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I feel like I was able to put into words what Uganda meant to me personally in the last blog entry.  The following is a presentation I gave at an AAH gathering, trying to explain more specifically why I find the AAH project so compelling and worthwhile.  The link at the bottom is to a slide show I made of some of my best school photos.

Before I left Uganda I had a tendency to sigh sadly, and tell everyone that I had to head ‘back to reality.’ That was not an accurate statement. I don’t know a lot of statistics off the top of my head, but I’m willing to bet that more people in the world live in mud huts than live in red brick mansions, that more people in the world dig the earth and grow their own food than stop by Giant on the way home from work, and that more people in the world fetch their water from a well two miles down the road than open the faucet and watch it gush cleanly out. So in the big picture, our lifestyle here in Northern Virginia, and indeed North America, is exceptional and strange. My experience in a small Ugandan village was closer to reality. In reality, children walk miles to school, often with no shoes, and sit on earthen floors trying desperately to learn from poorly trained teachers. In reality, many children never learn to read or write, and never make it past early primary grades, and never get a chance to carve out a life for themselves that differs from the life of their parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents. In reality, we have a big, big problem with education, and since education is the vital root of development, we have a big, big, problem with development in general. So, as they say in Uganda, what to do?

If you ask Mutemi Godfrey, Deputy Head Teacher of Arlington Academy of Hope, that question, he will not hesitate in his response: ‘What to do?’ ‘I have to go.’ ‘Go,’ in this context means the opposite of what you might think. In fact, it means many things: try, strive, continue, improve, stay. And these are the words that have defined a small school in the mountains of Eastern Uganda, and these are the words which infected me, and gave me the best year of my life. In January of 2008 I arrived in the parish of Bumwalukani, dusty and tired, and somewhat overwhelmed. Funnily enough, in December of 2008 I left Bumwalukani, feeling much the same way. In between I found adorable children, good friends, a model of transformation, and a life’s calling.

Arlington Academy of Hope sits in the middle of one of the poorest, most low-achieving school districts in Uganda. Its foundations were hewn out of the bulky red clay of the hillsides, and it is surrounded by steep jungle paths and heavily planted farm plots. In a community controlled by grey rain clouds and sticky mud and a never-ceasing supply of long, hard labor, it sits colorful and clean, echoing with the shouts of busy children.

The staff of this school comes from all over the country. They left their urban environments and family homes to slog up the mud roads in black gumboots, to battle the deafening rain on the tin roofs, to accept the flickering power supply, and to raise the teaching and learning standards of a community. Every day I spent with them was a lesson in going above and beyond. Deputy Godfrey spending hours in the library painting posters for the reading carnival. Teacher Patrick pecking away at the computer, typing up the permission slips for the Kampala field trip he is organizing. Teacher Michael standing with a group of students, scratching his head at the large assortment of magnets on the ground as they discuss possible science fair projects. Teacher Grace sitting with her weak readers after school. Teacher Okwii spending lunch down at the cow shed, checking on the new school calves. The nature of the project requires a level of commitment and selflessness from its staff, and we are lucky to have collected a community of talented and resilient individuals who have made their home in the mountains and steer the transformation occurring there.

The transformation of what? Well, at its most basic, the transformation of children. The children of the Ugandan village hold the same amount of potential as the children of the American elite. The difference is in the tools available and opportunities presented to these groups. AAH is a doorway, a platform, a workshop, and a shelter for the children of Bumwalukani. It is miraculous in its simplicity: give children the basic components of a functional, comfortable learning environment, and they will learn. Uniforms, food, desks, pencils, books, a teaching staff that cares and shows up everyday. In the United States we take these things for granted, but in Bumwalukani they were elusive, too expensive, out of reach. AAH has changed that and set a new standard in the village. If we look at the measures which define modern education, the standardized tests, we see that our children are passing. If we look at the factors which contribute to future career opportunities, we see that our children are reading and writing and speaking English and continuing their education past primary. If we look at the characteristics of a successful child, we see that our children are hardworking and polite and happy. They are so happy. But the transformation is larger than that. At AAH children learn not only the lessons required by the Ugandan curriculum, but they learn that every moment spent in their classrooms is an investment, they learn that if they need help they can reach out and find it, they learn that their community needs them, and will count on them in the future.

And all these things are lessons I learned too. I dug-in in Uganda. I rolled up my sleeves and put on my gumboots and organized and sorted and made lists and schedules and trips to Kampala to buy books and pots and read with children and played with children and sang with children and laughed with children. I don’t think the transformation of Ruth was part of AAH’s initial mission statement, but they have inadvertently enacted it. I have become passionate about a place and a group of people thousands of miles away. I have become committed to the cause of transformation through education. But mostly, I have become hopeful. Hopeful that in an increasingly unjust and trouble-ridden global community seeds are being sown and lights are appearing at the end of tunnels, and hopeful that I will find a way to be a part of the solution.

I planted a tree on the school compound during my last weeks in Uganda. I think about it sometimes, when I’m driving along the frigid Virginia roads and see the bare branches overhead. I’m hopeful that it’s growing and thriving in the Bumwalukani soil. I’m hopeful that children will play around it and climb in it and read in its shade. I’m hopeful that it will endure, and that maybe one day, I’ll go back, and see it again.


I’ve left the village. There were tears, although not as many as I expected. I almost lost it once when I was giving my little goodbye speech to the teachers. I almost lost it again when I was saying goodbye to the kids at the end of year assembly. I did lose it when I had finished speaking and then they all started singing. Then they blessed me while I nodded mutely, tears rolling down my cheeks. The most surprising instance of tears, however, came in the US Embassy in Kampala. I was there helping one of Arlington’s teachers who had received an offer of free medical care in the States and was trying to get a visa. We were in the consulate waiting room for a good two hours, so I had plenty of time to study the vaguely propagandistic ‘Welcome to America’ video that was playing on a five minute loop in the corner. It was very well done, with lots of lovely scenic shots and people of all colors and backgrounds grinning and proclaiming their American-ness. They reminded me of characters in a children’s book: the rugged cowboy, the jovial baker, the pretty teacher, the noble Native American—oh no, wait—none of them in the video. Anyway, my usual reaction to such a piece of media would be to scoff and roll my eyes along with my other liberal buddies. This time though, I started to cry. The Ugandans in the room must have thought I was psycho. I’m on the verge of having some Broadway musical-style revelatory moment, standing up and proclaiming “Oh it is a wonderful country, you really should all come!” And they look at me all stony-faced, like “We know loser, why else would we be here?’ Anyway, it made me realize that I do miss the USA, and that I’m probably ready to go home.

Being ready to go home doesn’t mean that I’m over Uganda. Recently I had a chance to figure out what exactly about this place and experience I am going to miss the most. After I left the village, I met up with David, his sister, and his nomadic friend Sean, who is in the middle of a Cairo to Cape Town African Epic Journey (AEJ). He is traveling with one t-shirt and one pair of pants. Eleven months ago I would have said that was just crazy. Now I think it’s admirable. And crazy. They rented a car with the aim of doing a miniature AEJ out to the west of Uganda, and I was able to join them for the first part. Our first stop was Jinja—the adventure and drinking capital of East Africa. It was there, on a wooden deck overlooking the Nile, third beer in hand, that the inevitable happened. “So Ruth,” said David, “what are you going to miss most about Uganda?” I protested at the difficulty of this question, and it was duly re-formatted: name the top five things you will miss about Uganda. As happens to me frequently, I didn’t know the answer to that question until I started talking, and found I had a lot to say. The beer helped. I think the top 5 list I came up with sums Uganda up for me quite nicely. So here it is, sobered up and re-ordered:

Ruth’s Uganda Top 5

#5: The music. This is random, I know, but true. When you go out in Uganda there’s a certain mix of African pop, Ugandan reggeton, old-school American R&B, and eighties music playing in every bar and club. In the village it was pumped out of the neighborhood bar/shack’s speakers every market day. It’s grown on me, big-time, and in these last days some of the ridiculous and ubiquitous songs have become unlikely tear-jerkers. Who knew I could get choked up upon hearing a song entitled ‘Do Me.’ The music here became a comfortable backdrop, and its familiarity helped me feel at home. Uganda has a drastically different sound-scape from America. It’s going to be out with cows lowing and roosters crowing and matatus honking, and in with canned laughter on TV and the car radio and ‘You have a nice day now.’ I have no idea what songs are popular right now in the US, but I predict that I’ll catch myself wandering around the house, humming ‘Do Me’ wistfully every now and then.

