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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two days of teaching

I walked towards RAC E at exactly 10:46 a.m. I was low on chalk but had the rest of my supplies: textbook, the dollar worth of handouts, a bottle of Rwenzori water, and a plan. Of course, there always has to be a plan.
But the plan often changes here at Kyambogo. When I walked past the thatched hut selling phone credit, bananas, passion fruit juice, chapati and other snacks, I could smell the wet grass, mud, and body odor as well as the fragrances of perfume, flowers, and burning garbage. Then I heard the common chorus of lecturers: booming, brooding male voices echoing down the halls, expounding on tax accounting, Plato, and sociology. I turned right thru the slit of light, past the photo copier, the fetid stench of the toilets, and into the courtyard where I taught my eleven o’clock class. The familiar excitement and uneasiness of walking into a class kept me pensive. Was I ready? I felt ready but really, who the hell ever knows…sometimes a lesson plan’s success is as arbitrary as releasing a paper airplane into a crowded theater. You hope it doesn't hit the usher but if it does, it might trigger a chain reaction worth recounting. You hope...

I spotted Becky and Mary in the grass first, sharing earphones.
“Hello, sir!” They said in unison. Their eyes moved from me to our classroom, a strange apprehension on their faces foreshadowing more chaos. I could tell my help was being summoned through the course of their disquieting body language.

A female lecturer was leading a class of forty in an equation of some sort. I thought I smelled pi. I kept walking. I noticed Baker, Thomas, Ben Mugume and the other cast members in the next room; some were writing, others waiting. All of them sat up when I walked in the room.
“What’s going on?” I asked, wondering why I was setting my things down in a room with fifteen desks and half of my students standing in a corner. I quickly spied the chalkboard for random sticks of chalk or a proper eraser. 
Damn. No dice.
“We…there is a problem, sir. Another lecturer is in our room.”
“Yeah, I saw…where is everyone else?”
Ben looked at the others and then back at me. “We have a test in the West End at twelve. A lot of us…it's just the desks, sir...” his voice trailed off.
“Your test is in London?” I asked. 
A few laughed. Others eyed me nervously, hoping I was going to be lenient on this unspectacular Wednesday. The attempt at levity was quickly swallowed by the stress in the room.
“So do you have your essays?”
“We have them,” Christine answered. “But, sir, our test…it’s so far to walk and we need to get a chair. Can we leave early, sir?”
“Mm,” I grumbled. Suddenly an hour had shrunk to twenty-eight minutes with several no-shows. Thus was life teaching at Kyambogo.
My lecture started several minutes later…after I personally escorted seventy-five disgruntled statistics majors and their teacher out of our classroom. They congregated in the doorway for the next few minutes, carrying on a discussion better left for a stadium tailgate.
“Sir, we can’t hear anything,” Dillis complained. “They are too obnoxious.”
“Really, sir!” Bridget seconded.
The others agreed. Soon the chorus grew too loud to ignore. So it was: yet another chance for me to play bad cop.

The mob's gazes went from quizzical indifference to resigned malaise. Slowly, they filed out, heading across the grass into a vacated portable. It was a small victory and led to some much needed quiet. I had the majority of them for the next twenty-three minutes, as their impending twelve o’clock exam loomed and I squeezed in as much argumentative essay tidbits as humanly possible. By 11:35 my class of 51 had shrunk to twelve. And with an exhaled breath, the pitch of my voice returned to normal; it almost felt like an ESL class again once again, if only for a few minutes. I actually had the chance to sit down, have a discussion, look each student in the eye, and field those all-important questions impossible to ask in a class of fifty-plus with the cacophonous ripple of co-ed noise filtering the dialog between chalkboard and back row. 

Thursday was one of those glorious sun-soaked skies that makes you happy to be alive. My morning instant coffee was better, spent out in my neatly trimmed lawn, watching eagles and hawks and cranes soar above the mango tree. Students sat quietly outside the house to my right, studying at random wooden desks in the middle of an abandoned front yard. It was campus life at its finest. And I had forty-five minutes to myself before walking four minutes to class.

When I arrived, I was met by more surprises: my evening coordinator had malaria for the second time in a month, my evening class was cut in half because of African movie night on campus, and I had a new student waiting for me..in Week Nine. 
Why hadn't she come earlier? 
Her father had been in the hospital, she couldn't pay tuition, and her papers hadn't clear from previous academic indiscretions. After a talk with the dean and department head, she was admitted. Luckily, Sheila has a head on her shoulders and actually handed in a type-written essay for her first act. 
Both Thursday classes had a rousing debate (read: controlled argument) concerning bride prices in Uganda, a topic I had read about but not yet discussed. It evoked lots of emotion and an outpouring of opinions from normally reticent students who avoid my eye contact. If you want to read an entertaining and fictional story related to this, check out Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. 

As dusk set in and I once again had a moment to myself, it was time to reflect on the week of teaching before satisfying the grumbling in my stomach, calling my boda driver, and initiating the weekend. After more than two months, there are clearly some hot button issues that need more exploration:
  • the role of women and gender (in)equality
  • domestic abuse
  • traditional wedding and courtship customs
  • bride price
  • tribal differences and customs
  • tribal languages and their promotion (or lackthereof) in primary education
  • politics and the impending February 2011 Presidential Election
  • Morality
Now, it's 4:41 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was woken up by a hellish thunderstorm, deafening rain pelting the corrugated iron roof, and the subsequent barking dogs and frogs. It's nearly November, there is no sign of seasonal change (still rainy and warm), World Series Game 2 is in progress, and grasshopper season is right around the corner.

I'm also making inroads on my Thanksgiving party, having secured the campus caterer, their cooking gear, chairs, plates, and three staff to work the evening. A scout is checking on turkey prices (I might even get to kill it myself, although probably will defer). Once I get the students's schedules for Finals, I can start handing out wristbands and working on crowd control. Dan - little does he know - will be bouncer, police blockade, and crowd control during the proceedings. 

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