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New Year - Fresh Start

Kibutika, 04.01.2020


What happened then in November and December after the move to the new premises? Nothing? Not quite, it was a very busy time in order to install some additional fixtures to the house and garden and put the final touch and for everyone to adjust to a new rhythm. 

First the watchman moved in on Sunday and organised his space. Until then only I had the keys to the house and after the handover with the landlord on Friday I asked when I needed to be there for him to enter. “Sunday night” came the answer. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t misunderstand and whatever time in the afternoon was not meant instead since the time of day is used by many erratically in greetings on the street, but there was no such misunderstanding, the intention was after nightfall. What an impractical choice, couldn’t it be earlier in the afternoon? It was really inconvenient for me because there are no street lights in Kibutika and wandering at night on the dilapidated tracks can be quite hazardous, at least for me. Local people hardly make any difference, not so much because they move so slowly anyway, much more because they don’t know it otherwise and seemingly feel as comfortable in the darkness as in full daylight. It always make them smile when I admit my struggle. It definitely had to be after nightfall… “because of the shame”, which left me with another blank. The shame is when a whole family is able to move house with a couple of bundles on the head and as many pots and pans in the hands. I left the keys there and then.

It didn’t take long before garbage was littering the compound and getting the watchman to understand that a gate is meant to be closed and not left wide open at any time was another story. As I went unannounced to the Centre one afternoon, again, the gate was wide open. The house as well, with the half- naked baby crawling between rice overspills and the 3 years old wandering about sucking a dirty piece of plastic bag. No one else came in sight over the next 2 hours except the pastor with whom I had a meeting and I remained behind until someone would reappear. Finally our watchman walked up the alley in no hurry whatsoever: Every Thursday he goes to church to sing and rehearse all afternoon and he could not understand why this would not be a valid reason to leave the place as he did, adding the customary “we are all humans”, which by now I can’t hear any more. Singing and playing guitar are obviously his favourite and most time consuming occupation and unless requested and repeated, elementary upkeep of the compound doesn’t come to his mind. Singing is a daily activity by one group or the other in church: it seems to stand at the top of the value scale of Congolese rather than a spare time activity. It might well be soul comforting for these refugees, it is less likely to improve their life as a whole.

Children usually know their respective whereabouts and as 4 girls of the oldest students were missing one morning the explanation came promptly that they were at the church. Singing. I asked one student to go there, a stone throw away, to get them back to class. To no avail. My message to the pastors in the afternoon, enquiring if that was the priority they nurture for these children remained unanswered. 

Back to the move to the house, Monday was going to be THE Day, marking the opening of the Learning Centre and we were all looking forward to it. In our weekly meeting, everything had been discussed with the pastors. I had asked that a few of them came to the school, to demonstrate how much the project was a common enterprise, to present jointly and reinforce the understanding that it was a school  with its standard rules and not a runabout place as the church was so easily used by the kids. Having several separate rooms available to teach it was not possible anymore for me to supervise all groups simultaneously and the pastors had found a teacher. Now In her twenties, the girl had long left school and was completely inexperienced in teaching. Her application only included 2 years’ working experience in a “saloon” – understand hairdressing salon - but there was no choice: between no supervision at all, with a bit of chance, she had a passion for kids and talent for teaching or would develop it swiftly. She sounded motivated but of course it is here a completely irrelevant question.  

On Sunday night I rehearsed a couple of time on Pastor William the program of the next day: the new teacher would come at 9:00 so that we could discuss the teaching program and the materials planned after the presentation, the pastors would come shortly before 10:00 am when the kids would arrive, he was supposed to have reminded it in church on Sunday.

I arrived shortly before 9:00, the gate was wide open, and as I walked up to the house a mighty “good morning teacher” was yelled inside. Nothing to do with me, I always greet them individually and never ask for this kind of group yelling. The new teacher was planted in front of the whiteboard with all 37 kids who had never seen her before crowded in front of her. As for the pastors they walked up the alley at their usual snail pace past 11:00 in the middle of the teaching and away minutes later because I’ve always asked them not to interrupt classes. Supposedly and realistically I was the only one disturbed by the chaotic course of the “special day”. 

