Friday, July 10, 2009

Moving Rocks and Baby Obama

I am no longer supersick, only somewhat sick. Much better. So yeah… sorry about disappearing.
Lesson 4: Do not eat fried fish in Uganda
Anyway, the construction at Gulu is going well now that we’ve pitched the first engineer and found a second one. Then pitched him and found a third that is really, really good. Work schedules are different in Uganda. It’s not unusual for work to start at 7:00am, but all the workers to arrive at say… 11:00am, or noon. I have seen what an entire nation of tardiness is like, and I solemnly swear I will work harder to be on time henceforth.
In the last few days I’ve been up to a lot though. I am a pro rock mover! I specialize in small rocks!
The foundation was finished at the teacher’s quarters site on the 6th, and the next step is to fill the foundation with red dirt, pack it down, and then fill the top third with great big chunks of rock. HEAVY rock. Oh man, we had a little train going where you’d walk single file over to the pile of rocks, pick one up and then carry it around wheelbarrows and up onto the brick framing, then dump it in the square of foundation that needed to be filled. The biggest rock I was able to carry without falling over or otherwise hurting myself was only a little greater in physical size than my head. I imagine most of them would have fit inside my ribcage, so not exactly big. They were so dense though! So I’d drop my little medium and small sized rocks into the gaps left by the big ones, then walk back to the pile and see some short guy with whipcord muscles struggling with a rock the size of your average footstool; or two guys picking up others that were only a bit smaller than a golden retriever. These rocks must have weighed more than I do!
Once we’d filled in all the squares of the foundation they handed me a huge hammer. Yes! Best part of the day! My job was then to smash the rocks so that they made a fairly even surface for the next layer. Undoubtedly cool, but I made a point of keeping my glasses on. Chunks of the rock tend to fly when you hit it, and I definitely got a few scratches on my arms from the battle.
Prior to smashing and carrying rocks I was also busy. The English teacher at Lelaobaro Primary is a fellow named Patrick. Very nice, very sociable. Also did not ask me to marry him or profess love, he gets extra points for this. Either way, Patrick invited me to team-teach the English classes in the higher classes, Primary 6 and 7 (equivalent to grades 6 and 7).
It was so much fun!
I was with the P6’s first. It made sense to sort of sit back and observe for a bit, so I watched Patrick for the first 10 or 15 minutes. Things are done differently here, almost everything is oral. It makes sense, I guess. The average class size here is like… 90+. After that I was handed some chalk and given the green light. We worked on synonyms because it was a nice, easy topic to explain and teach. We only did three words, so synonyms for ‘good’, ‘fast’ and ‘funny’. At first none of the kids would put their hands up, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. Turns out my accent was really throwing them for a loop. Patrick helped a lot; he repeated most of what I said so the kids could get a grip on what I was trying to ask them to do. At the end of the lesson they caught on and we were making sentences with the synonyms we’d covered. When we reached ‘fast’, one of the littlest kids in the class put his hand up excitedly to give a sentence. When I called on him he stood up and stated clearly, with excellent pronunciation: “Madam speaks very rapidly.” The class burst into laughter, I don’t think he was the only one thinking this. For the next few lessons I made sure to write ‘speak slow!’ on the top of my lesson plans in red.
The following day, on the 7th, I was invited back for two classes! The P7’s have excellent English and their proficiency made it much easier to communicate with them. The gaps in English skills year to year are pretty big. Mostly with the P7’s we did word games to review their vocabulary and grammar. There is a national exam at the end of your P7 year in Uganda, if you don’t pass, you don’t get into secondary school. It’s big for them; it determines whether you can raise yourself out of a refugee camp and unskilled labour as a career for most of these kids. They loved the games. One of them involves accurately describing to someone how to perform a task. In this case: opening a bottle of water. If they say ‘To open the bottle you must twist off the cap.’ then I would stand at the front of the class with the bottle on the floor and twist the cap with one hand, merely spinning the bottle in circles on the cement. They had to be specific and give one direction at a time. So ‘To open the bottle you must grasp the bottle tightly with your left hand.’, ‘To open the bottle you must place your fingers firmly on the side of the cap.’, and so on. It was an absolute riot, much of the vocabulary for that is so mundane that it’s not often used. It was a good review for them and it’s so satisfying to see these serious kids laughing and having fun at school.
The P6’s were excited to have me back again as well. They had become more accustomed to my accent and I made a point of speaking less ‘rapidly’, hahaha. I would ask a question and 30 hands would hit the air, Hermione Granger style. At the end we played another vocabulary game and as the period started to end kids from other classes were coming in to watch at the sides of the classroom, curious about the noise and the laughter. I could absolutely spend a summer here working with them, they’re so much fun. I was told that if I came back for that next summer I’d even get my own refugee hut as a teacher’s quarters. Pretty swanky.
Oh! And today we saw rhinos! For my birthday, and because Phil thought it was silly that I’d come to Africa and wasn’t going to see any of the big 5, we went to the rhino sanctuary on the way back to Kampala. Wow, what a treat. I stood (and I kid you not) 4 or 5 meters from wild rhinos, no fence, no car, just standing on my own two feet with Phil, Dusman, and three park wardens. We saw two pregnant white rhinos called Cory and Bella. The third rhino with them was a younger black rhino by the name of Hassan.
There was a little baby rhino at the sanctuary too, but being as the only fence is the electrified one meant to keep the rhinos in and the poachers out it was safer if we didn’t go see him. His mother (whose name sounded kind of like Namibia or Marimba…?) was still very protective of him so aggression was an issue. The best part is that the baby’s mother is from a zoo in Florida, his father is from another park in Kenya, and he is named Obama. That’s right, Obama the baby black rhino.
The entrance fee was a little higher than I was expecting, but it was totally worth it. They only charge locals 5000 shillings ($2.50CND), I am a foreigner, I am monetarily worth 8.8 Ugandans with an entrance fee of 44,000 shillings ($22.00 CND). Not an outrageous fee when they explain everything it goes towards but we had a good laugh in the car about Phil getting away with paying the local entrance fee despite his lack of a local passport. Even with the electric fence all seven rhinos are accompanied by park wardens who specialize in rhinos 24 hours a day. It’s sad that it’s necessary, but they’ve also never had a poacher succeed in killing a rhino in the history of the park. 33 years of protection and counting.
The parks’ reputation is so solid that South Africa is actually sending another 12 rhinos, mostly female, in just a few weeks. The logic is that they will be safer here in Uganda, under supervision, than in the parks in their home country where poachers have an easier go of it.
I spent yesterday in the market in Gulu, too. That was great fun. They don’t cat-call me in Gulu! Oh! It’s awesome! I can walk through a market and be the only white person there, not even an interracial person in sight, and no one is grabbing at my hands or stepping in front of me or yelling ‘mzungu’. So good. It means that I can do things like walk up to a vendor and look at the wares instead of being ambushed by the vendors on the other side saying their products are better.
All in all, I’d say life is pretty good.

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