Monday, 25 March 2013

Ugandan Kids Write the Darndest Things

The other day, I gave the 99 kids in my Senior 1 class—which equates more or less to our 7th grade, but features kids anywhere from 11 to 16 years old, with one claiming to be nearly my age—a 20-minute in-class assignment. Prompt: Write about someone you admire.

I will probably give them a similar assignment every single day, because I have never understood so much about everything as I did when I was grading the essays. My students recounted moving stories about pop stars risen from poverty, doctors who had saved them, parents that sacrificed everything, and love doomed to be forever unrequited.

They also penned some completely preposterous and hilariously quotable lines Here, for your enjoyment, are excerpts from the top 22.

All quotes are [sic], and all students' names have been changed.

22) “I also admire Michael Jackson because he is a South African, and South Africans are good at singing.”

Have you considered the possibility that Michael Jackson is an atypical South African?

21) “I admire Kendrick Lamar because some people call him the black Shakspear.”

I sort of want to enclose a Tupac album when I give this guy back his notebook...

20) “She said she comes from America. 'And that is very cool of you,' I said.”

I guess that makes me cool, too!

19) “[the girl I have a crush on is] tall and beautiful, but she has a hairly body like a monkey.”

Come again?

18) I admire Oprah Williams.”


“Oprah Williams.”

Tell me more about this Ms. Williams.

“She is a very famus and inspiring television person...”


“who makes me and other woman very proud and says that no matter who we were born as even as nothing we are something.”

I, uh...yeah, go, Oprah Williams!

17) One Bruno Mars fan explains how he was disappointed when his hero joined a group called only “Uruminant,” a move which has left no traces anywhere on the internet. 

“But I want to leave a message it goes like this. Uruminant have taken over the world but don't let them take over you.”

If they can hide from Google, my friend, they probably have taken over the world...

16) “their is one person that is doing to me something greet in the way I speak and write and that person is none other than Alex Black my English teacher.”

This greet person Alex Black has apparently completely failed to teach you English.

15) “and when he speaks English I can just say wow!”

Yeah, this is about me too.

14) “and he is cool yes!”

...and this one...

13) “a good and best America teacher in Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School.”

Yet more proof that I am miserable as an English teacher, compounded by: 

12) “he does not have lumourmonger...He does not just laugh like holigans.”

I just don't think that's a word, Darius.

I wrote a note on each of these assignments that they should look up the word “flattery” in their dictionaries. I wanted to do “brown-nosing,” but realized just in time that sending my students to look up a word whose nearest synonym is “ass-kissing,” is probably not the best application of a teacherly code of ethics.

11) A student who periodically claims that his real name is Eminem picked an unsurprising choice for his hero:“he does not rest to take a breath, oh ma God his like wow from the whisky tastes of water. Despite all of this he is cute with his aquamarine hair.”

Emmanuel, they're pretty anti-alcohol in this school, but I suppose one reference is fine, as long as you don't...

He has no interferences with other musicians though he had to finish up some shit with Maria Carrie his exgf. he had to be aggressive on her through abusing her in his songs.” 


10) “She has nice clothes and shoes and she is really cute oh my God that girl is really an angel.”

If your sister is an angel, doesn't that make you an angel as well?

9) “...but I mostly admire her because she is my mum and the most woman and figure in my life that is after God of couse.”

I had never wondered about God's figure before this post. First for everything, I suppose...

8) Speaking of mothers: “she has American height and she is portable.”

I understand every word of this sentence, and I understand nothing.

7) “I admire my country because we don't receive foreign seasons eg winter.”

You, sir, are on top of what deserves admiration.

6) A fan of both Nicki Minaj and, apparently, Spock, chimes in:

“I conclude by saying may she and her songs prosper for long.”

5) “Because she has a good finger. Like she has hips and big bams.”

I think you meant to say “figure” and “bum,” but honestly, I prefer this version.

4) An entry from Mr. Nyeko James:

“I like Nyeko because he is smart.”

Really, man?

“I like Nyeko because he has teeth like for a rat.”

Hold up.

“I like Nyeko because he is humble.”

I think I just got trolled.

3I admire Justin Bieber because he is kind hearted...”

I suppose so...

“...but a devil worshiper.”


