Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Visitor

I was still asleep when the IRS knocked on the door of Junior's house. No, not the Internal Revenue Service but the Indoor Residual Sprayers. Houses were being sprayed with DDT in hopes of reducing the incidence of malaria in the area, specifically our house- right then. In order for a house to be sprayed everything mobile must be removed so, still in my pajamas (I like to think that it doesn't register to people when I wear my pajamas during the day but deep down I know it's not the case) the girls and I started carrying, dragging, and pushing all of our worldly possessions outside. An hour and a half of moving stuff out, an hour of spraying, and 2 hours of sitting outside in a plastic chair waiting until it was safe to enter the house- all in the middle of the hot season, on a day when I didn't have any work to keep me busy but did have a notably bad stomach ache. I might have been slightly cranky.

When it was finally clear to go back inside I started seeing the upside of things. Our house had become completely overrun, not with mosquitoes (they actually aren't around too much during the dry season), but with cockroaches and funny green and brown bugs that emit a terrible smell and like to hang out in my pants. It would be nice to be insect free for a few months. I haphazardly dragged my things back in and, still suffering from a stomach ache, laid down in bed with my book. It wasn't long before I was in a half sleep but I could still hear the sound of cardboard boxes sliding across our concrete floors- Lucky and Fiona putting everything back in place.

Still in a daze I flipped over, opened my eyes and let out a scream. In the terrible heat of midday I had left every door open and now, in my bedroom, completely unguarded and unprotected, I was staring in the eyes of a rather large bull! Out of sheer shock and panic I hit the bull in the face with my book- yes, totally nerdy intellectual response I know. Luckily it did the job, the massive animal strolled out. In a state of disbelief I tried piece together how I didn't notice this beast of burden walk in and set up shop a mere few inches from my head. That's when I realized that what I had assumed was the sound of the girls pushing boxes was in fact hooves on concrete, a bull meandering into my bedroom.

Lesson learned. When afternoon activities involves laying in bed with a bad stomach ache and good book shut the door. (Unless it's really really hot in which case feel free to disregard all lessons.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Obama Books

When I first got to site I didn't have housing. I also didn't have very much to do at work (the work assigned from the Ministry of Health and District Health Office is very sporadic, sometimes there's tons, sometimes there's none). Without the Peace Corps newbie mission of nesting or any distractions at work during the day, time seemed to drag on. Luckily I was enjoying the integration process thoroughly and having a great time getting to know my temporary hosts. While most of my time at home was spent talking with Junior, I was also very interested in making a connection with the 3 school aged girls who lived with us. Lucky, Fiona, and Tamale had a few things in common- they all did their work around the house diligently and discreetly, they all loved to dance, the were all shy around me, and they were all either partially orphaned or viewed as semi-expendable members of their families which is how they, fortunately, fell under the loving care of Junior.

Partially out of care and goodwill and partially out of boredom I bought 3 school exercise books for the girls to practice their studies in during the long December school break. When I gave the them to the girls they were expectedly excited to have books to work in but surprisingly ecstatic that the books had pictures of Barack Obama and his family on the covers. They got to work immediately. Tamale made the brave move of starting out by writing full sentences. The first line in her exercise book read, "I want to take off my clothes." When Junior and I, trying to hold back laughter, asked her to read it to us she read, "I want to take off my clothes because they are dirty." We pointed out the difference and she fixed it right away. Fiona is 9 years old and has never been to school. Being from the US I never would have imagined that this Obama book, as they were named by the girls, represented the first real opportunity that she's ever had to hold a pen and attempt to write and draw. Working with Fiona on forming letters and drawing pictures of our house and farm animals was amazing. The girl was like a sponge and her creativity and determination has resulted in a lively book of images, including some funny pictures of me. Emulating the Ugandan school system, Lucky started off by copying notes from her old school books into the new one without knowing the meaning of any of it. It was very difficult to tear Lucky away from the comfort of copying and she seemed notably uneasy when she didn't know the answer right away. I mentioned this to Junior and she told me that Lucky's younger sister was very smart and, as a result, Lucky's parents repeat criticized her for being dumb.

After dinner studies became a tradition and I racked my brain on a daily basis to come up with challenging but achievable lessons for the girls. Children of other health center staff started to come with their own books as well and our nightly activities were soon dubbed 'Eliza Academy.' Some evenings I was tired and just wanted to lay down with my own book but the girls enthusiasm was a force to be reckoned with. Our nights were riddled with small successes and fleeting moments of intense pride for all of the children but my favorite to date was with Lucky. Always naturally drifting towards teaching English, one day I decided to change it up and give Lucky some math problems. She impressed me with her ability to add relatively large numbers but it was as if the subtraction problems were written in a foreign language. After a few failed attempts I dug into the family supply of onions. Through demonstrations (we don't share enough of a common language to explain verbally) I showed her how to count out the onions, take away the number asked and count the number that represents the correct answer to the math problem. While it doesn't sound like much, that night I witnessed a mathematical break through. Lucky went from having no idea how one would go about finding the answer to not getting a single question wrong- all within the course of an hour. I was, and still am, so proud of her.

As the girls have gone back to school (Including Fiona) and my work has picked up at the health center Eliza Academy has largely been disband but I still see traces of it. Every night while preparing their dinner of beans and cassava school books scattered across the veranda and someone is talking about what they learned that day. The other kids still come over daily and the older students go over lessons with the younger ones. I'm also still an active participant when I'm able- I'm currently drilling them on the translation of question words from English to Lango. I hope this will give them a fighting chance on their exams which they usually fail, along with the majority of the student body. Overall I'd say that academics have become a little bit more fun and communal since the arrival of the Obama books. Eliza Academy was never Harvard but it has created a tangible feeling of enthusiasm surrounding education and turned 3 shy little girls into my amina atitidi- Lango for little sisters.