Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Taufiq Islamic Primary School

The Primary 6 class 'revising'.
The sun is relentless this afternoon. After a typically rainy season morning of mist and showers, the clouds have parted and I can feel my skin beginning to cook under Uganda’s wide blue skies.

It is Wednesday 13th April and I have delegated my group leader responsibilities for a few hours, in order for me to go about following up on something I promised I would last year, namely visiting the Taufiq Islamic Primary School.

When I visited last year, my immediate reaction was use a selection of adjectives, all with negative connotations. This wasn’t as a reflection of the school as an organisation, or of the small, but hard-working, Muslim community who look after it, but more focused on the cramped conditions that the boarding students had to live in.

So it was, that after a short lunchtime meeting with the father of a student from Kigezi High School, I followed the path down to Taufiq: past the ladies selling bananas, weaving my way through the hive of activity that is the taxi rank, through the clattering of men working on bits of metal. There I met with Teacher Bright.

After signing the guest book and chatting about whether much had changed in the year since my last visit, he started to take me on a tour of the inner courtyard of the main building. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before a Primary 6 class, who were meant to be revising for a test, saw me and began to look excitedly at their mzungu visitor.

I asked the teacher whether this small class was always this excitable. He replied, “not really. Most visitors to the school aren’t here to see the children.” I asked whether I could meet them and he obliged.

The pupils took it in turns to ask questions and either giggled or gasped in response to any answers I gave them. At first the questions were about England: “Do you really have a Queen?” and “Does it really rain all the time?” The questions moved on to “do you have Muslims in the UK?” I then informed them that in London, where I teach, most of my students are Muslim. This surprised them, but also brought smiles to their faces.

At this point a phone call came through to teacher Bright. There were reports coming through that a mzungu was visiting the school and the Sheikh hadn’t been informed. I took this as an indication to leave, albeit feeling somewhat disappointed, and I made my way back to the road.

Later that night, Yasim, the KHS bus driver and a member of Kabale’s Muslim community saw me walking home, still in a melancholy mood and called me over. He had heard about the mix up at the school and was able to inform the Sheikh that I was good man, a friend of Islam and someone without ulterior motives.

I was left waiting on a phone call to see if I would get a formal invite back to the school later in the week.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Coucher de Soleil en Normandie


Whilst London was gripped by fleeting madness, I was fortunate enough to be in Ouistreham, France. It is a small coastal resort in the Calvados département in Basse-Normandie. The weather was extremely good, with the exception of the last day when the rain made a brief appearance.

The above picture was taken on the broad expanse of flat sand that makes up part of Gold Beach, in Ouistreham, at sunset or coucher de soleil

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin Viking
The third novel in the series Moonraker (1955), sees a noticeable shift from the style of the first two. The first noticeable difference is the division of the novel in three parts: 'Monday', 'Tuesday/Wednesday' and 'Thursday/Friday' - in a way reflecting the normality of a working week for many readers. Indeed the first few pages seem to portray a mundane start to an average week at the office for Bond, away from the international jet-setting, dangerous, man of mystery role that we've seen graphically displayed in the previous novels.

The action starts in a low-key manner. M, Bond's boss at the Secret Service, is a member of a Gentlemen's club and has been alerted by the management there about a famous character who insists on cheating at cards, despite his wealth. So it is that Bond is invited to play Sir Hugo Drax at cards, in turn teaching him a lesson and softly putting an end to his unfair winning streak.

Drax's character is one of the most intriguing so far in the series. He has a blurry back-story that we don't have clarified until the novel's end. Also, far from being a typical Bond villain, he is lauded by the British government, the press and the general public as being a national hero - an opinion brought about as a result of his rags to riches tale, heroism in the war effort before being injured, his shrewd economic dealings and his willingness to fund and design a missile, the 'Moonraker', to assist the British in creating a nuclear weapon.

Following a couple of mysterious deaths, Bond is assigned to assist Drax in preparing security for the missile prior to its test launch on the Friday of that week. Working with the cold and overly-professional Special Branch officer Gala Brand, an increasing number of incidents of strange behaviour begin to make Bond suspect that Hugo Drax isn't quite who he says he is.

The second notable shift is that Fleming bases the novel entirely in England and in doing so creates a great snippet of the paranoia at the start of the Cold War in the UK. Preoccupations with powerful weapons capable of destroying entire cities and the fear that anyone could be working for 'the other side' abound through this story and are portrayed in the typically engaging and eloquent prose of Fleming.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin Viking
So, having read and enjoyed Casino Royale, I couldn't really resist reading Live and Let Die (1954). Most people who have seen the films maybe haven't read the books and frankly they're missing out. What has continued to delight me about the novels is the fact that they are a lot darker and more serious than the Bond films. 