#4: The mind-boggling scenic beauty. I came to take it for granted that I would wake up every morning to watch the sun rise over a bowl of lush green hills. My morning commute involved a walk of such staggering picturesque-ness, that even months after my arrival I would sometimes just stop and look. Some evenings, around dusk, the cow moos would take on this unearthly quality and ring out over the banana trees, and I would sit on the front porch and feel like I was in Jurassic Park. In a good, awestruck, way—not a scary raptor way. The natural beauty of the village soothed my soul and set my default mood at happy and relaxed.


Jurassic Park?  Land Before Time?  Other dinosaur-related movie?


Downtown Kiholo

#3: The pace. Now this is a tricky one. I do think that I’ve fallen victim to some nostalgia here, because there were definitely times when the ‘pace’ of meetings, or functions, or just getting a basic task completed would make me want to repeatedly bang my face against a brick wall. I have sat in meetings, watching the sky darken outside as we drone through the 15 item agenda, digging my fingernails into the underside of my chair, counting backwards from 200 and taking shallow breaths to quell the huge and frequent sighs I want to emit. But those feelings faded with my time in the village. I came to accept the airy nature of deadlines in Uganda, and unclenched my mind enough to acknowledge that a lack of urgency can be a good thing for a person. I would saunter down from school around five, and the agenda for the evening in front of me consisted only of: 1. Do whatever you want until you’re sleepy. 2. Sleep. I got eight hours of sleep a night. I don’t think that’s been the case since about 5th grade. I had long conversations with all the different volunteers in the house, read, wrote, played games, stared into space. No appointments or engagements or errands. It was lovely. I hope I can keep some of those ‘must be busy always’ wolves at bay when I’m back in the land of drive-throughs. I hope zen is a continent-transferable concept. Although there is one area of ‘pace’ that the rosy glow of nostalgia never touched: the mofo-ing internet connections. I have suffered near blackouts due to my frustration while trying to use internet in this country. I think one 3-day attempt at attaching a photograph to an email may have cost me thousands of dollars in future blood pressure medication. Bring on the high-speed, for real.

#2: The people. I don’t mean this in a ‘oh my gosh Ugandans are just so friendly. All of them. And beautiful. Aren’t they all so beautiful?’ way. I think generalizations like that are just as disrespectful and inane as generalizations like ‘All Ugandans are corrupt.’ I’m talking about the individuals that I’ve met here who have become good friends, the students who became bright spots in my days, and the many acquaintances who did me favors and told me crazy stories and made me laugh and helped me understand. One of my favorite things about Uganda is that the frequency of human-to-human interaction is about fifty times that of the States. I feel like technology in American is moving towards the moment when one human will be able to make an income and acquire all basic needs without ever interacting with another human. It’s not like that here. You never deal with self-scanners, online booking, or telephone robots; you always deal with a person, usually face to face. And even if it’s just a shopkeeper or matatu conductor, you often have a decent sort of conversation because everything is negotiable, so you’re haggling or arguing or explaining your specific dilemma. I was doing some shopping in the market area of Kampala yesterday, and ended up giving my email address to the entire staff of a t-shirt store. Our negotiation over prices evolved into quite a long chat, and they want to stay in touch. That doesn’t mean the encounters are always pleasant. I’ve met plenty of rude, bossy, aggressive Ugandans. But I still appreciate the fact that the culture here prioritizes human interaction. It makes everything much more interesting.

Beyond the vibrancy of the culture of interaction, I am going to miss the Ugandans, particularly the Arlington staff members, who became close friends. There’s not all that much to say, except that I’ve been through a lot with them, and they’re the kind of people I hope I can stay in touch with. I’m a fairly social creature. Having good friends around is important to me, and I was lucky enough to find a group of warm, intelligent, hilarious friends in Bumwalukani, who made the village feel like home.

#1: Limitlessness. I’ve thought about this one for a while, and I can’t find a way to state it more clearly than that. This entire year in Uganda has been a process of learning that there are very few absolutes in life, and really, there are no limits to what I can do. I know, I know, cue the violins and Mariah Carey warbling on about self-belief. But this feeling was constant and concrete. It manifested itself in small moments: bumping along on the back of a motor-bike, clutching my shopping bags and watching the moon-lit banana leaves whiz past. Wandering around hot Kampala streets placing orders for thousands of dollars worth of textbooks with USAID money. Rafting the river Nile. Getting the water pump fixed at the guest house. Organizing a library. Writing a budget. Finding common ground and something to laugh about with people who have never seen a white person before. Watching a woman from the village put on trousers for the first time in her life and board a plane to the USA to undergo a life-saving surgery. Petting a cow. Learning to stand up to the mean taxi conductor. Teaching a kid to read. It’s about the flexibility and endless potential of the African continent, and the strength and confidence I’ve gained to tackle it. It’s about becoming completely at ease in my independence, while also experiencing connection with a wild variety of people. It’s about developing common sense and street smarts, but always having an open mind and pushing my limits. It’s about living in the moment while imagining my future as a bright, sunny sky somewhere. It’s about being happy, and feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile. So let Mariah sing, because the hero does lie in me, thank you very much.


School library, with part of the Science Fair banner in front of it.  Taken by Nimrod–the 10 year old burgeoning photographer, apparently.

Now technically #1 doesn’t belong on a ‘what I will miss’ list, because I plan on taking it back to the US with me. It’s a way better souvenir than a ‘mzungu’ t-shirt. Traditionally I think I’m supposed to have discovered a life purpose/goal/ambition during my African adventure. I haven’t. Currently my plans include: get to America, greet family, eat a lot, drink a lot, talk a lot, throw greatest new year’s party ever, survive hangover, . . . . . . . . . aaaaaaand that’s it. But my outlook is positive, and I’m not freaking out about not having a plan. I feel strong and empowered and confident that I’ll find something good to do. Uganda has blasted open my concept of what it means to be successful and happy, and shown me that I can achieve it. You don’t have to be a hippy or a hobo to take a step back from the traditional concerns of American society and recognize that following those prescribed paths won’t necessarily make you happy. For most, in fact, unthinkingly following a prescribed path is a recipe for unhappiness.


A mystifying, but appropriate Kampala traffic sign

I think my hardest battle will be to maintain these feelings as I hit the brick wall of my upcoming culture shock, finally, finally actually look at my bank balance, and begin watching ‘reality’ tv shows on MTV again. That’s where y’all come in. I am blessed with a hugely supportive and encouraging family and group of friends. Your emails, letters, blog comments, packages, and sometimes even physical presence have more than cushioned any blows a year in Uganda could deal me. Just thinking of seeing everyone again is a giant cushion against the nostalgia and sadness that’s seeping around the edges of this departure.

So, I’m not crying. I’m feeling good and looking forward. Stay tuned . . . . . . .

(As told by Papa and embellished by Ruth)

In 1961 Papa was a young man on the up and up, living in this very village. One sunny day he had a toothache, and decided to ride his bicycle towards the nearest dental clinic in Bubulo. Papa was a man beloved by many in the village, and so stopped to talk to some friends along the road. As they talked his eyes were drawn to the handsome swaying back of a woman passing by. He recalled seeing her figure before for he had passed her along the way. She walked on and Papa left his friends to pedal up to her. He slowed down to keep pace with the young woman. Why didn’t she sit on his bicycle, he enquired, as the way she was going was the same way he was going? The woman stopped to take the measure of this bold young man. She took in his wry smile, and the ever-present glint in his eye. She thought for a brief moment, then accepted, settling herself gracefully on the back of his bike. Off they went, rolling smoothly through the dappled shade of the banana trees.

