Monday, November 22, 2010

What do we do when we’re not working?

The moon is full, no street lights obscure the impenetrable black sky and the cicadas’ steady descant rises high above the sound of the blues floating out through our French windows and across the wooded valley. Children’s voices rise and fall from next door and we can hear the faint thrum from the Pentecostal church down the hill.   Stuart is sitting on the balcony with a beer, doing nothing very useful or improving.  Every so often the askari  (guard) paces round the compound and we look down and wave.

Just another Sunday evening, warm and peaceful, with nothing much to do.  And what did we do for the rest of the weekend?  What do we ever do during our time off these days?  We don’t write any papers or edit any reports.  We don’t pack our bags for another week away working or read any background material for the next day’s inspection or meeting. 

Not that that means our working life is made up of five happy days of unadulterated pleasure.  The leader in Thursday’s New Vision included the encouraging words ‘the ministry’s schools inspectorate is not operational.  If the inspectorate were functioning effectively etc etc etc…’.  Well, it’s our job to try and make sure that it is, but transforming the inspectorate can be left until Monday.  

So, what do we do then when we are not working?

Well, we almost always go swimming at some point.  Just a few yards along the road from us is the Divine Providence Health Club, with a clean little pool, squash courts for upwardly mobile Ugandan business men, exercise classes which I ought to go to but don’t,  and a quiet undemanding atmosphere.

Divine Providence Health Club
Occasionally, if we feel like a taste of the ex-pat world, it’s off to the Kabira Club with its nice big pool, gym with intermittently functioning equipment and first-rate Indian food.  We hide among diplomatic families, off-duty UN officers and wealthy Ugandans, and pretend to be better bred than we really are.  A trip down to Entebbe brings us to the original Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel, frequented by a similar clientele, though with a higher proportion of NGOs like ourselves, and more Ugandans.  Here I regularly opt out of accompanying Stuart around the golf course and lie by the pool reading, a glass of fresh passion fruit juice in my hand. 

Windsor Lake Victoria poolside
And just a few yards away is a little patch of paradise: the Boma guesthouse, a wonderful discovery to which we will now take all our visitors.  This beautifully restored and furnished colonial villa has a lovely little pool, immaculate lawns shaded by high trees and excellent food. Golf and swimming over, we may wander by the lake or through the Botanical Gardens before tackling the road back and the traffic mayhem which awaits us on the streets of Kampala.

Stuart preparing himself for the Botanical Gardens

Lake Victoria itself, but no swimming - bilharzia!
Vervet monkeys in the Botanical Gardens

Botanical Gardens - rainforest where they shot the original Tarzan.  Note lianas.
In the last forty years, Uganda has grown from a country of five million to one of 33 million, many of its inhabitants making their way to Kampala.  Like Rome, the city originally occupied seven green wooded hills.  Greater Kampala’s twenty-odd hills are rapidly being swallowed up by corrugated iron-roofed shanties and smart villas and blocks of flats like our own.  The banana groves for which it was once famous are disappearing by the day.  In fact, we rather sadly noticed that the grassy field at the end of our road which is normally occupied by a couple of cows, some goats and a hen or two, has now been dug up and heaps of sand and brick indicate the imminent erection of another jerry-built building.  With its mad traffic, choked streets and smoking heaps of garbage, Kampala should be a dreadful place to live.  However, not being poor, workless or sick, we rather like it despite its flaws.

Kampala is home to Makerere University, with a reputation which extends well beyond Uganda’s borders, as well as a number of other universities and tertiary institutions, some more prestigious than others, to be sure.  It has the usual businesses and support services you would expect in a city, though they don’t always function very well, and is surprisingly well supplied with excellent and reasonably priced bookshops and other cultural enterprises.  Just as well, for we don’t have a television so we are reading more than ever before. 

There’s plenty to go to out of the house as well.  The National Theatre was founded shortly before independence in 1962.  Endowed by prominent members of the British and Asian populations, it has struggled in the past to make a name for itself as a centre for African creativity.  Nevertheless, it does put on some interesting theatre.  We saw the play Cooking Oil, which is this year’s winner of the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition, about a teenage girl who illegally sells donated cooking oil to raise money for school fees.  Despite being slightly rough around the edges, the play asks some difficult questions about the impact of foreign aid, using song, dance and storytelling.   We also saw Uganda National Contemporary Ballet in Memories of Child Soldiers, back from its tour of Europe and East Africa.  And in case you think that all our theatre-going is about misery and death, we spent a most enjoyable evening with the Ndere Troupe, based just a mile or so from where we live.  These talented young people perform Ugandan dances to the accompaniment of indigenous instruments.  So, difficult as it may be for friends of Stuart to believe, it’s not all just golf and swimming. More’s the pity (SR).

Stuart preparing himself for the Ndere dance troupe

Musicians playing traditional instruments at Ndere

How many pots can you balance on your head at once?  Ndere dance troup
However, most enjoyable of all is an evening in the company of our VSO friends.  Our Fridays are often spent at one of Kampala’s excellent restaurants - Indian, Chinese or Italian – and a couple of times we have moved on to the Emin Pasha Hotel to listen to a wonderful Ugandan group called Quela.

