This was our first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and was a memorable one. We spent two weeks working in a village school in Kamutuuza, in the Masaka state of Uganda, then had four days visiting former Woodstock colleagues in Nairobi, Kenya. This blog is about Uganda. There’s also a video on YouTube which probably conveys a better sense of the place than words can. So, why Uganda?
As long as we’ve been in India, we’ve had a home in Liverpool, thanks to our friends Carol and John – apart from the two years they spent in India, that is, working in a much harder setting than ours. After they returned around 2005, they became involved with a school in Uganda. Tower school was built by the Just Care charity about 20 years ago, and Carol and John have over the last ten years contributed massively to its development, both by frequent working visits and by taking teams along to participate in maintenance and development projects and in teaching.
It was obvious, therefore, that we’d take the first opportunity to go along to see the work they had been doing, and meet some of the people they had talked about. John didn’t participate in this trip – there wasn’t enough to do to make it worthwhile – so we joined Carol and Brenda, a six-visit veteran, in a two-week trip. Of course, if you know Carol, you’ll understand that just observing was out of the question, so we ended up with a classroom teaching schedule, as well as taking part in sewing lessons (Dot) and playing board games (me). There was also plenty of activity on Sundays. And all in 30-degree plus heat, sleeping under mosquito nets and doing all our own cooking. A bit of a drastic way to avoid the UK winter!
A lot of the effort and expense came before we left. Yellow fever vaccinations (at £75 each), diphtheria, tetanus and polio vaccinations (thankfully free), stocking up on the materials we wanted to take (pencils, books, games), carefully packing all we thought we might need, including an excess of medicines and first-aid, online visa application for Kenya – we seemed to spend weeks just getting ready. After so many years throwing our stuff into cases at the last minute for travel from India, I think we just had too much time on our hands.
Still, finally on the way. We dropped our bags at Carol’s in Liverpool, drove home, then travelled across by bus to spend the night there before our ridiculously early start. At 3:00 am we were scraping ice off John’s car and loading up all the bags for the trip to the airport. At 3:30 am next day (local time, so only half past midnight on the body clock) we finally arrived at the Peniel Beach Hotel in Entebbe and climbed inside the mosquito nets for a whole five hours’ sleep before the car came to ferry us all to Kamatuuza. (Our trip was longer than Carol and Brenda’s, since we were travelling via Nairobi, to facilitate our visit later on.) Manchester to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Nairobi, three hour layover, Nairobi to Entebbe via Kigale (Rwanda).
We spent a couple of hours after breakfast changing money and stocking up on our fortnight’s food before we left, and we stopped for lunch and photos at the equator (has to be done), so it was arouund 4:30 when we arrived at the school, to be met by all the children with their carefully-prepared welcome routine of singing, dancing and drumming. We really were straight into the African vibe.
Jacob, our driver, bargains for bananas on the way to Kamutuuza
Sweet potatoes on sale at the roadside
Hands across the equator
Next morning we visited the classes to say hello, sang a song at the open-air assembly, and prepared ourselves for the fray. A daily diary approach would be a bit tedious, so instead here are some of the highlights.
Nursery students welcome us
Teaching – and the Students
You have to start with this – it was the kids who made the trip. We took one lesson a week with each of the seven primary school classes, so fourteen lessons in all. The theme waas the Easter story: songs accompanied on my ukulele, African artwork on the Easter theme, plenty of storytelling, and a treat for the children – a chance to draw pictures and use coloured pencils. I reckon there was about a 3% loss rate on the pencils each lesson, but they lasted the two weeks, and with classes of up to 70, most of whom live in poverty with no possessions, that wasn’t a bad result.
The faces of the students are full of character
The kids loved the singing. They have a natural exuberance and sense of rhythm, so action choruses pretty much become expressive dances. They also loved the stories, particularly the acting-out and dramatisations we improvised. And some of the artwork they produced was OK, consideringh it’s not something they ever do. The Uganda primary curriculum book is thicker than War and Peace, and the kind of work they were doing was insane – I seriously couldn’t even understand some of ther maths questions, let alone attempt to answer them. Most of their education consists of copying from the board and memorisation, and I suspect many of them are just baffled.
Showing off their work. Notice the fine stick man illustrations!
There were two useful lessons on one of the boards, though: how to deal with a snake bite, and how to repair a puncture in a bicycle tyre.
