Monthly Archives: October 2013

Barbed Wire Fences

Almost every window in Uganda is protected by bars. Pretty, decorative bars, but bars nonetheless. The doors too are barred. While I am used to only screen doors protecting my regular doors in the States—if anything at all—most regular doors here are protected by bars. Alternatively, the regular door itself is made from heavy duty metal.

In Busota there is barbed wire everywhere. Barbed wire tops the walls that surround the more expensive homes. Fences are made from barbed wire strung between wooden posts. At Mustard Seed Secondary School there is barbed wire strung between some bushes to stop you from walking between them. Between most of the bushes the barbed wire is not visible, but even where it is visible I have almost walked into it several times. Next to the school canteen there is a triangle made from barbed wire. Until this weekend, I could not figure out why this exists. The wires hang too high for a corral—besides I never saw an animal inside. There is only grass inside the triangle that is the exact same as the grass outside it. The area is too small to be useful for any kind of game or activity I can think of. Triangle barbed wire clotheslineOn Saturday, when we arrived at school to plant trees around campus with some of the students, several of the boarding students were doing their laundry. They were hanging it on the barbed wire triangle. So that's what it's for. It seems like such a bad idea. One strong gust of wind and your shirt is torn. I watched someone tear a sock open just hanging it. For me, barbed wire would be my emergency clothes line—not the material I put up specifically for drying my clothes. I guess you don't need clothing pins though. That's one advantage.

With barbed wire everywhere and most of the windows protected with bars and those who can afford to erecting walls around their property, Busota can feel rather threatening. It's not as if anything has happened. It's not like I've even felt in real danger here. Quite the opposite. The people here are more than friendly.  We cannot arrive at a new location without chairs being gathered for us—even if we are only staying five minutes. Clothing hanging on barbed wire. Teachers go out of their way to greet us each morning. We are invited to our neighbor's homes for meals.  The owner of our guest house took a few hours out of his Sunday to give us a tour of the area. It was not the case in Kasese, but in Busota we rarely feel we are being given a “muzungu price” in the market.  Busota is welcoming.   

But the near-constant presence of barbed wire and barred windows makes me feel like I should be on edge. Is Busota dangerous? There is a reason why people here feel the need to use them right? I guess it shouldn't be that jarring—knowing Uganda's history. It wasn't too long ago that Idi Amin's government reigned in terror—when anyone at anytime could be pulled from their home never to return. It wasn't too long ago that in the wake of Amin's reign that Muslims could be massacred by their neighbors in fits of misguided vengeance. With this terror in living memory it's no wonder that Ugandans want to surround themselves with barbed wire and live within homemade cages—not to lock themselves in but to keep the bad guys out.   

Unmarried State of Life

Whenever I took out my camera around the kids at Kasese Humanist Primary School I was mobbed.  “Madame!  Madame!  Madame!  Take one of me!  Take one of me!”  Usually it is the kids who want their picture taken and to see themselves on the digital screen.  But it did not surprise me when a teacher asked me take his photo while I was taking pictures of the kids playing soccer in PE.  “Take my picture,” he said, “you can give it to your brother.”  I explained that I do not have brother, but that I could take his photo anyway.  He declined.  I was confused—I remain confused—by this interaction.  

My own hypothesis at the time was that he wanted to marry me.  From my other discussions about Ugandan marriage it has become clear, to me, that the decision to marry is ultimately an agreement between the man and the woman's family.  Nothing can move forward without this permission.  So, I assumed, the teacher needed me to give his photo to my brother for approval.  Plus, the teacher asked three times in the conversation if I would be willing to move to Uganda permanently.  Between the odd photo request and the probes to see if I would move here, I concluded that he wanted marriage.  Why else would he want my brother to have his photo?  I do not like this hypothesis, however.  I feel conceited for even thinking it.  

