Jinja Nuts

No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that is indeed a sofa being transported on the back of a motorbike or bodaboda to use the vernacular. The vast range of objects I have seen balanced precariously on these vehicles is beyond belief and ranges from chickens and goats to mattresses to hundreds upon hundreds of bags of popcorn and now furniture. I myself am yet to brave one of these rides as the thought of clinging on (side-saddle of course, because dignity is always favoured over practicality) whilst weaving through multiple lanes of dusty, pot-holey, honky-tonk traffic somehow does not appeal. In addition, I am generally carrying multiple shopping bags and woe betide anyone who values their potatoes so little that they allow them to bounce across the road. In fact, given the huge amount of traffic and the fact that the supermarket is at the top of the hill, said potatoes would probably beat me back home!

Nevertheless, the ingenuity of these bodaboda drivers is staggering and I am thus dedicating this blog to resourcefulness. Throughout the past fortnight I have pulled out of the hat a number of ingenious skills I did not know I possessed. These include playing hairdresser to two fellow interns with surprisingly successful results, fixing a loose bike chain for a young boy by the side of the road, fixing mosquito nets with socks and earrings and multiple evenings cooking dinner for 14 people with nothing but 5 ingredients, two hotplates and a bit of imagination. Unfortunately I’m not sure how many of these skills will be useful in my teaching career, but it’s nevertheless reassuring to know that if I decide I can no longer mark homework or teach vocab, I can become a hairdresser, bike mechanic or chef!

Other notable events this fortnight have included an excursion to the source of the Nile in a town not too far away called Jinja. We took a short hike across a field to get a look at the precise spot where Lake Victoria becomes the Nile and were promptly reprimanded for trespassing by a very scary-looking security guard carrying an even scarier-looking AK47. Politely excusing ourselves and blaming our Muzungu lack of direction, we hurried on our way. We also managed to successfully avoid any negative after-effects of a tear gas explosion that occurred at an innocent-looking football match we had previously walked past. We heard the bang and saw the stunned reaction of the bodaboda drivers but by the time we ambled our way back past the pitch, everything had cleared and we hadn’t felt a thing. We nevertheless deemed it high time to return to the camp site and, after a fortunate encounter with a knowledgeable banana lady, crammed ourselves (alongside 22 other people) into a 14-seater taxi (or ‘mattatu’). As we played human tetris trying to fit everyone in, it became apparent that there is no such thing as personal space and, by virtue of Ugandan courtesy, it is most impolite not to acknowledge the person sat on you and enquire how they are! Given that Londoners do not even make eye-contact with other passengers when riding the tube, this cultural expectation was quite surprising upon first encounter.

Yet, squashed-faces-against-the-taxi-window aside, Jinja was amazingly green, lush and – to my delight – cold! As a person with an inextinguishable internal furnace, it has not been easy to handle the permanent 28C/30C temperatures, so you can imagine how happy I was to at last zip up the jacket that has been hanging dormant and forlorn in my wardrobe since August. We also visited several markets and I am chuffed to say that 90% of my Christmas shopping is done!

I will leave it there for now. We are going on safari this weekend and I am SO excited! I have been challenged to a game of animal-dung bingo so the photos in the next blog might not be for the fainthearted!


Bring me Sunshine

Whilst excursions and adventures have taken a backseat this fortnight due to the priority of impending exams, there has been no shortage in entertainment, both inside and outside the classroom. This has largely involved dressing up parties, another hilarious rock’n’roll session, watching a bemusing ‘dance’ performance by a lady in a local bar who was subsequently upstaged by a rhino giving birth in high-resolution, slow motion detail behind her on the discovery channel and, of course, the weather. As the weeks have passed (the stealth with which week 10 has crept up on us is rather disconcerting), the weather has become increasingly erratic and I am regularly faced with the moral dilemma of abandoning classes to save my laundry that, if not found clinging to the barbed wire for dear life, will be recklessly executing a jail break.

