Friday, 27 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventures: Part X: Nine Ways in Which St John's College, Durham, prepared me for Uganda

For those of you who don’t know, St John’s College Durham is a curious mixture of a theological seminary for Anglican and Methodist ministers-in-training, and autonomous college as part of Durham University. It thus manages to combine elements both of secular and religious culture in interesting and eclectic ways. One the one hand you have people who are dedicating their lives to religious service; on the other hand you could have a passionately atheist undergraduate or postgraduate who is only interested in living the student life (I am still unaware of any passionately atheist trainee priests… but who knows?). I myself am a priest-in-training at St John’s, and thought I might share nine ways in which the college has prepared me for this Ugandan Adventure.

1) Climate

I live on D-Floor, in the Cranmer Hall wing of St John’s College. For those of you who don’t know, D-Floor is the hottest singular area upon the surface of Planet Earth. This is because the heat of A, B, and C Floors (which is considerable in itself) rises and conglomerates around my room. Therefore, though it be coldest winter, my window is generally open; and though it be hottest summer, the radiator - even though off - is still hot. This has prepared me well for the African climate: whilst the Ugandans around me my complain that ’Today is a hot day’, I say to them, ‘Nonsense! You should come to the North of England! That’s where you’ll find real heat!’

2) Food.

The food in St John’s College, though diverse, is bound by one substance: starch. Chips and pasta may be eaten on the same plate; vegetables are in short supply. Also, a strangely eclectic combination may be found on the same plate. Ever wanted chips and carrots? Well, come to St John’s! How about a cauliflower quiche? Why don’t you try it? Therefore, when I arrived in Uganda to discover that one could have pasta, rice, potatoes, sweet potato mash and bread on one singular plate, I did not think anything of it. Nor the idea of dipping potato chips into tea, nor the combination of peanut sauce and spinach (which is actually very delicious).

3) Facilities

In my tap in St John’s College, water comes in two types: boiling hot, and freezing cold. Much can be said for the first few days of my showering in Uganda. In both areas, the water from the tap is undrinkable, unless thoroughly boiled before use (though only in Uganda has it the potential to kill you… or was that St John’s?). In both St John’s and Uganda there is a surprising lack of WiFi, though if I’m honest, the developing nation of Uganda does beat the venerable college of St John’s on this account.

4) Culture

In St John’s College, everyone seems to know each other. You cannot walk down the corridor without saying ‘hello’ to someone. Little is different in Uganda; the possible difference is that in Uganda they may say hello, but they might not actually know you. Furthermore, there is a strange mix of cultures in both, in particular the blend of old and new. For instance, in Uganda everyone has the latest technology, though few people have access to decent water and food. St John’s is somewhat similar. In St John’s people dress up in funny clothes for special occasions (academic gowns). In Uganda they also do the same (tribal gowns). In St John’s, if you do anything at all, soon the whole college knows what has happened; the same may be applied in Uganda (hence why in both John’s and Uganda, one must be careful of what one says for fear of offending someone). In St John’s College, it is frequent for older undergraduates to attempt to seduce younger ones, called ‘Freshers’. They name this practice, ‘Sharking’. In Uganda, this is called arrange marriage.

5) Church

Both St John’s College and Uganda are passionately and openly Evangelical. Nevertheless, there are a surprising amount of Roman Catholics in both. St John’s College Communions tends to mix together a bizarre amalgam of disparate styles, including old hymns, modern worship, choir-based anthems, Taize and folk. In Uganda, they also like to combine old and new, brazenly and boldly not attempting to stylistically link them. Both in St John’s and Uganda the services go on for far too long, preachers go beyond their allotted time limit, and the liturgical structures of service in both places are, to say the least, eccentric.

6) Infrastructure

St John’s is arrived at through laboriously travelling across a difficult, narrow and bumpy road. Uganda, it seems, is no different, though this is due to potholes, rather than the city of Durham’s old cobbled streets. St John’s College is based on the arbitrary collusion of several terraced houses merged into one structure. In Uganda, the previous sentence may remain the same as long as the phrase ‘terraced houses’ is replaced by ‘tribes and provinces’. In both St John’s and Uganda there are far too many people crammed in one place for decent living space and, furthermore, both have rapidly expanding populations without adequate housing facilities. Finally, though facilities break down as quickly in both St John’s and Uganda, it tends to be the case that they are fixed with twice the speed in Uganda.

7) Politics

Both St John’s and Uganda have well-publicised democratic bodies which in reality hold little legislative power. In Uganda, this body is called ‘parliament’ - all real power is held by the President. In St John’s, this is called the John’s Common Room (JCR), which is the student representative body.

8) History

Both St John’s and Uganda are prone to outbreaks of civil war in unexpected places. In Uganda, this is a costly and nation-destroying process often between tribes and regions that must be ironed out with the passage of time. In St John’s, this is between the various sectors of the college, as the occasional long-term scrap is often to be found in the break-outs between undergraduates and trainee priests, undergraduates and postgraduates, postgraduates and trainee priests, undergraduates and administration, trainee priests and administration… (the list goes on).

9) Economy.

Both St John’s College and Uganda are nominally self-reliant. St John’s is proudly and happily an autonomous college as part of Durham University; Uganda has been proudly independent since the British Protectorate was withdrawn in the 60s. Nevertheless, in reality, both are heavily reliant on outsider’s donations: in Uganda, this is through aid and investment; in St John’s this is from college alumni and a bigger organisation called ‘Durham University’.


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