Thursday, 28 June 2012

Into the Community

Today was the first day that I got sunburned... yeah, go figure. You'd think a redhead in Africa would get sunburned on day one ... well, I guess I'm the exception to the rule.

After a couple of hours at the school, I had the extreme pleasure of going out and seeing what Omwabini is doing in the surrounding communities. Moses (one of the directors of the Omwabini's community outreach branch) and I left on piki pikis. (The piki piki is the Kenyan version of the Ugandan boda boda and both are the African versions of the North American motorcycle). Now, Moses introduces himself as the tallest man in Africa. I'm not so sure about that. He apologized about walking so fast; I was pleased to inform him that I am used to walking with tall people (thanks brothers).

After riding for awhile, we arrived at our first site. Moses showed me what an unprotected water source looks like. We stood on the shore of this small stream and I listened to a short biology lesson on water cleanliness. So here goes ... this particular water source had algae growing in it. This algae, allows for waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. People bathe here, drink the water, use it as a toilet, water livestock ... you name it. While I was chatting with Moses, two women came to fetch water. It kind of brought everything Moses had just said into perspective.

True to form, the roads we traveled were typical of Africa- basically eroded dirt. Thankfully, I have had much experience riding a motorbike on such roads and was confident in my ability to stay aboard despite the pitching, swerving, etc. that occurred. Sitting astride a motorbike in a skirt is difficult. Not only do you have only one handhold, you have to attempt some semblance of modesty as you fly down the road. On your first ride on such a contraption you will hang on for dear life with both hands. My first time riding one, I held on so tight that I drew blood. After awhile, you will be able to pry one hand off the handle to wave at the surrounding children staring open-mouthed at the mzungu. And finally, you will become an African, able to sit astride and not need to use your hands. I am proud to say that today I was a true African.

From the unprotected water source we drove to a protected one. It was constructed in 2009 and is a beautiful piece of work. Hundreds of community members fetch water here, as well as two local schools. Not only do they protect the water, often a fish pond will be constructed nearby that collects water from the source. Omwabini provides fingerlings (baby fish), and the community is able to sell the fish for profit. I was impressed at the thought put in it all.

Sorry, this picture is sideways...
Next, we visited Omwabini's farm land. Here they grow maize, cassava, kale, potatoes, bananas, and groundnuts. Not only do the crops feed the orphans that are housed here at Omwabini but they also provide food for multiple widows. Again, I was impressed.

As a side note, I was blown away at the amount of water that we came across during our travels today. After so long in Tata where there are few bodies of water, the multiple streams, rivers, and ponds that we passed today blew my mind. On our journey we came across a particularly wet section of road. The splashing through puddles and the fishtailing through the mud reminded me of Tata, but the bridge across the river did not. It consisted of four logs. Moses and I dismounted and proceeded to help wheel the motorcycles across. From there, the skill the drivers needed to avoid obstacles, go up and down bumps, through ditches, mud, and small streams... amazed me yet again.

Now, I am sorry that I have not posted pictures of the housing situation here in Africa. To show a picture is nothing like entering such a structure in person. In Uganda I had seen these mud and thatch houses everywhere, but had never had the opportunity to step inside one. Well, today was my initiation. Omwabini has established committees in each little community. Their job is to identify those with the greatest needs- often orphans and widows. As such, Omwabini has been able to motivate people to come to the aid of their fellow man. A community will come together to build a house or to protect a water source. The problem however is resources. While Omwabini has the capability and the passion, the necessary resources are limited. As such, they help as many as they can but there is always more to do.

Over the course of the day I met four widows, each of them with a minimum of 7 children. Keep this in mind as you look at the following pictures of their living quarters ... Below, you will see the old house of the family of 9 that currently lives in their new home next door.

Once you step over the threshold into such a house, you enter a cool and very dark space. Sometimes a window is available for light, but often that window is stuck shut by the shifting of the walls. These houses are capable of maintaining a cool temperature inside and, when well built and well maintained, they also keep out the elements. But these houses are not well maintained. The mothers have no resources nor the time to do so. The thatch is rotting. The supporting branches show signs of mold. Plastic has been thrust between the thatch and the occupants inside to keep the rain out. Standing inside you can see patches of light streaming through. The rafters are homes to all kinds of insects and small creatures. Chickens have free reign to enter and exit as they please.

