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The USB Key

Kibutika, 17.03.2019
With every day preparing new material for the kids I keep hoping that I will reach the point where I will build up some in advance to get ahead of the coming week but it just doesn’t happen. 
But at least and at last I managed to make a file for Dorica. She was overjoyed. She had asked me repeatedly if she could have the file of the 10-15 aged group, which is pointless because she’s much better than them, but obviously holding some printed paper already amounts to,  to what exactly?… A privilege, a luxury, winning the lottery? It’s difficult to compare and place on our scale of satisfaction levels, they are just immensely grateful and I can’t get used to it. 
With Dorica, I had also invoked another reason and made it a condition and a promise at the same time: I would give her a file and a book but I wanted her to talk and not answer monosyllabically, staring at the fridge right opposite of the side where I sit on the sitting room “couch” during her lesson. She is a bright girl behind all her shyness and what I have gathered about her life certainly doesn’t stimulate her to be an extravert and assertive teenager. I hoped that my request would not sound as harsh to her as it sounded to me, but on the other hand, not reacting was not going to help her and I had to try something to open the shell. I am relieved to see that it is working, not only with me but also with the little ones that she is looking after during the first hour. During the first week as my “assistant” she just sat in a corner watching them but in the meantime, she is really involved and takes charge. I just explain to her the activity that I have planned for them and I don’t need to intervene. It’s great because I can now plan some crafts activities for them and not just colouring. At least once a week and possibly something they can take back home. The first one was an easy shot, a colouring page that once folded made a paper plane with the coloured motives. Do kids in Europe still get amused with something like that? I wonder… Here they couldn’t stop flying them across the church. The second one ended in a huge disappointment for them. I had hesitated to bring it up because I had only 2 rather small boxes of modelling clay as it was comparatively heavy in my luggage. They were so proud of showing me their little animals and girls (with big pointed boobs topped with a pink dot for most of them!) but as I collected their little treasures for them to be able to play again, their faces froze. Explanations didn’t help and I stood there stupidly with the clay in my hands.  
My big headache is the group of the 10-15 and I am definitely struggling to generate a steady progress. Three weeks ago I spent most of the Sunday preparing worksheets and lesson plans for them. I thought I was well prepared. Well, it turned out to be my worst week with them so far and I can’t even say that the previous weeks had been anything close to my satisfaction, let alone being in line with the progress of the little ones which boosts me with energy. They can repeat endlessly but when it comes to writing one realises that nothing sits properly, it doesn’t go further than tediously copying letter after letter “forgetting” the spaces between words, parroting sentences they learn by heart as a whole. On the Wednesday as I said that I would give a dictation on the next day, they reacted with a promising and most unexpected enthusiasm: nothing less than applause!
The dictation was short: a few numbers up to 20 in letters and 2 sentences with the limited vocabulary that we have rehashed so many times. Correcting them in the evening left me depressed and with the strong feeling that I was doing something wrong with them. But how do you teach English to teenagers that cannot write or read in any language at all? On one side, they recognize the individual letters of the alphabet, they understand what is a pen or a table in English but what seems to be missing entirely is the sense of structure in a language, that what is said is a succession of words and not just letters, whereby associating letters and sound is in itself a challenge, especially in English. I spent the evening searching on internet how children learn languages, reading and writing. What I found was very interesting and demoralising at the same time: the introduction left no doubt about it, it is a very complex process for children and starts with a very early exposure to language. Indeed, books are read to children and they can perceive that what they hear are bundles of letters of different length, they see written language everywhere around them with the box of cereals at breakfast, advertisements in the streets, shop names, etc. long before they can read them and parents don’t miss an opportunity to point out to a word or a letter. But what exposure to written language do the kids have in the bush or a place like Kibutika? Almost none. They have no books, what you buy on the market is what is laid on the ground in front of you, there are no advertisement signs or shop names. I could sum up the number of words that I see in Kibutika to a very few, from the top of my head: school (the few private ones), the internet cafe and the biggest of all “FORTEBET”, the gaming hall. And these kids go nowhere, not even to downtown Kampala. 
