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Forced repatriation

Kibutika, 9.4.2019


Routine has set in to a considerable amount after the intense first two months: the work load doesn’t seem to ever go down, the effects and results varying sharply day by day and I’ve come to accept it more while still trying. Some are “emerging” nicely and that motivates me to continue with every effort, no matter the unavoidable disruptions: bouts of malaria and sicknesses and even more unpredictable regarding their length, the mandatory return trips to the camp for re-registration.

Other than the teaching activities, nothing really happened in terms of personal life. This newsletter has been my companionship over time. Being “part of the landscape” and being greeted friendly is one thing, having a real social life and friends another. My newsletter to friends has been a substitute for the latter, which I need as much as I have enjoyed taking time for it as soon as I could. And all the words of encouragement that I have received have been a great support. 

Nonetheless, three weeks ago I felt clearly exhausted. The outlook of my planned trip to Nairobi to extend my visa kept me going for the last bit as well as the perspective of a special day before I was going to leave. I had informed the community and the kids about my upcoming trip of course and on the Thursday, the oldest kids joyfully announced that they would “dance for me” on that last day. So they did and it was a very real gift. I had a surprise for them as well. In our email exchange since I arrived in Kampala, Karen was eager to help and support me from her distant Canada. I met Karen last year in Nicaragua where she came with her husband to volunteer in La Esperanza. We shared the same views regarding what was going on, the concepts of teaching and the volunteering there and kept in touch. She insisted and wired a donation to my personal bank account. So the surprise on Friday was a gift to the kids in her name: I showed them photos of Karen and explained who she was and where she lived and then, depending on their group, I handed out the boxes of colour pencil for the youngest, the set of colour fine marker pens with which they can write so nicely for the middle group, pens, highlighter and clear file for the oldest. Dorica, who had agreed to look after the youngest the week after so that they could do some colouring, got a new schoolbag, hers had collapsed completely, and it contained what she would need for the kids for the week. As expected they were overjoyed and so excited that no teaching could follow in the last hour. After the profuse thanks and hugging (including thanks for the teaching itself…), they didn’t linger around the church after class as they normally do, waving me endlessly until I am at the top of the track, they rushed back home with their precious treasure. Karen made their day and my day as well, the moment will stick with me for long. 

I must say that I had had some concerns regarding my choices for this distribution because of the gaps in the face value of the different gifts and I had mentally prepared for some comments. Would they react to the fact that Dorica and the youngest had more expensive gifts? Of course they might have little idea about many prices but I don’t think that it was the point, especially for the oldest who would have some notion. But they brandished their clear files as enthusiastically and thanked me as if it were a million shilling worth. No trace of comparing among themselves and of mental calculation. How good it felt to see this unspoilt joy!

My trip to Nairobi was for the purpose of my visa in the first place but of course I could have seized the opportunity for tourism. I didn’t really. Unsurprisingly Nairobi is more developed than Kampala and from the airport to the city one travels along industrial areas as almost everywhere; much more infrastructure and high rises in place of the Ugandan low constructions and potholed roads once in the city and for one thing heaviest traffic and the concentrated pollution that goes with it, to the extent of making it hardly breathable for pedestrians. In the following days I couldn’t wait for being back in the hotel every time I forced myself a bit to go out, mostly on the lookout for school material that I had not found here. It really put me off. I went to the Monkey Park in the city and the trip back on the group taxi van was one of such awful moments. I much more enjoyed relaxing by the pool with the excellent African literature that I had found in Kampala’s airport. That, in fact, was a real treat for me as I had not taken time to read a single line since I arrived here. And I did spend many evening hours watching BBC World News in that painful Brexit week…

I suppose that going to Kenya, it has to be for a safari well away from the capital. Anyway the lazy week did me good. 

