Monday, February 22, 2016

Enkuto Eratukura #13: The Accidental Sheikh

Shadows cast upon the reddened ground in Kabale, Uganda.
Friday 10th April 2015 - 2pm 

It is a wonder that, in a town the size of Kabale, that there are still any areas of it that are yet to be discovered. Already on this trip I had found a few new back routes through Bugongi, had been to New Foundation Primary School for the first time and had caught a fleeting glimpse of Peter’s new school off the main road to Katuna.

Today, the group were heading to the hitherto unknown Ndorwa Muslim Secondary School after Tash and I had spoken to Peter earlier that week. I also needed to make a solo trip back to New Foundation to meet with Jonan and James for our feedback meeting.

I decided to hitch a lift in a pickup truck that we had been using all week, and to hop out and walk the remaining quarter of a mile from Ndorwa to New Foundation.

I arrived to be greeted by the expected chants from the younger children and found Jonan in a side office working away at something official looking. In his usual warm manner, he shook my hand and sent a runner to get James, the teacher we had observed the day before.

James, looking rather concerned about what was to happen, met us in the head teacher’s office following the conclusion of his lesson. I immediately set about allaying his fears about coaching, saying that, if anything, it was Jonan and I who were being tested.

After around twenty minutes we established that, although his planning was impeccable, he was working too hard in the classroom and was a little like a goalkeeper, standing in front of the blackboard, whilst fielding shots from all over the room, remaining almost rooted to the spot. I showed him a small diagram of who had been saying what and where he had moved to.

We decided that, as a way forward, he was to plan his next lesson with P5 to ensure that he made the students do more of the work, and to ensure that a few ‘passengers’ within the classroom were picked up on their lack of engagement by him circulating the classroom. He still looked a little uncertain about all this coaching business, but, at the end of our meeting, James left wearing a smile and we resolved to meet early the following week.

❦ 

I wandered back along the Katuna Road towards the town, staring enviously into the bike maintenance workshops, and passing the small vegetable sellers’ stalls and tiny shops at the roadside.

I was met the gates of Ndorwa by a serious looking guard who, I dare say, didn’t like the look of me until I mentioned Peter’s name and his face became a little less severe.

Once inside, it was clear that a difference existed between this small government funded school and our oldest partner school of Kigezi. The buildings were modest in their size and arranged around a neatly kept quadrangle with the obligatory Ugandan flag. Most of the students here were funded chiefly by USE money.

Most of our girls were talking to their Ugandan counterparts in the library, going through aspects of the curriculum and showing off their Arabic skills. Due to the impending mock exams, the library was full to the brim with groups of students revising, or at least paying lip service to revising, in every nook and cranny of the room.

As lunchtime approached, those who were intending to attend Jumu’ah prayers headed towards the on-site prayer room. Here, Tash, along with a few of the non-Muslim girls, met with us outside the makeshift masjid.

At this point, two teachers came over and introduced themselves. One was called Muhammad and the other Suleiman. They were exceptionally happy to see me and I assumed that it was because Peter, in his inimitable style, had been ‘bigging me up’ to his colleagues.

‘Thomas, we really like your scarf,’ Suleiman started off, pointing to my kaffiyeh.

‘Well, thank you. It was a gift from a Somali friend of mine,’ I replied. I am impressed at how I’m getting better at taking any sort of compliment.

‘Somalia? You have travelled to Arabia though?’ Muhammad asked.

‘No. I would love to though. Maybe to visit Mecca or Medina,’ I responded, ‘but as things stand I don’t think I’d be let in.’ 

At this point Muhammad looks at Suleiman with a slightly puzzled look, but asks, ‘You are here for our jumu’ah prayers today though?’

‘Well, I’m helping to escort the girls. I’m sort of in loco mahram. Maybe I can come in though?’

At this point a 100 shilling coin drops and Suleiman starts to laugh uncontrollably. Muhammad doesn’t get the joke. I too suddenly clock what was going on.

In between fits of the giggles Suleiman reached out and touched my kaffiyeh

‘We thought you were a sheikh,’ he said and continued laughing.

After establishing that I was indeed just a kafir, albeit one sympathetic to Islam, I was told that I should attend the prayers, much to the amusement of the students who had, in the intervening minutes, found material to be used as hijabs for the two non-Muslim girls so that they could attend too.

Suleiman guided me through wudu, the correct way of cleaning oneself prior to prayer or worship in Islam. I followed through the very specific order involving, amongst other things: washing your hands and arms, washing your face, cleaning your feet, cleaning your beard (if you have one) and rubbing water over your hair – even if it ruins your quiff.

A senior student started the proceedings off with the khutbat al-jum'a, a sermon preaching a particular message. In this case the khutbat al-jum'a focused on how we should all take personal responsibility for our actions. Quite skilfully, our preacher seemed to code-switch effortlessly between English, Arabic and Rukiga whilst delivered his message.

Towards the end of the sermon everyone rose to their feet and, as I tried to sneak out of the way, I was hauled back into one of the lines of worshippers. I muttered politely to the young man next to me, stating that I didn’t know what I was expected to do. But this isn’t a good enough excuse. I am told, ‘just copy what I am doing and saying.’

Allahu akbar…

At the end of the prayer, I was, in my role as the accidental sheikh, greeted politely by the other young men in the room and they were eager to talk more about why we are in Kabale. In the intense heat of the Ugandan sunshine, I guided some of them to where our group were congregated and introduced them to the students I’d travelled with.

At this point, Khadija, struck by a moment of curiosity, asked to see the girls’ dormitories and the head teacher led a group of us to take a look. As with almost every other feature of the school, these are a simple affair, furnished sparsely with wooden bunk beds in near darkness and a few personal effects of the students.

Khadija’s sharp eyes were instantly drawn to the lack of mosquito nets over the beds and, being so close to a water course that winds through the middle of Kabale, shrouded by tall trees, this is hotbed for malaria, the most regular cause of sickness amongst the boarders.

She looks at me with the same face she used to use when she wanted a homework extension and asked, ‘Can we do something for them?’

The instant chorus of responses was a resounding ‘yes.’

Later that evening, a small group of us put together around £80 of English money to deck out the girls’ dorm with nets. It may have been a small gesture, but one that was appreciated by the school and the girls who board there.

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