It was our last full day in Palestine, a day that had been earmarked for us to ‘give back’ to the village by painting a couple of local schools and getting them ready for the start of the new school term which was only days away.
Mr Bombastic-Mohammed, had decided that we should all be split up and as individuals, be in charge of a group of male villages, both boys and adults and go paint the schools. The first mistake Mohammed made when he unleashed his ‘plan’ with us, was that he just wanted the females of the group. The ‘boys’ had been let off with the task in hand and as such had gone off swimming. Flic had wanted to go too, but there was no mixed swimming, so she wasn’t allowed-plus we had jobs to do. None of us were in a good mood about this. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t have a problem with being volunteered to paint the schools, it was the fact it was deemed as ‘woman’s work’ whilst the boys could go off and make merry. Plus, it was the way Mohammed went about things as per usual, like a bull in a china shop!
We were summoned to the local ‘meeting room’, the place I had taught the first day of my Reiki course. Mohammed took his seat behind a table looking very officious. We were told to sit on the seats reserved for us in a semi circle. Firstly I was told to take Emily to her mama come back and then work. (Emily’s mama, Chris, had gone into Hebron with a couple of the others to volunteer in the disabled home we had visited a couple of days previously. We advised Chris to leave Emily with us in the village as what I had seen had really upset me, I didn’t want a 12 year old left with that impression on her last day here.) So first butting of horns ensued as I told Mohammed that No, I would not be taking Emily to her mother, that today I was being her mother and she was staying with me. The next butting of horns began when Mohammed designated us ‘girls’ with his teams of ‘the boys.’ There was no way we were going to be crossing the village as sole women with a group of men and teenagers. Us women stood our ground and said no, we go together or not at all. Mohammed was not pleased one little bit by our response, he was not used to being told no by the opposite sex, he was used to having subservient women who almost bowed and scraped upon his every command. He sucked his teeth, shook his head and said in a louder voice who was leading which team.
“Where is Mays? (his 16 year old daughter)” I asked “which team is she leading?” Mohammed looked at me horrified. “She can not do that, it is haram for her to be alone with boys.”
“Why is that Mohammed?”
“It is because she is female and a female is not allowed to be in the company of males without a chaperone.”
“And it is for that same reason Mohammed, that we are not going to be leading a group on our own, so we all go together or not at all.” As he had walked right into that one he had nothing to do, but allow us to go en masse. So Flic, Jo, Emily, Pippa, myself and 4 lads were handed a 10 litre tub of whitewash, One paint roller and a paintbrush!
We followed the lads to the school. We entered the corrigated iron gates into a playground with murals painted on the walls. “We must be painting inside” I mused to myself. Three women in headscarves greeted us quizzically and after a bit of dialogue it came to pass that they had no clue that we were going to descend upon them and transform their school. The headmistress looked around the playground and said “I suppose you could paint over there, but not on there or there.” As she waved her arm about telling us where we could do….NOT that it really needed doing.
The boys were off. They decided to water down the whitewash. This paint was like water anyway, watering it down even more left a white chalky mark on the wall not a clean white coat of paint. And it splashed EVERYWHERE! Us girls looked on in disbelief. Not only were the walls going to be painted (very badly) but the playground was going to be splattered with white too.
One of the teachers told us they had coloured paints we could use if we wanted. These were oil based, small tins. Better than nothing we thought, so Jojo, became artistic director and designed a mural on one wall. All we needed to do was wait for the gossamer thin coat of paint to dry. In the searing heat , that took no time at all, so off we went with fine paintbrushes also donated by the school.
By now word had spread about foreigners being at the school, so local kids were trying to get in the gate to see us. They were shouting and banging and kicking the gates. We decided to let them come in and have a look at what we were doing, some even picked up the brushes and joined in.
Painting finished then we swept the school yard and cleaned it of debris. Pippa did a sterling job, cleaning, then disinfecting two corners of the playground. One corner was overrun with rat excrement, the other with…well lets just say it was excrement of a different kind and it definitely wasn’t dog!
All swept and tidied up we decided to call it a day and not wait for Mohammed to fetch us so off we went like modern day Pied Pipers with the kids following us off down the road, until we realized, we had no idea where we were going. We needed to be headed towards the mosque, but where we were, we could not see the minaret. Luckily some kind soul led us in the right direction, so we could find our way back home for a cool drink and a clean up.
We all had thoroughly enjoyed painting the school, even after all the messing about in the morning to get there. But one thing I came to realize about life as we experienced it in Palestine was that nothing gets definitely arranged, plans are fluid. Imagine a group of people turning up to a school where we live, armed with paints and brushes (well A brush!) without any organizing with the school. Would we welcome them with open arms and allow them to paint our playgrounds? No. But there, there is a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance.
We were met back at our house by the boys who were apparently exhausted after swimming all morning. We were too by our hard work in the sun…….and if I had to do it all again, I know which I would prefer to do, leave the legacy of my rubbishly drawn balloons on the playground wall.