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…


Katherine said...

Grandmotherly half term duties allowed only a quick glimpse at last weeks blog, so I have enjoyed my first leisurely morning for some time catching up with 2 weeks worth of blog. Much more entertaining than the Sunday papers, thank you!
Lots of love
Katherine xx

Sarah said...

It's very sad to read of children's early experience of bereavement - though I guess if we asked them a lot of children here in the UK would have sad stories to tell as well. It'll be interesting to see how they take to the creative writing. It must be a great feeling for both teachers and pupils to be able to use the textbooks - I hope you feel a glow of pleasure at the results of your fundraising campaign.

The vegetation sounds wonderful. In the dull greyness of mid February, it's lovely to feel the warm scented air of rural Uganda evoked by your descriptions.

I always look forward to reading your blog - thank you so much for taking the time to write about so many aspects of life in Kirima.

Best love,


David said...

I continue to read your Blog with great interest. You are definitely in the Blogosphere with loyal audience of Joe Bloggs and others even if you haven't yet climbed into the Charts. Your heavy water stories remind me of my hols in Burgundy where I do the same watercarrying and have long felt the impact on my back!
Love David C