The first day of school in my community is a lot like not having school. The hours spent fretting, tossing, and turning over the approaching school term and reentry into “work” is for naught. Silly us. In Peace Corps, somehow your weekends and weekdays, your long stretches of vacation and long stretches of ‘active duty’ all seem to somehow equate in the end…because, at the end of every day, I have probably done the same things; watch the animals interact in my backyard, formally greeted 639 people, have some sort of uncomfortable cultural misunderstanding, and gotten sun burnt and dust-caked over every inch of my body. The beginning of the school year is not a magical flip switch, where everyone around me suddenly lays down their garden hoes and local brew, and flocks to school in straight lines. This ain’t no Twelve- little- girls- in- two- straight- lines.
This morning we woke up early to go running, extra early to account for the expected morning rush hour, of hundreds of children dutifully marching off to school. I don’t know bout you, but I don’t like my runs to be interrupted by 750 small children laughing and chasing me. It’s just a matter of personal taste. We had resigned ourselves the night before that, placating each other with “well hey, maybe the last three months of complete vacation and inactivity was enough for us now,” and “the cherry blossom is only beautiful because it’s temporary.” We didn’t run into any children on our morning run, only the usual passing dangers of women carrying 75X their body weights on their heads and villagers still drunk from the night before. In fact, this run felt like a victory when compared to Saturday’s run, in which we got lost on the border road for 2 hours, all the while trying to convince ourselves that we hadn’t accidently wandered into Congo, especially when we started to see French words on store fronts. So anyway, we came home and decided to camp out in the front to make a mental note of when the rush hour began, so that we could plan our runs accordingly. No children ever passed by. Huh. I asked the neighbors several times, who all nodded and said, “yes, there is school.” Our own morning was only slightly less relaxed than usual, and we finally left for school around 11:00 am instead of 7:30 when school officially begins. You know, we are doing our best to change our values and concept of time.
The only thing I dislike about school here, is the herds of children. I like children. I dislike when they develop into herds or storms, or packs, or murders. It makes me uneasy. Especially when they are all wearing the same blue uniform. There were no herds of children on the way to the secondary school, only a few disheveled ones walking the opposite direction. Hmm. When we got to school, the campus was completely deserted. After some minutes, a few students started to come out of the woodwork shyly, and there was a teacher here and there. So, Tom and I parked under a tree and promptly took out books to read. Every half hour or so, another boda boda would buzz up to the school and deposit another student with the requisite luggage: a blue chest, a mattress, and two jerry cans. To live for the next year in a room full of hundreds of other students. They could barely contain their excitement. So, school doesn’t exactly begin on the first day. On the first day, students start showing up, and if they are lucky, a few teachers may follow. For the first week or two of school, nothing productive happens. Classes don’t start. I don’t know how I thought that the beginning of the school year would be any different than the beginning of a new term.
After about an hour of takin’ it easy and shootin’ the breeze with some teachers and students, Tom finally asked the deputy principal what classes he was teaching this year. Better late than never, I guess. After another hour, the deputy principal from the primary school across the street wandered over to use the solar power that the secondary school has to charge his phone, laughing as he told us that no teachers or students showed up, and that he had closed up shop at 11:00 in the morning. This is what I run up against. Even though the school term has opened, I have a number of weeks before anything starts to creak towards a schedule or predictability.
Anyway, we stayed long enough to eat the school lunch and catch up with some more teachers. We were ready to leave after lunch, when a motorcycle pulled up with two gangster rappers. Both Tom and I stared in wide-eyed horror as the more majestic of the two, dismounted, and walked slowly towards us. Pink-tinted sunglasses that read “DK” in cursive jewels, a long black leather trench coat, and a black leather newsboy hat. This is what dreams are made of, is all I could think, as Tom sat next to me, frantically trying to recall which of Uganda’s favorite rappers this was, “Weasel? Bebe Cool? Eddie Kenzo?” As it turned out, this was the headteacher, Tom’s supervisor. Except that he was dressed like Tupac from the early 90’s. “Yes, you are welcome,” he intoned, after having stopped and stared at us for a good 30 seconds, seemingly just as amazed as we were. He then disappeared into his office, and emerged a minute later with the usual pastel button down shirt and kakhi pants and huge smile. You need to realize that fashion is 30 years off and 60% GDPs away from being remotely socially appropriate (through the westerner’s lens). It’s common to see a local councilmen donned in a shiny silver ¾ length sleeve tunic with matching tight silver pants, or a local priest dressed in loud Congolese fabric that is composed alternately of random French phrases like ‘la vie est combat!’ and pictures of Jesus. But still, this seemed like a vision, and a good one to start a year off to.