Soon they reached the cooperative union where Mai’s brother worked. She pointed it out to Papa and told him that he must leave her there. Papa’s heart began to beat. The time was over and he had not said much to her. He asked where she came from, and she told him the name of her village. Papa relaxed. He was familiar with her village, and many people there knew him.

Papa was a confident man-about-village, used to getting what he wanted. It had only taken one bicycle ride for him to figure out that he wanted Mai. The next day he pedaled to her village, and began to enquire if his friends had ever heard of the woman who had captured his heart. Luckily one of his friends knew of her, and pointed out the compound where she stayed. Papa told his friends that he would come back to see her soon. He returned a few days later and found Mai when she had been informed of his interest in her. They talked awhile and he took her on another bicycle ride. She was strong, and held his bike for him when he needed it.

Papa asked if Mai would come and see his home. “I have seen your home,” he said, “now we must equalize.” Mai agreed, and they arranged to meet in the morning hours the following day, at a local clinic. Mai was there on time, and Papa again asked her to sit on the back of his bicycle. The way was uphill, and it was a tiring one, but Papa could not show it. He patted his forehead with his damp sweat rag, and pedaled, pedaled, pedaled.

When they reached the trading center, they bought some meat and continued up to Papa’s home. It was a simple home, but good: the home of a man, not a young boy or a bachelor. As they began to prepare a meal Papa realized that tea leaves were not there. Sugar was there, and meat was there, but tea leaves were not there. He walked back to the trading center to buy tea for her, strolling slowly in the cool air. By the time he returned and they had eaten, it had become evening. There was nothing for Mai to do but spend the night.

The passage of the night confirmed Mai in Papa’s heart. The next day he told her that he was ashamed to send her home with no gift for her family, and asked her to wait while he searched around for something to give. By chance, his search took him the whole day. He moved around from friend to friend, seeking a good bunch of matoke for Mai, until the second evening broke. Again, there was nothing for Mai to do but spend the night.

On the third day, Mai took matters into her own hands. “There is no point in me returning home now,” she said, “they will only say that I have married and ask me why I have come back.” With this proclamation, Papa could barely contain the joy he felt. He went to a shop and bought her a gomez, so she would feel like a woman in his house, and not a girl.

She proved to him a patient wife. They have stayed together for 47 years and are still going strong. They were married officially in a church in 1977. The fruits of this marriage include 6 children: 4 boys and 2 girls. One of the boys is named John Wanda; a man who moved to the United States, and then returned to begin a model school in the village where he was born. He named the school Arlington Academy of Hope, after the town in Virginia where he and his wife had made a new home.

As love stories go, it’s one of my favorites.


I haven’t had a huge amount of experience as a teacher, but I’ve at least sampled a variety of teaching environments. I began teaching through the Teach for America program in a middle school in the Bronx, where punch-ups and drug busts were common, and general mayhem was the order of the day for the majority of my first year. Not fun ‘this is kind of crazy but good life experience,’ mayhem, but demeaning, depressing, ‘how can 12 year old children make me feel so lame’ mayhem. My self-esteem hit rock bottom when, after a particularly riotous ‘English Enrichment’ period, one of my 7th graders presented me with a drawing, swore he wasn’t the one who did it, and quickly disappeared down the hall. The drawing was of the stick-figure variety, and showed a fairly normal classroom scene: blackboard, children sitting at desks, and, oh yes, a woman hanging from a noose next to the door. In case I missed the point, there was a caption: TEACHER GOT HUNG. MS. O’GARA. The silver lining is that I now have a perfect title for my teaching memoir, should I ever choose to write one.

My second year was waaaaaaaay better. I had a new group of kids, my own classroom, and a huge reservoir of anger and resentment towards young adults. I had developed the philosophy that for children to learn anything from me, they first had to be scared of me, and I worked the bitch angle for the first few months. It was effective. But by the end of it all I had experienced what I like to call the Dangerous Minds turn-around. While my students weren’t quoting Bob Dylan and confiding in me about their illegitimate children, I loved them and they loved me and we all learned something.


7th grade cuties in the Bx

Before heading to Uganda, I worked for a few months as the school-based sub at AAH’s sister school in Virginia, Arlington Traditional School. It’s one of the best public primary schools in the country, and was quite an eye-opener. I wandered its pristine halls, past columns of silent children and well equipped computer labs, muttering ‘I never knew it could be like this.’ The resources, the discipline, the lack of armed guards! Everyone passes the standardized tests at Arlington Traditional School. At this point I could go into a long and detailed rant about the absurdity of the blatant racism and inequality in America’s public education system, but maybe I should save that for the memoir.

So, I’d seen the good and not-so-good fruits of American tax dollars, and now I was ready to see what American donor dollars had created in the middle of the mountains in Uganda. Unless you’ve actually spent the hour rattling down the bumpy road from Mbale, shoved on gum boots, made the twenty minute hike up the impassable road, and peered inside the other schools in the area, it’s impossible to communicate the revelation that is Arlington. It sits in the middle of the jungle like a figment of your imagination, a colorful, vibrant, bastion of hope.

The ten months I’ve spent there have helped me clarify some of my opinions about education. My experiences have taught me one major lesson: all the fancy buildings and resources in the world mean nothing if you don’t have quality teachers. I would seriously rather pay a good teacher to sit under a tree in a field without so much as a sheet of paper, than pay a bad teacher to waste everyone’s time in a state of the art classroom. A good teacher accepts responsibility for everything in her classroom, including the attitude of the students. This is maybe the most challenging role of a teacher: working to adjust students’ attitudes so that they stay receptive and interested. During my second year in the Bronx I told incoming new teachers that they should prepare for a year-long fight with their students. We had to be relentless, vigilant, and unceasingly anal if we were going to get them to learn anything. I nicknamed myself Roboteacher. Teachers should be prepared to spend large amounts of money at Kinkos, and a large amount of energy doing epic battles with photocopying machines involving a long ruler and scotch tape. They should buy bags of candy for bribery, and bottles of vodka for sanity. They should try not to confuse the two. Get up at 5am, go to sleep at 12am, and generally look and feel like you’re on your deathbed. Take them on trips, give them stickers, go to their goddamn house and drag them to school yourself if you have to. Teachers have to be like soldiers, freakin General First Class Special Force Marines I tell you!

Of course sometimes, you get lucky.

Enter the current P7 class of Arlington. If I was given god-like powers to design the perfect group of students, I’m confident I would produce that class. They have the perfect combination of discipline and spirit, diligence and mischief. When you tell them that you need them to listen, they are instantly quiet. When you ask them to participate, they are rowdy and contradictory and interested and thoughtful. I’ve spent a lot of time conducting reading classes with them this year. It’s like a dream. I can concoct activities that require movement and discussion and self-directed learning and random groupings and they always step up to the plate. The levels of English vary in the class, but everyone tries and everyone is curious. We spent a few weeks reading a Ugandan novel about a young woman who has to drop out of school because her parents are dying of AIDS. A large part of the plot concerns this girl’s growing romance with a former playboy, who becomes a one-woman man under her influence. I asked the P7s to pretend they were the boy, and write a love letter to the girl. My oh my. Shakespeare step down. “Your body is like an empty glass, ringing with beauty.” “You are the star of my life.” We read a book that contained an anecdote about the sign language symbol for “I love you.” Several of them still flash it any time I walk into the class. They make fun of my accent, and each other. They wonder if my hair is real, or a wig. They wonder if I can take them to America. They come to school at 7am and leave at 6pm and still would like more work, please.


The P7 all-stars

The Ugandan primary school system puts a huge amount of pressure on children. It is essentially seven years of learning that culminates in one final exam: the PLE. Students sit four PLE papers: English, Social Studies, Mathematics and Science. Any random fact that has been taught, from P1 to P7, is fair game. I can find no logical system behind the content of the questions. For example:

1. Mention one disadvantage of building in a wetland.
2. Suggest one way of improving the labour force in Africa.
3. Mention one reason why the Equator is marked 0̊
4. In which way does God communicate with his people?

