Monday, 31 October 2011

Letter from Nola, November 2010

As over two and a half months have elapsed since my last epistle, I think it is time to update you on my life here in ‘the bush’. Again, this will be a photocopied letter with a personal P.S, due to lack of time and energy to write very long, individual letters! Well, the main news is that I’m still very happy, contented and busy here! Time is flying by, so much so that I wish I could slow it down!
A while ago, I decided to extend my stay, from departure on 5th October to 26th of November, which is near the end of the school year here. I had to take off two or three Fridays (short school days) to sort this out at the only (very posh) travel agent I could find, which is closed on Saturdays. Now I’ll be very British and begin with the weather! Having been warm all the time for a couple of months or more, the weather changed, quite suddenly, in mid may, becoming very chilly around 5.30 pm until about 10 am the next day when the sun is hot again and the sky its usual glorious sapphire blue. These huge temperature differences present clothing problems. I contacted Cindy, friend and custodian of 9 Richmond Gardens to send me a few items I couldn’t get here. It was lovely to receive them last weekend – they’d been en route for about a month. However, I was able to keep warm with layers of clothes; I had here a few items I had bought. In the early evening one lot of layers is topped with a warm market bought tracksuit in dark green, with Blue Shark embroidered on it across the front. My bedroom is always quite warm, as the sun streams in during the afternoon and most importantly, my bed is very cosy. For school, different layers are topped with a market bought beige corded fur lined jacket (20). Until I received my sensible winter shoes from Cindy I’ve been wearing a pair of openwork summer shoes and – don’t be jealous – a pair of black plimsolls with pink floral wide decoration around the openings – bought here of course. I needed them for walking on the sandy tracks around here. With all this attire plus a pair of navy warm gloves, brought by someone from South Africa with others to be sold at a small profit I really am a sight to behold! Continuing about the weather, everyone has warned me that it’s very windy in July, and part of August. Indeed today and yesterday it was very breezy and dull. My colleagues have warned me also, that it will be blisteringly hot in October and that sounds appealing at the moment. Sorry, the weather report was too long!
Going right back to the Easter holidays, towards the end I spent a very enjoyable week at the bishops house just using it as a very pleasant base and doing my own thing during the day. It was lovely to have time to browse and to get to know the city better. I bought several items for my cottage including curtain material for the sitting room windows; there were old curtains on them! I’m quite proud of my hand sewn efforts. Bishop Cleopas and his wife Soreni, daughter Alison (13) and son Brian (early 20’s) lived in England for 6 years before they returned to Bulawayo, when Cleopas agreed to accept this position. Brian remained in university in the UK. This was a great sacrifice as he had been just offered a parish in Coventry and also the opportunity to undertake study for a Masters degree. He’s very dynamic and works extremely hard, as does his wife, a great support to him in her role as the president of the Mothers Union in Matabeleland. I may have written before that the MU is a hope, very important organisation here and in other African countries, I believe. During that week I attended the weekly communion service, one morning in the tiny chapel at the former rectory headquarters of the MU. There were just five of us – the bishop, Sonemi, two staff members of the HQ and myself. It was very special, and even then, with so few the singing was powerful. In contrast, I went with Sonemi to a monthly afternoon service / meeting in a church, for all the MU branches in the area – there were over 400 women of all ages all in their blue and white uniforms. As well as worship there was a meeting and then a speech from the diocese office, his theme was on ‘giving’. At the end I was surprised to hear members asking him several, very searching challenging questions. Afterwards there was tea in the hall so like MU teas everywhere – sandwiches, buns, plenty of hot tea… but no tray bakes, as in Northern Ireland! Their son Brian was with the family for a short break and was concerned, as many of you have been, about the volcanic ash disrupting his travel plans. I treated the family to a meal one evening in the Bsbaways club – a very grand building from colonial years, with many spacious lounges, much silver and other grandeur. Though the menu was short, the food was excellent...  and very reasonable. I was surprised that such a place exists nowadays, in Bikeways. There are quite a few fast food cafes as well as family restaurants. I often treat myself to breakfast in Munadi (mans delicious). It is a very cheerful restaurant with colourful décor and bright young staff members.
