Friday, August 05, 2005

Kasiisi School Days: Dominic's Walk

Near Fort Portal, Uganda
Friday, August 5, 2005

We are about 15 miles from the Rwenzori Mountains, snow-capped at 18,000 feet and only 25 miles from the Equator. These are Africa's fabled Mountains of the Moon. But we cannot see them through the haze, mist and clouds, except for dim outlines of foothills.

Two nights ago an earthquake roared through the rain forest. You can hear it coming, like a very fast but short train racing at you and then as quickly gone. The nights are otherwise quiet with only Colobus monkey calls, occasional hoots from chimpanzees, distant thunder, and densely packed insect sounds.

Dominic, 12 years old, awakens around 4:45 AM, not by a clock but by a sure knowledge that now is the time to start the day. This has been his schoolday routine for 7 years. He is the third of five children and a very good student. He dreams of becoming an airline pilot. His father's small shamba - plantation - is 10 km by path and road from Kasiisi School. The nearest electricity is 2 miles away and unavailable.

A few minutes later Dominic steps outside and starts his walk to school. It is cool, damp, pitch dark, and mostly cloudy with a few stars faintly visible in the breaks. The first few hundred yards are very steeply uphill past his family's banana trees mixed with harvested maize stalks, avocado trees, coffee bushes, pumpkin/squash vines, cassava bushes, pigeon peas, tomato plants and potato plants. A few acres of small-holder tea surrounds and buffers the shamba's food crops from the nearby forest.

One night a few months ago near here, a chimpanzee from the forest hunting along the edges of shambas killed a very small child, not with any intent of attacking humans but only seeking food. This was a very rare event, symptomatic of tensions that arise when humans press upon the edges of the forest. Vastly more dangerous to humans are the hippos and elephants found in abundance in western Uganda.

At the top of the first incline, Dominic whistles quietly to summon his two nearby school companions. Both soon whistle back and they join for the next 3 km stretch to the main road. The path winds upwards with a sharp dropoff to the left that goes down to a very small pond 60 meters below. The hill to the right is crested with pine and eucalyptus trees, which are exotics here. Both sides of the road are lined with elephant grass two meters or more tall. The path is deeply rutted and barely wide enough for one vehicle. It takes 4-wheel drive to get to this spot, and only one in thousands of people here has such a vehicle. The path continues upwards and downwards past numerous shambas, and then turns gradually down to the main road. The intersection is marked by a few small huts and a line-building of one-room cottages that share successive side walls. One of the cottages is a duka, a small shop that sells sundries. Most of an hour has gone by. It is still completely dark.

The main road is already busy with pedestrians and bicyclists, nearly all heading in the same direction as Dominic and his companions, towards Kasiisi School and well beyond it the large town of Fort Portal. There are no lights other than from a very occasional car or van or lorry. The main road, like nearly all roads in this region, is humped and gouged with potholes. The surface is clayey volcanic dirt and dust, varying from a terra cotta red to a latte brown from mile to mile. Water stands in the ditch and in many of the potholes where thundershowers passed last evening. The road is wide enough for two vehicles to pass safely, but the holes and ruts and traffic make most such passings a series of quick dodges and maneuvers to minimize potential damage while maximizing speed. Motor vehicles advance in quick bursts with as-quick slowdowns or stops to avoid people, other vehicles, or road conditions.

Within another kilometer, Dominic and his companions have been joined by another 20 or 30 students from Kasiisi School. The school uniform is blue shirts for boys and blue dresses for girls. Nearly all students wear their colors. Many wear overclothes against the morning coolness and dampness. Most are barefoot. Some like Dominic wear shoes and socks, others wear sandals. All carry their school work in the form of composition books with multiplication tables and so forth printed on the back covers. Some carry their books in their hands, others in small packs or backpacks. Some students - maybe one in five - carry lunches with them. Some carry drinking water in small plastic jugs.

