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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Let's teach children to be disobedient, for a change

This morning I looked out of my back window. For once the baby in the house at the back wasn't crying. Somebody else was, however. It was her big sister, all of six or seven, standing behind the back door, where she couldn't be seen from inside the house, with tears pouring down her face. A common enough situation, you say. Children of that age quite often burst into tears. Well, yes in Britain, but not really in Uganda. You very rarely if ever see or hear a child cry. Babies, yes, because babies, as all over the world, just do what they want, but children no.

But what was also strange was the fact that absolutely no sound was coming out of her mouth. She was repeatedly wiping her eyes with the back of her hand but she was not sobbing or hiccuping except, I suppose, internally. Why? My guess is that she was scared, dead scared of her mother coming out and finding her crying.

Now, don't get me wrong. She may have committed any number of misdemeanours and fully deserve the telling off or whatever punishment she may have been subjected to. Or it may have had nothing to do with punishment. She may genuinely have been unhappy for some other reason, broken something precious, was missing a relative, had quarrelled with a friend, was feeling ill. Who knows? What I do know was that crying out loud was either something she was frightened to do or something that was not seen as culturally acceptable.

Now, what do I know about this small girl? She spends almost every minute of her waking day, when she is not at school, including every single day of every single holiday, in complete charge of her two younger sisters: a youngster of three or four, and a 'baby' of, say, eighteen months. That means that she has to keep them from crying in a paved area of about a meter wide and about four or five metres long - a pathway, in fact, that leads down to the gate. And she has absolutely nothing to help her to do this, no toys, no cardboard boxes, no old saucepans with wooden spoons, no plastic cartons and no yoghurt pots. When the children fall over each other, pull each other's hair or cry for some other reason, out comes mother and shouts at the six-year old.

And, to be fair, mother is busy. There is washing to be scrubbed by hand in cold water, floors to be cleaned everyday (such is the dust and the climate), shopping to be done, food to be cooked. (I am given to believe that matoke takes hours to steam, usually over a charcoal stove.) I think there may be a maid; indeed, it would be unusual if there were not, but there would still be plenty of work for two women working full time.

Now, this is not a poverty-stricken family in the Kampala slums. This is a middle-class family which can afford a solid two- or three-roomed house joined onto another two-or three-roomed house to make a 'compound' in the rather pleasant suburb of Ntinda. A rather older woman lives in the other house, possibly mother-in-law or another, older, wife. There is electricity - indeed, the outside security lights are left on all night - and there is a private standpipe outside, under which the children are made to stand to have their evening showers, much to the disgust of the 'baby'. So, no carrying water for them. The family may even have a television, but this is a guess. I have rarely seen a man at the property, but fathers tend to be rather elusive over here. Certainly, I have never seen a man interacting with the children. In fact, I have never seen any adult - visitor or resident, including mother - interacting with the children, apart from with the baby. In Uganda, babies are coddled, cooed at, bounced up and down and have funny noises made at them, but the minute the next child is born then, tough!

Now why am I telling you all this? To give you some idea of how different a child's life can be over here from back in Scotland. Not the lives of all children, of course. This morning, at the swimming pool, there were half a dozen delightfully confident and articulate little girls from the 'elite', also around six or seven, organising games among themselves and chattering away (in English, of course) while they waited for their swimming lesson to start. Their maids were waiting by the side with towels and their younger siblings and they would at some point receive a 'soda' and something to eat. The slight 'podginess' of a couple of them suggested that sodas and burgers were not rare delights. It was quite clear that no childcare duties were expected of them.

The stoicism and devotion to duty expected of my little next door neighbour and others like her is one of the key memories I will take away from Uganda. And this is not damning with faint praise.

A few weeks ago, I received a diatribe of about four of five paragraphs attached to one of my posts from an irate - indeed, apoplectic - reader, the post on Ugandan Asians. (I deleted his comments because they were so unnecessarily rude and were also inaccurate - he hadn't read it properly.) What had enraged him was my obvious affection for the Asian family which used to live next door and what he regarded as my disparaging comments about Ugandan children, in comparison. In fact, I think Ugandan children are wonderful; however, I also think there are aspects of their upbringing which could be more sensitive to their feelings and more stimulating to their intellects. (Just as there are aspects of the upbringing the British give their children which could encourage them to be more courteous and more appreciative of their educational and other opportunities.)

