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Kibutika, 20.10.2019


Exactly one month has passed since I arrived in Kampala, one busy month. 

Arriving on a Saturday, I didn’t have to wait for the Monday to meet again with the kids, a couple of hours after I had reached home early morning a first group of them was on my doorstep albeit the menacing skies and the heavy downpour that promptly followed. They jumped on me in excitement and joy and if they were missing words to say much for greetings, once calmed down, they had one: “chocolate”. After 4 months they had not forgotten that before my departure I had agreed to bring them some chocolate (mars and bounties) as I had done after my trip to Kenya in March. Of course I hadn’t forgotten either but they had to wait until the Monday when we would be all together. 

The Monday started in the same mood but when I left the church, I had to make big efforts to hide my disappointment on their lack of progress over the summer. They apparently spent most of their time copying from the blackboard sentences that they could neither read nor understand. I can’t blame the teacher, a 16 years old, whose only teaching material was the notebook of the last class that she ever attended, the first grade of secondary school and she applied the teaching method she had received herself. The girl had replaced the teacher that I had found in the last minute in May who proved most unreliable according to the updates that I received in Malta, left without a word for days and weeks, came back at month end just to disappear one week after she had received her salary. No idea where all the materials that I had given her ended up. 

Thus, back where we had left it. However, in the meantime the group has grown from 22 to 37 students now, increasing the disparity in the individual levels. I could easily split them in 5 levels and it’s really getting tough to handle so much, alone and still in the church. But there is hope! 

Finally, after intense search across all Kibutika, having seen some disastrous places - some of them better suited for cattle than a class of children, the ideal place has been found! In Kibutika it counts as a big house with 3 rooms and an open kitchen (I don’t mean open onto the living room but the outside of the house),  a garage, two outside toilets and a big outdoor space surrounded by a high wall. I signed the contract last Monday, paid the requested one year rent in advance plus deposit and we did that at the bank as the owner wanted to be sure that the pile of shilling notes was not fake money. We were supposed to be able to move in one week later after it has been cleaned, the walls freshly painted and electricity confirmed in good order but not much was done yet on Thursday so I guess that it will be good if we can move in at the end of next week. Which gives us time to get the furniture and find a guard as well.

The move is a big step, giving shape and visibility of the project to everyone, the children, the pastors and the community. Until now it was limited to the discussions in the meetings with the pastors and what for discussions! As one can easily guess the central question was – and still is – money, money, millions (of shillings), that they expected would be flowing smoothly out of my pockets into their hands. I had not expected it any differently but I was still taken aback when in the first meeting their understanding of the project scope was not only about a facilities to teach the kids that can’t access the local school but building a full-fledged school, an orphanage, supporting the widows and other women in need, the elderly…, not to mention the administrative costs of the NGO that they were about to register. It was not fully registered yet, all the paperwork was ready and the only missing part was the fees of 400 US dollars that they didn’t have. All eyes turned on me… I swiftly made it clear that there would be no funds for the administration of their NGO and to my surprise, three days later they proudly showed me the registration certificate. I was puzzled by the sudden and so unusual speed of the achievement, and that they had been able to find the huge amount it represents here and for them and I quickly understood when I visited the official website: the registration cost 35 EUR… 

By now I’ve had plenty opportunities to learn how to deal with the figures that they give me and I have become completely unemotional about it, I check everything and put things right to them without any detour. I believe that there is no other way to handle it in order to achieve the project. Saying it once however clearly is not sufficient though, it needs constant refresh, which is just tedious and annoying.

The project is set as partnership between their NGO (RAD) and KibutikaProject @ SOS Malta. Making them understand that both NGOs contribute to the project as partners is a real challenge. Once they would like to see Kibutika belonging to RAD so that their treasurer controls the funds, once they turn it upside down so that Kibutika becomes responsible for the kids, the orphans and widows and elderly….

Yesterday we had a 2 ½ hours meeting, of which 1 ½ hour became a debate on who would be supporting the cost of repairs in case the premises would be damaged as the premises will have to be returned one day in the same state as we got them. I insisted that while the project pays the rent in full, the damages would be supported 50/50 by the 2 NGOs. I am working hard with the children already to make them understand that they have to take care of what is given to them because I can’t replace things constantly, to keep our space clean and not leave garbage when we leave the church after the lesson, etc. but the adults must also be taken to responsibility else it doesn’t work. The simple solution is of course to avoid the damages.

Talks were also about their contribution to the project at large. While obviously most of the financial costs are being supported by the SOS-Malta project side, they need to contribute in some ways. Their only idea was that they contributed by bringing the children to the project as the kids were their “goods”, their “merchandise” as they put it! One can laugh or cry...