In conversation with the other Pathfinders I have a new hypothesis:  the teacher assumed that Conor is my brother and was working an angle.  It was part of his scheme to get Conor to sponsor his football team in Kasese.  For much of the rest of the conversation the teacher was trying to elicit me to help persuade Conor.  Conor, for some reason, more than the rest of us is constantly being asked for money because he is muzungu.  But that story is for him to tell.

Football was not the only thing the teacher and I talked about, however.  The teacher asked me if I had a husband, a fiance, or a child—in that order.  Each negative answer elicited from him what I call the Ugandan squeak—a short, high-pitched noise to indicate disbelief.  My unmarried, childless state shocked him.  Why was I not working harder to alleviate this situation?  Instead of messing around with this Pathfinders Project experiment? 

Since leaving Kasese I have stumbled upon more information about this attitude about marriage in Uganda.  While at Mustard Seed Secondary School, I am reading a textbook (yes for fun) from the library that is intended for A-level Religious Education.  It is about Christian approaches to ethical and social issues.  This is a book written specifically to be taught to Ugandan students.  Reading it illuminates where some of these attitudes are coming from.

Not surprisingly there is an assumption of marriage in the book—marriage with children.  Fifteen characteristics of a happy marriage are listed.  The first one is—“one that is blessed with children as they are regarded as important elements of the family.”  Isn't that what the teacher was implying? 

Most illuminating for my discussion with the teacher is the section about the “unmarried state of life,” which is included to continue the argument for the necessity of marriage.  The teacher shared his assumption that my parents must be upset with me since I have not yet managed to marry or have children.  He asked me why I have not yet married or at least found a fiance, but my answer that I had other priorities was not acceptable.  He repeated the question again in different ways as the conversation progressed.  Maybe he was looking for one of the answers from the book.  Some of the listed causes for the unmarried state of life are totally reasonable to me—because of religious vocation, failure to find a suitable partner, finishing school, or past bad relationships.  Others I understand, even if do not find them acceptable—failure to raise money for a bride price, fear of responsibilities, fear of sexually transmitted diseases, having had children out of wedlock, or having engaged in pre-marital sex.  

But some of the causes defy logic:  

“There are some people who wish to live a single life so that they can commit immoral behaviors such as prostitutes, murderer's [sic], thieves etc.”

“The family background in terms of habits, behaviors and practices for example being a witch, a night dancer, practicing cannibalism etc … may deter one from getting a marriage partner.”

This completely explains the teachers reaction to learning of my unmarried state of life.  I inadvertently revealed my uncontrollable bloodlust and tendency to eat my victims.  No wonder he is concerned.  

What is interesting is that the book calls on traditional African culture to support its position.  Up to this point in the textbook all support has been contemporary norms or biblical passages.  The book explains that in traditional Africa bachelors and spinsters were not considered serious people.  They were selfish and greedy—they were a great burden to their relatives.  More importantly, they were considered young “despite their real age.  Marriage was a necessary step to move from child hood [sic] to adult hood [sic].”  Because they were not mature, no matter what their age, spinsters and bachelors “were not allowed to participate in leadership and society management.”  On this point the textbook explains that this is still the case in most societies in western Uganda.  It even points out that in America an unmarried person can run for president but in traditional Africa the “unmarried were never allowed to talk in public” let alone run for office.  I've heard of a Ugandan ambassador to the US who was unmarried.  This same man later tried to run for president as a 64-year-old bachelor, but didn't make a good showing.  The person who told me about this explained that they knew he could not make a good president because a man who shied from the responsibilities of marriage would not be prepared for the responsibilities of state.  How could the nation trust his competence to rule if he was unmarried?  Anyway, I'd like to see an unmarried American run for president.  While technically possible, I don't see it happening anytime soon.  