“I also admire Nicki Minaj because she is kind hearted...”

Have we been here before?

“...but a devil worshiper.”

I think you need better role models.

2) “I admire mermaids because they have powers of making things become ice or anything.”

Wild Mermaid used Ice Beam! It's super effective!

1) “I admire him because though Obama is not an American he is rulling them.”

The birthers have reached Africa. 

The only voice that truly speaks to young Ugandans.


Friday, 22 March 2013

It's not that they CAN'T read...

Despite what Alex said in his previous post, I have been holding onto to this one ("editing") for a while now, so I might as well throw it out there before I have to go haggle for black slacks to go with my short-sleeve-buttondown-zebra-collar-tipped shirt:

Everything here is completely different from everything back home.  It all makes sense in its own way, of course, but that can’t keep things from being pretty overwhelming sometimes.  You realize pretty quick on arrival that your cultural references are invalid, your sense of humor is off, your speech is a little too fast, and your voice is entirely too loud.  It’s okay; you start to pick things up, if you pay attention.  Interactions get smoother.  Still, you can’t really be the person you were back home, and that takes a lot of energy.  I do love the drain, I think, and I am learning so much from putting in all this effort, but every once in a while I feel the intense need to turn off all my overworked sensors and forget where I am for a long second. 
            Hellooo, Mr. Tolstoy.
            Since I first touched toe to African soil I have tumbled through Infinite Jest, The Four Loves, Winter of Our Discontent, The Road, War and PeaceStriving for the Wind (a famous Kenyan novel), Atonement, and The Great Gatsby.  I don’t think I’ve read so many pages in so short a time since those endless middle-school summers when life revolved entirely around the pool, the blacktop, and the sunny armchairs in the living room—and it feels great.  I won’t lie, it was difficult to pick the habit back up at first, and I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without the help of the late Foster Wallace’s impossibly engaging prose, but as soon as the groove was got-back-in I’ve had to fight to put down books and actually get my rear end in bed at night.  Right now I’m 150 pages from finishing Sometimes a Great Notion, and Ken Kesey is threatening the education of my students at every turn. 
“So, uh, today is silent reading day, kids!  Teacher Samuel has…business…to attend to.”
            As it turns out, my students are safe from this threat, because silent reading would actually be impossible in my English classes; the children don’t own any books.  Most of them don’t even have the one book required for class, a two-dollar abridged copy of Oliver Twist.  Alex and I have been making 100 copies of each chapter at a time, because otherwise there would be 8 or 9 kids sharing a book. Ugh.
            I understand I might look insensitive here, but almost every single one of these kids (and certainly everyone in the Boarding School) could scrape up the money to buy a copy of Oliver Twist, and they also have a library to raid.  The problem isn’t funds (they are all paying to constantly text on their cell phones), it’s a complete lack of desire, and a relative lack of consequences.  Past Senior 2, literature becomes an elective.  All you have to do is learn enough of the character’s names to score above a 40 on your final exam, and you never have to read a novel again.  Oh goodie.  At the same time, few of the teachers read (I haven’t caught one at it yet), and parents don’t really either, laying a foundation of exactly two positive literary role models: Alex and Sam, the Bazungu Brothers!
            To make myself feel better about this trash-seeming-talk, every Ugandan I’ve spoken to agrees that there is a serious problem with the reading culture here, the heart of which is that there isn’t a reading culture here.  Reading isn’t seen as a societal imperative or mark of intelligence as it is in (parts of) the States; our friend Ronald, one of the most intelligent and worldly Ugandans I’ve met, who oversees all of Father John’s projects, called us ladies when he caught us nose-deep in novels before rosary.  Because, you know, books are for girls.
            Which would be great, because then at least books would be for someone.
