Cleansing Tears

I was in Africa when Bill’s Alive Day came around this year.  It seemed a bit odd to be so far away of marking such a significant event in our lives.  We celebrate the day each year on Feb. 2nd, when 31 years ago the accident that should have killed my husband, didn’t.  It was a miracle, and I chose then to reflect on it each year, lest we forget that God works unexplained, unearned miracles every day.

I shared the short version of the story with my teammates over dinner the night before.  Afterwards, I called Bill to hear his voice.  My heart was a little homesick.  I could feel the emotion welling up just under the surface.  It is more of a memory for me than for him.  He knows the date, but doesn’t really remember much about it, other than the cards I give him. For me it is always a tenderhearted day.

The next morning, we got a call that one of our Ugandan team members had been in a bota bota accident.  He was injured, but at home so we went to check on him and to pray for him.  I was not prepared for the flood of emotion that hit me.  I guess they call it secondary trauma for a reason, it can be triggered in the oddest places in completely different circumstances.  My voice left me and my tears overflowed as we prayed.  He had bandages on his head, face, and arm.  He was alert and could tell us what happened…so no head injury, thank God.  The bandages were applied by first responders, and he planned to go to the hospital later on for further treatment.  His wife and children were gathered around with solemn faces.  The youngest baby was crying.

Once we were on our way to the teacher’s conference, my tears continued to flow in the front seat of the van. I tried to squelch them to no avail.  At some point, I felt the Lord’s gentle whisper, “Let them out.  They are cleansing tears.” I did just that.  It wasn’t sobbing.  It wasn’t really sorrow for our colleague, I knew he was going to recover.  It was just a welling up of emotion that needed an outlet.  By the time we reached the camp, they had run out.   I wiped my face and continued with my day.

Later that evening, a church nearby our hotel had a worship time.  Their voices floated over the garden wall to my ears.  I Exalt Thee, rang out in loud harmonies. It was beautiful. Once again, the tears came.  That specific song, was the only one Bill would listen to after his accident.  All others got tossed to the floor, in the trash, or shattered with a fist.  Put on I Exalt Thee and peace flooded the room.  Calm came.  Needless to say, I put it on repeat.  Every time I hear it, to this day, it takes me back into the peace that passes understanding.

Here I was in Uganda, far away from home, and still God brought cleansing, healing tears to my heart.  I needed them.  He knew it, so he provided. It’s been 31 years, and we still walk the road of brain injury, but God has always been and will always be with us on this journey.

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Shake, Rattle, and Roll

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As far as I can tell there are not many traffic laws in Uganda.  It seems to me, the walkers have the outer edges of the roadway, then the bikes are right beside them.  Just inside the bikes are the bota botas (motorbikes), and next to them the cars.  The closest to the middle of the road are the vans, lorries (trucks), and buses.  On a normal road that would be five separate lanes on each side of the middle line, in Africa however, there is no middle line, nor are there any lanes.  It appears that if someone, say on a bike, wants to pass a slower bike they simply swerve into the bota bota line to go around.  No signal, just the swerve.  The same holds true for any vehicle along the roadway. When you want to go around, swerve, then back into your line of traffic.  The weaving and bobbing across the roadways creates a maddening chaotic pattern in which I feel as if I am about to be tossed into oncoming traffic at every moment. It is best not to watch this ballet.  Instead, I prefer to close my eyes, or turn and talk to my companions in the back seat.

It usually takes me a bit after I arrive in country to adjust to being on the “wrong” side of the road.  Right turns are the hard ones, left are easy.  Roundabouts always take me off guard since they go the opposite direction than what I am used to.  I am continually bracing myself for the lean as we enter. Trying to get the vehicle in and then get into position to get out at the right time, reminds me of standing in line as a kid waiting for the jump rope to hit just right, so you could jump into the middle without tripping. As if this were not enough, on the way to the camps we go off the tarmac roadway onto a dirt road.  This is where the fun really begins.

If your van has air conditioning, you are one of the lucky ones who get to avoid the dust by keeping your windows rolled up.  If your van does not have air conditioning, there are choices you must make all along the way. Do I want to die of heat stroke, or dust inhalation? When the windows are down the wind blows through my hair along with the dust, but when we pass another vehicle the cloud becomes unbearable, so the windows go up, and immediately the temperature climbs 10 degrees.  It feels much like being cooked in an oven might feel, stagnant air and high heat.  Once the other vehicle has passed, and just when I think I might faint, the windows are opened again.