In the second novel, James Bond is called into action to take on a Harlem gangster, Mr Big, and his network of criminality that inevitably leads back to SMERSH. The nature of Mr Big's activities revolves around the selling of 17th Century gold coins in order to bankroll Soviet spies' operations in the USA. Meaning that the locus of the tensions moves from British-Soviet relations to US-Soviet relations - the biggest area of tension during the Cold War. 

From Harlem and the jazz clubs, all the way to the Everglades, it seems that Mr Big's network is endless and this claustrophobia is recreated in Fleming's writing. The story eventually leads to the tropical paradise of Jamaica where Mr Big has his island base. 

There is of course the customary damsel in distress, Solitaire, who is able to see into the future. Having been used in the past by Mr Big to build his operations, she defects to assist Bond before being kidnapped and taken to Mr Big's mysterious island off the coast of mainland Jamaica. 

The action has serious pace, yet the novel does the depth of the characters a whole lot more justice than the film ever could. You really get a sense of the threat of the violence and edginess emanating from the voodoo underworld throughout - something lost in the technicolour campness of the 1973 film. 

Fleming's writing, it is clear to see, had developed by the time of writing the second Bond novel. The plot is a lot tighter and moves fluidly from chapter to chapter, almost always having a small cliffhanger at the end of each. Of particular interest to modern readers are the terms by which Fleming refers to the black characters. Words such as 'purple' to describe very dark skin tone, 'nigger' and 'negress' are all terms that show the novel is of its time - whether the use of such words is racist, or just displaying the mild ignorance of the period, is for scholars to decide.

Review for Live and Let Die adapted from an Ayohcee review previously available on LivingSocial:Books before the closure of that site.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin Viking
It was always going to be the case that, after reading a 'new' James Bond novel authored by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming, I would need to go back to the roots of the story. So, when looking at the vast back-catalogue of Fleming's Bond novels I was surprised to see that Casino Royale (1953), one of the most recent Bond films, was actually the starting point for Bond as a character in the series of novels. 

The first novel follows Bond, a British Secret Service spy, on a mission to a Casino in Royale-Les-Eaux, a (fictional) northern French resort. His aim is to bankrupt Le Chiffre, an operative and paymaster for the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH - a name which means 'death to spies'. Operating undercover as a Jamaican playboy, Bond very nearly comes unstuck at the baccarat table, before getting a little financial help from his CIA friends. 

Job done? Not quite. From here events move quickly as Le Chiffre takes his revenge for the harm that Bond has done to his finances and needless to say, there is woman involved in the mix too, Vesper Lynd (supposedly a phonetic play on 'West Berlin). The story twists and turns with the action slowing down and speeding up beautifully before the unexpected ending. 

Strikingly, the James Bond of the novels is not an invincible superhero and he takes a serious beating at the hands of his nemesis in this novel and is without the arsenal of gadgets that the film directors afford him. Yes the womanising, smooth-talking, cool character is evident, but the book has a dark, almost sadistic undertone that keeps the reader flinching as blows reign down on Bond's body. 

This novel sets up Bond's character magnificently for sequels and showcases Fleming's fantastic ability to capture characters, locations and opulance, as well as darkness, pain and suffering.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Enter Stage Right


A young girl waiting for her turn on stage.

A young girl stands nervously biting her nails whilst holding a couple of pompoms. Peering around the corner of the doorframe, into a room darkened by the inclement weather outside, she watches as her teachers perform a number of traditional Kikiga and Rwandese dances. Her turn will be soon.

It is Wednesday 13th April and after spending the first half of the morning at Blessed Academy's out of town nursery, we are now at the main primary school premises in Kabale. It is still raining heavily and the roads have nearly finished their transitions into flowing rivers of red mud.

I feel a tiny bit on edge as the first performances unfold in front of the other class children, the teachers and the small bazungu audience. I guess that the uncertainty comes as a result of watching a show without having any idea of what is going on beyond the obvious aesthetic display.

Questions continually pop into my mind: What does this movement symbolise? Why is that man wearing a straw wig? Is this Kikiga or Rwandese?What are the items that look a lot like giant butternut squashes the girls are dancing with?

After fighting my enquiring mind into submission, I just decide to let it go and I watch intently as, teachers, and then the children, take it in turns to dance and sing. Everyone from the smallest of P1 pupils to the tallest of P7 pupils has a part to play - in all instances they play their parts impeccably.

The older pupils definitely seem to be feeling the pressure more, and their tension and desire to prove how good they are at dancing to their foreign guests is evident: the nail biting; the shuffling of feet; the last minute rehearsals, off to stage right in the damp and muddy car park. 

