I knew we were in trouble when I saw the little boy sitting on the floor, a large wicker basket covering his head. I had many questions. First, where was the dirty laundry that is ordinarily resident in the basket?
A small hand was raised and, following the direction to which it was then pointed, the question was answered in the long line of clothes strewn across the floor. The contents of the basket now accounted for, the interrogation continued.
What was the basket doing on top of the head? Silence. I asked again, this time softly and in a reassuring manner, because I was genuinely interested: many innovations have emerged from what, on the face of it, looked like foolish endeavours.
After a few more moments of silence, the suspect informed me that what I saw as a mere wicker basket, and which we wasted on the day-to-day ordinariness of storing laundry was, in fact, a space shuttle.
With growing confidence, he added that I had, in fact, interrupted an historic mission to Mars by suddenly appearing on the scene and unceremoniously yanking the space shuttle out of orbit.
Had I minded my own business for a while longer, or not been an enemy of the country’s scientific community and progress, he would by now be in outer space, careening forward into the history books, or at the very least destined to pop champagne supernova in the sky.
I interrupted the reverie and sent the suspect down the hall faster than a cannonball to pick up the laundry, return it to the basket, return the basket to its place, and return his atomic mass of energy to this planet, desk and chair, and to the classwork I had asked him to do only minutes earlier.
There has been a lot of difficult terrain to navigate in these times of the Covid-19 lockdown – loss of income, eating through a month’s supply of food in a week, cabin fever, et cetera – but home-schooling has been particularly precarious.
There are primarily two problems. The first is that after years of boastfully recalling the days when you always came first or second in class during your days, you are suddenly asked to help solve a mathematics equation that looks like a Greek symbol caught in a fistfight with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Under normal circumstances, this dilemma is solved easily by sending the little cretin off to their other parent with a stern ‘can’t you see I am busy’, or a carefully-timed toothache that suddenly renders you incapable of coherent communication, let alone mathematical computation.
But in this ‘new normal’, you have to wear your most serious and scholarly face, examine the equation while taking care not to hold the book upside-down, and wait for a friend in your WhatsApp group to send the answer and hope he is right; Daddy’s credibility could be ruined for life if he stumbles over a Grade Two question.
But the second problem is harder to solve: how do you keep children still and seated for more than five minutes? I know adults who walk into a meeting, sit down and promptly go to sleep. Others keep their eyes open but with a distant emptiness in them, like open windows with the mosquito net drawn.
Children, on the other hand, just. can’t. stay. still. It is as though there is a small wind-up dynamo inside which has to run and run until it runs out of juice by which time they are tired and want to sleep, or drink water, or go and play, or their “stomach is paining” or similar clever devices. Anything to keep them from their classwork.
So you take him by the hand, return him to the desk, pull a chair and sit next to him with your own work. Maybe you can lead by example, you reckon.
He regards the work briefly, maybe even solves a question or two, but from the corner of your eye you can see the concentration draining out of him like water out of a wicker basket.
The mind is wandering back to outer space. You check in to see how they are doing. They say they need help with a question. You look at the equation. The Egyptians seem to be winning. It is a Greek tragedy.
You remember that Museveni doesn’t have a master’s degree yet he has swung us for almost 40 years. You sigh and tell the child to go and play. You make a mental note to write a column strongly recommending for teachers, especially those dealing with younger children, to be paid much more. They deserve it!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.