Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday 6/30

This is it: D-Day. Today began the real reason we have come. We fanned out around the region and visited classes to teach, observe, ask and answer questions. It was invigorating, touching, inspirational, and also very sad. The general sense is that there is a deep desire on the part of the kids to learn. They understand what is at stake, and despite the trying environment one teacher before classes of 60 kids, they all concentrate, are well-behaved, and take copious notes. Studying at home is not a given though, as some students do not have kerosene to fuel light by which to read. Not a problem one boy told us, "I manage to do it during the daylight hours." Not to preach to our own children, but they need to understand the opportunities that they have and do honor to them. So much that we take for granted as a given is toiled and competed for over here. As teachers we know that intelligence is nice, but nothing beats desire and motivation, a will to succeed. The sad part comes when we realize that even with these determined qualities, many children will fall short. The demand is too great and the resources too scarce. Just as we encourage our kids to eat all the food on their plate, we hope they will make use of all the opportunities we provide them, to let nothing go to waste, as Ugandan children are hungry for any scrap of opportunity.

Some of the more common questions posed to us during our classroom "interactions" w/kids:

- What do you think of our climate?

- How does your curriculum differ from ours?

- Do you think Obama will win? What does America think of him?

- How did you travel to get here?

One young lady at the St Maria Gorretti all-girls school asked us, "What do you think of us?" Instead of showering her with words of praise about their lovely country and wonderful people, we just replied, "Come here and we'll show you." She trotted down to us smiling, to a chorus of laughter, and was embraced by three teachers to thunderous applause. What a moment! Sometimes you get tired of talking about things and you just need to show. When we left that classroom at the end of the period, dozens of girls came forward for their hugs.

In the evening we had a relaxing dinner and exchanged our experiences of the day. Tomorrow, day 2 in the field. Stay tuned.

Sunday 6/29

Today was our chimp tracking day. We were too many to do our trips together so we went out in early a.m. and noontime teams. Both groups met with wild success (get it?)! Many of us were shadowed by baboons immediately as we got off the bus. Heading into the forest, guides typically would halt us to listen for the chimp families calling to each other. All of us eventually found families who noticed us but were otherwise disinterested - sort of like us when a squirrel skitters by. At one point, all noise and hell broke loose as chimps began jumping up and down, flying up trees, all pointing in the same direction; "They've spotted a monkey and are now on the hunt," our guide said. Some chimps sprinted right past us on all sides towards the quarry, others leapt from tree to tree faster than any of us could have run through the forest. In the end, they failed to corner their target, thankfully, as our guide described the 3 ways they typically kill their prey, and none of us was in the mood to witness any of those choices. Things fell silent, as the chimps were ready for their mid-morning nap. Some were still in the trees above us, and as a couple of us crept by, one decided it was time to descend. He slid down, making a racket all the while, then courteously waited while two of us got out of his landing spot. Kate Brewer, one of the two, turned and snapped a picture which we shall post soon. It is of a fully matured male from about 4 feet! This was an experience we will never forget.

In the evening, we were guests at Professor John Kassenene and his wife Lydia's home. Once again we were surprised when we entered the compound to see rows of chairs for local dignitaries. A dance troupe entertained for most of the evening, the food was good, and the local guests and our hosts were so gracious. Do not be surprised if we return to you on 7/12 with swelled heads. We recommend that you continue to treat us like royalty for several days, only gradually weaning us of adoration. Take your spouse out to dinner until at least 7/15, as we are now accustomed to having meals prepared for us. Forget about our doing the dishes for a bit longer. Do not ask us to do any errands or chores either until then. Children, we have become habituated to your kneeling before us (seriously, many do do this), so try this once or twice, at the airport even, to ease our re-entry.

On a more serious note, as we go further now into our second week, we are wistful for all of our loved ones. Here's to you for letting us go for such an experience, three cheers again for WEEFC, and we look forward to seeing you a week from Saturday.

Saturday 6/28

Today we attended a reception for the scholars, that is, secondary students who are being sponsored, many of whom have a real chance at university. The function was at a Fort Portal Country Club - not swank but nice nonetheless, beginning with "interacting" i.e. some mingling and chatting, followed by speeches, dances, songs, and poetry. A nice lunch followed and many of us were struck by the heaping servings that the students helped themselves to - this may be the only full meal of the day for them.

