One of the silver linings of lockdown…

Ten-year-old Jerry joined our neighbourhood class at the beginning of the year. Last year he was in South Sudan and this year he lives just a little up the road from us. Schools are still closed here; they have been closed for almost two years. Jerry started our neighbourhood class with very basic reading and writing skills, he certainly gave me a few challenges for how to pitch the lessons for him as well as the other children in February this year.

However, I am absolutely blown away by how much progress Jerry has made in eight months. When it comes to storytelling and story writing, he is one of our most thoughtful and creative students.

Last month we completed in a story writing unit and each child entered their stories in a national competition.

I have attached Jerry’s below:

It’s quite incredible to think that this child has barely been in school and no-one has taught him from home. And it’s wonderful to look back now and reflect on the fabulous year of learning Jerry has had and the incredible amount of progress he has made.

I am sharing Jerry’s story with his permission.

This is one proud neighbourhood teacher…

Thankful for… the potter and clay

Neighbourhood schooling has been a rollercoaster journey; however thankfully there’s a lot more highlights than lowlights.

We are particularly thankful for finding a local artist who is certainly way more talented than us in this field, who comes weekly to teach our children art. Last week the children learnt to make their own flower pots. They loved it!

Here’s some of their handiwork.

Slipping closer each day…

Several months ago we applied for a five-year adoption visa for Myron to visit Australia. This is pretty much the Australian Government’s way of recognising his adoption and would give Myron ‘residency’ of Australia. When we applied, we were told that most of the applications were approved within two years. We knew we would have a long wait ahead of us.

This week we were asked for ‘more information’ for Myron’s visa. We need to go back to a health centre in Kampala for three more health tests. We did plan on driving to Kampala this morning, however our road was impassable and by the time the sun dried it out it was too late. We are planning to leave this Sunday for the health tests. One step closer…

The road to town from our house… after a few hours of sun…
One step closer…

Laying in wait for Dan…

A few nights ago a man wielding a brushhook (see picture) lay in wait for Dan and his ‘so-called accomplice’ near their vehicle. Nope, I’m not exaggerating, just rushing to the juicy part. So let me back track and start at the beginning…

We were just heading to bed around 10.30pm when our friends called us from Entebbe Airport (our national airport – I won’t mention any names, but some of you will guess who they are). They were about to fly back for an overdue stay with family but… they realised at check-out that they had picked an expired passport instead of a current one. It’s that moment that we all dread isn’t it… but this story just gets better and better.

Dan organised with a neighbour (who also works as a driver) to go to their nearby house and break into their locked shed to retrieve the passport. It was well after lockdown but we had no choice. One of our colleagues was staying in their house. I tried to call her but she never answered. Our friends also told us they would ring their close neighbour to tell her what was happening (this never happened).

Dan grabs a hammer and a chisel, the driver picks him up and they set off…

The driver initially tried to wake our colleague/house sitter inside. She woke quite easily, but stayed silent inside… not sure of the strange voice calling out to her and fearing the worst. It wasn’t until Dan yelled out that she recognised his voice and came outside.

The shed door was double padlocked (inside and out). The outside padlock was easy to remove, although it was loud. The inside padlock, however, was impossible to break with a small space to work with – so they decided to break the door out. It took the guys more than an hour to chisel the door out of the brickwork.

During this time our colleague/house-sitter had attempted several times to go across and alert the neighbour to what was happening, however she thought she was asleep and didn’t want to wake her. Meanwhile inside her house, the neighbour was certainly awake, frightened and had been calling for help. She called the LC1 (the local leader who handles pretty much everything), and she had even called a radio station searching for the police inspector’s phone number. The LC1 had sent a security officer to go and inspect.

Whilst the guys were chiselling out the door, the security officer approached the neighbourhood with a brushhook. He doesn’t get too close, jumps to the conclusion that they are breaking in, and thought he would lay down, hide amongst the grass near the suspected getaway car and attack them on their exit. Thankfully he was waiting quite a while and thought he would go and survey the size of the ‘assailants’. He crawled closer and stayed low. During one time when our colleague/house-sitter came out to try the neighbour again, the camouflaged security officer coughs and enquires in a whisper voice as to what is happening. That’s the moment when the air was cleared and everything came to light – thankfully. And… still wielding his brushhook, the security officer goes over and helps them cut the door out.

The passport was delivered safely, and our friends are now on the other side of the world.

Once upon a time… there was a road

Better late than never…

As a family, we have just finished reading/listening to the Chronicles of Narnia – all seven books. The Last Battle was certainly a mad dash to the finish line before the audio book disappeared from our online library, but we made it just in time (listening over breakfast, holding a portable speaker up while travelling in the car, listening while cooking…).

Why didn’t we read this series in our childhood? (Well, Dan and I anyway…) If you haven’t read the series, please do. All seven books. The stories and characters have been woven into the life of our family, and we know we will return to them again and again. But the last book, phew! What symbolism and imagery! Lewis received a Carnegie Medal for The Last Battle, and from a huge fan, I can see why.

There’s been more than 100million copies sold, in 47 different languages – so obviously we’re not the only ones who think this series is just stellar!

What do you get for $4?