But I've gone off track.  Back to traditional Africa.  The book explains that unmarried (is that like the undead?) were given no respect in life and no respect in death:

“The unmarried people were humiliated during burial […] among the Banyankole they would be buried far a way [sic] from home more especially in the swamp so that the wild animals could eat their dead bodies.  Among the Batooro they would pass the dead body through the back door or cut a hole through the wall.  Besides they would bury the dead body with the banana stem so that the spirit of the dead would not come back to disturb the married ones.  In some societies the dead body would be caned before burial […].  All this humiliation was aimed at discouraging the practice of celibacy.”  

Why should bachelors and spinsters get respect, anyway?  When they were unquestionably immoral?  The book says so:

“The celibates were considered to be wrong elements in society.  They were always the first suspects for any immoral act in society.  For example cases of theft, sex misuse etc. were always suspected on the unmarried.”

Even an afterlife was closed to them.

“Life after death was expected only through the birth of children, the bachelors and spinsters were not expected to resurrect.  Their death would mean total death and no resurrection at all.”

The teacher alluded to something similar when we were talking.  If a woman dies childless, he informed me, no one knows where she goes—meaning heaven or hell.

I have no idea how accurate this portrayal of traditional African marriage is.  I would imagine there was a large variety of practices and beliefs even in just the area that in now Uganda.  But if this is what is being taught, the teacher's, and other's, concern for my unmarried state of life makes sense.  How can I be happy?  I am clearly immoral.  I am immature.  I will have no afterlife.  

The unmarried state of life section hits home.  This is my state, which I am often reminded of and pitied for.  The teacher never asked my age, but explained that in Uganda once women reach 27 they begin to worry that they will never be married or have children.  Just today a Mustard Seed another teacher confirmed this age.  He told me of a woman he knew who at the shocking old age of 27 is just now getting married.  He explained that she has been in school and was therefore improving herself, so the delay was justified.  It was still very old though. 

But, when I say I am often reminded of and pitied for my unmarried state I don't mean just in Uganda.  Though not as directly as in Uganda, my marital status comes up in the States all the time.  Though there is not an assumption that I am married, the increasingly common questions as I near 30 imply a similar underlying concern for my state of unmarriage.  “Do I hear wedding bells?”  “When are you taking the plunge?”  “Any progress on the dating front?”  I am able to write off the perpetual Ugandan concern for my unmarried, childless state as just another cultural difference.  The pity coming from within my own culture is quite different.  

 

Coming soon—a post solely about the Christian Ethics book and its discussions about sex, homosexuality, white people, and Christians in politics—to name a few.     

Real Questions from Ugandan Students

This morning Michelle and I were asked to do a Q&A with the students.  At first it was pretty banal, but the discussion quickly moved into dangerous territory.  Strangely, the first dozen or so questions were about computers.  What is a computer?  What is an input device?  What is the time function in MS-DOS?  The students weren’t seeking information.  They knew the answers to these questions.  They were quizzing us.  They were looking through their computer class notes and finding questions to ask us.  And we were failing.  We were not giving the “correct” answers.  Learning here is by rote and we were not giving the rote definitions that they had learned.  I wonder what they think of the competence of the visiting, American teachers.  

After explaining to them that they could ask us about anything—the US, traveling, humanism, ourselves—we got a few more computer questions.  But after that we started getting some real, seeking information, questions.  When you travel from the US does your time change?  What is different in the US?  What is the weather like in the US?  Is it true that there are trains that travel underground?  Who is the president of Mexico?  I had to explain that I am from NEW Mexico, one of the 50 states of the United States, not Mexico.  This is not uncommon.  I think many people do not hear the “New” when I tell them where I am from and are understandably unaware of New Mexico’s existence.  (This happens in the US too.  There I am not so forgiving.)  

Having tested the water, they started asking some real, serious questions.  Is there AIDS in the US?  Are there “street children” in the US?  Is there corruption in the US?  Sign that reads "I like free thought and free inquiry."Can Americans marry non-Americans?  Is marriage in the US like marriage in Uganda?  Here Michelle explained about dates, dating, engagements, and marriage.  She made sure to mention that bride prices are very rare.  Neither of us talked about the pre-marriage cohabitation rate.  