Eventually we finished the meeting with good ideas and for once noticeable progress: they will find a trustworthy guard living on the premises, possibly a couple that will also cook the breakfast while the project will provide the ingredients, the garden will be maintained by volunteers, one of the attending “advisers” even volunteered for 2 hours daily teaching, and they will also provide uniforms for the kids. I first didn’t think that the latter would be a priority, on hindsight, it brings the children a sense of normality and equality in their lives that they crucially miss as refugees: they are going to be like all other kids who attend the local schools. I can already picture them, jumping on me proud and smiling. I am very happy about the idea. 

Oh, and the parents or guardians’ contribution will be of 2 rolls of toilet paper per child: the long requirement list of Dorica when I got her registered in P5 (primary 5 out of 7 primary grades) in September inspired me that bit and the pastors agreed to the token. Beside uniform, books and dictionary hers included 6 rolls, 2 brooms (!), one pack of detergent, 24 notebooks, 12 ballpens, 1 ream of printing paper, all of this for one term…

There will be other differences with local schools of course, and less trivial differences, for instance the hours of attendance. In our new premises the objective is that the children attend from 8:30 to 1 pm with breakfast until 9 am and 4 classes of 50 minutes (this can only be achieved when at least an additional staff will be available). I was shocked by Dorica’s schedule: 6:30 am to 4:30 pm and on 2 days even until 6:35 for revision and with lunch break varying between ½ hour and 1 hour and another ½ hour mid-morning break.! Looking at her notebooks and her Friday’s homework 2 weeks ago, it was definitely not inspiring. She had filled a lot of pages of the notebooks already, among others long lists of various vocabulary. And the homework print was not better: I could not recognize a particular subject, the questions looked more like a low level quiz of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire than following a primary school syllabus, from the location of a game park in Uganda to the functions of bees, the importance of oil resource, vaccine and the gravitational pull of matter… And what is a piatry? I couldn’t help for that one. In math it went straight from a 2 digits addition to finding the square root of a number, fraction facts and then converting a number in roman numerals. My primary school years are far too long ago to make a valid comparison but I’m sure I would have failed this!

I got a shock of a different sort when I saw the schedule of Adolphe who has been registered in S5 (Secondary 5th Grade out of 6): 10 hours Computer Science, 10 hours Art and 11 hours “Divinity” plus 5 hours Kiswahili. I went straight to the school to ask for some explanation and the answer was that with these subjects he would be able to get good marks… Without any effort indeed, while I hoped that the school would help him regain the learning discipline that he has completely lost after 2 years of sitting around since he arrived in Uganda. And leading to what kind of profession? Hopefully not joining the pastors preaching on the streets that I can see daily in Kibutika and elsewhere in town! Luckily, they were understanding and called a teacher who quickly proposed to replace the “Divinity” with Entrepreneurship and rebalance the other subjects by adding some General Studies, a mix of math and English. 

Once that settled and the last school books requirements purchased I could focus on my own little troop.

In the first week I also took the time to go and register at the French Embassy. Kibutika and not even Ndege were on the pull-down list districts of the Embassy system, I had to be registered in a different one in Kampala, it was not worth adding Ndege to the list for just one as the Attache said. 

The other highlight of the month was meeting Betty Ogiel Rubanga, a truly exceptional woman. I read her book “Against All Odds”, telling her life story. Orphan at 6 in a remote village in the Northern Region of Uganda, abandoned at 10 by her foster uncle, she was so determined to get education she brewed illegal beer and crossed the border to Kenya to sell it to pay for her school fees and her living. An outstanding and passionate runner on 100/200 m, she gained the attention of a nun community when she regularly won the regional sport competitions and was sponsored in their secondary school. Her target was university and when she was admitted to Makerere, the star flag of Ugandan universities, she was sponsored again, but only for the fees, not for the dormitories. She spent the 4 years sleeping outside, using the sport locker rooms for the rest and graduated. After 2 years at Ernest & Young she switched to Total where she’s been HR manager for the past 15 years. Severely handicapped in a car accident shortly after she joined Total, nothing could ever stop her: beside her young family and her full time career, she still finds the time to tirelessly hold seminars and conferences at weekend on confidence building, determination and resilience. She sure knows what she’s talking about! We plan to organise a workshop for the Congolese refugees at the new school. 

Looking back at this first month, progress is not too bad after all, it didn’t feel like that every day!

Hopefully, I am going to be able to find more time to deal with the weakest part of my project work: communication, via facebook, possibly a web page, answering a call for funding for next year (proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malta) to relieve the pressure.

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