The available furniture consists of a couple of chairs (maybe), a stove, and a bed. All of the homes are divided into two rooms. One for sleeping and one for everything else. Each room is no larger than 7 feet by 7 feet. The bedroom has a bed frame but, the wooden slats are not covered with a comfy mattress. Instead, a few ragged blankets allow some comfort. I still do not know how all 8 of the family members manage to fit on that bed frame made for one. I'm sure that the rest simply curl up on the dirt floor.

From the ceiling, string is strung from one end of the room to the other. Sometimes this acts as the clothes closet for family. Other times it holds up the single mosquito net designed to protect 8 people from contracting malaria...

The walls are made of mud packed in between branch supports. Since they are made of simple mud, the walls dissolve in the rain. As it is currently the rainy/winter season in Kenya, it pretty much rains every day. In the week and a half that I have been here I can certainly attest to that fact. To keep the walls strong, new mud has to be added to the exterior every so often.

The struggles that I saw today were expected. One does not live in Africa for two months and not hear such stories and experiences. The pain, guilt and sympathy however, hits home each time someone tells their story

Like Gladys. She looks to be about 50 years old. About 5 feet tall. Heavier set. She has bare feet, wears a ragged and faded skirt, and a large grey T-shirt that advertises World Vaccination Day. Her hair is cropped close to her head; you can see the grey coming through. She wears no bra and you cannot tell where her breasts end and her stomach begins. And yet, when she looks up from her work and sees Moses and I picking our way across the field towards her, her face lights up like a little girls'. She grabs my hand, shakes it and touches each of her cheeks to mine. Her smile is huge. Her front tooth is missing and when she smiles, it is so enormous that the force of it pushes her tongue through the gap. Gladys has 8 children. She's a widow. Two years ago her thatch hut burned down and, since then, she has been living in a rented house and walks each day to her land to manage her crops. She has taken the initiative and has begun to collect building materials for a new home however, because she lives so far away from her land, the materials are being stolen. Gladys' story is just one of thousands' and what little help we can give seems like just a drop in a bucket. 

I sometimes feel discouraged and ask, “then what's the point of helping at all?” But I know that whatever we do will help at least one person- and that is enough.

It Made a Difference to that One.

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
A boy picking up something and gently throwing it back into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked "What are you doing?"
The Youth replied, "Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
The surf is up, and the tide is going out.
If I don't throw them back, they will die."

"Son", the man said, "Do you realize that there are miles and miles of beach
And hundreds of starfish? You cannot make a difference."
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish
And threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said
"It made a difference to that one!"
~Loren Aisley

Monday, 25 June 2012

And at Omwabini...

Now about Omwabini. The school day here starts at 7:15. The classes last for 35 minutes and they have 10 of them a day. I am impressed because they get two breaks and a lunch hour here. Most African schools push their students from morning until evening with little time to run around and relax the brain. The pressure to succeed here is very real and could be, quite literally, the difference between life and death in their family. But I have learned that students learn best with regular breaks where they can just be kids. I am grateful that St. Michael Omwabini school has realized that fact.

Today I taught three lessons. I am learning to improvise lessons quite well. Often, I have little over two minutes to prepare a lesson and present it to 30+ students who don't speak English as a first language. Well, I taught Standard 7 Math, Standard 8 Composition, and Standard 5 English today. For some reason the kids get a real kick out of me. Maybe it is because I laugh a lot. Who knows? Teaching a foreign people is a wonderful experience and it keeps you constantly on your toes. You never know when you'll encounter a language barrier, if your language is clear enough to be understood by the students, or if you'll have to ask for clarification on a question that was so heavily accented you wonder if it was English.

It is difficult to find that line between teacher and foreign visitor. For them, it is a novelty to have a white teacher and they just love to watch you as you move around and to listen to you as you speak. You must however, also ensure that they are understanding the material you are trying to convey. Trying to explain what they did wrong on an assignment question is often so difficult, and you are so pressed for time with 25 kids waiting after this student, that you struggle to give each one the time they deserve.

They are so full of life and laughter that, even if I am tired and drained before I step into a classroom, I leave the the room more rejuvenated and joyful than I could have imagined. Seeing their eager, almost tireless faces awakens an energy in me that I did not know I had. Their beautiful skin, their white smiles, their stories, their laughter, their deep energy ... all these strike me deeply. How can children who have literally lost everything still smile?

I also got acquainted with the day care section of Omwabini today and visited three times between classes. There is nothing like cuddling a little baby to make everything feel all better again. I played with the toddlers. We got along quite well despite not knowing a word in each others' language- although I can now count to 19 in Swahili. Their toys consist of a single doll and about 90 blocks.

