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.



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.