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Along this road there is much rocky ground, big ditches, and crevasses which must be avoided…by swerving. Sometimes when the ground on the opposite side of the road is smoother, the driver goes over to ride in the grooves left by previous vehicles.  If there is an oncoming car or truck, using the same grooves, there will be what I like to call a game of African Chicken. Both vehicles want to wait until the last minute to dodge out of each other’s way, so as to use the “smooth” tracks the longest. Never mind, that our driver is actually driving on the opposite side of the road he is supposed to be on, and to get back to our side will require avoiding the walkers, bikes, and bota botas.

We are coming face to face with the oncoming lorry, often filled with bags of some kind, on top of which are a hundred or more people all hanging off the top and sides of the truck.  As we make our swerve back to the proper side of the road, the passengers hanging onto the truck wave at us as if nothing has happened. At the same time, there is a near miss of a bota bota.  There is a child in front of the man driving it, and a woman with a baby strapped to her back behind him.  She also has a bucket on her head of what looks like greens of some kind…maybe to take to market to sell? A cute little family precariously perched onto this motorcycle as if it is the most normal thing in the world to be missed by mere inches.  The people in the back seat of our van are saying, “Too close, too close!” which our driver ignores and continues on the way.

If you are in the back of the van, the bumps cause your head to hit the ceiling fairly often.  It is not for the easily motion sick to ride back there, you must be strong of stomach and will. In the middle seat, you will be squished together, and someone will be sitting on the crack between seats.  The swerves assure that you will know your neighbor very well by the end of the trip. In the front, you must ride with eyes closed to avoid a heart attack.

The van is quite used to the trip.  It shakes, rattles, and rolls loudly enough conversation has to be yelled or avoided all together.  The music the driver plays over the top of the rattling can range from country to African rap to reggae.  No matter the genre, it adds to the general feeling that my ears will explode along the way somewhere.

It often feels as if the van will fall apart at any moment, something you do NOT want to happen on this road.  The only thing hotter than this ride would be standing on the side of the road waiting for another van to come to the rescue.  One day our engine overheated.  We had to keep the windows down the whole way back.  Our driver slowed to a snail’s pace, which at any other time I would have welcomed.  However, knowing our van was limping towards the finish line had us all praying we could make it back to the tarmac road.  Somehow, once we arrived there each day it felt like an accomplishment.

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This is the regular daily commute to the camps, for 1 ½ hours one way.  Then after teaching at the conference all day we repeat it all for another 1 ½ hours back to the hotel. On the last day when we hit the tarmac, there was great celebration of the fact we had survived approximately 24 hours of total travel time on that road over the course of our conference.  If nothing else, it was an achievement for this American.  I cannot tell you how rides like this one make me appreciate highways with rules, lanes, lines, pavement, and even orderly traffic.  There is no place like home.

The Children Are Watching

How do you lead a literacy conference without books?  That was our question going into our second teacher workshop at Hope Primary School.  Last year’s conference brought with it evidence that the teachers themselves were not very strong readers. In fact, the illiteracy rate in South Sudan is over 80%.  Remember, most of these conference participants are not actually trained teachers; they are parents who volunteered to teach because they didn’t want their children to go without education.  Add to that fact the reality that they are mostly English language learners and it puts them quite a bit behind the curve.  They speak English and they teach in English, however, reading and writing it are another level altogether. Yet, they persist to teach, still without pay, in order to bring a better future for their kids.

So how do we teach them to teach reading if they cannot read very well themselves?  How do they learn the foundations of the English language as sometimes their 3rdor 4thlanguage? What is the answer?  By reading of course.  In order to be a teacher of reading, you must read yourself.

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We decided to go all the way back to the basics, with a twist…teach them to fall in love with reading first. We believe the desire to read is built within all of us.  We are created curious, so a good story draws us into it.  We carefully selected a book of the day.  Each morning, one of our team, Winnie, who is from Uganda, read a picture book.  Her accent was not an issue as ours would have been.

Being a teacher of small children, her delivery was just what was needed. Inflection, expression, voices, and perfected page turning combined to draw the teachers into each story.  They were mesmerized.  Their eyes glued to each picture and their ears open for every word.  Before long, the children who curiously gathered each day to see what we were doing, began to gather outside the windows to listen.  They would carefully peek to see the pictures, and then draw back into the shadows to hear the next page.  Their heads were bobbing around trying to follow the stories being told, without being “caught.”

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It was quite amazing to watch.  Between sessions during the day, we put the books out on a table for the participants to look at.  Our excitement grew as some of them began to take them back to their seats to try to read for themselves, giving up their snack break to read instead.  Our plan was working, but how to give them the ability to teach it was still a mystery.

