Universal Signs

Some things in life are givens. We accept that our experiences and perceptions are universally accepted. It is a belief in the norm, the normality of life which is not influenced by experience, culture, gender or age.

A sign universal to all cultures and all ages is the love and nurturing of mothers for their children. From this sign follows the strong cross-cultural acceptance of the Madonna and Mary’s love for Jesus.

But some things we accept as given can change according to circumstances. When I was a child a government initiative to provide universal nourishment to primary school children resulted in the daily delivery of milk to schools. But with no refrigeration or adequate storage facilities the milk would arrive late, become spoiled in the heat and be tipped out. In the seven years of my primary education I can never remember being given the milk to drink. On the other hand, I always took to school and ate a lunch provided by my parents. The spoiled milk and the packed lunch were givens. I had no experience of school feeding.

The situation in refugee schools is very different. Most families are either subsistence farmers or engaged in small-scale trade. In the beginning of the refugee influx there was the large-scale distribution of international aid food especially the World Food Programme (WFP). This food kept the refugees alive until their own market gardens could provide the basic nutrients for themselves and their families.

But now that scheme is being rolled back. In 2006, under government direction the nursery school children were denied food. This did not mean much for those of us who grew up with more than enough food in the house and had no concept of school feeding.

The refugee families, on the other hand, are not so fortunate. The type of food available and in the diet of the refugees is not as portable as the humble sandwich. Each meal is served hot and freshly prepared. Like the milk in my school days, there is no refrigeration so food must be prepared and then eaten in a short time requiring that either the child walks home to eat or the food is provided for the children in situ.

The food provided in the schools is not excessive, but it has drawing power. Children are sent to school by many of the poorest families, not for education they will receive but the food they will eat. The school in some cases provides the most important meal a child will receive that day. There is in some places a mass movement of children to the schools as food is about to be served and away from school as feeding ends.

Now food stocks are low and an estimate of need, based on projected figures and donor reluctance has wound back the feeding programmes. In addition, it was hoped last year that the repatriation programme would have returned tens of thousands of refugees from our district back to their home. However, LRA atrocities made the returns dangerous and then came outbreaks of cholera and then meningitis.

As food becomes short and rations reduced, a policing regime is required to ensure children in primary schools receive the food they need rather than all who need or desire the food. Primary education, a universal right of the child, is within international charters by which the UN is bound. In this way changes can occur to something that we take to be a given, that people will be fed.

Other changes to things that we take for granted can occur because of cultural differences; for instance, the use of indicators when driving a vehicle. We accept that the use of the left or right-hand indicator is a signal to following or oncoming traffic that we desire to move toe vehicle to the left or right in order turn a corner or change lanes.

However, in Uganda an indicator is never used to indicate a change of direction. Here the right-hand indicator means: my vehicle is larger than yours and you are to yield to me by stopping or moving off the road. It is a signal of confidence and authority that gives the signalling vehicle absolute power.

While the right-hand indicator signals dominance, the left-hand indicator signals passivity as the signalling vehicle surrenders all rights in the use of the road. These signals are non-negotiable. The first user to light the right-hand indicator has the divine right to use the road how that person wishes.

As the rules of the road can alter according to circumstances, so can the rules about sharing food. I watched a lunchtime feeding of children in a village primary school. As the meal started tens of little pairs of feet made their way to the feeding point. The school cooks and watchmen enforced the rules and made sure that only students who attend the school were fed. One little girl (in uniform) received her lunch and then moved towards the edge of the school.

As she sat down a child in rags ran over to her. He was too small to be a student in primary education. What little she had, she shared with him. As I watched I saw that he ate much more than she did. When the meal ended, he ran away and she returned her plate to the kitchen to be washed. I asked her why she had given away so much of her meal; was she not hungry? She looked up at me and said she was very hungry. I asked her why then she gave the food away. With an incredulous look she simply stated, "My brother was hungry."



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