A Mzungu’s Experience in Africa
I was 54 years old and had come to a point in my life that I had to do something while I was still able. I applied to be a Global Teacher with Link Community Council to spend five weeks in rural Uganda in order to share my teaching expertise with staff in a school.
I was assigned to Kitwetwe Primary School in a fairly isolated area where there were seven languages spoken by the inhabitants. I am putting my Journal on my blog because this was indeed a life-changing experience from which I do not want to recover: My first day there they sang to me:
MY UGANDAN JOURNAL
My home was a brick built tin-roofed four small-roomed structure belonging to and inhabited by my host and Headmaster Kasangaki Johnson and Nyagendo Joyce, his wife. Except for Sadik the treasured three-year-old grandson who slept with his grandparents, the rest of the extended family lived in traditional mud huts. There was no running water or electricity but I was the only person missing that. Kitwetwe Village (pop. 200 well spread out) was very rural and isolated but I never felt lonely or in want of company.
My day started at 5.45am with the cockerel alarm. I took my precious bucket (use it for ANYTHING) with me to the pit latrine constructed especially for me and used only by me. Without light pollution, the stars are so bright it is hard to pick out the constellations but I always saw Orion, the Southern Cross, and Taurus. I was afraid to stand still too long stargazing on account of the dreaded female Anopheles mosquito. At 6.30 while it was still dark, my basin of water for washing would be waiting in my personal shelter made of sticks. Baring my flesh under the stars at the same time posing a vulnerable target with no repellent on for mosquitoes is an enduring memory. The bathing ritual happened twice on weekdays and three times on the weekends. I have never been so clean! Remember that the borehole is more than a kilometre away and someone in the family carries it on their head or slung on a bike to our home and heated over an open fire for me to use!
My transport to school was riding sideways on the back of my host’s bike along paths greeting people digging in the fields. (Greeting: “Habari!” Response: “Mzouri” = “What news?” “No news!”)
After about a kilometre we joined the Masindi Port Road. At this point, a dozen or so pupils would fall in running gracefully behind the bike for the kilometre and a half to school without breaking sweat or even puffing. An endless supply of Olympic hopefuls!
The school day lasted from 8 am until 4.30 pm but the children get there early to clean and sweep the classrooms and compound.
As far as teaching goes, they have all the expected primary curriculum subjects on the timetable. In fact generally, only four main subjects are taught: Maths, Science, English, and limited Environmental Studies. This is because the school has few resources and because the teachers do not/cannot teach music, PE, art, and drama. Seven of the eleven teachers at Kitwetwe are untrained.
Uganda is proud of its policy of free UPE, Universal Primary Education, initiated in 1997. The annual national exams for each year group must be passed in order to move onto the next stage and finally, with luck and money, move on to secondary school. Many of the children in P7 are sixteen, seventeen or eighteen years old. Secondary education costs, and is beyond the reach of most Ugandans. My host has three children of different ages in P7 and is dreading the fees when they pass the final exams.
The children are extremely well behaved and polite, though some classes had 70 – 100 pupils sitting on benches facing the front. They immediately stood and greeted me when I entered the class. And the same when I left. If a teacher is absent, the children mind themselves for the day in their classroom as supply teachers are unheard of. I regularly saw P2 children sharpening their pencils with double-edged razor blades. Quite a number didn’t have pencils to sharpen.
Most children had never seen a Mzungu (white person) before so I was the centre of attention for the first couple of weeks, with heads always at the window watching me work at my desk. One teacher said that if I stayed in Kitwetwe for one year that I would turn as black as she is. Another thought our moles were mosquito bites.
What keeps children from going to primary school in spite of free education? My host family spoke Runyoro but there were seven tribes represented at Kitwetwe Primary School. P1s and 2s had the hardest time understanding the teachers and their classmates, as classes are taught in the school’s designated Mother Tongue. One can understand why English is the only language spoken from P4 onwards. Not being able to grasp English is a reason why children quit school. Another reason Kitwetwe’s roll drops is because the tribes of nomadic cattle people have been forced by lack of rain to move away with their families to more favorable pastures (global warming?). Therefore more than one hundred and fifty children have stopped going to school this session. Other children are kept at home to scare birds from the crops. Girls are not thought of as worth educating because many get married as young as thirteen. Arranged marriages after P7 are common as well as men having three or four wives. Girls sometimes resort to unfortunate tactics to stay at school. Some are simply abducted, often with the collusion of parents.
A JOURNAL ENTRY 31/7/2005
No cockerel today. (This is the damn bird that kept waking me up at all hours.) Five strong men and the kids are thrown in for fun chased that cockerel all over the compound with great hilarity between legs, into the long grass hither and thither until finally it was nabbed. Sadik holds it by the legs proudly, cockerel looking quizzically. It was the toughest fowl I have ever tasted. I bit and chewed to no avail fearing for my false gnashers. My host said to have a softer piece but I fared no better. I was given the prize of the gizzard which I did bite into but wasn’t my first choice. The next day the cockerel was back on our plates. He had been boiled again and was relatively edible. But he didn’t wake me up again!)
