Saturday, July 30, 2011

I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road...

This week we have been ‘on the road’, across to the east then up to the north, a round trip of about 900 kilometres. As we gazed out of the car windows, what was the most common sight? Children milling around the playground and walking away from the schools, long snakes of them. And what was the reason?  Teachers have been on strike. 

In Uganda, we are used to students going on strike, of course.  Two or three secondary schools across the country are affected by strikes most weeks, a situation which says more about school ethos, student welfare and headteachers’ management skills than about the apparent intransigence of young people. Students’ grievances are usually quite understandable and relate to poor sanitation, inadequate food and absent or lazy teachers.  However, faced with obdurate officialdom, students often end up rioting and the police are brought in, often using live ammunition, as in Kibaale a couple of days ago: a typically Ugandan approach to conflict resolution.  However, this week both primary and secondary schools have been involved in strikes and it has been the teachers not the pupils who have had grievances to air.

What are the teachers’ concerns?  The issue, as you might expect, is pay. A primary school teacher earns Shs273,000 per month (about £67) and a secondary teacher Shs450,000 (around £110).  Teachers were given a 30% increment last year but there is some confusion in the press about whether this was actually paid.  Their union, Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) is now demanding a rise of 100%.  Like the rest of the population, teachers are suffering from Uganda’s high inflation – currently about 18.7% - which affects the price of food in particular.  And the expense they quote most frequently as a principal drain on their salaries is the need to pay school fees for their own children, ironically in order to keep them out of government-aided schools, the kinds of schools which they themselves work in.

Certainly the teachers have legitimate grievances, not just related to their poor salaries, and press coverage has been quite sympathetic.  Teachers’ salaries are paid directly into their accounts by the Ministry of Finance.  Payrolls are often not updated regularly and may contain fictitious names (‘ghost’ teachers are a nice little earner for some people) while not including many of those who actually have a job.  It is not unusual to go into a school and find that almost a third of the teachers are not on the official payroll. 

Even if on the official payroll, many teachers receive their pay only irregularly.  Six months arrears are normal and when their salaries eventually arrive they are not backdated.  If teachers are living away from their home area and don’t have land on which to grow food for their families, they can be in real difficulty.  This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to persuade teachers to move to more remote areas, despite additional allowances.  Many teachers have second jobs such as driving boda bodas or running shops, with an inevitable impact on their commitment to their substantive post. Astonishingly, some of the discussion in the press this week has been about the desirability of teachers taking out loans to start up businesses in order to support themselves! We are constantly flabbergasted at the things we read in the Ugandan newspapers.

However, bad though it is, the situation is not as straightforward as all that. 

It was not just this week that the children have been out on the roads. One of the things you immediately notice when you drive about Uganda on any day is that there are always a lot of children out of school, many of them in uniform. 

Now you might say, well that's hardly surprising.  Half of Uganda's population are under 15 and the only way for most children to get to school is on foot. This is true, but it wouldn't explain why the roads are thronged with children at 10.30 in the morning or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. 

Ugandan schools work long hours, officially from about 8am to 5 or 5.30pm.  Many reputable private schools or government schools unofficially work even longer hours.  It is not unusual for boarding schools to get their students out of bed at 5.30am for a couple of hours prep before breakfast, and work them through till 10pm at night.  As most boarding schools also have day pupils, you see young people trudging up and down the roads at what seem to us to be completely unreasonable times.  Think of the dangers, think of the impact on children's lives.  Letters in the newspapers complain of children leaving their suburban homes at 4am in order to reach their schools on time, one reason for the popularity of boarding.  On their return at 8 o'clock in the evening, children have to buckle down to do their homework.  One of our friends once told us that her cleaner's 3 year old son had been caned for arriving a few minutes late for the 7am start at his private nursery school.

And as if these school hours were not bad enough, many schools operate illegal study time during the holidays.  Here's a contrast for you: in Scotland, schools are commended for providing holiday activities such as broader study and enrichment for less privileged young people; in Uganda, schools which provide (or, indeed, require) students to attend such activities are criticised by Ministry officials for cramming them unnecessarily for examinations and, in some cases, running profitable financial rackets which extract even more money from the pockets of struggling families.  Some schools are even accused of deliberately only teaching part of the syllabus during the normal timetabled weeks in order to force students to attend and pay for extra holiday lessons.

Given the inhumane hours which so many schools insist on, why then are Stuart and I so used to seeing so many children on the road during the middle of the morning and afternoon?

The answer lies in the nature of Ugandan society. Uganda is a country of the haves and have-nots.  The haves go to well-run schools, private schools or famous government-aided schools. We have been to some of these schools and been impressed by them and by the headteachers and teachers who work there. The children wandering the roads in the middle of the working day are the have-nots.  They attend the poorer government-aided and private schools, those offering universal primary or secondary education (UPE, USE), particularly those in rural areas.

