Emergency

Kibutika, 28.04.2019

 

It looks like a quiet day ahead: rain started in the early hours and the storm turned into a very steady downpour. It’s all very quiet and even next door nobody seems to have made a move. When it rains in Kampala life comes to standstill: workers and children alike stay at home and the bodas in the dry. Luckily electricity didn’t shut down for once but better be safe and keep everything on charge. The rainy season didn’t really materialise this year, so it is the first day that I won’t have class for this reason. Thanks god, it didn’t happen on Friday and ruined the zoo trip with the kids. They were so much looking forward to it. I had insisted that the 2 vans that where going to take us to Entebbe would leave on time but I would not have needed to: half an hour before the set time they were all in front of the church dressed in their best outfit, not the rags they mostly wear on normal days. The zoo is close to the airport in Entebbe, 36 km from Kampala and on the bank of Victoria Lake and originally a stop at the airport was planned to see some planes landing and taking off. However this was cancelled as the airport authorities didn’t allow it advocating security reasons around some diplomats arriving on that day. It was just as well as it would have taken away completely the playtime in the playground of the zoo, a wide field with a couple of good equipment, definitely a very modest “amusement park”. Nevertheless, it was very special to the kids, they were eager to access the area and they enjoyed the fun after having seen enough animals. While the zealous animal lovers remain critical about the zoo, it does have interesting features in particular because the big animals live in their natural habitat, in wide fenced areas and where they are compatible, they are mixed and live together. As a result they can happen to be so far away and hidden in the bush not to be seen but we were lucky and got to see most of them at one point or another. The guided tour was also a big bonus. After visiting the website of the zoo I had arranged everything with them and their response to my enquiry had been both very friendly and competent. They are well organised with a particular focus on children. This even granted me the unexpected privilege of being treated as a normal teacher instead of having to pay the musungu price. As for the kids there is a unique price for East African children. I had booked a Swahili speaking educator for the tour. I don’t know if they are all so good but ours was fantastic. Addressing the kids personally, attentive to their viewing choices, his lively explanations and answers to the questions were for everyone to appreciate, Swahili speaking or not, and the kids were glued to him. It went all very well and on the drive back to Kibutika most kids fell asleep and only woke up by the heaviest bumps on the almost impassable shortcut that the driver had decided to take. My only concern was that one of the children might have got some disease when they waded for a moment on the Lake Victoria shore. I had not realised how filthy it was until I collected some little shells and of course the kids followed promptly to fill a bag. The stinking smell hung with me for the rest of the day albeit repeated handwashing and although I made sure that all had washed theirs with soap before lunch, I was still unsure it would be enough when they eat with their fingers. But nothing happened, I suppose that they have a rather high immunity level for all their exposure to filth. In fact in class they sometimes drink water from the jerrycans that stand in the corner of the church and I had not paid further attention to that until I heard with horror that it is water collected from the river down the hill, to clean the floor. No wonder some of them have had cholera!

Well, the river side is going to be very soon our “home” in fact as the church is being moved there. Yes, the church itself is moved which is not difficult, it being a mere bundle of corrugated iron walls and roof fixed on rough wooden poles, adorned with loose panels of cheap synthetic material in a full array of bright colours masking the misery. The pastors had announced the move with distinct excitement: for less money they were going to have a bigger church. This is true if one compares the respective square meter prices, however not only the overall cost for the bigger plot is higher, it doesn’t include the unexpected hidden costs which now surface. The area would be deemed non-constructible land by our land planners but this is indeed a musungu concept. As a result currently it is impossible to give the church the lightest foundation; the water is seeping through as soon as the soil is scratched. It will be necessary to bring more compact soil (possibly a layer of stones) but this is not going to happen while the land has not even been fully paid. Thus, it’s not going to be any time soon, and much less the “planned” separate classroom next to the church. So far only the legally required adjoining toilet has been built, on stilts… I might need a mask when I go teaching there! From next week onwards, we’ll sit again in a dark church, this time without even a concrete floor. I didn’t react at all to the news, actually the only update I got on last Saturday. What’s the point? Neither was I disappointed because I never believed that the “plan” was going to be achieved. The best I can do for the last 2 weeks before I leave is to wear my rubber boots just in case!  Convinced that there is just no more to expect for my return in September either, I have started elaborating my own plans. I will simply rent a small solid house, which shouldn’t be difficult to find around here. It will even bring me an enormous advantage: gaining complete freedom on the arrangement. I never intended to invest a cent in a church anyway for the sake of getting improved teaching conditions. Things could not look brighter and I’m looking forward to it!

Meanwhile the question of a substitute teacher for the next 4 months is still pending but “in process”. There again, it is a complete illusion to find a volunteer teacher and therefore I have proposed to look for a paid teacher. Teachers are among the worst paid professionals in Uganda, one hundred Euros a month (in the city centre) for teaching from 7 am to late afternoon is considered brilliant and unemployment runs high. Thus, I’m just happy to secure a half day class for the kids. Less than the curriculum itself the commitment of a regular class is the priority: the older children lack basic knowledge in just about everything, so the prospective teacher will be able to pick his/her favourite subjects. The pastors are in charge of the search for candidates, it’s best for me to stay in the background to avoid a musugu price run in place of a fair price. Crossing fingers, the answer should arrive by the end of the week.