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Our sessions were divided into phonics, fluency, and comprehension. The very first one we did was phonics, and once again Winnie taught, since their phonics are different from ours.  She showed them the sound chart and expressed how they need to teach the letter sounds before teaching the letter names.  A simple concept, but light bulbs were going on all over the place. It seems most of the teachers didn’t know the letter sounds at all.  They wanted to keep going, so we played an I-have-who-has game with letter sounds.  We segmented words into sounds and blended the sounds back together into words.  We played hide and seek with sounds.  The participation was excellent, and being mostly men, we were surprised at their willingness to admit they didn’t know these sounds.

When we had our make and take session, they made the sound chart to use in their classrooms.  One man, who learned to speak English in his late 30s, told us he was taking his chart home to practice the sounds, so that 30 years after he learned to speak the language, he could finally understand how to read the words.

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The readers theater scripts we brought to teach fluency, were a big hit. Written on a third-grade level, they were a challenge for some teachers, however, the over and over rehearsal showed them how to make reading practice fun.  They even began to act the parts, creating much laughter and quite a bit of silliness. The Fox Without a Tail had the chairman of the School Management Committee delivering his lines as if he was on Broadway.

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In the comprehension session, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, was a big hit.  Mosquitos are a pesky problem in Africa, as they bring Malaria, so the story was relevant but also funny.  They predicted by playing four corners.  They answered questions from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They created a Somebody-wanted-but-so-then summary. They learned how to clarify words that were unfamiliar and self-monitor for understanding as they read.  It was all new to them, but exciting to see them catch the ideas.

 

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My favorite part was when we went back the next week to see the kids.  We had the opportunity to read a story to several classes.  I am not sure they completely followed our accents, but they were sitting with their mouths hanging open, completely engaged in the pictures.  Once again, the windows and doors were filled with children’s heads, who were no longer hiding between pages, but stood openly straining to see the pictures.  They were falling in love with books.  Even though they couldn’t read them yet, they wanted more.  It was the same day we delivered our 500 lbs of supplies, including many picture books donated for us to take, as well as some leveled readers we brought along for small groups. While we were there we also ordered $3,000 worth of textbooks, which is about half of what one school needs.  However, they were ecstatic at the idea that they would soon have books enough for 3 or 4 children to share.

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Creating a literacy rich environment is difficult when you have to remove everything from your classroom each day so it won’t be used for fire starters. Having to lock the books up each night will be a challenge, but otherwise the termites will eat the pages. Creating charts of everything you teach to hang, so that students can see what you are teaching, is time consuming to say the least.  It is a harsh environment, but these teachers are slowly making steps towards literacy. When they do, they are taking the children with them because…the children are watching.

Our next conference is going to be in May, where we will continue to focus on literacy. We hope to take more books, and more teachers in an effort to build a library of resources for the refugee teachers to use for their students.  Message me if you are interested in more details.

Humble Prayers

There is something about hearing a refugee pray which humbles my heart.  Their prayers are so genuine, so heartfelt, that sometimes my eyes tear up.  I doubt that if I was in their place I could be as grateful as they are.  They thank God for their safety, and I wonder if they are safe in this place, what must it have been like in the “unsafe” environment they came from.  They thank God for the school they have started, and I wonder how you can be thankful for a school without resources.  And when they thank him for the food before we eat, they are not sure when they will be eating again once we leave.  Theirs are gentle, and humble prayers born out of hardship. They are connected to the heart of God in ways I cannot relate to in the least.  There is a dependence which is rooted in faith that God will come through…because he has to.

Not all of them believe, but they all bow their head in respect for those who do. Some are bitter, or discouraged at their circumstances, and I would bet that they feel altogether abandoned by God.  It is a harsh place they are living.  Being there for the few days I am there is the limit of what I can handle.  The climate alone, sucks the life out of me.  Heat, dust, and the absence of any creature comforts at all makes the hopelessness in the camp heavy, like a wet blanket.  It smothers the sparks of hope and vision.  If opportunity springs up at any point, it goes unrecognized, or fades away when the first step towards it cannot be accomplished.  If the heat itself isn’t enough, the continual beating down of ideas which are not possible, creates a why-even-try mindset.

