Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Never one to do things in the most logical of orders, I watched the film version of A Single Man, starring Colin Firth as the main protagonist, before I had read the novella. In fact I had no clue about the existence of Christopher Isherwood prior to watching the film. The film was a fantastic piece of cinema so I decided to investigate the novel behind it.

A Single Man is the story of one day in the life of George, a gay Englishman working as a professor in a Los Angeles college. The narrative focuses an intense light on George's movements and actions from the moment he wakes until the end of the day - maybe that should say the end of his days.

George is living in a neighbourhood that was once bohemian, but has been slowly populated by homogenous, Stepford-esque suburbanites. They all aspire to have clean lives free from anything 'queer' infringing upon it. To this extent George exists very much on the periphery of this way of life with the character of Mrs Strunk as good as saying you're a nice guy, but we can't let you meet our friends because you're gay

Along the way a small cast of characters transect George's day, and most importantly Charlotte and Kenny. Charlotte is an old friend of George's and is desperately lonely having been left by her husband and her son. Kenny is one of George's students who seems to harbour feelings towards George, but never openly expresses it.

All of the events work to highlight one thing, that George feels separate from this constantly-looking-over-your-shoulder, Cold War world, not least as a result of losing his life partner Jim. Strangely, his interactions with Kenny in the evening seem to reconcile George with the world, but his ephinany is never realised.

Thankfully the characters are not as sanitisied as the characters in the Hollywood version of the story. George is not as anally-retentive as Firth's portrayal, Charlotte not as a outwardly glamourous and Kenny is not as stereotypically college-boy American.

Ultimately, this is the sad story of a lonely man, but it is also a great critique on the homogenisation of every day life and culture in Southern California in 1962. There is an ever present tone of cynicism in the voice of George, that although clichéd now, marks the novel as very much of its time.

It seems simplistic to see this novel as a incitement to react against the oppressive force of passing time, yet I struggle to express a simplified idea of the novel's meaning. Any help would be gratefully received.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Watching Evening Arrive in Kabale

The evening view from my balcony in Room 103 at Green Hills Hotel, Kabale.
When you've been as busy as I have today, a moment's respite from it all is a necessity. I've met many familiar faces and greeted many new faces and now is an opportunity for thirty minutes of 'me' time.

It is the evening of Monday 11th April and I am sat on my balcony in Room 103 of Green Hills Hotel, Kabale - a hotel that is as familiar to me now as my own family's home in Warwick, in the UK. As the trip leader, my one perk - other than executive decision making power - is a room with a view and balcony.

This time of day is perfect for reflecting on the frenetic pace of the day behind you with all of its counting of shillings and being here or that at such a time. What an irony it is then that Ugandans don't seem to rush around for anything and yet bazungu are quite happy to, exhausting themselves by 6pm. What was it that they say about mad dogs and Englishmen?

Sitting back, even as the smoke from a combination of coal and kerosene burners drifts up the valley, and even though the silence is intermittently punctuated by the beat from a PA system floating in my direction as the wind changes, this moment is still full of serenity.

So as the last glimmers of sunlight leak out of the valley in the direction of the Congo, for now anyway, I will recline in my balcony chair, reflect on a job well done thus far and contemplate the many things left on my programme for the week.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Never Cry for Love...

"Never cry for love because it's non-consumable and loose".
A small message, written in chalk at the top of a blackboard, raises a few smiles in one of the prep rooms of Elizabeth Hall. A few of my students are inclined to agree, some ask about the spelling and punctuation, others try to decipher the meaning.

It is Monday 11th  April and we're upstairs above the newest girl's dormitory block. The upstairs hosts three rather barren looking prep rooms - rooms where the students are meant to do independent study before and after their school day. The dorm is named for Ms. Elizabeth Walton OBE, one of the pioneers of the partnership.

