Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Days 22 - 23

Day 22
This morning, after breakfast, I walk with Moses and Jess to the school and then split from them to head to the main road. I am determined to finish the library list today (need to print two copies) and also finally buy these darned baskets for the teachers. When I arrive in Jinja just under an hour later after a very hot and sweaty taxi van ride, I find a 'shop' with a sign outside saying JAS Secretarial Services. Best bet, no? Well after four attempts to print my document (all of which were coming out lopsided) I began to doubt. But still the man persevered. I was half tempted to say "shall I do it?" but he was so sure he could 'fix it'. Eventually, we ran out of ink. So he asked me to come back in two hours. Fine. I went across the road to the internet cafe I usually use and update my Blog and attempt to upload photos. As you know, this takes aaaaages and does my head in entirely - I think I manage about 3. Before I know it, I have been here for four hours and I rush back to JAS for the printing. Ah, now the power is gone on this particular road. Can I come back ...... in two hours? Aaagghhhh!! Back to Berts, power is still on but internet is down. Hmmmm. I realise it is nearing lunch so I head to Indulge (a Muzungu deli) and have a steak pie thingy with salad. It was great, although I must say that flavour and texture are becoming quite alien to me after eating matoke, posho, rice and beans for so long. I actually start to feel a bit sick half way through my meal because - honestly - the flavours are so overpowering. I can't finish it so I pay and head back to JAS. We have success! The library lists (all 9 pages) are printed, in duplicate, and he has bound them and put on covers just as I asked. They look really smart and I can't wait to show them to the school. At this point I get a text from Moses asking if I'm still in Jinja - I text back to confirm and he says to wait for him at the internet cafe. So off I go again. The power is back on so I attempt more photos - I'm quite successful, uploading a few more. Then I realise that I still haven't got the baskets so, after he checks his emails, Moses comes with me to the market. I am bound and determined not to leave Jinja today without them and, despite the shop that we like best not having our specific size, there is not much difference so we buy the 12 we need. I feel like today has been super successful. It is only two small tasks off my list but - with everything here taking 10 times as long and being a total hassle - it feels like I have climbed a mountain and am on my way back down. Because of the baskets (and some food Moses has bought), we opt for a private driver. It only costs 10,000 which is less than 3 quid for the 20 minute journey so I don't feel bad paying out for this. Vincent's mother sees us and hops in for a free ride.

We arrive back at the compound just before dark and the car moves slowly towards the main house. Winnie is trying to second-guess where the car is going to stop and is dancing frantically in the headlights; the rest of the kids, and Jess, are standing at the entrance to the porch in anticipation. I realise that they might think it is a new Muzungu as they tend to arrive by car. I get out and say "Ha! It's only meeeee!". Winnie falls about laughing, Danny jumps into my arms, and Lydia tells me off explaining that they were worried about me. Apparently I had failed to tell anyone that I was spending all day in Jinja and they were expecting me home for lunch. Jess even thought that maybe I had been in an accident and that is why we had needed a driver. I assure everyone that I still have two arms and two legs and, after a bit more scolding, we settle down on the porch for a beer and some reading. I notice a new face among the older children and Moses expalins that his nephew has run away (family politics - the 2nd wife is treating him very badly) and has requested to live here with the Owino family. Moses - the eternal saint - has of course allowed this. His name is Uboo and he is 15 years old.

Over a beer, Jess tells me that she is "done with P5". After a particularly disasterous reading group, she has decided that they "just can't read". I have to agree - P5 are really behind the rest of the school, even those younger. I lay a lot of the blame at Mr James's door. At this point, Moses tells me that he is assigning me to P4 English as he feels that I have a raport with these particular kids. Sounds great to me! I have been waiting for a class to call 'mine' and our own John is in P4 so I am looking forward to it.

After a wonderful chat with both my baby boy and my mom, I hit the hay, ready for tomorrow!