It took quite some time in the following weeks until the teacher eventually stopped acknowledging a child standing right in front of us with “this one” and “that one” instead of using their names. I reckon the practice is common, individuality doesn’t seem to have much recognition here. Other than that, trying to bring her away from the copy-from-the-blackboard and long lists of words, including some for which she asked me the meaning after the lesson (!), not to mention the group yelling of oral exercises that I had to slow down in between as I couldn’t hear the answers of my group next door, well, it didn’t prove successful.

When November came, it was time to start preparing for Christmas with decoration and in view of another special day that would celebrate the end of the school year at the same time as it falls in the last November week in Uganda. The party would take place on Christmas day, in the afternoon and we easily agreed on the program in our weekly meeting. It would start with “games”, actually understood as playing short sketches on the Christmas theme, the children would recite the poems learnt in class, and there would be music, some snacks and drinks. The kids loved the idea of reciting the poems at the party and I could hear them rehearsing it in the garden before class or going back home. 

To my surprise the pastors had spontaneously come with a budget of their NGO catering for a list of 104 guests. The number of guests sounded rather high considering the number of orphans among my pupils, however the adults didn’t make more than 20 people; the kids of the guardians and the siblings in the few families made up most of it. The need to plan a tent in case of rain and a generator in case of electricity cut was discussed but the original budget remained. In the couple of weeks before Christmas where I was travelling messages were exchanged and apart from the usual pathetic “we miss you”, as I asked about the status of the preparation, all was ready except the tent. Let it be, after all, the risk was rather low with the dry season arriving.

The last update on the 24th was a shock: everything is ready “unless financial” and a series of begging messages and please, please, followed. The detail of what was effectively ready, the cooking oil for the cakes, convinced me that they had taken the gamble of badly disappointing the children and ruining the day by feeding me with fake updates and putting me under pressure in the last minute. Had it been a seemingly meaningful contribution, I would have completed. I was not ready to give in to their tactic and complete lack of commitment.  

If I thought that they had applied maximum pressure with that disgraceful episode, our first meeting of the year, on January 2nd showed me otherwise.

It was the first time that they were bringing items to an agenda themselves, 3 points of which I only remember the first 2 as we never came to discuss the last one. They wanted to know my plans for 2020. The answer is actually short and straightforward: focus on the consolidation of the Learning Centre, with the highest priorities being to hire 2 teachers and give breakfast to the children from January onwards. Nothing satisfying them and after requesting, once again, that I transfer a percentage of the donations received directly to their RAD account they argued that I was “blocking” them. How could that be? Yes, everybody here can see what I am doing for the kids and they - who exactly? - don’t donate anymore and therefore I should compensate the loss… They need a reserve for the future of the kids, I don’t cover all their needs and I should think of their well-being, and, and, and. Teaching the kids is too little. It reminded our the first September meeting, only this time presented as my failures to really help, in every possible manner and with a direct accusing tone. The repeat even included the notion that the kids are their “raw material” and their “trade” and I should pay for having them every day to teach. “They are yours now” added one of them as if their business spirit had not be clear enough. In September they were the “merchandise” that they contributed to the project and I had taken it as an unfortunate wording and a naive lack of understanding on how to contribute to a project; this time, the words hit me in the stomach: they mean it as spoken. Repeatedly reminding them how they had only looked for a volunteer teacher last year and that I had not committed to anything else was useless. What they want is cash that they would control entirely and alone. After almost 2 hours of this harassment, I left the meeting. The letter that followed moments later enlightened me about the first item of the agenda and why they wanted to talk at the same time about the school start in January and my working permit. In short: they want me to get the permit as soon as possible (it contains the letter of appointment in which they will decide on my “duties”). They decided to postpone the school start in January (as if they were actively part of the teaching themselves) until the permit is granted. That should for sure nail down my “duties” and motivate me to sign whatever obligation they have in mind as soon as possible…  It didn’t take me long to answer: I terminate my relationship with RAD. Kibutika project continues, on its own. I added that the learning Centre is from now on open to any child who cannot access school, Congolese or not, refugee or not, which is in line with my spirit: It is about children and not nationalities. Nonetheless, right now I can’t take more children and I expect that the same as before will come. I am looking forward to see my little troop.

I felt liberated.

Does it change much? Nothing actually, except that for the long term I will have to find a better partnership. My motivation is as strong as ever and my “duty” remains the same. The children are not responsible for the stupidity and the greed of adults, they shouldn’t be the victims, once again. Hopefully along the way they will catch a different understanding of what is worthwhile in life and how to manage it.

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