Sunday, 17 June 2012

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.

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