Another reason why I didn’t do much was the thought that I will have other opportunities, perhaps better ones even, if someone visits me at the same time. In the past month I’ve had a number of discussions here on the longer term objectives of the community regarding the teaching of the kids. A good many times Gilbert dwelled exuberantly upon what sounded like oversized views since when it came to approach the key point of funding, it was a blank. Still, I believe that something can be done and the education of the kids is a serious commitment of the Pastors. I asked Gilbert to get more details from the Pastors and, to make the long back and forth exchange short, the community was ready to collect and invest “some” funds in a proper facilities: one or two separate rooms next to the church, providing a clean or rather cleanable space with light for one thing. I had signalled to Gilbert and Noga that I was ready to come back and the week before I left for Nairobi a meeting with the Pastors was called in which I officially committed to return in September to cover the full Ugandan school year and, without making it a condition, with the hope that by then better learning conditions for the kids may be available. It is clear to me that “some” funds will not suffice and I am not thinking of any state of the art facilities, but it is enough to confirm their commitment and get a start. As it happens, some ten days earlier, the landlord of the plot where the Congolese built their church gave them notice, a one month notice. The plot will be sold. Land is not difficult to find in Kibutika and the Pastors quickly found an even cheaper place, down the hill by the little river (with more mosquitoes probably) and much closer to where most of the kids live - farther for me. After the meeting we went together to see the place, crossing this neighbourhood where the path narrows down to nothing between the houses, walking between them in a file and jumping over the gutters. I saw many of my children there, stopped by the mothers coming out of their house greeting us cheerfully and calling their kids: “teacher is here”, very surprised at the unexpected visit. Work is underway and what could be seen was a few wood poles with a quarter of corrugated iron roof. Last week Pastor William explained to me that the current church will be dismantled and the corrugated iron walls will be used to finish the new one after the concrete floor has been laid. It won’t take long, a couple of days of the Church members’ time. That’s where we are and if the given dates are correct and kept, we are less than 2 weeks away. There’s presumably some elasticity there.

In the plan, the 2 classrooms should be finished first. We’ll see, a plan here is when things can be seen with both eyes. And then, the very fresh news I received this morning puts the whole enterprise in a very different light.

For a certain time political tension has been mounting steadily between Rwanda and Uganda. The former president’s close friendship is no more. As it happens, just a couple of days ago, I had a long chat with my landlord, and among others, we talked about this unpleasant development. Mr Charles, as I call him, never fails to greet me, sometimes jokingly, when he passes by: “Madame Monique, we are coming for lunch” when he passed with his son on one of the last Sundays and introduced me to him and his girlfriend. He might be fifty-ish or so, a very nice man and before he left, I said, it’s a good idea, I’ll make a lunch one of the next Sundays after I come back from Nairobi. And I’ll do for sure. I also told him that I will keep the house longer.

On Tuesday, he told me how the current president of Uganda only managed to get to power with the strong support of his Rwanda friend after the successor of Idi Amin failed to pull the country together in a matter of a few years. And he achieved a lot in the 30 odd years up to now, everyone agrees with that. However at 80, he’s just another Bouteflika now, another expired leader albeit in a less decrepit state. Like the whole bunch of them, he can’t accept that it’s past midnight and highly time to go: same attitude, same method - change of the constitution - and hanging on, hanging on at the stake of reversing altogether the entire benefits gained for the country. And making all the wrong decisions. With his former buddy, it started with verbal nagging, nobody can tell which of the two started it, everyone just laughed and joked but eventually the attacks have become sharper and been followed with actions, military movements at the border for instance. So far nobody truly believes that it is more than senile provocation. Still, the first victims are there, on another front, of course they are the Rwandan refugees, who are being given forced repatriation orders. 

And just now, forced repatriation has been extended and ordered to the Congolese. Why and on which ground? Nobody knows, there has been no incident around them or with Congo. Very simply, such is the life of a refugee, safety and rights are nowhere: an initial measure against them, wherever and whoever they are, can easily become a case of precedence, creating an adverse climate and all are indistinctively targeted. We know that as well in Europe.

I do hope it is empty threats and I don’t know if there is any timeline or any criteria. Certainly it won’t happen in a few days. The only tangible consequence for now is that, as Pastor William informed me this morning, the Congolese community is going to hold an emergency meeting in the church on coming Thursday and Friday and therefore class is cancelled.

I spontaneously decided to take the kids to the zoo on Friday. They’ve never been there as they never go anywhere, it’s 36 km away, in Entebbe, close to the airport. So we’ll drop at the airport on the way, and they can see some planes taking off and landing, also new for them. I just hope that the zoo doesn’t apply tourist prices on them, but I’ll do anyway.

Oh, there was another little piece of news, I almost forgot. I wanted to meet Pastor William on Friday but he was not available. He had to go to Court: for the past few months, his landlord didn’t give him any receipt for the rent, every time alleging his son had the receipt book and reporting to the next month. And eventually, without any warning signs, Pastor William received an order from the Court: his landlord claimed he has not paid his rent for several months. He immediately moved out last month which infuriated his landlord. He lost the case on Friday.

Talk about routine in a refugee community!

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