Reaching Across Boundaries

Memories of Uganda/Kenya

Summer 2010

Hilary Thompson
Schools and College Network Coordinator, ENW

Long straight, brown-red roads, dense green foliage on either side and children walking: walking with purpose, walking tall, walking dressed in stunning blues, pinks, purples, creams and greens; some carrying bags, some exchanging jokes and stories.
Uganda’s children were going to school!

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That’s one of the striking visual memories that remain with me as we travelled from place to place on my four weeks’ visit to the Uganda/ Kenya province with Carmel (Flynn) and Teresa (Deasy). The official aim of my visit as English Schools Network Coordinator was to prepare for a future visit of English students next year, but I was to learn so much more…. about the countries, the people, the rscj communities, their work and at the same time enjoy the company of my companions and the 2010 Armagh HUG group as they set about their painting of classrooms and interaction with the students of Saint Bernadette’s Primary School.

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Hilary Thompson,Schools Network Co-ordinator ENW         Pupils with logo

I visited five schools and various other projects during our visit to the province. Here’s a whistle stop tour of images and memories!

St Charles Lwanga in Kalungu, the Girls’ Training School where all are boarders, and the head girl, hoping to pursue Science at university, describes her school, its systems and customs with confidence and affection; the pails for washing sit in the trees drying alongside the clothes; the lively liturgy with drums, dancing and Sister Noelina, the present headteacher, introduces Carmel, a previous headteacher, to the pupils as their “teenage grandmother” ; the cook prepares matoke in the vast, dark kitchens and the newly arrived flat screen PCs, a gift from the States, are installed - a promise of vital skills to be taught for the world beyond.

Sacred Heart Primary along the road in Kyamusansala, where the children amaze us with three verses in English of “In Dublin’s Fair City” in the sparkling new building which has been generously funded by friends across the world. A tour takes us throughout the classrooms, on to the balcony to see an assembly before the children file so calmly across for break. Then we go through to the dormitories where the matrons explain how they help the young ones adjust to boarding school life. The rooms of bunk beds seem so cramped. Outside the small signs on the trees advise children of the dangers in the world outside, particularly in regard to health issues. Sister Flo took us to the nearby St Joseph’s where she and a volunteer teach: the facilities are not so good, but the young people inquisitive and eager to learn.

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On to Mbikko and at St Bernadette’s where, in the shadow of another new 3 storey building, funded by Irish Aid and Austria, Irish and Ugandan students roam around together, shouting with excitement, singing and laughing together. The Ugandans watch with interest the Irish girls scrub and paint the classrooms and in their breaks dribble with ease and sing of Armagh with pride. In contrast the sixth formers are amazed at the complexity of the mathematics taught to Primary 7 and the nature of the timetabled Friday afternoon debates in the English language, learned at school. All this achieved with blackboards, chalk, well worn books, large classes (one numbering 128) by a warm and dedicated staff, keen for interaction and dialogue.

 

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Pupils of St. Bernadette's & St. Catherine's College, H.U.G. Pupils from St. Catherine's, painting the classrooms.

And so on to Kenya where the temperature goes down and people are wearing coats!

Our final school visit is to Laini Saba primary in the heart of the Kibera slum where three rscj work. As we arrive the milk from the World Food Programme is being stored for consummation on site. I had seen pictures of Kibera, heard eyewitness accounts and read about it on the web, but nothing is quite the same as seeing, hearing, smelling and touching it yourself. You can even almost taste the decaying rubbish in the air. No rain… so we were fortunate. The school mirrors in some ways its environment: corrugated iron, wood, dust: a fire hazard indeed, but it is so clearly a beacon of hope, safety and warmth. Bright smiles from the children and staff, a great lunch of vegetables, “ugali”, and a banana - because it was Friday, football and dancing in the yard. In the midst of the cramped staffroom, the teachers are spending lunchtime compiling results, monitoring achievement and writing reports (the usual end of term routines). The school shares the compound with the new parish church, a polytechnic teaching textiles and hairdressing, advice centres and a library- all set up to uplift and empower the local community. It leaves you with the question why; why on earth do people live like this- in squalor, with little access to water, on top of each other in shacks, the children running through decaying rubbish and goodness knows what else- and, to add to your disbelief, next door there is a green golf course watered by the authorities.

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           Teresa and child                                                                              Teresa, Anastasia and Carmel

These are a mixture of impressions of the schools but there was so much more we experienced: the welcome of the sisters, their generosity in prayer and hospitality, the warmth of those working with them, the desire to share cultures. Then there was the beauty of the countryside, the plethora of different crops, the chaos of the “shops”, the luxury of the hotels with pools, and the magnificence of the Nile, Lake Victoria and the Northern Rift Valley; not to forget Teresa’s wonderful cooking and the fun fair ride, which was our journey back to Karen in the local bus from Nairobi, as it charged over speed bumps through every leafy lane! We also visited the three projects at Chekalini: the Madeleine Sophie Home, the polytechnic and the dispensary as well as the Nyumbani Centre for HIV and AIDS orphans in Karen.

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Playing football Nursery children resting

Like others before me I have been moved deeply by my first venture into sub Saharan Africa and I must work out how to respond, but I know that I want the girls in Fenham to come and experience for themselves this developing country, to see poverty first hand, to talk and learn from the young students here, to contribute what they can through their interaction and painting; then come home and pass on what they have learned. For my work in England I have been reading about Janet Erskine Stuart, the Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart from 1911 to 1914. Watching the girls from Armagh during their time at St Bernadette’s brings two of her quotations to mind:

“To be a joy-bearer and a joy-giver says everything: it means living for God and that nothing else counts,” and “Love is the gift of self: all forms of gift of self for the love of Christ are devotion to the Sacred Heart.”

I doubt if the Irish girls or the pupils of St Bernadette’s would express their experiences in these terms, but I witnessed much joy and lots of giving! The Helping U Grow projects, which Carmel has run for the last 8 years, make such a difference: rooms are brighter yes, songs and traditions exchanged in plenty, but the seeds planted on these encounters must grow and “produce its crop a hundredfold.” (Luke:8:8) 

 

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Children in Chekalini Madeleine Sophie Centre St. Catherine H.U.G. Hands