The days of sitting on the floor of the back of the closed in windows pickup truck may be over, as the community took delivery of an 18 year old Landover station wagon, after Easter. It was sent with a smaller 9 year old Landrover for the bishop by the friends of St James in England. The former is supposed to seat about ten. There are often more squeezed in and on the return trip many with shopping bags and other items. It never ceases to amaze me just how many people and stuff can be pressed into a vehicle. For return journeys we are asked to be at the cathedral for 4 pm but never leave the city until at least an hour after. There always seems to be things to be bought, people to visit etc. so all the passengers go on these additional trips as well. Like everyone else, I just have to be patient. Invariably we arrive back after sunset so I have seen some fabulous skies on the return journey. We always look first as we approach the gates to see if there’s electricity. It is a bit miserable to arrive back when it’s dark and cold- before the pioneer spirit arrives and candles are lit and water boiled on the gas ring, often by the light of the headlight that Ken Worthley gave me which is great! We had a whole month earlier, without power cuts but during that time, we had three days without water due to a failing pump and then a burst pipe. We all keep various containers filled with water at all times, but I find I have to be very economical. However if I need extra water I can get it from grace who has very large containers. I have a lovely photo of three of the grade 6 girls, balancing buckets of water on their heads which they carried without spilling a drop, along that rough track. I could write a chapter on the skill and ease of the women and girls carrying so many different, heavy items on their heads. One day I met a little group of pre school pupils making their way from their building to the primary school and one little girl had her bag on her head! On the theme of carrying, I’ve never seen only two push chairs since I arrived in Zimbabwe, as all babies and young children are carried on their mothers backs – again it all looks so effortless and babies seem to be very secure and happy... never see any crying! One day when Karen, Violet’s 3 year old, was out of sorts, Grace tied her on her back, and she was contented, as Grace walked about with her on her back.

I am enjoying the teaching immensely, using the best books available to plan (I hope) interesting lessons. I’m finding that lots of sketches on the board and dramatising stories are helping understanding. It’s still a problem to know just how much is understood, as the pupils read well but may not comprehend the meaning. Sometimes when I’ve practically stood on my head and they seem to have got it, a few days later show that they haven’t got it. But that’s the joy of teaching, wherever you are! I’ve introduced visits within the community so that we have first experiences to talk and write about. Four classes have been to the clinic and three staff members there were delighted to receive thank you cards and letters from the children. The male nursing assistant is so glad that he is going to write back and thank the children for the cards!
I have a full programme. Monday to Friday 8 – 9 I take the grade 3 class (8years) for English in a disused chapel. This gives Margaret (67) a break, as she teaches a double class – grades 2 and 3 – due to a teacher leaving and not being replaced. Then from 9 – 1 I take 3 classes (grade 4 – 7) for English – all aspects. There’s a break from 10 to 10:30 and sometimes I have 11 to 12 for marking. In the afternoons there is always preparation to do and at the weekends, the plan for the following week. The staff colleagues are very encouraging and I feel that I’m an established member of the team. I’ve been asked to lead a staff meeting I just showed what I do with the classes and bits and pieces I’ve made for the slower learners. This week it’s my turn to take the assembly on Monday and Friday. The teachers were delighted when the grade 3 class sang a chorus with actions that we hope to teach the whole school. The pupils do know a lot of choruses in English an Ndebele, which they learn at the Sunday school here and also at Pentecostal gatherings in their villages, apparently. The population is over 90% Christian and like Northern Ireland, many people attend the many churches. My only problem now, is that I have no more choruses up my sleeve. I’ll have to send an SOS to Ballymore! Also I asked for a few more singing games for small children, as I take the grade 1’s for 2 half an hour sessions outside with Janet, their teacher. So far I’ve taught ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’, ‘Hokey Cokey’, ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts in May’ and believe it or not ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’!
The pupils continue to be a pleasure to teach and they now respect me as a “normal” teacher (I think!!)They no longer laugh at my attempts to pronounce some of the long Ndebele names… but I am getting there. The pre-school children still find me hilarious in appearance. When I meet them they can’t understand why I can’t properly reply to their chatter. They are so cute. As they were calling me by a word which in their language means ‘white person’, Margaret the pre-school teacher has instilled into them that they must call me by my name. So now I’m greeted as Miss Nixon. Many times over, but still there are looks of bewilderment that I still can’t respond correctly!
