As I mentioned earlier, typically you can’t get in a close-up photo of a Ugandan in rural areas. When Mistress and I were walking around, a group of older school kids from another school had latched onto us for awhile on their way home. One time I lifted up my camera to take a picture of the islands in the lake and the kids screamed and sprinted away from me. Except for one brave soul who stood behind me to see what I had taken a picture of in the digital screen. So one benefit to boarding at Mathius’s primary school on Lake Bunyoni was that he asked me to take photos and videos of the children so he could use some of them for a website and brochure … as he continually tries to solicit donations for the school.
The kids arrived in the mornings mostly by foot, though a few came from across the lake in a dugout canoe.
The morning ritual consisted of singing songs by the lakeshore, most of which had a component of exercise or coordination skills. I just adored the kids singing like this. I love cultures in which song is an integral part. I mentioned in the Transport post that at one point on the bus from Kabale a woman broke out in song and soon several other women had joined in harmony … just for something to pass the time on the bus. These kids knew a bunch of songs and of course they could bust a move along with them like few white kids could. Just tickled me every morning.
See a couple videos of their singing:
Beyond singing songs for mere enjoyment or entertainment, this is how the kids were learning as well. Even at the UWEC I would hear classes of children passing through the grounds singing, led by their teachers. The one I most remember was about mzungus … “How are you Mzungu? Mzungu, how are you?” My favorite the kids sang at the lake was a call and response; the teacher says, “Have you eaten sugar?” “No, papa!” “Have you told lies?” “No, papa!” “Open your mouth wide!” “Ha ha ha!”
Because of a recent wind storm, the two classrooms, one for younger kids and one for older, were unusable in the rainy weather. The wind had ripped the plastic tarps to shreds. The kids instead were all piled into the shack where normally they can eat their meals when provided. There were no teaching aids at all beyond the chalkboard. Not even a pointing stick for the teacher; notice in the photo she has a twig from a tree to point with.
In the classes I witnessed, everything was learned via verbal repetition. And again, there were songs to be sung. Learning the alphabet in English, for example, came with a song. Learning basic English words seemed to be as much an exercise in learning English as in personal confidence. The teacher would point to an item and say “This is a ball.” The kids repeat, “This is a ball.” After naming each item on the chalkboard, she then points to one and says, “What is this?” “That is a ball,” the student reply. Then the trickiest question, she points to the ball and says, “Is this a tree?” Then there is always some hushed confusion and tentativeness until one or a handful of kids dares to say, “No! That is a …” And by the time they get to the object, more kids, but not all, will have joined in with confidence “… tree!” They were enthusiastic about affirmative sentences but if they had to give a negative response, it was obviously much harder for them to say “No!”
But the thing that cracked me up the most was what I call the gold star dance. When I was a kid, if you did well on your paper, you received a gold star sticker. But since there were no papers or stickers in this area, when a child performed well at the chalkboard, the other students sang a song in that child’s praise while he/she did a little dance at the front of the class. This was their reward. A couple kids performed at sub-par and were obviously disappointed that they had to take their seat without dancing, they had had their booty all warmed up. But I think how now in American culture the self-congratulatory dance is a mainstream component, and here little kids have probably been doing it for ages.
See video: Gold star dance
Most of the children showed up in bare feet. Several times Robert would use this common occurrence in rural Uganda as an illustration to me of the depth of poverty and lack of “civilization.” But as I have witnessed more and more lives around the world, I know this is not especially remarkable, and this particular aspect doesn’t bother me much. I was more bothered by the complete void in educational materials at the school.
And what bothered me most about the school children was that according to Mathius, whatever he fed them at school was sometimes the only meal a child would eat in a given day. Around 11:00 a.m. they gathered for porridge. Sometimes there is food to fix an afternoon meal of some potatoes or vegetables. While I was there it was just the one meal. I couldn’t get it out of my head that the children obediently lined up and were handed the exact same porridge we made for the chimps in the exact same plastic cups we used to feed the chimps. But the kids were not later thrown 2 buckets full of fruits and vegetables. That was it. I had lamented the shortfalls in food for the chimps and other animals at the UWEC, but now I had to come to terms with the fact that the zoo animals ate better, far better, than these children.
In the evenings, as I mentioned in the last post, Mathius and his neighbor, a secondary school teacher, and I spent evenings around the campfire drinking beer and eating dinner. The school teacher was a very curious and affable fellow. But sometimes I found myself surprised at the conversation I was having with a school teacher. Even taking the Third World rural setting into account, I was still surprised. I had already learned the near impossibility of explaining the scale of America. (Though this was not something new to encounter … once in Lesotho, a man asked me and Erik how many times we had met the president of the United States … not “if” but “how many.”)
For his part, the school teacher was extremely surprised at many facts I imparted to him. For example, he was somewhat shocked to learn that Canada is its own country and not part of the USA. Less shocked, but still surprised, to learn that Jamaica was also separate from USA. “What about Mexico?” he then asked, as suddenly his geographic world was rocked. “Yes, it’s its own country as well,” I informed him. It took him awhile to digest this. Then the doors flew open as we had a mini geography lesson to address his inquiries: “Where is South America? Is it a country? I’ve heard of someplace called Central America. Where is that?” I had to pinch myself this was a secondary school teacher asking me these questions. Yet I was charmed as I watched him process this series of epiphanies. I drew a rough map of the continents in the dirt, and watched the world transform in his head as he sipped a Nile Special.
