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First Teaching Days

Kibutika, 03.02.2019


On Monday, the day before I was due to start class, Gilbert and I went to Nasser Road, THE street where any stationary, printing, copying, binding, etc. can be best sorted out in Kampala: one shop next to the other. I had a lot to print and copy 10 to 20 folds and I could not believe it when the shop owner told me that it would be ready in 45 minutes. But it was late and we couldn’t wait for so long. Well, I was realistic, it did take 2 days for one part of it and with a bit of chance the last part will be ready tomorrow.

Having nothing at hand on Wednesday I started with the alphabet and unsurprisingly it confirmed what I had anticipated: the kids who were able to write or recognize their name, did it as they would do an abstract drawing and not because they knew the alphabet. Having no proper seating for the kids to write and only half of them having shown up on this first day I turned the little whiteboard upside down and set it on 2 stools to make a small table and we comfortably sat around it, identifying the alphabet with flashcards.  We continued in various forms on the second day. 

In the afternoon I had to rush to my first lesson to the LGBT group. Noga had told me earlier that when it rains, everything stops here. I understood why: no way was I going to get on a moto-taxi in this weather. It was bad enough on the clay track down the hill to reach the asphalted road full of pot holes after the rain had stopped. But I reckon that the moto-taxi are very skilled drivers in all weather conditions and master controlled sliding just as well as sneaking among the rest with millimetre precision and slaloming between the potholes. 

The lesson itself ended up being another version of the lesson with the kids! While they could all write, they were completely unable to spell their name properly and at the speed they did it, the drill took a full hour to get halfway there. As they live together in the shelter of Angel, the LGBT NGO, the only student who managed well promised to help them with this homework during the week and on Saturday I was happy to see that he had done a great job at it. 

For the last lesson of the week with the kids I still had to play around the alphabet and numbers without writing. Thanks god, I got the chopping boards and the photocopies in the afternoon and we’ll be able to start next week: the kids are so impatient and don’t stop asking me when we’ll start to write. The seating itself is the last pending improvement; the little stools were just too expensive to purchase (my bills have been piling up day after day since I arrived) so that I eventually opted for 4 low benches: our circle seating plan will just be square from now on. I must say that I am very impatient to have it all properly setup and I am very curious to see how good is the ability of the kids that cannot write at all in just forming letters and drawing. After all, many have hardly touched a pencil so far.

Every day late afternoon since I moved in I have had the visit of Jordan and we have a small chat. Jordan is my little neighbour, 10 years old, a nice kid, very polite and he speaks quite good English. On Monday night as he saw me unpacking the books that we had just brought from the post office, his curiosity was at the highest. After having sorted them on the shelves I invited him to have a look and see which he would like to borrow. He took one and left with it after a while because he had to go to prepare supper. Indeed, every day of the week after coming back from school he takes his chair outside in the alley, a basin and the vegetables and starts peeling these, he then lights up the charcoal in a small earthen pot and brings everything inside the house. On Thursday he wanted to know if I like local food and as I confirmed that I did, he said “then I will cook for you”! Two and a half hours later – I was starving by then – he came with a plate of potatoes in a pinkish gravy: “Auntie Monique, the food is ready”. I’m not sure what the sauce was all about, it had a nutty taste, in any case it was delicious. I promised to cook for him on Saturday or Monday – another challenge to manage something tasty with so many of the ingredients I know not being available. It will have to be on Monday because as for the previous week, he’s not here at the weekend. I believe that it’s not the last meal we share, he’s a sweet boy. Based on their coming and goings, the family life of my neighbours looks unfamiliar. Jordan is the only one to be seen during the week and as I leave my door open as long as I am up – that is always past midnight – I’ve only spotted the adults very briefly at weekend. They might be in their thirties, we greet each other and that’s it; the man mumbles a good morning and disappears while the woman seems to be rather shy with her tiny voice. When she’s here, she’s busy cleaning and doing the hand washing outside. My closest neighbourhood is the quietest. 

One of the first thing that Gilbert had told me about the house was that it was very safe. It is a tiny compound surrounded by a high wall with spikes and wire on top, split into two by another wall of about 1.70 meters: on one side is the big house and garden of the landlord with its own gate, on the other side a little concrete alley with the block of my house and my neighbours’ house along it. Beside the front gate, both houses have another railing locked with padlock to access the covered entrance and the door. As if 2 padlocks and a key were not enough, the dog of the landlord is roaming the garden all night and barks at the slightest move that I make on the other side! While I try to keep as quiet as possible at night, I hope that he will get used to me living here; it has already improved hugely since the first night when he kept running, panting and growling along the wall and barked so loudly that it ended up being a concert of dogs mixed with howling from afar. This happens only after sunset, apparently the dog is kept in a cage during the day… Animal lovers would surely not let this degree of safety happen.

When I moved in, the landlord had told me that he needed to take me to ”the Authorities”, what  I understand as some form of local council of this Kampala district, else he could have “trouble”, not specifying anything in particular. So we went on Thursday and it was a quick business. I can’t say it was in a back street because there was no street at all, we just walk between houses and some waste land. Apparently the “Authority” he had in mind was not there and instead he talked to the only woman in this office after she finished some paperwork and handed it over to someone. It was a short talk, mostly in Lungandan, I handed over a copy of my passport and looking at me she said that, yes she had already seen me on the main street, a couple of hundred meters away from the office where she was sitting. So much for the registration of a “musungu”, “the White”. I guess that if someone happened to come to the main street by now and asked for the musungu, they would bring him or her right to me!

