Monday, 31 October 2011

Letter from Nola, April 2010

17th April 2010

For those who haven’t heard on the grapevine, I’d like to reassure you that I’m very happy and contented here!
I spent the first few days at the home of the bishop, his wife and daughter in Bulawayo, where I received a very warm welcome. On Tuesday 9th March they drove me to St James’ Mission, in the bush, 50 miles from Bulawayo, along, mainly, a single track Tarred road with wide, hard, sandy verges for passing, and with many pot-holes. The final stretch is a single sandy track with deep ruts and pond-like puddles. (A normal saloon car would last very few journeys on this route!)
I received another great welcome from the rector of the community, Father Amon (?) and his wife, Violet, and later from Father Albert, ordained and also deputy head of the Girls High School, and his wife, Grace. These two couples, especially Violet and Grace, give me great support and friendship.
St James’ Mission consists of a Girls Boarding School, with 580 pupils; a Primary School with 230 children; a clinic; an incomplete sports stadium; and a large, plain, but very peaceful church. Dotted around the large site, amongst many trees, are simple bungalows and thatched round houses, the homes of teaching and non-teaching staff. The many young High School teachers tend to go home to the city at weekends, but those with families stay and some have gardens where they grow maize and vegetables for their own use. There are always many free range hens, sometimes with flocks of chicks, running around! Violet keeps three or four pigs, and raised broilers, recently slaughtered, to augment the family income.
There is a team of manual workers, whose main job seems to be slashing the grass, a feature of the bush, which grows rapidly in the sandy soil and would soon take over.
The boarding school pupils come mainly from Bulawayo and Victoria Falls (also a town!), 300 miles north. Fees are £200 per term and there are some scholarships. They are delightful girls – so polite and yet full of fun. Their buildings are simple, single-storey blocks of dormitories and classrooms. The first morning I was wakened at 4.45 am by a distant clanging sound – it was the girls’ wake-up call! They do all the cleaning of the school and church, tend the outside areas and, on Saturdays, They do their own laundry (hand-washing, of course), including their attractive pale orangey/tan dresses with cream facings round the sleeves and square necklines.
Sport is very important and often teams are taken to inter-schools events in the community’s lorry, closed in with high small windows. The passengers sit on benches around the sides – no Health & Safety regulations to worry about, and perhaps more fun for the young people than a luxury coach! The Mothers’ Union also used this vehicle to attend a special all-day event recently. I travelled in style, in the cab squashed with the driver, Violet and Grace (neither slight ladies!)
The primary school should have seven classes, but grades 2 & 3 have had to be amalgamated, as a teacher transferred to the High School and the authorities refuse to replace him – hence the pleasure in my arrival (hope they’re not disappointed!!). There are over 30 in each class; 50+ in the aforementioned, which is taught by Margaret, aged 67, who is the wife of the Dean of the Cathedral, but lives in rooms by the girls’ dorms during the week. The head teacher, Simangalisa, and all her staff are very friendly and work hard in very difficult circumstances – poor buildings, no electricity, no equipment and few books; blackboard and chalk are the only teaching tools. Despite these inadequacies most of the children can read English well, are excellent spellers and do beautiful handwriting. I believe that the mathematics I see on the blackboards is of a higher level than that in the UK.
Some of the primary pupils are the children of the staff of the community but most are very poor, from five outlying villages, which I have yet to see. Some walk long distances. They all receive a nourishing meal at the end of the school day, around 1pm, cooked in a shed over open fires, in two huge cauldrons, by a rota of two mothers each day, from the villages. The menu is the same each day – beans cooked with oil and the staple food sadza, loved by all (including the bishop) which is a stiff porridge, made from maize meal. Money to provide the food is supplied by the Friends of St James (based in England, I think). Sometimes I choose to teach outside, under a tree. At first it was amazing to see the mothers arrive to prepare the meal, carrying long branches of firewood on their heads. One day a basket of melon-like fruits/vegetables was carried to augment the diet, I presume.
I teach English in grades 4-7 (9-13 years) every morning. I’ll not go into the challenge of teaching from wordy comprehension books, and no copies for pupils! English is very much a second language, and as the children are reluctant to speak so far, it’s hard to determine how much they understand, especially as their life experiences are very limited and none has access to TV or books. But, they are absolutely delightful and perfectly behaved! At first they dissolved into gales of laughter as I tried to pronounce their Ndeble names. I love the other names such as Precious, Blessed and Rejoice! I am on a month’s holiday at present, and hope to plan at least some first-hand experiences on which to base the English work.
