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My time in Ikoba

Tim Moller, SMRT Gap Year student, is spending two months at Ikoba School. This is his account and reflection on his experience.

“Ikoba!” the girls sing rambunctiously, “Ikoba’s moving forward day by day! Glory be to God.” The sound at a few minutes to eight in the morning of the assembled students of Ikoba Girls’ Secondary School chanting their school anthem never fails to ensure I am awake as it wafts serenely down the slope that leads from the school building to the bungalow that has been my home for the last six weeks. That, and the bird (genus: species unknown) that sounds like Mr. Punch – he of the warbling “that’s the way to do it” - are a welcome accompaniment to my African mornings.Picture1

 

I am teaching at Ikoba School up until Easter, my plan then being to travel independently down the African continent towards South Africa. I have been teaching English, ICT (to both the students and staff!) and also a splash of Mathematics, as well as helping the Reverend Fred learn some more of the tunes for the ubiquitous “Hymns for today’s church” hymnal. Fred approached me very early on in my stay asking if I would preach on Easter Sunday, and took the early notice as an advantage to begin preparing. Combined with this, I have had a personal project to continue the teaching of Chess, which was introduced by one of our fellow travellers in the Bristol-Masindi partnership, and part of this involves visiting her partner school once a week and playing with them too.

I treat my domestic existence as a sort of elongated DofE expedition. My morning Weetabix and coffee is taken with powder milk, and anything remotely sweet is secured by copious numbers of elastic bands in food bags to stop the ants from setting up an independent country inside. Taking inspiration from the resourcefulness I have seen in students at the school, I quickly divided an old water bottle in two, the bottom half serving as a tooth-mug and the top as a cup to allow me to scoop water up and throw over myself when I take a “shower”. I say “shower” because the process is one of standing in an open concrete block with a basin of (hopefully) warm water. The water temperature depends on whether there is power to allow me to use an electric hotplate on loan from the Science department, if not I “do as the locals do” and use cold, which is okay in the evening when the concrete is still hot from a day of exposure in the sun, but is positively chill-making if tried in the opening hours of Picture2the day.

Here the dry season is extending indefinitely, but should have ended in the first weeks of March. We had an incredible hail storm on Saint David’s Day but other than that the country is dry with bush fires beginning to eat up the crops, the red Ugandan earth being bleached pale by the unconcerned and uncaring sun and the school running out of water. The situation is recursive:there is increasingly less electricity to power the pump at the village well to the school entirely because there is less water to power the dams to generate the electricity. The line of multi-coloured jerricans stretched along 20 meters of bumpy ground next to the tank in the hope that we will get water soon reminds me of the colourful houses of Totterdown or Clifton Wood in Bristol leering precariously up on their respective hills, but that is me making light of the situation. The near-drought means that most mornings the girls set out early (5am, but they’re awake anyway) for the nocturnal trip to the village well. My first action each day is to tentatively hit the light switch as the barometer of whether we have power. That I and the other members of staff have electricity in our houses at all puts us in the top 1% of the population living in the Bunyoro kingdom. I know I speak on behalf of all the staff that live on the school site when I say that I am so thankful to Saint Mary Redcliffe and Temple School for providing the funds to enable this project to be completed in this last year. 

My neighbours are in charge of teaching me the Runyoro language. Currently my favourite sentence is: “Tugende Hakiyembe” [to-gen-day hack-ee-em-bay] (which means “we go under the mango-tree”). Just as I am enjoying my forays in the local lingo, I take great delight in learning bits of “Uglish” or the very idiomatic Ugandan-English. One of my favourites is the use of the adjective “dirty” as a sort of Victorian-English verb, “Will it not dirten you?” I have been asked, when I offered to throw about the dust covered netball for Senior One’s PE lesson. Along with “taking” tea and “sloping down” the hill when I return home in the evening, I have adopted “dirten” into the Moller-lexicon.Picture3

Uganda and Ugandans never fail to surprise and delight me. I would like to make three observations. First, that women and men alike think nothing of taking me by the hand affectionately as we walk along. Secondly, in Ugandan churches part of the offertory giving invariably includes banana plants and sugar cane and maize and eggs and beans and live chickens (you get the idea) to be auctioned off to increase the collection. In one rural church (where the service was conducted entirely in Runyoro) I was asked to start off the selling. Finally Ugandans have an exceptional memory for faces and events; one Saturday in Masindi town I found a man coming up to me excitedly recounting that we met at Saint Mary Redcliffe in 2013, and asking how is Ikoba and “by the way” how is my hat after it was carried off by the wind into the Nile a couple of weeks ago? It transpired he was a teacher from another school in the wider Bristol-Masindi Schools’ Partnership. His memory was humbling but also quite discerning, he is representative in that the whole of Masindi seems to know of my existence!

Staying on the school site has allowed me to witness the beautiful daily ritual of “Prayers,” sung after Evening Prep at 10pm every night. This is a joyful and near raucous celebration of God. The chorus, whose varying melodic lines weave in and out of one another with characteristic ease, is amplified to a heavenly height by the corrugated iron roof over its head. Tables turn into makeshift drums, and the chink of the joining screws rattling as the wood is rhythmically beaten has become the eponymous sound of the service. All wrapped up in a concise 25 minutes (a novelty for African church - the Sunday I turned auctioneer the service ran to 4 hours), the girls subdue their singing for a personal confession which they all murmur together first as a quiet whisper, with the volume slowly building until it is like a raging hornet’s nest ready to explode, the sound ricocheting off the roof and bouncing back down to them, each girl caught up in her own lamentations but equally racing to be the girl to choose the final hymn by finishing first. She starts singing, and they all eventually join in, before The Grace is said and they all retire to their dorms for the night.

For me Prayers is certainly the most enjoyable part of day with the assuring regularity of this daily worship creating a feeling of comfort that I can best compare to that of the daily English Evensong. If I don’t join them I sit on my veranda to watch and listen to the silhouetted figures joyously affirming their faith. Prayers finishes a day that begins with the anthems for School, Country and the East African Community. While everything between it and Prayers doesn’t always run to time (except my lessons, I am meticulously Swiss in my teaching time-keeping) the day at least always begins and ends on time, which by African standards is something!

I have been so incredibly happy Picture4during my time at Ikoba School. It occurred to me back on Ash Wednesday that when I preach in the school service on Easter Sunday I will have spent the whole of Lent living here, and on first observation one could argue that what I have given up for Lent is the Western Way of Life. I don’t myself like the image of penance and denying oneself which the phrase “giving up” implies. On the contrary I have been given such an incredible opportunity to be part of a community whose live is extraordinarily different to my own. This, I have revelled, nae even thrived, in, even if I do insist on taking Weetabix for breakfast! 

 

 

 

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