Yet it was the heat rather than the rain that caused me quite some consternation this week. I took a stroll to the local supermarket which, for comparison purposes, is about the size of a convenience store although only about one quarter of the shelving is occupied by food. I set off at about 10:30am with the sun nicely settled behind a cloud but lo, its blazing reappearance throughout the duration of my 20 minute walk meant I arrived so sweaty that my glasses slid right off my nose and I was one ounce of dignity away from sitting on the floor of the freezer section with a bag of milk slapped to my face. (Oh yes, milk is only sold in bags here!) Needless to say, a few deep breaths later (and a longer-than-necessary perusal of the refrigerated goods!), I was in a fit state to resume normality. Looking back, in my first blog I noted the slow pace of life here in Uganda and my struggles to adapt to it. Yet, with the inescapable heat (particularly for someone with an internal furnace) I now fully understand and appreciate the replacement of hustle and bustle with a calm, polite fluidity that appears to seep from the very pores of all the Ugandans I have met. Readjusting to life back in Britain (or indeed France) is going to be tough.

Returning to the topic of entertainment, I must admit that I have seldom felt more appreciated – or indeed more amused – than I have done here. My students are honestly one of the most hardworking, engaged and fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of teaching and I walk into (and, perhaps more importantly, leave!) every class with a big smile on my face. It will surprise no one that I regularly infuse my classes with tenuous links to songs and occasional dances of celebration if I am particularly pleased about something and one such occasion was last Monday. To show her contentment over the correct completion of some spellings, a student who arrived two months ago with no English whatsoever exclaimed ‘lovely jubbly’ and that, my dear readers, is job satisfaction.

Every day in the morning assembly, a different intern reads or recites a motivational quotation and this week I chose the lyrics to ‘Bring me Sunshine’. An odd choice I’ll admit and one that was largely based on the unpredictable weather(!) but, upon reflection, it is an astute description of the community set-up here. Ashinaga is a charity that helps children who have lost parents and, in so doing, brings the beneficiaries alongside the volunteers and staff members together as a family. Living so far away from my own family, I have wholeheartedly appreciated such care and consideration and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the scholars as well as the interns and staff who, over the past 10 weeks, have shown how their hearts are as warm as the sun from up above and who have brought me sunshine, have brought me laughter and have brought me love.

“The limits of our language are the limits of our world”

Once again, new experiences have peppered this fortnight and I now feel as though very little has the ability to surprise me. Take, for instance, the Pork Joint we visited last weekend where we were offered bin bags to take home surplus food. Or perhaps Wednesday when we went to an upmarket hotel for birthday desserts and, disappointingly, only one of the 10 items on the menu was available; banana with ice-cream of dubious quality. I politely took one spoonful before Jack, another (braver!) intern, drank the rest straight from the dish! Or maybe even Friday when I opened my sock drawer and out popped a gecko. Regardless, I am now adopting a laissez-faire attitude to all new encounters – except for cockroaches. Honestly, hats off to Michaela who managed to effectively remove one from our bathroom with minimal flapping whilst I stood squealing on a chair in the corner with my eyes closed and my toes curled. In my defence though, it was so huge she could have saddled it up and ridden it out the front door so my overreaction is perfectly comprehensible!

With exams fast approaching and my students working their socks off nonstop, I decided to engage the tuneful talents of Jerry Lee Lewis and timetable into the curriculum a bit of tension-release. Goodness gracious great bags of energy! I was delighted with the effort from everybody and, despite the flooding of the hall and having to shout over periodic roars of thunder, the rock’n’roll class was a resounding success! We didn’t quite progress to lifts and jumps but that is a challenge for another day – perhaps one with spinach on the lunch menu!

Aside from teaching the students to throw each other around in the name of stress-busting, lessons have gone smoothly and my Portuguese is coming along much better than my Japanese and Luganda put together! This is largely thanks to the arrival of Willian, the intern from Brazil, who patiently fields each and every one of my questions and can somehow interpret my Spanish-infused Portuguese spoken with a French accent. Oh they joys of being a linguist! In any case babe, obrigada!