We gave the head teacher our gift of the blessed rosary from the Vatican, a gift that was much loved and appreciated by everyone who received one, when a huge shiny white SUV pulled up to the mostly deserted school. Visitors! Lugbara love visitors, and I do too, now. Especially ones who arrive in vehicles. We all excitedly left the staff room (which is a grass-thatch hut) to meet the Local Councilman 5 (read: big guy) and the District Education Officer as they got out of the car. Tom and I watched in horror, and then subsequently retreated, as we witnessed these government officials berate and yell at our headteacher for the lack of organization, students, and teachers evident on the first day of school. “There should be classes started today!” The DEO remonstrated, and then looking more closely at the headteacher, “you look as if you’ve just arrived!” “I…have just arrived.” We both cringed, and ducked back into the hut, feeling guilty because we had just been about to leave, early. We decided to wait until they had left, all the while eavesdropping from the hut, and laughing with the other teachers about the situation. One female teacher burst out laughing, “He asked the headteacher where the rest of the teachers were? Could he account for all of them?” She paused for a moment. “There are 6 out of 23 today!” This was our cue to lose our shit, and laugh for 20 minutes. Ah, how sweet is it to laugh about a severe problem of faculty absenteeism. After the threat was gone, and the government officials safely shipped away in their vehicle, Tom and I felt it was safe enough to leave. After all, it WAS 3 pm. And, we had to fetch water. (And get home to relax with a beer and movie) We left all of the teachers doubled over laughing about the incident, the anger, and the threats flown around. “What do they expect?” One teacher was saying, as we left, “Ayikoru and Thomas should have gone to pump water as they were here, to demonstrate the difficulties we face out here in the bush. Here is not easy.”
Roll credits. The first day of school. Just some minor setbacks.
In other news, we have a cat! This too has its own long documented story starting with its inception, when we picked the kitten up at the mayor’s house, and uneasily toted it around in a purple picnic basket until we could find a ride back out to the village, all the while cringing from the shrieking squeaks emitted from the tiny creature inside. I’m not good with cats. I’m learning. But, I like her. And, she’s the size of my foot. Having failed to find a proper name at the outset, we started calling her “cute alert!” but recently we came up with “Athena,” to honor her veracity and warrior-like philosophy. Athena has two states: asleep and attacking. When she is not attacking one of our foots or legs, she is probably passed out somewhere. The name came to us, when upon meeting the neighbor’s guard dog Fida, a very large threatening dog, she promptly hissed, spat, and swiped a paw at him. At 1/78th his size. This pattern has continue; no animate or inanimate object is exempt from her fury. The goats and Fida all have weird attractions and penchants for Athena, at any given time, one of these large animals is coming over to get right into her face and stare lovingly into her eyes. I’m not sure if it’s love, or curiosity, but I do know that it completely kindles Athena’s war fire. Hell hath no fury… So, Come visit to see the extraordinary progress I’ve made towards interacting with cats, if for nothing else.
As for other work news, the female adult literacy project was officially launched yesterday, in a 5 hour ceremonious event, in which I made a speech. The women are so excited about the literacy circles, and I’m amazed at their power of mobilization. I hope to work a lot with this project and support the women in any way that I can. I’m still waiting to see if Peace Corps will support my project by means of a grant . I also recently was asked to be an editor for the monthly newsletter here, called The Spirit of 61’. I said yes, because I think it’s a good way to get more involved in PC stuff, and also it’s something that I can do from a distance (read: not travel to Kampala). Also, it will force me to write even more!
The next few days are for reconnecting with schools and teachers, and trying to set the framework for some projects I want to do this term, like a sub-county wide spelling bee, a counseling/guidance program, girl’s football club, and others. I’m trying to think of something that I can do for International Women’s Day, which is in March. I want to do something that won’t cost anything, but will honor the amazing women in my community here. Let me know if you have any ideas!