Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bakiga Window Vol. II - Taufiq Islamic School - Part Two

"Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim..." Pupils recite a surah at Taufiq Islamic School.
After what has been undoubtedly the most difficult trip to Uganda I’ve ever taken part in, our last day in Kabale has finally come around. The previous morning’s work went a long way towards cleansing the bad memories of more turbulent moments on this visit.

It is Wednesday 11th April 2012 and I am walking down Johnstone Road towards Taufiq Islamic Primary School, for our second morning of activities. The sun has already ripped through the perennial sheet of mist and the dull whines of boda-bodas are already filling the air.

In contrast to yesterday’s welcome, we arrive to a silent yard. A solitary boy in the green and white hooped uniform peers from around the side of the mosque before shuffling off in a cloud of dust. All we need now is the stereotypical tumbleweed of an American Western film to roll across in front of us.

As we near the main school building Lule appears from within and accosts us. I ask him, “What have you done with all the children?”

His reply comes punctuated with his typical chuckle as, “They are waiting for you in assembly.”

He leads my small group of students and staff around the side of the mosque to where the ‘temporary’ wooden classrooms stand, and, sure enough, covering the dusty red yard like an expertly-woven Persian rug of emerald and cream, all the pupils of Taufiq stand awaiting our arrival.

With an extra day of familiarity between us the usual scenario of half of the pupils, especially the younger ones, starting to cry is avoided. One Somali student, who seems to have grown very popular amongst the pupils, is welcomed like a homecoming hero by many of the braver ones.

In the absence of a microphone, and from the height of our assembly ‘stage’, I introduce my students, pointing out for the benefit of all listening, who is a Muslim. As it dawns on the audience of children and adults from the local community that my group of bazungu aren’t actually that white and/or Christian – as many expect UK citizens to be – broad smiles wash across their faces.

Next comes the singing of the Ugandan national anthem, of which I know the words and choose to join in:
Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our futures in thy hands.
United, Free,
For Liberty,
Together we’ll always stand.
Following on from this some of the younger students demonstrate their knowledge of Islam for us by saying, “Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim alhamdullilah hir-rabbil alamin…” before reciting a short surah from the Qu’ran.

Pupils hard at work, writing letters to the UK.
After a short break for the pupils of Taufiq to run around and talk to my students some more, we start on a letter writing task. Each Taufiq pupil, after a little guidance from my students, begins to write a short letter of introduction to a primary school pupil in the UK. The hope is, that until a more formal arrangement can be made involving the All Our Children (UK) charity, this could help to find a partner school for them.

Whilst they work, I take time to talk to Lule. This time his trademark chuckle is put by the wayside as we discuss the school’s finances. He shows me a list of students who are orphaned and then copies of individual files of the students, each with a photo attached.

The reality is, especially with the increases in living costs in Uganda, that his school is running low on funds to support the education of orphans. Indeed one of the biggest contributors to the financial upkeep of the school are the members of the local Muslim community, many of whom have very little money of their own.

As the letter-writing classes end, many of my students gather round and start to discuss the situation. We know that we don’t necessarily have any money of our own to help the school with, but we talk about how we could try and make small differences in other ways.

One immediate idea is raising money to redecorate the dormitories and hang mosquito nets. This would not only reduce the likelihood of pupils contracting malaria, but could also eradicate the costs incurred when a pupil needs treatment. Other students start discussing the idea of collecting resources at their mosques in the UK. Things such pens and paper, or at least the money for pens and paper. All small steps, but things that could be useful in the meantime.

By way of Epilogue

As we say our goodbyes on last time, we all have a lot of thinking to do. I feel satisfied that we have been able to finally connect with Taufiq Primary School and that we will be able to move our relationship forward, but my students’ concerns and passion to do more to help leaves me thinking we have so much to do.

Similarly, a part of me wonders whether, after all of the behind the scenes wrangling this year, I need a break from visiting Uganda. Am I actually affecting change? Does what I am a part of actually make a difference to anyone?

Deep inside, I know that I keep coming back because I’m not ready to give up on any of the projects I’m involved in and regardless of the personalities, within my own group of adults, this whole project is really about my students and the pupils in Kabale.