Speaking of multiculturalism, we recently attended the Kampala City festival that is heralded as the biggest annual street party in East Africa. With over 2 million visitors from the rest of Uganda as well as Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, the linguistic and culinary diversity was unbelievable. Add in outrageous amounts of boozing, bargaining and butt-shaking and you get the idea! Weaving our way through the vast rows of handcraft markets, I managed to accomplish a fair amount of Christmas shopping with the purchase of no less than 15 gifts for the equivalent of about £8. Whilst I was most pleased with my super-scrimperness, Ivan (our security guard) still thinks I was ‘muzungued’ or ‘overcharged because I’m a white person’. Oh well, you win some you lose some I guess! I would, however, much rather be overcharged than field marriage proposals and despite rocking the ‘sweaty-and-sunburnt’ look, I received no less than four proposals in two hours! I make no effort to look attractive; I have a ring on the appropriate finger and a look that says ‘back-off buster or I’ll shove that kebab somewhere unpleasant’ but still I receive compliments and proposals like I’m Marilyn Monroe. Whilst this falls within the aforementioned ‘you can’t surprise me’ category, I’m not sure I will ever get used to this kind of treatment/harassment.

It is also difficult – if impossible – to normalize the desperate poverty that inflicts so many people here in Uganda and yesterday, after spending some weeks fundraising and collecting donations of all shapes and sizes, the whole school community visited the town of Rakai. Rural and isolated, Rakai is one of the worst affected areas of the HIV/AIDS crisis with the middle-aged male population almost wholly decimated. In many of the homes we visited, women are left to raise multiple young children with no financial support or access to health care and sanitation. The main problem, however, is the total lack of water. Our guide informed us that children as young as 10 years old have to walk for 6 hours a day to collect water for their families and carry it uphill home in 10 or 20 litre jerry cans. This is disgraceful. When the questions of how and why were pitted to the town elders, it was clear there was as little potential for long-term sustainable action as there was for short-term solutions, despite mentions of boreholes and external piping. How can hope for a brighter outlook prevail in these circumstances? What future can these children expect? All questions that leave a bitter aftertaste.

We also spent time at a school/orphanage and were informed that the community supports orphans and vulnerable children, including those from the families we visited, and aims to combat the equally debilitating problem of illiteracy so that these children have a glimmer of a future. This week I will be writing to charities such as Water Aid to raise awareness of the reality in Rakai and ask for sustainable projects to be set up there. Whilst the majority of us don’t have the technical skills to generate uphill water supplies, we have an education and a voice that, as articulated by Nelson Mandela, is the most powerful weapon at our disposal. Nevertheless, weapons are used for aggression as much as defence so perhaps a more empowering term would be fitting; a most powerful tool or instrument maybe? As a linguist, playing around with words and their meanings is my trade. Yet, words and their influence can, and repeatedly do, change the course of history. I said at the beginning of this blog that little surprises me anymore but that’s not entirely true. The power of words will never cease to amaze me and if I can use my language skills to convince someone else to make water flow uphill to these families then that’s not just surprising, that’s awe-inspiring.

Cooking up a storm

Faint as it is, the photo accompanying this blog shows a rainbow arching over the Juku (Japanese for ‘school’) where I am working. The first time one of these natural wonders appeared over our heads a fortnight ago, I momentarily forgot I was teaching and dashed to the window to document what I thought was an atypically wondrous occurrence. It wasn’t. Rain storm after rain storm has crept up on us over the past few weeks, taking great delight in flooding the kitchen and drenching our washing. We have become pros at battening down the hatches in the staff room at a moment’s notice and projecting our ‘classroom voices’ to make ourselves heard above the growling thunder and driving rain splattering against the corrugated iron roof. The pigs on the farm next door are equally as vocal in expressing their displeasure during the storms and can frequently be heard competing with the dulcet tones of the back-up generator as we inevitably lose power for a few hours. Ob la di, ob la da life goes on; we are only just entering the rainy season!