This is all very manageable concerns and issues with easy to find solutions, energizing thoughts to get there and actions initiated of my free accord. For various reasons, the past 10 days have been the toughest for me since I came and thankfully I can count on some good friends on the other end of my Whatsapp ☺ to help overcome my helplessness and depressed spirits. 

The fact that the kids are refugee kids doesn’t stand in the foreground in my daily life and my relation to them. Their cheerfulness is too overwhelming for that to happen and make it look like living amidst a permanent drama. Nonetheless being active in the refugee community can bring the critical despair of refugee life unbearably up-close. The first message was as short as it was surprising: Pastor Obed asked if I was back home and if he could see me “privately”. No problem, he could drop any time but in the next message he suggested the church because he couldn’t go far. I concluded on some health problem and while I would later hear that he was indeed injured, the main reason was actually naked fear. I had been surprised that he had not reacted to some messages that I had sent in the past 2 weeks and I just took it as such. The reason was that he had much worse worries than my little queries. He has been aggressed and since then is too terrorised to go out. The detailed explanation that followed in a longer message with photos of his refugee documents left me speechless. His refugee history started in Rwanda where he lived for 15 years as a teacher and at some point married a Rwandan. A normal life, until the day he was requested to work as a spy of Congo, his native country, which he refused. They didn’t let go and harassed him, soon turning to torture. He fled to Congo with his family. There, arriving with a Rwandan wife, he was not welcome, not even by his relative, and this alone was enough to raise the suspicion that he came as a spy for Rwanda, the Rwandan still chasing him nonetheless. They killed his father in front of him, his siblings fled, to this day he doesn’t know where they are and he fled with his family to Uganda, almost 2 years ago. Until 2 weeks ago he felt he had escaped both successfully and while his Rwandan wife is still a cause of mistrust and avoidance from other members of the Congolese community he felt relatively safe. The recent attack plunges him back into the nightmare not to mention his wife who is an orphan and survivor of the Rwandan genocide. And the message finished in a couple of urgent calls “PLEASE HELP ME, HELP ME AND SAVE MY FAMILY”… I texted Noga to inform her, she knew already and advised me to bring them food as his family plus the 7 orphans living with him must be starving by then. I went to the church loaded like a donkey. The talk was more details and tentative explanation about all the tribal fights and visceral hate between Hutus and Tutsies and their spanning over the border in a mix of Congolese naming. There is no chance that an outsider will ever understand this recurrent conflict decimating one generation after the other in alternate outbreaks and it doesn’t matter. The brutal reality is just there, lingering or in full blast. I also got some insight on the status of refugees. To be recognized as refugee and gain official residence authorisation one has to handover one’s passport to the Ugandan authorities. Obtaining the refugee passport in place of it is not automatic, but an independent and endless procedure by the UN this time, involving gravitating little NGOs, the whole marred with corruption. Isn’t that being a hostage? Fleeing, fleeing, where to next? Far from Africa at best and of course that’s the help he is seeking… before they get and kill him. Chance doesn’t stand on his side, it is no exaggeration to think that they will succeed, time is running up.

I didn’t say much while recounting the steps: first the refugee passport, only then a visa can be applied for. Since then the messages have been trickling on Messenger a few times a day, with photos of other Rwandan having been attacked and now dead, how many new dead in the refugee camps… I could not stomach it anymore, I could not escape the thoughts. Eventually I said that while I understood his fear I would be lying saying that I can help, I can’t do a thing regarding his papers. I know nothing here except Kibutika. At least he has accepted it. The next is the appeal to be able to go to the doctor, to get surgery, more treatments… and of course there are still 13 to feed. At least these are more manageable requests but I have come to dread looking at my mobile and find the alarming notifications, feeling helpless and dejected, with no end to see, whatever I do.

The perception of being seen like a millionaire fallen from the skies just add to the malaise. In a few instances I got evidence of blown-up figures and “little lies” as Noga calls them. My spending for the kids, or anything else I have been doing with or for them, have triggered bunches of appreciative ‘god bless’ on one side but also critical hints that I receive as ‘if you can do that much, here is more and more urgent need’, pointing to the bottomless side of the refugees’ predicament. This came from Noga as well. In the case of Pastor Obed, I asked myself, if and how the other pastors and the Congolese community might give him support in his desperate situation, what do these pastors live from anyway… Eventually I put it to Noga, which only earned me a harsh rebuke. Her sentence was short and definite: she had no answer to the question but if I want to focus on just 30 kids, so be it, she can see that I have no understanding whatsoever about life with refugees and the last thing they need is a heartless one around. 

That was it, just the right thing to say to help me gain understanding and uplift my spirits. This Easter weekend has been the first tough time since I came and has left me looking forward to my coming return in just two weeks, a good opportunity to take some distance, relax, and recover my balance enjoying a bit of personal life. 

Fortunately, the upset fades as soon as I picture the kids in front of me.

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