            I learned after my last bout of righteous indignation that it does not pay to get upset about these cultural differences, so instead I chose to investigate the matter with Alex.  What we have gathered about Ugandan anti-literacy stands as thus:
            First of all, none of the myriad local tribal languages of Uganda had a written system before colonization.  Thus, no history of writing/reading, and when writing/reading is introduced, it is done so by foreign invaders with moustaches, monocles, and safari hats.
Second, most Ugandans, urban and rural, have a distinct lack of decent lighting in their homes.  This means that during the dark hours—about the only time family members young and old aren’t desperately trying to make ends meet—reading is close to impossible; at the very least it is wrecking your oh-so-necessary (because glasses are hella expensive) vision.
Third, community engagement is paramount in Ugandan culture, and reading is a necessarily solitary endeavor.  As mentioned in a previous post, alone time is not a recognized concept in these parts.  Solidarity was vital on the savannah, important in villages, and still highly valued in the city.  Kids who don’t want to spend the appropriate time with others are considered a little off-kilter, and the nerdy kid who goes off to read constantly can become a downright pariah.  Would you read if it meant everyone thought you were broken?  Honestly, I don’t think I would have.
So it turns out that there are really legitimate reasons for the state of Ugandan booklessness.  The problem is, the more and more I read, the more and more I realize how important novels are to me becoming the kind of person I want to be.
Lev Tolstoy wrote over 500 characters into the pages of War and Peace, and many of the characters go through serious change at some point (a million points) in the novel.  As I read the book, without really thinking about it, I was constantly finding those pieces of characters that I wanted to emulate and those that I wanted to avoid, those that I already exhibited and wanted to magnify, and those I exhibit that I would rather went away.  Tolstoy gave me a million facets of personality to play with, and it immediately changed how I’ve interacted with people here.  And that was just one book!
The best part is, a great author won’t just do that with characters, he/she’ll do it with places and truths and dreams and goals.  The more you read the more evidence you have to base your choices around.  I know most of you probably understand this already, but it never really hit me deeply until now just how important this evidence is.
To be fair, it is entirely possible to get all of these things from the people around you.  Parents and leaders can teach you morals and positive traits and the proper ways to live; the problem is, they only have so much experience themselves.  And without different concepts to test against, ideas very quickly become dogmatic and stifling.  If I have the desire and time I can read books from all over the world, from every age, and in this way receive the choices of the whole world.  What if the tenets of a Zen Buddhist best fit my existence?  Or the actions of an Ivanhoe?  How about the deep thoughts of the Brothers K?  These are things you cannot get from a grandma who also did not read.  They are also things that you can’t get from all the politicians on T.V. who hoard power and money and prestige. 
Ugandans are reaching out and connecting with others at an unprecedented rate these days.  Through T.V., radio, and the internet they are starting to absorb the culture and ideas of places around the country and world.  There is incredible potential here.  The problem is, I don’t think there is enough substance in these visual-and-auditory level ideas to allow their responsible, proper, informed use.  To use something responsibly, properly, and informedly you have to think about it.  And to think, truly think, and to have the symbols and ideas and substance with which to think, you need to read.  In any case, reading is pretty darn helpful.
I’m doing my best to help my students enjoy the books and poems we’re reading in class, but I understand from my own time as a snotty kid how difficult that task can be.  I am left hoping hope that the path Uganda’s careening “development” takes will open up a lane for reading culture (hurray for electric lights!), and that the internet and T.V. won’t step in to completely block the path.  Thankfully, as a warrior in this battle, it isn’t too hard to find good resources; I’ll just go read a book about it!