After the aforementioned staff meeting, as I walked home and thought about a remark Stanley (deputy head) had made about it being a pity that I hadn’t more time to teach reading, I decided that I should concentrate my efforts on the primary school as though I enjoyed teaching in the high school; my sessions were really an added extra. The head of this school understood and my colleagues are pleased. As the finale with the form 2 high school girls they prepared short talks on life in their unique boarding school and I brought groups of our grade 7 girls to be the audiences. It was fascinating to listen to such themes as toilet cleaning duty and owls in the classroom roof space these appear through the broken ceiling during their prep time, 7pm till 8 30.
The practical skills and acceptance of normal tasks of the primary pupils even the youngest are amazing. First each morning all rooms are hives of activity as floors are brushed using grass brooms which they make and bring in. you can imagine just how much sand is carried in on feet. A few weeks ago when they were desperate for football practise to begin and the man had not come to slash the grass in the field they suggested bringing in slasher form home and for several afternoons girls and boys cut the grass using these long carved metal implements rather like thin hockey sticks. As an interschool sports day is immanent the older children were asked to bring in very wide strong hoes from home and spent a busy few hours digging up plants and plant remains left behind when the man had taken off the surface of the field where netball will be played. The young male teacher Gabriel and some children mixed ash and water to use for the workings of the pitches the work ethic is alive and well at St. James’!!!
On my way to and from school I may meet some of the manual workers who all know me and use the standard greeting: good morning, how are you? To which I must reply fine thank you how are you? From grade 1 the children are taught this and when a visitor enters a class room all rise and chant it. Continuing my walk I may see mothers some with babies on their backs slashing grass in lieu of preparing school food. They are always well dressed cheerful and ready for a chat! On my way home I may meet a scotch cart drawn always by four donkeys in which may be one or more people on their way from a village to the clinic. There is a nurse in charge there assisted by an Anglican nun sister Kathryn and peter a resident in the community. The can deal with all straight forward medical problems. Serious cases are referred to one of the two small hospitals some miles away from where an ambulance would come if needed. There are some beds in cubicles in the clinics but these are only for day use.
You may remember that I mentioned Violet and Father Albert who was in charge here and both were very kind and supportive during my first weeks. They were moved to a parish in Bulawayo at the beginning of May. I was sorry to see them go but we do keep in touch and I’m looking forward to spending this weekend with them. They have Karen already mentioned, two primary school boys and a son at boarding school. I am still being very well supported but Grace and Father Albert who is now in charge as well as being department head of the high school. Another friend who was moved suddenly was one of the fine Anglican sisters Constance with whom I got on very well. She is great “craic” and a mine of interesting information on Zimbabwean life and customs. We keep in touch by phone and perhaps I’ll have a chance to visit her though she is a long way from here now. There are three remaining sisters. Katherine, Justine and a young woman Joylyn who works in the high school library. They live in a very pleasant oasis by the high school. Rooms are built around a small court which has a large tree in the middle giving shade to the whole complex. They have also their own small chapel as well as feeling free to drop in with grace and father Albert I also know I’m very welcome to call with the sisters, enjoy the comfort of their sitting room and , of course, as always a cup of tea.
You can imagine the social life here isn’t vibrant. Apart from Grace and Violet when she was here people don’t entertain, even for light refreshments. I think the reasons are that everyone is very hard up, salaries are very meagre. I find that food costs about the same as in the UK. And the other reason maybe that the homes are very simple so there is no spare crockery etc.
For my birthday and slao Margaret’s (she was 67 on 8th May) I decided to have a tea party. To which I invited the primary school staff, Grace (Father Albert was away). I managed to buy a fairly large cake, a selection of homemade type buisits and I made sandwiches of course! They all enjoyed it so much, some saying later that they never go into each other’s homes and another said we can’t do that because we haven’t got the things. I must repeat this occasion again soon with the recipes you sent Helen! The whole school sang to me and also the congregation included happy birthday. I’ve had one dinner party, a posh name for a simple chicken meal cooked on my two electric plates for father A and Violet (before they left) and grace and father Albert, various couples, individuals and a lively group of teachers have been for coffee etc and chat.