Then came the real, controversial questions.  Is it true that men can marry men in America?  The answer is easy.  Yes.  In some, but not all, states men can marry men.  But answering the question is difficult.  Uganda is extremely homophobic.  Some legislators have been trying to pass a bill for several years that would make homosexual activity a capital offense.  The bill has a lot of popular support.  We simply affirmed that men can marry men in the US hoping to leave it at that.  The students were not ready to move on yet, however.  How many homosexuals are there?  What causes homosexuality?  How can they be allowed when it is wrong?  Another tricky answer.  I said, referring to an earlier discussion about race and immigration in the US, that the US is founded on a principle of equality.  This means that all people whether they are male, female, Christian, Islamic, black, white, or yes, homosexual have equal rights.  I put on my rose-colored glasses to answer that one.  Then the question that all these questions had been leading to:  Do you like doing those things?  Um.  How do I answer?  If I say “yes” will I be lynched?  If I say “no” will I be believed?  The answer is “none of your business,” which is what I would have said if the Ugandan teacher in the room hadn’t shut down the line of questioning first.  

So we moved on to a less controversial topic—religion.

How would you answer these questions?

The Little Roommates

One day at Kasese I was asked to proctor a two hour exam.  There was not much for me to do as the students were very well behaved.  I spent much of the time watching a lizard.  It started high on the wall but spent most of the two hours running in skittish circles around the center of the classroom.  For a while it stood frozen in the center of the room and the students with its body tense on high alert.  Another, smaller lizard spend the exam basking in a sliver of sun by the doorway.  I was plotting how to collect them to release them in our house.  My dream is for our house to be overrun with lizards.  

These lizards may be geckos.  Geckos may be a kind of lizard.  I don’t know.  I never really mastered higher level biology.  Whatever they are, I like them.  They eat bugs.  I like every lizard/gecko I see and I want every one to be happy and fat from gorging on the bugs that inhabit my home.  I’ve come to terms with the bugs in our house, but I’d prefer the lizard/geckos.  When I lived in China, there were about five geckos (they were certainly geckos—I have it on good authority) that lived with me in my apartment.  There were five geckos and no bugs.  The only problems these roommates and I had were when they dashed across my floor in the dim twilight of early morning when I sleepily went to pee.  And this was only a passing heart attack.  Easily forgiven.  

In and around, but mostly in, our home we have all manner of creepy crawlies.  We have flying ones like mosquitos.  Ben assures me there is some circle of life or evolutionary purpose for these blood suckers, but I still think they are pure, unadulterated evil.  Big beetle. (Michelle likely agrees.)  We have crawly ones like huge spiders and little spiders.  The little spiders may be juniors on the way to being huge spiders or they may be different kind of fully grown spiders.  I have not done a close examination.  I understand that spiders eat mosquitos, so I have been putting my arachnophobia on the shelf for now.  As long as one does not surprise me in bed, this will work indefinitely.  

A beetle did surprise me in bed.  I felt something hard, something the size, shape, and hardness of a marble, under my lower back.  Realizing I am not a princess and therefore the object could not be a pea, I jumped out of bed to find the little black beetle in the fold of my sheet.  I shooed him out with our broom.  I found a beetle leg in my bed the next morning.  I still feel bad about that.  He was just a little beetle.  We have much bigger ones.  At least I think they are beetles.  Again, I am not a biologist.  (I apologize for the image quality.  Big scary bugs make my camera tremble.)  These big scary bugs keep to themselves though.  We are good.  

