Saturday, 7 March 2009

Census Sensibility

Hamlet and Kellen have had to return to Kampala. As they leave Hamlet asks me if I would mind deputising for him as Guest of Honour at the High School's Award of Offices ceremony on Sunday. The outgoing school captains and monitors are to be awarded certificates of achievement and the new officers officially sworn in: these things are taken very seriously here and elections have been held after vigorous campaigning by the candidates, with full democratic process observed. There is a long list of offices which in addition to the usual leadership posts offer such opportunities as health monitor, food monitor and time-keeping monitor – the latter possibly the most challenging that any Ugandan organization could offer….

I should know better than to arrive at the stated start time, 9.30am – but as Guest of Honour I feel that I must set a good example and be punctual. I am delighted to be making the 'heavenly journey' for a second time this week; by now I know the route well and have given my own pet names to familiar landmarks - Rwanda Viewpoint, Morning Glory Corner, Blossom Boulevard, Bird-swoop Avenue, Frog-croak Hollow, Pot-hole pass – and despite the heavy overnight rain, Ham gets me to the High School unmuddied and relatively shevelled - if that is the opposite of dishevelled. I am met by a relaxed air of general unreadiness and the secretary in curlers. Hair curlers, usually large straightening rollers, are tantamount to a fashion accessory here – women shop in them, walk round the village in them and even sit down to dinner in them. Perhaps they are part of her outfit today rather than a sign of tardiness, I speculate to myself? Certainly everyone has dressed up for the occasion in no uncertain terms, with the deputy head, a very attractive lady at any time, in an outfit that would not have been out of place at the Oscar ceremonies, complete with a pair of glamorous silver stilettos. Even in the smartest clothes I can muster and my boldest accessories I feel distinctly under-dressed, and definitely under-pressed: the hot-charcoal iron rules supreme here and men's shirts and trousers, however decrepit, have creases so sharp that you fear for your safety…

The ceremony starts a couple of hours late but even then the secretary's curlers are still in place and the invited local dignitaries have not arrived: it turns out later that, due to some typing oversight, their invitations stated 1.00pm as the starting time – so they turn up at 2.00pm, just in time for lunch. A long service with lots of wonderful African-style singing and dancing and a fifty-minute sermon poignantly reminding the congregation about Lent and the virtues of hunger and self-denial, moves seamlessly into the ceremony itself and, of course, many speeches, hand-shakes and exhortations. Each monitor is sworn in, bible in hand, with a degree of seriousness that would not have been amiss at Barack Obama's inauguration and, in thanks for their service, the outgoing officials are given the Ugandan equivalent of the silver trophies or shields we are used to: a humble plastic plate or a glass beaker each. When the turn comes for me to make my speech, I experience an unexpected stirring of emotion. Seeing this hall full of young people already so proud and committed to their school, a Headmaster so passionate about the success of it, a staff so determined to achieve the best by their pupils, and knowing that it has been created almost entirely by the efforts of Highgate School pupils and parents is very moving – all the more so when, as a local man reminds me later, he can remember this site being the stamping ground of elephants and buffalo, it having been reclaimed from the Queen Elizabeth National Park less than fifty years ago. The Headmaster in his speech reminds everyone that "even tiny Nursery children worked to raise the money to build this school": it is such a marvellous achievement, and seeing the new buildings going up around the campus – thanks to further generosity by parents – hugely uplifting. The Headmaster announces that, in order to give very poor local children the opportunity to attend the school, a number of day-places will be offered at a very low cost – the local radio has just broadcast this news so more new pupils should soon be arriving – and this is a wonderful development. I am thrilled to see that my new 'sponsor daughter' Asanasi, despite only having arrived ten days ago, has already made such an impression that she has been elected as a class monitor. She looks so happy when I see her! Ronald, the other recent arrival has also settled in well –and now has a sponsor, I am delighted to report. The Headmaster introduces me to another newcomer, a girl. "This is Happy" he says – and proceeds to tell me of a life anything but happy which has led her - both her parents having died – to simply turn up alone at the school last week, miles from her home town, and ask for a place. She has no-one to speak for her and has brought nothing with her. Another girl has offered to share her bunk with her as she has no mattress; so the two teenage girls sleep head to toe together for the time being, and someone has lent her a uniform. I promise to bring the money for her mattress and other items with me on Friday; and I say that I am sure that I can find her a sponsor. Is there someone reading this who might help this girl – who shows every sign of being a determined, brave individual? Double orphans are a heavy burden on already impoverished families and it would seem that she simply has no-one to care for her…

Many thanks are expressed during the morning to "our friends in England" – especially for the new text books that have now transformed the library from one tiny cupboard to a whole shelved room with labelled subject sections. Wonderful! The Headmaster also publicly thanks the senders of book parcels from the UK for the school: a few have arrived and have been so much appreciated. "We want to promote a reading culture in this school" he says. The students urgently need more fiction books to read, though – the handful that they have just aren't enough to go round. Could I make a plea for more parcels containing a few paperbacks – any good 'young adult' stories, simple classics or adventure stories – from charity shops or your own bookshelves? One boy has especially requested Shakespeare plays! Many books have arrived for the primary school, which is marvellous – but few for the older pupils. The address is Great Lakes High School, PO Box 50, Kanungu, W.Uganda. A hundred parcels each containing two or three books would fill those yawning library shelves – and so much enrich the lives of the pupils. I should not keep asking, when people have already been so generous, for more - but if you could see the desperation for resources you would hopefully not mind my begging for just a bit more help….

