Sunday in KIbutika
The ‘miaow’ of my incoming Whatsapp messages wakes me up, just in time for the first muezzin call of the day. I haven’t seen where the mosque is, and perhaps the reason is that it is no more recognizable than the non-descript church where I am teaching but the calls for prayer that I hear from home are rather faint, so it might be at some distance nevertheless. They are short and far less melodious than those we could hear from the hotel when I was in Nouadhibou, which I always listened to with pleasure.
Two hours later, it’s a gospel-like singing, to no surprise as it is Sunday. I believe that it’s not coming from the church where I am teaching but from the opposite direction. I’ll have soon the chance to confirm that it was definitely not the same church as the service there starts later. The most widespread religions in Uganda are the Christian religions but there is a whole variety of churches categorised as “Christian” in Africa says Wikipedia and not few with some very local colouring accents. Without having asked much details about the Congolese refugees’ community for which I am teaching, it was enough for me to hear the title of “Pastor” to identify them as Anglicans. On Saturday night the son of Pastor William who had come to my house with his friend to borrow some books had asked me if I would join in the church on the next day. Uninterested as I am in the matter, I politely said that perhaps I would on another day but not this Sunday. I spent a couple of hours of the morning on Whatsapp calls instead, and so missed two calls from Pastor William. Luckily, just in time, I found his message inviting me to the church at 1 pm where “something would happen with the children”. Of course I couldn’t refuse that and got ready to go.
From the track down towards the church, there was no one to be seen in front of the church but a forceful and speedy duo of staccato shouts through cracking microphones filled the air. What could the “something with children” be, if that’s what it was? I came to the door and adjusting from the bright midday sun to the darkness of the church I stepped inside; it was packed with adults, kids and all the babies, sitting and listening and I stopped there, halfway sitting on the higher concrete step. Faces turned to me and a young mother quickly stood up offering me her seat, and as I insistently refused to take her seat she led me further inside. One of the seven pastors on the stage relayed her to bring me to the last free chair in the first row. The furious yelling was deafening, the leading Pastor at the top of his voice in Swahili, pacing through the stage and pointing sharply at the audience, a second Pastor no less threatening in his English translation (for whom actually?), most of the sentences hardly making any sense but “remember” standing out in each of them; “god will remember your lies” was the only one that stuck with me. Hellish it was!... It went on and on for a good half hour, I thought it was never going to end and with some annoyance I fleetingly –and mistakenly - reflected that they had lured me into their service. Resigned and eventually amused by the scene, I watched the row of the pastors on stage, one almost in trance, occasionally raising his arms to the sky, another balancing on his feet with closed eyes, the next looking at his feet seemingly in humble contrition, a tall one very still and upright, a blank face, the one in the middle just looking rather bored really. Glancing sideways at the audience as I had settled in my position, the same choice of demeanour was on display. At long last a row of “Amen” was echoed with determination. The service, which I was told afterwards had started at 10:00 am, was followed by a short summary of what had just been hammered into the minds, for all should “remember”; there had been some – hopefully more soothing - lectures and singing before this climax though. Then announcements for the week followed and I got to understand the real reason why I had been invited, the English class to the kids was namely part of them and I was presented to the community, “having come all the way from Italy”… Well, I could not criticize the approximation, didn’t some Europeans ask me where was Malta when I was moving there? And adding as well that I was looking for someone to continue the program when I’ll leave in May and until I come back… I wish I could find someone indeed, I can already see the disappointed faces in front of me if it stops after just a few months... I was asked to speak briefly and I was brief indeed, the Pastor translated, this time from English to Swahili: I thanked the community for their welcome, said that it was a great pleasure for me to have started teaching the kids and as the Pastor had admonished the parents of those who had not joined yet albeit being enrolled for the class, I added that education was the right of all children, their future depended on it, and ultimately the future of the parents as well. Another thank you and that was it. As for the event with the kids, all those due to start the new school year on the next day were called on the stage and later photos of the group were taken outside when a meagre exercise book of the lowest quality was distributed to the kids: there were not even enough for all of them. The adults chatted for a while, all in their best outfit especially the women in their elaborate African dress and hairdo, and the kids in clean clothes instead of the rags that some wear in my class on weekdays. After a little chitchat here and there I walked back home.
Whatever their religious practice, whether Anglican or not, definitely not Westminster style though, I don’t feel the least concerned and it has nothing to do with what I am doing and why I do it. Nevertheless, this church is the heart of the Congolese refugees’ community, their only support and the core of the solidarity net in which they are living, they deserve help from anyone. Among the activities of the church that were announced were a couple of professional trainings for adults and youngsters, as well as Lugandan classes in the hope that it will help them finding work. They also have started a project to produce soap in order to provide some employment opportunities and badly needed funds, however they are currently unable to develop it for lack of funds to get the machinery that they need.