The evening activity was magnificent. Trying to capture the beauty of Ndali Lake and the Lodge at the top of the ridge overlooking the lake is like trying to describe a fireworks display - only a picture can do this, so see the photos. :) There was spectacular scenery off both edges of the ridge, and the lodge was beautiful, intimate, and the food delicious. We met Bill Wirthlin of the Leakey Foundation which supports evolutionary biological research - in fact Mr. Leakey originally hired Jane Goodall to do her work. Rubbing elbows with eminent players in this type of research Like Mr. Wirthlin and Dr. Wrangham is causing us to want to pinch ourselves. In any event, a fabulous dinner and overall experience.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Tuesday through Friday

Tuesday 6/24

"Don't be alarmed if you hear gunshots in the night…they're just scaring away the elephants."

This was the last comment many of us heard last night as we went to bed, but let's go back to the beginning. Tuesday morning began with an early breakfast and a quick toss-up and tie-down of our bags atop the van roof. In two vans we set off with a wave good-bye to our gracious Boma Guest House hosts at 7:00 a.m. and headed north to Kampala, then due west toward Fort Portal. We were continuously struck along the way by both the beauty and the struggle of life for Ugandans: the choking smog in the city was offset by the beautiful smile and tenderness of a two year old at a fruit stand. Cars rule the road, and pedestrians must yield or pay the consequences. More than once we saw people on foot scrambling off the road into a ditch to avoid a motorist! On the other hand, as we entered and left each village, we were obligated to slow to a crawl due to speed bumps - the idea has some merit!

The second part of the trip was beautiful! Deep green tea plantations colored the landscape, lush vegetation everywhere, all at a temperature of about 80 degrees with very little humidity. Even in the rural areas, miles from the next village, the road was dotted with walkers and bikers, many of the latter weighed down by wide loads. We arrived in Fort Portal for an elegant lunch and some phone calls home. Pulling into the Makerere University Biological Field Station at 4:00, we were met by the Welcome Uganda crew, that is, those same teachers that visited us last year. What an incredible scene! There were long embraces, some tears, and much rejoice at promises kept - we had made it to Uganda! Accomodations are quite comfortable with two to a room and plenty of space. Dinner with the Ugandan team was so much fun as we reminisced about their visit last spring and what lay in store for us this visit.

Wednesday 6/25

Each day is more spectacular than the next! Our first official function as the Welcome Weston team was at the Kasiisi School. We were paraded into the Kasiisi School compound surrounded and cheered on by hundreds of students. We were treated to a quick tour of the school grounds - the recently constructed classrooms, the nursery school and dormitories under construction, and then a viewing of the new brick-making machine in action. Next we stood while a brass band play three anthems: the Ugandan, the regional Otooran, and the American. Next, we were seated under large umbrellas reserved for local, regional, and national dignitaries (international also if you count us J) and graced by a wonderful program of greetings, thanks, music, dance, song, and poetry. Our own Barbara Stevens and Elizabeth Ross did us all proud with fine speeches which were, incredibly enough, rendered in large part in the local Rutooro language! The Ugandans were touched by this as a gesture of profound interest in their culture, but were further grateful since many in attendance did not undertsand English. We were in turn touched by our hosts' concern for our colleague Cheryl Maloney (who lost both parents this month) as they asked for a moment of silence - a request respected by every one of the thousands in attendance. Without a doubt, one of the moments we will all remember and cherish was when the parents of children at Kasiisi were invited to come forward and personally thank the visitors as representatives of the Weston community. It must have been how Lindbergh felt as he tried to climb out of the Spirit of St. Louis once safely aground in Paris. A throng of parents came forth with no hesitation to thank each of us, many with misty eyes, all with expressions of deep earnestness and appreciation. Those of you who are reading this blog that have sponsored a child or have offered housing to the visitors or who have in some other way contributed to the program, please know that there is deep-felt gratitude for your generosity.

We made it back to camp at approximately 5:00 p.m., had a nice dinner (the food here is great by the way), and were all in bed by 9:00, physically and emotionally spent by our day at Kasiisi.