Ceci N'est Pas Une Post

This post serves as notice that further writings on this blog may not be forthcoming for several days, owing to the authors of the suppositious posts have a choir concert on Sunday, for which they have been rehearsing a couple hours every night of the past two weeks.

This concert will include:

1) About 20 African pieces, some of which have only a passing resemblance to what I have been taught for 23 years constitutes acceptable rhythm.

2) Two hired soloists.

3) A 6-movement Mozart mass so that the soloists can have some solos to sing.

4) A uniform consisting of black slacks and a red short-sleeve shirt with black and white zebra trim. Don't worry, I'll take pictures.

5) A conductor, the only non-Muzungu in the choir who can read music, who has a strange relationship with rests that causes him to pretend they don't exist half of the time.

6) An accompanist who can sit down and compose a 150-measure 4-part baroque-style piece (which we will sing at the concert) in a single day.

7) Handel's Messiah, because no one's told them it's a Christmas and not an Easter piece.

8) Songs in about 7 different languages, only one of which is European.

9) Two goofy white dudes pretending to know how Africans clap.

10) The absence of abject failure*

So if any of our faithful readers (hi, Moms!) happen to be at or around Bbiina Parish, Kampala, Uganda at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, we'd sure love to see you there!**

* I can make no guarantees about to the presence of this absence.
** I appreciate the gesture, Mom, but no, you don't have to buy a plane ticket just to come see my concert

Monday, 18 March 2013

Concerning the Previous Post

Every word Alex wrote is 100% accurate, and it was perhaps the funniest night of my life.  I repeat, this is in no way fictional.  I love old Italian dudes.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Te Capi' and Italian Absurdism

The curtain opens on a long rectangular table covered with a floral-print tablecloth and the detritus of a recently consumed meal. Two old men, Marianni and Ettore are seated opposite one another at one end of the table, and two younger men, Alex and Sam the Flamingly Annoying sit next to them, also on opposite sides. 

The two older men are native speakers of the Milanese language, an Italian “dialect” that is actually a distinct language, more similar to French than modern Italian. They normally speak standard Italian, but occasionally slip into Milanese when talking to each other.

The conversation is conducted entirely in Italian, with English where noted. Milanese phrases are in italics.

Alex: Hey Marianni.

Marianni: Yes?

Alex: So I know that “te capì?” means “do you understand” in Milanese, but how do you say “I understand” or “I don't understand”?

Marianni: I don't understand.

Alex: Ok, so when you say te capì...

Marianni: Yes, te capì! Te capì?

Alex: Right, so when you say that...

Ettore: It means “do you understand.”

Alex: Yes, I understand that...

Marianni: Oh, te capì?

Alex: Uh, yes, I understand. But when someone asks you, “te capì?” how do you respond?

Ettore: Well, you either say “I understand,” or...

Marianni: Or if you don't, you say “I don't understand.”

Alex: (pauses to take in a deep breath) But what about in Milanese? What would you say in Milanese?

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, in response. Like answering the question.

Ettore: Eh! (makes a hand gesture that signifies “what is so hard about this?”) The question is te capì? Then the response is “I understand,” or “I don't understand!” Eh! Sorry! (this last is added in heavily accented English, it being one of the few words that both Marianni and Ettore know; it can mean “my condolences,” “apologies,” “you should apologize,” or “why are you being such a humongous moron?” Here the final definition applies.)

Alex: No, but...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, I don--

Sam the Flamingly Annoying: (to Marianni) Te capì?

Marianni: (makes approving noise) You see?

Sam: (in English) Yeah, it's pretty simple, Alex (shakes hands with Marianni).

Alex: Ok, but what if I'm speaking Milanese with someone, and they ask me if I understand...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: Well, no, I don't understand, actually....

Ettore: (leaning in closer, as if this a point that can only be understood at full volume from ten inches distance) They say te capì because they want to know if you understand.

Alex: Good, so we've established that they've said “do you understand?”

Ettore: Right, but if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì?”

Sam: (with a huge grin plastered across his face, in English) You're pretty thick tonight, aren't you, Alex?

Alex: (glares at Sam but after being incapable of thinking up any sufficiently offensive words turns back to the Italians) Yes, if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì” and--

Marianni: Eh, te capì? It means “do you understand?”

Alex: (begins absentmindedly but vigorously strangling his fork) No, I don't capi. That's what I want to learn to say. “I don't understand” in Milanese.

Ettore: Eh! Sorry! Someone asks you “te capì”--

Sam: (English, in a helpful tone) Which means “do you understand,” Alex, just in case you hadn't caught that--

Ettore: --and you say “sì” if you understand, and “no” if you don't! Eh! Sorry! (leans back in his chair, clearly proud of a pedagogical task well accomplished)

Marianni: So if I come to visit you in I-take-a-dump (in an unfortunate turn of circumstances, the word “Chicago” is pronounced in Italian exactly like a phrase that means “I poop there,” a reference that serves as the base for a single but oft-repeated fecal joke) I come to visit and I say “te capì?”--

Alex: But what am I understanding?

Ettore: (dolefully shaking his head) You don't understand.

(Alex snaps his fingers and points at Ettore)

Alex: Ok. That right there. How would I agree with you? Agree and say, you know, “I don't understand.”

Marianni: (in a sorrowful tone of voice) Yes, it's true, you don't understand...