Possibly the most annoying bugs (aside from mosquitos obviously) are the little gnat/fruit fly things that have plagued us for the last couple days.  I use “plagued” intentionally.  These little devils have invaded our house in biblical numbers.  On one square foot of any wall there are literally dozens of them.  When we open the door to walk outside we must walk through a cloud of these disgruntled gnat/flies that are disturbed by the movement.  Another big bug--possibly a beetle. I don’t know about the other Pathfinders, but I hold my nose and run.  Our neighbor has explained that this happens every year when the weather turns colder.  I guess I should stop expecting torrential frogs any time soon.  We do have cicada/grasshopper visitors that are as big as frogs.  And they jump as high.  But I have not seen more than one at a time so must refrain from calling their visits a plague—yet.   

Like I said, I’ve come to terms with these roommates.  But if anyone can recommend a foolproof way of smuggling geckos let me know.  I’d prefer their company on this journey than any of the creepy crawlies I know I am destined to meet.  

The Rains Down in Africa

One day we got caught in the rain at the market with a Ugandan teacher from our school. I have never experienced such a sudden downpour. It was cloudy, I felt a couple drops and then the sky opened up. The market went from bustling to deserted in a matter of minutes. The shoppers fled to the permanent, covered buildings surrounding the open air market. Conor, Ben, the teacher, and I found ourselves huddled in a small flour and bean shop with the three shop owners and two men we did not know. With the sacks of goods everywhere, there was simply no room for anyone else in our place of refuge. The shopkeepers were behind the counter. Conor, Ben, the teacher, and one of the men not part of our party were lined up along the wall against stacked bags of flour. I stood in the doorway with the other man. There was an overhang so I was not getting wet—and I enjoyed watching the rain drench the market.

As soon as the rain started—as soon as the customers fled—the sellers opened large, brightly colored umbrellas. A rainy market with dozens of colorful umbrellas out protecting the sellers and produce.They huddled with their goods under the temporary roofs. Most of the sellers in the market sit on mats or tarps on the ground with their goods surrounding them. The edges of the umbrellas were only about a foot away from the ground. The fruits and vegetables were protected from the water coming from the sky, but not from the water coming from the ground. There was so much rain water, and the ground was so hard, that the twisting alleys winding through the market quickly turned into rivers. When the market is in sunny operation, many women spend much of the day sitting and freeing beans from their pods. They throw the empty pods on the ground around them. In some places the empty pods completely obscure the ground. When the rain came these pods floated in the temporary river and wiggled in the falling rain like snakes in a den. In front of the store where I stood, a lake was forming. Someone had a left a few potatoes in a plastic bowl. It began to float by me until the falling water filled the bowl until it sank.

Most customers fled to the covered buildings when the downpour started. Some continued shopping. Not many. I saw maybe a dozen in the 45 minutes we took shelter in the flour shop. They meandered. They perused. They were already soaked. What's a little more water? I imagine they enjoyed the solitude and unfrenzied shopping. When it is not raining the market holds hundreds of people. I cannot walk through it without diverting my path to avoid other shoppers or squeezing my body between them. Often one or two or three other customers will interrupt our transactions.

While I was watching the waterlogged market, the Ugandan teacher mentioned several times that I must be cold. I was not cold. I wasn't even wet until the wind changed. Then I was very wet. It's just water. So, I didn't say anything until I remembered my phone was in my pocket and tried to hand it to Ben who was dry. Realizing I was getting wet, everyone busied themselves, against my protests, with making a space for me against the wall. So, I moved inside where I could no longer watch the goings on of the market. The man I was standing with in the doorway remained in the now unprotected doorway.

There was nothing interesting to watch, so I laid my head on the sacks of flour and closed my eyes. When the teacher asked me if I was tired, I explained that I had not slept well the night before. Her reaction was that I must be missing my mother. To me this seemed an oddly specific and random assumption. I am missing my mother. But it is not keeping me up at night. (Sorry Mom.) I explained that I have not lived in the same country as my mother for over ten years—when I left for college in Colorado my mother moved to New Zealand.  The teacher accepted that—but reiterated her concern that I was separated from my mother.