Elisabeth preparing for Quela's performance at the Concert for Hope
The VSO crowd hold various celebrations as well, such as birthdays, farewell parties and so on.  We have become surprisingly sociable in our old age.  They are very good company.  We all have rather tricky and, for some of the group, upsetting, jobs to do so we share our frustrations and then just move on and enjoy ourselves.  So Friday night is still Friday night for us, though in open-air restaurants enjoying the balmy climate of Kampala rather than huddled inside away from the cold east wind of Auld Reekie.

Undugo family dancers at a VSO farewell party
Stuart had had plenty of preparation before he took part in this performance!
So that’s what we do when we’re not working.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Royal Pride Academy’s Official Opening and Graduation Ceremony

The expression ‘celebrating success’ is used rather glibly these days in educational circles.  In fact, it’s the kind of banal statement that I used to cross out ruthlessly when editing inspection reports.

However, sometimes you just have to eat your words.  Saturday was one of those occasions.  First came the invitation: to Royal Pride Academy’s Official Opening of its new building and Graduation Ceremony for the Nursery Class.  The invitation itself was splendid.  The last time I received anything like it was for a royal garden party at Holyrood House!

And indeed, it was a right royal occasion.  Whereas most royal events make do with one national anthem, we had three anthems altogether: one for the Republic of Uganda, one for the Kingdom of Buganda and one for Royal Pride Academy itself.  Hands on hearts, singing away fervently the children did the school proud.  And they themselves had a lot to be proud of, as had their parents, the headmaster and staff and the local community who have supported the school from its birth in a small wooden hut half a dozen years ago. 

The school playground was decorated in royal blue and purple, toning in tastefully with the school uniforms.
View of new building, curtains covering the plaque, prizes on the table.
Parents had made great efforts to turn their children out smartly, with most wearing shoes and socks instead of the usual flipflops.

A number of ill-fitting shoes were clearly begged or borrowed, while some children had gone to enormous lengths to appear well shod.

And what talented young people they are!  After the school choir’s impressive rendering of some local songs, we were entertained by the nursery pupils whose action songs and dances were a delight.  

Probably the Ugandan version of 'heads, shoulders, knees and toes...'

Older pupils performed energetic traditional dances.  

All the pupils, whatever their ages, impressed us by their self-confidence.  

Self-assurance beyond many an adult's.
It was wonderful to see the pride of the parents, many of the mothers coming up to the performers to press sweets or small coins into their hands.

Rewards for excellent singing.
Royal Pride is, of course, a community school and parents and well-wishers were there in force.  Speeches always play an important part in any Ugandan occasion.  The Official Opening was no exception.  The speeches were addressed directly to parents and delivered in Luganda with simultaneous translation into English for those of us with inadequate language skills.  They pressed home key messages to parents about education, health and raising aspirations.  Speakers stressed the importance, for example, of providing children with food during the school day.  Parents were told of the books and resources which had been donated to the school, how they should be looked after and the importance of returning them if they were ‘inadvertently’ or legitimately taken home.  Supporters offered to sponsor some of the children whose families could not afford school fees.

Watching enviously beyond the fence.
HIV/Aids is a major issue for Uganda in general and for the Royal Pride community in particular.  We were, however, a little surprised by the subjects of the plays: circumcision, Aids and the impact on children of family breakdown, all enacted by twelve year olds with great gusto.    However, the issues such plays deal with are absolutely relevant to these young people’s lives. 

Stepmother looks disparagingly as stepchildren carry water instead of going to school.
We thought the fashion show was wonderful.  Never have such elegant costumes been fashioned from newspaper and brown paper, and modelled with such poise and presence.

The unveiling of the plaque was very moving.  VSO couple Alan and Alison Cowan and their family have made a long-lasting impact on the children of Mutungo through their personal support and mobilisation of family and friends back in the UK.  They are returning to the UK this weekend and will be sadly missed.

Godfrey and Alan unveiling the plaque.
There is still a lot of work to do, of course.  More classrooms and proper sanitation are needed.  The school still has no water or electricity on site and virtually no secure storage.  The staff are doing an amazing job with almost nothing, but children need books and other resources if they are going to learn.  Members of the local VSO cluster will continue their interest in the school, and some of us may try and provide some 'hands-on' help.  I may write a bit more about this in a few days’ time.  However, the theme of the day was celebration for what had been achieved so far.

The new building
The highlight had to be the graduation.  The importance of learning and education ran through the entire day, as it should.  When it came to the nursery class receiving their certificates, the uncomfortable mzungos were all forced out of their seats and made to stand around the presentation area.  The headmaster was quite explicit about the reason for this.  We were there as examples of professional achievement.  We were doctors, teachers, speech therapists, nurses.  He told the children that they also could achieve.  They too could become educated, could learn and practise professional skills.  The implication was quite clear.  In the future, at a graduation ceremony similar to Saturday’s, the models and mentors would not be mzungos.  They would be the adults who had grown up and been educated there in Mutungo, at Royal Pride Academy.

