NEAR GULU, UGANDA — As a fretful parent, I constantly worry about pulling my son out of school and bringing him to live in Uganda for the Spring, 2011 semester.
After yesterday, I am fretting a lot less.
Even though his school, Lakeview Middle, is excellent, and the teachers top-notch, the cultural lesson my 13-year old son Alex absorbed yesterday far eclipses anything a student could possibly learn in a classroom.
Alex was uncharacteristically silent as we slowly wheeled our car onto a dusty, shaded compound in northern Uganda, near Gulu. We had come to visit my friend Gloria’s grandmother. Lounging on a woven mat in the shade, Grandma Kerodia (Claudia) greeted us excitedly, and smiled so broadly she almost injured herself. Claudia, thin but otherwise healthy-looking, loves visitors and adores her granddaughter, so this was a big day for her, especially since we were the first munos (white people) to ever visit this place where she was born in 1903. Yes, Claudia is 108 years old. Though she doesn’t speak English, Claudia still managed to carry on a lively discussion with us in Acholi, the local language. She even managed to tease a beaming but temporarily mute Alex about stealing her son’s name (he is also Alex).
During our brief stay at Claudia’s place, I had never seen Alex so quiet, or so intently studying his surroundings, including symmetrical mango trees with dangling, not quite ripe fruit and hollowed-out logs serving as bee hives. Alex politely ate the extra crunchy dried potatoes he was offered by Claudia, even though they were a bit dry for his taste.
As we left a smiling, waving Claudia, we learned a bit more about Claudia’s long life. Her granddaughter Gloria reported that Claudia was an outstanding dancer, something you can still see glimpses of in her thin, lithe form. Gloria said, “As a young and elegant dancer, Claudia was spotted by my grandfather, the late Rwot Okello Ecao, and Claudia became his eighth (!) wife and the youngest and most loved wife. In early 2000, Claudia visited her sons Odoch Walter and Bwomono Robert who live in London. During her stay in the UK, Claudia became ‘an aging star’ where she was always given money for singing and dancing for muni [white people]…She was always surrounded by people who came to look at her beautiful gray hair and take her picture.”
As if meeting someone 95 years your senior wasn’t enough for one day, Alex, his mom and I proceeded down the road to visit the homestead of Gloria’s parents. We were happy to see the entire extended family gathered there—aunts and uncles, siblings, and other miscellaneous friends and neighbors. The women, as always, were striking in their colorful dresses. Gloria’s family was warm, welcoming, and wonderful. The highlight of our visit was a lesson about Acholi life given by Gloria’s effervescent uncle, Lapwony Latim. He is a retired teacher, a fact about which one has no doubt upon hearing his informative, energetic presentation. We went to a large, expertly crafted mud brick, thatched-roof hut for our sociology lesson. Acholi artifacts adorned the walls. Uncle Latim showed us elegant yet functional hand make baskets, bowls, and clay pots and told us stories about how they’re made and used. During this lesson, Alex was transfixed, and again, uncharacteristically quiet. I sensed he had a million questions, but was too shy to ask.
The most important lesson of all that we learned yesterday was the value of family in Acholi society. Both compounds we visited (and others I’ve seen during the last eight months) featured a large clearing ringed by four or five small huts. These are family compounds, and each hut contains a husband and wife (or several wives) and children. Imagine your siblings, parents, and grandparents all having houses on one cul-de-sac, and you get the idea. Living further apart would be unthinkable for the Acholi. There are no nursing homes here, and if there were, Gloria’s family would never think of sending Claudia to such a place.
So, even though Alex isn’t seated next to his classmates at Lakeview Middle School, I am satisfied with the education he’s getting this semester in Uganda. Our overall educational goal for Alex is to produce a smart, compassionate, adaptable, and curious young man. Based on these criteria, yesterday’s lesson in rural Gulu, Uganda was a resounding success.
(Click here for complete photo album of our visit with our new Ugandan relatives).