Friday, December 6, 2013

Signing off

It has been nearly a month since I returned from Africa.  And it has been some time since I last wrote on my blog.  I have decided to stop regular entries for the time being.  I hope to travel again in the spring, and will begin to write again.

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog.  I am surprised by how it enhanced my understanding and my trip.  I approached each day differently knowing I would be writing about it.  I hope to experience that same enrichment the next time I travel.

I have also been astonished by how many page views I have had, from many different countries.  I would never have imagined that so many people would have found and followed what I wrote.  I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

For some time, I have wanted to write about teaching and learning.  I intend to begin another blog on teaching and learning after the Christmas holidays.  I will post the link here, in case any of you want to follow what I have to say on that topic.

Finally, I want to say something about my final post about Uganda Christian University.  I have been mulling this over in my mind for a while.  It was an essential element of our trip, but it is something I continue to think about and reflect on.  I hope you find it stimulating and thought provoking.

What is a Christian University?

Uganda and Kenya are deeply Christian countries.  According to the Pew Research data on the Global Religious Landscape Kenya is 84.8% Christian (9.7% Musilim) and Uganda is 86.7% Christian (11.5% Muslim).  The same survey gives the figure of 78.3% Christian in the USA.  In the USA there are 16.4% who consider themselves “unafiliated“  and .9% Muslim.  These differences are strikingly apparent within the countries.  For a more in depth analysis of Christianity and Islam in Africa see another Pew Research project titled, “Tolerance and Tension:  Christianity and Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
This study makes it clear that although many people identify themselves with one or another religion, there is a great deal of variation in the commitment felt by individuals.  Many who call themselves Christian, also continue traditional practices, such as animal sacrifice, or wearing charms.  Nevertheless, there are great numbers of Christians who are deeply committed to their faith.  

In the three weeks I traveled in Kenya and Uganda I was surprised by how openly people spoke of their Christianity.  They frequently wished God’s blessing, and offered prayers.  Crosses and Christian slogans were common on cars, buses and buildings.  On Sunday people dressed in their finest clothes and set out walking to church.  They didn’t seem to return home until late in the afternoon.  Churches were everywhere in both Uganda and Kenya.  Although there is an important mosque in the center of Nairobi, I didn’t see a lot of people dressed as Muslims there.  In Uganda, although Muslims are a minority, I saw more mosques, islamic schools and women wearing veils than in Kenya.  I was told that the presence of so many rural mosques were the legacy of Idi Amin who wanted a mosque built every 20 km throughout the country. 

Christianity was an indigenous affair.  The priests, bishops and archbishops were Africans.  The churches were led by Africans, both men and women.  The Church takes on a role of leadership and importance in the society.  They are responsible for many of the schools.   

Each of the schools I visited identified themselves as Christian.  The Kwa Watoto School curriculum, based on the Kenya National Curriculum, includes Christian Studies as one of the six major topics of study (in addition to English, Swahili, Math, Social Studies, Science).  When I asked about this, Michael Maingi, the school director, was surprised at the question.  He felt that Christian education was the source of moral teaching, which he considered essential to education.

At Uganda Christian University, the music to which the faculty processed was, “To God be the Glory.”  They believe that their success and their strength is their commitment to God and Christian belief.  They are bold and unapologetic about this stance.   Their motto is “God the beginning and the end.”  Many of the faculty are priests, and the Chancellor of the University is the Archbishop of Uganda.  But they are also very much committed to living in the world.  Their highest number of graduates are in the Business School.  They have a school of Law, of Education, Nursing, Social Sciences, Science and Technology as well as a Divinity School.  They require students to subscribe to the Christian philosophy of the organization.  Nevertheless, there are some Muslim students.  I saw one woman wearing a veil under her mortarboard at graduation.  

The Christian leaders we met believe that Christian principles and moral values are the answer to the corruption that the country struggles with in many areas of government and commerce.  They view their mission as educating leaders for their country who are honest, just and trustworthy.

In the United States, this used to be the way people acted and believed.  Many of our premier schools were founded to train Christian leaders (e.g. Harvard University).  The question is, will the Africans continue with their Christian beliefs, or will they gradually accept the secularization which is prevalent in Europe and the United States as their societies modernize and become more affluent?  African believe that one of the best things Europeans did when they colonized Africa is bring Christianity. As we look at Africa, we must consider this question.  Knowing and interacting with Africans challenges our assumptions in many realms.  I would be remiss, not to include this topic in my reflections on my trip.
The Vice-Chancellor of Uganda Christian University is, Dr. John Senyonyi (left) who has been a charismatic evangelist in East Africa.  He is a well-educated, respected Christian leader in Uganda.
The university buildings are named for important Christian leaders.  Bishop Festo Kivengere was a Christian leader during the time of Idi Amin when many Ugandan Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith.  Kivengere had to flee to Kenya during this period.
Many faculty members are priests (Dr. Medard Rugyendo on the right is Dean of the School of Education and the Arts).
The dedication on the building of the Hamu Mukasa Library.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kitenge, Khanga, & Kikoys