Gaudeamus igitur

Celebrating success while proud parents look on.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let’s go shopping

Africa is a continent of small traders, and no country more than Uganda.  Indeed, Kampala itself is really just one huge village.  Everywhere you walk or drive, someone is making a living out of selling something, no matter how trivial or worthless to a western way of thinking.  As you sit in traffic jams in the capital, along come the young men selling half a dozen hand towels, a box of Scrabble or three educational posters.  Busy commuters pick up their pre-shelled peas or ready-peeled sugar cane.  Who knows, right in the middle of the suicidal dodgem ride otherwise known as the Jinja Road, they may suddenly decide they need a saucepan, a mosquito net or a thermos flask.  And upcountry, when the long distance buses pull into isolated trading centres out in the bush, hands reach up with kebabs on canes, bags of salted groundnuts or bunches of bananas. 

Ever hopeful that someone will buy something
How do all these vegetables, handcrafts and, to be honest, often meretricious junk make their way to the city markets?  Well, as in the UK, the junk probably comes from China.  As for the rest, when we turn onto the busy Port Bell Road we see the matatus disgorging passengers from outlying areas, each hoisting their baskets of bananas or cabbages onto their heads as they weave their way across the traffic to the busy Nakawa market.  

Walking purposefully by a roadside garden 
Headless shopper with cabbages and half a dozen towels 

Lorries, boda bodas and even bicycles struggle along loaded with bunches of matooke (green plantain) or the sacksful of charcoal, last sad remnants of precious rainforest, which are used to fuel the little stoves which cook it.

And where is all this produce sold?  Traders are everywhere.  The lucky ones operate from the ramshackle kiosks, rickety stalls, disused containers or tiny purpose-built shops which line every street.

I wonder what she makes of the ghastly white mannequins in their gomesi
Open air butcher's shop with open air butchery
Everyone else makes do with a patch of shade under a tree, or a corner of dusty pavement.  The young, who have the energy and persistence to trudge the dusty roads, dip in and out of traffic queues and dodge speeding boda bodas to sell their wares.  

Hawkers tramp the streets bedecked with brightly coloured sheets and dusters, or wheel crazily-laden bicycles hung about with merchandise.

It is surprising what you can get on a bicycle.  Once you have bought your ironwork door or your bed from the roadside workshops, you just load it onto your bike and off you go.  We have seen roomsful of furniture piled to dizzy heights on the backs of bicycles – easy chairs and chest of drawers tied together and strapped to the seat, their owners aspiring to new social heights.  
Roadside carpenter

Roadside ironworker

Getting it home
My favourite was the coffin strapped at right angles across the seat and wheeled at funeral pace along a dusty baked earth track on an unmarked road near Masindi.  Not even I was brazen enough to take a photo.

And if you have nothing to sell, and quite probably nothing to eat, landless in a country of broad horizons and fertile green pastures, then you just settle down by the edge of the road, in country or city, and plant your crops.  Little patches of maize cluster along Kampala’s dusty rutted streets.  However, the most common horticultural sights are the neat rectangles of decorative plants which passers-by purchase to brighten up their backyards in between the jack fruit trees.  For Kampala is the Garden City, after all.

Alas, the supermarket has reached Uganda, though.  Huge tasteless shopping malls and small family-owned businesses cater for those too tired to bargain and willing to pay the set mzungu prices.  Here the aisles of Ugandan groceries are infiltrated by over-priced Italian or American canned goods and lurid Kenyan plastic ware.   And to advertise their goods, the hoardings scream at you, sometimes making claims or urging products on you that have long since been banned from British streets.  Following the global campaign, Nestle’s baby milk may no longer be as widely advertised, but local manufacturers are not so cautious, making their own contribution to infant malnutrition.

There are other causes of malnutrition as well, of course.  One of the headlines in today’s Daily Monitor was ‘Paradox of hunger amidst plenty’.  The article was about the western district of Ankole with its milk, beef and poultry and ‘gardens, plantations and markets…bursting with mounds of matooke, fruits, cabbages, Irish potatoes and carrots courtesy of good climate, soils and hard work.’  Forty per cent of children under five in the area are chronically malnourished and stunted, a figure which rises to 50% in the south west.  The causes?  Partly ignorance and the poor diets of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers resulting in failing breast milk.  Also, mothers copying ‘child feeding methods which are not appropriate’.  Blame those baby milk hoardings which line every road in Uganda.

However, the writer also ascribed responsibility to the traders.  Those bananas, millet, beans and groundnuts are not consumed within the Ankole households but are put aside for selling while the children eat a diet comprised almost solely of matooke.  The twenty first century is a cash economy, and the only way to get those precious coins is to sell what you produce.  There are moneylenders to pay, school fees overdue, too little land and not enough jobs.  So you trade away your children’s food.