I had a wonderful conversation with the mother of the day care. She has five children from age 19 to 5. We shared testimonies and she was such an encouragement to me! We talked about God's grace and guidance. She encouraged me and I encouraged her, however I think she was more effective than I was. Before closing the doors at the close of the day and walking home, she led us in prayer for the children she watches over, for the work that God is setting out for me... God is so good!

I am more grateful for you every day that I am in Africa. The way you have supported me and prayed for me ... It is something that I cannot take for granted. I have seen the great needs that exist on this continent and know that very few of them have the support that I am blessed with. So thank you for your prayers, your love... they will never go unappreciated!

This is Dwaniro:

I was asked about where I was staying while I was in Rakai District, Uganda. So I thought maybe more of you would be interested in knowing more about where I was staying...

The courtyard in which I was staying was open to the road through a space between two store fronts (above). If you did not know the courtyard was there you would think it would be just a space between two buildings. You will notice the beautiful path into the compound? It is the remains of a foundation. When it rained, which it did frequently, water would pour from the ground inside and down to the lower elevation outside the compound. The entrance turned into a mud puddle and those old bricks became a saving grace to our shoes.

Dwaniro is small. There are shops up and down the road we lived off of (the only main road in the village), but I could never figure out what each one sold. A conglomeration of materials was stocked in each store and you just had to go up to the owner and ask for what you wanted. Over time you learned where to go for specific things, but if you wanted signs that advertised merchandise...too bad for you.
A view to the left from the above entrance to the guest house compound. This is the main street of Dwaniro
And a view to the right
There are few if any street signs. Africa however, is weird like that; there are few signs in front of stores. Sometimes it is guesswork which building is a store or a home. I was free to come and go as I pleased from the courtyard. Mama Maga had a restaurant a couple hundred metres down the street from our home (to the left) and I would often go and meet her there after a day at school. There was little other reason to leave the compound however, as the village would often come to visit me out of curiosity. As you probably already could have guessed. Walking down the street was an interesting event with children yelling "mzungu," adults staring and young men talking and laughing.

There was little that I did or said that was not circulated through dozens of households. As a remote village with little access to the outside world, news that the mzungu was sick was earth shattering. That she enjoyed mamba, but did not like yam was worth learning. How little she needed to fill her stomach was also great news. (I have learned that Africans are capable of downing enormous amounts of food and still maintain a stick-like, muscular appearance. I attribute this to their high level of activity...)

There were about 8-10 rooms around the courtyard (below). Four or five were occupied by long term guests- mostly teachers who lived there during the school term and then went home to their husbands during the holidays.

 Mama made all my meals, although I tried to help as much as I could. I learned how to cook and peel like the Africans do (below), and even carry children like they do (below). I was even able to prepare a decent Canadian meal for her using the meagre African implements available.

Mama had two rooms, one for sleeping and one with couches and a cooking area- About the size of a dining room table in total. I would eat in there with mama and keep her company while she did her frequent cleaning.

The most common dish we ate was matooke- essentially mashed bananas- which is the main crop of the area. It has a very vague resemblance to mashed potatoes. It really does look like mashed bananas, but oddly does not taste like our yellow bananas in North America. There was also posho- water mixed with maize flour until it hardens. There was porridge- the same recipe as posho but with more water to make it a gelatin-like texture as well as a high amount of sugar. Tea is like water and the common amount of sugar per cup is about 6 heaping teaspoons. Sugar cane is common as are sweet bananas, mangoes, pineapples, pau pau, sweet potato and yam. Beans or peas were often an accompaniment to the matooke. As a side note, I have learned that the African version of “this is good” is “this is sweet.” My eyes were opened to this interesting fact after I ate something that was described as “sweet” and wondered how this salty food could be classified as a sweet food.

The first week or so that I was in Dwaniro, mama fed me a mixture of different types of foods to figure out what I liked. Once she established my tastes she rarely went out of those boundaries. She is undoubtedly the best cook in the area so I had no problem enjoying the food prepared however different it was... although I could never eat enough to satisfy her ...

School began early in Tata, however it does not really feel early as the village starts to stir before 6 For the natives, I am not sure when they sleep because they stay out for all hours at night and get up before the sun... but somehow they survive.

The school was situated near Tata on the top of a hill. I could comfortably wear a sweater each day as a cool breeze blew across the hill at all times. On the days that I did not have school however and stayed in Dwaniro, the temperatures would often skyrocket in the afternoon. For some reason though, the evenings were cool enough to use a fleece blanket.

