Monthly Archives: September 2013

Outdoor Showers and Squat Toilets

In Uganda the Pathfinders are basically camping.  The two allowances of modernity are our concrete home and foam mattresses.  When we arrived the house was not connected to the grid so we had an hour or so of generated electricity—on the days we did not run out of gas.  For a couple days we have been connected to the grid, so I guess there are three allowances.  We readjusted to the light very easily. 

Laundry handing in a gated grount yard.The house is plenty large—two public rooms and two bedrooms.  But our only furniture, besides the four beds, are a long, narrow table, four plastic chairs, and what I call the “comfy chair.”  The comfy chair is reclined, padded, and an acceptable place for a nap.  The floors are untreated concrete that is usually covered in a thin layer of dirt that has blown in or we have tracked in.  We leave our shoes outside, but inevitably dirt comes in on our feet.  And we are coming in and out a lot.  Our living conditions include a real live outhouse. 

A single pot sized karosene stove.There is not running water.  Well, technically there is.  There is a tap outside from which we fill two jerrycans—when the water is flowing.  Most of the time the water is not flowing.  Our tap is a bit down the line and if too many people up the line have their taps open we get no water.  Which is pretty much all the daylight hours.  So if we forget to fill the jerrycans before we go to bed we might not have enough water the next day.  For the last few days, even that has not been possible.  Yesterday we had to take the jerrycans to the school to fill them or we would have nothing to drink.  Yes.  We drink the water from the tap.  Michelle’s Steripen has come become quite useful.  Ugandans, however, do drink unsterilized water from the tap.  I wonder if getting sick from the water is just a part of life or if they do not get sick from the water at all. 

In addition to drinking water, from the jerricans we get water for cooking, showering, and washing our clothes.  Cooking a meal can take up to two hours because only one pot can be over the flame at a time.  To get the kerosene—called paraffin here—we take a used water bottle to the gas station. 

Two outdoor concrete shower stalls in the background with the door to a outhouse in the foreground. I have not felt truly clean since being in Uganda.  Just turning the tap and being showered in water is so much a part of daily life in the US that I had not realized what a luxury it is.  There is a indoor shower off the guys room, but we have not used it.  The only difference between it and the outside shower area is that is is smaller.  Next to the outhouses there are two concrete shower stalls.  They are mostly private, but if you step in the wrong place someone might get a show.  That someone one is not necessarily another Pathfinder.  One day when I was about to bathe I noticed a young man sitting on a neighbor’s wall.  I looked at the angles and realized I’d have to change how I’d been washing my hair if I didn’t want him to see me.  A dressed muzungu is a sight to behold.  Imagine a naked one!  To bathe, you have to fill a plastic bucket with water from a jerrycan and carry it to the shower stall.  Then using a cup pour the water over yourself.  It takes some ingenuity to figure out how to not waste water but also not contaminate the clean water.  If you want a warm shower you can leave the bucket in the sun for an hour or so before you bathe, but that is only really possible on Saturdays and Sundays when we are not getting home from school between 5:30 and 6. 

Inside of a squat toilet outhouse. Clean clothes are also missing from my life.  I wash my clothes.  But if the grimy color of the rinse water is any indication, I don’t think they get very clean.  Cleaning clothes involves a series of soaking, hand washing, and rinsing then drying on the line we’ve hung between a tree and the gate.  And it uses a lot of the precious water.  I don’t really mind the work, but I miss how clean machine laundered clothes are.  I am not very good at hand washing clothes. 

The outhouses (there are two) are the worst part of our situation—and even they are not so bad.  They are squat toilets.  We do have to weather the rain to get to them occasionally.  But they don’t smell as bad as they could.  The concrete hole is a little small—about 4×4 inches—but there is a small broom and small jerrycan of water provided to clean up after yourself if you miss.  What makes them the worst is the cockroaches.  The huge cockroaches.  The huge cockroaches that live in the pit and come out at night.  During the day the outhouses are not that bad.  At night they are gross.  I spend too much of my time strategically avoiding using the outhouses after dark.

That’s Kasese

“That’s Kasese.”  This is my current mantra.  This is how I am attempting to keep my sanity in a confusing new culture.  At Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda, where the Pathfinders are volunteering this month, every time I think I have a toehold something happens that makes me lose my grip. 