This is what I had written in August.
Aria [my little Indian neighbour], however, was also a handful. A determined little girl, she led her mother a merry dance and sometimes had the most tempestuous temper tantrums: screaming, yelling, stamping of feet - the lot! And in all this, she was very very different from the Ugandan children we see, who tend to be quite quiet and relatively passive - well disciplined, to be sure, easily trusted to walk by themselves down busy pavement-less roads or ride helmetless behind a boda boda driver at the age of three, but not so obviously playing with language, exploring the environment and doing all those noisy messy and inconvenient things which drive parents crazy but help children to become thinking, creative and imaginative little people.

Red rag to a bull!

My correspondent took serious umbrage at what he deemed to be slurs on Ugandan culture. He did not deny any of the points I made, but asserted that the cultural differences were because of different values. Indeed, my point exactly. He said that Ugandan children were expected to respect their elders and be humble.

'Humble' ... that is what got me thinking. And he was quite right. Many well-brought-up children round here are expected to kneel before their parents and their teachers. In fact, kneeling is a key Bugandan tradition. I have seen one obviously poorer woman kneeling in front of another rather richer one in the middle of the street (and just think what a Ugandan street is like!). I have had to stop the woman who does our cleaning from kneeling in front of me. My friends' maids kneel in front of them. Sometimes children kneel before us when we visit a school. I have seen a woman kneel in front of two well-built 'big' men, again, in the middle of the street.

However, one thing I have never seen - a man kneeling in front of a woman. I have seen pictures of men prostrating themselves in front of the Kabaka but never ever in front of a woman.

Now, there is something quite quaint about a quick bob or curtsey from a child. The Queen doesn't seem to mind, especially if the curtsey comes attached to a charming posy and an adorable child. And we may assume that God doesn't object to kneeling either, otherwise Christians would really have got it wrong. However, royalty apart (heavenly or otherwise), demonstrable - indeed, ostentatious - 'humility' of the kneeling-in-the-middle-of-the-street sort just isn't on, just isn't 'British'. And kneeling in front of teachers? Aren't teachers supposed to serve the pupils rather than the other way round?

So why all these uncoordinated ramblings?

Last Monday, September 17th, was the National Day of Prayer and Action for Children: Together achieving zero violence in schools. 

The media release went on to say Praying today for a better tomorrow for children. Children are a blessing and deserve to be loved and protected. But every day, children are physically, sexually and emotionally abused in schools ... Let us pray and join together to create a safe place for children to thrive and develop so that they become productive and self-driven adults. [my use of bold]

Now, there is plenty of child abuse in Scottish homes and in other parts of the UK. Children are neglected by alcohol- and drug-abusing parents. They suffer emotional trauma, experience disrupted childhoods or are frozen out by unresponsive carers. They are sexually abused in a number of different contexts, usually within the circle of their families and friends, but sometimes in church. And, yes, they are still beaten - at home.

However, although there are many similarities with Scotland, in one key aspect, child abuse in Uganda is different. Whereas in Scotland, schools are almost always 'safe havens' for children, in Uganda they are usually anything but. There are primary schools in poor areas of Glasgow - and London, Liverpool and Belfast and many other places - which are oases of safety, kindness and care, where, once children enter through the doors, they leave behind whatever has troubled them that morning and are allowed to be children. Scottish teachers are almost always, caring individuals with an interest in and commitment to children and their welfare. Some, of course, are more caring than others and some make more effort to help. However, few of them, certainly in primary schools, would deny that their role goes beyond classroom teaching to caring for the whole child. [This post is not about child-on-child abuse, like bullying, of which there is still far too much in Scottish schools.] Sadly, there are also children in Glasgow, London and so on, who sob quietly at the end of the school term because they have to spend the holidays at home.

