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….


Sarah said...

How awful about the ants! But how wonderful that you were in a position to sponsor the girl who so much wanted a place at the school. It's such a simple thing to do, yet that education is something that she will never lose and that noone can take away from her as long as she lives, whatever her material or family circumstances. I hope others who read your blog will feel able to do the same.

Sorry about the goat. It does seem a bit hard - but I'm sure those who had a chance to see him on his way enjoyed every mouthful!

Best love,

Sarah x

Nitasha said...

Dear Julia,
The ant attack sound sterrible- you poor thing- talk about a rather stressful start to the day! Youdid very well to recover and get to class all in a matter of minutes.Your accounts of sponsorship money and the desperate lack of it coupled with the huge need is very humbling indeed. One can only hope that more children get sponsored and can manage to get a decent education.

DO be careful of those ants!

Much love,
Nitasha xx

Dot said...

Hi Julia

Ouch! The ant story was quite uncomfortable to read - I dread to think how awful it was to go through the actual experience! Hope the bites didn't leave you with lasting itches or pain - we have fire ants here that leave angry rashes after you are bitten!

It was so inspiring to hear of the students that weren't turned away from the High School despite having no money. I am sure there are many that are not so fortunate. I hope that you get many more sponsors - I will certainly be trying to see if I can find some here in Australia.

Great to hear the nets have arrived and are so gratefully received! It must be fantastic to be there and to see so much excitement and happiness. Well done for the great idea and making it happen!

Much love, Dot x

David said...

Its so lovely to hear your stories of what its like to be in close contact with the animal kingdom ! Not always comfortable but very humbling and piercing into human dignity. I had similar thoughts yesterday when visiting Darwin's house at Downe and seeing creepy crawlies that he collected. Also getting the idea of his discomort aboard the Beagle. I went back to the pub where you and I drank cider all those years ago. Love DAVID