I am a fabric tourist.  I confess it freely.  My problem has been going on for some time.  Most of my fabric purchases have been in France.  To give you some idea of the extent of my problem, I confess that I have purchased and brought home enough Proven├žal fabric to make four queen sized quilts for my children and fabric for curtains in three rooms.  When I visited Martinique, I brought home enough to make one quilted throw, not to mention the stash still in a drawer.  So when I started planning my trip to Africa, I began to dream about fabric.  

The first step was to bring a partially empty suitcase.  But beyond that was the quest, itself.  Where would I find the fabric?  What kinds of fabric would i find?  Who could be my guide?  

My guide in Kenya turned out to be my friend Anne’s mother.  First she took me to the Masai Market.  I began to see what was available and made my first purchases.  The Masai wear a type of blanket, called the Shuka.  The brightly colored Shuka falls loosely over their shoulders, and although the plaid designs seem improbable, on their supple forms, the Shuka seems just right.  It is made of acrylic, and struck me as a wonderful, informal tablecloth.

 The other fabric I bought at the market was a Khanga.  This is a cotton print with an overall design, making it perfect for a loose duster.  I don’t know if I’ll use it for that, but I love the black and cobalt print.  The Khanga has a slogan.  Each piece features a text in Kiswahil, almost like our T shirts with slogans and logos.   The difference is that our T shirts reflect everything from a team name to profanity.  The Khangas mostly had Christian sayings.  The one I chose says, “ The Word of God is Eternal.”  

The next day we visited Biashara Street in downtown Nairobi, which is where many fabric stores line the streets.  After my previous experience at the market I was more prepared.  One store was full of nothing but Khangas.  But I already had mine.  What I was looking for was Kikoys.  The Kikoy is a type of scarf which is used sometimes like a wrap-around skirt, sometimes as a head covering, sometimes as a shawl.  It is a soft, supple cotton, usually in pastels.  The classic Kikoy has tassels, either knotted or beaded.  The fabric itself is perfect for quilting or aprons, or even traditional shawls. 
I bought my Kikoy fabric in a well stocked store, from skeptical gentlemen, who didn’t understand my selections, but who were more than willing to serve me.

My quest was not yet over, however.  I had been given a length of wax print fabric, a year ago, by a Nigerian student.  After a little research, I learned that wax printing is a type of batik, block printing, often done outside Africa, but favored within Africa for traditional clothing.  As soon as I arrived in Kenya, I began to see women wearing traditional dresses made with this kind of fabric, known as Kitenge.  And the more I saw, the more determined I was to come home with a piece of Kitenge fabric.  

I looked in several stores, and found only a few Kintenge pieces, in colors and designs i didn’t particularly like.  Finally I found a good selection at a place called Lucky Wear. The pieces were precut in 5.5 meter lengths.  I felt very lucky.

After my success in Kenya, I was prepared to hold back in Uganda.   I didn’t have free time to look for fabric, but I was fortunate.  A friend gave me a piece of traditional Ugandan fabric, which is a heavy, closely woven cotton, in brilliant reds, yellows, black and violet.  It is very different from the Kikoys I found in Kenya.  Finally, in a restaurant where we ate on our way to the airport, I struck gold.  There, on our last night in Africa, I found a 12 yard length of Kitenge fabric, that is the most beautiful of all. 

I have not been cured from my fabric tourism.  Now, it’s time to start making these pieces into quilts and clothes.   

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Education, Education, Education

When I visited the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, one class performed a choreographed rap for me.  The students were energetic and excited about the message.  It was a little hard to follow, but the refrain was easy:  “Education, education, education!”  And everywhere I went, the thirst for education, the motivation for learning, and the belief in its importance was strong.  From the Kwa Watoto School in the Mathere slum, to the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, to the campus of Uganda Christian University, I heard the same refrain.  Education is the path to progress.
As an educator, this was an appealing notion.  I too believe that education leads to all kinds of good things, so I set about trying to understand how education functions in these two African countries. 

In Kenya I visited two schools with very few resources, serving children from poor homes, often from illiterate parents.  The most striking aspect of these two schools was the dedicated, effective leadership.  It reinforced my belief that school leadership is the key to effective schools in Kenya, Uganda and Massachusetts.  It did not seem related to an overall education strategy, but to the presence of innovative leaders.  