Their reaction to one activity we did in our training was a surprise to us.  We grouped the teachers into groups of 3, gave them 2 pieces of paper, 2 paperclips, and a 12-inch-long piece of masking tape. They were to create the tallest structure that could stand on its own for 15 seconds. We gave them 20 minutes to complete the task.  This activity was designed to stimulate higher level thinking, and collaboration.  In about 10 minutes, they were all finished. We continued to let the timer run, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that they could continue once they had made their tower.  If we looked around the room it was obvious there were only two towers that were close in height.  All the rest were shorter, yet they didn’t attempt to rebuild or redesign their towers, even though there was an excess of time.  One group didn’t even use all their materials. Afterwards, we reflected with them.

We asked, ‘Knowing you were beat, why didn’t you continue trying?’  Their answers taught us much about their thought processes.

‘We didn’t think there was time.’

‘We didn’t know what else to do.’

‘We needed more materials.’

‘It was no use, we were beat.’

This why-try mindset was common, and though it surprised us, it really shouldn’t have.  We are quite American in our ways of thinking, and they are not. Refugees are in survival mode.  Many of them have given up trying new things and just wait for organizations to give them what they need rather than try themselves to get it.  One of the reasons Hope Primary School is such a unique place is that the refugees started it themselves.  They saw a need and they moved to meet it without waiting on outside help.  They knew their children couldn’t wait.

When we asked them, ‘What would have happened if you had opened up the paper clip and put it on the top of your tower?’, or ‘What if you had used the tape to tape it to the desk so it wouldn’t fall over?’, they were surprised.  To think in ways like that gave them new eyes. There were some ah-ha moments. If we had had the time to do the activity again, I know they would be thinking differently the next time.  The lessons they learned, that they can share with their students, were invaluable.

Despite their limitations in thinking because of their circumstances, their hearts are open. Their reliance on God is a requirement for survival.  Their prayers are a sweet-smelling sacrifice.  Somehow, when they pray, I feel the need to get on my knees.  The dusty dry ground becomes a holy place in which communion with God is felt rather than seen. The hot breeze feels like the stirrings of grace, and the little mudded classroom becomes a cathedral.  The tears their broken hearts have shed are stored in bottles beside the throne of God, I am sure of it because humble prayers like these are precious gems.

Why Have You Come?

My eyes are wide and deep as pools. When you look at me they are the first thing you see.   They have wisdom beyond my years, because I have seen much in my short life.  They have seen more than I can understand. War makes no sense to me, only running from war. Now I stand in this new land where everything is unfamiliar to me.  I look out of my eyes trying to make sense of this place and these people.  My neighbors are gone, my friends ran one way and we ran another.  I do not know if they made it.

I stay home with my mother to help her with her chores, which are many.  My father and brothers go out to make bricks.  They leave early in the morning before the heat gets too bad. My mother ties my sister to her back and puts the laundry upon her head.  I get the water jug and carry it.  I walk beside her to the borehole.  It is a long way. It was not like this at home.

We gather around with the other women and their little ones to await our turn.  I am beginning to know some of the other girls my age.  We see each other often, but I am wary.  I am shy.  I stand at a distance as they play, because I am the new girl in camp.  I do not join in, I only watch with my wide eyes. When it is our turn, we fill my water can. It is heavy now, but I can still carry it because I am strong.  I help my mother fill the laundry tub and we begin to wash the clothes with soap and scrubbing.  Then we rinse and wring them out.  It is hard work because the sun is getting higher in the sky.  We will carry them the long way home and hang them on lines to dry.

It is a hard life we have now, but we make the best of it.  We do not know how long it will be before we will go home.  We only know it is not safe and there is no food to eat there. Here, I see Khawaja riding down the road in cars.  Every day they come while we are walking to do our chores. I do not understand, but I watch with my wide eyes.  I wonder, but only in my head.

Why have you come here Khawaja? When you look at me as you drive by, can you see my soul?  Can you see my pain? Do you feel pity for me? Do you know I am a person, just like you?

When you see my mother carrying laundry on her head and my sister on her back do you think it is cute, or novel?  When my brothers are in the fields making bricks do you see how strong they are? Do you see me with my Gerry can walking to the borehole to get water and snap a picture to show your friends at home?

Why do you come Khawaja? Am I an attraction for you to enjoy? Does it make you feel good to come, to get away from your ordinary life? Is going to Africa to see the way we live on your bucket list?  Am I an item for you to check off?

Or maybe you are to rescue me from my life?  I should tell you that just because my life is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I am not sure I need rescuing exactly…I only want to go home.  Can you get me home, Khawaja? I am watching you with my wide eyes. I am trying to understand, why you are here?  If it is for me, or if it is for you?  If I tried to speak to you, would you listen?  Or do you already know the answers for me?