That’s social studies. There is one right answer to every question, even on the English paper. Any error in spelling, grammar, or phrasing automatically makes an answer wrong. I would sum up the preparation process as the memorization of thousands of pieces of information, all in your second language. But it’s the key to your future in Uganda. Here you have to apply for secondary school, and PLE results determine your options.

Our P7s just completed this torturous process. In the weeks leading up to the exam they were in a constant state of revision, and their teachers were bleary-eyed and nervous. But the kids were high-spirited; the end was in sight. They had taken a total of eight mock papers, and most were confident. We had a blessing ceremony, where we invited their parents to come and show their support, heard many words of wisdom and encouragement, and prayed vigorously (or at least pretended to). Arlington hosted the exam this year, so the students were able to sit in a familiar environment, and enjoy the same break and lunch snacks they always do. The rest of the school had to remain closed, and teachers weren’t supposed to come near the premises for fear of awakening the suspicions of the ‘invigilator’ from Kampala. Sounds like a character in a Harry Potter book if you ask me.


P7 lads at their blessing

At 4:15pm on the 4th, they all emerged into the afternoon sun, tucking their little ‘maths sets’ into their pockets and comparing answers. There was unanimous agreement that Social Studies was the hardest paper this year, while Science was the easiest. They horsed around and we took lots of pictures and gave out candy. They planted a symbolic tree, to illustrate the fact that the students’ roots are at Arlington, but there are no limits for their branches. Everyone felt they had passed the exam, and odds are they are right. Arlington has a 100% pass rate on the PLE so far. Bududa District has about 115 primary schools, sits hundreds of students for the PLE each year, and in 2005 managed to get only three students scoring in the first division. Then Arlington came on the scene, and out of our first candidate class of thirty, we got fifteen first divisions and fifteen second divisions. Based on my experience with this year’s P7s, they will more than uphold this record.


Enthusiastic tree-planting


Candy: works every time

Officially, these students are now finished with their primary education. They really should just sit back, relax, and wait for the results to come out in January. But they don’t want to do that. They’re coming back to school, to take classes on life skills and get ready for the science fair and hopefully have the odd reading lesson. They wouldn’t stay home if we asked them to. It’s hard to say what exactly has created this positive attitude in the kids. I know that a large part of it comes from the experiences and teaching they’ve had at Arlington for the past four years. I also think that part of it is the in-born good nature that is so common in the Ugandans I’ve met. They’re also a group of kids who gel really well, and work as a team. I know these kids would be a pleasure to teach regardless of their location: the barren Bronx classroom, the high-tech Virginian computer lab, or the concrete room in the jungle. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to interact with them, and they have a high position on the growing list of things I’m going to miss.

No electricity. Only one satellite TV in a ten mile radius. An eight hour time difference. Can we still watch the results of the 2008 American Presidential election, live?

Yes we can goddammit.

We were a small but committed group of Bumwalukanians who devised the plan to watch our man win the White House last week. We’re eight hours ahead in Uganda, so we were looking at an allllllllllllllll-night event. But the Ugandans were buoyed by the prospect of watching a son of their soil (basically) step up to arguably the most powerful position in the world, and the Americans were buoyed by the prospect of watching their country get itself back on track after eight years of border-line insanity.

The excitement had been building for quite some time in Uganda. Obama dominated the local media, there were pins and t-shirts for sale in Kampala, and “do you support Obama” replaced “are you married” as my most frequently received inquiry. For the Ugandans who don’t know that much English, a simple “OBAMA!” with a thumbs-up and a grin communicated the same message. Confidence was high, and it was infectious.


A Ugandan newspaper on election day

Teacher Godfrey has a satellite dish, and is one of the more ardent Obama supporters around, so choosing the venue was easy. Electricity remained a problem. The school is currently in the ironic position of having installed an expensive solar/battery back-up system that is malfunctioning and now blocking all types of electricity from reaching our facilities: solar, battery, or main power line. Also our generator basically exploded. It’s been a frustratingly powerless few weeks around here. BUT the new FIMRC rep (Mike) is a big Obama fan, and FIMRC has a functioning generator, so we did a little switcheroo. I wasn’t present for the actual connecting of the generator to Godfrey’s house, but I’m told it involved naked wires, toothpicks, and a high risk of electrocution. After a few alarming sparks and dimming of the lights, the TV burst into action and we were off.

The initial cast was: teachers Godfrey and Nelson, Andrew (the Bursar), Godfrey’s girlfriend Ruth and her son, me and Mike, Stuart (the headmaster’s son) and assorted neighborhood children. The children chugged sodas and guzzled sugar cookies, providing a perfect opportunity for me to unveil the new word I’ve invented: chuzzle. Think about the possible frat party usage! They begin to crest a frenzied sugar high around nine o’clock, horse-playing around and singing and partaking of the general aura of excitement without the slightest clue as to what it was all about. Mike broke out his laptop and played the Obama song, a Jamaican reggae homage to the future president. A team of committed adults had spent several hours sourcing beer in the area, and were finally rewarded when a soaked and mud-splattered motorbike driver arrived with a crate of Senator—a local beer which has now been renamed ‘Obama.’ Ruth had prepared a huge dinner, and we all ate and chatted and watched the early news coverage.


Harry’s happy to be a part of this mysterious fuss


Andrew wants YOU! to vote for Obama

After dinner the children experienced fairly rapid sugar crashes, and were dispatched to their various beds. We adults turned our full attention to the TV, and flicked between Sky News, Al Jazeera, and BBC World. It was only about ten o’clock, and it dawned on us that we had five solid hours of informative, but repetitive news coverage ahead before any polls closed in the US. The four different sources of carbohydrates we had all just consumed did not help the sleepiness factor, nor did the fact that my body clock is now firmly set on ‘granny mode,’ and my eyes usually start drooping around nine-thirty. Mike was the first casualty, dropping off on the sofa with a full glass of beer in his hand. The inevitable happened: he awoke with a start, spilling a fairly large quantity of beer on his lap, and resignedly went to take a proper nap in Andrew’s room. I was fighting the good fight, but fading fast. A phone call from ex-volunteer Charlee pepped me up, and Stuart and I made a plan to begin consuming caffeine at 1:30am. I also kept myself alert by occasionally switching to the African equivalent of MTV, ‘Kiss Network,’ which only appears to have access to Pussycat Dolls videos. As much as they exemplify everything I hate about America, they are strangely hypnotic. You can also play fun games by betting how many seconds of the video will pass before they begin shedding clothing and do their signature ‘power-v’ strut. Stuart has the energy of a nuclear power plant, and probably could have powered the TV himself if we’d figured out a way to plug his fingers into the wall. Nelson soldiered on bravely, and Andrew took a table-top nap. Godfrey displayed a variety of methods in his battle against sleep. At one point he went and sat outside on the cold, rain-soaked verandah, listening to BBC on his radio at quite a high volume. The pinnacle came, however, when he began spooning heaps of instant coffee into his beer, a combination both ingenious and disgusting. Despite my cries of protest, Godfrey doggedly drank only beercoffee for the rest of the night.


Post-dinner crash

The hours between midnight and 3am passed in a surreal daze. Godfrey started a small fire when he attempted to use a kerosene stove to heat water, but that was the height of the drama. By 3am everyone had finished with their naps/beverage experiments/music-video watching, and we were ready for some hardcore poll result action. We settled on BBC World as our network of choice, because they had a loveable British fuddy-duddy leading the commentary and some pretty down and dirty debating going on. Also, a UVa. Politics professor, Larry Sabado, was one of their guests (wahoowa!). Andrew sat down with a notebook and pen, determined to keep his own record of the electoral votes, because he remembers what those bastards in Florida did to us in 2000. Godfrey didn’t quite have a handle on the electoral votes system, and was dismayed when the Kentucky/Vermont results left the scoreboard in McCain’s favor. He began flipping through the news networks, vowing not to stop until he found one that showed Obama winning. Of course, he didn’t have to wait that long.