I on the other hand was at a loss on how to handle it; teachers don’t go by trial and error and what if I confuse them even more? I went to bed without any plan anymore for the next day but was too tired to think further. I managed the day with one drill that went quite well after all and was glad that it was the last day of the week, with 2 days ahead of me to think on what to do. And thankfully, Gaby came to my rescue! We were chatting on WhatsApp and she gave me her method to train sentence structures. “It’s just more work to prepare” she added but that didn’t bother me, I was relieved to have a concept to work with and so I spent most of the weekend writing cards and “laminating” them with a broad band tape as we live in dust and dirt here. 2 sets of verbs in blue, names in red, adjectives in green, etc. and on Monday it was their first team exercise: building their own very simple sentences with the cards. It took them some time until they got it and got it right but then, they gained speed and I was confident that the approach would work. Well, two weeks later, I’m still struggling, I can only recognize that it’s going to take a lot of time. No magic. At this speed, the group of the 7-10 who has started writing and reading from scratch is soon going to be better than them, I’m afraid! 
Other than that, not much noticeable happened in the last 3 weeks. Last Saturday was the most special day for me; after 6 weeks in Kibutika I took the time to go downtown, first to Nasser Road to replenish my dwindling stock of colour pencils and markers, etc., so happy to have found the modelling clay and taking the opportunity of going to a big supermarket and get what I don’t find even in Freedom City, such things as champignons tins and healthier breakfast cereals for instance. While the traffic there is so horrendous that I am glad not to be exposed to it – and the pollution – on a daily basis, it felt refreshing to be in the buzz of the big city again. I will go more often because passing the big central market of Nakasero, the vegetables there looked so much more appetizing than on my hill! 
Kibutika, on the other hand, really gives me a feeling of being at home . I have become part of the landscape. On one of my almost daily walks to the internet café where I get my prints, I lost my usb key. My mind still on what I had prepared, I had walked past the internet shop and after turning back, I stopped at one of the stalls to buy some vegs. Arriving at the internet shop, I realized that I had lost it and believed to have dropped it when I was paying and holding it along with the bag of veg, my wallet, my keys and the document holder for the copies all in my hands. I quickly walked back the thirty meters or so and asked while scrutinizing the flat vegs box. The owner didn’t understand what is a usb key and I just asked about a little black stick but there was no response. Perhaps I had lost it earlier than that and I started walking all the way back, so ostensibly staring at the ground that it got the attention of some young guys: “Teacher, what are you looking (for)?” I was surprised that they would bother at all and call. In the meantime, shopkeepers or passers-by regularly call me “Teacher” as well or “Musungu teacher” and the “musungu” has no unfriendly accent at all, it’s just a fact that I am the only White around. Anyway, not finding it although it had happened within a couple of minutes, I went back home, got the document on an external drive and went back to the shop. It was dark already and, a passing car stopped at my level: “where are you going this late?” It was my landlord on the passenger seat, concerned that I might want to go out downtown perhaps and was at peace hearing that I was not going out of Kibutika. I have all reasons to feel safe here! I had not been back from the whole business for more than half an hour when my landlord called me: “Some people at the gate (his gate) want to talk to you!” I walked out and could see two shadows in the alley and albeit the darkness, it looked like the 2 people that I had spotted at the veg shop. My landlord translated: it was about my usb key, they had it! My intensive search had obviously been a clear indicator that the little black stick had some value after all. I was happy that my landlord was there and could tell me how much was the trade: 10 000 shilling which I promptly fetched and gave them. Surprisingly, they had not brought the usb key, and so they walked away to get it, so slowly that I thought it was going to take for ever until they would return. The landlord waited with me and we passed the time chatting pleasantly until eventually the man came back alone with the precious stick and handed it to me, bowing over and over again like a polite Japanese in front of some authorities. Well, when you have to bow so low for 2.50 EUR, there’s definitely no shame in trading whatever you come across.
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