The building is lot brighter than some of the older dorms, but upstairs feels a little impersonal. Their are no books, and just two solemn notepads of a student's work adorn the shelves. Taking a look inside, it appears that the student studies A Level Maths and the notes go far beyond my realms of understanding. It must surely be a risky business leaving your notes here with exams around the corner.

Turning back to the blackboard, I wonder some more about the strange little phrase. Is it from a book? Is it formed from personal experience? Is it just an idle scribble on an already dusty sea of chalk?

I don't know, but it does make me think of my own students and how serious 'love' can be as a topic for them, even at this age. How it dictates so many elements of their lives, often without any understanding of the gravity of the word. How it causes so many daily dramas that are patched up by sundown.

Sometimes the distance between Kabale and London seems very small.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Faith

What's your name? "Faith". What's my name? "Omuzungu"
This little girl doesn't really want to talk to me. She wants to stare at me. As I cast my eyes around the group of puzzled looking nursery children, she stands out. A small stream of snot running constantly from her nose, sleepy looking eyes and a little hooded top underneath her sweater.

It is Tuesday 12th April and I've taken a small group of my students down to the Wise Parents Day Nursery in Kabale. The weather is a little muggy and a small girl is staring up at me expectantly.

Out of all of the children, she seems the least inclined to want to run about the yard at the nursery chasing footballs. She also seems completely uninterested in going on the see-saw, the swings or even talking. All she wants to do is follow me around. So, without a word, she grabs my index finder in her tiny hand and holds it as I walk around checking on my students.

At one point I ask her what her name is. She whispers, "Faith". I then ask her whether she knows my name. She whispers with an expression of embarrassment, "omuzungu". Oh well. I'm used to that now.

Awkwardness aside, Faith is contented to just be my miniature assistant and violently swats away the boys who try to get me involved in playing football in the style of stampede of buffalo - she very possessive already! As I take a seat on the grass, she sits next to me.

I stop and wonder about the children and their experiences away from the nursery. These innocent little beings don't see and understand the realities of life in the same manner as their high school counterparts, so what hardship, if any, does their youthful ignorance hide? Perhaps everything is fine at home. Perhaps it is not. They're lucky that that they even have a nursery to go to. Either way, it seems rude to ask the teachers and the kids don't understand kizungu yet.

In the meantime, let the children play. I suppose it is our duty to protect the children as best we can, but most importantly to let them continue to be children until they're ready to grow up.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Bakiga Window: In the Shade

Looking out through the window of a dormitory building.

Out of the mid-morning sunshine, and in the cool of a dormitory at Kigezi High School, I can't help but feeling like I am somewhere that I shouldn't be. The room is dark, long, and punctuated by three-storey bunk beds surrounded by a bare minimum of personal effects.

It is Monday 11th April and I am in a girls dorm whilst on a tour of the compound with some of the teachers and my students - the place is deserted right now, because, of course, it is against school rules to be in your bunk during school hours.

Looking around the cavernous building your instinct is to think that it looks quite cosy and inviting for any potential students, but after a few minutes of reflection you usually come to your senses. 

Although the girls may be a lot better behaved, you are ultimately sharing a very open space with many other people. The spread of students here goes from Senior 1 through to Senior 6, meaning girls as young as 11 or 12 years old could stay here, miles from home, potentially with lots of older students.

Furthermore, the dorms seem remarkably open. Through the window you can see down the hillside into open countryside. There are no high fences surrounding the compound - indeed we are a few hundred metres down the track from the main school premises. The door is open during the daytime to drifters to wander into, should they not be spotted. After dark, when the door is surely shut, the often glassless windows still give a sense of openness. What vagrants could roam in the dark?

As a new student, young, feeling lonely, a long way from home, on a darkened hillside with no mosquito net and no glass in your windows, it must all be a daunting and intimidating experience. For sure it must get better as the years pass, but there could be many battles with fear to overcome in the meantime.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Up Above Lake Bunyonyi

The view from Acadia Cottages looking over Lake Bunyoni and into eternity.