Andrew keeps track of the votes.  Nelson keeps track of his inner eyelids.


They announce Pennsylvania for Obama

To say that everyone in the room was sober at the moment when Obama’s electoral vote count went over 270 would be stretching the truth. In fact, downing a plastic baggy of locally made hard alcohol was the specific celebratory act chosen for that moment by some members of the crew. I, thankfully, had nothing harder than caffeine in my system by then, but was still caught up in the general euphoria. There were many man-hugs, back slaps, and furtive tears. The Obama song was on high-volume repeat. The kids of the house were awake after a refreshing night’s sleep, and back in party mode. It was approaching 7am, the sky was getting light, and curious children poked their head around the door on the way to school to see what all the noise was about. As McCain gave his concession speech, a smattering of staff members and neighbors came to join the party. I have rarely seen that much beer being opened at 8 in the morning.


Obama goes over 270

Watching Obama’s victory speech was a roller-coaster of emotions. A certain staff member, who shall remain nameless, was shirtless and performing traditional African chants and dance moves throughout the speech. Something that sounded like “HE’S A MATERIAL!” was a frequent comment from the above-mentioned person, accompanied by several hard slaps of the leg. I was somewhat distracted by this, and missed some of the speech while trying to calm the guy down. I was also in complete awe of Obama’s speaking abilities—no notecards or anything. See I’ve largely missed out on all the Obama fever in my time here, so he’s still kind of new to me. And then he got to the part. You know, the part. The 106 year-old lady, and all the changes she’s seen, and yes we can, and what changes will his children see, and yes we can, and . . . . . .

Both mzungus in the room were in tears at that point.

I don’t know if I could have picked a better situation in which to watch America elect Obama, for lots of reasons. Probably the easiest way for me to think about it is to imagine what it would have been like if he lost; the disappointment, the crisis of faith that would have been written on all my friends’ faces. Not everyone that I watched the election with knows much about American politics. Tax policy and universal health care might be under their radars, but the fact that millions of mzungus across the ocean saw fit to put a man with black skin, coming from a village only about 80 kilometers away from here, in their highest political office, is not. I know that Obama now faces a long, hard struggle to live up to the hype and correct policies that have veered alarmingly off the rails. But he is already a symbol of great hope and optimism over here. As one editorial in a local newspaper said:

“Obama’s victory is a sign to the world that change does not come out of fear of the unknown and effort to cling to a comfort zone but collective faith that things can change if we are bold enough to confront them.”

Watching the whole electoral process unfold struck another chord for Ugandans, namely the contrast they see between the American system and the troubles on their continent:

“And John McCain conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent. This does not in any way make him any less of a great man in his own right, a leaf African leaders must borrow.”

There are several African ‘leaders’ who could do us all a favor and borrow that leaf right now.

So altogether the night was a big success; from inadvertent naps and beercoffee to tears and dances. A rather high number of staff members called in sick on Wednesday . . . . but the headmaster was very understanding.  Even after the dust has settled, I still get giddy at the thought of Obama and his family moving on in to the White House.  I feel like I’m going home to a different country from the one I left, and I’m looking forward to it.

In this scenario, David refers to David Gelvin, the Field Operations Manger (FOM) for the clinic in the village, which was built by Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH), but is currently run by the Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC).

That’s a lot of acronyms.

That makes the inherent inconveniences and complexities of running anything in rural Uganda our Goliath. I have to admit, I’m on shaky ground with this allusion. I believe that it’s biblical, and I believe that David represents the classic underdog. I have a vague notion of a sling shot being involved, and possibly a Cyclops? Is having long hair somehow relevant? In any case, I know there was a conflict and David surprised everyone by coming out on top—a modest and humble hero. That’s where our David comes in. His year of service with FIMRC ends in early November, and he’s shipping out, or actually bussing out, with only his tiny knapsack on his back. The man deserves a hero’s farewell, and since I don’t sing or drum well enough to participate in any goodbye assembly without embarrassing everyone, this blog entry is my contribution.

I was intimidated by David when I first met him, for two reasons. Firstly, he can do anything. If there is a practical, useful and complex task lurking around, he’s your man. A circuit blew? Call David. The water pump is broken? Get the Davemiester on the phone. Your bed boards make weird squeaking noises that sound like dying dinosaurs? Give D-money a hammer and a nail and your problem is solved. Oh what’s that? You want to design a unique, searchable database that captures the patient information of the sixty or so people that come through the clinic every day and also install a back-up power system that ensures the computer running the database never has to shut down, and train your computer-illiterate staff to operate the system? You guessed it. Davey G’s the guy for you. Unreliable electricity shrinks in his presence. Complicated wiring won’t even show itself. He laughs in the face of non-running water.

David aka MacGyver

In this sense David and I compliment each other nicely. See, I can’t do any of those things. I once asked David to fix my headlamp, because the light had gone a funny color. He took it from me, and gently flipped the optional red plastic covering off the light, using the conveniently placed finger tab. I seriously had been examining the thing for minutes, MINUTES, and had not figured that out. So if you combined us, we would probably level out to a human with about average competence in all things practical.

The second reason I found David intimidating was his quiet demeanor. He doesn’t swagger around, saying things like “See that creative toilet paper-hanging solution in the latrine? Yeah, I designed and constructed that. You’re welcome. He doesn’t ever bring up the fact that he personally spent hours crawling around the school’s bat/spider-infested attic space while installing the wireless network that I am using right now to post this entry. He just quietly does the job, and then goes for a ten kilometer run and beats me at Scrabble. This quietness perturbed me, as it is so foreign to my own nature. My motto is: when in doubt, talk. I figured he had to be hiding something. Maybe he was filled with resentment and was secretly taking notes on all the times I messed up so he could email them to John Wanda. Maybe he blew off steam at the weekend by going to Club Oasis and getting rip-roaring drunk and waking up in a pool of his own vomit. I mean, the guy had to have a dark side.

Turns out, he doesn’t. Nine months of living together in Uganda have removed the intimidation factor—shaving a guy’s head and discussing the intimate details of his case of scabies will do that—but I am still in awe of David. I understand him a little better now. While I spent the first few months wondering how in the hell I could ever repay David for all the favors he did for me and the school, I have come to realize that problem-solving is his idea of relaxation. He has been known to utter the words “Ruth, when do I get to fix your i-pod?” Or, “Can we please hang the mosquito nets now?” Sometimes I have to gently rebuke him: “David, you can’t fix my excel spreadsheet until after dinner.” Usefulness is his natural state. His constant productiveness still makes me hang my crossword-addicted head in shame sometimes. But as previously discussed, my utility around the house is basically restricted to menial tasks like putting dishes away, and filling jugs with water. I have been known to hang the odd string of fairy lights, but generally, I can’t compete.

His personal favors to me, and help around the school and guest house, pale in comparison to the transformation he enacted at the FIMRC clinic this year. On a physical level, he designed and supervised an extension and re-modeling of the building that makes the place feel about ten times as big, and much more professional. If you want to know the exact number of meters of useful space this extension created, you can ask him. I’m sure he has those calculations somewhere. As I mentioned before, he created a database to record patient information that could potentially have dramatic uses in designing appropriate health policy for the district. Oh yes, and he pioneered the use of a back-up battery system so the clinic never goes without power. On our dark, electricity-less nights, the clinic security lights can be seen shining for miles around, inspiring awe or envy depending who you talk to. To take advantage of the constant power, he installed a motion-sensitive security light. This addition completely confounded the night watchman, and he spend an evening camped out on the clinic porch, convinced that some intruder inside was messing with him. All these improvements were made on top of the day-to-day tasks of managing the clinic: keeping the budget, purchasing medicine, taking care of all human resource issues, which David accomplished with a level of organization unprecedented in these jungle hills. So take that Uganda-Goliath.