Let me explain.  On the first day of term a timetable was drawn up and the classes divvied up among the teachers.  To me, it seemed a little late to be informing the teaching staff what they would be teaching when the students were already in the classrooms.  And the timetable itself has no rhyme or reason, to my eyes.  To illustrate, I am the Religious Education teacher.  I teach religion to levels P4, P5, and P6.  According to the timetable, on Mondays I meet with all three levels; on Wednesdays I meet with P4 and P6; and on Fridays I meet with P6.  Did you do the math?  This means I meet with P6 three times a week and P5 once.  I don’t understand the logic of this.  But the timetable seems to have little bearing on the teaching schedule anyway.  On the first day of term, after the timetable was set, I wrote down my schedule—so I would know when and where I needed to teach.  It is over a week later and I have not yet taught a class at the time I supposed I should.  That’s Kasese.

Here there is a single classroom for each grade and the teachers come to the students.  Every time I come to class when I think I am scheduled, another teacher is still teaching.   So I linger outside to let them finish.  But they don’t.  I return to the library where I spend my non-teaching time.  At some point later in the day a teacher or more often a student will fetch me from the library telling me it’s time to teach.  Somehow the Ugandan teachers and students know this secret timetable that I am not privy to.  When the timetable does seem to be in effect, it runs late.  Ten minutes late one day.  Twenty minutes late another.  This too the teachers and students are all aware of when I am confused.  That’s Kasese.

All this means I must be ready to teach any subject at any time that I am on campus.  Even classes I was not aware I was meant to be teaching.  Today the head teacher approached Ben and me during lunch to tell us that P7 Humanism was meeting after lunch.  This is a humanist school and Pathfinders Project is a humanist service trip so naturally we have been asked to teach humanism seminars.  The two we’ve taught so far have been 80 minute blocks for all the upper students. P7 was present for the first meeting but not the second.  When the head teacher told us we were teaching P7 in a matter of minutes it was the first we’d heard of it.  We said as much and he asked if we were not prepared.  Our only option was to repeat the lesson plan for the seminar we’d already taught that P7 was not present for, but we did not have our notes or lesson plan available.  Finally we decided we would not teach Humanism today.  This means that tomorrow we can expect to teach Humanism whenever we are beckoned.  That’s Kasese. 

As I was writing this, I was asked by the head teacher to teach P7 English right that minute, though I have never taught P7 English.  I had another class in ten minutes so I could not.  The reason I did not teach P7 is not that I was unprepared for it, which I was, but that there was a scheduling conflict.  In the class I did teach, my regular P5 English class, it was test day.  When I got to class there were ten brand new students.  That’s Kasese. 

I am not saying these things to necessarily put down KHPS or their system.  I do believe there is a system.  I simply do not understand it.  There is some procedure happening here that the teachers and students are at ease with that I am not.  I can only understand this routine by accepting it and excepting that I will be confused by it.  I must answer only, “That’s Kasese,” because if I look for a sensible—to my mind—explanation I will go mad. 

This is a cultural misunderstanding—of the subtlest variety.  I am in a situation that I feel should be within my understanding.  It feels so familiar—so much like my experience of school in the United States.  Yet at every turn, where I expect the familiar I only find confusion.  It is like a childhood tune played with every note a half higher—every tenth note an octave.  What makes this a true culture clash is that I—and I suspect the Ugandans as well—don’t understand what the problem is.  I look at the system and see chaos.  They look at me, I imagine, and wonder why I am having so much trouble embodying the system.  My unease is only exacerbated by my strong personal desire to be fully prepped for the classroom.  I am not yet comfortable in the classroom and without a plan I am wholly uncomfortable.  When I am thrown into the classroom in the KHPS way, unexpectedly, I am doubly thrown off balance.  All I can do is remind myself that I am the alien here.  When I feel lost, when my classroom is occupied, or when I am beckoned for surprise teaching, I tell myself, “That’s Kasese.”


I am a muzungu.  I know this.  I have been white—whatever that means—since I was born.  But the children—and some adults—of Kasese, Uganda feel the need to remind me.  As I walk down the street my personal soundtrack is often, “Muzungu!  Muzungu!  Muzungu!” on repeat.  When I answer “Muzungu” with “hello” almost invariably the response is “I'm fine.”  It seems that somewhere along the line Ugandan kids learn that “I'm fine” is the response to a greeting.  Not the response to the specific greeting, “How are you?”

