Friday, June 13, 2008

School Matters

Sir Samuel Baker School sits on lovely grounds with extended green space between the buildings. The compound is removed from town and I must ride a boda to get there-yes, picture me on the back of a motorbike several times a day. To western eyes, the most striking aspect is the run-down condition of the buildings. The buildings need paint and windows and roofs that don’t leak. The classrooms are concrete floors that are covered with African red dust (which is everywhere and all pervasive). The students sit on benches on primitive tables. There is nothing on the walls, there are no books or supplies. The students sit in one classroom all day long and the teachers come to them, then they copy word-from-word from a lecture. They are silent; there is no interaction between teacher and student, no small groups, no discussions, no variance from the rote lecture notes. The science labs have only a few broken test tubes. Three computers exist in the school (for 830 students) but no internet. There is now a bore hole on the property which means water must be pumped and then carried in for all purposes. (Think 850 male students in the hot African sun with no water for showers)
My partner teacher- Ilama Grace- is a gentle-spirited woman with a shy smile. She knows that as part of this teacher exchange, she is opening herself to not only me, but to western ideas of education, which Ugandans seem to be ok with in word but not deed. Having anywhere from 60 to 140 students in each class obviously limits the choices of teaching strategies. Grace lives in teacher housing (the typical practice in Uganda), but the teacher quarters at Sir Samuel Baker are nearly uninhabitable. She has two rooms, but the roof leaks in her sleeping space. She can lock her windows and doors, but because there are no bars in her window, she must shut the windows at night, which means there is no ventilation. She has no running water, and must walk several blocks to get water from a bore hole. She can not, then, take a shower, and must just wash from a basin. She has no stove to cook, except for a little charcoal pot. She has two children (3 and 6), but can not afford to pay someone to watch them during the day, so they stay with her mother in a village about 15 miles away. Teachers are paid so little that she can rarely afford the transport to see them.

Ilama Grace told me very descriptively what life was like for her at the worst of the fighting. Her family lived several miles outside Gulu, and no one was ever safe. Most nights were spent listening, always ready at a moment’s notice to run and hide in the grasses outside her home. Hearing gun shots meant at least she knew from which direction to run away. “ It was not a question of feeling safe, only of desperation. There was no where to go. It was always only by God’s mercy that we survived.”
Sir Samuel Baker was closed and the students were sent back to their families ( it is boarding, as are many of the schools here). But the families by then were flocking to IDP camps for protection. Many are still there; although the government has told them it is safe to go home, not everyone is sure. The IDP camps are a horrible alternative, especially because it is still very much the custom here to garden and grow one’s own food in this very fertile, rich soil. In the camps there are only rations of food ( that don’t last until the next time). There is no sanitation, no way to earn income, etc. Six of our teachers who are coming in the next wave of this teacher exchange program will teach in schools in the camps. We plan to visit at least one camp, so hopefully I’ll have more to say on this later.

During the time Sir Samuel Baker was closed, others flocked into the buildings and became squatters. There was some fighting between those villagers and the LRA, and there was much destruction of the school buildings during that time. One project sponsored by Invisible Children for this school is to construct a water system, but just last week as workmen were digging a trench for pipes, they discovered two skulls in shallow graves. (They haven’t found the rest of the bones.)

Despite all this tragedy, there is so much kindness, so much warmth, so much hope. My students are respectful, even shy. I don’t feel as yet that I am contributing much by being here- I am the one who is learning and growing….

P.S. Danger watch

I don’t know how much the news has reached there regarding the LRA. There are verified reports that Joseph Kony has begun abductions again. This means the 3-year peace process is closed, and there are of course fears all around as to what this means for Gulu. Kony has many ties here, but his last known location is a long distance away…It seems it is not time to worry yet, but it would be beyond tragic if these dear people must endure even more fighting. Invisible Children does have an evacuation plan for us, and we are staying both informed and watchful, and I don’t believe that we are in danger at this point.