I wake up every morning to the sound of a British woman telling me politely, but insistently, that it’s time to get up. She lives in my cell phone, and seems to be my only wake-up option. We have a bit of a love-hate relationship, but generally I get about eight hours sleep here, so I’m not too annoyed to hear her clipped tones. I wake up at 6am, crawl out of my mosquito net, arm myself with glasses, sweatshirt and shoes, and head out to the latrine. The hills all around us mean we exist at the bottom of a sort of bowl. At that time everything close to the land is still dark and formless, but the sky is filling with pale white light. The sun rises over a hill opposite the guest house, and I can see the imminent sea of yellow, shimmering just behind the crest. It’s one of the few perks of the latrine; I can pee with the door open and watch the sunrise.
I drag myself out for a run two or three mornings a week. I have settled on a route, and the people along it are pretty accustomed to me now. Sometimes it’s eerily deserted, with only the occasional woman bent over, digging in her crop garden, or little trails of children heading to the local spring with their yellow jerrycans. Sometimes it’s busy, with a steady stream of people heading to market with everything from giant bunches of plantains to sewing machines balanced on their heads. I give a little nod, or say hello to most people as I pass. Some jokers run alongside me for a while, grinning and looking back frequently at their friends for approval. The sun continues to rise as I run. Wisps of clouds echo across the sky, turning pink, as the clay in the road grows to a deep red in the new light.
Back at home I can now prepare my bucket bath in under five minutes. Three jugs of cold from the tank out back, and one thermos of hot, which Jennifer leaves out on the kitchen table. I currently own more shampoo and bath products than ever before in my life, thanks to the hoards of former volunteers who don’t want to carry that stuff back in their suitcases. Usually I go with the shampoo and conditioner in one because it means less rinsing time. Breakfast is oatmeal with a big spoon of strawberry jam mixed in. Surprisingly delicious—I recommend. I’ve developed my own morning beverage which involves instant coffee, Milo (the energy drink of future champions), sugar and coffee-mate. That’s a lot of artificial powder for one morning drink you may say, but it’s tasty and I live in rural Uganda, so give me a break. As I sit and eat I often have to turn around and violently shoo away chickens who are peering curiously through the back door, necks bobbing and eyes wide. Sometimes a runaway cow canters across the yard. I start a crossword every morning. I’ve done 137 since I’ve been here. Big props to Jamie and Hannah for giving me the crossword books. They have become a major source of diversion and, according to modern medical research, are protecting me from future Alzheimer’s.
The mornings are largely sunny. The sky is electric blue as I walk through the trading center towards the hulking green mountain masses. The children still indulge in the frantic “Howryooooooooooooos,’ but now a lot of them know my name. It’s pretty charming to get a little “Teacher Ruth, how are you,” shot furtively out from behind a lace curtain/front door. I glance back to see a wide white grin glowing from the darkness inside, and wave. The speed of my climb up to school varies according to the mud level on the road. Shouts and handshakes from kids, and occasional meetings with people I know from the community punctuate the journey. I’ve never lived in a place where I run into so many people I know on the ‘street.’ I guess it’s the equivalent of small-town America. There’s one little boy who lives in a house next door to the school. As I approach he sets up a chorus of desperate “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeees” that ring out through the valley and increase in volume and intensity until I stop and wave and shout “Hi” back. He’s barely a toddler, padding around in his little torn t-shirt and nothing else. His wide, pudgy face contorts with joy whenever I stop to talk. On two occasions I have been able to make him stop crying just by saying hello. I guarantee you this has more to do with the character of the child than with me.
Once I reach school I walk across the main compound to the office that I share with the Program Director on the side of the library. I unlock the padlock, slip off my gumboots and go inside to change shoes. The floor is bare concrete, and invariably gets turned a nice shade of brown from the muddy comings and goings of the day. But every evening Stephen Kuloba—head janitor at the school—scrubs it clean. I poke my head into the office next door to say hi to Andrew, the school Bursar (accountant). He usually has his radio humming out Ugandan reggaeton and a line of people waiting to pay fees, receive wages, make requisitions, confirm orders, and just shoot the breeze for a while. He’s Acholi, from the North, and stands 6 foot 3, with dark, dark skin and one of the biggest smiles around. I guess he’s the equivalent of my cubicle-mate in American terms. I generally bother him four to five times a day, sitting in the chair beside his desk, calculating food orders or asking his advice about where to order furniture, or just chatting.
At this point my adopted puppy usually bounds up to me, begins licking my legs or pulling at my pants, and generally inducing me to put myself at risk of yet another case of fleas by petting him. The puppy has made itself a little bed out of an old canvas bag in my office, and keeps me company throughout the day.