Day 23
I wake up with an infected knuckle. I got a terrible blister from doing my own laundry on Sunday and somehow - even though I have been taking special care - it has got dirty and infected. Those of a squeamish nature, do not read on ........... it is filled with pus and I run to Moses to show him. I can't even bend my finger. He grabs it and sqeeeeezes. It hurts like CRAZY but eventually the pus is drained and I must admit it feels a lot better. He tells me to put the 'black paste' on it and cover it with a bandage, which I dutifully do. My foot however is still not healed so I may have to go to - god forbid - Soft Power and seek some Western medicine. I have my own Germolene etc but so far these things are not up the environment of Uganda. It is too dirty here for Germolene to protect you!

After breakfast, we walk to the school and I head excitedly for P4. They are having Science so I sit in to watch and make a mental note of the kids in the class. There are 86 today. Yikes. I help Madam Rhona to mark the books at the end of the lesson - we have learned all about leaf structures - and then enjoy 'smokey tea' with Jess, Robinah and Moses.

On my way back across the school yard to P4's classroom, I pass a gap between the first school building and the office. There are 20+ kids (the youngest being around 7/8), some laying down, some standing facing the wall - all crying and whimpering. Then I clock Mr Paul (not the Muzungu from Soft Power, but one of our teachers) beating them. Now, this is not corporal punishment as we knew it in the UK. He is standing over them hitting them as hard as he can across the middle of their back, top of their back, buttocks and legs with a large stick and - sickeningly - smiling. The children are clearly distressed - some gasping for breath in between strikes. I feel sick to the pit of my stomach. I stagger to P4 and collapse in the chair at the front of the classroom. Bit by bit, students arrive and take their seats. I conduct the lesson in a daze, desperate to get away from the school.

Back at the compound at lunchtime, Jess and I learn that the school has run out of money for porridge for the children. We are shocked and ask the obvious question - "Why weren't our donations spent on food? Why instruments and costumes??". Moses explains that the school wanted something "long lasting". We sit in disbelief, too upset to finish our lunch. We both decide that we cannot return to the school this afternoon - Jess saw the beatings as well (from the other side of the school) and we are both quite traumatised and upset. We decide to go to Bujagali and watch the river for a while, clearing our minds.

As we pass the school, on our way, I go in to tell Robinah our concerns over the beatings (which are illegal in Uganda by the way) and also to press the question about how donated money is being spent. She tries to placate me but I am fired up. In the end, she says to me that it was an "oversight". I am FURIOUS. I request that she or Moses email Susannah (the volunteer who paid upfront for the porridge) and make her aware of the situation. Robinah says she will instruct Moses to check on this and will also hold a meeting with the teachers to address the beatings.

In Bujagali, Jess and I sneak into the campsite and use their hot showers - we are getting good at this 'sneaking' malarky but this is the first time we have dared to use the showers. It is soooooo good, especially after a day like today. We both really needed it. I feel clean(ish) for the first time in nearly a month, I swear. Afterwards, we sit with a beer and watch the river. We have a long and interesting chat about social vs economic development and basically 'put the world to rights'. We also see a cute monkey in a tree which lifts our spirits. We head back just before dark, managing to find a nice boda man who does not rip us off.

Back at the compound, Moses is unhappy. We can tell. He explains to us that Robinah's meeting did not go down so well and that some of the teachers still do not understand why they cannot beat the children. He tells me that, although corporal punishment is illegal in Uganda, no one is going to stop it. It is too much - I crack and end up in tears. He keeps telling me that it was "not so long ago" that we had it in our country but I explain that in my lifetime it has not been in effect so that is hardly "not so long ago". Through my tears, we talk and go round in circles. It is very apparent to me that Moses is all for child beating. He also tells me and Jess that the teachers want to speak to us tomorrow in a meeting but we refuse. We do not want to get involved. We have stated our position, the rest is up to Robinah. He also tells me that, regarding the porridge, the children are used to being hungry so it shouldn't be a problem. I am dumbstruck and counter-argue his position by saying that the children are now very used to getting food at lunchtimes and their parents are aware of this too. So maybe these children were not given breakfast, and maybe their families cannot afford dinner - they were not expecting to miss lunch also. So it is fair to assume that the majority of these children will have gone without food at all today. And probably tomorrow too. I again stress my unhappiness at the whole instrument buying saga and he again supports the school's decision by saying it will be great for the future. Jess interrupts by saying "The kids won't have a future if they starve to death". Fair point.