The shifting images in front of my eyes have been so varied today. We have gone from the busy city of Kigali, wound our way through the Rwandese hills and valleys, negotiated the border crossing, arrived in Kabale for long enough to unload our bags from the Coaster and now, with my small troupe of students, have headed up into the hills.

It is still Sunday 10th April and I am high up above Lake Bunyonyi, a few kilometres outside of Kabale, in southwestern Uganda. With me are a couple of teachers from Kigezi High School, twelve of their students, one of my colleagues from the UK and my twelve students. We are here to get to know one another a little better.

The truth is that I know Penninah and Patrick from Kigezi very well now - this is my third visit to this district after all. The two groups of students instantly take an interest in each other. It is only a matter of time before the ice is broken with conversations about football, music, life, technology. My group of students is quite simply the most proactive, polite and friendly group that I have ever worked with. They've cast off the cocoon of Western cotton wool already and with no prompting from myself.

Whilst the students organise themselves and take part in some games involving a rugby ball and football that I bought in London, I take time to look out across the lake. I've been on the lake before, but never up high looking over it like this. The scene of the fading afternoon sun shimmering over the fingers of the lake and peaks of islands and hills seems to run on into eternity. It could be the roof of the world for all I know.

As the name-learning games continue, I think to myself how beautiful this country is. I also think to myself how busy this week is going to be. Never having led an international trip before, I can't help but find it all a tad daunting, but with students as well behaved as this and a great team of adults too, it is going to be easy. It is already going so well.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Oraire Gye Nyabo?

The luggage bus makes it to the border, en route to Kabale, Uganda.
"Oraire gye nyabo?" I ask the lady at the passport control desk. Her response is to giggle at me before starting to process the pile of twenty-six passports - a heady mix of nationalities with and without visas depending on who you are and where you're from. I am assured later that my pronunciation of a standard greeting that translates as 'how did you spend your night, madam?' is perfectly fine, but it is the fact that it is a mzungu saying it which has raised a giggle.

It is Sunday 10th April and we've left Rwanda and are now waiting on the Ugandan side of the border to be processed and allowed into the country officially. In past years we've all had to fill in forms individually and queue up to be seen one by one. This year we have a pragmatic border controller who is willing to process us in one group. Thank the Lord - we are on a tight schedule today!

Having made our way through the winding roads of Rwanda, we find ourselves in Kabale district in the southwestern Uganda. The weather is increasingly hot and the sights increasingly familiar: the hawkers in no man's land trying to exchange your money for you, the border police with their stern faces and the endless lines of trucks seemingly waiting forever to go through customs, but never moving.

Our small luggage minibus has successfully navigated its way through both the Rwandan and Ugandan border checks ahead of us and was waiting on the Ugandan side. After a quick chat with the driver, Grigorios and Hanka I dispatched the minibus to get to the hotel in Kabale before us.

A short while later, the passports are done and the friendly Ugandan border controllers are happy to let us through. The students are all looking exceptionally excited now as I load them back onto our Toyota Coaster. 

With many of them having been asleep for most of the spectacular journey through the Rwandan countryside, they've awoken to fact that we are now many miles from the airport home and even further into the heart of Africa. This is where our African experience really begins.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Breaking the Barriers to Girls’ Education in the Developing World

Shakila. A student at Taufiq Islamic Primary School, Uganda.
Whenever I have written about time I’ve spent in East Africa, I often talk about the fact that geography plays such a big role in how different my life is compared to someone there. What I hadn’t realised until much more recently is that not only does somebody’s physical location in the world play a massive part in the opportunities available to them, but so does their gender.

One question that begs to be asked is: why is it that girls in particular are less likely to get access to education in poorer countries?

According to Plan UK, women earn 30-60% of men’s earnings for similar jobs and women are more likely to be in low-paid employment, yet an extra year of secondary school boosts a girl’s eventual future wage by 15-25%. Many don't even have the opportunity to get this far.

There are obvious cultural and economic pressures dictating that boys, as historical breadwinners, should be pushed to the fore and afforded the greater opportunities to be educated.