David aka FMRC all-star

It’s not surprising that David is beloved by many, myself included. David and I get on extremely well. We discovered a mutual love of sarcastic humor early in the year, and have honed our smart-ass skills together. We developed an after-dinner, front porch, cigarette and chat tradition, and I’m fairly confident that we’ve solved about 70% of the world’s problems during these conversations. It’s not that we’re arrogant; it’s just that we know we’re right. My friendship with David is not without its areas of tension. There is a somewhat unspoken battle over my continued use of hot water for bathing. I know he doesn’t like it when I convert new volunteers to my luxurious ways. I’ve analyzed this a lot though, and feel that I’m on solid moral and rational ground when it comes to hot water usage (except for that time that I used the whole thermos right as he was getting ready to make coffee. Sorry!). He also beats me at Scrabble every time we play, despite my English major and crossword compulsion. He is, however, an extremely gracious and supportive winner. He goes out of his way to point out that my score has improved from last time, and glosses over the fact that he beat the pants off me.

My insistence on comfortable bathing and shame at Scrabble inadequacy aside, without David’s steady, helpful hand, generosity, and willingness to listen to me blow off steam, I may not have stuck around Bumwalukani for the whole year. Cheesy as it is, he’s an inspirational figure for me. He marches to the beat of his own drum, but not in any hippy, unproductive way. Ok, when he last lived in the States he shunned the material comforts of a bed, and just slept on the floor. I’m on the fence about that one. I guess it falls into the hot water category of disagreements. He operates under the assumption that he can do anything he puts his mind to, and generally he’s right. But the most remarkable thing about him is that he balances this confidence with a level of kindness and consideration for others that I’ve rarely seen in a person. Avid blog readers may recall the yoga room he created for my birthday. Unfortunately, the resident rat population of the store room did not take kindly to me doing yoga there, and their indignant rustling made achieving inner peace with one leg propped over my head particularly difficult. It’s back to yoga in my bedroom for me, but it’s the thought that counts, and that kind thought was completely characteristic of David.

David aka my Uganda bff

I know David could have found considerable financial success as a Wall Street broker, or real estate mogul, or computer genius. Instead he did the Peace Corps, managed a homeless shelter, spent a summer climbing mountains, and came to Uganda to accept a small monthly stipend and all responsibility for a free clinic. It’s humanity’s good fortune that David chooses to apply his impressive levels of intelligence and competence to unconventional, poorly paying, and extremely helpful endeavors. It was my good fortune that one of those endeavors took him to Bumwalukani, Uganda. I can sometimes be a harsh judge of character, but I have absolute faith in David. I’m not sure what Goliath he’s going to take on next, but I know he’s going to slay it. I’m just sad he’s leaving, and I won’t be around to watch him do it.

A Party

There are four hens and a rooster cowering suspiciously in a corner of the back yard. They don’t know it yet, but they’re the main attraction for tonight’s staff party.

Jennipher and two village boys hold the chicken carcasses over the gas stove-top in some sort of pre-frying ritual I don’t understand. The boys grin and occasionally put down a chicken to chomp a piece off the candy watches I gave them. I know there’s a large pool of blood and feathers somewhere, but Jennipher has cunningly hidden the chicken slaying location because she knows it’s not my favorite sight.

The entire Arlington staff sits in the Guest House in an awkward circle after Mai Kuloba has finished her prayer. Trays on the main table glisten with piles of fried ‘Irish,’ fried chicken, fried beef and hard boiled eggs. David has built a small monument of packets of glucose biscuits with a jar of Nutella prominently displayed inside. I force Teacher Godfrey to be the first to serve himself, and twenty pairs of eyes silently follow his progress down the table. I wonder what in god’s name I’m going to have to do to get the others to stand up and eat. Finally Godfrey resorts to essentially pulling people to the table by the arms, and we have ourselves a functioning buffet.

Teacher Michael plays chess with David, and I watch and offer useless advice like “I think the horsey looking one is sometimes called a knight.” Seventy-seven year old papa is on his eighth soda, and shows no sign of stopping. Every time I turn around he’s holding up another empty bottle and I walk back to the soda crate: “We’re down to only Fanta now Papa.” Papa doesn’t mind, and happily accepts his ninth. The non-teaching staff has gotten over their anxiety and has finally started drinking the beer. They are becoming quietly merry, and increasingly insistent on prompt re-fills.

Patrick, Godfrey, Nelson, and Headmaster Thomas are involved in the most dramatic game of cards I’ve ever seen. Every play is made with a giant flourish and a corresponding sound effect. I can’t fathom the rules, or why certain cards produce explosions of laughter and argument. I kind of wish I knew how to play.

It’s 11pm, and a glassy-eyed crew heads into the pitch black night, teetering along the muddy driveway. Andrew’s laptop still blasts out Ugandan reggeton, as David, Brianna and I contemplate the mounds of dirty plates and chicken bones. The dogs that prowl the compound will be happy tonight.

A Joke

I’m trying to explain to teacher Nelson why he can’t watch videos on the computer in the staff room. We look at the screen which says ‘additional media plug-ins required,’ and I sigh. “It won’t work, these computers are just too . . .” I search for the word. “Just too old,” I finally spit out, resignedly. Teacher Nelson and Librarian Rachel burst into great peals of laughter that echo off the concrete walls. “Teacher Ruth,” Rachel chuckles breathlessly, “Oh Teacher Ruth . . . . . . that word.” They laugh until they are crying. I am mystified.

A Walk

We’ve already been walking to Benard’s house for two hours when we turn off the road, cross a river, and begin climbing. In a steep, narrow passage carved between the rocks of the hillside, we stand aside to let men carrying ten foot planks of timber on their heads pass. Their feet are bare and their eyes narrowed in concentration, and as protection against the sweat dripping from their foreheads.

At the top of the passageway, on a brief section of flat land, I see a shack with “Education Ministry” crudely painted on the wall.

I let the boys listen to my i-pod. The first time he puts on the headphones, Isaac stares around wildly, wondering where in the hell the music is coming from. He asks me if I can also hear it. Within minutes he is singing along to Arcade Fire, whimsically mumbling his own version of the lyrics. At one point he stops, and turns back to face me. He smiles hugely and yells: “IT IS VERY ENJOYABLE,” before ambling on. It is the most charming moment of my life. I crack up.

Altogether the walk takes three hours. I am damp all over and experiencing mild heart failure when we arrive at a house perched at what feels like the end of the world, just in time for a cup of steaming milk-tea.

A Marketing Slogan

I use a small red basin to wash my face every night. I’m taking a wild guess that it’s Chinese in origin. There are brightly colored flowers painted on the bottom of the basin, and the company’s slogan is written in flowing gold lettering:

Little Flower. Let’s feel the clean cosmos.

Duocaitu means chaste and joyful, andlet’s feelurgentlythe freshfamily’s atmosphere.


A Compliment

I’m strolling down the hill with papa, informing him that my twin brother will soon come and visit me. He asks if we resemble each other. I tell him sort of, but my brother is taller, and slimmer than me. He thinks quietly for a minute, and then slowly remarks “Ah, but your body, it is well-built. It is . .” Here he pauses for at least fifteen seconds, then finally, “It is recommended.” It makes a pleasant change from being told point blank that I’m fat.

A Gift

Mauchi Tom walks into my office, and stretches out his long, thin arm. He holds a hardboiled egg in his hand. “An egg,” he says. He’s in P7 and it’s his evening snack before another hour of class. We argue about it for a while but he insists he’s not hungry because he has “taken tea.”

I eat the egg slowly, looking out my window at all the children heading home down the muddy slopes.