Moving on from the typically British complaints about the weather, I feel I must share my perplexity at the hugely varying price of food and speed of service I have encountered throughout my 5 weeks here. Perhaps my two younger siblings, both of whom I admire greatly for having made such a success of restaurant waiting, may have some answers. I have a favourite ‘local’ just around the corner (which may or may not be called ‘Winnie’s – I’m not sure and it’s now too late to ask!) where the lady greets me with a hug and smile and knows my order (an ENORMOUS portion of cow peas and rice) without needing to ask. The service is incredibly efficient and with the average meal costing no more than the equivalent of £1.00, it is no surprise that some of the other interns and I eat here at least once a week. Equally, we have befriended several street vendors who dole out humungous portions of vegetable-infused beans with rice or potatoes (locally known as ‘Irish’!) or meat (that I still haven’t braved!) for similar prices. However, one restaurant recently tried to charge me nearly 5 times the going rate for a plate of rice and another street vendor tried to charge an equally outrageous price for a bag of chips! I may be muzungu but I am not easily diddled! When you put the prices into the context of GPB, it sounds ridiculous to be squabbling over the difference of pence and the vast majority of food vendors we’ve bought from so far treat us as locals. Yet, when someone tries to take advantage, it is certainly worth standing one’s ground and bartering to earn respect as much as a decent price!

However, last week whilst we were staying at Lake Bunyonyi (more to follow on that) price was inversely proportional to quality in the muzungu restaurants we tried. I waited two hours and paid about twice the amount of a meal from Winnie’s for half a teacup of tomato soup that did not taste of tomato at all. Having hiked 2.5 km up a hill in the heat – and at altitude so I had to stop and catch my breath every hundred metres – disappointed does not begin to cover it. Additionally, at a different restaurant at the resort, we had ordered our food in advance yet it still took about twenty minutes for the waiter to bring out all of our meals from the kitchen. There was a ten minute interval between my rice being set in front of me and the appearance of my vegetable curry! Oh well, T.I.A! (this is Africa!)  One more thing before I move on from discussing the oddities of Ugandan food; milk is only available in bags, beef samosas are commonly eaten for breakfast and oranges are green. Curiouser and curiouser.

Lake Bunyonyi, otherwise known as ‘Lake of many little birds’, is a stunning tourist resort on the Ugandan-Rwandan border. We were fortunate enough to spend last weekend right on the lakeside, surrounded by enormous flowers and not a mosquito in sight! I can safely say that this is the first time I have ever returned from camping with a full tube of anthizan! We took several boat trips in wobbly dug-outs as well as a motor boat and saw zebra and the ‘crested crane’ featured on the Ugandan flag. I would like to say that I hiked up the mountain to admire the view of the lake and all the little islands but it would be more accurate to say that, to the amusement of the local children who accompanied us, I stumbled and staggered my way up the hill (that’s all it was), stopping for large lungfuls of air every few paces. Full credit to Ryan and Michaela who didn’t give up on my pathetically sweaty self and instead seemed content to amble along at my leisurely (!) pace. We were then driven (if that’s the right verb to use for motor boat transportation) to a luxury island resort with plenty of handcrafts laid out for us to buy. This would have been delightful if we had brought money, which most of us hadn’t. Cue awkward turtle and a hasty retreat to the boat. Regardless, the whole weekend was fabulously relaxing (apart from the hair-raising bus journeys to and from the resort!) and I am eagerly anticipating the next intern excursion – as well as this month’s allowance!