I try to look into your eyes as you ride past. I wonder if I can see your motives, your reasons for coming? Will you look into my wide deep eyes Khawaja, so that I can see your soul?

 

 

Blessing for Teachers

The blessing we gave to the teachers at the end of the conference…

  • We bless your mind, and proclaim you have the mind of Christ in all your work.You will think on things above and have positive thoughts which reflect His ways.

 

  • We bless your vision to see your students in God’s image. You will see yourself as His treasure and know that He sees you as His child.

 

  • We bless your ears to hear His words to you for your students. You will know when to listen and when to act based on His words to you.  We say you will also hear His words of love for you, which are unconditional and deep.

 

  • We bless your mouth to speak God’s words both in the classroom and out of it.He will give you encouragements for your students, your co-teachers, and your family.

 

  • We bless your shoulders, to be strong to carry the burden He has given you for teaching. That you would know the heaviness your students carry and you will lift their load. It is a noble calling and He has entrusted it to you.

 

  • We bless your hands as they toil for your students and families. May they be trusted hands, not to hurt, but to bring healing to your students.

 

  • We bless your heart and ask God to lift it with hope. It will lead you to the Lord, and it will be filled with His compassion for your students and your family. That it will not be overcome or disquieted within you, but bring you peace that only can come from the Prince of Peace.

 

  • We bless your legs to help you stand in the midst of the hardships you face.May they not quiver, but enable you to plant yourself strong in your job and your home.

 

  • We bless your feet, to go wherever God leads you whether it is back home, or out into the world. That they would take you on the path He has destined for you.

 

  • We bless your entire being and pray that you would feel God’s presence in everything you do. That you would know He surrounds you because His love for you is immense. We pray now you would go with this blessing and walk in His anointing…as a teacher…and a family member…and a child of God. Amen.

 

From our hearts to yours,

The ALI Team

A Day in the Life

My alarm either startles me awake, or I get up an hour before it goes off. The determining factor of which way I start my day is complex. If the electricity is on the night before so the fan runs, if the noise outside my window ends before 2 in the morning, if the heat is terrible or only bad, if the mosquitos get inside my net, if I have heartburn from the food, if I have had enough water therefore am up numerous times to go to the bathroom, if my mind is racing ahead to the lessons I will be teaching for the day, if I have a blog in mind I haven’t had time to write…any combination of these can keep me awake.  The other option is that I am so exhausted from the long day and the heat that I fall right to sleep and sleep hard as a rock. I never know which kind of night I will have.

Once I am up at 6:30, I dress and pack my bag for the day. It doesn’t take me long to get ready since I take a cold shower the night before in an attempt to be cool long enough to get to sleep. Packing my bag for the day actually takes longer than getting dressed.  I carry mosquito wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue to use in the bathroom, sunglasses, sunscreen, baby powder, neck towels, Advil, fuel rod for my phone with cords, Tums, mints, gum, passport, and money.  I fill and attach a water bottle to the outside of my bag.  Then I get out a 1.5 liter bottle of water and mix it with Crystal Light or an electrolyte powder.  Now I am ready to go down to eat breakfast at 7:00.  We pack the van at 7:30 with our materials for the day, we load up and are off to the camp.

The ride out is 1 ½ hours. The road is dusty in dry season and muddy in wet.  It is bumpy all the time. The driver weaves back and forth in attempt not to hit the biggest bumps.  All along the road people walk or ride bikes.  It is rural landscape most of the way, with mud huts dotted periodically.  You cannot tell where the people are going because there is nothing in sight in either direction. You only know that they have to walk a long way to do anything. Women carry everything on their heads, except the babies on their backs.

We arrive at the school by 9:00 if everything goes according to plan, which is rare.  Usually, our conference starts a bit late since we have to wait for the participants to walk to school or ride in a van because of the distance. The rest trickle in as the day goes along, joining in whenever they arrive.

Uche begins with a devotional time in which he uses scriptures of refugees in the Bible. Last year, it was the story of Joseph. This year it is the story of Ruth. Sitting in a room full of refugees makes you acutely aware that you might never have thought of the familiar Bible stories from the perspective of a refugee.  Being in the same space, I can see they relate to every word in ways I cannot comprehend.  It also challenges me to go back and reread these scriptures with new eyes.

After devotional time, the first hour and a half session begins.  It is either one of our team, or one of the Ugandan team.  Typically, we teach active learning techniques and strategies, and their team focuses on curriculum and other aspects of the culture that we are not aware of.  It is a match, quite literally, made in heaven. We pull out our chart paper, markers, tape, and anything else we need, since they do not have supplies.  Once the session is finished we have a health break, where we eat a snack breakfast, usually some type of bread, with tea at about 11:30 or 12.