On three afternoons I take a few English lessons in the High School. The Form 1 classes are reading very ancient abridged versions of Oliver Twist, three girls sharing each book – yet they can very eloquently recap and discuss the chapters. A great treat in another class was when I showed a very colourful brochure of N Ireland – the girls were amazed by the sights. Another day I brought in the many beautiful Bon Voyage cards which decorate my home. Again they were very interested and impressed!
I love my home – a thatched round house (24’ diameter); half is the living room, and the other two quarters are a bedroom and a spare room. Attached is a rectangular extension – a laundry room with large stone sink, a WC, simple shower room and a kitchen with double sink, dresser and a 2-ring electric hob. I am very comfortable and I just love the peace and quiet. I am near enough other homes not to feel isolated and yet far enough to feel private. Like all other residents I have to accept cheerfully the frequent, often prolonged, power cuts, which also affect the supply of water and phone lines. When the High School is open and there’s a power cut a generator is switched on from 6pm -9pm, but not in the holidays (too expensive). During the 5 day power cut over Easter I was supplied with hot meals, flasks of hot water for tea making and extra containers of water. I quite enjoyed reading by candle-light. I intend to buy a small gas ring soon. I have a fridge-freezer in my spare room!
Worship permeates all of life here. It is an unusual blend of high church rituals (incense etc.) and the most beautiful, exuberant singing of hymns and responses. My first experience was the midweek 7am communion service. The power and beauty of the girls’ singing can only be described as heavenly. The girls read the bible passages and prayers very well in English, and the hymns and responses are mostly in Ndebele.
The Easter services were very special, though the girls were on holiday, but everyone seems to be able to sing and all seem to know the words! On Easter Eve there was a Baptism service at which 20 adults and children were baptised in the outdoor font by candle-light (power cut) while lightning flashed and thunder rolled (rain came later). Before this there was a Communion service in the candle-lit church, and afterwards a time of celebration. A few people stayed in the church all night. Before dawn, at 5.30am, we met again around a bonfire, before going into the church to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord at day-break.
Communication with the outside world is through e-mail, accessed at a small internet centre in Bulawayo. Often there’s the time pressure of catching transport back home and, recently, when I had plenty of time, there was a city power cut! It is good to read e-mails and to reply to some, but in the long term I think good, old-fashioned letters will be best. I have an unpredictable land-line, from which I actually managed to ring Pauline in N Ireland. I was amazed! Mobiles aren’t much use out here, and there’s seldom time in the city to fiddle about trying to send texts!!
Transport, by the way, usually entails sitting on a foam mattress on the floor of the goods part of one of the sturdy (closed in, with windows) pick-up trucks of the community... one way of having an all-over massage, as we bump along! I’m impressed that everyone is always so good-humoured. (Don’t seem to be any moaners here!!)
Highlights so far:
A hike with Violet and Grace to an impressive metal suspension foot-bridge over a river – much scarier and longer than Carrick-a-Rede!
A celebration for 700 Mothers’ Union members, all in their blue/white Diocesan uniforms – a long, lively service, lunch, then a competition – over 20 groups sang or performed sketches before a panel of judges – high standards of performance! (I received a special welcome, had to say a few words – rousing applause!)
On Easter Monday, a surprise birthday party for Fr Albert (38). It was good to help with the preparations – I tried not to appear squeamish, when given a lesson on gutting one of several chickens. (I watched only, and then returned, thankfully, to chopping vegetables!!) It was a great feast.
A three night break at Victoria Falls with Violet and Grace. The magnificence of the falls cannot be described. On our first morning, at a Sunday service, a coincidence (or God-incidence!) a lay-minister, well known to Violet, was there, on business from Bulawayo. He became our chauffeur and guide, throughout our stay, taking us to places we wouldn’t have reached, as well as keeping his appointments. We saw elephants, baboons and other wild-life very close. A sunset cruise on the Zambezi was a perfect end to our trip.
How un-British, I nearly forgot to mention the weather! I love being warm all the time, though just this week I notice a slight nip in the early morning and in the evening. Temperatures have been in the 20s and 30s and it will still be this hot during the day. As my home and the classrooms are cool, I am able to cope very well. We have had some very dramatic thunder storms, but soon after the sun shines, peace is restored, and the foods disappear into the sand.
With the help of the primary school children I’ve learned a few of the Ndebele greetings and Fr Amon has just lent me a book “Lessons in Ndebele” by an English couple, published in 1972 – so boredom will not be a problem!
I am very grateful to everyone who is thinking of me and praying for me.
With love and prayers,

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