize, a voice behind me – the roving floor manager I assume, who has been eavesdropping on the exchange – says kindly " It's alright - let them go through." The flood of relief that I feel is, however, short-lived as the check-in lady says, with a small note of revenge in her voice, "Now, please put your hand luggage on the scales". Oh dear! My rucksack contains almost an entire reading scheme, a bulging learning support file and about two hundred pencils – to say nothing of my own personal library of paperbacks to last the next three months. With a sinking heart I haul it up onto the belt. "It's far too heavy! Security will never allow you to take that on board!" my opponent cries triumphantly. I smile as sweetly as I know how and say "Well look, I'll just give it a try and if security tells me to take something out then I will". "They'll never let it through" she sniffs, as I beat a hasty retreat.

"It's full of books…." I start to explain helpfully to the man at security as together we heave the bag up onto the x-ray machine belt. "Bit of a heavy reader, are you?" he quips, and before I can expand any further – and without so much as a reprimand - lets me through. Phew! My guardian angel is with me today. Now I just have to endure two hours in the departure lounge with the weighty backpack then somehow get it into the overhead compartment on the plane - and the rest of the trip will surely be a piece of cake….

Stepping out onto the runway at Kampala a wall of mid-morning heat hits me and the thin clothes that had seemed so inadequate in the icy chill of England are within minutes sticking uncomfortably to my back. Hamlet is there to meet me and full of excitement at the prospect of the afternoon's shopping that lies ahead. The Net-Book appeal has – thanks to the amazing generosity of so many including a very kind last-minute donation to 'round it up' – reached an incredible £6000, and Godfrey, the Headmaster of Kirima Primary School, has come to Kampala to meet me so that we can buy the text books for the school. A teacher from the Great Lakes High School is also meeting us for the same purpose. Hamlet has found a local company who can supply treated mosquito nets more cheaply than the supplier we had found in Kampala so these will be purchased in Kanungu once we are back. As we drive away from Entebbe I talk to Hamlet about how the £6000 can best, and most fairly, be spent. Since so much more has been raised than I could ever have hoped, I suggest tentatively that perhaps some of it could be spent on bunks for Nyamarama Primary School, the remote CHIFCOD school in the Rift Valley that recently started taking boarders but has not yet been able to afford to buy beds for them. I feel sure that contributors to the appeal would be happy with this since the children cannot be given mosquito nets unless they first have beds: this is a highly malarial area and, sleeping on mattresses on the floor as they do, the children are extremely vulnerable. Hamlet turns to me in astonishment: Benon, the headmaster, has been on the phone every day this week, he tells me, desperately begging for some money for this very purpose, but Hamlet felt he could not give money that had been collected specifically for nets and books. "Can I ring him straight away and tell him?" he says, and, still weaving skillfully through the chaotic Kampala traffic, he calls Benon to tell him the news. Even from the other side of the car I can hear Benon's enthusiastic response, a sound very like something between crowing and crying. This has clearly made his day….

As well as beds and books, today's shopping list has grown exponentially due to two outstandingly generous individual donations made by different Highgate School parents at the start of this term. These have meant that development work at the Great Lakes High School that had been halted due to lack of funds can now, thankfully, be restarted. Two further classrooms and accommodation for resident staff are being built, a new and safer water supply and improved sanitation fitted, science labs equipped and doors and windows fitted to the formerly 'open plan' classrooms - and there is no time to be wasted. After a quick bite of lunch Hamlet and I go to meet the other members of the shopping team in central Kampala: a lorry has been hired so all purchases must be made today and driven back to Kinkiisi tomorrow. Six of us sit huddled in the car - which is parked outside the bravely-named 'Run Dental Clinic' – and, with the afternoon rain drumming on the roof and the windows steaming up in the heat, the shopping tasks are allocated. Hamlet pulls a thick wad of notes from his pocket – everything is dealt with in cash here, and with 3000 shillings to the pound, sums quickly reaches the millions. He licks a finger and counts out a pile of notes. " Justus: pipes, roof sheets, boards, toilet bowls, cement. And a septic tank. Go". Another pile of notes is counted after a few quick phone calls to compare prices: " Livingstone: bunk beds. Triples not doubles – I've cleared it with the inspectors. Twenty five sets with poles for mosquito nets. Go." " Godfrey" he continues tersely " – books. If they're out of stock pay for them and ask for them to be sent: we can trust these people" He hands over another pile of notes. This is beginning to feel like a gangster movie or the pay-out after a bank raid and I can hardly wait to see what I will be asked to do – as long as it doesn't involve driving the get-away vehicle, in this case a large and lumbering lorry well past it's sell-by date…. In the event I accompany Godfrey to the educational bookshops and spend a joyful couple of hours filling cardboard boxes with books and ticking them off on a long list: every class at the primary school now has text-books for the five core subjects. "This is a happy day" Godfrey smiles.