NB: If there is anything you would like to know about, please ask. I'm only scratching the surface of the experiences here...

Sunday, 24 June 2012

What if His People Prayed

What if the armies of the Lord
picked up and dusted off their swords?
Vowed to set the captive free.
And not let Satan have one more.
What if the church for heaven's sake,
finally stepped up to the plate?
Took a stand upon God's promise,
and stoned hell's rusted Gates.

What if his people prayed?
If those who bear His name
would only seek His face,
and turn from their own ways.

And what would happen if we prayed
for those raised up to lead the way?
Then maybe kids in school could pray,
and unborn children see light of day.
What if the life that we pursue
came from a hunger for the truth?
What if the family turned to Jesus,
stopped asking Oprah what to do?

What if his people prayed?
If those who bear His name
would only seek His face
and turn from their own ways.
He said that they would hear.
His promise has been made:
He'll answer loud and clear.

If only we would pray ...

If my people called by name,
if they'll humble themselves and pray.
If my people called by name,
if they'll humble themselves and pray.

What if his people prayed?
If those who bear his name
would only seek his face,
and turn from their own ways.
He said that they would hear.
His promise has been made.
He'll answer loud and clear.

What if His people prayed?

~ Casting Crowns

Am I Doing all That I Can?

I just had the most wonderful conversation with Mary Bunyasi, the director of Omwabini. I have to admit that since coming to Kenya I have missed the continual references to God and our dependence on Him that was a constant topic in Uganda. This could be because I have been attempting to orientate myself to the new school atmosphere here, but also because this organization is accustomed to accommodating whites. Now I am not being egotistical in saying that I miss the attention, but after seven weeks of people going out of their way to say hello to you, it is a little difficult to re-adapt. I now find myself in the situation where in order to have a conversation I must search out someone to talk with. Conversants do not come out of the woodwork here at Omwabini like they did in Tata. To learn about the working of the organization you must find a willing party to pester with your questions.

Well, over the course of our hour-long conversation, I was given the “brief” version of the history of Omwabini. Despite the length of the short version of the story, I was encouraged to learn that our views were very similar on how such projects should run in a community. She spoke of God and how all this work is not because of her or her ability; it is all because of God. She explained that she was employed in a job working in several communities in western Kenya where she was confronted with many needs- needs that were not attended to in her current job. She therefore left that job and began training communities in what it means to be a community and to work in community development. The communities began assessing themselves, determining the places where they were most at need, and developing action plans. In this way, Mary and the communities were able to assess that their most important areas of need were the orphans, the widows, and the poor. Mary strongly pointed out that this school and this community based organization were not simply placed here for no apparent reason, but because the need for such a place was recognized.

Her passion for doing the will of God rang in her voice and could be seen on her no-nonsense face. This woman is on a mission for her God. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour” (Luke 4: 18-19). To Mary poverty is a form of imprisonment. And I agree. God has called us “to look after the orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). For, “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5). One day, when Mary stands before God and the Almighty points to these commands found in the Bible, she informed me that she wants to be able to say, “I gave everything I had to help those you have called me to help.”

Her rousing words struck me deeply. Am I doing all I can for those God is calling me to help? Is there not more I could do, more I could be for these precious children? Could I not be more compassionate? Could I not be more welcoming? Could I not love them more? Yes, I am busy. Yes, I have a “life.” Yes, I am in school. Yes, I am young and inexperienced. But are these acceptable excuses? I don't think they are. I am guilty of not doing all I can. I am guilty of becoming distracted by the trappings of this world. I am guilty of falling into the materialist trap whereby the purpose in life is to go to the best school, get the best job that you can so that you can earn as much money as you can that so that you can retire and live a life of ease and comfort. I am guilty of thinking only about myself and not the commands of the God who has given everything for me. Who of you parents could even begin to think of sacrificing your only child for an unrighteous person- not even a good person, but one who sins over and over and over again?
I want to be able to stand before this amazing God one day and hear Him say, “Well done good and faithful servant.” 