The gap between the rich and the poor, and between the slightly richer and the very much poorer is enormous. Uganda may pride itself on universal education, but few middle class children and, indeed, few teachers' children actually go to the crowded schools which provide it. Government-aided UPE schools are generally perceived to be for those who cannot afford anything else. Compare that with Scotland.  Only a handful of education professionals in Scotland send their children to fee-paying schools.  The general belief is that if a local authority school is not good enough for your own child it is not good enough for anyone else's.  Of course, that does not prevent teachers and local authority education officers moving into the catchment areas of the more desirable schools, but they will tend to be state, not private, schools.

In Uganda, however, while middle class children work all hours of the day and a good bit of the night in their 'good' schools, the vast majority of the country's children receive disrupted education in government-aided schools or in one of the thousands of poor quality private schools which continue to mushroom all over the country.  The children we keep seeing walking up and down the roads are the children of the poor, usually but not always the rural poor.

Colleagues who go in and out of rural primary schools all the time tell us that it is quite common for them to arrive at a school in which even by 10.30 in the morning only one out of the 14 or 15 teachers may have turned up.  In some schools, no teachers at all may turn up on some days.  Imagine that: the children arrive hungry, having walked for several miles, and there are no teachers when they get there. Even if the teachers are there, they are often not teaching. In the UK, we take it for granted that every primary class has its own teacher, who is responsible for almost all the learning which goes on in the class.  British primary teachers are busy, very busy, and long before the beginning and after the end of each day.

In Uganda, classes are certainly large, sometimes containing a hundred or even two hundred pupils.  However, more than one teacher is usually responsible for teaching that class.  These teachers divide up the curriculum between them. Although they may both be in the class together one may be dozing at the back or getting on with some preparation (if you’re lucky).  They will not, however,  actually be team teaching, an alien concept here. 

I once went into a P2 class of 70 or 80 pupils.  It was in the centre of a small town and hence was very well staffed, allegedly with the wives of local government officials who had persuaded their husbands not to send them out into the countryside. The class had three teachers – amazing, they could each have taken 25 pupils.  And how did those three teachers divide up the work?  One of them taught, one of them marked exercise books and one of them handed out chalk.  Seriously.  And from my seat at the back of the class I could see that at least half the children hadn’t a clue what was going on and nobody, nobody at all, came to help them.  Often the non-working teachers don’t even get as far as the classroom: they can be seen under the mango trees or in the staffroom.  Fair enough, there may not be enough classrooms to divide up the classes between them, but surely it would be better to teach smaller groups outside than to continue the practice of one teacher teaching an enormous class inside?  The disadvantage for the teachers?  They would actually have to teach all the time instead of just for a couple of periods each day.

So, the situation is a complex one.  And what do Stuart and I think? These are Uganda’s children – everyone’s children. Every day of every year, not just when the teachers are on strike, children’s futures are being destroyed and their lives blighted. A whole generation is being thrown away.  Education is about values.  Children should come first. Yes, it is bad that a dysfunctional system doesn’t pay its teachers regularly.  Yes, it is bad that salaries are so low.  However, it is also difficult to justify 100% pay rises when day after day we see unattended classes and children failing to learn.

Children learning - statue on the roundabout at Gulu

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Golf courses of Uganda Part 6: Palm Valley Golf and Country Club

As you've probably gathered by now, if you’ve been following our golfing posts, almost all the courses we've visited so far have their origins in colonial times. The club houses have parquet floors and championship boards dating back almost a century, or so they appear. Palm Valley Golf and Country Club, however, is different. You are much more likely to see a course like this in Cyprus, the south of France or, indeed, America, than in Scotland, the home of golf. Palm Valley has been developed for the new, and one hopes expanding, Ugandan tourist sector, for expatriate professionals and businessmen and well-heeled locals.

The 1st tee.
To find the course, you leave Kampala on the Entebbe Road and turn right shortly after the large modern building of the J&G Airport Hotel. You wind your way along and up the side of the hill, peep over the brow and there before you lies a half-finished and half-occupied housing development. Palm Valley is at the bottom of the hill.

Desirable housing in the distance, behind the undesirable bunker.

And is it worth it when you get there? The answer has to be a very definite ‘yes’. It has, we are reliably informed, the best greens in Uganda and even, says the owner, the best in East Africa. It also has water features and the largest bunkers we have ever seen.  Mean-spirited non-golfers like me might cavil and moan about the destruction of pristine tropical forest and swamp. Stuart, however, begs to differ. 

A view of bunkers from the first tee.

A bit of swamp they didn't drain.
Carefully does it.
So, how would a golfer describe the course? Tricky, sometimes a little too tricky, with possibly just too many ditches and artificial ponds.  To start the course, with a 468 yard par 4 (stroke index 1), a ditch on the right and a pond in the middle is a harder start than the 1st at Royal St George’s. The 2nd a 221 yard par 3 doesn’t exactly give you relief, with ditch on the right and a pond in front of the green.  However, the course does reward straight hitting and the greens are superb – smooth, quite pacey and holding.  It is actually an enjoyable nine holes but just play conservative golf and keep the ball on the fairway.