I usually don’t teach before break, so I spend the morning answering emails and doing any other admin work that comes up. I go and check in at the library, where Rachel is calmly re-ordering the stacks and stacks of library cards that represent our thin grasp on organization in the chaotic world of book check-out. Sometimes I help her re-shelve books and tidy up, a task I find very therapeutic. I’ve finally admitted defeat in the ‘put books back on the shelf with the spine facing out’ battle. Uganda has the ability to slowly erode the importance of such details. At first you feel like everyone else is crazy for not enforcing such standards, and then after weeks of whining about it, you look around and realize that you’re the one who’s crazy.
Ten-thirty is break time. The kids begin pouring out of the classrooms and lining up at the kitchen to receive their plastic cup of porridge. It’s a sea of red and white checks and bright green and blue cups and red earth and blue sky and green mountains, with the sun warming and drying everything and the many mouths smiling. Mymoona in P2 stops me as I walk towards the staff room: “Teacher, you come and teach me mathematics.” I promise her that I’ll talk to Teacher Anne and find a time to come and teach her. Kuloba Stephen delivers a tray with tea leaves, sugar, a thermos of hot water, and either chappati or mandazi to the office every break time. The privilege of personal food delivery comes standard with an office in Uganda. The puppy has become a good ally in my ‘avoid fried carbohydrates’ health kick, and I quietly feed him my break time snack every day. This is a misuse of resources and a bad idea in the context of the long-term psychological health of both the dog and myself, but I can’t help it.
I pour myself a cup of tea and head down to the staff room. We have two computers connected to the internet there now, and teachers are usually checking their emails, looking up the Ugandan newspapers, or searching for random topics on Wikipedia. Teachers drift in and out getting their tea and chappati and often something from the newspaper, or someone’s story from the morning, sparks a general discussion. These are usually loud and contentious, with a good sprinkling of jokes. Obama and American politics are a popular topic, as is the situation in Zimbabwe. Sometimes we get deep into social issues, and gender equality has come up a few times. Invariably there’s a lull in the midst of the debate, and everyone looks at me, and I briefly become the official Voice of America. I take advantage of this to promote my own liberal agenda, and while Teacher Michael looks at me as if I’ve just beamed in from the moon, I usually have a solid coterie of hardened female teachers to back me up. My latest favorite argument is that we would solve many social problems if woman and men split the risk of pregnancy 50-50. Oh man that would be sweet.
Between break and lunch I usually do some reading classes, or supervise kids in the library. We’re in the midst of the annual Reading Challenge, in which all students are challenged to read at least fifty books and keep a record of them in a little booklet. The children are going through books like candy. Our poor, battered ‘reshelving’ cardboard box overflows every library period and children routinely sidle up to the check-out desk clutching five different books. “Five?” I ask incredulously, and look at their library cards. They checked out five the day before too. That anal ‘spine-out’ side rears its ugly head, and I look at Rachel: “Rachel, don’t we have a limit on how many books they check out?” Rachel agrees, and makes a big show of forcing them to choose only two of the books, but it doesn’t stick. I will undoubtedly see children wandering around the compound with thick stacks of books later in the day. Teachers have complained that children have started reading books during their free time, instead of revising their notes. There have even been reports of students reading while the teacher is teaching. I shake my head sympathetically, but suppress a little fist pump. In the grand scheme of things these are triumphs, not tragedies.
One o’clock is lunch time, and by this time the sky has usually darkened and we can see the rain coming in from the mountains. Sometimes the rain has already begun, so I eye the compound and find the least muddy route to the staff room. Members of the kitchen staff haul huge metal bowls of posho and beans and cabbage into the room, along with a basin of plates and forks. Teachers pile their plates, and I mean pile. Huge mounds of posho, which is just corn flour that’s been boiled for a looooong time. I ate it every day for three months, until I developed an instinctive gag reflex at the sight of it. Now I settle for beans and cabbage and try to keep a supply of dried fruit and nuts handy. As the rain starts, shrieking children bound down the pathway to the kitchen and stand in shivering lines to receive their lunch. They wash their hands in the streams of water cascading off the roof. If the sunshine holds then they eat quickly and play jump rope or handball or football in various spots around the compound. The library gets busy again at lunch time. The older kids come in to read newspapers, or browse through the shelves of extra textbooks we have.
After lunch I work with a group of P7 students who are facing the imminent Primary Leaving Exam with trepidation. These are the kids who have been unapologetically labeled ‘slow,’ and sit solidly at the bottom of the ranking sheets that are posted outside all the classrooms. That’s one of the harder aspects of Ugandan culture to grasp. It’s been a definite lesson in cultural relativism, and although I’m sure it’s easy to sit in America and raise eyebrows and tut-tut, it’s not that simple.
It only took about ten minutes for me to figure out that regardless of the specific subject weaknesses of the students in the group, what we’re really dealing with is a lack of reading comprehension. Every subject becomes impossible if you can’t read. So we sit in our little corner of the library, and sound things out and re-learn parts of speech and just talk about what we read. I have no idea if it’s going to help, but it’s all I really know how to do. I’m trying to break them of the regular formal classroom habits when we work in the group. They’re loosening up, but several of them still find it impossible to respond to a question without first standing up, and bowing their heads apologetically as they mutter the answer to the desk.