Safe and Sound in Kimilili, Kenya

Fifty-four days after entering Africa, I have still not stopped learning. The African people have so much to teach! Five days ago I left Uganda and entered Kenya. It was a relatively peaceful transition across the border (although quite unlike what we experience in North America). We arrived at the border, picked up a departure form, went to the window where I was fingerprinted and had my passport stamped, and then Francis and I began the kilometre walk across the border to the Kenyan side. We had opted to leave the vehicle on the Ugandan side as Francis was merely transferring me into new hands. Needless to say, I am sure we looked hilarious lugging my luggage past waiting transport trucks, weaving past groundnut vendors, passing fellow travellers... all while I was (again) the only white person. I'm sure many Africans were surprised to see the mzungu carrying her own baggage instead of paying someone else to carry the load.
Once at the Kenyan side I stood at another window, picked up and filled out an entrance form, paid $50 for my three month Visa, answered the routine questions (with only the absolutely necessary information), and had my passport stamped. In the space of less than one hour I had left Uganda, and my new friends and acquaintances, behind and was again facing the challenge of adapting to a new culture. New language, new people, new expectations... I was both excited and terrified of the challenge. The immersion into a new culture is not something that is possible to explain to one who has not experienced it for him or herself, but I will attempt.

After 7 weeks in Uganda, I had become accustomed to hearing the local tongue all around me. At first, it simply sounded like noise to my ears; a sound that I did not need to bother myself with listening to. Then, as I spent more and more time surrounded by Lugandan; and, as I began to learn some basic greetings and words, I began to listen intently to conversations (although I often had no idea what was being discussed). By the time I arrived in Dwaniro I had mastered a grand total of three words. I have learned that once your ears become accustomed to the sounds of a language – and this takes time – it is much easier to pick it up. Often it takes about a month for your ears to learn to differentiate one sound from another; to be able to understand the pronunciation of their words; and to understand that although a speaker may sound angry, it is simply the pronunciation of the language that gives that impression.

So here I am, in a large white van with three people I have never met before, in a country I have never been to before. No longer do I hear the comforting sounds of Lugandan around me, but Swahili. Although my eyes say that the landscape has not changed, my ears inform me that I have travelled to a different place. I was met by Mary, Vincent, and Milicent. I am treated to a handful of groundnuts, we stop for lunch on the way to Kimilili, and I navigate the banking system of a new country. Thankfully, for once I had minimal trouble withdrawing funds.

I have been here at Omwabini in Kimilili, Kenya for five days. And what a culture shock it has been. I am living in a house that is inside a compound within another compound. I have a whole guest house to myself. Imagine this: I have running water! I have a toilet! I have light bulbs and electricity and multiple light switches! I have a living room! I have a bathroom with a shower head! I have my own room along with three other empty bedrooms! I have a kitchen! Talk about a culture shock. No longer do I need to use a long drop. No longer do I need to transport toilet paper everywhere I go. No longer do I need to ration my laptop usage because I can charge it whenever I want to. No longer do I need to bathe using my purple bucket... what a change!

But I am already finding myself missing the simplicity of Dwaniro and Tata. Even in this community based organization that has many of its own challenges, I do not feel the stark desperation of survival that permeated Rakai District. I have many more distractions here. I have discovered a stack of novels that I am currently devouring. I have much more free time. And yet, as much as I am enjoying these blessings, I am missing Tata. While there I experienced a hunger to read the Bible that I have never experienced before. Perhaps it was the stark reality in which they live that made God seem all that more real. Perhaps it was the lack of distractions and amenities that allow for comfort and contentment in one's situation. Perhaps it is the absence of anything reliable in their lives that gives them such a strong dependence on the One whom they know will never leave them. I am not sure what it is exactly, but there was something about Tata and the people that live there that ignited a passion in me for learning as much as I could about God.

I have always found this passion difficult to maintain in North America. It is difficult to find the time to pray. It is difficult to spend time reading His word. It is difficult to discuss your faith with your friends when there seem to be so many more “pressing” issues to overtake your conversations.

When we are sick we go to the hospital for treatment. When we need money, we get a loan from the bank. When we need food, we go to the Food Bank. When we need a place to stay, we apply for low-income housing. When we are jobless, we ask for for unemployment. When we cannot pay for school we apply for OSAP. We have so many answers and options in North America, that it is easy to forget about the most important, and often only, option: God. In rural Uganda there are few social services. It is nearly impossible to get a loan from the bank. There is no help for school fees- paying them is up to you and your ingenuity. If you cannot find work, too bad. Often, and quite literally, their only option is prayer. These people are living, breathing examples of faith in Christ and His awesome power. 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

My Home for Six Weeks

This is my room from the outside. Notice the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs curtain in front of the door? I felt like Snow White sometimes. My room had one door and one window with a wooden shutter. Clothes were dried over metal wires strung across the courtyard.
My attempt at unpacking and getting organized

This is my bed. It was so comfortable! Notice my lovely neon green mosquito net? 