I was not very lucky on Saturday morning when I wanted to take the group taxi to Freedom City (to continue by moto-taxi from there). I had to remember what I said earlier about how convenient it is that they wait when you wave from the distance –and you don’t need to get running to them. When they consider their load not full enough – that is until overload - they wait even longer without any wave from anyone and drive in first gear, watching out for some good luck! I was laughing at myself as much as I was annoyed because I didn’t want to be late for my class. Lesson learnt: flexibility goes together with anticipation of the worst case. Mostly, people here have only a faint idea of time, rarely have a watch to start with, and being late is the norm but I’ve insisted so much with my students about starting the lesson on time that I can’t be late myself. I was even more unlucky on the way back and the normal 10 minutes trip from the Bata-Bata junction took about 1 ½ hour. But I was not in a hurry and on top of that at the Bata-Bata junction where I change taxi I heard someone calling my name (not “musungu”): it was David going to the Congolese church and so we chatted while waiting in the almost empty taxi which then made a huge loop through other tracks on the hill before arriving at Kibutika. “Don’t worry, there are many roads to Kibutika” a reassuring passenger said as I feared to be in the wrong taxi. Good to remember as well!

Being late is not lack of effort or interest, it’s just the normal way of life. Mostly when I arrive at the church in the morning, only a small group of kids are there. “Teacher! Teacher!”, as soon as they see me at the top of the road and start running to me and I don’t have enough hands and arms and waist for them to grab. A bell would not work better, minutes later they are all there and it works the same no matter at what time I arrive. Thus, no point of making any point about being on time and get all worked out, just relax! I have. After all, it comes exactly to the same result, valid reasons for being late occur everywhere. So for instance, Pastor William being delayed for our meeting on Friday because he had to bring his wife to hospital and back home: Cholera and a bout of malaria at the same time. He didn’t want to leave her there, nobody asked why and I don’t know if it is because of the costs, but I thought that the unspoken question and the short blank that followed his explanation was telling… On Monday I asked him how she was, “she will recover” he answered, so simply. 

Monday, the big day of the first writing class! By the time the first group of the oldest kids was seated ready to start, with their kitchen cutting board, pencil and notebook on their knees, all the others had quietly dragged chairs behind them and sat down, watching in complete silence, ready for the magic to unfold: I had to swallow hard to contain my emotion at the sight. 

To make sure that the boards don’t disappear in the unattended church which is always wide open, they are kept at Pastor Williams’ place and his 15 years old son had brought them. I had met him a couple of times before, when he accompanied his father and I asked him if he could supervise the youngest until their lesson would start. I gave him copies of a colouring book with 2 boxes of colouring pencils to share. They happily followed him to the other side of the church with their chopping boards as well and got to work. Unfortunately next week Pastor Williams’ son will go back to school and I won’t have this valuable help to supervise the youngest with some activities of their own, I wish I had because that works so perfectly for all. I already anticipate the fighting over pencils and such and it can’t be the easy colouring every day. How do primary school teachers cope under such conditions? Not to mention the toddlers who still run around, not many of them but always in the way.

What else to start the writing with than the alphabet again? It produced a wide array of results, based on which I have slightly recomposed the groups. Thanks god the 10-14 group had overall decent results even if the style borders on what I presume to be a much lower age group. I won’t give up on this and accept letters hanging in the air or slipping entirely under the line but it shouldn’t be a major problem and at least we can start a proper English class. That’s good news and I’m confident that they will progress fast. The 7-9 group had definitely to be split, between those who can form shapes of clumsy letters and those who can’t at all. By them, standing lines and sleeping lines run like corrugated iron and end wherever the hand gets stuck. Even the colouring reflected the differences and that some of them lacked the regular experience of handling pencils. I’m curious to see where we’ll be in May but I’m hopeful; even if they lack the experience, they have the normal motricity of their age group allowing them to progress fast. They are bright kids and their eagerness to learn is stunning. As for the youngest, in particular the little gang of Nelson, Patience (I first thought he had been given the wrong name so reckless he was) and Prince, who was difficult to keep focused in the first week of class, they have turned out model kids now and can’t get enough writing exercise: when I said that the lesson was finished on Thursday, Patience was in no hurry to go and play and with a serious look on his face he insisted in saying something to me that I eventually understood: “I’m not tired, teacher”. He would have loved to continue, so would I. What a waste when children are not given the chance of education!

The preparation of the 10-15 group is very challenging. After a couple of days I have had the feeling that whatever they learnt so far, they learnt it by heart and consequently they can memorise well but the learning doesn’t carry forward at this stage. Besides, unlike true beginners who learn from scratch all aspects of the language, they understand some English words, whatever they picked up in the street or elsewhere but they have never written or read them to be able to identify single words and so a short sentence becomes a single long word, completely unreadable. I am progressing in encrypting the jumbled mixture though, by the end of this second teaching week I have seen so many “Ayamamo”, I know it stands for “I am”!

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