In the rough, but fortunately not in the pond.
A long drive down the 1st fairway, Godfrey keeping a good eye out.
That should do it...
And for the non-golf playing partner?  A very pleasant walk, though not yet as scenic as the flower-covered slopes of Lugasi. The course has some attractive swamp areas and, fortunately, a few of the original trees are still dotted around.  You can gain considerable amusement from your partner’s frustration at losing yet another ball in the water.  His/her efforts to extricate him/herself from the ubiquitous sand are equally entertaining.  Having arrived with three brand new balls, Stuart lost four in the course of the first nine holes, and six altogether. (Shh… I wasn't supposed to say that.) The attractive restaurant and bar area make for pleasant waiting and the sandwiches are excellent. Once the remaining nine holes are completed there will also be a brand new clubhouse to look forward to.

Quite a pleasant walk...
Well, at least some of the land is put to good use!
So, a challenging outing for the golfer. If as the non-golfer you get tired of traipsing behind, just persuade your companion to drop you off at the sumptuous Serena Lake Victoria Hotel on the way.  Its magnificent pool, well-equipped gym and excellent food will give you plenty to occupy yourself with as your partner’s stress levels reach hitherto unimaginable heights.

This should do it.

Or, perhaps this.

Or this.  Well, perhaps not.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Home from home

Nearly a year in Uganda and no sight of a lion, or indeed a zebra, let alone a lion eating a zebra.  We've seen elephants, buffaloes, baboons and chimpanzees a-plenty, but lion-less we remain.  So, in the next two or three weeks we’re going to be off on another wonderful trip to see lions wandering through Queen Elizabeth Park and (we hope) climbing trees at Ishasha, while taking in the zebras at Lake Mburo on the way.  That should do the trick…

Well, as it happens, perhaps we didn’t need to book our August safari after all…  Through some bizarre turn of events, it turns out that one of the best places to see a lion these days is Doncaster, that well-known tropical holiday destination.  During your safari through the South Yorkshire drizzle you can spot impala, zebra, camels, flamingos, ostriches and six, yes six, prides of lions.  I can vouch for it.  I flew 5,000 miles from Entebbe to Edinburgh and then drove another 300 miles south only to see the animals I’d left behind me on the plains of western Uganda. The irony of it!
Dreaming of Uganda under a Yorkshire sun.
Is that an impala or a small child with an umbrella?
My peregrinations around the British Isles got me thinking that there is far more linking Uganda and Britain than you might think, and I'm not referring to their shared colonial history.

When I left Uganda the newspapers were full of corruption stories.  You’ll have read a few of them in some recent posts: the syphoning off of education funds, health staff selling hospital supplies, that sort of thing.  The last couple of days’ newspapers since I returned have added more accusations: that during the 7th Parliament the Deputy Speaker bribed MPs to support the lifting of presidential term limits; that the Intelligence Services Coordinator is refusing to hand over the official residence of the Mayor of Kampala; and that a city tycoon has been stealing water from the National Water and Sewerage Corporation.  The usual stories, typically African bribery and corruption, you may consider.  But just think about it.  When I arrived in the UK two weeks ago, what were the stories?  Phone hacking, illegal payments to the Metropolitan Police and well-respected and not-so-well respected members of society tumbling down their greasy poles.  The difference?  In the UK, the privacy of grieving families has been destroyed.  In Uganda, children are denied their fundamental rights to education and, too often, to life itself.  Different outcomes but with very similar origins in greed, selfishness and a callous lack of concern for other people’s welfare.

What else in the UK reminded me of Uganda?

Well, the life expectancy actually. 

‘What?’ you exclaim.  ‘Africans die young, everyone knows that, and in the UK people are living longer and longer.’

Indeed, all apparently true.  However, not everyone in the UK dies at 85 or 90.  Life expectancy in Uganda is 53.  Life expectancy in the east end of Glasgow is 54.  And it’s probably not much higher in parts of Liverpool or, indeed, South Yorkshire.  Britain is a divided society – as is Uganda, of course, though middle class Ugandans tend to die of similar conditions to those suffered by their poorer compatriots.  Ugandans die of the effects of HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, malaria and, if they are women, in childbirth. In Glasgow, well-off people live just as long as elsewhere in the UK; poor people die prematurely of heart disease, strokes and cancer linked to smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, lack of exercise and a poor diet.  In Uganda, people get plenty of exercise and rarely smoke, though some of them drink a lot (highest in East Africa and one of the worst levels worldwide).  Their basic diet is healthy: lots of fruit and vegetables, a bit of chicken, some eggs, a bit of beef, goat or pork and staples such as beans, maize, rice and matoke (plantain).  Of course, not everyone can afford to eat a balanced diet, but they would if they could, unlike many Scots (though we must mention the praiseworthy efforts of Glasgow City Council and its schools and, indeed, of the Scottish Government, to improve young people's diets).  Sadly, in this fertile country of Uganda 40% of all child deaths before the age of five are linked to malnutrition.  Poor people in the UK tend to be fat, poor people in Uganda are always thin: one of the other ironies of life.  However, the truism is that poor people die early whether they live in Scotland or Uganda.