Thursday 6/26

Today we made the rounds to the five primary schools: Kiiko, Kigerama, Kanyawara, Rweteera, and Kasiisi to meet with the principals, observe classes, and learn about their curriculum. The children are fascinated by us, have a poignant admiration for teachers and other elders, and are so respectful of the learning process. Wide beaming smiles and applause greeted us as we entered each classroom. The best moments were when we were invited to circulate and interact with the kids. They loved showing us their work - a sign of pride which of course is a principal building block to high academic achievement. Given a chance, these kids would go far. Is there a cure for cancer among these minds? The discovery of a cheap, renewable energy source? We are all looking forward to our return next week to these schools.

Cindy Mahr, Kate Brewer, Steve Shaw, and Cort Mathers decided to walk back to camp and were rewarded several times over. Half of the five mile trip we were accompanied by three sisters on their way to Grandmother's house (no, they were not wearing red riding hoods) who helped us with our Rutooro speaking, the other half we were mobbed like the Beatles everytime we trooped by a house with children. The best part however was encountering a family of baboons as we approached camp. Mothers with babies remained on the edge of the forest while the males foraged in the grass just off the compound. We drew within 100 feet of the males who took notice of us and were wary but otherwise undeterred. What an experience! Anxious to inform our colleagues who had ridden the bus, we rushed back and proudly related our experience. As it turns out, they too had seen them as they got off the bus. We walkers feel that our viewing was more in line with the spirit of the trip, whereas theirs was more like getting off the tour bus at the zoo. Let us know what you think by providing a comment on the blog. :)

Friday 6/27

Another day of pomp and circumstance! We arrived at the Fort Portal political headquarters, sort of the equivalent of the State House, and were welcomed out front by the brass band which played the Ugandan and the Otooran National Anthems. Then we were asked to sing a capella our National Anthem! After this stirring rendition, we were invited to "inspect the honor guard," which we did to a rhythmical beat provided by the band. Future visitors to Uganda be forewarned: it is not unusual for the host to ask you to speak before a large audience with merely 30 seconds notice. Cort was asked to provide opening comments and obliged, and Barbara has on at least two occasions come through for us. Dear readers, when you come to Uganda, bring several versions of a prepared speech and be ready to deliver! :)

Next we were ushered into the vice-chairman's office to sign the visitor's book (this is an exercise we are asked to do a half dozen times a day) and listen to his review of the morning agenda. Then down into the chambers to listen to a fabulous chorus, various speakers and very high officials. We know how Wayne and Garth feel when they say "We are not worthy!" We boarded the bus and were off to the King's palace - yes that's right, the King. Although we did not meet his Majesty (who is only 16 years old), we toured the grounds which were atop the highest point in Fort Portal - what a view! The final leg of our trip was to one of the two secondary schools - St Maria Goretti where our friend Richard who visited us last year is the headmaster. We first had lunch and then toured the school. After some ceremony with school officials and the all-girl student body, we "interacted" as the Ugandans say, diving into the mass of students and chatting. So much fun.

Monday, June 23, 2008

First Full Day

Today began with an amazing 45 minute journey across Lake Victoria to the orphan chimpanzee reserve known as Ngamba Island (see photos). On the way back, we stopped on the equator where it is believed fish swim in confused circles :) After a bag lunch, we visited the Uganda Wildlife Education Center for a tour of the rescued animals (Colobus monkeys, warthogs, black rhinos, a lion, hyenas) followed by a discussion on conservation and some sharing of curriculum ideas. One orphaned monkey jumped up on Principal Shaw and snatched a banana right out of his backpack. Back at the Boma House we enjoyed a barbecue of freshly caught tilapia-kabobs. Delicious! We leave tomorrow at 6:45 for Fort Portal. Good night!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Safe Arrival

It is 10:56pm in Uganda and the team has arrived safely at their hotel. They called to say that they had a wonderful trip and are sitting on a veranda relaxing.

Tom Bator

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A happy crew met at Logan to get the bags checked, weighed (holding of breath) and off of shoulders. Here is most of the crew before going through security.
-Tom Bator

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

T minus 4 days and counting...

Papers to grade, grades to submit, bags to pack, so much to do and only four days in which to do it. Everyone is so busy that when we happen upon each other in a school hallway, at Case House, or around town, we share a sheepish smile of commiseration - how will we be ready in four days??? But of course we will. It's a sprint to the finish line!

Thanks for visiting this blog, and please do return. We will do our best to keep you informed of our progress, but bear in mind that internet access is not always a given, and intermittent power is an added complicating factor. We will do our best to keep our loved ones and friends abreast of all that we do. Wish us luck!!