Finally, our young girl's time to shine has come. The nail biting stops. She stands upright and walks out of the doorway, obscured from the eyes of her audience.

The old sound system rumbles to life once more, straining under the weight of the bass of a CD version of a traditional song, and after a couple of seconds, our girl appears, followed by an equally eager team of dancers, to take centre stage for two precious minutes.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

As a child I was brought up on a cocktail of television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work. It is only in my adult life that I have realised just how prolific a writer she really was. My favourite of all her characters was undoubtedly the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. This, combined with my love of Middle Eastern culture, led to choosing Appointment With Death as my first ever Christie novel.

Appointment With Death was published in 1938 and is based in Jerusalem and Petra. It follows the fortunes of a satisfyingly diverse range of characters: the Boynton family and their domineering matriarch; an old friend of the Boynton family; a young female doctor; an internationally renowned psychologist; and a couple of well-to-do English ladies.

We see remarkably little of Poirot at first in this novel, with the exception being when he overhears the words, “you do see, don’t you, she’s got to be killed?” through the walls of his hotel room. To many, this could be throwaway statement, to Hercule Poirot, even when he’s on a holiday, the alarm bells ring.

As the action moves from the hotel in Jerusalem to a camp at Petra, so to does the cast of characters, whose lives seem to be becoming increasingly intertwined. It is here that the elder Mrs Boynton meets her demise.

Christie weaves a plot that results in everyone, from family members, through to the servants on the camp in Petra, all being implicated in the murder of the Mrs Boynton.

The local British Administrator – the region was known as the British Mandate for Palestine at the time – calls upon Hercule Poirot to assist, not in finding a case to bring to court, but simply to find out the truth. This Poirot does impeccably, in his own distinct style, and needless to say the culprit is not who I expected them to be.

Agatha Christie, having travelled to the Middle East along with her husband in the 1930s, seems to have used all of her skills in not just creating a great storyline, but also in embedding this within the setting of British Palestine. You feel at once that you are reading a splendid novel, whilst learning about a very specific time period.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Bakiga Window: Nursery on the Kisoro Road

Singing and dancing in the dark on Kisoro Road.
It feels like I’m on a bit of an adventure this morning. A group of four of us, upon hearing the rumbling of Mugisha Wycliffe’s car coming along the red dirt track, leapt to our feet, ready to run out into the rain, across the car park, and into his old Toyota.

It is Wednesday 13th April and we’re visiting the nursery of Blessed Academy, to be introduced to the children and some of the staff.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the nursery is that it is some 15km outside of Kabale – away from the location of Blessed Academy’s primary age school. It feels strange to be whizzing along the Kisoro road, leaving the other staff and students behind, but mildly refreshing. I have with me: Helen, a member of staff; Stefan, a former student before I taught at WMSF; and Carmel, a current student.

The rain has been falling heavily for most of the night and as such the electricity in Kabale has stopped. With the noisy generator outside the front of Green Hills, it is a wonder than anyone got any sleep. That said, I am thankful to have had any electricity.

The rain continues as we head out into the countryside. Not for the first time ever, the rural parts of Kabale district remind me of Wales. The trees are a lush green and are invariably dripping wet with rain. Thankfully, this road is the best in Uganda and my nightmares of being stranded in a red muddy wilderness soon faded.

Upon arrival at the nursery, there isn’t what I call the ‘50-50 Response’ – whereby half the children burst with excitement whilst the other half runs off crying. Instead the children are all waiting patiently inside the building, sheltered from the rain. When Mugisha had said they were desperate to meet us, he wasn't lying.

Once inside, the first thing that struck me about this nursery was how dark and remote it seemed – it made the Wise Parent’s Nursery, where I had met the lovely little girl Faith, seem palatial. The floor was rough, the rooms small and the resources scant. In true Bakiga style, the children seemed unfazed by this and went about singing a song welcoming us.

The children are always curious about bazungu and took the opportunity to check that our pointy noses were real, to check that the hair on our arms was really attached and to investigate how digital cameras worked. They were also exceptionally curious about Carmel, who is mixed race. They could tell that she was a little bit mzungu, but you could also see that they thought she may be a bit mukiga too.

The exterior of the nursery, with a few brave children waving goodbye in the rain.
Our visit was fleeting. We had another appointment at the building of Blessed Academy in Kabale and with some sadness, after a final round of songs about being a good boy or girl and counting, we had to leave.

It left us all reflecting on how despite the nursery lacking so many basic amenities, how well it somehow gets by. It surely performs a great role for this small rural community, but at the same time highlights how big the discrepancy between the resources in town-based schools and rural schools is, even in a supposed third world country.
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