One of the classroom rules was “Speak quietly”: very unnecessary, since the children barely raise their voices, out of respect, and you have to lean over them to hear their answer – especially when the girls lower their heads and curtsey as they speak.
Dot in action
Church, Sunday School and the “Born Agains”
The first church service , for the whole of the Bexhill Secondary School, which shares the site with Tower Primary, started at 7:15 am. That constituted a lie-in for the kids, since their normal day begins with a 4:30 am bell for the first study session of the day, before school begins at 8:00 (or is it 7:00?). Traditional hymns and songs from Mission Praise, but accompanied by a Yamaha keyboard with its built-in reggae rhythms – weirdly attractive. The first Sunday was Harvest Festival (remember, we’re on the equator with a couple of harvests a year). Offerings included live chickens, which screeched around the church before being hypnotised asnd placed among the vegetables and bananas, and everything was auctioned at the end of the service.
The “local” service at 10:00 am: we did that the first week, but the second week we did the primary Sunday School at 10:30. More joyous singing and dancing, and an eight-year old interpreter when I told the story who never missed a beat. Amazing.
The highlight, though, has to be the “Born Agains” service in the afternoon: a classroom packed with up to a hundred teenagers singing, dancing, praying and teaching each other with no adult input at all. If these are the leaders of the future, then Uganda has a chance.
The “Born Agains”
We mostly cooked for ourselves, and I enjoyed my self-appointed role as chief chef. (Chef chef?) We ate out a few times in Masaka, where there are a couple of good Western-style restaurants. Plot 99 overlooks the city, and has a nice menu and cool thatched huts; Frickadella is on the site of the offices of a Danish children’s charity, and specialises in a Friday night barbecue, a feast of grilled meats and salads presided over by a Greek chef.
We were also invited to two houses for meals. One was a very basic house in the middle of a banana grove – unfinished concrete floor, bare brick walls, no electricity or plumbing, chickens in the living room. One was a modern, well-built house, with all mod cons including a flat-screen TV. The hospitality was the same in both places and, interestingly, so was the food. We ate exactly the same at a staff dance party.
Ugandans have a very limited diet. The meals in every case consisted of matoke (mashed plantain), “Irish” (potatoes, so called to differentiate from the more normal sweet potatoes), rice, cabbage and either pork or beef stew. So three massive helpings of carbs, a small amount of green vegetable, and a small amount of meat with gravy. I’ve honestly never seen plates piled so high with food as those at the party, but it’s filling rather than nutricious.
Our first taste of matoke and beans
The children are not so lucky. For them it’s maize porridge (“posho”) for breakfast; thicker maize porridge with beans for lunch, and more of the same for dinner.
It’s poor, of course, but we saw no open begging as would be common in India. It’s very much rural and agricultural, with everyone in the villages having quite an extensive plot on which they grow bananas and potatoes and raise a few chickens. There are also cassava and tapioca plants, and lots of maize is grown to make the posho.
It’s very lush off the main road, with interminable rough tracks of red clay winding around the scattered houses. We drove off road for two miles or more to reach a school we visited, and some of it was along what would barely classify as a motorcycle enduro track.
In the village
Yes, mud huts – but it’s just a latrine
I must mention the birdlife. Waking up in the dark around 6:30 am to a tropical dawn chorus is a memory that will remain for a long time, amd I loved the tree in Masaka which was shared by several nesting storks and dozens of weaver birds.
Weaver bird building its nest
Masaka, the local city, is actually pretty pleasant all rouund. The roads are lined with shops, small factories and many, many bars, but there’s space, trees and a bit of other greenery here and there, and it’s all set on a rolling hillside. It all seems very familiar after travelling in India – people everywhere trying to make a living out of very little.
Secondhand Western clothes dominate the main street of the market
Plantains for sale
Multicoloured squash on sale
Colours of Africa
Look closely: this Ludo game features English football clubs
Nice to see a Liverpool shirt
Oddly enough, the driving is much easier than India, mainly because most people follow the rules of the road, and drive pretty sensibly, and no one uses their horn unless it’s necessary!
One thing you do notice is that every mile or two along the road there is a mission hospital, school, development project or some other evidence of external aid. Surely they will have to start standing on their own feet at some point.
Two weeks doesn’t make you a country expert, but we felt quite at home. If this is Africa, I could take some more.
Fisherman on Lake Victoria
Stork on the shore of Lake Victoria