It was the first Sunday that I walked through Kibutika and it is a very different atmosphere from any weekday. It was very quiet and reminded me the village of my childhood in Auvergne where, apart from the weekly soccer play, life concentrated at the bar near the church; thanks to the world progress, a sparkling betting hall gets all the attraction in place of bar. It is the best and most prominent building of Kibutika with everyone inside glued to the wall screens as they do everywhere else.
I had enough entertainment for the day and it was time for me to prepare for my next classes.
Until things are really happening here, one can never know if they will as planned or discussed, or if they won’t. On Thursday, I had an idea how to replace Lewis to supervise the little ones while I am teaching the teenagers and I discussed it with Pastor William. Dorica, the oldest of the teenagers is so much better than the rest of the class that I have been worried of her losing her time with them. Thus, I proposed to give her a one to one lesson before class at home and so she could be available to look after the kids. But before there was a chance of asking her on Friday, she told me that she was going back to the camp. To my surprise she turned up for class on Monday as usual. Nonetheless, the most surprising for me was to see that after having installed the little ones with their colouring, they managed to keep very quiet and without any fight or upset, on their own for most of the hour. I was impressed. Anyway, at the end of the class Pastor William came and said that Dorica was not going after all and she agreed to the plan, ready to start on the next day. The other surprise on Monday was to see that the kids had already arranged all the seating and installed the whiteboard as I have been doing it before I had arrived. That’s what they now do every morning if the church is already open and if we can only enter at the same time, they help spontaneously and happily, no need to ask.
Sadly, Pastor William also came with a piece of bad news on Monday. While all the family attended the “service” on Sunday, his house was visited by robbers; his mobile, the new shoes of the kids for the school start and whatever else, and of course the little cash they had under the mattress. His neighbour was able to say who they were because she had been chatting shortly with 2 of them standing in front of the door, unaware that they were on the watch while a third one was rummaging inside. She went back inside her home and a moment later they were gone. Pastor William went to the police and was shown the way out in harsh manner: “go and bring them here if you know who they are!” He was very upset. I called him in the afternoon because I intended to visit him but was unable to remember all the turns to go to his house. He was on his way to the thief’s place, he said, he wanted to talk to him. I asked him to call in on his way back and he came about an hour later. He had not been able to talk to the guy, he could not find him at his place. I asked him if the police was always handling such cases in this fashion and was not surprised at the answer. No, they don’t, however, he’s a refugee and the police will not move a finger for them. Uganda is a safe place for refugees presently, the best country around and generally speaking they are accepted and can settle without tedious formalities. The government policy is a subtle mix of corruption (around the camps and the international aid in particular) and benevolence. As a result, refugees are not annoyed but they don’t get any support in any way and can be discriminated, so for instance regarding kids having no access to the government schools or this policemen attitude. The population is equally friendly to them but of course, the petty thieves find in them easy preys, knowing well that their victims are not going to be supported by the police.
I gave him some money to get over the next days, my mind at peace knowing they will have something to eat at least. I’m not distributing money to all bad news as I can’t solve all the problems I see around. However difficult, I have to make choices but this was an emergency.
When I started, I was told that so many kids come to the church because in good times they might get some breakfast. When the pastors can afford they give them African porridge, is money getting tight it becomes flour cooked in water, it fills the stomachs if nothing else, and presently there’s nothing. I spent days thinking over and over again about giving the kids some breakfast before the lesson until I decided not to, at least for now. The kids still come, just happy to have some teaching, it’s ok.
Their impatience doesn’t wither and keeping the rhythm of the youngest in particular, is itself a challenge. My “worst case” is Patience. I can’t stop him writing and he won’t give me peace until I give him a new exercise. Instead of colouring that’s what he gets now.
I have no knowledge about children’s development and no experience with low age groups but if someone had told me, a child can learn writing in 2 weeks, I would not have believed it. At 8, Patience could not form a single letter two weeks ago and his attempt on a ‘A’ ended up in a downward serpentine from right to left in the middle of the page. Two weeks later he has completed the 30 pages of “Ready to Write” and “My first writing” (I’m so happy that I bought this pre-writing exercise book with lines of dotted shapes close to letters to write over and the other one with the letters). On Friday having no more photocopies to give him I put two flashcards in front of him and asked him to write the 2 words without giving him any guidance. I thought it was a challenge since we had not had time yet to go over the whole alphabet.
That was the result
My little shooting star is moving to the middle group next week where most still struggle with this level of writing. I didn’t know kids can progress so fast, I am fascinated.
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