Friday, 3 April 2009

The Long Road Home

It is considered very bad form to show any kind of annoyance or anger in Uganda. This makes for a very pleasant environment both at work and out and about: everyone is courteous, patient and friendly and it is rare to hear anyone
lose their temper even under considerable provocation. This week, although I think of myself as quite a patient person, I feel I am enduring a kind of inward trial by culture; the English part of me feeling severely tested at times and the Ugandan influence trying desperately to keep the peace. Perhaps it is time I went home after all...

The power has been off for most of the week so I have spent five evenings in darkness, trying to keep myself occupied doing crosswords by flickering torchlight. On Friday morning it returns, but, the local radio says, it will be turned off again at 7pm. Desperate to get home in time to use my laptop and maybe even my hairdryer, I wait for the boda-boda after my day at the High School. Eventually it arrives, an hour and half late – but the driver (not Ham today as he is ill) is full of smiles and apologises so charmingly that I swallow my annoyance and decide to try to be more Ugandan than English. A few miles from home the fuel runs out. "I will be back very soon!" my driver – who only looks about fourteen and drives like a maniac – calls cheerfully as he heads off on foot towards the nearest village in search of petrol. Civil war is breaking out in my head. "This is Africa" I keep reminding myself. "These things happen..." Saturday beats all records for things running out: we lose first the gas as we are cooking supper, so we have to use the charcoal stove outside; then the electricity while we are eating, so we have to light candles; and finally, as we start the washing up, the water – for which there is no fall-back situation other than abandoning the dirty dishes. "We have a saying in England" I tell Justine and Novias " ...which goes 'You have to laugh or you'd cry' ". Fortunately we all laugh – all that is left to lose now is our sense of humour and we decide we had better hang on to that...

On Sunday it is Divine Grace's baptism and I have been told that the service will start at 8.00am as it will be a longer one than usual. As godmother I dare not be late so I set off bright and early for the half-hour walk to the church - only to find that at 7.45 no-one else there. "It's at 9.00, not 8.00!" Jenna greets me happily as she arrives a good deal later with her arms full of white-clad baby - and without much difficulty, since this is such a happy occasion, I manage to quell my unbending English sense of punctuality and revel in the wonderful African easy-going approach to life... The service is lovely, and the celebratory lunch afterwards a lively village event: sensibly, a 'thanksgiving' collection is taken after the service – in lieu of gifts, which don't really exist here - for everyone to contribute towards the cost. The Ugandan formula for entertaining is very straightforward: you ask all your friends to come and lend a hand and bring plates, and you always serve the same food, whatever the occasion – a wedding, a party, a school celebration or a funeral. There are several forms of carbohydrate – matoke, rice, potatoes, posho, millet pudding; a little stewed meat or chicken; ground nut sauce; and maybe a vegetable like dodo or cabbage. Dessert is always pineapple, eaten on the same plate as your first course. "The gravy gives it a good flavour!" as someone tells me enthusiastically. This formula has a lot to recommend it: you never have to think what to serve, there is no desperate flicking though recipe books for the perfect combination of dishes, and no frantic searching in the shops for triple-distilled verjuice, pomegranate chutney or whatever the latest culinary fashion is. As a guest you know exactly what you will be getting and can look forward to the dishes you particularly like. The cooking is straightforward and can't really be spoiled so even less confident cooks can manage it. On balance, maybe I am beginning to feel a bit more on the Ugandan than the English side of things today – sitting in the dappled sunshine under the banana trees with the hens clucking around my feet, the glass of freshly-squeezed passion fruit juice that I am drinking surely tastes better than any champagne ever could....