Like all ‘wannabe good parents’, we try to teach responsibility. One way we have tried to do this with Myron is for him to have a few pets that he looks after: at the moment it’s rabbits and guinea pigs.

But he doesn’t have the responsibility alone, the frontline carer for these rabbits and guinea pigs is Myron’s friend Odong who lives behind us. Each morning Odong walks around our village picking food from neighbouring properties. He then comes over to feed them. Myron joins him of course, mostly dancing around (literally), possibly doing a little play fighting, gymnastics and generally keeping Odong company. When they clean out the rabbit cage, it’s the same deal: Myron ‘helping’ Odong, mostly with his company and conversation, and our constant encouragement beckoning from the door. 

Since Odong clearly has a large stake in these pets when we sold some of the rabbits we split the profits with Odong: it was 10,000 shillings (£2 or $4 Aussie). And what did he rush out to spend the money on? A pair of flip flops (thongs), currently his only pair of shoes; a tube of toothpaste and some underwear. 

Odong is 12-years-old. He’s the youngest of three brothers and lives with his single-mother. His mother digs for a living, which is very intermittent as a good third of the year is the dry season. 

Odong is extremely kind, generous and humble with a soft heart. Even though food is short in supply, he often brings us cassava and roasted maize.

I’m not even sure how to end this, but when I was 12 and I got a few dollars, I’d be going straight to the sweet shop. 

Myron and Odong’s rabbits and guinea pigs…
Myron’s ‘selfie’ of him and Odong with their favourite rabbit, Buddy.

What of the children?

President Museveni partially lifted lockdown restrictions last night. Whilst private vehicles can now move again and passengers are now legally allowed on a boda (motorbike)… schools are still closed.

We currently have a class of eleven children who we are personally teaching every day: neighbourhood homeschool. My mind is completely torn about how I feel about this class and education here right now.
On one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity we have to teach our neighbours, and not to boast, but these kids are getting a ‘damn good education’. I’m so proud of them; their reading and writing has grown immensely, particularly for a few of them. We pack a lot into our morning lessons (which sometimes flow into the afternoon) and I can see a lot of progress. And of course, Myron is thriving learning with others (always a bonus for an extrovert).

On the other hand, the first three years of primary school has been closed for a year and a half, and it is likely that children won’t go back to school until next year. The new guidelines state that schools will remain closed until “a sufficient number of children aged 12 to 18 are vaccinated”. But… where are the vaccines? There are currently NONE in the country. Not a shortage, not an allocation for one age group or industry, but none. A few weeks ago more doses arrived, however they were only allocated for second dose vaccinations and dried up within hours.

And what of the children who are under 12? They are the ones who have not returned to school since lockdown was first announced in March last year. Other year groups have gone back, albeit for not very long, but they have gone back for some learning.

I can only imagine what educational state children will be in when they do finally return to school… whenever that will be. But school not only helps children learn here, it also helps keep children safe. UNICEF has reported many increased cases in Uganda of teenage pregnancy; sexual abuse of children; physical abuse and even one case of murder during school closure. And there is a very real risk that a large proportion of these children may never return to school when they do open again.

We are allowed to have 20 people at social events (wedding, funerals, etc), and public transport can operate at 50%, so why can’t we have 20 children in schools? We already have guidelines and standard operating procedures on how to do this in schools (written by the government). I must be missing something… but I really can’t quite understand why children are not back in school. The children, yet again, are victims and seem to have no voice in this time (or more to the point… overlooked and poorly represented).

In the meantime, my colleagues and I will keep teaching children within our neighbourhoods, we will keep teaching on the radio every day, and we will keep waiting for the vaccinations to come. And no doubt this week we will discuss what more we can do for children still at home…

For those who pray, please pray for vaccines to come (in loaves and fish proportions) and for those making decisions about education in Uganda.

Sugar-coated challenge

I was cycling home from our office when I passed an old friend on his bicycle. We quickly recognised each other, then circled back to greet each other. My old friend was carrying a stick of sugar cane chopped into several pieces and strapped to the back of his bicycle. 

He has many children and an uncertain future (work-wise); however his first thought when seeing me was to unstrap his sugar cane and give me two pieces (with strict instructions to give one to Myron). 

I didn’t have anywhere to strap them; and they were quite cumbersome to carry; however I accepted his generous gift. 

His first thoughts in seeing me was to look at what he had and to share some of it with me. These are never my first thoughts; I barely even remember to offer visitors a cup of water when they visit 

I am certainly challenged a lot from the culture I live in.

Opportunities in the lockdown…

Meet Olyec Andrew (in the middle). This is certainly not the clearest photo; however the story behind this photo (and many like this) are the roses amongst the thorns of lockdown. Andrew used to struggle with maths in his local primary school in Gulu. Although that was a long time ago now…
Now, Teacher Dick has been teaching Andrew as part of READ for Life’s neighbourhood teaching during lockdown. Tr Dick has daily reading and maths lessons and Andrew doesn’t want lockdown to end. By teaching practically with real objects, Andrew now enjoys maths and is longing for his learning to continue.

Andrew might be one of the few people who want lockdown to continue; but it is beautiful to see some children flourishing in this time.