Okay, here you will see my door and two cases of drinking water. The black barrel and the green barrel are for water storage for washing. The other various buckets are for cleaning clothes and yourself. The little white one is your washroom if you are too lazy to go to the long drop during the night.

Now to Explain a Little

It is now Sunday morning and I have realized that it is time to give some explanation of what I've been doing the last six weeks. The last two days I have been busy removing tiny braids from my head...Yes, apparently I  cannot do everything the way the Africans do. As a result, I have a head that is about 5 pounds lighter after my 12 packs of artificial hair have been removed. It feels so good!

I got an email from a wonderful uncle of mine and he asked many great questions. I would like to answer many of them here:

I lived in a small room off the courtyard of the guest house run by Mama Maga. The village is a small trading post called Dwaniro; population 500. The guest house is set back from the main street; this was a nice reprieve from staring eyes, although I would often be followed by groups of children as I went to my room. They were so excited to "communicate" with me and would practice their only English phrase "How are you? How are you? How are you? How are you?" On one occasion I had four young girls keeping me company as I helped prepare supper. For 20 minutes the only thing they said was "How are you?" Over time, they became more bold and the game progressed to dashing forward when I was not looking, touching my skin, and running back screaming. I was then able to get some of them to touch my hand...but that contact was often also followed by the screaming and running. Apparently, I am a very scary person!

Every morning I would be picked up on a motorcycle around 7/7:30 to be driven the 8 km to Victorious. Now, when you think motorcycle, do not think pavement, think dirt bike with all the obstacles and mud puddles along with it. I have managed to master sitting astride in a skirt and keeping some form of modesty. And I have been able to stay on as we fishtailed through mud and crossed various gullies...although I did fall off once but that is a story for another time.

Once at the school (which started at 6:30 every morning and ran until 6:30 each evening), I would orientate myself, greet my fellow teachers and do some minor lesson planning. I was in charge of teaching science and math to 22 p.6 students. The only materials that the school has to teach with are one textbook for each subject for each grade. So, to attempt to show a diagram of the human ear to the students, the teachers would either draw it on the wall of the classroom, copy it to a large sheet of poster board and nail it to the wall, or take the time to let every student have a glance at the textbook picture. Each student usually had a notebook and a pen, although often they were given to the pupils by the teachers as the students can often not afford to buy them themselves.

For those of you who are teachers you may appreciate this paragraph. The school has curriculum that was sent out by the Ugandan government stating what must be taught in each of the three yearly terms. Each term is three months long with about two weeks of vacation in between. But Victorious teaches year-round. They are working to get their students above standard. The teachers create schemes (aka unit plans) and lesson plans that rival those I learned in university. Oh, and teachers work six days a week often for 12 hours a day and are paid a mere pittance. 

Of my 22 students, only three of them have both parents. The other 19 are either double or single orphans or are vulnerable (this means that their parents are old or ill and cannot care for them properly). Very close to Dwaniro is the place that the HIV/AIDS epidemic originally started in Africa and nearly everyone has lost a relative to the illness. I have also learned that, although there is widespread education as to the causes of HIV, many people choose to continue their lifestyles without regard to the consequences. And, more often than not, those consequences are multiplied in the lives of their children who often also carry the disease, are left without parents, and must somehow care for their many siblings. Therefore, many of my students are orphans due to AIDS and, if they have a parent remaining often that parent is an alcoholic or is too poor to be able to properly care for the needs of the children. There are many students who may have HIV but have not been informed yet because of their age. Of the 430 students that are at Victorious, only 200 of them are capable of paying school fees. The rest are either orphans or very poor. They will bring in some maize or beans - whatever they are able to help provide something to the school. 

Of all my days spent at Victorious, I could comfortably wear a sweater nearly every day. Although it would get quite hot in Dwaniro during the day (it is in a valley), Tata usually always had a wonderfully cool breeze blowing across its hilltop. It was also the rainy season until the middle of June and so the almost daily rain showers (now an African shower is similar to a torrential downpour) also helped to keep everything quite comfortable and cool.