When I arrived in South Yorkshire, the east of England had been declared an area of drought.  It had had no rain for weeks, the ground was hard and water supplies were getting low.  My mother was worried about her tomatoes and we’re keeping our fingers crossed about the raspberries.  (I know, I know, I started off this piece talking about Yorkshire drizzle.  That was sod’s law and clearly related to my arrival.)  However, to my knowledge, no one in Yorkshire has died of thirst.  When I left Uganda, the East African drought which has received so much coverage on the UK television, had already had a major impact on the east and north of the country.  Karamoja, Teso and the Kenyan border area have missed out on the rains which eventually arrived in the rest of Uganda.  Food is scarce, wells and water courses have dried up and animals are dying.  Actually, food prices are rocketing right across Uganda because of shortages caused by the late rains and high fuel prices. Many people throughout the country are surviving on one scant meal a day, including the children in Royal Pride Academy (of which more in a later post).  Unlike in Scotland, the government here has absolutely no interest in ensuring that the nation’s children receive the nutrition they need to be able to learn effectively: that, it points out is their parents’ responsibility. Government-aided schools are not allowed to provide meals, even if the children pay for them, though many ignore this instruction. Indeed, headteachers have been taken to court for feeding children (compare this with Scotland's Hungry for Success initiative).  Mrs Thatcher would applaud.  However, in the north and east, the situation is far worse than in central Uganda, yet another symptom of climate change.  When I arrived back in Kampala last Wednesday, the newspaper headlines referred to the first deaths from ‘famine’ in the east of the country.

The concept of what constitutes 'drought' is clearly relative, as is the concept of what constitutes a ‘rainstorm’.  As I drove into Glasgow, the heavens opened, the rain poured down and lightning streaked across the sky.  ‘Monsoon rains,’ said the television commentator on BBC Scotland.  Well, not quite.  Come to Uganda and I’ll show you rain!  We may have had unreliable rainfall this year, but when rain comes it rains properly!

So that’s it, really.  We are inhabitants of a global society.  There is more that joins us than divides us and sometimes our differences are just a matter of degree.  I am sure the zebras would agree with me as they chomp on their pale Yorkshire grass under a feeble cloud-covered sun.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Telling stories out of school

A lot has been happening in Ugandan schools recently, and some of it gets into the press.  Here are some snippets.

Bomb used as school bell

Teachers in Ikobero Church of Uganda Primary School in rural Kasese have been using a live bomb as a bell. They’ve been banging it with stones to mark the beginning and end of each day and playtime and lunchtime. Interestingly, the bomb was identified when the Anti-Mine Network Rwenzori (AMNET-R) was visiting the school to teach its 700 pupils how to identify explosive devices. Ironically, we often complain about the lack of practical application of learning in Ugandan schools! The Kasese area was a war-zone during the 1996-2002 conflict between the government and the Allied Democratic Forces and it is not uncommon for children to be killed or injured by leftover mines. The visiting group immediately moved the bomb to a safe place for detonation along with the other 25 bombs and landmines found in other areas of the district. Only six months ago a bomb was found at Muhindi Primary School where teachers had confiscated it from pupils who were using it as a toy and put it in the school store.  Fortunately AMNET-R identified and exploded it.  Many more landmines remain to be found in the area, which already has more than 50 landmine victims.

Cattle rustling constrains the school timetable

Pupils and teachers in Katakwi (eastern Uganda) are being forced to leave school early.  For the last week or so, Karamojan warriors to the north of Katakwi have started attacking the area in order to steal cattle.  So far, eight people have been killed. Cattle are the main form of wealth for Karamojans and the basis of their diet.  Many cattle have been lost in Karamoja because of the current drought.  Katakwi has been a target for cattle rustlers for years now, though the army had been pretty successful in dealing with it until this recent incursion.  The District Education Officer has said the attacks have affected syllabus coverage. “The cattle rustlers hide in the bushes during the day. It is not safe for the children who walk to their homes. Schools have to release them by 3pm,” she said. (3pm is very early in Uganda where pupils often leave at 5.30pm or even later.) Not long ago, cattle rustlers used spears.  They now use AK47s.  It is alleged that at least 50 people have been killed by the Karamajong since January, although official spokesmen deny this. Unfortunately, some families have now started to return to IDP camps (for internally displaced people) which had been closed last year after the cessation of the northern conflict.  Some people have asked for guns with which to protect their families. The problem may be related to the withdrawal of troops to cover the election in February. So far the army has recovered 442 head of cattle, some of which had actually been stolen by other members of the Iteso tribe, not the Karamajong. It gets complicated!

