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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.

Friday, November 19, 2010


The daily goings on at Kyambogo can best be described as puzzling.

I see large masses of students sitting under a tarp at the campus branch of Stanbic bank, waiting - sometimes all day - for a number. Through rainstorms, and lectures, church services, and demonstrations, they wait. And wait...

This has gone on all semester long. Some days it's packed. Sometimes it's a trickle. But it's been incessant. And puzzling.

Other mobs of students convene in Peace Park, for peaceful sing-songs and acapella choir tunes. Christmas is coming. Hosanna in the highest. Peace Park, with its crowning firs and banana trees, long, knee-high elephant grass and scattered benches, is a recluse from the clamor of classrooms and courtyard mob scenes.

Meanwhile, outside my office, masses of young men and women queue outside a long shoddy desk next to the urinals, waiting patiently to prove tuition payments have been made. This is in order to receive their student registration cards. The cards contain their glossy head shots and Kyambogo's ink seal on a index-sized card. It allows them to enter yet another line, also massively impressive, just to the right of the previous one. This is for a final exam card, the crown jewel of cards this time of year. This card gets them into their finals, tantamount to an VIP pass into the hallowed night club of continuing higher education.

This process also brings some of them to tears. They have studied, read, taken notes, and crammed for the past twelve weeks. It's soon time for them to prove their learned minds are ready for the next step. But only if....

Money talks here. And like everywhere else, if you haven't paid, you will not play. You will not live to learn another day. With tuition fees rising as much as 25 % this fall, some families are hit hard with the burden of a cost one month before Christmas. This child might be number six of eight or simply waiting at the wrong time. Maybe dad hasn't worked in two years or mom lost her job. Maybe mom never had a job and the burden of two kids in college is too much this fall. These are individual stories. They cannot be encapsulated in one blog.

But the questions I ask are 'why is this all taking place a week before finals?' Why is everything so last-minute here? Who is running this type of operation for 8.000 students? Has it worked in the past?'

I held office hours for students yesterday in room 010 in the Faculty of Arts building. It's on the first floor. The courtyard outside my window is Ground Zero for the registration chaos. Heaps of co eds stand, slouch, hang, and nudge towards the front of each line. The voices, piano and orderly at first, crescendo at particular bad news. Or a delay in the line's movement. I spot Phiona and Brenda outside in the middle of one of the mobs.
"What is going on?" I ask. There seemed to be no order. No solidarity. No movement. And worst of all, no direction.
"We are waiting to get our registration cards."
I could sense their fatigue and frustration. Thursday was another warm day. They had been standing in the same spot for almost four hours.

Thirty feet down the hill, a massive group waited outside Stanbic bank, hoping to make it into the bank before six o'clock. The way the sun was positioned, fading behind storm clouds and Ntinda Hill, it didn't look like they'd make it.

Some students find out bad news just days before the first exam is to begin: a family member cannot deliver them the requisite tuition. 200 dollars short might as well be a million. Short is short. They have no recourse but to wait, or pray, or cry.

Throughout campus, the same scene plays out in front of my bewildered eyes. While I stroll the grassy footpaths to my secure office, collecting fresh air in my lungs, and perspective on the week, confusion and frustration take over student life. These same students who have been in my classroom, shared their thoughts on paper and in lecture halls, et frantically. These same students whose semesters hang in the balance, while I meander two hundred yards away, are circling me like victims in a bad dream. I hear their voices in my head: 'Help us! Do something! Fix all this!'

I don't like it.

I try to understand. I listen to their stories. I hear the worries in their voices despite their smiles and laughter. I focus on what I can control. What I came here to do.

Meanwhile, they make the best of the situation. Most of them stay positive. They commiserate together, in packs, waiting it out with friends and classmates. But the situation has got to wear thin.

I live around them but, in reality, I don't live anywhere near them. I am on an island of security and promise, in a three-room compound with a yard, a garden and a security guard. Their turmoil is harbored in self-contained square rooms the size of a Shawshank cell; their world is a competitive, unfair conglomerate of despair mixed with hope and prayers.  Many of them live in one room tenements; four walls covered in clothing and chipped paint.The self-contained cement floors are hidden by rugs and two beds and - if they are lucky - a desk with a computer. Outside, there is a courtyard latrine and a bucket for showering, cooking, and cleaning. They have dishes and pots, a boiler, clothes, purses, neckties and luggage. Somewhere down the hallways someone has a TV. They all congregrate to watch soaps at night. Maybe the Venezuelan one with that steamy bo-hunk, Juan. Perhaps the Mexican one with the crazy, witchlike females with heavy make-up. Everyone's hanging up laundry in between rooms. Somewhere, someone is cooking rice or pasta. Their evenings center around meals. Noise permeates these nooks, acrid smoke fills your lungs passing by these areas at night, wondering who really lives in these places. My students live in these places.

I try to put myself in their shoes, make life easier for them, and listen to their stories. They are going to be all right. The students of mine are bright and positive and motivated. They thirst for knowledge. They actually come to my office hours. They actually ask for grammar books, rules for punctuation, and for any novel they can get their hands on. Information is gold here. And gold is a rarity in these parts.

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