Sunday, 15 March 2009

Skirting the Issue

Today is Saturday and I have a social engagement: I have been invited to visit Internet Emily's new residence. I should really say 'ex-Internet Emily' as she now has a new job: since developing her eye problems before Christmas she has had to give up computer work and now works for the Diocesan AIDS team, an interesting-sounding job which I am looking forward to hearing about. The Diocese has also found her accommodation, a room in the Mother's Union Training Centre which is where I am going to visit her today.

The Training Centre has only been open for a couple of years. It was paid for by a branch of the Mother's Union from - I think - Manchester, and is a praiseworthy venture. Women from local villages come here for three-month periods to train for one of three skills: tailoring, machine knitting or secretarial services. The workshops, complete with treadle sewing machines, knitting machines and office machinery are built around a courtyard where there is a dormitory, a shared 'kitchen' - in effect a storage area with a place for a fire - and a bathroom. Emily takes me proudly to her little home: as with most houses here, it consists of one room with an area curtained off for sleeping. Apart from her bed, the only other furniture is a chair: clothes are kept in a suitcase, a Ugandan custom observed even in quite well-to-do homes. People here have very few possessions and they give the impression that if the entire village had to move out they could all be packed up and on their way in ten minutes. Perhaps a trace of their nomadic spirit still lingers….
Over a glass of mango juice, which I guiltily realize is an extravagence in my honour (her work is very humbly paid), Emily tells me about her new job. The AIDS team is at the moment working in local schools to train selected volunteer students to be peer counsellors. Their brief is to encourage everyone to be tested for HIV AIDS so that they know their status and can be treated and given lifestyle advice if HIV positive. The biggest obstacle to progress at the moment is a widespread reluctance, amongst all age-groups, to be tested: even if both parents have died of AIDS teenage children will sometimes resist being tested, preferring to live in ostrich-like ignorance of the truth to having to face the consequences of it; and Emily's team is hoping to encourage much greater participation in the testing programme. Once all local schools have been visited, the team will go deeper into rural areas to find families where the children do not go to school, and offer testing and counselling. Another problem in the fight against the disease is that because anti-retrovirals mask the symptoms people increasingly do not admit their positive status, and there is a fear that the incidence is rising far more rapidly than the official statistics imply. Emily is clearly enjoying her new role; sadly her successor in the 'internet place' does not show her devotion to duty and the shop is more often closed than open. I have had to find a new venue for my emailing and now trudge up to Kanungu two or three times a week after work to my new internet friend Denis's establishment. This is a much more ambitious enterprise with several computers and a printer. The computers are ancient and look from their security marking as if they might have originated in some university department in the UK; but they work - most of the time, at least - and with a bit of a struggle will sometimes even let me post photos to the blog....

On Sunday I give myself the luxury of a lie-in and attend the 10.00 o'clock service at the church, which is all in the vernacular – the English service being at 8.30am and requiring an early start. Most of the villagers attend this Rukiiga service so the church is packed, and today the Kirima Primary School pupils are there as well. Sufficient, the little girl who is sitting next to me, has a nasty cold and blows her nose frequently and copiously throughout the first part of the service, using the skirt of her dress as a handkerchief. I pass her a new, neatly-folded tissue after the first bout of nose-blowing but she politely declines to use it, placing it carefully on the shelf in front of her then later putting it (mercifully still unused) into the collection basket – clearly preferring to continue using the method she knows best; which she does, frequently. During the sermon she snuggles up to me affectionately. As her skirt meets mine I sit very still and try to think holy and forgiving thoughts – and feel very relieved that I chose to put on something highly patterned and extremely colourful this morning….

I cannot, of course, understand anything more than the occasional word of the service but it is worth going just for the glorious singing – and for the spectacle of the collection. All sorts of things go into the collection baskets besides my tissue – small sweets, vegetables, bags of beans, pencils, bananas, a live hen (which I have followed up the road on the way here tucked under a girl's arm) – as well as a small amount of money. For most of the congregation giving in kind is their only option; but the spirit in which they give is nothing short of extraordinary - to call it enthusiastic fails to do it justice by a long mark. To the accompaniment of animated singing a representative from each part of the village takes it in turn to stand at the front of the church with a basket and one by one the groups of villagers, young and old alike, literally dance up the aisle to give their donations – then remain in front of the altar where they all dance, clap, sing and whoop for a few minutes before dancing back to their places to let the next group follow the same procedure. The drumming gets louder, the dancing more frenetic and then an old lady appears with a traditional painted shield and a spear and proceeds to parade around the church goading the congregation into presenting their offerings with prods from her weapon and loud cackles – a symbolic reminder, I suppose, of their tribal obligations. For twenty or so minutes the drumming and singing grow more insistent and urgent, the dancing wilder, and in the mounting excitement, exhilaration and fervour I wonder if at any moment they are all going to pour out of the church and declare war on the neighbouring village - but suddenly it is over. Silence falls; and moments later Holy Communion is celebrated with unimpeachable high church dignity accompanied by restrained, hushed choral singing of such beauty that tears fill my eyes. It is the most extraordinary, baffling juxtaposition of reserved Anglican ecclesiastical ritual and uninhibited African tribal spirit – and I find it very moving. Trussy, who is sitting on my other side, senses my seriousness and taking my hand starts to do 'Round and round the garden like a teddy bear,' – which I have taught the little ones – to bring me back down to earth, or at least to giving her a bit of attention. Soon we are all streaming out into the sunshine; three hours have passed if not quite in a flash then certainly in a mesmerising haze of surreal fascination and now it's time to go home to do some serious alfresco laundry: sheets, towels, and - most especially - highly-patterned skirts…