I saw school names posted along almost every road I travelled in Kenya, especially outside the city.  The country is burgeoning with schools.  In a place where there are many uneducated families, perhaps, just the presence of schools is a strong signal.  Parents are willing to sacrifice much to send their children to school.  However, I also know that there is probably much variation in the quality of these many schools.  The fact that I was able to visit two outstanding schools, is probably not fully representative, although I hope it is.  Nevertheless, the growth of an educated population is the most positive sign I witnessed in Kenya as well as Uganda.

My experience in Uganda was similar, although my view into the culture was from a different perspective.  I visited a university campus, and was present at the graduation of 1688 degree candidates.  I talked to people who were training teachers, who understood the history of education, and who saw the topic in a more global way.

The population statistics we heard in Uganda were stunning.  48% of the population is 14 or under.  Only 2.5 % of the population is 65 and over.  As an educator, that spoke to me of the need for schools, especially primary and secondary schools.  As in Kenya, there were signs advertising schools on every road we travelled.  Some schools are government sponsored.  Many are private schools, run by various groups, including Christian and Muslim organizations, or even parents.  Some are boarding schools; others are day schools.

What surprised me was that there were very few graduates of Uganda Christian University who were training to become teachers.  The business and law schools were much more popular.  It was explained to me that the pay for teachers was so low ($160 per month), that a teacher could not support a family with that profession.  Government schools are overcrowded.  Different people cited class sizes of 50 to 100 children to one teacher.  Clearly, little education takes place in such a setting.  Teaching is a profession that draws only the most dedicated individuals.  Even with such conditions, some people give everything to be teachers.  These were the kind of young graduates who earned an education degree.

Yet schools are everywhere.  The enrollment at Uganda Christian University is booming.  Of the graduates we saw, many were from families where the parents were illiterate  Parents sacrifice much to pay tuition for their children.
The most encouraging development is not the number of schools, or the love of education.  It is the fact that many young men and women are earning university degrees in order to go out to make their country better.  Perhaps the education system is not working the way it should, but university graduates are individuals who will make sure it works for their own children.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Beautiful hair

Although I only spent three weeks in Africa, I was impressed by the many beautiful African women I saw and met.  The first Sunday when we attended services at the cathedral, my head was turning at the beautiful dresses, and elegant hairstyles.  Many women had high foreheads which emphasized their hair.  It reminded me of the fourteenth century in Europe, when women plucked the hair on their forehead to achieve this look.  Here it was in one woman after another, and it was natural, and very striking.  I suddenly understood the craze in the 14th century.
Hairstyles were varied and often reflected the age of the woman.  Many, especially older women, wore their hair short, and used large earrings to set off the style.  Others wore their hair somewhat longer, but caught it in a ponytail or bun.  Some women straightened their hair,  However, the style that turned my head most often was the braid.
There were many elaborate braids.  One of the most popular rowed the braids back to a bun.  Often the braids were dyed so that the different rows were red or an orange henna color.
Sometimes, especially for young girls, the braids were plain but tight and straight.
The braiding was clearly a fine art practiced mostly by the young who were looking to impress.  They succeeded with me.  Finally, in addition to flowered turbans, and Muslim headscarfs, the most unique headdress was a bowl of fruit.  Bananas were easy, but a platter of mangos or papayas, showed real mastery.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Long Way Home

I am home.  It took over 40 hours from the time we left Murchison Falls in our vans to when we landed in Boston, but the time was short considering how far we traveled.  We left a wild kingdom in the north west corner of Uganda.  Driving the red gravel road past round huts, and banana fields, passing small villages where the houses were made of concrete blocks, and past gas stations offering limited amenities, coming to the outskirts of a city where there were small supermarkets and hotels, stopping at a hotel with a relaxing patio and a delicious dinner, and arriving at a modern airport took about 10 hours.  It was a transition from the country to the city, from the simple to the developed with all the problems and charms of both situations.

When we arrived at the airport, having passed security at the roadway, and the entrance to the departure hall, we found that our flight had been delayed by two hours.  It was already late by that time, so the coffee we drank in the small food court did nothing to keep our eyes open.  We dozed in airport armchairs, until the delayed KLM flight arrived from Amsterdam.  Somehow, those blue uniformed officers and "service personnel" seemed perky and wide awake.  The passengers, however, stumbled on board and sought their pillows avidly.  In spite of the late hour (it was almost 2 am when we boarded), the meal service was unaltered. They served chicken or pasta to anyone who stayed awake.  Peter ate, but I just pulled a blanket over my head and slept.  Eventually he slept too.  As we approached Amsterdam, there were a lot of announcements about making connections.  We were lucky because we had a 5 hour layover originally, which gave us time to spare.  We were planning to meet my brother and niece with two of her children in the airport.  After a stop at the bathrooms where I put my contact lenses back in, we headed to the arrivals hall to make the rendez-vous.  One more stamp in the passport, which is almost 10 years old, and is getting pretty full.  We were supposed to meet at the Starbucks, but as we were searching, they appeared in front of us.  It was all like magic.  They led us to the panoramic restaurant where we had coffee and pain au chocolat.  We had not seen her baby, and her son Ashua had been a baby the last time we saw him, so it was a good reunion.