School officially ends at 4:40pm. The compound fills with the roars of liberated children pottering about with their plastic bags full of books, carting basins of water to mop out their classrooms and searching for their gumboots among the rows and rows along the verandah. Some teachers end the day with wild praising songs that have the kids jumping and clapping around the classroom. The P7s get a half hour break, and then stay on for one more evening lesson. Cynthia Margeson, patron saint of the Guest House and unofficial mother of AAH, donated money so that the P7s can have a cup of tea and a snack every evening. They mill around happily, sometimes stopping by my office to see if they can use my computer, or to ask me the definition of a word.
I finish up whatever work I’ve been doing, forcibly remove the puppy from my office, put my gumboots back on, and head home. Sometimes I walk alone, sometimes I walk with children or other teachers. Sometimes it’s grey and raining, sometimes the clouds are sitting fatly like giant clumps of white cotton candy in a blue sky. The same children greet me on the way home, and the trading center is usually full of men and woman buying their food for dinner and catching up on the day’s news. I walk along the main road swinging my legs violently to dislodge the mud from my boots. The barber is shaving some guy’s head, the ‘movie theatre’ is playing an unrecognizable film at an obscene volume, the chappati man is methodically pouring and frying the dough, the bar is full of men sipping from their long straws and its music blares up into the guest house driveway.
Often several neighborhood children occupy the porch of the house, or lounge along its sides. Sometimes volunteers are chatting with them or playing with them, sometimes they’re just peering in the windows curiously, or lying on the warm concrete slab of the verandah. Several of them have developed the habit of composing letters to new volunteers, telling them that they want to be friends and they love them and by the way can they buy them new shoes and clothes and pay their school fees. It gets to be too much sometimes, with fifteen kids wandering around the compound and edging closer and closer to the doorway. I’ve become something of a big, bad witch and instituted a rule which makes all kids leave by 6pm. The savvy ones see me coming and run away now, some I have to chase.
In the evenings I finish my crossword, read, play cards with other volunteers and sometimes watch a DVD on my laptop. Jennipher, my Ugandan mother, brings in six or seven dishes of food every evening. Everyone eats together and sometimes we have interesting talks and sometimes we play Cranium and sometimes everyone just gets quiet and goes back to whatever they were doing. As new groups cycle through the same conversation topics come up over and over. David and I look at each other and one of us launches into a relevant story about that time Mike thought an avocado falling on the roof was someone breaking in, or that time the power was gone for two weeks, or that time we ran out of water, or that time the kids brought over their pet rat. I explain to volunteers how they can bucket bathe with warm water, and David quietly purses his lips because warm showers are a sign of weakness. Sometimes we mix it up, and have s’more night, or grilled cheese night, or someone heads down to the trading center to buy beers for everyone. Sometimes I go and sit with the teachers at the house next door and eat g-nuts and drink tea. Sometimes I shave David’s head for him. Sometimes I help Jennipher cook. By cook I mean chop up fruit, because that’s all I’m really qualified to do, and even that can be a challenge.
By ten I’m ready for bed. Everyone takes turns using basins to wash their faces, or perching on the high stone slab outside the backdoor to brush their teeth and spit without splattering on their legs. Mosquito nets are unfurled, padlocks checked, headlamps borrowed and returned. I finish reading and begin the laborious process of tucking my net in tightly around the edges of my mattress. Sometimes I fall asleep to the sound of rain, and sometimes it’s just a steady chorus of insect voices, with the occasional thump of a falling avocado. On good nights the moonlight casts a glow around the whole room. I get my eight hours, and in the morning little Ms. Britain is always there to wake me up.
Occasionally I get sharp, sharp waves of homesickness, when I want to be somewhere so specific it’s bizarre. In our old Ford Aspire, driving through neighborhood streets lined with piles of Autumn leaves, listening to classic rock and singing along. Then sometimes I imagine the moment when I land on American soil and wind my way through the immigration line in the polished, spotless halls of Dulles airport, and it makes me feel queasy. I guess that’s a different kind of homesickness. I’m a giant sucker for nostalgia, and it’s already beginning when I think about the specific things I’m going to miss from this place.
But it’s more than that. In the grand cliché of all volunteer experiences, I know that I have gained more than I have given in these past eight months. And now I’m hooked. It has been a slow, continuing process of knocking down doors and expectations and realizing how simple but full my life can be every day. How many millions of human habits and experiences exist that I know nothing about. How much there is to learn and do that is concrete and challenging and meaningful on a direct, human level. I’m not sure exactly what this means for my future. I currently spend an hour a day rummaging aimlessly through idealist.com job listings, and imagining my life in Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon, Sudan, rural Mongolia. I don’t know. But the standards have definitely been raised.