Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
Ahhhh just got back into my latest hotel room in Masindi, Uganda! It’s absolutely beautiful, and my group and I spent most of our evening sitting by an outdoor fireplace under the stars. The stars are INCREDIBLE here by the way!
I wasn’t able to write yesterday because we were so busy with our research meetings and assessments, but now I have time to fill you all in. I’m finally beginning my weekend adventure in Uganda’s National Park. We are all getting up at 4 am to go on a safari! It should be an amazing day. After the safari, we are going on a boat ride on the Nile (with hopes of seeing some friendly hippos and crocodiles) and then doing another game drive in the evening. Don’t worry, I’ll have pictures to prove it when I get home!
Last year, after brunch with some girlfriends in Dinkytown, I walked by a small bookstore with a cart of used books sitting outside. The first one I saw was a small book with a plaid cover. I brought it inside and asked how much it cost, and out of pure kindness the owner told me to take it for free. I rediscovered the book while packing for my trip a few weeks ago and decided to bring it with me. Who knew such a little book could be so full of good advice.
“Never decide to do nothing just because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”
“Every now and then, bite off more than you can chew.”
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.”
“Don’t overlook life’s small joys while searching for the big ones.”
– Life’s Little Instruction Book
Today I met Mercy Akello, a 13-year-old P-7 (7th year in primary school) student with extremely short hair and bright eyes. She was timid, but I know that she is bold at heart because out of the 1,600 students at Lira Integrated School, she was the one who wrote me a letter.
When I asked Mercy why she chose me out of our group of visitors, she thought for a minute, choosing her words carefully and trying to translate her thoughts into understandable English. She said, “Sometimes you see a person and you know that they are great. I looked into your eyes and I knew that you were a good person.”
I struggled to hold back tears at first, but then I smiled and told her that I know exactly the feeling she is talking about, and that I felt the same thing as soon as I met her. That made her smile too.
Mercy told me that next year she’ll begin secondary school, another 6 year process. After that, her dream is to travel to Kampala (Uganda’s capital) to attend University and become a doctor.
As I walked away from our meeting after saying goodbye and promising to talk with her again, I was overwhelmed with the sadness and injustice of her situation. Mercy is HIV positive, but doesn’t know it. The irony in her aspiration to become a doctor is that her mother and brother both died before reaching an age that would have allowed them to complete the required schooling to become a doctor here. The irony in her name is that although she doesn’t know it now, mercy is something she will be praying for some day.
I can only hope that the medication she is taking is sufficient to keep the HIV under control. It makes me wonder what percentage of children with HIV escape the development of AIDS and live to become doctors.
I decided that I’m going to give a small amount of money to the headmistress of the school to pay for postage so Mercy can send me letters, and I’m determined to find a way to keep in touch with her while I’m abroad. I wrote her a letter in response and gave it to her today, and I’m expecting another hand-delivered letter from her tomorrow.
Again I find myself struggling to accept the things that I cannot change, but maybe a “pen friend” as Mercy calls it, is enough to make the small change that I can.
I’m writing this post by flashlight because (surprise, surprise) the power’s out! This happens much more frequently than I anticipated. Just one more thing to add to the list of things we (or I) take for granted in the US. Thankfully I have a good book to read by flashlight…something that I should do more often. There’s something different, and definitely more fun, about reading yourself to sleep under the covers with a flashlight. I’m reading Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell. It’s the perfect light read for people who like food, cooking, or just something funny and lighthearted to read by flashlight.
There is a lot that I have to catch up on because my laptop was dead yesterday due the combination of a lack of electricity in our hotel and the inconsistency of my stupid converter plug. My laptop is charged now, so hopefully I can continue posting on a regular basis. I’ve gotten kind of attached to this blogging thing and was actually somewhat distraught when I couldn’t update it yesterday. I think it is a good way for me to reflect and process information, but something about knowing who reads it also makes me feel closer to home.
So instead of blogging yesterday, I jotted some things down in my notebook.
As you can see from the pictures posted below, we visited the nursery school yesterday. The kids are ADORABLE. They are sweet and friendly and clearly craving attention and physical contact. When we stepped outside to meet them during playtime, the children rushed up to me and clung to my arms, hands, and dress. They were literally swarming around us. I bent down to meet them at eye level, and they almost suffocated me! The nursery school visit has definitely been the hardest day for me in terms of sitting through classes and learning about the classroom instruction. The teachers in nursery are the least trained (they only need a one year certificate after secondary school), so I expected the methods to be poorer there than in the primary and secondary classrooms. I was definitely underestimating how “poor” the teaching would be. I sat in the back of a classroom for an hour and a half while a teacher instructed the 4-year-olds to repeat the sentence “George is a bad boy” over and over for about 15 minutes. After that exercise she took over 20 minutes to pass out their notebooks and told them to copy the sentence from the board. That was it. After passing out their notebooks, the teacher sat in a corner of the room and began grading the work of the students who were finishing. Other children were writing, and 90% of the kids were goofing around. In response to the disorderly classroom, Grace, the teacher, told them all to sing “If you’re happy and you know it”. I had heard this happen repeatedly in the other classes, so I wasn’t surprised and neither were the kids. Some of them started singing on autopilot while they stared out the window, and Grace continued grading while sporadically yelling at them with phrases like, “why are you so bad?” and “What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you singing? I hear those who are not singing! I will whip you!”. Talk about inefficiency and poor teaching methods.
Oh, I forgot, I also had to pull a plastic bag out of a small boy’s throat yesterday. It was in the second classroom I was observing and the teacher’s cell phone rang. She answered it in the middle of her lesson and stepped outside of the classroom to go and talk. No, I’m not kidding.
I was sitting in the back of the classroom growing more shocked by the minute when she hadn’t returned 5 minutes later. It’s a good thing I wasn’t falling asleep like the rest of the children were because I happened to be scanning the room at the right time and saw a little boy put a large piece of a dirty plastic bag into his mouth. And then he tried to swallow it. I instinctively jumped up and ran over to him, tipped his head back and used my finger to pull the bag out, but my heart was pounding. To me, that was a powerful demonstration of the consequences of the poor teaching and sheer lack of attentiveness to the students. I informed the teacher of what had happened, picked up the rest of the plastic from the dirt floor, and left the classroom to write some things down.
Overall, the experience was heartening because we met the children, informative because we observed the teaching, and mostly extremely discouraging.
A very wise woman once told me to look for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Every day I am gaining the wisdom to know the difference, mustering the courage to try to change the small things I can, and searching for the serenity to accept all that I cannot change here.
Today, she also told me this:
“ONE solid idea planted in ONE person’s mind will change generations.”
I think this piece of advice alone is why I am here today giving workshops to teachers who speak broken English and think it’s appropriate to beat their students; because if we can plant the idea that tomorrow they can be better teachers than they were today, there is a chance that this self evaluation will lead to improvement in teaching methods, relationships with students, and someday, a better learning community.
For now, I can only hope, but tomorrow is another day to make a small difference.
Downtown Lira – busy and colorful.