Ettore: To agree, you say “.”

Alex: What if I want to say something other than “sì”?

Ettore: Then you say “no.”

Alex: Is there anything, any word or phrase, that means the same thing as “sì” in this case?

Ettore: Of course—you can say “I don't understand.”

Sam: (In English, while shaking his head in a passable imitation of Ettore) That's the one you'll have to use a lot, Alex. Memorize the phrase “I don't understand.”

(Alex looks around for something breakable to punch, but finds that the table has by now been completely cleared. Sam hurriedly scoots his chair back in anticipation that he may be deemed breakable in the near future.)

Marianni: Well then, te capì?

Alex: No. I--

Ettore: No te capì?

Alex: Look. (directs his gaze wildly across the room, as if hoping that a new plan of attack will saunter out perhaps from behind the cupboard.)What if I asked you to translate the phrase “I understand” into Milanese. What would you translate it as?

(Both men look puzzled; they glance at each other, shrug, and shake their heads at Alex.)

Alex: But what...fine. Can you translate “I don't understand?”

Marianni: (in English) Ey, “Ay don tandeirstend.”

Alex: In Milanese.

Ettore: Te capì?

Alex: (stares directly ahead for three full seconds before responding) Yes. I understand.

Ettore: Ah. Good. (in English) No problem. (turns away from Alex.)

Marianni: Eh. Sorry.

Sam: (in English) Believe me, Marianni, he's very sorry.

Marianni: (pushes his chair back) Well, then, I'm going to Chicago.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Ejukashun in the University of Ganda

Hey there, long-neglected family and friends!  My tail is, indeed, between my legs; it seems I have done exactly what I said I wouldn’t and totally slacked off the ol’ writing game once things got busy.  Sowwy.  Though we have been hustling hard on the grind, I should’ve tried harder to keep up with our promise.  This is my first step towards reconciliation.  Take it as you will.