Secondary school strikes and closures

Wairaka college school in Jinja (central Uganda) has been closed because of a students’ strike. On Monday, they marched to the district education offices to protest about the headteacher using fines as disciplinary measures, giving them inadequate food (unfried beans and poor quality posho – cornflour),  increasing fees and failing to hold parents’ meetings for three years. The district officials persuaded them to go back to school, saying they would set up a special committee to consider their grievances. The students then started a sit-down strike and are refusing to attend classes. In the end, the district  decided to close the school to avoid any further trouble.
A more violent strike occurred at Bishop Luwum Memorial Secondary School I Kitgum (far north) when the 150 students burnt the ten ‘temporary structures’ (probably mud and thatch huts) used to house teachers and tried but failed to set the library and laboratory on fire.  As usual, they cited a range of grievances including the fact that they were not allowed to take part in a local athletics competition, their teachers’ continual absence from school which has resulted in poor coverage of the curriculum and lack of teaching of compulsory subjects like English and biology. Police are now involved.
Meanwhile another secondary school, San Giovanni in Kanungu, is to reopen after a strike over the prohibition of mobile phones.  Each student has to pay Shs25,000 (just over £5) towards the renovation of school property destroyed during the violence.
Mind you, there may be some substance to the grievances of secondary school students. The Daily Monitor reported that the Directorate of Education Standards had closed three secondary schools in Wakiso, a district close to Kampala, for operating illegal boarding sections with no sanitation and no fire escape routes.  The schools had no qualified teachers, the headteachers were all absent and the students had been left on their own.  One of the schools also had no laboratories.  Another of them was operating a nursery, primary and secondary school on the same premises, which is against Ministry regulations.  Scottish readers may consider this an all-through school and see no problem.  However, in Uganda such arrangements can give rise to serious child protection issues.  
Private schools across Uganda which provide education under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) scheme, 741 of them,  have been threatening to close as the government has not paid the fees for the 239,682 students for which they are responsible.  Private schools educate over a third of the 695,749 students who receive free education.  Fees are Shs47,000 per student per term (about £12), and the government’s arrears amount to Shs15 billion.
All government primary schools in Lira run out of money

The 19 UPE primary schools in Lira (north) have not received any funds for Universal Primary Education from central government since the last quarter of 2010. They can no longer afford to buy even chalk.  Some have tried to charge parents extra fees but parents are refusing to compensate for the lack of public funding.  Schools are not allowed to charge such fees and some headteachers have been asked to provide statements to the police.  The District Inspector of Schools said ‘The problems are real.  The government should act immediately.’

Primary school pupils saved from mutilation

A good news story now: 120 girls from the Pokot tribe aged between 9 and 13 who were about to undergo female genital mutilation (cutting off  the clitoris) have been rescued by two NGOs, the Inter-African Committee Uganda and Amudat Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (AMREACH).  Unfortunately 22 girls had already been mutilated.   The girls came from two primary schools in eastern Uganda.  Police managed to arrest one of the women ‘surgeons’ but more than 40 got away. Some of the surgeons are said to come from Kenya, just over the border. Mutilation is a cultural practice in the east but has never been practised in most of Uganda.  Since being banned in 2010, it has tended to take place in the remote bush and in caves.  Worryingly, mutilation has increased from 550 cases in 2008 to 820 in 2010, so it is far from dying out despite the ban. Last year, 200 Pokot girls from Amudat were forced by their parents to undergo FGM, according to a survey carried out by the two NGOs.  The practice is also prevalent among the Sabiny of Kapchorwa (see the post Mount Elgon, its people and traditions

Schools hit by lightning

Seventeen pupils and a student teacher died last week when their school, Runyanya PS in Kiryandongo 210km north of Kampala, was struck by lightning.  About 100 pupils in all were injured and were taken to the local 100-bed hospital. The hospital, according to the Local Council Chairman, had no running water, blankets, bed sheets, drugs, beds or mattresses. The pupils lay down four to a bed or mat, where these could be found, attached to their drips.  Nurses improvised blankets by ripping down the curtains and using plastic sheets and clothing brought in for a recent Ebola outbreak. Staff at the hospital sped into town to buy equipment from local clinics using credit, while the police rushed the most seriously injured to Mulago, the country’s main referral hospital in Kampala four or five hours away. The medical superintendent said that some of the children died because of the lack of equipment.

The Resident District Commissioner said, ‘the hospital did their best and were slightly organised.’  He added, rather mysteriously, ‘if you continue in that spirit, we shall move ahead.’

The Daily Monitor has suggested that the poor condition of Uganda’s hospitals, which so often are unable to respond to such medical crises, explains the popularity of ‘the traditional medicine/witchdoctor industry.’