I have started the book about CHIFCOD that I am writing with Hamlet and it is proving to be a fascinating and absorbing story to document. What began with three families starting a little Nursery school for their six children in a tiny mud village house fourteen years ago has grown into an organization running four primary schools, a high school and a college as well as reaching deep into the communities in which these institutions function to support families in all sorts of non-educational ways. For example in 2004 CHIFCOD (which stands for Child to Family Community Development), with the support of a Lottery grant, brought fourteen tap-stands to the village supplying 40,000 people with water. This grant also paid for a village ambulance to be purchased and a three-year health education programme set up to raise awareness of disease prevention, safe sanitation and domestic hygiene. CHIFCOD has also set up village banks, a micro-finance company to fund small businesses, a grinding facility where villagers can bring their grain to be milled and all sorts of other projects. All of this has been achieved through the determination, vision and energy of Hamlet Mbabaze: it is at once the story of one man and yet also that of the many people who have enabled him to achieve that dream for his community – and still do so today. CHIFCOD is supported by groups from America and Germany as well as several different parts the UK; wherever Hamlet goes, it would seem, he inspires those that he meets to become a part of his unquenchable ambition to improve the lives of the children and their families in his homeland. Gradually I am piecing together the complex picture of how and why the different schools came into being. Each one is supported by a different group of people: Nyamarama School was built largely through American supporters whom Hamlet met when studying there, while Rutenga school was created with funding from a German church that he once visited. Members of St Michael's Church, Highgate formed the Friends of Kirima organization which helped build and expand Kirima School; and the High School was, of course, created with money raised by Highgate School. Other churches and schools– in Hull, Kent, Guilford and London – are also affiliated to the organization, as is the Rotary foundation: many, many people worldwide have contributed to this community transformation – even more now, through the blog - and though most will never see for themselves what has been achieved they have all played a part in its remarkable story. With so much in the world to disappoint our opinion of humanity, a story like this speaks of the best of it: a worldwide reaching out to those in need with no expectation of gratitude or recognition, done simply in a spirit of compassion and trust. I feel privileged to be one of the few people to witness first-hand the reward of so much generosity - in time as well as money – and of such sheer human goodness….

As part of my background research I trek up the hill to Kanungu one hot afternoon to visit the government offices, hoping to get some statistical information about the district. After allaying some initial suspicion about my request –after all, why should a mujungu be snooping around asking for information about the local population? – I am eventually entrusted with the 2002 census return. It makes fascinating reading: I learn that only 4% of the population in Kanungu district live in housing deemed to be made from 'permanent materials', 80% depend on subsistence farming for their livelihood and 99% use firewood or charcoal for cooking. Only 4% of the population are over 60 – which means that if I were Ugandan I would be one of the lucky few of my age still alive, a sobering thought. The statistics on literacy are a damning indictment of the system: 29% of those who have attended school are illiterate - compared with only 23% of those who never attended school! The statistics about poverty are equally grim; only 28% of children have a blanket and 37% of the population own a pair of shoes. Less than 2% own all the household items deemed essential for basic welfare and 37% own none on the list. Of course, this information is several years old now; but from anecdotal evidence little has changed. For most, life is a daily struggle to survive….

Marking P7's English homework has given some light relief from statistics and French verbs, however. We have been learning about nouns with gender differences and as usual there have been some inventive variations on the language as we know it. It makes a lot of sense, I feel, to call the masculine version of a Duchess 'a Dutch'; and a 'gandress' would seem sensible to team up with a gander. I'm not sure that a female heir, however, would want to be known as 'hairless'; but, far worse, pity the poor counterpart of a bachelor – who, one child writes, is called a 'sphincter'. An open-and-shut case for getting married, I'd say….


Anonymous said...

amazing, amazing, amazing.
out of this world ! It is so thrilling to
read your blog about another corner
of the earth. I can really picture the
scenery from the way you described it.
Enjoy the sunshine and keep the blog
posts going, if you have time in between
writing the book for hamlet.
Watch out for those ants and other beasties.
and I must draw attention to your use of the
word "shevelled", I think if you check
a dictionary etc ..

Sarah said...

Those census statistics make sobering reading. In some ways it sounds like another planet, and yet it's a world of parents and children and friends all trying to help each other and do their best - yet they have so very little in material terms, and we have and waste so much.

It's great to read your blog every week and be reminded that however stressful life sometimes seems to be here, it's nothing compared with the stress of living in poverty and having no welfare state. You bring it all to life so vividly - both the beauty of the landscape and the challenges of people's daily lives.

Your comments about the ants and other biting creatures made me wonder whether you had a mosquito net yourself? I do hope so ...

David said...

Wonderful account ,Julia ,and another vivid insight into life in W Uganda. Will spread the word about book parcels and send one soon.
I might be able to persuade a lot of lonely old sphincters to open up their purses to contribute. Some worthy folk might part with family hairlooms or other such devices for weaving blankets or shirts.
Hope you keep well.
love DAVID C