After all of the build-up, I’m sure you’ve been sitting at the edge of your ergonomic office chairs gripping keyboards with white knuckles and wondering what on earth teaching is like in Uganda. 
Too bad. 
This article will discuss the highs and lows of amateur birdwatching in Uganda.
Psych! You got me, it’s about teaching.  Though I have been toying with the idea of writing more about the birds here; there are a whole ton of them…
Anyways, in order for any posts about teacher-student interactions to make any sense there are a few structural basics I have to share.  First of all, Bishop Cipriano has two sections; Day School and Boarding School.  They are in separate facilities on either side of a main thoroughfare, and the walk between takes about 4 minutes.  Students in the Boarding School pay very high school fees, and as such are typically much better-off than their Day School counterparts.  They are also, on the whole, more literate, more insolent, and more apathetic.  The Day School kids come from our local area (which is not one of the nicer neighborhoods in Kampala), and tend towards a more enthusiastic, if slightly less educated and hygienic, mode of existence.  Contact is discouraged between students in the two schools; the only time they really meet is on the one or two School Days and Dances that happen in a year.  If a student leaves the gates of the Boarding School without express permission they’re expelled.  Opportunities for hooliganery are limited.
Most teachers will teach on both Day and Boarding side during a term, but it seems a general practice to trade classes with other teachers until you are primarily on one side or the other.  Instructors that make the quarter-kilometer walk more than twice a week are considered athletes.  This is in part due to the general fitness levels of teachers here; I think there may be blue-collar/white-collar body image issues at play, but I digress.
There is a single four-story building for classes on each campus.  The doors from the classrooms open out onto balconies that line the front of the school.  There isn’t any need for hallways or enclosed spaces because, hey, the equator!  The overall effect of this open-air one-sided building-ness is something like a matching pair of Motel 6es in Oklahoma, except red brick and a lot less depressing.  One of the reasons they’re less depressing is that they both have the words “I Care” printed in size one million type on the uppermost balcony.  It looks like the buildings really love one another.  It also looks like a student could have a really fun time getting expelled with a bucket of white paint.  “ThI Caress.” Just saying.
Anyways, besides the constant temperature, the need for hallspace is limited thanks to the immobility of students while school is in session.  This was one of the ideas that really blew my mind on arrival: kids stay in one room for the entire day, while the teachers move about and come to them.  It is an important tactic in that it minimizes studential hustle, bustle, discipline issues, and space shufflage.; minimizing space sufflage is very important, because there is very little space in which to shuffle.  Seriously, these children are crammed closer together than the Black Keys crowd at Bonnaroo. 
As a teacher, this system would be helpful if it weren’t for the fact that we are afforded about as much shuffling space as the students.  The single staff room on either side is often packed with teachers and exercise books and laptops and purses, because it is the only place you can sit down between classes.  Lesson planning, marking, pedagogical theory discussions, and refueling all occur herein.  Marginally legal transactions also occur herein; one of our fellow English teachers approached Alex the other day, sidling up slowly to ask if Black would perhaps be interested in purchasing a bunch of fine bananas.  A different female teacher, who was sitting two meters away, stared at Alex intensely.  The madame in question had brought the bananas in from her village, and asked Brother Paul to ask Alex if he wanted to buy any because, you know, that’s how the black market should work. (Editor’s note: I did buy the bananas and they were delicious.)
I always stop in the staff room before my lesson to check for good deals and stake out a claim, then take my computer over to whichever class I’m teaching that day.  Every age group is divided into 6 color-coded “streams” (3 per school), each of which gets its own classroom for the year.  My two streams are Senior 1 (general equivalent of 7th grade) White in the Day School and Senior 2 (8th grade) Blue on the Boarding side.  Alex has Senior 1 Pink on the day side and Senior 2 Green on the day side.  We both teach English Language to the Senior 1 classes and Literature to the Senior 2s.
Monday mornings I enter my S1 White class and face down 85 students in a classroom the size of an inner-city backyard.  They average around 12 or 13 years old; some are as old as 16 or 17, as they couldn’t raise school fees when they were younger (or had to repeat a level (or three)).  There are three columns of three desks each stretching from front to back, hugging so close that a student on the inside of a row couldn’t leave their desk without doing at least a couple of backflips.  I plug my computer into the SmartBoard at the front of the class (a kind of touch-screen computerized white board) and about 60% of the time it works; when it doesn’t I shrug and start teaching “American Style” (without a touch-screen computerized white board). 
The first time I entered a class the students went a little crazy—let’s just say they haven’t encountered many white teachers before.  I quieted them down, introduced myself, and then asked everyone to make a name card for the front of their desk.  Mr. Musanje, the department head, told us that we should try to take attendance every day.  Then he laughed.  I have worked hard to get to know names and faces, but it has been exceedingly difficult: first of all I am not great with names, second there are a trillion of them and they sit in different places every day, and third they are all (male and female) required to buzz their hair to a standard length.  Seriously, I dare you to tell these kids apart.  The only ones that stand out are the 16 year olds, because they are 6 inches taller and an octave deeper than they children surrounding them.  B.C.K. Jump Street.
It might be easier to place names with personalities if the students spoke at an audible level, but there exists some unwritten rule wherein a student must answer any question under their breath in a monotone even when they VOLUNTEERED TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.  I have to ask the kids to repeat things at least three times no matter what, and it is often wholly confounded by the fact that a bunch of other students who I didn’t call on will shout out what the kid has been trying to say, all at different times, so that the effect is generally
Teacher Samuel: “Alright, just to figure out what we know before class starts, can anyone tell me what kind of word describes a noun or pronoun?”
Student (raising hand):  “mumbleshgrumble mumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “What was that?”
Student: “mumbleshgrumble mumblemumble.”
Teacher Samuel: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.”
Student: “mumbleshgrumblemumgrum—“
Teacher Samuel: “Uh, okay, yeah, adjective is the right answer, moving on.”

When they are not answering questions the students can be loud and boisterous enough.  Indeed, as soon as I have walked somewhere in a class to “hear” an answer, the part of class I cannot see starts up an animated conversation about what I assume must be the finer points of English grammar.  I have managed to curb a lot of this extraneous philosophizing by instituting a “two warnings and I’ll give the entire class an extra assignment” clause; if there’s one thing students fear it’s an extra assignment.  Or any assignment at all, for that matter.
Near the end of the lesson I always make sure to give an assignment.   At the completion of the dreaded exercise students will stack their notebooks in a couple of massive piles that their class monitors will bring to the staff room with me.  The students usually confront this great fear with stoicism, if not skill; most of the answers are completely B.S.ed for lack of consequences.  We can’t mark assignments for credit, because only exams are counted towards the students’ grades.  Thus, marking is pretty much entirely a test of willpower and care on our parts.  A teacher came up to Alex and looked at the spreadsheet he’d created with all of his students’ scores and abilities, exclaiming,
“Wow, the ideal teaching method!”
Alex replied, “Yeah it’s pretty helpful to know how the students are faring, do you guys use it too?”
“HHAAHAHAHAHAAhahahaaaaaha, ha, ha, aaaah.”
Guess not.