I put the size of the U.S. into perspective for him by comparing it to the basic space it would take up in Africa. Too bad I only then near the end of my trip discovered how to explain its scale. (seems obvious in retrospect) Most educated people at least have a basic perception of their own continent. Again, he sat back to take in this revelation. “So what is the population?” When I told him, confusion took over his face. “So you’re telling me a country that big only has a population of 300 million when a country the size of Uganda has 34 million?” “Yep.” “Your country is dangerously underpopulated!” I laughed at this. I said, “No, it’s not, I assure you.” “Yes, it is!” He was overcome with genuine concern for my homeland and I could not convince him that our population was not excessively low. The concept of needing open land for resources couldn’t push through. “But we have plenty enough resources for us here in Uganda and look at our population,” he argued. Now it was my turn to stare at him wide-eyed and astounded at his assessment, proclaiming sufficiency while many of the children in his own village were subsisting on a single meal of nutritionally-void porridge each day. I didn’t even know where to start to try to illuminate the invalidity of his statement. So in the end, I didn’t.
This brought us to the conversation I had had probably more than any other, “Why don’t you have children?” But his was the most vehement argument against my position I would encounter. “You need to have lots of children! Your country is underpopulated.” My ears sort of glazed over during this lecture. He continued, “And you need to have them right away. The older you are when you have children, the stupider the children will be.” I sipped calmly on my Nile Special bobbing my head around a bit to avoid the campfire smoke. He went on, “You are …” I suddenly straightened up, “Wait, what?” “Yes,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Your body slows down and doesn’t function as well when you’re older, therefore the children who grow inside you also are slower and don’t function as well. They will be lazy and stupid.” “You’re kidding me.” “No! It’s a fact.” Didn’t know where to start with that one either, so I let it pass.
Then we came to the most fiery lecture on how I am spiting God’s will by refusing to have children. At first I thought I was making some headway with my argument that I didn’t think my value as a human being was based solely on the fecundity of my reproductive organs, that rather, it could have value and carry out facets of God’s will by trying to be a kind, thoughtful, helpful and generous person. A moment’s thought over a long draw of Nile Special as I waited hopefully. “No,” he finally declared. “You are spiting God’s will and desire for you.” OK, whatever. Another viewpoint forfeited. If I had been going to stay another couple weeks, I would have launched some strident arguments against all three of the last topics, but seeing as I only had a handful of days, I opted for quantity in variety of topics.
Another health-related topic that came up was the “fact,” the school teacher informed me, that one should not drink liquids while eating. Interestingly, Robert said the same thing to me. One day I asked him one of my undoubtedly silly-sounding questions. Each day at lunch at the UWEC, the employees were fed but no drinks were ever offered. Everyone ate their food, no one brought in outside drinks or water bottles, ever. So I asked, “Don’t people drink water here? Or sodas?” “Not with their meal. Do you think it’s good for you to drink with your food?” “I didn’t realize this was a problem.” “No, I’m asking you a question, do you think it’s good for you?” “I always drink with my meals; as far as I know it’s fine for you.” “Ugandans believe it is not healthy. That’s why you never see it.” I then learned that I could ask for a bottle of water at lunch, they kept some in the back room. But Steph and I were the only people ever to ask. After awhile, when I stepped up to the counter with my plate, they automatically stepped into the back and returned with water. Sometimes when they didn’t do this and I neglected to ask, a few minutes later, one of the servers would come over to my table with a bottle of water. Really quite sweet of them to so diligently indulge the mzungu’s strange habit.
Other topics that we spent a lot of time on had to do with basic amenities available to Americans. These topics commonly elicited the head-shaking remark, “It’s a different world.” At first the teacher and Mathius couldn’t understand why I didn’t own a generator. To them, this is the epitome of electrical comfort, and when envisioning the opulence of America, assumed we all had generators. “But I have no need of a generator, the electricity is very reliable. It only goes out in a severe storm.” “So how often does it go out?” “I dunno, several times a year.” “Several times a YEAR?” “Yeah.” Absolutely stunned silence ensued. “You mean there is no load-sharing?” they asked. “No, I have electricity 24 hours a day 7 days a week.” “It’s a different world!” they said, with a mix of fascinated wonder at such a marvel and sad acceptance of the difference between our worlds. I’ve mentioned already how the electricity goes out in Entebbe at some point every day, sometimes for the better part of a day. It’s probably worse out in the boonies. And that’s if you even have electricity. We were of course, having this discussion around a campfire where none existed.
I can’t bring you back with me to our firelight discussions, but there you have some examples of how I passed my evenings at Lake Bunyoni. Oh, and also, my favorite question, which was asked surprisingly often of me throughout Uganda, surfaced here, too: “Can you see stars in America?”
A lot of words heard and images witnessed during my brief time on the lake haunt me to different degrees. But there is one that kept me awake at night: My first day at the lake, Mathius had told me that because it is so close to the Rwandan border, during the genocide, many refugees fled their homes and looked for shelter here at the lake. One day I was sitting on the porch of his family estate while he was visiting his mother, the one stung by the bees. It was a beautiful afternoon, the clouded skies brought out the green colors of the terraced hillsides and the dark blue of the lake water. Below me, a dugout canoe was nestled into the tall reeds. I could hear children off in the distance yelling at each other in play. A cow munched grass a few yards away from me. I was very much at peace and content. Then Mathius’s nephew came into the yard with a banana tree trunk. With a machete he began chopping it up for the cow. On each strike, the metal landed with a dull thudding sound before it sank into the fibrous trunk. I thought about the Rwandan genocide; I know the method by which most of those people were killed. I wondered if the machetes made the same sound when landing on human flesh and bone.