This is just one of many seemingly strange concerns that the Ugandan teachers have expressed about our welfare. When Michelle had Strep Throat and missed a couple of days of school, the teachers were sure she had “the Fever”—Malaria. Even after we explained that her symptoms were not consistent with the Fever, but were in fact consistent with Strep Throat. They were concerned that she had not seen a doctor even though we explained that Strep Throat is common in the US and we knew how to treat it. (We were going to take her to a doctor if it got any worse or lasted much longer.) The day after we got caught in the downpour at the market, Conor began to show symptoms of Strep. The teachers were sure the rain had caused his illness. We are sure he caught it from Michelle. (Ben also, it seems, caught Strep from Michelle who likely caught it from me.) On our first day teaching, a teacher made me step inside a building to continue our conversation. She was worried that it was too hot for me. I explained that where I grew up in the United States—the desert southwest—it was often as hot as it is in Kasese and in the summer it is hotter. I find the weather in Kasese very pleasant. She reluctantly accepted my statement, but still insisted we move inside where I explained what sunscreen is for.

Receiving these comments feels almost belittling. Muzungu are fragile. Their bodies cannot handle the African heat nor the African rain. They do not understand the Fever and will suffer when they succumb to it—and there is no doubt that we will succumb. It does feel belittling, but I am choosing to focus on the motivations for these comments. They are coming from places of genuine care. They are concerned for our wellbeing. This is more important. When it comes down to it, this is what I am in Kasese for—to spread and share caring. If that means explaining that I am strong enough to handle whatever Uganda throws at me a few times, so be it.

 

 

Safari Sights

The mist over the savannah reflects the sunrise giving the bushes a pink tint.  The trees poke their heads above the pink cloud and glow in the sun’s rays.  The mist blankets the animal residents as they perform their morning dance—searching and evading each other through the cool landscape.  Except for the birds who sing as they scavenge, hunt, and gather the savannah is quiet.  In every direction the only indication of humanity’s presence on earth is the bumpy road we drive—the dust we kick up mixing with the morning mist.  

Enough of that.  I am too excited to write something so serious.  The Pathfinders went on safari this weekend.  That’s right, safari.  About 7 elephants crossing a road.We saw tons of elephants.  Literally and figuratively tons of elephants.  Possibly the best day of my life.  I was obsessed with elephants for many of my formative years.  To see elephants freein the wildmade my 8-year-old self giddy.  It was the realization of a lifelong dream.  I loved it.  I loved seeing them even more than seeing the lions (which is what almost everyone comes to the savannah to see), the hippos (who killed someone the day before we saw them), the warthogs (which are so ugly they are cute), the mongooses (who make sounds like a video game), the monitor lizard (which was the size of a dinosaurlike a raptor maybe), the buffalos A buffalo in the foreground and two kobs in the background. (who were not as awesome as the water buffalos in Cambodia but just as stoic), or the Ugandan kob (who are appropriately named as they were everywhere).  

On Saturday we went with the Kasese Humanist Primary School staff.  We packed 22 people (23 with the guide) into a 14 person van.  Okay, two of them were babies, but it was still pretty cramped.  Four people standing around an old, red toyota corolla staring in the same direction. On Sunday the Pathfinders returned in a different kind of safari adventure jeep—a ’94 Toyota Corolla.  She was smaller than her peers, but she handled the adventure as well as any jeep on the road.  

Waterbuck staring at camera.From our safari adventure jeep we saw waterbucks.  You can tell their age by the rings on their horns—like trees.  We were told they only live to about 15 years old, so this one is like the Methuselah of waterbucks.  Warthog kneeling and eating. We saw warthogs.  Their heads are too big for their bodies and their front legs are longer than their back legs, which makes eating difficult.  So they kneel when they eat.  Our guide told us they are polite dinner guests.