Lest you think I’m being too down on the system, let me say that I am having a good time and feel I am doing important work.  Some of the kids are brilliant, some are hilarious personalities, and the other teachers really are a wonderful and caring bunch.  I am just trying to set the scene a bit.  Later posts (coming soon!) will go into more detail about the kids and lessons learned (by both sides).
I hope everyone is doing wonderfully, can’t wait to see you all again.  Drop me a line if you’ve got time,


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

In Which Alex Attempts To Instill In Readers (Hi, Moms!) His Irrational Fear Of Fast-Moving Vehicles

Remember that time you went to Six Flags or Disney World or Cedar Point or wherever when you were a kid, and there was that roller coaster, the one where the track at the top dropped off into a stomach-grabbing nothingness and finally reappeared two hundred feet below, the one with loop-de-loops spiraling around inside other loop-de-loops, the one from which you heard agonized terrified shrieks whenever a car went over the edge? If you were like me, you stayed the ever-loving hell away from that place so evidently peopled by the tortured souls of Children Who Had Been Bad, now forced to ride a deathcart surrounded by the sounds of sheared metal and the smell of raw fear.{1} You probably got hysterical whenever someone even mentioned the possibility of you making the slow ascent up the Staircase into the Boarding Area {2}—which might have been the Executioner's Chamber for all your nerves were concerned.

{1} Cause really, what else could induce people to put themselves in a little box and hurtle over cliff edges at what must be supersonic* velocity?
{2} No one? Just me got hysterical? Well, at least now you have a face to pin to “that kid who was terrified of his own shadow.”

If instead you got seated in the front row, nonchalantly glanced around as the attendant lowered the safety bar and did a couple of brief look overs to make sure you wouldn't die, and then had the time of your life feeling your guts spend two minutes wholly not inside your torso: you likely will not understand the tone of this article. But hey, that's ok, because you can treat it as a rare psycho-pathological portrait of those of us with chronic mild vertiginous tendencies.


Here in Kampala, they don't have roller coasters. This is probably because your average working-class poor resident can get all the thrills he or she needs for a year or so in one 30 minute burst, for about $2. The vector for all this infectious fun is the boda-boda.

Boda-boda can be translated into American English only as “motorcycle”; however, based on behavior in the wild, I'd put them taxonomically in the same order as motorcycles, maybe even the same genus on a good day—but I'd never ever claim that they're the same thing. The word itself originally referred to bicycle taxis that would carry weary bus passengers across the sometimes interminable distance between customs checkpoints at international frontiers, yelling “border-border!” to attract customers. Boda-boda have since hit a rebellious and angsty thrill-seeking adolescence, graduated to motorbikes, and moved in everywhere, being generally loud, obnoxious, polluting, and totally the best.

My first indication that
boda-boda riding might be only slightly less hazardous than crash-testing Ford Pintos for a living came before I even arrived in Uganda. A helpful travel website cheerfully informed me and all other visitors that boda-boda drivers don't all wear helmets, but even if they do they won't have one for you as a passenger, so really you're better off choosing a driver without one since he'll {3} have more incentive to drive carefully.

Any situation where you're supposed to trust the men who for a living dart through third-world traffic without anything between their brains and the pavement besides a thin layer of bone and skin 
is not a good one to be in.{4}

{3} And it is absolutely 100% invariably a he.
{4} But I mean my muzungu hair would totally protect me in a crash, so I'm ok.

As you may have gathered, I do not fit the profile of your average adrenaline-junkie, and was not clamoring to go a-boda-boda-ing from the outset. However, in a city that has the traffic Chicago would have if every driver were your grandmother on methamphetamines, sometimes you have no choice but to cough up a buck or two,{5} hop on the back of something that can split lanes {6} and dart in front of large trucks and buses.

