Early in the morning the book bus drives us an hour out of town, off the main road and onto a bumpy dirt road. The road winds through a tiny village of straw huts. Women squat by fires, babies tied to their back. Spindly children run and play with a string and a piece of metal tied to it. At one hut I see men butchering a pig. Chickens scratch the red dust.
The road gets narrower. More huts. Each time I think we’ve reached the village where the school is, we keep going further into the bush, across dusty land.
Finally we reach a brightly painted school house with flagpole. We’ve come to read stories and do crafts with the 1st and 2nd graders. The students here have desks thanks to a grant from a NGO. The walls have been painted with multiplication tables and slogans. One poster listed combinations of letters to sound out: ‘has, had, have’ The teacher has written under it “Practise these sounds oftenly.”
I read my Emma book and every mouth drops open when my Emma chicken puppet moves her head. They giggle and touch carefully. We make paper chickens and do more songs, read books and make crafts. For some, it is the first time they use scissors. One girl tries, mouth open, for ages to cut a little strip of paper. Another boy cuts flawlessly along the black lines, ever so careful not to miss a bit.
Then a lady comes from the village to give us a tour. Her name is Janice. She is a grandmother, a volunteer teacher at the preschool and a guide for any visitor to her village. “We are grateful to your clan,” she says, explaining that all western visitors are the clan who have made this school possible. “Our children learn, and have a future now,” she says.
We walk for a long time into the bush along a narrow, dusty trail, until we reach the first straw hut. No stone or cement buildings anywhere. No cars. Just straw huts in the bush and people walking barefooted everywhere. A few children are not in school. Their parents haven’t paid what it takes to get a uniform and shoes, about 3 dollars.
Women sweep, carry babies and water, they make fires for cooking and haul water. The village is lucky. A Japanese NGO built a water pump, solar powered, that brings water to the surface and stores it in giant tanks. They come to fill a container and carry it back on their heads. I can barely lift one of the containers with my hand, let alone carry it on my head. We meet a young girl with two little siblings. She carries a 40 L container on her head and a 15 L jug in her hand. The maybe 5 year old carries a large container too and even the toddler, maybe 2 or 3, has a jug on his head. We offer some help and carry the containers part of the way. They are on the way to their grandfather’s house, they explain, to bring him water. But the toddler doesn’t want help. He wants to do it all by himself.
Janice shows us inside the yards of some huts. A woman hangs laundry, scrubs in a tub. Another makes a fire to cook maize. Chickens have wire and branch houses and laying nests. We visit the pub, where Kees bravely tastes the local brown beer, a foul looking muddy drink. The homes are either straw or mud huts. The mud huts have a frame of branches with chicken wire stretched between. The wire is filled up with rocks and then plastered with mud. The houses have the odd wooden bench but mostly people sit and sleep on the mud floor.
I have seldom, if ever, seen such poverty.
One house has a bathroom: outside in the yard are three ‘walls’ of tall grass sheafs and a piece of metal as a door. Inside a wooden bench where you can place a bowl to wash yourself.
We chat with the village head man who lounges in an old lawn chair and makes wicker baskets for a living. His daughter looks after him, cleaning and cooking and caring for house and livestock. She shows us a game: indentations in the dirt with beans that need to be picked up and moved. I show her how we play hop-scotch and marbles. We laugh and laugh.
|The local store|
There is one tiny village store, where a young mother sells tomatoes, okra and eggs. This store makes me think of the ones I see on KIVA where we make loans to people who struggle, just like this.
Cattle take a break from grazing in the shade of some trees. Everything is dry and dusty, yet a lot of trees are suddenly sprouting new, green leaves. “These trees sense that the rains are coming,” we are told. “When you see these new leaves, you know that it will rain in a few weeks.” Just like the cicadas who start chirping 4 weeks before the rain...
But the rain also brings food. Open areas in the bush have been burned in preparation for the planting of corn. They will plant corn soon. It will provide flour, the basic staple for the coming year. But elephants are a huge threat. They will be attracted by the fresh green plants and don;t know that they destroy the people’s annual crop when they trample and munch the corn stalks. How do you solve such a problem? The elephants are protected and can’t be shot. But how do the people protect their life line? It is a baffling problem that many villages here face.