Young girl in a field staring at the camera.The children who don't shout stare.  If we Pathfinders ever linger in one place for longer than a minute a crowd of children gathers.  Some children keep a safe distance.  They move in a synchronized dance keeping the same buffer between us and them.  They stay as close as they safely can without getting too far away to get a good view of the muzungus.  Other children are bolder.  They march right up to us and poke our skin or feel our arm hair.  In the market on our first day in town, a young boy grabbed my hand and examined each of my fingers individually.  His mother and I laughed about it.  When we visited a fishing village the next day a girl held my hand as we walked around.  For a while she was holding Ben's hand as well.  When it was time to leave she gripped my hand tighter.  I had to try to pull my hand up and out of her reach, but she just held on harder.  When she was on her tippy-toes I thought she might make me lift her off the ground.  She let go just before liftoff.     

These are our interactions with young children who are strangers we meet on the street.  At Kasese Humanist Primary School, where we are volunteering this month, the situation is slightly different.  We are still stared at everywhere we go—at least in the classroom this is an advantage—but the students have been instructed not to call us muzungu.  So they don't—at least not when they think we can hear them.  Young girl sitting in front of a door staring at the camera.When they see us out of class, especially the younger students who have less direct contact with us, instead of “Muzungu!  Muzungu!  Muzungu!” we are asked “How are you?”  Which is an improvement, though sometimes this question is put on repeat as well.  “How are you? How are you? How are you?”  We are not even given time to answer.  When the head teacher told the school at the first day assembly not to call us muzungu, he asked the students how they would feel if they visited the United States and couldn't walk down the street without hearing, “African!  African!  African!”  I wonder if this guided empathy landed anywhere for these students.  It's likely they were too distracted by the four muzungus next to him to hear a word he said. 




Young Monks

Our departure from Cambodia is bittersweet.  Goodbyes are always difficult, but not being able to express to the children we were teaching how much I will miss them makes this goodbye harder than usual.  Toddler riding on back of a bicycle with his mother. With many of these kids we were still working on the ABC’s.  Some of these youngest kids still answer “yes” when we ask “how are you?”  With the older kids we can have simple conversations, but we do not share the vocabulary to explain how much their enthusiasm brightens my day.  Cambodian’s do not raise their hands as we in the west do.  They raise their pointer fingers, much as we do to declare, “I am number 1!”  At first I was confused by the student’s need to so adamantly affirm themselves to me.  I had to laugh at myself when I realized my mistake.  I will miss this gesture.  We taught the kids to high five and I will miss the 40 tiny high fives I received at the end of each day and the many shy giggles as they scampered away after.  

For one week we left Siem Reap to teach in a remote village in Kampong Thom province.  In Siem Reap children on the street greet us with a choir of “hello hello hello” until we answer.  In Kampong Thom, the children are so unused to seeing foreigners that many of the toddlers cried when they saw us.  We stayed with the regular English teacher, Chea, without running water or mattresses.  His electricity was provided by a car battery.  To use the restroom we had to walk two doors down and scare the chickens away to use the squat toilet behind the house.  At night the neighbors tied their cows up under their house.  I will not miss these things.  To eat we sat on the floor around communal pots of rice and stir-fry.  The meals we had in Kampong Thom are likely my favorite meals we had in Cambodia—bones and all.  The meals were made with ducks and chickens from the yard—freshly slaughtered.  We were offered dog, but we didn’t want to eat a dog we knew.  Outdoor schoolroom. Classes started at 6am so that the students could work in the rice fields after.  The classroom has no walls, a thatched roof, and a weathered dry-erase board.  The floor beneath the desks is mostly puddles that grow with every rainfall.   

I will miss the pagoda in Siem Reap where many of the monks were as enthusiastic to greet us as the kids were, though they could not show their enthusiasm as the kids could.  On the last day we had a going away party.  After eating homemade curry, complete with chicken feet and congealed blood pieces, we played keep away in the courtyard.  While we were playing I noticed a young monk watching us.  He was smiling and enjoying our game.  I couldn’t help wondering if he wanted to join in.  Monks can’t play games.  And most young monks in Cambodia have put on the orange robes because their families are poor.  Becoming a monk is a way of easing hardship for the family and the young monk easily has enough food to eat—even though monks don’t eat anything after lunch.  One of the monks we taught in Kampong Thom could not have been older than six.  It must be difficult at times for these young monks who are not monks because of any strong religious calling, but because of familial obligation.  We couldn’t even play educational games with them.  

I started by saying that leaving Cambodia is bittersweet.  There are so many people and experiences I regret leaving behind.  But there are so many memories and friendships I am taking with me.  I can only hope Uganda is as stimulating as Cambodia.