I went to church today, Baptist with a ‘choir’ of African guitars (adungu). All through the service, the pastor proclaimed how grateful the community was that I had come punctuated with some background, ululating by my namesake, Akiki. All the pastor’s Swahili words were translated into Runyoro and then into English. All the readings were in Runyoro and English. It turned into a very long service.
By the end, the sweat was running freely down my back and elsewhere. Thankfully the congregation clubbed together to give Johnson and me a cherry coke and glucose biscuits. One sweet baby actually came over to hold my hand and sit on my lap where she fell asleep, never smiling but never running away in terror of the Mzungu. Better have her eyesight checked.
Home along the trail with Akiki and her children plus 4 fresh eggs from the churchgoers.
It was time to try the frisbee. I took a few turns to show them and the skies opened. But it didn’t last long (that’s called ‘drizzle’ there). We played a frisbee version of piggie in the middle. So fit are these Ugandans and so energetic! Even in hot weather, their endurance is incredible. They still need to perfect catching skills.
More visitors came and the chance to practice my greetings and farewells. Usually, Ugandans burst out laughing at my attempts, but it simply shows pleasure, delight and probably shyness.
I got very grubby dashing about for the frisbee so I was glad when Amote (Joyce) said my water was ready. Warm to scalding water awaits and twenty minutes of privacy. Getting the order right so I still have unsoapy water for rinsing is a skill I will perfect in time.
Johnson went off on the bike carrying Denis (9) and Teddi (14) to Kigumba where they go to school and live through the week. Denis cried because he was on an errand and wasn’t around for the frisbee. I will leave him in charge of it when he next gets home.
Tonight Akiki Margaret came to confirm my pet name, Akiki. To do this money must be given by the ‘baptiser’. As she shook my hand by custom she passed what turned out to be 1000USH into my hand. To think these people who have next to nothing are so generous. I came close to blubbing. A lot of animated Runyoro. I hugged her (not done except by Mzungus) when she left to much hooting and laughter. Johnson reminded us of the pastor’s words about sharing love in many ways. I told Akiki I would not spend the money but save it always. Their gleaming smiles shone out from the dim light cast by the oil lamp as they left. In bed by 9.30pm.
End of Journal Entry
(I complained once about the noise this cockerel made in the early hours. He was on my plate by teatime. Guests get the gizzards…)
Only my host and I ate at the table in the house. Goodness knows where everyone else partook. Joyce came and knelt with a basin and warm water for washing hands, likewise at the end of the meal. Quite often Johnson and I ate in companionable silence with the radio on for official notices. Embyo kulia benezire = The food was sweet/delicious.
The food was quite bland consisting mostly of starchy rice, cassava, plantains (matoke), maize, beans, sweet potatoes and ‘Irish’ potatoes (Western). The meat was beef, chicken, and goat, but I think they ate these more than usual while I was there. The fruit, especially pineapples and passion fruit, were out of this world. Once I brought three ripe avocados home, cost 15p for all, which were served at the end of the meal. Before I left Kitwetwe we ceremonially planted the seeds as a memento of my stay.
The Ugandans must have an entirely different metabolism than us Mzungus. They could eat enormous portions of all these fillers and come back for seconds. And they ate five meals a day. Joyce would carry a hot meal on her head to school for us in the scorching midday sun which could feed at least four Ugandans.
Being quintessential hosts, they served me Ugandan sized portions. I protested politely to no avail. If I didn’t eat everything they would chide me. I began to dread mealtimes as my girth expanded uncomfortably over the weeks. Oh, to feel hunger pains again! Finally, I said that as I was now part of the household, I would serve myself, please. As I write this, I still boast (?) a matoke tummy.
Once when Johnson was away I asked Joyce to eat with me. I could tell by her face that this was unheard of. I said I didn’t want to eat alone, please, so she sat on the floor. I did likewise while the doubt in her eyes said that this was forbidden behavior. When she relaxed, her English was better than she let on so we had a good chat. After a while, Johnson looked in with a horrified but acceding expression on his dark face. I explained that Joyce and I were talking the language of mothers. In that, she had more experience than I as she has had eight children. Johnson seemed satisfied but Joyce did not linger.
One night I heard in the distance the music of the log xylophone (indaare), the traditional instruments of the Luo. My host took me to their meeting place. The people there had heard there was a Mzungu in the area. Somewhat dazed I was gathered straightaway into their mad dancing and singing that goes on throughout the night. Mzungus are weak so I only took part for a short while. I sought my host out before they pressed the local brew on me.
Other evenings my host family and neighbors sang in harmony and played drums (ngoma) in my honor, including songs containing my names Akiki and Tracy. Many of the songs were hymns praising the Lord. The community as a whole was very religious with all Christian faiths represented.
