Joyce Meng's Blog

Day #12 - Exploring Makindye

January 2, 2010

Today, I spent a peaceful morning and afternoon in Makindye, doing interviews of the children, planning the use of my remaining time, and for the first time, exploring the area beyond the gates of the Peace School. In the morning, after breakfast, I interviewed Farook and Bashir – we got some really great friendship footage as they shared stories of growing up together. Afterward, I spent some time playing with the children – Natasha, Shareen, and Shanelle are back from visiting Helen’s side of the family.

At this time, Joanita and Iria returned from the city after exchanging money and buying groceries. We greeted them before they departed a second time, and got permission to leave the compound to visit the American Club. Joanita is very protective, so I assured her that we’d take some of the older children with us. A week ago, Zamu had eagerly mentioned the nearby American club (the location of the former American embassy) and its recreational delights, so Jia and I wanted to scope out the place and see whether we could treat the kids to a day of fun and relaxation as a gift. But when we were greeted by the hostile grounds guard who demanded our passports harshly, but treated the Americans entering and exiting so good-naturedly, I began to doubt. As Americans, Jia and I were given a tour of the club – yes, there was a swimming pool, tennis court, gym, soccer field, lounge, etc, but I didn’t see anything particularly special or worthwhile. In addition, once I entered the club and saw all the Americans lounging idly, I thought to myself, “How awful to enter a country and isolate yourself from the local people of your host country!”

Zamu had really wanted to go, as she read about the club in various magazines, but we couldn’t justify the cost for membership. To bring the kids, we needed to pay $20 for our own membership, and then an additional 8,500 shillings per guest ($5 USD) – by Ugandan standards, an exorbitant and unjustifiable charge!

Rather than turn back, Jia and I enjoyed the opportunity to walk with the older children around the village. Isaac and Ibra, the sons of Charles, had come today. Both boys appear to be much more worldly than the others – Jia later told me that they did freestyle rap effortlessly and spoke in the slang of American teenagers to the point at which she felt confused as to where she was located! With Farook, Isaac, Josh, and Bashir, we took a tour of the local community, visiting the boy’s favorite video game store, clothing boutique, and the communal playing field often utilized by the Peace School for recreation.

[Photo of the older children and me walking outside of the Peace School Gates. Courtesy: Jiashan Wu]


Along the way, we passed the civilian court, marshal’s court, local market, police station, and Josh’s school! I enjoyed the walk thoroughly – even though we’ve spent so much time here at the Peace School, we didn’t have a chance to explore the vicinity by foot. I find walking very refreshing, but our hosts often try and take us everywhere by car, believing it to be our preference. (On an amusing note, Ugandans walk very slowly so all the teens laughed at how quickly Jia and I walked.)

We got back, rested and planned the execution of our projects, and waited for Joanita and Iria to come back for lunch. After lunch, I felt rather soporific so I originally intended to laze outside and cherish an indolent moment. With Barbara, Sharifah, and all the little kids (Shareen, Natasha, and little Farook) playing, however, I soon found myself: 1) sprinting all over the grounds throwing seeds at the kids in a game of tag-dodgeball, 2) acting as a human swing set that the kids climbed all over, 3) teaching the kids Egyptian Ratscrew, 4) setting up a game of sharks and minnows and running after the kids, 5) holding a weathered broom up as a game of limbo for the children (Sharifah is very flexible!)…and basically racking my brain for every playground game that I could remember from my own childhood, while purposely excluding some of my more dangerous favorites.

The sheds, at this point, began to resemble actual complete fixtures. Overall, I am truly impressed with the speed of the work, especially since the majority of the labor comes from the boys, none over 17 years of age. The energy of the children astounds me, especially little Farook. He speeds around the grounds like a hyperactive bee, zigzagging everywhere!

[Video of the second day of construction of the temporary sheds!]

Jia and I took footage of the games and also of the kids playing. When we discovered that the kids got very shy on camera, Jia thought of an innovative way to help them relax for the interview. She would play rock, paper, and scissors with the kids, and the winner gets to ask a question. The effect made me laugh so hard, and we got some great moments on camera! We then called some of the older boys together for an interview, Josh and Sula together.

Oh my! This was the interview that neither Jia nor I believed could happen! First, even when I fed softball questions to get the kids to warm up, I got back astoundingly frank and personal answers. Second, I couldn’t believe that Sula – who we perceived to be very serious and reserved – to admit to some of the stories that he shared! I think Jia found my surprised look amusing. I suppose in retrospect, everything he said was typical of a 16 year old boy, but to make certain admissions on camera requires a great deal of comfort. And most surprisingly, Sula of all people shared these gossipy anecdotes! I found it all very amusing, goes to show that we’re trusted enough to hear the real stories and break through the platitudes.

Josh provided a much more measured account of his life. According to him, he came from the village in fifth grade, not knowing a single word of English and performing very poorly in school. Yet, with quality instruction at Peace, he managed to learn English very quickly. Josh appears shy and reserved at first, but he’s actually very sociable and curious.

We ate a late dinner, but the ambiance was tense since Abraham went to fetch grandmother from a funeral 3.5 hours away, but had gotten lost since the man who went with him (who supposedly knew the directions) had no clue how to navigate. During this time, grandmother had already come back from the village by taxi, and was feeling ill from the uncomfortable ride. In general, getting things done in Uganda can be frustrating – there is always so much time wasted in miscommunication, misunderstandings, and additional transactional delays due to infrastructure problems.

At 10 PM, the family convened for a meeting about the future of the Peace School, as some decisions to scale up and expand the school would uproot existing processes and power structures. As the school is a family-run operation, scaling up requires upsetting the current modus operandi, which simultaneously pleases and displeases different members of the family. You can imagine the level of tension and concern! As Jia and I now sleep in the living room, separated from the dining room by only a curtain, we heard the heated discussion very clearly. There are definitely a lot of competing interests of the school, even among the family. Everyone has good intentions, but a different vision on how matters ought to be handled. Somehow, eventually, I managed to fall asleep despite the loud meeting, which lasted at least a few hours.

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