Next session begins directly after health break.  Another topic, more activities most of which are unfamiliar to the teachers.  Much of our time here is teaching them.  For example, we did a session on phonics, and many didn’t know the letter sounds, nor how to teach them.  Many cannot read very well and they had some ah-ha moments with they saw the sound chart.  There are not books at the school, so when we read the book of the day each morning they were mesmerized.  Between sessions several of them came on their own and got the books to read. This session leads right up to lunch which can be delayed if the cooks have any difficulty finding firewood or fetching water.  Sometimes, the next presenter goes ahead and begins while we wait for the food to be finished usually between 2 and 3:00.

At lunch we usually have rice, beans, posho (a maze product the consistency of overcooked grits) and whole fish, chicken or beef and some sauce.  We eat with our hands, and wash at a small tank of water nearby.  The bathrooms are squatty potties, which is a hole in the ground.   They have doors, and concrete floors, so they are nice as squatty potties go.  In the heat, it is best to go as quickly as possible, which takes some skill and lots of practice.

After lunch, the sun is the hottest so it is difficult to focus.  We usually do all kinds of transition activities and songs.  The teachers love them and it gets us all more alert. The classroom is mudded which is where the community came together, chopped up the dirt and added water and then put the mud onto a framework made from sticks. It is amazingly insolated, but in the heat of the day the mud cannot keep the temperature from climbing.  The wind whips up from time to time, filling the room with dust.  The charts that are taped blow off the walls. Even the lizards come into the room to try to get out of the sun.  Goats, ducks, and cows wander around just outside the windows.  I wonder how you ever get students to pay attention in this environment.  We use string and clothespins we brought to rig up a way to hang posters without tape. They still blow in the wind, but do not come down.  The chalk board is plywood that has been painted black.  It is rough and does not erase well with the piece of cloth we use. Yet, we plow on with our session which goes from 3:00 to 5:00.  This time we broke it into an hour session and an hour make and take so they could create some resources to use with the materials we brought. Glue, tape, scissors, chart paper, markers…it was like Christmas.

At the end of the day, we have afternoon tea, which I cannot drink since it is served hot.  We pack all the materials up to carry back with us. We take down all the charts, etc… because if we don’t they will be taken in the night.  Paper is a hot commodity as is string and wood.  They even take the teacher’s desks into a locked teachers’ room, because they could be used for firewood if chopped up. Imagine having to disassemble your room every night before leaving.  A blank slate every single day.

We load up in the van and bounce back to our hotel.  We usually arrive around 6:30 and go to eat right away to refill the energy the sun took. Our hotel has a restaurant which serves the same thing every day, or we walk to one around the corner which has more options.  There are many foods I do not recognize and usually I avoid those.  I am very protective of my digestive tract. I do not have any desire to have traveler’s diarrhea when using a squatty potty in 100-degree heat. I mainly eat rice, beans and chicken. If they have any kind of green vegetable that is cooked I will eat it.  I avoid raw veggies because they may have been washed in the water which can be an issue.

Once energy is replenished, we head up to unpack our boxes and repack them for the next day.  We prepare our lesson materials ahead of time when we can and then we go item by item to make sure we have everything we need. Sometimes, we leave things behind because we just don’t think about it…like pens, or paper.  We are so used to having everything we need at our fingertips it is a challenge to think as if we have NOTHING to start with.  By the time we finish it is nearly 11:00.

Once back in my room, I put my feet, which are swollen with the heat, up on the wall for them to go down some.  Gravity helps.  I make texts and phone calls home.  I pray the fan will be working soon.  I take the coldest shower possible and go to bed wet with the fan pointed directly on me in case it comes on in the night…which it usually does a few times. The next day we start all over again. We do this for four days in a row, then take Sunday off.

No camp today.  I slept in and did my laundry the old-fashioned way.  Now, I am sitting in the garden behind the hotel and worshiping with the church around the corner.  Their worship is amazing…and loud enough I feel as if I am there. There is a cool breeze because it is early yet and I am in the shade. It is a lovely and much needed break.