Another weekend I went hiking up tree-covered Koduku Hill with my host. There wasn’t a path as hiking is not a Ugandan pastime. Our guide was a child from the school who skittered up the slippery scree avoiding the pricker bushes like a mountain goat. My host was slightly more agile than I, but it took many rest stops and three bottles of water before I made it to the top. I could get a good idea of the local geography seeing as far as Masindi Port and Lake Kyoga. Johnson didn’t know why his legs were stiff the next day.
I learned the game of Omwheso, a Mandala game of planting and capturing seeds played on a board of 32 holes. Before I left, my host’s son and his friend made me a board, so I hope to get other people interested here.
Omwheso and kicking a banana fiber football around were the two pastimes the Ugandans sometimes indulged in. Normally they work in the fields in all their spare time. Now they can play the card game UNO as well!
There was a football match arranged for me to watch, pupils versus villagers. The Kitwetwe children got to wear the prized football jerseys donated by the pupils of Castlehill. I quickly taught some spectators the rudiments of a cheer for our side. I thought there would be a slaughter. The villagers did not intend to give the game away and were very rough. We had a few teachers and old boys padding out our team. In the event, we only lost 1-0. The victors demanded a gift from me for winning. Some Ugandan tradition, I surmised. I dove into my rucksack and fished out a nearly-empty squeezy packet of Boots Sun Stuff Factor 35. They took it away with much shouting and whooping. Goodness knows what they did with it, certainly not its intended purpose. I hope they didn’t suck it out thinking it a Mzungu football potion!
Link arranged a weekend at the Nile Safari Lodge at Paraa in northwest Masindi. By Kitwetwe standards our accommodation was luxurious. We had a balcony where tea or coffee was served as early as you wished. Bliss. You also booked your time for a shower. At 7.30am you could hear the attendants filling your overhead bucket with warm water. Bliss. We had a flushing toilet. Bliss. We had electricity for four hours in the evening. Bliss.
The food was western. I had steak. I don’t care about from which animal. Bliss.
We took a ferry along the Nile to Murchison Falls, pausing to look at Fish Eagles, hippo, crocodiles, baboons, buffaloes, warthogs, Goliath Herons and much more. Bliss.
When we got back I treated myself to a wonderful massage outdoors behind a sheet draped over a line. £3 for and hour. Bliss.
MY GT ROLE
I discovered skills and abilities I didn’t know I had. Though I haven’t taught P1/2 for many years I found myself devising teaching aids for Phonics and modeling them in class for the teachers. In the UK, I am terrified of school development plans, but in Uganda I helped formulate Kitwetwe’s priorities with the Headteacher. One of the first we tackled was arranging for the teachers to have lunch sent over daily from the Trading Centre. (Most staff skip lunch because they cannot go home and they require a hot meal by custom.)
I really felt special among the Ugandans. This had an oddly humbling effect on me. Chairs appeared out of nowhere for me to sit on outdoors. My every need was catered for as though I were some exotic pet that they needed to make sure stayed healthy. I had a feeling of delight and triumph of living and actually thriving in an environment so different from Scotland. At the same time, I am reassured that there are many similarities between our cultures, especially sport and music and humor. I have dispelled some myths and tales about Mzungus, though babies are still afraid of me. Most of all, my mind has been broadened and empowered by the joint accomplishments of my Headteacher and me in the development of Kitwetwe Primary School’s needs and aims. Most gratifying will be to see the work we did on the School Development Plan being carried forward and sustained. Among these priorities is the half-finished building in the grounds of the school. A local person borrowed the remaining bricks and never replaced them. For not too much money that building will get windows, doors, roof and floor. When completed it will serve as a Library and store plus accommodation if need be for a teacher who lives too far to go home.
Communication with rural placements like Kitwetwe is broken off harshly after placement because texts and phone calls do not go through. Nothing can be done about this until Uganda’s communication networks spread.
Castlehill Primary School is going to link with Kitwetwe. There will be exchanging of knowledge, experiences, and questions from which both schools will benefit. In the future, Johnson may be able to visit Castlehill. That would be a culture shock.
Even after putting my adventure into words, I cannot quite sum how I feel about it. Unforgettable, life-changing, heart-wrenching, exhilarating to all my senses, missing the friends I made. I wonder as I do my daily routines how my lifestyle would seem through their eyes.
I know we waste resources criminally. We rush about like mad things and get stressed easily compared to Ugandans. Our mod cons, for instance, an electric machine that washes clothes(!), are beyond their wildest imagination. But their lives have a simplicity and structure sadly lacking in our own culture.
I am glad I went to Africa. I will go on pondering, processing and sifting my memories for pleasure and pain for a long time to come.
September 16, 2005
These people had nothing but they always were smiling. One saying that is universal here is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ I find this so refreshing because it shows that everyone cares for everyone else.