I have not written here for a while. The last time I wrote, I mentioned my new adult literacy class in Bwaise, a slum in Uganda’s capital Kampala. I have been spending 3-4 hours a week with them since I started. This is my third week and I am beginning to get the hang of things. I don’t feel as overwhelmed as I did, starting out. Questions like “Am I enough for them?”, “Will I give them what they need?” have been replaced with a resolve to give them the best that I can and know that that is good enough, that it created enough change in their lives. So much happens in every session so instead of trying to recap all of them, I will write about the last two.
They are an amazing group and they break and mend my heart every day. Yesterday Halima asked me to show her how to write her name. I had noticed that on the sheet that went around on the first day, she wrote it as “HALIA” and because she is in my section of those that never went to school at all, I was having her learn the alphabet first. She is a mother of three (a 4 year-old. 2 year-old and a 3 month-old). On Mondays, she goes to a meeting with a savings and credit group she is a part of so I usually wait for her because I don’t want her to miss either the meeting or the learning session. We conversationally talked about her 3 month-old baby who I asked after and she got comfortable enough to show me the name she had written in the palm of her hand on the way to the meeting. She asked if she had got the spelling right. Halima has been writing her name (she writes just one because she can’t write the other) in her hand so when the time comes to register, she copies what she has in her palm. I thought of the number of times I had written my own name, without thinking how I even ever learned to do that and how I knew that “Rebecca” was not different from “REBECCA”. In the moment that I showed her how to write her name and explained the difference between capital and small letters, she taught me to remember that little things, the ones we did not think about, are the ingredients of the bigger things.
Paskazia, 27, is perhaps one of my favourites. She insists on kneeling while she greets me and when she says bye after the sessions. She is very soft-spoken, is from a family of 8 and says she did not get a chance to go to school because there was no money. She won my heart- again- when on Thursday, she offered her book (she always carries an extra one) to a new member of the session. I heard a small voice say, in Luganda, “I can give her mine to use now and when she comes for the next class, she will have bought her own.” The support!
The new member then was Saniya. She is 47 years-old and sells produce in the market. She joined us rather dramatically. She peeped into the room we use and asked, in Luganda, “Is this where they are teaching women to speak English?” I looked up from Allen’s exercise that I was looking over. She continued addressing Olivia, another of the women in the group, about how she wanted to join too. She completely ignored me and I realised that it must have been that I looked young, that I looked more like student than teacher. As she waited for me to finish what I was doing, she kept going on and on to the other women about how she was done with not being able to write out money in words. I had gone to the bank earlier last month and I had sat at an extra chair in the Customer Service corner and helped some women fill out their withdrawal slips. I had not thought about the frustration they might have felt. I had just instinctively gone to their aid because the lines were long and it seemed easy to help since I was not exactly rushing out of the bank to go anywhere important. I had been visiting my family in Mubende and I was taking all the rest I could get. It was when Saniya talked about it that I remembered and realised what it must have felt like to wait in line for someone to help them fill out the withdrawal slips.
It has not been completely easy. The children get sick. There have been a couple of funerals to attend and several other family emergencies. But the dedication! My oh my! Allen yesterday came without her homework done. She said she had just come back from burying her grandmother. She comes with her son Amon sometimes because she has nowhere else to put him for that one hour.
There are hardly quick results but I celebrate every victory. They are writing less in vernacular in their compositions, Paskazia remembers some words when we read them and the spelling exercises are going much, much better. Every word they get right is a reward. Sometimes result is writing out a name, other times it is helping with letter writing when they need to make a claim and need reassurance on the letter they have written.
So yes, I might not be able to give them everything they need but I can give them some of what I have. It is not enough to write for them, even when that is good. It is much better to teach them to write it so that they will not need any more help. These women have an agency that hits me so hard sometimes, I stumble from the power they wield. They know exactly what they want and they are setting aside time in their busy schedules to let a young girl help them get it. These women are kind of my she-roes.