Meanwhile 21 pupils in Paidha Role Model Primary School in Zombo were also struck by lightning, as were 48 pupils in Camgweng PS, Kitgum, as well as scores of other adults and children right across the country.  Many cows have also been killed.  Most schools in Uganda have corrugated iron roofs and tend to be the tallest objects in the area, particularly in the many areas affected by deforestation.  They rarely have lightning conductors. The deaths are causing major concern to authorities and considerable panic among the population.  Ironically, the storms had been welcomed after a very long dry spell.  Various steps are being taken to prevent further such attacks: MPs have been discussing whether all schools should be required to install lightning conductors and Christian and Muslim clergy are holding joint prayer sessions.  The District Education Officer in Kotido, Karamoja, has warned headteachers not to let pupils run home during thunderstorms. However, the long-term solution is most likely to be environmental. A couple of months ago terrible thunderstorms and hail destroyed all the crops and scores of buildings in Namutumba region, the hailstones taking four days to melt.  Storms have apparently become much more powerful than previously and are attributed to climate change. 

This will be the last post for the next week or two as I’m off to the UK for 10 days.  Who knows what will have happened by the time I get back?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The children of Kampala

I had difficulty getting to sleep last night.  No, I hadn’t eaten too much cheese or curry, or imbibed too much coffee.  My sheep-counting was pretty focused and the bed pretty comfortable.  Why then? Well, at about 10.30pm a child started crying.  The sounds came from quite close to us.  I crept out onto the balcony at the back to listen and reckoned they came from just up the lane behind our flat. 

What sort of crying?  Desperate, heartbroken crying…Mummee….sob, sob….Mummmee….sob, sob, Mummee….  followed by hiccupping breaths then back again, Mummee…. Sob, sob…Mummee….

How old was the child? Three, perhaps, four at the most.

And why was he or she crying? I really have no idea.  She (female gender for convenience, for I really don’t know) was definitely outside.  Lost?  Why did no passerby help? Locked out by accident?  Then why did no one let her in?  Locked out on purpose?  Possibly.  Perhaps a punishment for some childish crime.  Some crime, to be locked out at three years old in the middle of the night...

It took me back several decades.  When I was about eight, my younger brother and I went to stay with our grandparents, good upright Baptists, ex-Plymouth Brethren: generally kindly, but brooking no nonsense.  We were allowed out to play on the swings in the park at the back of the house, well within sight of the back door - allowed, that is, on condition that we came back at a particular time, and quite right too.  Inevitably, wristwatches not being normal wear for children in the 1950s, one day we were late.  How late? No idea, probably about ten minutes, for children’s stomachs usually tell them when it’s time for tea, watches or no watches.

We tried the front door.  It was locked.  We rang the bell, we knocked on the door.  No reply, silence.   Where was Nana? Several minutes passed. Then the letterbox inched open and part of a face appeared, Nana’s face.

‘You’re late.  I’m not going to let you in,’ my grandmother announced.  And she didn’t.  We stood on the doorstep, frozen – not with cold, for this was a hot Kent August and we came from chilly Lancashire – but with fear, sheer heart-stopping fear, for my grandparents never told lies.  We weren’t going to be let in.  Where could we go?  Who would feed us?  Where would we sleep?

We stood there for what seemed to me to be hours, though it was probably only fifteen minutes or so.  Eventually the door opened and a grim-faced grandmother marched us in.  Silence at the tea table, silence as we went early to bed, silence as I lay there wide awake thinking, 'what if...'.

And yesterday, for how long did the crying go on halfway up the lane in middle class Ntinda?  At least half an hour, perhaps 45 minutes. Clearly the child was guilty of a crime even worse than mine all those years ago - or else she had nowhere else to go.  I wondered what I should do.  In Scotland, I would have had no doubt. Scottish professionals are well tuned into the principles of child protection. ‘It’s everyone’s job to make sure I’m all right’ was the theme of some of the early child protection materials.  In Scotland, I would have gone out to see what the matter was.  I would have waited and watched, keeping an eye to make sure nothing dreadful happened to the child and, after I had waited long enough to be sure that this was real child neglect,  I would have phoned the social workers or police.

But here, in Uganda?  I paced the balcony.  How could I interfere in a family’s life in another country with its own child-rearing traditions?  And yet, this was a child who was clearly suffering, not physically as far as I could tell, but emotionally and psychologically.  Would I phone ANPPCAN?  Would the family lynch me if they thought I was interfering?  Not an empty fear, for lynchings happen pretty frequently here.

In the end, fortunately, the crying stopped. Either the child at last fell asleep or she was eventually allowed into the house, I don’t know.  The outcome for me was the best part of an hour of misery and guilt at my own cowardice, and some further hours lying awake wondering at what point I would have been prepared to risk my own safety in order to assure the safety of a child.

Those of us who come from comfortable western backgrounds with their clear accepted norms about things like child-rearing can find life in Uganda quite difficult. Another relatively minor  incident earlier yesterday illustrates it.  Walking past our local supermarket in the early evening I came across a small boy.  He looked about seven at most, though Ugandan children are smaller than ours so I don’t really know.  What I do know is that he was having considerable difficulty balancing the heavy metal container of sweetcorn on his head.  No one was buying and he looked utterly miserable.  I was off to catch a bite at a local restaurant but, nevertheless, I bought a couple of ears of corn just to make his load lighter and give him something to take back to his mother.  I was sorely tempted to buy the lot, and maybe I should have done – though that might simply have proved to his mother how profitable it was sending her little son out on his own along a busy city road in order to make money.  

