Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bow Riverside, River Lee Navigation, East London

The footbridge at Bow Riverside on the River Lee Navigation, near to the Bow Interchange.
It was on Saturday 20th October, a somewhat murky afternoon, that a group of us decided to walk the towpath of the Lee Navigation from Hackney Marshes to Limehouse Basin. The Lee Navigation itself is a canalised section of the River Lea and forms a part of a complicated network of rivers, cuttings, overflows channels and streams - one of which runs past the rear of my flat - that dominate the geography of the local area.

About 3½ miles into the walk, with the rain beginning to fall, we reached the point where the Lee Navigation meets Bow Back River. 

I immediately fell in love with the relatively new bridge that crosses the river at this point. I think what fascinated me about it wasn't so much the angular design of it, but more the way in which it blended perfectly into this strange urban-rural hinterland - or 'edgeland' as some have called such landscapes.

The navigable river, with its old trees and foliage on the banks, gives the walker a sense of seclusion from the urban environment around them, yet the warehouses and brownfield sites just a few metres further away on either side of them remind them that they're still in a built-up and industrialised area. A strange feeling indeed.

This crossing of wood and metal, with it's rusted looking fenders that protect not just the bridge, but the planted reed-beds in which wildlife can thrive, seems to bridge the gap between urban and rural perfectly.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: The New Class

Senior 1D take in the delights of the active and passive voice.
With their distinct lack of formal school clothes, and their inherent naughtiness, the Senior 1 classes stand out against the otherwise uniformity of the student body at Kigezi High School. It is not long into their first year in senior classes and their new uniforms are yet to arrive.

It is Tuesday 3rd April 2012 and I am sat at the back of class S1D as they embark on an English language lesson. The subject that Penninah, their teacher, has chosen for today’s class is ‘the active and passive voice’.

The topic itself may not be fascinating, but to observe these students taking their first tentative steps into senior education is amazing. In the UK, I am often amazed at my students forgetting the basics of English language, so to see group of twelve-year-olds getting their teeth into such a subject is strikes me as being an admirable undertaking.

Casting your eyes about the classroom it is clear to see who is already assuming which role within the class. To the front of the class a short boy, with comparatively long hair, seems to be staking his claim to the title of 'class boffin'. For every question that Teacher Penninah asks, his hand shoots up into the air, often to be followed with a look of disappointment when he is overlooked in favour of someone else to provide the answer.

Learning objectives on the board.
Towards the left hand side of the room, a slender girl with a bright yellow blouse, drifts, mentally at least, into and out of the room. She appears to be nominating herself for the position of class daydreamer. It is barely past break time, but already she seems to be dreaming of lunchtime, dreaming of a cold Coke, or thinking about almost anything else.

The extent of her daydreaming is evident when I stroll over to her desk midway through the lesson and see that she hasn’t written down a single thing that the teacher has said.

The nearer to the back your eyes move, the cheekier the students become. Two girls, seemingly interviewing for the job of class gossips, spend the majority of the time that the teacher has her back turned looking over their shoulders at a boy sat on the opposite side of the room. They look, whisper into each other’s ears, point at something and then giggle almost silently.

Usually being the person at the front of the class, armed with the board marker, I miss this small pantomime. I'd like to think of myself as a reasonably attentive teacher, but, unless you have those fabled eyes in the back of your head, how could ever bear witness to all these shenanigans? 

Regardless of the disappointment, in spite of the daydreamers and the apathy of the gossips, the teacher ploughs on with active and passive voices in a cloud of chalk dust. Did the fire destroy the house, or was the house destroyed by the fire? Most take a wild guess, some scratch their heads, one puts his hand up.

Even though I have visited Kigezi High School four times now, this is my first time in S1. From the amount of time that I have spent with S5 and S6 classes, it is clear to see that this ragtag bunch of children, in their brightly coloured clothes, have got a long way to go before they are the finished Kigezi product. 

When I return in a year, those who remain will be turned out in pristine uniforms and the cheekiness will have started to ebb away from the classroom, but hopefully not so the enthusiasm. For now, there is a fair amount of growing up for these young boarders and day scholars to do.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Splinters in the Air

A timber merchant in Kabale, not far from the Kisoro Road.
Walking to the bottom of hill on Johnstone Road, turning into the area off Bugongi Road, past the bar advertising Pork and Beer in simple painted letters, and away from the tarmac of the main streets used to fill me with a little fear. Now, in the morning mist, I see a hive of activity and get a glimpse of different facet of Ugandan life. 

It is Thursday 5th April 2012 and I have taken a stroll with my colleague Jas through an area of Kabale that I have often passed by and seldom explored over the years. Indeed, in my first visit to Kabale in 2009, in the best traditions of bazungu in Africa for the first time, I labelled the area somewhat ignorantly the ‘Poor Quarter’. Although many of my reflections from that time are generally accurate, if under-informed, there is a lot more to this district than my over-simplification of these streets as being ‘Poor’ – this mzungu has learnt and is still learning at least.

Away from the dawn chorus of boda-bodas, and the chanting of the children from Taufiq Islamic School who vaguely recognise the mzungu in the straw hat and his muhindi friend, an abundance of carpenters’ workshops and timber merchants begin to appear from the sides of the roads, and from between the shops and houses. 

Momentarily, the ubiquity of the red earth on the roads is muted by the fine shavings of freshly planed wood and the steamy morning air is punctured by the scent of splinters newly separated from sawn trees. The town takes on a different beat here as the music of man-made tools taming the products of mother earth resounds around the narrow streets.

Without any sign of a plan to an outsider passing by, the men cut, trim and shape the fresh supplies of timber into furniture that seems to far surpass the love and quality of the flat-packed furniture that I am so reliant upon at home. Perhaps in our rush to have everything in an instant in the UK, we haven’t got the time to wait a day or two for someone to make it from scratch. If we did, it would be labelled as ‘bespoke’ and an extra £250 would surely go on the price tag.

Over the course of twenty minutes, drawers, desks, beds, sofa frames and bookshelves emerge from the flurries of activity beneath the ramshackle shelter of tin roofs. Customers come and go, arguing and haggling a more favourable deal, going through a ritual of becoming the carpenters’ enemy for a moment, before parting like brothers.

Meanwhile, a man – a youth really – whom we recognise as being part of a group of bazungu missionaries working in the schools run by the Diocese of Kigezi, spots us and stops to chat. 

If we thought that we looked incongruous, this fellow with his pale skin slowly roasting under the sun, neatly ironed shirt, pressed trousers, tie and polished shoes really stands out. He shares a few tips with us as to where to eat in the area – apparently if you compliment this one guy’s chips he’ll give you a free coke. It being a bit early, we decide to not to test this theory for now and he heads off on his way, realising that he is running a bit behind schedule to take the P3 class out for PE.

Walking along a little further, heading towards the Kigezi High School playing fields, we pass more workshops and rarely pass a building where there is no activity. There is seemingly a business everywhere you turn; ranging from the relatively grand scale of the carpentry workshops to sole women, babies on their backs, frying freshly prepared food outside the front of their buildings to be sold to hungry workers.

Far from being a place to fear, this is a place to live and to explore further.
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