That is to say, the first time Sam and I rode a boda-boda, it was super totally urgent and necessary and not just because we thought it'd be serious fun to try. Really.

{5} Literally.
{6} “Lanes” being a concept with not even like lip-service paid to it here.

Boda-boda are easy enough to find—their drivers hang around in packs of between 2 and 10 on the sides of busy roads, waiting for someone to pass and ask for a ride. Alternately, if you need to go in a hurry, you can just start walking and guaranteed an unoccupied boda will pass you within the minute and say “we go?” to which grammatically ambiguous utterance the proper response is either “yes,” “no,” or “you ran over my foot, you fartmonster, come back here so I can knock you off that miserable excuse for a mode of transportation.”{7} There are always boda-boda around if you want one.

We hired two boda-boda drivers near the top of our hill to go into the city, haggling to a price of about $2 per.{8}
 And then we went. I learned an important thing early on, which is that my vertigo mostly kicks in when I'm in vehicles with little evident protection against falling out that start from a dead stop on rough terrain. Thankfully, in stop-and-go rush hour traffic in a country where saying that a road is paved only kinda means the same thing as it does in the States, and on a 1980s vintage motorcycle, that was not a problem at all.

{7} For those interested in the linguistic peculiarities of the vulgate of English spoken in Uganda (...Buehler? Buehler?), they probably say “we go” instead of something longer because in Luganda, the mother tongue of this region and therefore most of the boda drivers, the difference between the statement “we go/we are going” and the question “shall we go?/let's go?” is one barely-audible vowel, which feature goes a long way to explaining the somewhat convoluted question-structure of many Ugandans when speaking English.**
{8} More or less standard, I've been told, although I'm sure a small non-negotiable “muzungu tax” was included in the total.

A boda ride works like this. You sit down, wedge your feet up against the little
steel struts that pass for passenger footrests. And before you have accomplished this, the boda will have accelerated to a speed just above the level you personally are comfortable with, which speed it will maintain until you reach your destination. On the way, if you aren't terrified, you can have a conversation with the driver. Useful phrases include: “would you please slow down,” “drive more carefully, please,” “try not to hit that taxi, dear sir,” and “I promise I'll pay you extra if I don't die.”{9}

{9} But actually, some of them are fascinating and will have lots of interesting stuff to talk about.

It was sometime before discovering that four-phrase dictionary that I made another finding of life-giving importance: all boda-boda have a little curved metal bar sticking up right behind the seat. It's not high enough to rest your back against, but you can hold it as a safeguard against feeling like you're about to fall off the back (which you aren't).{10}
 And hold it I did, until my knuckles were white. The primary reason for this is that “traffic splitting” is far too euphemistic and neutral to describe what a boda-boda does. I mean, I'm not complaining—it's far less verbose and terrifying than “cuts at 60 kph in front of that taxi that doesn't look pleased one bit and then slides in a gap you didn't think existed between two trucks and oh Jesus that's the sidewalk that he's going up on please don't hit any small children”; I'd just have liked a little more specificity before my first ride.

My boda driver, however, did try his best. That much is clear with potholes, which dot the few paved roads here like polka dots dot a polka-dotted dress.{11}
 He attempted to swerve around them in order to avoid jostling my delicate foreign posterior, and often succeeded. The fact that he only “often” succeeded has convinced me that, in fact, sometimes someone's best just isn't good enough.

{10} I have since figured out how to stay on without holding it.
{11} We're not going to talk about unpaved roads, which are red dirt unencumbered by flatness, consistency, or navigability. 

Nonetheless, I stepped off that ride a converted boda fiend. And learned immediately afterward that the travel website had been right to warn me about boda drivers with helmets, like the man who took me for my second ever ride. I spent the entire ride using one or another of the above 4-sentence phrasebook on communicating with your boda driver. And stepped off and had the shakes for half an hour. Never again.

Never again.

* I had just learned about the speed of sound and airplanes that could exceed it and was quite fascinated by this idea
** An analysis of the more-than-somewhat convoluted sentence-structure of my writing will have to await a more qualified expert.