Tomorrow we will begin again for the next three days.  Same procedure to get ready, but when we arrive at the school the children will be there for the first day of school.  Each teacher will get his/her class of around 100 students and we will be there to help them set classroom rules, read books or whatever else they want us to do.  We will also deliver the hundreds of pounds of books to the teacher room and show them how to use a card checkout system to share the resources we brought with us. We will only have time to visit two of the schools of the five represented at the conference…because we have to come home sometime!   On Thursday we begin our travels in reverse, flying from Arua to Entebbe, then on to Amsterdam and the USA.

 

The Nuts and Bolts

So, how do teacher conferences happen in refugee camps? I’m glad you asked. It is quite a process to be honest. Not just anyone can go into the camps. There must be a sponsoring organization who is registered with the UN. Since my friend Uche partnered with the Church of Uganda to work towards their mutual goals. On my first trip Uche introduced me to the Bishop of the local Diocese, a representative of the Office of the Prime Minister, the leaders of Dreamland orphanage, the leaders of Hope Primary School, and the head of the Ministry of Education of the Church of Uganda.

Before I left to return home, Uche shared his dream to have a teacher conference in May 2018.  His desire is to pour into the teachers, so they can pour into the community with the school as a central meeting place.  It is a place where discipleship can take place and lives can be transformed.  His vision was inspiring, but I didn’t know if I could come back so soon. God nudged me to come back in May as a facilitator for the first teacher conference in Rhino Camp, so I agreed to come and I brought my friend Karin who is a trainer of teachers.

Alfred the head teacher asked the teachers what they wanted to learn. Uche gave us the list, we tried to find a common thread. We submitted our theme, Active Learning Techniques, of the conference to Uche, who passed it along to Mama Juliet at the Ministry of Education.  She designed the schedule, picked the topics, and added a team of Ugandan facilitators. We tweaked the schedule a bit and prepared to come as best we could.  It was a wonder to us how it would be co-teaching with people we’d never met, about a curriculum we’d never seen, in a country half way around the world. We packed tons of supplies and resources.  We carted them around the world and then purchased more supplies when we arrived. Then God put us with the perfect team, and by the week’s end we were like family. Sharing stories for 3 hours each day we bounced down the long road into the camp was a bonding experience.  Our subject matter and teaching techniques flowed together in a way that could only be orchestrated by God.  It was amazing.

We recognized that most of the teachers are English language learners and need instruction themselves.  What better way than to model techniques?  This year we submitted our theme, Literacy Across the Curriculum. We received the schedule.  We tweaked it and sent it back.  We again, arrived to a new facilitator team arranged by Mama Juliet.  This time we brought two more teachers with us which meant even more stuff to haul.

Once we arrived in Arua, we were sitting around the table at our planning meeting of the entire facilitator team, when one of them told us he would be sharing Bloom’s Taxonomy.  We cheered. Once again, God had the perfect fit for our team and theirs.  Our teaching philosophies are the same, and we have realized education all over the world has similar issues, but also there are people passionate about education who are called to teach everywhere.

Yesterday the facilitator Lilian was incredible. She taught phonics in an engaged way.  The teachers were completely glued to her.  Some of them are still learning English so the sounds captured their attention while the games and songs kept it. When she was finished with her time, we had very little to introduce.  We simply built on her session.

Today, we covered fluency and comprehension with lots of practice activities. We have read a book of the day each day to demonstrate how to engage children in stories.  One boy stood outside the window just so he could listen in. We put out books for the teachers to look at and several of them picked them up and read them on their own. Readers theater, timed readings, more stories, higher level questioning, learning to summarize and clarify were all on our schedule.  And if that sounds like a lot to cover in a day…you are right. Add in the heat, wind, and hard benches and it makes it even more difficult to focus.  We do songs, chants, movement activities, and a number of other things to keep us going each day.

Tomorrow is the close of the conference.  A session on behavior management for classes of over 100 students, and a session on how to do activities small groups of 25. We will follow up with a celebration of all we have learned. It will be a great day.  Then we will begin planning the next conference…

Life is in the Blood

I just woke up, in my African room, from a dream…one of my former students was in the hospital for some medicine. This particular student had significant trauma in her life while I was her teacher. In the dream, I was the one giving the meds directly into her vein. (I assure you this was a dream, because in real life I would never attempt to do such a thing!) When she arrived, I first showed her how to take her blood pressure, how to listen for her heartbeat.  Then I nervously put the needle into the vein.  I missed the first time and had to do it again.  The second time, I managed to get a smaller needle in, and was ready to pump the medicine into her, when a nurse came in and said that her blood test showed she was well, and didn’t need the medicine anymore.  We all did a happy dance.  Her mom told me she was so glad I was there to treat her. I told the mom, I am happy I was here for her, but I am a teacher not a nurse.  I am happy being a teacher.