- Tomás Ó Ceallaigh. Kabale. April 2012

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Taufiq Islamic School - Part One

Looking through the window of the mosque, in Kabale.
It is a perennial frustration of mine that during every visit to Uganda, the more involved I become in the organisation of the trip, the less time I actually have to work on projects with people I meet there. With the small dust particles of free time that I have had over the years, I have been starting to build trust and friendship with a few members of Kabale's Muslim community.

It is Tuesday 10th April 2012 and I am sheltering from the heat of the morning sun in the mosque by Taufiq Islamic Primary School. With me I have nearly all of my students and a handful of staff interested in finding out more about a part of Kabale that lies off most kizungu radars.

Having met with the head teacher, Lule, earlier in the week, we had arranged that during my group’s final two mornings in Kabale we would come to Taufiq to find out more about day-to-day life there. We also arranged to do a couple of fun lessons for the pupils as a break from their exam revision.

We scheduled our arrival for the children’s morning break, and as we crossed over the Kabale-Kisoro Road, you could see a ripple of excitement permeating through the schoolyard. As more and more green-hooped jumpers came running from all directions, my students’ hearts seemed to melt at the cuteness of the whole situation. 

A sizeable number of our travelling group this year are Muslims, and indeed some have already become minor celebrities amongst the children and adults of the Muslim community after attending Salat al-Fajr at the mosque – the dawn congregational prayer.

Lule, hearing the excitement and commotion from his pupils outside, appears from the main office and comes to greet us. The breadth of the smile on his face openly reveals his genuine pleasure in having our company. Yusif, the chair of the PTA, who greets us with equal warmth, joins us and we start that typically Ugandan custom of signing the visitors’ book.

After a quick discussion about our programme for the morning, we embark on a tour of the premises. Having only had a brief tour by myself in the past, it was nice to be shown everywhere, meet a number of the teachers, pupils and families, and for other members of my travelling party to see this mysterious school that I am always talking about, but many knew nothing about.

My students were intrigued by two things: firstly, the fact that there were boarding facilities at a primary school with three bunk high beds; and secondly, the fact that there were little or no mosquito nets for the boarders. With this in mind, my students were already beginning to come up with a master plan for the visit in 2013 to deal with this.

A girl spies on the strange visitors outside the dining room.
Those pupils of the school who were brave enough, slowly started to congregate behind our group. Our greetings of, ‘as-salaam alaykum,’ were all met with shy responses of, ‘wa alaykum as-salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh’ as they came to investigate their strange bazungu visitors. My Muslim students couldn't contain how cute they found the whole situation. As a result, it was only a matter of minutes before the primary school children had ‘adopted’ my sixth form students and insisted on conducting their own versions of the guided tour of the school, much to the amusement of the Lule and myself.

The school is essentially made up of three parts at present: the main building, a series of rooms that open outwards around a secure central courtyard; a number of wooden classrooms built from the trees that once occupied the space; and the mosque, a large whitewashed hall with a small minaret striped with green.

The educational programme at the school, Lule tells me, follows the Uganda national curriculum for primary schools with the addition of rudimentary Arabic and Qu’ran lesson. This becomes clear as we see many diligent students holding on to various revision books for the mock tests that seem to be going on at all primary schools at the moment.

After tearing my students away from cuteness of the Taufiq children, we have a quick meeting to run over what we were going to do next. Breaking ourselves into groups, we each head to a different class from P4 to P7 and ask the students to create a storyboard of the different parts of their school day. Limiting them to just four frames to explain their whole day caused many a conflict!

The majority of storyboards included Salat al-Fajr or Salat al-Isha, most mentioned reading their Qu’ran or revising for school, a few even mentioned brushing their teeth – before realising this only left a small amount of space to explain everything else they did in their busy little lives.

The children were fully engrossed in their storyboards until it was time for us to head off. Some didn’t want to stop their work despite their teachers telling them they needed to go and eat. Others didn’t want my students to leave them and were only satisfied with our departure when they realised that we’d be back the following morning.

Ma’a salama. We'll be back at 10 o'clock tomorrow.
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