The weekend starts inauspiciously: there is no electricity on Saturday morning and Justine has heard on the local radio that it will not be reconnected until Monday. Little do I know that it will, in fact, be off for most of the coming week and that I shall spend several long evenings in total darkness listening gratefully to podcasts….
This is a blow as I have earmarked Saturday to work all day on the book, and my laptop's battery has all but run out. Determined not to be thwarted I hit on a plan: I will walk up to Kanungu and take my laptop to a small shop that does a steady trade in charging up mobile phones: they have a generator so should be able to recharge the battery. As I set off I get a phone call to say that Sunday's projected trip to Lake Bunyoni, a local beauty spot, has been postponed for a second time due to car problems. Trailing up the hill in the heat I feel a bit disgruntled at these unscheduled changes to my weekend plans - but suddenly I hear a clear child's voice singing the hymn "This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it" so loudly and happily that I cannot resist peering through the hedge – where I see a small boy pushing a huge wheelbarrow full of stones up a steep path, singing his heart out. If he can be so cheerful with all that he has to contend with, then surely I can be too: I carry on with my journey with a renewed spring in my step feeling chastened, as I so often do, by children's uncomplaining stoicism and good humour here…
On Sunday Internet Emily has invited me to visit her parents' home which, she assures me, is not far from Kanungu – but distance, like time, is a pretty elastic concept here. They are peasant farmers and very poor so we set off with a bag full of provisions - rice, tinned milk, millet flour, tea - to supplement the vegetables they grow. We travel by boda-boda; Emily assures me that we can both fit onto one motor-bike to save the expense of taking two – a good idea in theory but, as she is amply built, quite a challenge, especially going up hills (for the motor bike's engine) and down hills (for me, as I feel like the filling in the middle of a sandwich being firmly compressed between two pieces of unyielding bread). It is far from comfortable so I am relieved when, about forty minutes or so out of the village, the motor-bike turns off the road and down a stony track, eventually coming to a halt at a dead end by a little outcrop of houses. "Now we are footing" says Emily cheerfully, and 'foot' we do, for a good hour; uphill and down, through dense green banana plantations, past fields of groundnuts and beans, the track becoming first a narrow path and then no more than a barely discernible line through grassy undergrowth. The mud houses nestling deep in the plantations become fewer and there is a growing sense of isolation as we head further and deeper into the rolling countryside. We pass some families - immaculately dressed, even here, in frilly white dresses and pressed-Sunday-best – on their way to a tiny corrugated-iron roofed church on top of a hill, who all greet Emily warmly but stare at me with undisguised curiosity. White people do not often venture this far off the road, clearly….
"We are close!" Emily says at regular intervals – and finally we really are and she points to her parents' house, its rusty tin roof a landmark red amidst the pervasive green of the landscape. The extreme simplicity of the house (built by her father and brothers), with its stone and mud walls and earth floors is set off by immaculately cared-for grass borders and exotic flowering shrubs bearing gorgeous tropical blooms that grow wild here but would cost a small fortune in florists at home. Her parents are delightfully welcoming and hospitable and despite the language barrier we get on famously. Both in their fifties now, with their five children either grown up or nearly so, their smallholding is clearly becoming something of a burden to them now: the land is all steeply sloping and arduous to maintain, and water has to be fetched from a stream in the valley below their house as there are no taps nearby, involving a steep climb back to the house with the heavy jerry cans. Nevertheless, as Emily takes me round it feels like the Garden of Eden: giant avocado trees shade us as we walk, their branches laden with shiny fruits; great bunches of bananas cluster above our heads; pendulous jackfruit and purple passion fruit dangle provocatively before us, and pineapples thrust their thorny crowns from clumps of foliage. Neatly thatched bee hives are lined up beneath the trees and baby goats gambol through the thickets of sugar cane. There are orderly terraced rows of sweet potatoes and ground-nuts, dodo and beans: all this is managed alone by Emily's father. The prices they get for these crops are, he says, very low and so he cannot afford to employ anyone to help him; but so far from any road, transporting the produce to market must be gruelling in the extreme for him. We eat a simple lunch of rice, dodo greens and eggplants, the small holes that pepper the tin roof creating a lacy pattern of sunlight in the dark, bare room in which we sit. When it rains, they tell me, the water pours in through the rust-holes drenching their bedding and few possessions; but the cost of replacing the metal sheets is far beyond their means and for now, at least, they must make do with strategically-placed bowls to catch the worst of the water. I wonder what happens to anyone who falls ill or has an accident - or a baby - such a long way from vehicular access and Emily says that people simply have to be carried on stretchers, whatever the distance, to the nearest road – and some must presumably die before they reach help. Laden with bags of avocados and pineapples we make our way back late in the afternoon and wait for the boda-boda, wondering how we will manage with our cargo of fruit to somehow accommodate as well as the two of us. A grizzled-looking man with most of his teeth missing comes up to talk to us as we wait and tells me proudly that he has two wives and twenty-three children . "I have one house up there" – he points to a building near the top of a hill "..and one down here" – he points to another house in the valley not far from where we are sitting. "My life is up and down, up and down!" he says, waving his hands from valley to hilltop – and with that number of children one can only imagine that it is more down than up most of the time….