The first A group of about 8 hippos in the water.hippos I saw were reposing on the shore half in and half out of the water.  There were three—two adults and a baby.  At first I could not tell they were animals.  I could not see their faces and they looked like piles of mud.  In the water there was another group.  To see the hippos we’d gone to a fishing village in the park that existed before the park was formed but the government allows to remain.  There were people going about their business in the water—bathing, gathering water, washing, getting boats ready, things like that.  Just the day before a villager had been killed by a hippo.  A woman gathers water in the foreground with a group of hippos in the background.Hippos are the most dangerous animal to humans besides ourselves.  It felt dangerous to see the villagers in the water so close to the hippos.  But the ones you can see are the not dangerous ones.  The ones that are under the water that are only detectable by their air bubbles are the dangerous ones.  And we detected air bubbles much closer to shore than the hippos we could see.  

Crested CraneThree crested cranes circled our jeep keeping us rooted to the spot until some (rude) other jeeps drove past and scared them away.  The crested crane is the national bird and is on the flag and, with the Ugandan kob, on the money.  Single KobLike I said, the kob (rhymes with robe) are everywhere.  Mostly we watched them graze and run from our vehicles when we drove too close.  They look very soft from a distance and very coarse close up.  They stand chewing with long, slow bites in the same cartoonish way that captivated me in Cambodia when the water buffalo watched us from their roadside pools.  Surprisingly, to me, we found a large group of them just across the road from where we found some lions alternatively resting and finishing a kob they had caught the night before.  I assumed they would keep a much wider buffer between themselves and the lions.  While we were watching the lions and the kob from the road between them, two kobs began to butt heads.  Two fighting KobsThis got the attention of the oldest lioness, who rose to investigate.  She came right to between our cars to assess the situation.  The kobs stopped butting heads and she returned to her small pack.  Lion coming out from behind a car. Oddly, it never occurred to me to get back into the vehicle as she approached or even as she was in the midsts of the three of four cars that had parked to have observe the lions.  It never occurred to me to be scared.  She gave us no indication that our presence affected her actions one way or another.  Still, either I am much braver or stupider than I thought.  

Lion with scars across her side and a tracker around her neck.

Single elephant behind a bush.Seeing these animals was a breathtaking experience—and I’m not talking about the fact that there was no room to breathe in the van on the first day.  When I was about seven years old, I decided (on my own) that zoos and circuses were cruel to animals.  This had to do with my obsession with elephants and a story I heard about a circus elephant that broke free, 

Baby elephant following an adult across a road.

injured some people, and was subsequently put down.  I told my mom I did not want to go to circuses anymore.  A few days later I added zoos to places I would not patronize.  This is how the word “boycott” entered my vocabulary.  Because of this I have not really seen these animals in person, which made seeing them in the wild that much more special.  

Before I go, here are a couple more photos of elephants.  I have about a hundred.  I am trying to control myself, but one will simply not do.  It is not possible to sign off without showing you a photo of the baby at least. 

On Teaching Religion at a Humanist School in a Christian Nation

This post was originally published with State of Formation.  The original can be read here.  

At Kasese Humanist Primary School in Kasese, Uganda I have been assigned to teach English and Religious Education for the month I am volunteering here.  This is a natural assignment.  My Bachelors is in English and my Masters is in Religion.  English is pretty straight forward—verb tenses, how to write a formal letter, and so on.  Religion is a little more complicated.

Uganda is a Christian nation.  (There is a sizable Muslim population that colors the religious landscape here, as well as some smaller populations of Hindus, Bahais, and others, but for the purpose of this post I am only going to talk about the Christian culture.  About 85% of the population is Christian.)  Christianity is not officially established by the state, but in many ways it essentially is.  The government schools are Christian.  Students must take four subjects on the national exam to graduate primary school:  English, Math, Science, and Social Studies (which includes Religious Education).  As part of the exam the students are asked who their Lord and Savior is.  There is a correct answer to this question.  And there are incorrect answers.

