How are you? – I am fine

Monday 3rd August

Kajamaka New, Mukongoro Rock, Kumi New, Atutur Village, Akabui – they are all names which go round in my head. They are the places where we are working. They are all schools spread out across the vast plain of Kumi. Kumi plain is part of the even vaster Lake Kyoga natural drainage system which seems to cover many hundreds of square miles. It occupies about 10 percent of the whole of Uganda. Even the river Nile flows through it.

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One small part of the plain contains Lake Bisina – itself a huge body of water several square miles in diameter and you can only see the far side when there is no heat haze (which is seldom). As you approach it across the plain you rise a small mound and then look across fifty miles in every direction. You can even see the curvature of the earth.

All that breaks the view are small trees stretching away until they get so small in my vision that they merge together into a distant green haze. And within this huge flatness are people, farms, animals, and schools – hundreds of them – half the population of Uganda is under 15. Schools are built for them by the Government, by the churches, by villages, by parents and anyone who wants to support their young people into the future.

Today’s work was at Mukongoro Rock. A school built in 1937, with 1437 children and 17 teachers. (That’s 84 children to each teacher and assumes they are all teaching 10 hours a day). We worked out that over 17,000 kids have been through this school. The headteacher told us that some have gone on to become important national figures – from a village school, in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a vast plain, with the nearest main road over half an hour away along rutted earth roads.

The children are polite, obedient and curious. Many have not seen white people – some of the small ones run away from me looking scared. Bigger ones try out their English – it seems that the starting phrase to be learned is “How are you” followed by “fine”. But when I say “I am fine – how are you?” there is a lot of giggling and they rush off.

Sometimes I wonder exactly what they make of us:

Odd looking white people with long hair and clean clothes with splats of paint. I wouldn’t put paint on clean clothes. The strangers keep sipping drinks of water out of plastic bottles. They wear heavy shoes and sweat all the time. Why don’t they wear flip flops like us ? They would be much cooler. These strangers keep smiling at us for no reason so we smile back. They seem friendly but we don’t know why. Why have they come to our school and what are they doing in our classroom?

The teachers say they are a blessing to the school from a distant land but we don’t see why they have come. They get in the way of the builders that arrived last week. They carry big bags of stuff into our staffroom. One of us said there was a bag of new footballs but this seems impossible – you have to live in Kampala to have new footballs. I have never been there – it takes two days on lots of buses, or I could walk there in a week.

Two of the white women sat in our playground and offered to sew buttons on our school uniforms where they have fallen off. We don’t know why – we lost those buttons months ago. Why should they come from a distant land with new buttons for us? I expect they have their own children with no buttons on their clothes there and they deal with it by holding them closed, like we do, or tie a piece of string round themselves.

Anyway, they are OK to be with. They don’t shout at us or hit us. The teachers seem to like them so they must be OK. I won’t tell my mum that we have mazungus at school because I know she won’t believe me. “They don’t come here”, she will say, “they only go to big cities like Kampala where there are bars and hotels.” I don’t know what they are. The only bars I know are the ones sticking out of unfinished buildings near here. One of them cut me quite badly. Anyway they are going now, so let’s wave and shout “byeee” which they seem to like. When I am older I will try and find out about white people.

Ok, Ok, enough whimsy. Let’s close by saying that I continue to be amazed that in schools where the biggest barrier to education is malnourishment (“their brains don’t work as well” said one teacher) I find, day after day, joy and contentment among both teachers and students despite an almost total absence of resources. How does this happen and how can we learn from it ?

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