MARK FRANKLAND

I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

FINDING HEARTBREAK IN THE PRICE OF A BAG OF POSHO.


Life can certainly take you into some pretty unexpected situations. Those moments when you stop for a moment and think how on earth have I ended up here? Over the years I have often had this feeling in a variety of schools. In the months after I released my book 'The Drums of Anfield', I wound up talking about the story in a few high schools in the depths of Liverpool 8 where the classrooms had a distinctly Wild West feel. Then there have been any number of scowling Scottish S4 pupils looking like they would rather have their teeth pulled out with rusty pliers rather than be forced to listen to yet another drug awareness talk. That said, I have yet to find a Scottish classroom with quite the same Wild West feel as those classrooms in deepest, darkest Liverpool.


And there was me thinking being in front of these various audiences was in any way out of the ordinary. After yesterday, any further time I spend in front of a Scottish class will seem beyond mundane.


After fifty six years of life, yesterday brought me my greatest 'how on earth did I wind up standing here' moment yet. What started with listening to a BBC World Service podcast about the young people of Uganda a few short months ago had suddenly turned into Carol and I being invited to talk to 200 Ugandan schoolgirls about sanitary ware.


Yeah. Seriously!


Yesterday was a day when an aspiration became a reality. On paper, the fact that most Ugandan school girls have to miss up to 20% of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware seemed like a problem we might be able to do something about. Up until yesterday afternoon, it was very much a paper exercise. Making bookings and contacts and arrangements. Getting ducks in a row.


And finally it was time for the living breathing reality. A rendezvous with Ambrose outside the Stanbic Bank. A ride through the bouncing light and noise of downtown Kabale. 25 km of green hills and banana trees and roadside cows and bicycles carrying loads to beggar belief.


A precipitous dive off the tarmac and onto the dusty track to the place where the Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School nestles under a clutch of steep green hills.


Ambrose signed us in with the gateboy whilst faces peered out from the open windows. Long low buildings with tin roofs. A crop of beans. Well worn mud pathways.


The Reverand Benon was waiting for us outside his office with a wide grin and a bone crunching hand shake at the ready.


We spent an hour with him in his office as a courier from Kampala brought in sealed O level papers for him to sign for. Outside the noise of lunch hour came and went as he introduced us to the almost overwhelming challenges the school is doing its best to deal with.


Primary education out here is free. Secondary school is to be paid for and it is had to imagine how tough it must be for parents to find the means to educate their kids. As a rural school far from the capital, fees at KJLM are low when compared to Kampala: £22 a term for day pupils and £44 a term for boarders. I know. Compare and contrast with the likes of Eton and Harow and weep. £22 a term. 50 pence per day or thereabouts. It doesn't sound so bad until you realise most of the families from the surrounding hills are looking to get by on a fiver a day at which point 50p takes on a whole new shape.
The Reverand told us about one female pupil who has neither parents nor home. She sleeps under what shelter she can find and works in one of the quarries for 50p a day. Three days work enables her to pay for 2 days of school.


The most pressing issue for the school at the moment is the sky rocketing price of 'Posho' – maize meal. Every pupil receives lunch as part of the fees their families pay and the school lunch is a vital part of their daily diet. The meal never varies – every day five hundred portions of Posho and beans are served up. The Maize meal is mixed with water, turned into a a porridge and then left to harden. Dried beans are mixed with water and served up as a thick porridge. The maize provides the carbs whilst the beans cover the protein.


A few months ago the school was paying £20 for a 100 kg sack of Posho. Not any more. Many parts of Uganda have been hit by drought and now famine is stalking the land. The price of food has gone through the roof and now a sack of Posho costs £43. The price of a sack of beans has also doubled. Before the drought, it cost the school about 8p per head, per day to feed the kids. Now it costs nearly 20p per head, per day. I don't have the first clue how they are managing to keep on doing what they do. Something tells me the teachers must have had to grit their teeth and take a pretty hefty pay cut.


A meeting in the Head's office in a Scottish high scholl might well come complete with a tray of tea and biscuits. We had the tea but instead of biscuits a freshly cut branch of bananas was plonked down on the desk.


Once lunch was over, the girls who were not sitting their 'O' Level exams were gathered in the hall to hear all about who the two strange visitors were and what we were hoping to do. The assembly hall was a long, low building with a tin roof and a clay floor. Desks were carried in whilst the sun poured through the open windows.


200 pristine uniforms. 200 rapt faces. And when the Reverand announced the news that we were going to provide enough sanitary ware for every girl in the school for a whole year the tin roof was in danger of being lifted clean off by the cheering. I don't think either Carol or I really knew where to put ourselves.


The expression on every face told a story. No more old rags. No more infections. No more getting behind with studies every month.


Not a paper excersise any more. A reality now. An utterly humbling reality.


Volunteers were sought. Would any of the girls be willing to come and talk to us in the Head's office? To tell us about what kind of difference having sanitary pads might make to their lives. When they came, we asked if it was OK to film them so we could use the films to try and raise more money to help more girls in more schools. Each and every one of them said "Yes, it is OK".
Serious faces and immaculate manners and backs as straight as fence posts. Quiet voices. Shy eyes. My parents are very poor.... I live with my grandmother and she has no money for pads.... yes, I have had infections.... yes, I miss school.... two days per month.... four days per month..... one week per month.


They have a word for how it is when their menstrual blood soaks through the rags. They call it 'mapping'. In soft voices they described the humiliation of 'mapping'. Trying to wrap a school jumper around their waists to hide the shame. And those with no school jumper would hide in the classroom until everyone else had left.


And when they promised never to miss a day of school in the future their eyes shone and their serious expressions evaporated into beaming smiles.


Carol found it hard. She found it hard to deal with their wonderful courage. She felt she was being intrusive. Interviewing them one by one. For the camera. For YouTube in the future. Because we live in a world where pictures are everything. A world where we give an average of 30 seconds of our attention to a YouTube offering. Will their soft voices and serious eyes be enough to win over hearts in 30 seconds of YouTube time? We'll see I guess. Christ I hope so.


After a few hours we rolled out through the gates and back onto the road to Kabale.


So much to try and absorb. So much to try and comprehend. Such overwhelming dignity in the face of such a sea of troubles.


Sadness and utter inspiration all rolled into one.


Like I said, life can take you to some pretty unexpected places.







2 comments:

  1. Thank you to the both of you, absolutely inspirational for me but life changing for the young girls you have rescued from shame, hurt and missed opportunities. Thank you x

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