I taught each class using chalk and a blackboard. The desks the students sat in were usually home to four or five students and, because of the dirt floor were most often off balance and greatly resembled a rocking chair. Because of the nature of the board walls, my p.6 class was always enlightened as to the learning material of the p.5 and p.3 students. The sun would stream in during the morning hours blinding many students who were trying to copy down notes. When it rained, the pounding of the drops on the metal roofing would make teaching virtually impossible. The dirt floors are home to many small parasitic insects called "chiggers." These lovely creatures are about the size of a small pinhead and live in the dust. They love to burrow into your skin at which time they commence laying eggs. The result is an itchy and painful bump under the skin. If left for a long time, the eggs will hatch and spread under you skin to a new location. The solution? Grab a straight pin, some gasoline or kerosene and dig the little bugger out. I had the wonderful pleasure of discovering one on my finger (don't ask me how it got there- I have no idea) and well, because I am a complete nerd, thoroughly enjoyed the surgery mama conducted to pull the sac of eggs out from under my skin... yeah, I'm a nerd. Now, despite all my enjoyment with my sole experience having a chigger, there are many children who will have their feet full of them (remember, most cannot afford shoes). One can tell because the child will begin to walk differently, resembling a waddle. They will not use their toes to walk because of the pain of the chiggers or the scarring that results after they are removed. Those who are very poor or who's parents do not take care of them will somehow get chiggers on the face, arms, backs, etc. Remember chiggers only live in dusty places so put your imagination to work and try to imagine in which situations a young child could manage to get a chigger on their face...

Victorious has students from Christian, Muslim and traditional faiths. In fact, at a recent general meeting a Muslim mother stood up and complained that her children were being converted to Christianity. The pastor promptly stood up and informed her, "well, you are sending your children to a Christian school, what do you expect?" And this is a common occurrence. While there are many Muslims, many are being converted in this school. 

There is much spiritual warfare. Children will come to school possessed by demons or some other oppression. Often a child who lives near a witch doctor will come to school and become a completely different person or somehow unconsciously influence entire classrooms. There was one time when four whole classes started crying simultaneously. The reason: one of the p.1 children lived near a witch doctor and the demons would not let her move on to p.2. 

In the community surrounding Tata, there are many Schlangs (the home of a witch doctor) and the pastors of the community are constantly having to do battle with the demons and spirits that are sent out. Cursing others is common and before you think, "Oh, it can only hurt you if you let it" let me explain a bit. Yes, you are right to say that. God is the most powerful ally, but there is something about Africa that I have to explain. It is something that I have had to ask for much clarification on because, in North America we do not have similar occurrences. Our God is a great God, the only God. The Lord Jesus Christ is alive and powerful, particularly in Africa, but the God Almighty was not introduced to this continent until a few centuries ago at best. The African peoples have been around for a long time and have spent centuries worshiping their gods and practicing divination and the occult. And yes, these gods are of the devil however, that is not to imply that they are weak. Yes, the One True God is the most powerful, but spiritual warfare is alive here in Africa. There are many who will dedicate children to a demon or seek help from a witch doctor or cast a curse on someone.  

I have been told about spirits of dead people coming back and possessing an alive person. That person will then begin talking exactly like the dead person did and will explain what the dead person needs. I have been told stories of young children being kidnapped and eaten. I have learned that human meat is the most expensive meat on the market. I have even been told that one of the reasons that Joseph Kony has not yet been found is because he is heavily involved in the occult. Now, I have been told that there is Biblical support for what I am about to say and it is one of the things I have to search out more, but I was told that spilling blood has spiritual power. It is not only a physical experience, it is a spiritual one. Remember how the priest of baal would cut themselves as they worship their god? Well, apparently this power is particularly strong if you are of the occult. Not only has Kony killed, he has killed more than can be counted. He has mutilated, he has murdered, he has raped, he has kidnapped...and for over 20 years he has remained free. Now, I was told that because he has spilled so much blood, this gives him great power. And this power of the devil may be what is helping to keep Kony hidden.

Despite the numerous physical, spiritual and, financial challenges at Victorious, I have always noticed that the school emits a joy that defies reason. There is laughter, there is smiling, there is much teasing, there is playing. It has and always will be an example to me of the grace and power of God.

The students at Victorious wear a uniform- you can see them in some of the pictures. Obviously most students cannot afford a uniform and many have been donated but still some students do not have one or it is so threadbare. I have been children hold their shirts on with the single remaining button. I have seen young boys wearing trousers that have a huge hole right in the crotch. They walk around with their private parts hanging out because they do not have the materials or the know how to fix it. Children will wear shirts that are more rips and tears than material. When it rains they will walk to school through the mud and will be covered in dried mud, up to their knees, for the rest of the day. Shoes are constantly being washed to clean off the mud. 