That was a trivial, commonplace incident, for child labour is rife over here.  We see children searching on rubbish tips for plastic bottles or other objects to sell at 9 o’clock in the morning, off to the fields with hoes on their shoulders at midday and hawking food along dark urban streets at 11 o’clock at night.  There is not an awful lot we can do about it. Changing patterns of family life will take far more than one or two westerners like me feeling guilt-stricken.  And who are we with our regular three meals a day to make judgements anyway?

Indeed, it is not just westerners who feel this way.   New Vision has a heart-breaking page every week entitled Lost Children, about children who end up being looked after by the Kampala police.  In a country with no postal addresses, a child who is lost is well and truly lost. This week’s page featured the following stories.
  • A ‘Good Samaritan’ had observed the same child on consecutive weeks selling boiled maize late at night in central Kampala.  The first time, seeing the child with tears running down his cheeks, he bought the entire contents of his basket.  The second time, he took him to the police station.  The boy told the police that he lived with his aunt and uncle outside the city centre and got punished if he didn’t sell all the maize.  Once the maize was sold, he then had to walk home. He had dropped out of P2 as there was no money for school fees.  His mother had abandoned him when he was a toddler, leaving him at his father’s house in one of the Kampala slums. The story finished, ‘Sekitoleko wants a Good Samaritan to take him back to school.  He can be reached on…’
  • Two brothers were abandoned by their father after their family was evicted, and taken to the police by another Good Samaritan.
  • A child from DR Congo had made his way to Kampala by bus, a journey of at least 500 miles, looking for his mother.  He did not know her name.
  • A 16 year old girl was told by a relative to come to Kampala for school fees but when she got here he had switched his phone off.
  • A 13 year old girl who had dropped out of P2 as her mother could not afford the fees was handed over to a woman who came to her family home.  Instead of being taken to school as she thought, she ended up as a maid looking after the woman’s children.  When she objected, she was thrown out. She wants to go back to her mother.
  • A 10-year old lost his way in a city slum as he looked for his father.  His mother had already abandoned him and he had been living with his grandmother in another slum.

In a country with very little family planning, no right to abortion and disgraceful levels of sexual abuse the plight of children and their child mothers is desperate. Every week we read of children dumped in ponds by despairing mothers who cannot feed them and babies drowned in pit latrines by hopeless teenagers who are ashamed of being ‘defiled’ and terrified of the future. The same themes are repeated again and again – shattered family structures, dire poverty and the destructive effects of dysfunctional health and education systems.

One of the most upsetting journeys for me is along Kampala Road at the heart of the city.  Kampala has relatively few beggars, fewer I always think, than Edinburgh.  People tend to hustle instead: sell a few boiled eggs, a handful of tomatoes, an armful of lurid plastic toys – you know the score.  However, along Kampala Road you see dozens of dark, scrawny and filthy street children, brought here from drought-ridden Karamoja, either by their desperate parents or by traffickers who then live off their earnings. Usually barefoot, always ragged, they break my heart.  And we cannot give to them for we mustn’t encourage trafficking which tears children away from their homes, and begging which keeps them out of school. The girls are often raped and end up as prostitutes.  All are at risk of violence and drug addiction and of becoming muggers and thieves themselves.  Many become HIV positive. They sleep in the gutters and alleyways and in abandoned shacks.  According to the Daily Monitor this week, police say that ‘toddlers were paying SHs300 (about 20p) to the owners of the shacks a night as lodging fees.’ 

The police, surprisingly, come out of these stories really quite well.   They feed lost children out of their own pitifully meagre salaries and let them sleep on the floor of the police station.  This week they rounded up more than 300 street children and sent them to a rehabilitation centre.  Those who are old enough will apparently be sent to school and the younger ones will be ‘taken back to their home areas’, though how the police will track down their families I have no idea.   One would like to think that these abandoned children will have a new and better life, but one doubts it.  The rehabilitation centre is reported as having no bedding and being infested with lice. 

However, the streets will be pleasanter for people like me, I suppose.  There will be fewer tearful children, less guilt and more chance of a full night’s sleep.

PS. Since I wrote this I have found out that each area of Kampala has a police child protection team - I must get the number!

You may also be interested in the post Growing up in Uganda

African Network for Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) - Uganda Chapter

Monday, July 4, 2011

In praise of Ugandan women…..writers

This post is a celebration of the talent, energy and determination of some of my Ugandan friends, young women writers whom I have met through the book club to which I belong.  The leading lights of the book club – which every month also transforms into a writing club – are Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva and Beatrice Lamwaka.  Beverley writes poetry as well as running workshops, encouraging emerging writers and generally contributing enormously to the cultural life of Kampala.

