Mama Africa

As a rule I stay away from local news, in particular the trite that fills TV news in the United States, or Britain, or Portugal. The Mrs. Jones’ cat stories are opium in a world stuffed with madmen, and the first rule of fighting is to know the enemy.

So, despite the depressive nature of the whole affair, it’s important to be aware that Russia is launching cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea, and that German neo-nazis are marching in Dresden, calling Merkel Mother Terrorista—in German, Teresa and terrorist sound remarkably alike.

By the time I’m done with the Washington Post, El Pais, The Guardian, and the South China Morning Post, I have a fair perspective of how the world is turning.

I dip into Haaretz for the headlines, or The Times of India. Some papers let you read their articles, some only the titles—I don’t care. There’s enough to work on, and if you buy a newspaper you feel guilty if you don’t read it from end to end.

And I stray into Africa, where the local news stories regularly reveal the tragedy of everyday life. In fact, in African papers, the local news is often more shocking to me than events in the wider world.

The Ugandan Observer is one of my regular sources, and this week led me to the discovery of the boda-boda. My spellchecker doesn’t know what it is, but the internet did.

This seems to be too upmarket for my definition of boda-boda, but it's an exercise to count the passengers.

This is too upmarket for my definition of boda-boda; it looks more like multi-pillion, but I enjoyed counting the passengers.

It can be either a bike or a driver, but it always involves a two-wheeled vehicle—the genuine article is a bicycle, modified to hold a flat wooden seat at the rear—often a woman and child will ride on it sidesaddle.

The name itself fascinates me: it stems from the word border, because the bikes were originally used to ferry passengers across the Kenya-Uganda border at Busia, where no-man’s land is half a mile wide.

Why bikes? To avoid all the red tape of dealing with frontier crossings of motorized vehicles. Having done a few land crossings in Africa, including the border between South Africa and Mozambique, I can assure you I see the point.

So boda-boda, a mainstay of modern Ugandan travel. But what caught my attention was the story of a woman, a schoolteacher in Arua district.

This lady is called Milika Ederu, and teaches at the Ringili primary school. The unusual aspect of Ms. Ederu’s professional situation is that she sleeps in the staff room.

This is compounded by the fact that the staff room possesses neither a bathroom nor a latrine. Neither does it have a kitchen.  The teacher explains she is forced to share with the pupils, a practice she finds most uncomfortable.

Ringili primary school, in the Arua district of Uganda.

Ringili primary school, in the Arua district of Uganda. The words a rua mean the street in Portuguese, an inescapable irony.

The head teacher explains that the school was built fifty-seven years ago, and when the block developed cracks the parents were ‘forced to remove its roof.’ As if that isn’t astounding enough, the school has remained roofless since—on the one hand that prevents a terrible accident, on the other there is abundant rain in Uganda.

I wanted to tell you just how much it rains in Arua, but the first promising link I clicked (arua.go.ug) returns a stark message: Account suspended.

That got me thinking, because I suspected .go would be the prefix for government. I was right, and soon I found the Uganda Revenue Authority was also offline. Thankfully, the government site itself (State House) is up and running, and if the pictures are anything to go by, the roof looks sound.

Arua district gets an average 1250 mm of rain per year, or about fifty inches—London gets only half that, New York about eighty percent (two-thirds as snow).

So, yes, the kids get wet. Apparently they also get pregnant. Presumably not the ones in primary school, but the head teacher explains she receives three to four cases of early (sic) pregnancies every year for girls aged 13 to 14.

I can’t help recalling my question to novelist Jade Lee when I was promoting The India Road. I asked her to comment on the fact that much of the sex in the periods depicted in these novels (certainly including the Tudors) involved very young girls, whereas the novels bumped them up to matronly age. She shrugged it off and explained she had teenage girls of her own.

So do the good people of Arua district. In the words of the headmistress:

“A girl can go to dance on a Friday and remains with the ‘boyfriend’ until Monday,” she says. “When we call for meetings, parents say they are defeated. Maybe those video halls should be removed.”

Now that sounds downright bizarre. Dance? Video halls?  Visions engulfed me of the amusement arcades of the 1970s and 80s, pool tables and large video game machines with pedals and steering wheels.

Turns out video halls are shacks (but the one I saw had a roof) where movies are shown. One self-righteous Dutch guy from the UIFF says “An important youth culture is developing inside the video halls. That should be stimulated, and just added with some more depth to the films they watch.”

I’m guessing there’s already enough stimulation, don’t get me started on depth.

It was toward the end of the article that I read “Most residents were concerned that some of the teachers were too poor and had resorted to riding boda bodas to survive instead of teaching.”

Having wondered about the dances, pregnancies, and video halls, I now had boda-boda in my sights. Who were these bodacious creatures, and why were the teachers riding them?

Ederu’s prospective solution is the renovation of a grass-thatched hut, a hundred yards from the school. This home improvement project awaits PTA funding, and everyone knows who funds PTA.

I suppose the naive question from the West would be how much does Ederu get paid—clearly not enough  to rent a room.

“Staff houses and desks for pupils have become a luxury in our district,” said Wilfred Saka, the district social services chairperson. But the state house website promotes direct foreign investment into luxury resorts on Lake Victoria, among many other top of the line projects for air travel, mining, and agribusiness.

Poor Mama Africa.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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