What are the kinds of childhood troubles which Ugandan children experience outside school?

  • Research by the organisation Strengthening Decentralisation Sustainability found that nearly 4,000 children in Nakasongola District alone had been abandoned or were neglected by parents/guardians. Children whose parents are divorced are sometimes abandoned indefinitely while their fathers go to other towns to work. (Fathers almost always have custody in Uganda.)
  • For example, an 11-year old boy in Kayunga recently took his six siblings to the police station six miles away after struggling to support them since his father had left in January. The parents had separated three years before. He was supporting his younger brothers and sisters by making and selling bricks and had tried to grow food for them but they were too young to help. The children wept as they narrated how they sleep on empty stomachs and on the floor after their mother took with her all beddings.
  • The Resident District Commissioner and District Education Officer in Masindi said that child labour in Masindi and Kiryandongo is rising. A survey by the Platform for Labour Action (PLA) said that about 1.76 million children in the area aged five to 17 were engaged in child labour. Also 55.8% of those aged 15-17 carried out tobacco farming at the same time as attending school.
  • The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) has reported that across Uganda 16 children are sexually abused every day.
  • For example, Nakasongola police have stated that 100 children have been defiled (raped) since the beginning of the year. 
  • The Resident District Commissioner of Bugiri has announced that since the beginning of the year 46 girls had been defiled/raped, of whom five had contracted HIV/Aids.
  • The police have announced that over 2,233 girls were defiled in Bugisu and Bukeddi districts in 2011.
  • Police have announced that in Kanungu District, defilement is increasing. Over the last six months, 78 girls had been defiled; attributed to 'early marriages'. (Early marriages are actually and legally rape, let's be in no doubt of it: between 50 and 60% of girls in some areas.)
  • The Kitgum NGO Forum are concerned about high drop out rates, especially among girls, which it attributes to pregnancy (ie rape). In Padibe West Sub-county alone, 22 pupils have dropped out of school for this reason, 18 from just one primary school.
  • World Vision is threatening to pull out of West Nile after 20 years work because of attitudes towards the education of girls and the alacrity with which parents connive with defilers for financial gain and take their daughters away from school for early marriages. One parent said, We cannot get many cows and goats from educated girls. So we give them when they are still young and besides, we have poor roads and few schools so you can see the problem. Commendably, the district inspector for Arua has been very successful in enabling pregnant P7 girls (if I recall, it ran into hundreds) to sit their Primary Leaving Examinations, some very close to delivery.
  • A study commissioned by Northern Uganda Malaria, Aids and Tuberculosis Programme and carried out by Marie Stopes Uganda found that 120 child prostitutes were operating in Lira. Some had had no education and some were victims of the LRA insurgency.

And in school? How are children treated there?

Well, I am not going to rehearse all over again all the issues relating to corporal punishment, beatings, public humiliation, scaring children with hell and damnation. Between roughly 80 and 90% of all children have been physically beaten. In one well-known high-status government-aided secondary school, those young people who have difficulty with their work are (allegedly) held down on the floor and caned. And parents expect it, so there we are.

No, it's a different issue I want to tackle, one I was circling round at the beginning of this piece.

Ugandan education is largely based on telling children. It is usually rote learning and copying down notes (understood or not). In most schools, there is no room for personal opinion, questioning, problem-solving, discussing and disagreeing except for formulaic class debates involving small numbers of the more articulate pupils. Although schools are supposed to set up school councils for older pupils, that rarely happens. Teachers give orders. Sometimes the purpose of these orders is to cover up for the teacher's own laziness. However, the teacher's word is paramount - no questioning, no pleading.

Ugandan Christianity is also based on telling. God is considered to have personally dictated the words of the Bible and the answer to every social, family and moral issue is contained within its pages. Belief is literal. There is no room for questioning here either. You either believe or you don't. If you don't, you will go to hell.