It was a few weeks ago, and it was a pretty small group of us: three volunteers (including me), two school staff, and one clinic staff member. It was Mzungus Gone Wild 3 at Club Oasis, and everything was running smoothly and merrily: I’d harassed the DJ, inserted myself into a circle of dancing Ugandan women, and was beginning to think about what greasy food item I should consume before going home. We were all sitting on some chairs next to the pool tables in the outdoor section of the club. Suddenly I heard four loud pops behind us, about five meters away. It sounded to my admittedly hazy mind like firecrackers. I swiveled around to see what was going on, but couldn’t make out anything concrete in the darkness. I felt Andrew tugging on my sleeve and turned back around to find that I was the only idiot who had not assumed a position crouching as close to the floor as possible. “Get down,” Andrew hissed. I did, slowly and incredulously, my eyes wide: “Were those gunshots?” Christie, the other volunteer nodded. There followed some choice whispered language on my part, which should probably not be entered into the permanent record of cyberspace. There was some sort of scuffle going on, and Andrew kept popping his head up over the small wall separating us from the scene of the action. It looked like whatever was going down was moving in the direction of the exit. Eventually he did a quick check that we were still all ok, and abruptly sprinted off in the direction of the showdown. I felt like the Mission Impossible theme music should be playing loudly. I remained crouched next to my chair, having a furious conversation with Christie and Teacher Godfrey. Godfrey kept insisting that everything was ok, and I should feel free. He reminded me that the bouncers frisk everyone before letting them in. I stared at him for a second before exploding “WELL THEY DIDN’T CHECK THAT GUY, DID THEY?” At this point I looked around and realized that I had once again missed the boat on the crowd’s general change of position, and I was the only one left crouching. At least now I know what my instincts will guide me to do in times of real danger: act like a moron.

But oh, we were far from finished with this little incident. The whole threat of death by bullet had kind of taken the joy out of the evening, so Godfrey and Andrew walked Christie and me across the road to our hotel. They left us outside the front door, where there was a security guard. We climbed up the two flights of stairs to the lobby section, where we were ambushed by Mr. Gunman himself. There were a couple of factors at play here: the late hour, the alcohol consumption, his accent and rapid pace of speech, and my general pissed off state. As a result I didn’t catch too much of his long garbled speech. Some highlights included the moment when he pulled back his jacket to actually show us the gun, his admission that he had to fire in the air because his pepper spray wasn’t having the desired effect on a supposed mugger, and his entreaty that we shouldn’t worry because he had been a soldier for ten years. I nodded mutely, then asked if we could please go to bed now and could he please refrain from any more shooting this evening. He assented to both requests, and we walked the ten feet to our room where I fell into a deep, deep sleep within a minute of lying down.

The next thing I knew Christie was shaking me awake and telling me I had to put on some pants because the police were at the door. It was approximately 5am and waking up felt like trying to swim to the surface of a deep and murky bog. Once conscious, I had to triple check that I was not still dreaming. But no, there was a loud threatening knocking coming from the room door. I dragged on jeans and opened it. I think my sleepiness was actually an asset here, as it allowed me to remain somewhat mellow in a pretty tense situation. There were three uniformed policemen with rifles slung over their shoulders, and one other aggressive man in plain clothes, who immediately began peering anxiously into the room as if expecting to see the gunman’s shoes peeking out from under the bed. The manager of the hotel was actually in tears, pacing up and down the hall asking why they couldn’t just leave his guests alone, just leave them ALONE. The un-uniformed guy wanted to know where our friend was. He was talking about Geraint, a male volunteer who had left the club before the gunshots. I showed him the room where he was sleeping, and then argued with him until he let me be the one to try and wake Geraint up. I wanted to prevent Geraint’s head from exploding in confusion. As I was knocking on Geraint’s door and explaining the situation, Christie was updating the police about our earlier encounter with the gunman. It wasn’t clear who was in charge or what exactly they were looking for, and the manager’s repeated wails weren’t helping anything. After another quick look around the rooms they were apparently satisfied that no, this was not a Die Hard movie and no, we were not harboring an armed fugitive. They all got involved in an animated conversation and seemed to forget about us until I actually tugged on the sleeve of one of the policemen, and asked if I could please go back to sleep now. He said that was fine.

The next morning I looked out our room window to see Mr. Gunman and his family packing up their station wagon. In fact, they had a flat tire and so spent a good twenty minutes milling around on the street about forty feet away from the club. Then they all piled in and headed off. The scene reminded of me of The Griswalds or something. Something wholesome and innocent. I heard a few different versions of what had happened. He and his family had been guests of the hotel, so one would assume the police had managed to come across him in their dramatic pre-dawn raid. So why was he joking around on the street and driving away with his family? The most likely answer is that money changed hands somewhere, and all charges were dropped.

This story could have happened to me anywhere in the world. There’s no accounting for wackos. I’m sure the probability was much higher that I would encounter gunfire as I walked home from work in the Bronx than it is anywhere in Uganda. But this incident is a symptom of an undercurrent that runs beneath all the smiling children and growing crops and government initiatives in Uganda.

In one of my first weeks here I was walking along the main road with Cynthia to go and visit a student. It was a sunny day and we entered an avenue of Eucalyptus trees that provided some dappled shade. We heard the repeated beeping of an approaching boda-boda (motorbike) and stepped over to the side of the road. The bike came whizzing around the corner. Behind the driver sat another passenger, with the body of a young man slumped across his lap. The man’s head was hanging and bobbing, his eyes closed and mouth slack. You could immediately tell that he was dead. They were obviously in a rush, and I wondered to where? For what?

Some medical volunteers had the chance to witness the birth of a baby at Bududa Hospital back in April. The poor woman was pregnant with twins, and had already delivered one still-born in a local clinic before being transported to the hospital. A volunteer described how the mid-wife asked the volunteer to answer her cell phone for her, and hold it up to her ear so she could have a conversation while her hands were inside the woman, trying to get the baby into a suitable position. The second baby died as well, and the woman was left lying on a blanket on the floor until a family member came to clean her up.

A few days ago I got an email from a friend who had come to Mbale to visit me, and then traveled on to Kampala. Her matatu from Jinja to Kampala got a flat tire at 70 mph, swerved off the road and rolled repeatedly. Several people died. She was lucky and alive and crawled out the back window and was picked up by a passing vehicle and delivered into the caring arms of the Peace Corps in Kampala. God knows what happened to the others in a country where I’ve seen a total of three ambulances.

I’ve been lucky here in Uganda, in lots of ways. I have come by absolutely no harm, not even a stomach bug. In fact, apart from the odd case of fleas, my health has been on the up and up here. I have felt safe 99.9% of the time. But then again, I’m white. This has two important meanings. Firstly, it means that I am part of the ex-pat and volunteer community that has, comparatively speaking, lots of money. We can hire security guards and buy health insurance and own cars, or can at least hire one in an emergency, and pay the hospital bills. Worst case scenario we can fly to Nairobi or Johannesburg or London or home. Secondly, due to a complex interplay of traditional hospitality, colonial echoes, and the good-natured assumption that we’re all here to help, the mzungu life is privileged here. I always have Ugandans looking out for me, Ugandans who don’t know me at all. It’s like reverse racism. Or maybe it’s just plain old racism, except I can invoke the defense that I didn’t ask for any special treatment.

But this is still a developing country, and death in all its forms is more commonplace than in the States. That’s kind of a mundane and obvious conclusion, but it becomes more dramatic when you see it up close. There are vital systems and protections missing. There is no 911. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, but it was only about 40 years ago that Uganda suffered the brutal and largely lawless regime of Idi Amin. It’s still a living memory. President Museveni recently did a tour of the country to promote his reelection for a fourth eleven-year presidential term. He’s been in power since 1986. He came to a nearby village and we took a group of kids to see him. The rally was supposed to start at 9:30am. We showed up at about 11am and endured several hours of rain. We all played the ‘how many people can fit under an umbrella’ game. The President showed up at about 3:30pm. The wait time gave me a chance to get a good low down on Ugandan politics from Thomas, the school’s headmaster, and Teacher Nelson. They were of the opinion that, even in a completely free and fair election, Museveni would win again. I wondered out loud why a country would want to let its head office slink towards dictatorship like that, and Teacher Nelson brought up the point that Ugandans are still comparing this regime to what came before. Why rock the somewhat stable boat when you are haunted by images of random gunmen shooting innocent civilians, disappearances, and torture?

Like so much else in Uganda, progress in the arenas of healthcare, road safety, law enforcement, is there, but slowly, slowly. My experience here has allowed me rapid shifts in perception between glass half empty, glass half full. I think that’s probably the nature of development, and I think Uganda’s glass holds a lot more than many other African nations. But I know one thing for sure; I’m not going to be heading to Club Oasis again anytime soon.