 Then, we headed back to departures, said farewell, had the passports stamped again, and found our way to the right gate. As we moved down the corridor on our way to Gate E18, we noticed steely clouds behind the white KLM jets.  As we walked closer to take a photo, a rainbow appeared over the airport.  It was the second rainbow in two days, and felt like a blessing on our flight.
 The final flight to Boston seemed long.  Sleep was not easy, and we were restless in our seats.  The legs always seem cramped, and it is impossible to get comfortable.  But we arrived on time, and Kate was waiting at the entrance.  She had made an apple pie for us, so when we got home we had a short celebration before we collapsed.  I was in bed by 4:30 in the afternoon and slept for 10 hours.

The trip is over, but my mind teems with thoughts and reflections.  I downloaded my photos (over 3000 of them), and unpacked my bags.  There will be many more stories to share as I unpack my thoughts.  I have enjoyed writing about the trip, and I think I have a few more entries left in my head.  I will continue to write until I have it all out of my system.  I know that many of my readers have enjoyed hearing about the trip.  Perhaps you will continue to follow the post script.  I probably will write less frequently, but there is at least a month of topics to go.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Magnificent Majestic. Magical Murchison

The visit to Murchison Falls requires two steps.  The Serbian group that shared the boat with us disembarked at the base of the rapids and climbed the rocky path to the top of the falls.  We stretched the visit over two days.  The first trip was the approach to the base of the falls.  

The mist rose in the air before we saw the water falling.  The Victoria Nile drops four times between Lake Victoria and Lake Albert, and Murchison Falls is the greatest drop. Before the dam was built upstream, the falls were even more spectacular. Foamy bits of bio matter float on the surface. Our guide told us that the foam was from the water hyacinths in the river which were crushed going over the rocks.  The water plunges 141 feet to the base of the rocks before flowing the few  remaining kilometers to Lake Albert where the Victoris Nile joins the Albert Nile and flows toward Egypt.  
After the boat ride we returned to the lodge for a relaxing swim and dinner, before packing.
We had to catch the early ferry, and then drove to the top of the falls.  What a spectacular view!  Words pale.  I will merely show a few images.  The power of the water was amazing.  What a great finish to our visit to Murchison Falls.

Hippo Heaven

It seems as though half the hippos in Uganda arranged themselves along the Nile for our exclusive benefit.  On an afternoon boat ride, we watched hundreds of hippos, mostly lounging in the water, clumped together, or sometimes swimming placidly in the middle of the river.
 There were males, females and small ones.  
Although most were in the water, as is their habit during the day, a few were on land grazing.  
They are usually night eaters and only come on land when the sun sets, but sometimes, when they haven't had enough, they continue to eat during the day.  We were fortunate to see them.  Perhaps the rain the previous night had slowed them down.  They are big animals, and take their grazing seriously.
We also saw a few crocodiles and more birds.
 There is a mud wall formation along the river where kingfishers and red throated beefeaters build their nests in holes they drill into the earth.

And along the riverbank we saw baboons, warthogs, buffalo, Oribis, water bucks, and many water birds.


Our game drive was spectacular.  Every animal in the park did not reveal itself, but that is unrealistic.  The sky was one of the major players.  It was cloudy when we set off at 7 am, and throughout the morning the charcoal, blue set off white puffs of clouds.  Blue sky peeked through, and rain occasionally showered the ground.  
Against the charcoal sky, the tawny savannah highlighted the animals.  Their camouflage was striking.  Sometimes dry bushes moved or sticks stood up in the grass.  Other times an animal spotting turned out to be a clump of acacia or a termite mound.  
And in the distance the  Nile snaked through the landscape.
The lions were probably sleeping off a previous meal.  The elephants watched from far away beside the river.  
But the hills were full of Rothchild giraffes, Hartebeests, Oribis and Uganda Kob.
There were herds of buffaloes surrounded by clouds of white egrets.  
And in the hippo pool there was a convention.

 Baboons, warthogs, bush bucks grazed close to the river.  Birds of many types sang and swooped through the tall acacia trees.
It was a magical morning, even without the lions.  Our driver, Matthew brought along the best pineapples I have ever eaten, and a basket of perfect mangos which he carved up with his razor sharp knife.
The road was a muddy mess because of rain the previous day.  We thought we might be blocked by a huge truck which was mired in the mud.  But another truck gave it a shove, and 4 wheel drive saved the day for all of us.  

We made it home for lunch.