An enjoyable baby shower party was held a few weeks ago to which the women of the community were invited. First there was a welcoming service at the church at 5 pm. The parents and grace holding Lennorah the baby girl knelt at the door of the church for prayers and repeated responses before moving to the alter for more prayers. And then taking their seats in the pews. The hall in Ndebele seemed a very moving service the party was the 7pm in the home of Stanley the dep head and his lovely wife Margaret. The baby’s granny is Lennorah, a teacher for years at the high school. Her son the child’s father also teaches there. There was lively music and dancing and letting down hair. A delicious buffet and the most extravert of the high school teachers opened the pile of baby presents with many jokes, some of which were translated to me by Grace.
The baby’s mother seemed a very quiet girl. Over awed no doubt by these exceptionally lively young Sec. teachers. We walked home under the unbelievably beautiful African starry skies at 11 pm, very late here. Fortunately, the next day was a public holiday – Africa day- so I could have a lie in.
I continue to be enthralled by the singing at our services on Wednesday and Sunday. The Ndebele sung responses interlace with the familiar Anglican liturgy are very beautiful and rousing. One of the highlights is the Nicene creed after every short phrase sung by the girls the congregation sings in Ndebele we believe, and they really sound as if they do!
Another lovely part is the peace, sometimes in English hands held across the rows. Slight swaying and in second verse hands raised. Very reverent and affirming. Before reading the psalm a response is given (a verse from that psalm) and repeated twice before eth reading commences then the reader pauses three of four times an says “response” and the congregation repeats the given verse, not sure if this makes sense as I describe it. I find that these customs ensure that the congregation is actively involved all the time. I joined a very special trip to a recently reopened church a few very rocky miles from here. The route reminded me of those Landrover adverts crossing impossible terrain. We were warmly welcomed by a waiting group from the small settlements we had passed. The church is tiny, sand walls and thatched roof. Inside were two benches and a low school type table on which a white cloth was placed and a white St. James communion sieber was used. About twenty to thirty people of all ages came and sat on the floor at the side front, all knew the words and sang powerfully. I found the experience very moving. At the end I was welcomed all in Ndebele but when they looked at me, smiled and applauded I knew to rise and acknowledge their welcome. Apparently the church as founded by an English minister who is now back in the UK.
This really will be the last sheet (thank goodness you may say!)
Some of you know that I was scared I may encounter mice or even worse, rats in my home, so I came armed with mouse traps and poison from Walter’s shop in Tandragee. Early on I was assured that as I have no ceiling and no roof space I’d be okay, as long as I keep doors and windows closed, to keep out snakes also. I’ve passed the poison to Stanley and Margaret, who were troubled by rats stampeding in their roof space at night… ugh. There are many varieties of snakes here, apparently but they usually stay away from humans. There was an Australian teacher here years ago who collected live snakes and kept them in his home. He used to pay children to bring him specimens (presumably the harmless type) and he often had small snakes in his pockets, which he would take out in the middle of class to show the children. I’m so glad he’s not here anymore!
In one week I heard about/saw some unpleasant creatures – the head teacher in the primary school Simangaliso said that she would have to visit her brother because he’d been bitten on the hand by a snake – serious at first but fine in the end. As she told me this, outside her modest office, a rat ran into it pursued by some children, but it escaped. Then Dado, my lovely cleaning lady didn’t come one day; her only goat had been taken by a leopard. Again, these animals are there but no one ever seems to see them. A day or two later I read in the newspaper that an elephant had been rampaging in the suburbs of the city, and sadly had killed someone in a car. Since hearing/seeing these wild life details all has been quiet. Apparently soon, monkeys will start to come into the St James’ area, when all the maize has been harvested, seeking food. Sometimes en route to town we see a few scampering across the road, and we see the odd kudu and impala.
Well, as I sit here at 5pm it is getting cooler, and darkness isn’t too far away. The girls are shouting and laughing on the sports field nearby. My home is in the ideal position as I am on the main track from St James and the high school is quite near, so I hear all the liveliness of the girls at various times of the day and evening.
To close – I know I write far too much but I just can’t be succinct. When I start I feel like I’m having a conversation. I haven’t mentioned email, which can be a slow and frustrating process, but the men in the centre I use are very friendly and helpful. I can only manage to keep in touch with Pauline and Anne and perhaps one or two others occasionally.
I am very grateful to God everyday that I feel so well and have plenty of energy, and I am so grateful and honoured that so many people in Ireland and England are praying for me regularly.
Thank you all for your interest, thoughts and prayers.
With love and prayers,

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