At the start of term staff meeting, the head teacher of KHPS explained to the new teachers that we do not pray at this school.  Pray at home if you'd like, but not here.  Then he explained to us foreign teachers that meetings in Uganda always begin with a prayer.  Beginning the staff meeting without a prayer is quite unusual, he told us.

I believe him.  As our bus left Kampala for the seven-hour ride to Kasese the ticket taker lead the bus in prayer—prayers for our safe journey.  About two-thirds of the bus participated.  All of the buses and many vehicles have slogans like “God is Power” prominently displayed across the top of the windshields.  Similar slogans make the names of many businesses or are at least more prominently displayed than the actual name.

But I am not at a religious school.  I am volunteering for a month at a school founded on the principles of humanism.  Reason and science are taught as the foundations of knowledge and the students are encouraged to question everything—especially the assumptions of blind faith.  Yet, to pass the test the students must not only be versed in Christianity, but must declare their allegiance to it.  This school is specifically fighting this forced allegiance, by teaching their students to question it and its foundations.  They are openly teaching science rather than faith as the foundations for knowledge.

Today, the upper level classes—P4-P7—staged a debate that lasted over an hour and a half.  The proposition was, “a person does not need God to be good.”  This is an important proposition for debate.  This is a discussion that has been going on for centuries at every level of religious and academic discourse.  Students holding a sign that reads "Science is the best way to live."The students, however, rather than giving reasons why or how non-theists can be good without God, gave reasons why God does not exist.  On the other side, the arguments were more expected—about the need for guidance and judgement from God to be good.  My point is not to criticize the students.  They are ten to fourteen years old and were making complex arguments.  And they were passionate.  I was impressed.  It's not just that their arguments were, to my view, off topic—there was a current of anti-theism that coursed through the debate.  The teacher's participation only encouraged the anti-theism, except for one teacher who spoke up to support the opposition.  Whether she personally believes that one needs God to be good—which I suspect is the case—or whether she was playing devil's advocate, I am glad she was there.  The purpose of debate is to hear all sides of an issue.  Without her, the voice of the teachers—the voice of authority in the school—would have been uniform.  I was struck by the religiosity on the part of both the religious and the humanists—if I may stretch the meaning of religiosity to cover humanists as well (If “religiosity” is defined as commitment to “belief”—with or without theism).  To be fair, this is a private school in Uganda, not a public school in the United States.  My wish is that the advocacy for humanism was on the merits of humanism alone—without the component of the perceived demerits of religion. One can be good with God too.  And one can be bad without God as well.

I have been told that in order to fight extremism, one must be extreme.  In order to combat the pervasive and coercive Christian culture in Uganda, those who are not religious must be just as forceful in advocating their position.  There is no room for nuance when the playing field is already so extreme.  I disagree.  I know that Ugandan's coercive Christianity is a violation of the human right to practice one's beliefs freely.  I know that the correct course is to raise a generation that questions authority and blind faith.  I disagree that one must tear down Christianity and religion generally to meet this goal.  Besides the equal human right the Christians also have to practice their beliefs, this kind of education only serves to keep people apart.  Humanists should work to bring people together—especially the people with whom they disagree.

Which brings me back to the classroom.  My religious education students have not heard of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Bahai, or Judaism.  I was surprised by Judaism.  The only two religions they are aware of are Christianity and Islam, which are both rooted in Judaism.  When I informed them of this, they scoffed.  When I explained that there was one Bahai temple on each continent and the African one was in their own capital city, Kampala, they reminded me that they'd never heard of it.   When I defined polytheism they stared at me in disbelief.  More than one god?  You are joking.

 

I have decided to teach comparative religion.  They can and will learn about Christianity and Islam from their regular teachers.  For this month, at least, they will learn who Shiva and Guru Nanak are.  They will discuss karma and enlightenment.  They will encounter turbans and stupas.  And they will not criticize these beliefs and practices.  In my classroom they will only encounter them, not construct arguments to undermine them.