Without being here, meeting the children, living this life day in day out, I cannot fully explain the stresses and hardships. I also cannot fully explain how things get to you. I came here to find out what I am made of - I am not sure that I am made of quite such tough material after all.

I am terribly annoyed and feel my blood boiling but just at that point, four ATV quads pull up and some Muzungus (on a tour) have stopped by for food. We make small talk with the three posh-as-posh-can-be brothers from London. They leave after an hour and I quickly retire to my room, unable to take anymore.

I telephone home and speak to my son at length. He can tell I am uphappy and says "Mum, if you've had enough, just come home". I explain all my misgivings about the project and try to work through my own conflicting emotions. Finally, I mutter out load for the first time ....... "I'm not sure I can support this project anymore".


  1. Oh hun. I'm really saddened to read this latest update. Seeing those beatings must have been really hard for you. I think it's absolutely awful and I am not surprised that you are angry.
    Not only about that but also about the music instruments. When will the school next be able to buy any food for the children? I can sort of understand the rationale behind having instruments which the school can keep for a long time, but food is more important than stuff in my opinion!

    I would advise you to follow your heart. Bear in mind that you are only there for a limited amount of time and you will make an impact on the children's lives by being there. But do stand up for what you believe in because you should be true to yourself. It must also have been a terrible shock not to have your feelings about the beatings mirrored by Moses. I think you had been getting on very well with him, so that must have been very hard.

    To be honest, it does sound like the whole situation out there is frustrating and quite disorganised. I think the disorganisation that you met when you started looking around the teaching materials says a lot. But there are positives and if you want to stay then focus on those because otherwise I think you'll find staying very hard. Try and remember all the reading sessions which you have done which have been so successful and how many happy times you have already shared with the kids. Lu xx

  2. Dear Neffy
    I'm only just back late last night from India and will write to you privately about that.

    I am bloody furious reading your entry. I never saw a beating at the school and am appalled by what you witnessed. I am going to write to them in no uncertain terms about it and also about the accountability and what they did with your donations. This has not been happening before as they were keeping accounts.
    I have never heard from any other volunteer that they ever witnessed so much as a smack being admimnistered so I am at a complete loss about it all. If I do not receive suitable reponses from them, I will be pulling out and making representation to authorities where they need to be made.

    You need to go to the International Air Ambulance place in Jinja about your foot and finger and not Soft Power Medical.

  3. Steph that must have been so horrible to see, sounds awful. Those poor kids.


  4. I have to say that when I read comments about the disorganisation being an indicator, it shows that the person writing it, through no fault of their own,just lack of experience, hasn't a clue. When I went to the school, they had nothing. I was the first person there There was not even a rag to clean the boards. If you have never owned anything or had anything to organise, you don't have a clue how to do it or look after it. It has to be learned by example. That is part of the role of the volunteers. I could write an essay here on learning psychology and the role transferred information on genes through procreation after having learned a skill has speeded up the progress of the human race but I don't have the time. It is my field and I do know what I'm talking about. Africa IS the dark continent as it is often described. When making comments please think about child abuse in Britain and baby P type cases.
    I have never had any feedback from other volunteers about corporal punishment. I need to know who the volunteers are who have said these things to you so that I can find out directly from them what they have seen. Only if I have all the facts am I going to be able to deal with this satisfactorily. So, please email me with their names and emails if you have them so that I can gather information. I know from the now dozens who have written to me, most of whom have continued to support the school afterwards, that thye would not hav econtinued to do so had they witnessed anything such as you have. I am not minimising what you saw and if you saw the emails I have already blasted off to M and R on the subject you would know that, but I still don't believe it is as widespread as your writings make it sound. I cannot see how they would have not done anything for the 6 weeks I have been there every day, each time, the 3/4 months others I know have been there at a stretch and all the rest of the time of all the volunteers who have written to me in glowing terms and be still using violence on a regular basis. It isn't logical.
    There is a lot of gossiping that goes on at Bujagali Falls largely as a result of an organisation that shall be nameless that has an agenda against the school for trying to help itself.
    Also, if you're upset in Uganda, it's best you don't to go to India because it is a total roller coaster emotionally and puts Uganda in the shade. When you see the children who have been starved, blinded and mutilated by their parents to make them more effective at begging - even to the point of totally cutting of 3 or their 4 limbs you won't be able to take it. There is much more there like that too - and India is a wealthy country that is about to be declared the world's 5th super power and is 12th in the World GDP tables as opposed to Uganda being 110th.
    So please Neffy email me with the details of the poeople to whom you have been talking so that i can contact them and further address this with the school if it needs it after what i have already said today.