Although in theory the new wet season has begun there has been no rain for nearly a fortnight. A haze of red dust hangs in the air above the road and each time a vehicle passes a violent cloud of it is thrown up from the dry gritty surface, shrouding any unfortunate pedestrian in its wake in a choking miasma. Clothes, shoes, hair, ears, eyelashes have all acquired a powdery patina of rusty grime which no amount of washing seems to completely remove. Along the roadside the drooping vegetation coated thickly in brown dirt gives the appearance of an alien autumn having arrived; while in the fields the young crops, desperate for moisture, are beginning to wither and die…. Appearing like a genie out of the swirling red mist a motor-cycle stops beside me on Tuesday and to my surprise I see it is ridden by a white man of about my age.As he introduces himself I immediately realize who he is, Hamlet having talked about him several times. He is an American doctor who has set up a mission hospital at Bwindi, where the 'Impenetrable Forest' is home to some of the last-surviving gorillas in the world. Bwindi – about an hour's drive from here – is an area of Uganda that receives many tourists most of whom come to see the gorillas - the price of the 'gorilla pass', $500, acting as an effective means of controlling the numbers. But it is not for the tourists that Scott and his wife have set up the hospital: their work is with the Batwa Pygmies who live in the area. Until about 2000 years ago it is thought that eastern and southern Africa was largely populated by the Batwa people, who are semi-nomadic forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers (what a lot of hyphens!). Their numbers having dwindled to a few thousand by the 1930s, most were living in the Impenetrable Forest until it was gazetted by the then colonial government to preserve the last tracts of dense forest left in the country and to protect the gorillas. The Batwa were evicted from their communally-owned forest lands and have ever since struggled to re-establish themselves, facing discrimination, hostility and ridicule. Their small size (rarely growing beyond 1.5 metres) and lighter skin colour, coupled with their non-agricultural life-style, have set them apart from the communities in which they are now forced to live and the remaining two thousand or so of these ancient inhabitants of the country live a life of persecution and hardship, unable to make a living in their traditional ways and ostracized by their neighbours. Scott and his wife are, he tells me, soon returning to America so are only here for a few more weeks after eight years in the country supporting the Batwa. "We never intended to stay this long – maybe you'll do the same!" he laughs as he rides off, disappearing as if by magic in a puff of red smoke….

By strange coincidence, his words echo those that I have written only moments before meeting him in an email to a friend: I am indeed beginning to feel that, were it not for other considerations, I could quite happily carry on living and working here for much longer – years, maybe. As a teacher there are endless ways in which I could make myself useful and, having now grown accustomed to the system here I feel much more confident about how to subtly and gently influence the way things are done to make learning more interesting and accessible for the children. For example, with the aid of a kit put together for me by the learning support teacher at Highgate Pre-Prep, Janet Mills, I have started 'extra help' sessions in the lunch hour at the Primary School. My 'small group' of pupils who need help with literacy skills consists of twenty-five children sent along by their teachers– and that is after I have shown the door to all the others who have decided they don't want to miss out on something new even though they are perfectly good readers. With such a large number I can do little on an individual basis but hopefully 'Jolly Phonics' will work its wonders and give them all a bit more confidence… I am aware, too, even more keenly than I was before, of how adaptable we all are as humans and how surprisingly quickly - relatively speaking - we adjust to new environments. I no longer have the sense of shock that living amidst such poverty initially gave me – and while by no means immune to the daily struggle of peoples' lives here, I feel I now have a far better understanding of the context that determines and delineates their existence. On a personal level, and without intending in any way to romanticise poverty, there is something very appealing about living an extremely simple life and turning one's back – if only briefly - on the hedonistic consumerism of the developed world. And, having escaped the worst of the British winter this year, the thought of living somewhere perpetually warm is very attractive indeed….

As I walk down the road today to buy some 'Irish' – the Ugandan name for ordinary as opposed to sweet potatoes, which are now in season – I meet Annah, the head of the education department at the College. "We have a new intake of students" she says enthusiastically. "Can you lecture the teaching diploma students for us, starting next week?" I explain that I will be returning to England quite soon and that it really won't be worth my starting a course for such a short time. "Never mind!" she says cheerfully. "We can delay the start of that course until you return from your holiday." "But…." I begin – and then stop. Oh dear – maybe this is why people stay for eight years: it's just too difficult to say goodbye....



David said...

HI Julia Thanks again for another fascinating account of life in Uganda - a bit like No.1 Ladies Teaching Agency. The Detective version has now been released on British TV and is a lot of fun.
You always manage to inject a little humour into what are in the main very serious issues. Anyway its all very readable and consciousness-raising to us privileged Brits. Have tracked down some books for the library and will post soon. love DAVID

Dot said...

Hi Julia

Your in-church experience gives new meaning to “handkerchief hemline”! Hope you don’t catch anything nasty – I imagine you felt you had quite enough of Sufficient by the end of the service!

Great to hear about all your experiences – certainly reminds us about the things in life that hold real value. It sounds as though you absolutely love being there and still have so much to give. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if somehow we could organise sponsorship for you to return for some months each year – enough to pay your fares and keep your finances at home ticking over? If you were to give the OK I’m sure the money could be found – you seemed to have inspired so many people!

Hope it rains soon – after 4 years of drought here in Queensland we have at last had a real rainy season – much to the dismay of visiting Brits here at the moment!

Love as always, Dot

Nitasha said...

Dear Julia,
I too, was reminded of Precious Ramotswe and McCall Smith's books as I read you entry today! It is easy to see you love the environment and the people- your description of the church service, sans the nose blowing, was beautiful...what an adventure you have had- I agree with Dot that if there was a way we could send you back for longer that would be for thought!

Lots of love,
Nitasha x