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 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.

It started raining pretty much the second that the last student left the shelter of the school compound and headed down the muddy path towards the football field, two kilometers away. I brought up the tail-end of the scraggly line of students and teachers—some kitted out in track pants and cleats, some in skirts and blouses, some in their school uniforms. They walked in little giggling clumps, primary with secondary, boys with girls. A group of unfortunate P6 and P7 students struggled to carry the heavy metal netball hoops down the hill. Nabutere Sarah relieved me of the plastic bag I was carrying, containing my gum boots and rain jacket, and raced on ahead. I appreciated her kind gesture until the light drizzle turned into a full-on downpour and I was left sodden and mud-bound a half a kilometer from our destination. Rachel the librarian and I slipped and sloshed our way along, and I watched my feet slowly change to a reddish-brown color and my flip-flops gain a two-inch platform of clay.

Hardy students transport the netball hoops

Many close-calls later we emerged into the vibrant green bowl of Betunia football field. We were surrounded by mist-draped mountains and banana trees which had been battered in the recent storms. Clouds hung heavily over us, obscuring any idea of the sun. The uneven field had developed crater lakes and waterfalls, and the ankle length grass was thick with rain. Rows of bedraggled students huddled under the thin ledges of the nearby houses, while others had competitions to see how many people you can actually fit under one umbrella. You’d be surprised. Apparently Ugandan umbrellas, like Ugandan vehicles, have the same magical capacity as Mary Poppins’ bag.

The occasion was the primary vs. secondary sports day, and there was no ‘weather permitting’ clause attached to it. I don’t think Uganda would survive the advent of a ‘weather permitting’ clause—the country would have to cancel approximately half of its events. This sports day tradition started last term break, when the secondary students returned for their community service hours at AAH, and were thrashed by the grade seven boys in a friendly football match. They apparently spent the last term nursing a strong sense of resentment, and were out for blood this time.

As the boys warmed up in their dripping sports-wear, doing very impressive coordinated knee-ups and squats and the like, we gave the girls a chance to get aggressive with a secondary one vs. secondary two netball game. I have vague memories of netball from my days in a British prep school in Kenya. One could compare it to basketball without the dribbling, and lots of complicated off-side type rules. I remember it as quite a genteel game, along the lines of bowls or something. Apparently, I remember wrong. It was pouring rain, and the girls were wearing an assortment of giant polyester sports shorts, traditional netball skirts, button-down shirts, t-shirts, tank tops and basically anything that would stay on. As the game got underway, so did the yelling and screaming and leaping and slipping. The girls were like Olympian athletes going for the gold, with heroic twists and turns, full frontal mud-slides, interceptions and dramatic shoot-outs. And my god, the falls! Girls crashing into huge puddles and throwing up waterfalls of water and emerging with mud running down their faces and hands still clutched tightly around the ball. I felt like I was watching a Nike commercial or something. As the rain increased, so did their sense of abandonment, and I thought somebody was going to break something, or drown, or both. I was glued to it. The game ended with a major upset: the senior ones won by a point, or a basket, or a net, or whatever it’s called.

X-treme netball

The girls then channeled their frenzied energy into becoming the secondary boys’ impromptu cheerleading squad as the football game began. The recent donation of some spiffy new football uniforms and cleats left the primary boys with the definite upper hand when it came to appearance. As the girls had just clearly proved, however, appearance matters very little in situations like this one. I’ve watched my fair share of professional football, especially in the World Cup season, and I appreciate the kind of elegant choreography of a well-played game. I’ve also watched my fair share of amateur football on various school playing-fields, and understand that the game can quickly develop into a herd of frustrated youngsters valiantly following the ball wherever it may go, and getting hopelessly tangled in each other. As the boys jogged onto the field and fanned out to take up very specific positions, and the ref called in the captains for a coin-toss, I began to understand that I was about to see something special. I swear to God I felt like I had a side-line seat at one of the British Premier League games that gets half of Uganda so riled up. It was all there; the dribbling, the tackling, the headers, the bicycle kicks, the fouls, the dives, the t-shirt-over-head celebrations. Add in the driving rain, the encroaching mist, and the several ponds that had formed on the field, and we had ourselves a game.

The secondary girls chanted and sung and performed vague dance moves. Teacher Phoebe nearly gave herself an aneurysm screaming and dancing, and Teacher Godfrey sprinted up and down the length of the pitch, flicking more and more mud onto his pristine white t-shirt, and belting out instructions. The spectators kept getting over-excited and inching forward. There were no lines to indicate where the pitch began, so we had to rely on a determined student who patrolled up and down with a stick, swatting us all back. Occasionally the ball got chipped into the crowd, and we all scattered as the players came thundering through after it. As with all teams, these had their MVPs. The secondary boys had Nabuyaka, who had earlier informed me that he was going to become a professional footballer. At the time I had suppressed my smug little teacher smile that always accompanies such declarations from students, but as I watched the game I wondered. He somehow managed to be everywhere the ball was. He seemed at ease with all the positions on the field and inordinately skilled for a kid in the equivalent of 9th grade. He had a worthy adversary in George, a grade seven boy who stands about 6’3” and performs vicious tackles with the most good-natured face I’ve ever come across.

Teacher Phoebe = cheerleader extraordinaire

It was an extremely close game. Secondary boys scored first, and the girls shrieked like banshees and raced onto the field and there was much cart-wheeling and fist shaking and jumping onto each others’ backs. It was pretty clear that the boys had studied more than the playing tactics of their favorite Premier League stars—they had the whole show down. But, the primary boys soon retaliated, and their goal induced general mayhem on the field for a good five minutes. Adults and kids joined together in running around the pitch and I thought Teacher Phoebe was going to pass out for real. Although I had spent the last two weeks supervising the secondary kids in their community service program, my heart belongs to primary. Grade seven might also be the greatest collection of human beings on the planet, and as they made up the majority of the primary team, I was smitten. I seem to have inherited my mother’s tendency to scream obscenities during any sporting event to which I feel a slight attachment, so I had to watch my mouth. I got into it though, and followed closely from the safety of Teacher Michael’s umbrella (I believe I was the ninth person to take shelter under it).

The climax came in the second half, at one-all, when it appeared as if the secondary boys had scored again. The girls repeated their demented cheerleader act and we got another dose of the theatrical celebrations. The primary students slumped against each other under their umbrellas and shook their heads. But wait, what was this? There was some sort of commotion around the goal and Teacher Phoebe came charging up the field from her position in the thick of the action: “They kicked him! They kicked the goalie!” she cried. She was backed-up by the referee. In a callus act of sabotage, a secondary boy had apparently given the goalie a good wallop on the shins, and then taken advantage of his crumpled state to tap the ball across the line. Shame. The goal was denied, and we were back to one-all.

They played the full ninety minutes. I’m pretty sure the un-cut grass, sheets of rain, and undefined pitch boundaries made the game significantly more demanding than usual, but you couldn’t tell from the unflagging persistence of the players. The game ended in a draw, with the poor exhausted boys limping off the field, contemplating their soaked clothing and the walk back to the school. Spirits were high though. In a marked contrast to American teenagers, high spirits seem to be the default mode of all Ugandan adolescents, actually of Ugandan children in general.

Spiffy Primary Team

Zany Secondary Team

Afterwards, Teacher Phoebe and Godfrey earnestly discussed how this really was a victory for us if you think of the fact that those boys are still in primary and don’t even have a proper field to train on. I watched as the students began to leave the field, watched as everyone gallantly strode through the mini-landslides and dragged the equipment and wrung out their clothing. I think as a teacher, contemplating a day of organized sports in the pouring rain is the equivalent of sitting down in front of five class sets of grammar tests you have to grade. It could have been a terrible day. But it wasn’t. No amount of organization or planning can take the place of good spirits and a willingness to suck it up and get on with it. These kids have that in spades. After some fussing and picture taking and retreival of clothing we were ready to head back to school, and of course, as soon as we set foot off the field, the rain stopped and the sun came out.