Teaching this week has been great fun and I literally jumped for joy after marking an IELTS writing task in which two of my students obtained levels that were far beyond any previous marks. Air-punching moments like this intersperse the many challenges we all face and reinforce why this far-sighted project is so worthy of the time and energy invested by the scholars, interns and staff. And this brings me back to my original thoughts on the rainbow. Traditionally, they symbolise hope and that is the sentiment with which I would like to finish this post. In my last blog, I mentioned that the scholars were from disadvantaged backgrounds but what I didn’t specify was that all of them have lost one or both parents. Despite such personal tragedies, they are full of hope for the future and strongly believe in the wider application of their studies for the benefit of their home communities. Thus, I would like to dedicate this blog to my own parents who, despite the difficulties and the stress I have put them through whilst living in Africa (sorry!), believe in my teaching abilities and the value of championing education. Additionally, I would like to dedicate this to my wider family and friends who, whilst thinking I was crazy to come here, have kept in contact and regularly send me their love – believe me, every message is appreciated. So, onwards and upwards amigos, let’s not worry about the wet washing or the delayed dinner and keep in mind that there is always hope. Of a rainbow, of sunshine or, in really desperate times, of a takeaway from Winnies!

Uganda – early days

And so here we are, beginning of week 4 in less-sunny-than-anticipated-yet-extraordinarily-beautiful Uganda. This blog has taken some weeks in the formation not only because of the sheer amount of bizarre ‘cultural’ experiences we’ve had, but largely because I’ve been trying to fathom how to teach students from whom I will learn more than I could ever hope to impart. In short, I’m facing the biggest challenge of my life so far and thanks to the scholars, interns and staff here in Nansana, I’m loving every moment!

As a first-time visitor to a sub-Saharan country, I have faced inevitable cultural obstacles that, with a metaphorically cheeky wink, have proceeded to challenge my muzungu coping abilities. (Muzungu, by the way, means ‘white person’ but literally translates as ‘aimless wanderer’ – how appropriate!) The first of these cultural conundrums was my mosquito net. Getting in and out of a top bunk without a ladder or sides is difficult enough without wrestling affection-seeking clingfilm in the process. I will admit to looking like an overturned beetle on the first few occasions with arms and legs flailing helplessly. However Michaela, bottom bunk buddy, will now attest to the fact that I can manage mounts and descents with minimal flapping (and the help of a chair!). I am considering this a personal victory and will continue to use this blog to document such accomplishments!

Equally, the pace of Ugandan life is unlike anything I have experienced in Europe or North America and adjusting my setting from ‘dash’ to ‘amble’ has been a challenge. Ugandans seem to move to a slow, calm and dignified rhythm underscored by a polite, almost laissez-faire attitude that allows for electricity outages and rain showers. Until you attempt to cross the road. There is absolutely nothing slow, calm or dignified about Ugandan driving although drivers, pedestrians and everything in between are completely unfazed by this and regularly sprint and swerve across the road as if the potholes don’t exist and lanes are unnecessary. Terrifying is not the word.

There have, however, been plenty of positive cultural experiences that I will remember for a long time to come. First there was the reggae concert in which a drunk Rasta told me I was worth 300 cows. Then, there was the church service which was like a cross between being on the set of Sister Act and a zumba class and finally a restaurant visit that was less ‘sit-down meal’ more ‘delicious late night picnic of pork and potatoes in peanut sauce in a local chef’s back garden’! We didn’t have plates or cutlery but neither were there any lights so it didn’t really matter!

Lastly I should probably mention the real reason I’m here; helping students from all over Africa with the most fabulous potential to reach their goals of studying in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. The aim of the programme is to equip these exceptional students, all from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a degree that will allow them to return to their home country as ambassadors for education and champions for social development. Humbled, I am teaching IELTS which is the internationally recognised certificate for English language capability (did I mention that English is their second or even third language?) and giving career advice through the arrangement of motivational speakers and discussions of global issues. I have only been teaching for 2 weeks but already I have been blown away by the passion and dedication of these global scholars and I believe in every single one of them.

I feel it’s apt to finish this blog with one of my favourite quotations that encapsulates the reason why we’re all here:

‘Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world,’ Nelson Mandela.