We have 10 orphans staying at the school: 3 boys and 7 girls. You can see in the picture of the office in the previous post the bed rolls in the corner. There are some teachers that stay on site as well. 

I am a Mzungu and the very fact that I have white skin puts me (for some unknown reason) in a higher status. Having a white teacher immediately bumped the school up in its status. They did not care that this teacher really has no experience outside of school as of yet. They cared that I am white and that I am from the west. The students work harder than any I have seen. There is no misbehaviour even when ones back is turned to write on the blackboard. They are respectful to a fault. It is the culture for a student to kneel when handing or accepting anything to a teacher. When a teacher enters a classroom, all the students rise and say in unison "You are welcome, teacher." When you leave the classroom, they all say, "We appreciate and acknowledge your services teacher Christine, may God bless you." The first time I entered and left a classroom here I nearly had a heart attack! Such respect is unheard of in North America. Teachers are the dregs of society. They are paid to deliver a service and if that service is not delivered at par you are fired. Here in Uganda teachers are at the status level of doctors.

When I first started teaching I think "pardon?" was my favourite word. It took me about a week to get a hold of the accent and for the students to start understanding all of my words. At the beginning they did not ask questions, they did not talk. But by the end I was having questions coming at me from left and right. I even had students telling me that they didn't understand a concept! God bless them! I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Victorious and I pray that God will bless them all richly.

Friday, 15 June 2012

And Now for my Wonderful Students and School...

Say hello to Victorious Primary School, home of over 400 students. 

This is the main compound of the school taken from the door of the office. (Notice how wonderfully muddy everything is?)

A view of the school from the road to Victorious

And the best class of students ever! Here is me teaching math to my 22 p.6 students. I wish you could all meet them! They send their greetings to you.

Say hello to Friday, Ivan, Bonny, Edward, Denis, Lydia, Violah, Florence, Oliver, Evalyne, Allen, Saidat, Charles, Moses, Damiano, Oliver, Grace, Frank, Josephine, Micheal, Simon, and Benitah.

This is the office for the staff members. See how blessed we North Americans are?

May I Introduce My African Family...

Meet Sam, the administrator and visionary behind Victorious Primary School. He helped me negotiate the culture, the school atmosphere, and we had many wonderful conversations ranging from politics and warfare to gender equality. He is amazing! (Oh, and say hello to the pau pau- an amazingly delicious fruit that a student blessed me with).
Meet Via- short for Dativia. This cutie lived in the same compound with us.
Meet Vincent. We became great friends although neither one of us speaks the others' language.  He made my day with his daily hugs of welcome when I returned home from school.
Meet my African mama- Mama Maga. She fed me, taught me how to mop, wash clothes, cook, peel, behave, and speak like a Ugandan. I praise and thank God for this wonderful woman!

Monday, 4 June 2012

 Mosibye Mutia Baseybo ney Bannyebo,

I am sitting here in an internet cafe in Kyotera (pronounced Chotella). I have just said goodbye to Renee and Joel Girard who have been visiting Tata for the last couple of days. Joel got sick last night due to some food he took on the road to Tata and is feeling quite sick. So prayers for him would be wonderful.

This week is the last full week of classes for me at Victorious and I get to experience giving mid term examinations to my pupils to assess how they are doing. Due to the lack of paper, printer or any such technology at the school, all tests are standardized and printed off, then sent to the school that purchases them. I am very interested to see how it all plans out.

Friday Victorious iis going to compete against a "neighbouring" school in a debate on the topic "The NRM government has done more harm than good." As a result, I am learning much about the popular views held about Uganda's ruling government. The teachers are concerned that they may loose the debate. They say that because we have a Mzungu at the school, we must not fail (no pressure).

I was told something amazing yesterday. The finances at Tata, while always low, have been the highest since the school has started. The reason Sam gave me: there were 20 new students that signed into the school at the beginning of this term. They were able to pay school fees. The reason they chose Victorious: there was a Mzungu teaching there. It is comforting to know that I can make even a small difference for the school.

There is so much to write but as I am pressed for time I will give the most important:

- Please pray for Victorious to be enabled to build permanent classroom structures. Once the school has such buildings, many doors will open for Victorious

- I am learning many of the stories of my pupils and have discovered that of my 22 students, 12 are orphans. They live difficult lives. Please pray that there may be a way to better the circumstances they live under.

- Next week I hope to transition over to Kenya. Please pray for traveling mercies and smooth transition.

Thank you all for your prayers! They are so appreciated!

Mukama ye bazibwe nnyo! (Praise the Lord!)