Morning light is now breaking. Cocks are crowing in every direction. The road is crowded, and there are now nearly 100 Kasiisi students in scattered groups of a handful to tens. They talk and sometimes sing as children will. Students from other nearby primary and secondary schools are mixed in. Kasiisi is a large and very good school of over 1,000 enrollment and draws pupils from relatively far away, as far as Dominic and ever farther. Most parents seek to send their children to the best available school, especially given that primary education is free in Uganda outside of basic supplies such as uniforms, composition books and pens, for which families are responsible. Some of the non-Kasiisi students split off from the road towards other local schools. Some of the secondary school students in the groups will walk 20 more kilometers past Kasiisi School to their schools in or near Fort Portal.

By 7 AM it is fully light. Villagers have brought out goats and cattle to graze along the road, tethering them to posts or to trees by the leg or neck. Nearly 200 Kasiisi students are now on this road, which is one of three that converge near the school. The air is acrid from exhaust fumes, road dust, and the lingering remnants of fires used to burn off fields for the next planting, which is about to start now at the beginning of the year's second rainy season. There is heavy vehicle and bicycle traffic now. The most common sound is the clink of a bicycle bell. Students often have to hop off the road and stop when oncoming cars or vans or motorbikes swerve near them to avoid holes or other vehicles. The road is everywhere lined with shambas, dukas, and small dwellings, a new one every 50 to 150 meters. Most buildings have corrugated steel roofs, some have traditional thatching.

There are electrical wires along this road. Electricity costs more per month in Uganda than in the United States. Wires were strung only this week for the first time on poles along the road closest to Kasiisi School. It would take two new poles to bring power to the school. The real challenge, however, is paying for the electricity once it arrived, and protecting electrical devices and materials from theft or vandalism.

The students arrive at the hill below the school at about 7:30. On the right side of the road and down a very steep 100 meter hill is a bore-hole pump that serves this local village and the Kasiisi School. There is no readily available water at the school, none for washing and none for drinking. Dominic is one of a group of children who this week are tasked with carrying water up to and across the road, and then another 200 meter path steeply uphill to the school, in the early morning and again at midday. This water is only for washing, not for safe drinking. Older students like Dominic carry 10 kg jerry cans, smaller students only up to half that.

Dominic and 900 or so other students assemble just before 8, in bright sunlight, on the football field. This week's teacher in charge addresses them, and the principal might do so as well, about moral considerations, attention to task, goals, objectives, proper behavior and so forth. Classes start at 8 AM. There will be two more assemblies during the day, one after the noon break and the other at final dismissal around 4 PM.

At 4:30, Dominic and hundreds of other pupils will begin their walks home. Darkness falls by 7 PM, not long after he arrives home. Near the Equator, dawn and dusk times hardly vary. Dominic will have walked 20+ km today, over 12 miles. He will have hauled 20 kg of water - unless the well is dry, which it was yesterday - and he will have attended up to nine 40-minute classes in science, mathematics, social studies, English, agriculture and religious education. His final exams are coming up in two weeks. He has national qualification exams in October and November. If he passes them, he is qualified to go to secondary school. If he fails, he has no recourse. He will almost certainly pass. But secondary school is not free in Uganda, and his family cannot afford to pay for it. He may be a candidate for a scholarship.

Dominic is one of thousands of students in similar situations in Uganda, and one of millions in the world.


At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm speechless...You've written so vividly, I feel as if I'm right there along side you. It sounds like a wonderful trip and an experience never to be forgotten.

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barbara, I have loved reading of your African Adventure. It sounds as though it is everything you hoped it would be, and your tales make me want to be there!
Enjoy the rest of your experience and I'll see you soon!

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your beautiful prose almost makes Dominic's journey sound poetic, yet I know how much he endures and how much you all must be taking in. Thank you for sharing such a poignant story of one child's daily life with us. Looking forward to your next entry. Wishing you all the best.

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing! I am going to print this for our children to read. All of them (ages 7, 14, 17) will be touched and inspired by these images of dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. We tell them that an education is something worth working for, but they've never imagined working as hard a Dominic. We also tell them how fortunate they are to be learning in a school system with so many dedicated, smart and talented teachers.

Barbara -- your writing reminds us how lucky we are to share our children with you!
Weston Parent

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you can keep in touch with Dominic and let us know if he will need some help with secondary school. We would be honored to assist.

Rich Crandall


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