Uganda - Update 5

Eighty percent of the time the sun blazes down here, it sears, it fries, it bakes. My skin is red raw in all the spots that my religious sun cream application missed, a triangle on each foot, a crescent moon on the backs of my calves, an angry slash across my neck.

But today is different, today the heavens open in the kind of dramatic downpour we never see at home. Water pours from the sky in sheets, trees bend under its force. In the two minutes it takes the team to get from the hotel to the van we are soaked. It carries on like this all the way in to the settlement as we brainstorm how we can adapt our games, designed for wide open spaces, to the cramped classrooms overflowing with children. 

We are working with every school in Rwamwanja, but there’s no chance we can work with every child. The largest school, Ntezriyayo Primary has 7000 children enrolled, and 700 to a class. Which means, in practice, a classroom is often just the shady space beneath the largest tree in the playground, chalkboard propped against tree trunk. The children who do get to learn beneath a roof are crammed two or three to a desk, or sitting on the floor. Resources are hugely limited but every day I have been awed by the determination of teachers and students to ensure that their education, already interrupted by the conflict they are fleeing, continues.

Today we are at Kyampengo ECD (early childhood development) for the first time, working with 2-5 year olds. We dash through the rain to the dirt-floored shed that we will use as a playing space and are told our group will be smaller than usual, many parents keep their children at home when it rains like this. When they arrive, in an uneven little line, we understand why. These children are soaked to the skin and shivering. There’s no way to school here except to walk, and that goes whether you are three or 13. They troop to the back of the shed, as far as they can get from us and eye us with suspicion. Most of them have never seen a white person before, none of them understand why we are here and what we can offer.

We start gently, with some songs they know and then some of our own. There is nothing to get a group on side here like a song and dance. Even at this age, music seems to run through their veins (and most of these tiny tots dance much better than me). I push down the lump that rises in my throat at seeing them so cold and so nervous and concentrate on making the biggest fool of myself possible as we shimmy and jump and leap around the shed. Pretty soon they are laughing at this crazy mzungu who can’t shake her booty as well as they can. Laughs turn to shrieks of joy as we play Monster Stop Go and they get to outwit more mzungus wearing ridiculous costumes but the fun really starts when we bring out the parachute, a big multicoloured circle of soft silk.

A game that we dubbed ‘Shakey Shakey’ is a firm favourite - it involves one child in the middle of the parachute trying to catch a ball that’s being tossed around the edges by all the others. The only thing that determines the length of this game is our own sanity. The children could play it forever, and they all want a turn in the middle. I lead one little girl in a lovely blue dress to the middle and feel that lump rise again as I watch her play, so solemn in her determination to catch the ball. She’s still not sure about us, that much is clear, but she likes the game, she loves to play, and that basic childhood need makes her brave. She catches the ball, we all cheer, and she allows us the tiniest of smiles.

Forty five minutes later we are warm and grinning as we wave goodbye to a transformed group of children. We can’t change the weather or their circumstances but we have started their day with joy, and that feels pretty good. 

Our joy is doubled when we return to the school a week later, this time under the normal blazing sun, and the children race out to meet us already singing the songs we taught them last time. Their nerves are banished now and all they want to do is get playing. We are only too happy to oblige and the session passes in a blur of giggles.

At the end of the session I shepherd the children back to class and feel a tiny hand slip in to mine. I look down and it’s the little girl in the same blue dress, looking up at me with a huge, unguarded, face-splitting smile. I grin back, delighted. She says something to me in Swahili, I reply in English. We don’t have a clue what the other is saying but a few hours of play have given us a way to bridge the huge gap between us

Written by Alanna