Kampala is as hot, dusty, noisy and fume-filled as I remember it: traffic chokes the roads, boda-bodas weave recklessly between the cars and pedestrians must beware: vehicle-users reign supreme here and if you risk crossing the road between the almost-stationary cars you take your life in your hands: they will continue inching forward whether you are in their path or not.…but it is good to be back, and I am looking forward so much to seeing the children and the villagers back in Kinkiisi (I had to laugh at the blog-reader who thanked me for explaining that this is pronounced 'Chin-cheesy' as he says that otherwise it might have sounded like a description of my taste in tights!). On Thursday morning I go to a supermarket to stock up with a few emergency supplies. All sorts of tempting western-style products are available here, at a price: Rose's Lime Marmalade at £6 a jar, a chunk of Edam cheese for a fiver, and even boxes of South African wine – but I resolutely turn my back on the soft life and allow myself two tins of tuna, two jars of peanut butter and a small bag of foreign-looking muesli which will, even with water, be a useful standby when the larder is empty.

We set off a little later than planned after a fruitless search for barium powder for Kellen's mother who has ulcers and needs to have a barium-meal x-ray. As well as paying for the x-ray she must first buy her own barium - and none of the six pharmacies we visit has any. I remember thankfully the excellent, free and thorough care that my own mother received in hospital after Christmas – one of the many things that have given me a heightened sense of gratitude over the holidays. Posting a letter in a letter box and knowing it will be delivered by hand a day or two later; walking on pavements and driving on smooth roads; the first, and every subsequent hot bath; the magical speed and immediacy of broadband. The list is long and this renewed sense of pleasure in everyday things surprisingly sharp: there are so many things I have taken for granted that coming out here has allowed me to appreciate very much more intensely….

The journey from Kampala seems surprisingly familiar now: the changing landscape, the teeming towns and villages, the progression of roadside stalls - one selling drums, another fish, and one selling plucked birds which the driver tells me are "guinea fools" – surely the perfect name for our financial managers back in the UK….? We speed along the good stretches of road then struggle slowly along the bad ones, some sections more closely resembling a roughly ploughed field than a major highway linking Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo with Kampala and with Kenya beyond. Stopping only to buy hot grilled matoke for lunch, at dusk we reach the magical hidden valley cloaked in the deep undulating folds of hills , once covered with jungle but now green with banana trees, that leads to Kanungu; and arrive at Hamlet's house at nightfall. Justine and Novias rush out to greet me with such excitement that I almost fall over. " Our mother has returned!" they laugh and certainly I feel that I have come, if not home, then to a home-from-home.

Lying under my mosquito net listening to the soothing sounds of the Ugandan night – the drone of crickets, a solitary axe chopping wood, the muffled murmur of distant voices - I reflect on all that has happened since I left here in early December. First and foremost the response to the Net-Book appeal, to my pleas for more sponsors and for general support for CHIFCOD has been so uplifting: it has left me with the overriding certainty of the goodness, compassion and generosity of people and their desire to help their fellow-humans. I can't thank you enough for giving so warmly and willingly: for those of you who organized pre-Christmas social events to raise funds; to friends who contacted small charities who then contributed generously; to the thoughtful twenty-something relative who has given up smoking and used the money saved to sponsor a child; to the husband and wife who both 'gave' each other a child to sponsor as their Christmas gifts; to the members of staff at one school who gave to the appeal instead of buying each other presents; and to the many, many of you who simply signed cheques or donated via the website with such open-handed generosity. I had hoped to raise perhaps £2000 for my appeal and the total was three times this figure: I am so tremendously grateful to you all. To those of you who have contributed so significently to CHIFCOD's general work I also give deeply-felt thanks. Every penny of that money is going directly to improve the children's lives and next week I will report on how it has been spent, and the effect it has had. It is a great privilege to act as a channel for your kindness and I hope you will all feel the gratitude of the little community here winging its way across the air-waves to you! For the parcels of books, too, that so many of you sent off before and after Christmas, I thank you enormously. Again, more about that in the coming week or two – but be assured that their arrivals are causing great excitement! Three groups of school children also deserve a special mention: my former school, St Edmund's in Canterbury where the Pre-Prep raised a substantial amount to donate to the NetBook appeal; my even-more-recently-former school, Highgate Pre-Prep School, who raised money to buy equipment for the Nursery at Kirima; and Highgate Junior School who collected a huge number of books - and the money to ship them out. Thank you all!

It has been touching too to have heard so many people say over Christmas and New Year: "We've been following the blog", "We really enjoy the blog "- and even one who said " I think most of North London is reading the blog"! Friends, family, pupils, parents, friends-of-friends….I am so surprised and delighted that what began as a way of recording my experiences largely for my own selfish reasons has become the means of bringing the daily lives of the people in this very remote, poverty-stricken village to an astonishingly wide and distant audience. Such are the wonders of modern technology! Thank you, so very much, for your support, interest and enthusiasm – and, most especially, for your marvellous generosity. This has been the best possible of starts to the new school year here – and you have made it so.