On Tuesday I go to the High School with Livingstone, who is the communications officer for CHIFCOD. We travel on his bright red motor-bike, a new acquisition of which he is inordinately proud, in a very Toad-of-Toad-Hall-ish sort of way. We go along at a fair old lick with frequent soundings of the horn and revvings of the engine. Will today be the day I fall off for the first time, I wonder, as we skid, lurch and bounce over the stony road…? But no, we make it to the High School unscathed and in record time for the day's work – not teaching, for a change, but interviewing pupils to find out more about their home backgrounds and to see how they are settling into the school. Today we are talking to those who are either single orphans (whose father has died but mother is still alive) or double. Some have lost their fathers to AIDS and I have learned to expect the answer many give when I ask "How is your mother's health?". "She is often ill" they say or "She is now weak" – and I know that before long they too will probably have become double orphans. In communities that are already poor, these pupils tell of pitiful poverty: one boy has no blanket to bring to school as his has been eaten by the rats that infest the room that he shares with his three brothers. Another boy's mother remarried when his father died and left him with his grandmother, who has ten other children to look after – and he has never seen her since. Many have no shoes, and no clothes other than their school uniform. Several have no blanket and just sleep under a sheet – even though it gets cold here at night. One of the best pupils in my English class, a bright, talented boy of seventeen, is a double orphan who, together with his brother, has lived with his 80 year old grandfather - who fought in Amin's army - since he was a young child. He has a pair of shoes, he tells me matter-of-factly, but took them to be mended some time ago as they had holes in them - and he has never had enough money to collect them. He recently went to give blood after a local appeal for donors and was discovered through the screening test to have hepatitis B; but no-one in the family has the money to pay for treatment. He wants to be an accountant and as he is extremely able he could easily achieve his ambition – that is, if he can get over his health problems, and if there will be anyone to help him pay the fees when the time comes: his grandfather is in poor health even now. He is an exceptionally nice young man, so diligent, quietly-spoken and uncomplaining. I have of course given him the money to collect his shoes – but if only I could do more for him, particularly to improve his health. Without exception these pupils say they prefer being at school to being at home: not because they don't love their families but because at school they are well fed (even the relentless twice-a-day beans and posho is a great deal better than their normal diet), can read and study in the evening because there is a light, can enjoy the companionship of their friends, and are not worn out by the relentless list of tasks they must carry out at home from morning till night – digging, growing crops, grazing animals, cleaning, cooking, fetching water and wood. One boy shows me the deep scars on his hands from digging; and more than one girl says that if she has to drop out of school because of difficulty with fees, as an orphan she will be forced to marry so that the 'bride price' can be used to feed the rest of the family – in effect sold into marriage. It is a strange irony that although the age of consent here is eighteen, girls can get married much younger and it is not uncommon for them to do so at fourteen and to have their first child soon after. Several of the pupils, girls and boys, say they want to be doctors 'so that I can save lives', and are working hard at science subjects in order to get the grades they need for university. But who, I wonder, will help them and pay for them to study if even the small amount they have to find to attend the High School is proving such a challenge? When I ask them if they have any problems each and every one says "I worry about the school fees" and indeed, several have to earn these themselves by growing crops, making and selling mats or by other means. How many children in the UK even give their school fees a second thought, I wonder? I come away determined to find a way to supply free places for orphans at the High School, and also to start a hardship fund for children who have no shoes, clothes, blankets or other essentials. In the entire day I have not heard a note of self-pity, nor a complaint, nor a hint of resentment about the bleakness of their lives. They love the school, their teachers and their headmaster and they are all so happy, and feel so lucky, to be there. I travel back in a sombre mood, deeply touched by the stories I have heard and by the sheer fortitude, and the desperation, of the young people who have told them. There must be a way of helping them further…..
As I hurry down the road from the Primary School to the College on Thursday afternoon for French with the Tourism students, I feel a little hand slip into mine. This is my friend Mary, a poorly-dressed scrap of a girl whom I picked up out of the road a few weeks ago where she had been abandoned by the group of schoolchildren she was with after she had fallen over. It is very rare to hear a child crying here and her pitiful wails prompted me to run back and help her up, dust her down and deliver her back to her companions. Since then she has treated me with a kind of proprietorial affection, regarding my hand as hers to hold by right whenever we happen to walk down the road at the same time and pushing away any contenders. We have strange little conversations, she talking in Rukiiga and me in English, neither understanding a word of what the other is saying, but both enjoying a sense of comfortable companionship and I marvelling at that mysterious, unquestioning trust that children place in adults. At the College gate we part company with lots of waves and I brace myself for the two hours of French that lie ahead. How exciting it is to teach a language! I almost weep with joy as the students come in today greeting me with 'Bonjour Madame, comment allez-vous aujourd-hui?' and later manage to translate, almost unaided, the sentence 'I eat fish but I don't eat meat'. What progress! Best of all is their love of singing: 'Frere Jacques' African-style, sung as a round but with much clapping to liven it up, is a very far cry from the sedate, rather plodding version I grew up with. They beg for more songs so this week we try 'Savez vous plantez les choux?' – perfect for a group of students for whom planting cabbages is second nature and for whom a hoe, 'une houe', is part of their daily life - and which from the point of view of Ugandanising the song, so conveniently rhymes with 'choux'…. Magnifique!