After all, imagine you are family living on a five thousand Ugandan shillings a day. You will make a few thousand shillings for selling bananas you’ve been growing. You have two children; a boy and a girl. You can’t afford to send them both to school, but understand it would be good for one of them to go. Who do you choose? Someone who your culture dictates is traditionally the breadwinner? Or someone who your culture considers as being more of a homemaker? And remember, you still have to feed your family today.

Obviously I am generalising and using rural Uganda as a simplified example, but when I look into the eyes of Shakila, a young Ugandan girl surrounded by a couple of cheeky looking boys, I see a great sense of satisfaction and pride that she is able to hold her own as the only girl in her class. The lack of other female pupils in her form class is telling.

For every Shakila, how many girls are restricted from getting access to education by either financial or cultural restrictions? For every Shakila, glowing with pride and full of ambition for the future, how many girls are deprived of the opportunity to show the world their true potential? For every Shakila, breaking the stereotypes that dictate that all females must be homemakers, how many intelligent girls are gearing up for a life of basic domesticity?

Fighting for girls to get access to a proper education could ensure that more females become literate. Literacy can act to facilitate greater intelligence. Greater intelligence means a greater likelihood that girls will remain healthy as a result of being able to access and understand a wider pool of information. They would also be more likely to get married and have children later in life.

Cultural attitudes will take a lot longer to overcome, but in the meantime, humanity could be doing a whole lot more to ensure that girls are given the chance to access education. Plan UK are demanding that the British Government support girls in the developing world in order to get them a better deal and are asking for the public to pressure their local Members of Parliament to push for this.

Ultimately, an education for a girl could result in benefits, culturally, financially and educationally, for an entire community and for many future generations. Plan UK's projects are already having an impact, but now it is time for the wider global community to pitch in.

For more information about Plan UK's campaign 'Because I am a Girl' visit their website: www.plan-uk.org/what-we-do/campaigns/because-i-am-a-girl/ 

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Cotonou Club by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou

Album artwork.
I often dream and get ideas into my head about some great voyage into the unknown that I wish to take. I have been lucky enough to have had a few chance meetings and brief conversations recently which have already taken root in my mind. With a bit of effort they should definitely come to fruition. So, my most recent dream? Bénin and Ghana, by way of Togo - most likely over a two week period.

With thoughts of visiting a project in Bénin firmly planted, I made the effort to indulge in a bit of research related to a West African country that, although looking small on the map, seemingly has an immensely rich cultural heritage. I found a couple of things in my initial efforts: a novella called The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin and an album called Cotonou Club by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.

The former, although a beautifully intriguing novella, was written by a yovo (the Béninois equivalent of mzungu). I needed something a little more African and the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is just that.

The band originally came into being around the mid-1970s, but had stopped recording by the 1983 for a number of reasons, cited as being, "a combination of economic and political factors, management issues, the death of key members and bad luck" by the BBC. It would appear that the modern world's penchant for World Music reawakened global interest and got the band back in the studios and back on the road.

The music that pours forth from Cotonou Club is a lively stream of Afrobeat and funk music which harks back to the band's original heyday of the mid-1970s. Strangely, the music seems to sound fresh and contemporary and not just as a result of including more recent musicians like Angélique Kidjo -  Bénin's biggest musical export. 

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Photo © Guardian.
Songs of note include: 'Ne Te Fache Pas' with it's springy bassline and rousing chorus of voices, 'Von vo Nono' with its catchy horn hook and driving bass and 'Gbeti Madjro', the duet with Angélique Kidjo, with its pacey and intense vocal delivery and instrumentation. Undoubtably all the songs build towards the climax of the album, 'Lion is Burning' - a song which combines all the best elements of all the songs into four minutes of outrageously funky and exciting music. 

Listening to the music of the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo only adds fuel to my dreams of heading to Bénin. I hope one day to make it the soundtrack to my own journey there.
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