Ugandan family life also seems to be based on telling. Long distance observation of families around us and where we visit seems to indicate children with strict rules to follow and serious punishments - usually beating - if they don't. Their out-of-school lives are generally filled with water-carrying, tending animals, hoeing and harvesting fields and domestic chores, including childcare. All necessary tasks but exhausting when end on to a long school day. And even among the elite, there's not much free discussion, as far as we can see. We once attended a friend's New Year celebrations. Half a dozen grown up children of the extended family sat round with their parents and made plans for the future. Or at least the parents did. In turn each young person was told exactly what subject, what degree, what level,  what university (after a first degree at Makerere, masters and doctorates from London or Manchester or at least Nairobi or Dar es Salaam was the rule of the day).

So complete obedience is the fundamental basis of every aspect of children's lives. No being stroppy, lippy, argumentative at any time, to anybody. In other words, no being a child and, certainly, no being a teenager. So, Ugandan children are a dream to teach: wanting to learn, intent on their work, determined to do as well as they can and very well behaved.

And more than 50% of the girls are sexually abused.

A couple of months ago one of our colleagues inspected a primary school where there were supposed to be 15 teachers. Only two had bothered to turn up for work that day. Of these, one was teaching a class. And the other? In the middle of raping a pupil.

Oh, all right, there are all these Girls Education Movement (GEM) clubs and other forms of female empowerment, good sensible developments. There are all these ridiculous notices in the 'talking compounds' - stay a virgin, delay sex until after P7 - that sort of thing. But what is the point of any of this if you have never been allowed to say 'no' to anybody - to your parents, teachers or members of the community? Does anyone realistically expect a P4 pupil to disobey her teacher when told to stay behind in class and let him grope her? None of this 'empowerment' work is of any use unless young people really are allowed to disagree with their elders, to say no, to fight back, to show their pain, distress and, yes, anger.  Allowed to cry, to sob, to stamp their feet. Allowed to be disobedient.

Some of the most heartbreaking stories involve little girls who are so terrified of telling their families they have been raped (by their fathers, by their teachers, by any random male) that the violence does not come to light until they can no longer walk and the pus is running down their legs. Sorry for the crudeness, but that is how it is reported in the press on the rare occasions when the cases actually come to court.

A current court case involves a headteacher who is accused of raping 18 pupils. One, society could have understood and nothing much would have happened except a ticking off and financial recompense to the parents for their damaged goods. Two would have been going a bit too far, a suspension for a few weeks, perhaps, or transfer to another school. But 18?

And it is not just the 'girl child'. It is women as well, women who have been brought up to obey their parents without question and, now, their husbands. Here in Uganda, most men believe they have a 'right' to sex, whether or not their partners want it.

  • The Uganda Cares clinic in Masaka reports that 1,000 women living with HIV have complained that their husbands force them to have unprotected sex, putting them at risk of acquiring more HIV positive strains.

Women are expected to put up with their husbands' infidelities, and tolerate it when they bring other women home, sometimes using the marital bed. They are expected to accept when such women become permanent - their co-wives, in other words. They expect to be beaten and are, frequently - one of the highest rates in the world.

So, my blog correspondent, you are right: Ugandan children are brought up to be humble and obedient. May I suggest that that might be part of the problem?




[NB Since this post was written, the British media has reported extensively on child abuse in English and Scottish schools, including prestigious boarding establishments, and on the long-term sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham and other towns.]


DEFINITIONS

Defilement: A sexual act with another person who is below the age of 18 years. (Sentence up to and including life imprisonment. The few cases which come to court rarely have sentences of this magnitude.)
Aggravated defilement: such an act with a person aged below 14 years; where the offender is infected with HIV, where the offender is a parent/guardian/in authority over the victim; when the victim is disabled; where the offender is a serial offender. (Sentence: the death penalty is possible. No such penalty given over the last two years.)
Attempted defilement: sentence up to 18 years, or, if aggravated defilement, life imprisonment.

Most of the material in this post has come from articles in The Daily Monitor over the last year.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Women baring (almost) all, but with bras unburnt
Young, female and the world at their feet...well, perhaps
Through a young person's eyes

Here is ANPPCAN's latest press release about the horrifying levels of sex abuse of young girls in Uganda.

ANPPCAN calls for action against increased children rights abuse

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