I woke up from this dream knowing the medicine I was giving her was knowledge.  In her traumatic situation she needed acute care. She needed someone who could show her that her heart was still beating despite her circumstances. She needed someone who could give her knowledge directly into the life source. Someone who did the procedure with love and compassion, even if they didn’t know all the technical aspects. The good news was her doctor had chosen the right treatment and she was healed. She no longer needed me to give her the medicine directly.

The application of this dream is pretty obvious as I sit in my bed typing.  I am minutes from getting up and ready to go teach teachers how to reach their students.  They are students with significant trauma, who need the life-giving medicine of knowledge. Educational knowledge of the head for sure, but also the spiritual knowledge of the heart. God is the doctor who prescribed the medicine.  He sent teachers into this situation to offer treatment.  We are out of our comfort zone, but we know the medicine prescribed by the Healer will work. We are not the expected ones to be in this circumstance and we don’t know all the technical procedures for everything in this environment.  However, we know what the physician prescribed will work when done in love and care.  The girl in my dream survived her trauma and grew up in real life to be a healthy adult. The disease of trauma and heartache was rendered powerless to destroy her, by the medicine. Head knowledge that leads to heart knowledge is the protocol here.  It is why we came.  Today we will go and continue treatment by teaching the teachers how to do what they do not know, to save the lives of children.  Pray for us to be able to break through to bring the healing of the Great Physician.

Khawaja

I am a middle aged white American woman.  Before the term “white privilege” was coined, I lived it.  Through no choice of my own, I was born into a family who wanted me. I had a mom and a dad who loved each other and their kids. They clothed me, fed me, and gave me shelter.  I was known by them.  I had every advantage. I was educated without question.  I was given a strong foundation of faith.  I had scores of friends at school and at church and I lived in a country that valued freedom and independence.  I was born during peacetime which lasted well into my adulthood. All these things were free to me.  I did nothing to earn them.  I did nothing to deserve them.  They simply were.  I had no idea this was not a common occurrence for everyone.  I took every bit of my good fortune for granted.

So now, here I sit in Africa, on a team of women mostly like me. I have supporters who are the same. We have woken up to the fact that our privilege gave us the gifts of hopefulness, positive outlooks, and the feeling that anything is possible. We were taught you can be whatever you want to be as long as you work hard.  With our advantages we were educated.  We married educated men.  We raised our kids the way we were raised.

Why would God take middle aged American white women of privilege and send them to Uganda, Africa? I have asked him this question myself. It is certainly not to rescue anyone. Not to force feed the people.  The refugees are in a most difficult place, but there is nothing about their situation our little team can change.  Complexities layered with strife and causes of which we have very little understanding are not problems we can solve. So, why then does God keep calling us back to this place?

“You need them.” 

Hmmmm… he is right.  I need what they have.  The ability to live in the moment.  The desire to keep surviving, keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The way many of them depend on God for daily needs like FOOD.  The stamina and sheer strength of the women as they go about daily living tasks.  We are alike in that neither of us got to choose where we were born, or who our parents were.  I could have just as easily been born in a war-torn country, where my family was slaughtered. Where food is scarce.  Where safety is unavailable.  Where running away from danger is the normal way of life. I could have not had access to education, or dependable shelter. I do not know if I would survive such a life.  A life without any privileges, where I feel forgotten and abandoned.

It is just like God to pluck us up and put us in the midst of such heartache. He uses things like this to confound the wise. It is so, we can see up close, the gaps in the gifts we have. Even here, we ride to camp instead of walking.  We fly to town rather than taking a lorry or bus.  Even here, our privilege follows us.  Yet, I believe God is doing a new thing this time around. He is opening my eyes to see the gifts they have to offer to us.  He is allowing them to teach us.  We are the educators, and we bring with us knowledge of literacy.  We bring compassion and prayer, and some hope that we were born with.  We freely share what we have been given.  In return, they share with us their stories, their hearts and their tears…but also their joy.  Their desire to educate the future of their country.

God has teamed us up with a Nigerian with big vision, and Ugandan teachers who know the culture. He has brought us all together with the community of refugees who want to make a difference in their own lives.

In the camp they call us Khawaja.  It is not derogatory, but a term of identification.  We are the white ones.  The ones who are different and do not belong, but they have extended their arms to us.  Embraced us with their hearts and freely share their gifts with us. I need what they have.  We come together, not as victim and rescuer, heavens no!  We are an interdependent cohort of grace…an international group of people who want the best for the children of South Sudan.