  5. As a dad, I am choked by what I have just read. My heart too goes out for those children. As for the donations malarkey, I can see both sides of the argument but can fully understand why you are upset. Remember you are getting upset because you care so much and that is something to be very proud of!

    Maybe you are learning more about yourself than you realise and I am sure you will see life very differently when you return to so-called civilisation back home!

  6. Neffy, I have sent you an email with a more rational response than the one I was guilty of posting here when I rarived back from India in a very tired and unwell state. I will not be pulling out of the project. That would be totally counter productive and will not help the children and the community. I am already in dialogue with them about the incident and do believe it was out of general character. The comments you mention by past volunteers have never come to my ears and I feel sure are the result of the general gossip that flies around that area as a result of that organisation about which you share the same opinion as I do. As I said on another post I made subsequently which has not yet been published on your Blog, it is easy to be judgmental and doesn't help. Also, we have a pretty appalling record in the West in many respects and little room for throwing stones. So, I am sticking with this project because I do believe in what they are trying to do and I must recognise that nothing happens overnight. Change takes time and I am referring also here to their ability to prioritise and organise. I also need to suspend my judgmentalism and when it does arise, I need to use it positively and not against them.
    Thank you for all you have been doing. I do know that they love you and value what your contributions. You have made your point to them so don't boycott them by not going to school during these last stages.

  7. I'm getting cross now. In answer to the above, the comments that have been made to me about previous volunteers witnessing beatings have not been made to me by way of idle gossip in Bujagali but rather by people within the Owino family. And I believe them. People tend to open up to me.

    Secondly, I am not being judgemental. I am standing by my morals of what I know to be wrong. If other people are happy to accept that this is "just the way things are here" then that's their right. But it is not something I feel able to do. If things here should be left alone, then maybe the best thing is for all of us volunteers - independent or otherwise - should just go home and leave them to it? I have asked myself this quite often since being here.

    Lastly, I wish people who comment would take the time to read the full extent of my Blog. Then you would realise that I am no longer going to India but instead to Nepal to work with elephants. I am not unhappy here in Uganda, as you suggest. I am unhappy with what I have seen and the stories I have been told by people that I trust.

    It strikes me as being a bit judgemental to cast such a strong opinion about me and what I know to be the truth when you are not here being privy to the conversations I am having and witnessing what I have. As I said via email, things may have been different when you were here, but this is my experience and whatever I put on my Blog is the truth. My son reads this Blog - am I going to speak out about beatings that haven't taken place if I know it not to be true? With all due respect, you do not know me. My friends and family do, and they know that if I say it to be so, it is.

    Despite your request, I will not be removing my Blog posts. What good would that do? Keeping hush-hush about the reality of what I have seen will not help the project. People knowing what happens and stepping in ... that will. Moses is dealing with things this end, and very admirably. Maybe he should be left alone to do that? He is very capable man with a personality that demands respect, as you know. I will not Blog about my private conversations with Moses (that is up to him to discuss with you) but I feel sure that with him behind the steering wheel, or at least in the car as it were, things will change. And fast.

    Additionally, I have seen very old photographs of previous volunteers at the school from waaaaay back so I'm pretty sure that, although the project has only been up and running for a couple of years, the community and school have had help from Muzungus for quite a considerable time. Long enough to know better. Moses has thanked me for bringing this out in the open and has told me that he wants to address it once and for all.

    I stand by my Blog. It is an accurate account of my experience.