Friday evening was a splendid occasion: it was the 3rd award giving ceremony of the BN Poetry Award (no prizes for guessing what the initials stand for!).  Guests were entertained by well-known poets reading their work, including the amazingly energetic Prophet from South Africa and last year’s winner, Sophie Alal, another member of the book and writing clubs, who read a moving and original poem.  Susan Kerunen gave a magnificent performance in Acholi of part of the Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek (subject of an earlier blog of mine, Are we speaking the same language...?), accompanied by traditional music. This was followed by an equally impressive recital by Pamela Elizabeth Acaye, herself a multi-talented and published poet, of the same verses translated into English.  Oh, and by the way, Pamela is also a member of the book and writing clubs.

The first prize was won by Sanyu Kisaka, for her poem on this year’s theme, Hope.  You can read her poem, Handswing of Disguised Depravity on Beverley’s blog about the BN Poetry Award. Altogether about 40 young female poets entered the competition and nine received awards, public recognition of the talent and enthusiasm of young Ugandan women.

Hon Joyce Mpanga on the left and Beverley Nambozo on the right
Nevertheless, it was a rather older Ugandan woman who also impressed me. The Honourable Joyce Mpanga is a veteran MP who has championed the cause of Ugandan women for many years.  As Chief Guest she gave a very interesting speech in which she recalled (and recited, and sang) traditional poems which are part of Baganda culture.  In addition to a lovely lullaby sung by mothers to the babies strapped on their backs, she amused the audience with examples of satirical verses which people used to sing from hill to hill and which record incidents in the life of the Royal Family of Buganda.  Rather like British nursery rhymes (e.g. 'Georgie Porgy pudding and pie’), these ‘nonsense’ verses give accounts of actual events in a form which removes any suggestion of disrespect.  For example, the reference to a fox cooked in dried banana leaves (an’ impossible’ recipe) is an allusion to the first ever remarriage of a Queen Mother  – an ‘impossible’ event.

Sophie Alal reading her poem.
However, there is one very important person whom I haven’t talked about so far, despite mentioning her right at the beginning of this post.  One of the readings at the BN Award Ceremony was by Beatrice Lamwaka, an extract from her short story Butterfly Dreams.  Beatrice has been shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African writing in English, the African version of the Booker Prize. This is a wonderful achievement, for it is not often that a Ugandan writer reaches the shortlist.  It tends to be the South Africans, Kenyans and Nigerians who dominate African writing. Beatrice comes from the north of Uganda and her story is about a young girl, Lamunu, who returns to her family after being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They have spent five years hoping to hear her name mentioned on the radio as one  of those rescued from Kony’s rebels. The story , told by her sister, describes the pain of Lamunu’s  family as they struggle to help and understand their traumatised daughter and sister.  This summary may sound quite sad and depressing but, despite the grim events it alludes to, the story is one of hope.  The winner of the Caine Prize will be chosen in London on 11th July, and Beatrice will be on her way even as you read these words.  Fingers crossed, Beatrice, your book club friends are thinking of you!

Beatrice Lamwaka
The writers I have written about in this post are all strong talented young women.  That doesn’t mean that everything has come easily to them.  English is their second language and even though many of them are to all intents and purposes bi-lingual there will always be many challenges in writing in your second tongue.  In an earlier post I mentioned some of the differences between Ugandan and British English.  Such differences make it difficult to write convincingly in English and to make one’s mark on an Anglophone world.  Another member of the book club who is on her way to doing just that is Jackee Batanda, a journalist who has just been awarded the 2011-2012 Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship, by the International Women's Media Foundation. This academic research fellowship will be based at MIT, with access to Harvard and Tufts universities and internships at the Boston Globe and the New York Times. 

Often what writers need is a ‘break’.  Women such as Sophie, Sanyu, Beatrice and Jackee have struggled – and continue to struggle - hard for their ‘break’.  Beverley, a writer herself, understands the commitment and sheer hard work which writing requires.  Through the BN Poetry Award, she provides a precious opportunity for other young women to break through to a public audience and readership.  Femrite (the Uganda Female Writers Association) also provides invaluable support and encouragement to writers and helps them rework and polish their writing through its workshops.  Almost all the writers mentioned in this post have either worked for or benefited from its support, sometimes both. All of them deserve respect for the determination and commitment they show in following their chosen art.

You may also like to read:

Unjumping by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, erbacce-press 2010
Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol by Okot p'Bitek, East African Publishers Ltd
Dawn of the Pearl: A new sun rising over Uganda, by Acaye Elizabeth Pamela, KEBU Advocacy thru Art Initiative, 2006
Butterfly Dreams and Other New Short Stories from Uganda (World English Literature), ed Emma Dawson, Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, Nottingham 2010
To see the Mountain and other stories (Caine Prize 2011)
Femrite: Ugandan Women Writers' Association
BN Poetry Award blog