This has been my last week of teaching and so has been full of farewells and of touching gratitude and affection. It is just like retiring all over again! On Thursday there is a special lunch at the Primary School followed by a wonderful presentation of traditional dances and 'appreciation songs', as is the custom here: these are speeches set to music, in effect, and children take it in turn to sing a verse in between rousing choruses of thanks. To hear 'mosquito nets and textbooks' set to music is quite a novelty and 'our friends in England who have made us so healthy' is another oft-repeated line of song. In the inevitable speeches I am asked to please thank everyone on my return who has helped to improve things so much at the school: they now have an embryonic library, and books are (thanks to the ones you have sent) becoming part of their everyday lives, which is such a joy to behold. I have resolved to send regular 'book parcels' to both the primary and the high school and if any of you feel you could occasionally send one too it would help so much to build on what has been started. Life in the Nursery classes has been transformed by the toys they now have and love so much! I already have a lump in my throat before I arrive at the College for my final French session in the afternoon and the emotional 'au revoirs' from my lovely students with oft-repeated "Oh la la! Je suis desolĂ©e!" On Friday I make my last trip to the High School. It is as 'the mujungu on the motorbike' that I have become known around here and I know I will miss the friendly waves and greetings I get on the way quite as much as the beauty of the journey to the school – not forgetting, of course, the students themselves who I have so enjoyed teaching and for whom I now feel such a strong sense of responsibility and commitment. After lunch - and another touching farewell ceremony - I go on to Nyamarama School which has, courtesy of the Net-Book Appeal been given bunks and mosquito nets which today I am seeing in place for the first time. Again, I receive many expressions of grateful thanks on behalf of all of you who have helped to swell that appeal – and I can only echo these very touching sentiments which I wish you could have been be there to receive yourselves. On Sunday I will be flying – yes, a new small-aircraft service has just started to fly tourists between Kampala and nearby Kihihi so that they can get to Bwindi without the dreadful journey by road – to the capital to spend a few days with Hamlet working on the book. The school lorry is bringing all the boarders and staff from the primary school to the airstrip, about an hour's drive away, to see me off; most have never seen an aeroplane so this will be quite an outing for them – and quite a send-off for me!

Thank you for showing such interest and support for what I have been doing here and for your compassion and generosity towards these children, who endure so much hardship and suffering with such enormous resilience and cheerfulness. The time I have spent here has added not merely a whole new group of people to my life but a whole new dimension: I have learned more than I can ever put into words and will always be grateful to have had this extraordinarily rewarding experience. It has been absolutely wonderful to be able to give, because of your help, the staff and pupils some things that they need and want and to know that in small ways their lives have been improved. There is so much I could say to try to sum up my time here; but I am inclined to just leave the weekly diary and all the little incidents and observations that I have tried to capture to speak for themselves. I am sure that, if I possibly can, I will come back – after all, I have a baby godson to consider now, as well as a high school full of young people to champion and provide for....

The long evenings in darkness have given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on all that has happened over the last seven months, and also the time to listen to a lot of music. One track that I have grown particularly fond of is called 'Pearls' by Sade – a beautifully haunting song which starts "There is a woman in Somalia" – you may know it. Sitting in the dark listening to that and recalling some of the things that have happened here, I find my thoughts shaping themselves into a poem. Perhaps I have fallen victim to my own creative writing lessons! Picking up the little girl by the side of the road the other week was, I realise, a powerful metaphor for giving aid – and most especially for the transformational nature of sponsorship: so I have decided to end this, my final blog entry from Uganda, with the poem. It is dedicated to all the courageous children here; and to all of you, who have stretched out your hands to them so compassionately - and may, I hope, find it in your hearts to do so again and to help CHIFCOD to continue its marvellous work out here....


There is a child
Fallen by the roadside
Crying in the dust
She is waiting
Waiting for a stranger
Who will help her to her feet
Wipe away her tears
And take her by the hand

There is a child
Scrabbling at his mother's grave
With a small hoe
He is waiting
Waiting for her to waken
And chase the howling shadows
From the eternal darkness
Of her absence

There is a child
Sleeping on the ground
She is dreaming
Dreaming of an angel
Who has wrapped her in a blanket
But she wakes shivering
To the cold dawn
Of a new day

There is an orphan
Yearning to be a doctor
Longing to save the lives
Of other children's parents
He is waiting
Waiting for a pencil
So that he may form the letters
That whisper his name

There is a small hand
Waiting to slip into yours
So that you two may walk together
Along the stony road
The power of your hand
Will shape her future
The imprint of her hand
Will mark your soul


Katherine said...

What a sad day reading the last blog from Uganda and such a beautiful poem to finish with. Enjoy your last few days in Africa, looking forward to your return.
Lots of love

Sarah said...

It's difficult to respond adequately to what you have written about so movingly, Julia - true for every week since the blog began but particularly in this final episode. It's been wonderful to have been able to share something of the experience and the journey with you through your accounts of everyday life, relationships, trials and triumphs. Thank you so much for all the work you've put into this. It will remain as a very evocative record of your time in Uganda but more important in the long run will have impelled so many people to get involved through sponsoring children or donating books or money. Your presence will have helped the schools in so many ways, and with your newly founded Orphans' Fund will continue to do so in the long term.

Have a good last few days - but I can't imagine you won't be going back!

Best love,


David said...

Thank you so much Julia for all that you have written and experienced. In a way it feels that you have done it on our behalf too and by so doing enriched our lives as well as the Ugandans who have become your life-long friends. I have always been very moved by Sade's song and am now even more so by the poem that has evolved from it. Hope to hear more from you on your safe return. love David Will of course help with the Friends...