A Travellerspoint blog

Our Motherland Uganda

I'm in an internet cafe in kasese town. It's a stall like a storage locker at home, with bubbled linoleum on the floor, a fan, a calendar with a beautiful girl and some netting covering the corrugated tin walls. Open to the dusty street, which cannot be good for the computers. It's extremely fancy for kasese, and the only place in town that has reasonably paced and reliable internet. The cafe part is a misnomer, though -- this is not an espresso bar. Coffee in general is scarce as ice here.

The Aunties and I went to the clothing market yesterday. A field spread with tarps, a few stalls with fancier hanging clothes, unsorted piles everywhere. This is where the clothing goes that Value Village cannot sell. Buying clothes here is hard work -- pawing through the piles in the beating sun, pulling out items one at a time. These flowered pants -- for Madam? This shirt -- for Phiona? These shorts -- for Baba? I see a honolulu marathon tshirt, a Calgary Herald shirt, a ridiculous frilly black lacy teddy with red satin bows with the Value Village tag still on. I spot a Toronto Maple Leaf shirt for Moses, the smallest one. He is the only one in the program with no relatives, no guardian -- he was found in a plastic bag. The shirt is way overpriced -- the equivalent of $2.50. Instead I buy him a blue floral hawaiian shirt.

We buy a new outfit for every single kid, including dress up shirts for the boys and church skirts for the girls -- $90. The parade around in them, modeling. The boys are so handsome.

We have been interviewing them -- doing a little video of each of them, making a profile. Their stories break our hearts. They love football. They like the color green. They say how grateful they are for "the balanced diet." Angela wants a guitar, and Docas longs to play the piano. Abdu draws a picture with a note about how our help has made him who he is. I ask who that is. He says "I did not have clothes. I did not have food. I never thought I could learn english, could go to school."

Last night they sang for us again, practicing for our special visitors tonight. We've invited some of the local officials to a concert. They taught us the chorus of Our Motherland Uganda... Full of peace and full of joy... Outside, Abdu tells me that the president, Musceveni, has eliminated the subjects of politics and government from schools, to keep the people ignorant. He is a dictator, he says. Abdu will be a leader some day.

Today, we herded all 50 kids up the hill to half-finished fancy hotel. We paid for the pool, and for lunch. I was a monkey puzzle tree, with Alex hanging off me for an hour, Deheli spinning around, Brian on my back. Angela trying so hard to be my friend. She wrote me a love letter and drew me a picture last night.

We gave them a feast -- sodas and chips and chicken and cookies. Then we gave them chips and chicken and sodas and cookies before. They are sated -- the canadians bring sugar and plastic. And love.

Tomorrow is our last day here. I can't bear it.

Posted by CateinTO 15:33 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (4)

Ronny is the watchman

He has a whistle and a spear. In the day, he opens the gate for people. At night, he sleeps in the truck so no one steals the battery again (or the truck).

Tonight, the middle-sized kids went off to study after dinner, in the room that I think is far too dark to read in, but which has electric light, a huge improvement over their previous house. The little ones gave us an impromptu concert. It was the best thing I've ever been part of. They're show-offs, they're shy, they're loving, and they have smiles that make you feel like you've hung the moon for them.

I went to the market. Was shocked at the cost of footballs. Was offered grasshoppers. They are very sweet.

I can't capture any of this. The red dust everywhere. The heat. The tininess of the stalls, stuffed with things that would be flea market fodder at home, which no one can afford. Adverts for coke everywhere but none actually on the shelves. The zone of meat, where a man chops part of a cow swarming in flies in half with a machete and hurls it onto the counter. It drools fluids. Our dinner -- a feast. They only have meat once a week. Meat and matoke on a Friday night is a huge treat, for us, the visitors.

We bought Auntie Lillian two huge new saucepans, two suitcases to keep the little boys' clothes in, special meat and matoke. Put money aside for the clothing market for tomorrow. The little boys have almost no clothes. Last night Moses was running around a tiny wrestler's suit. Someone in north america donated that. Like the baseball shirts from dufferin mall that half the kids have, the soccer jerseys from cedar rapids michigan. These are treasures, here -- it's clothes.

Abdu is a softspoken, sharp, thoughtful, polite 16 year old. His parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide. He wants to go to medical school. But his school doesn't have much equipment in the lab.

The 9 year old twins and the 6 year old. "Their mother was chopped" says our director. "They saw this."

I am half choked, half the time. We have done so much work here this week -- renamed the program -- Nikibasika (which means It is Possible in runyankole, one of the local languages -- pronounced ni-chee-bah-ska). We planned the year, went through the budget line by line, saw that the kids were healthy and happy, met with the main school they go to, met with local government, met with a local NGO to try to partner to develop some community support for these kids. All familiar territory, and really good work. And. And. I roll a bit along, taking in what it is, saying TIA (this is africa) easily, make a joke of the phrase "we have all the time," which our partner here says when we look too much like north americans trying to hurry things along. But then I'm choked. The choking hot market, where charcoal that I know is made from the rare hardwood trees sits in piles, waiting to be purchased. Filthy children playing in rotted matoke as their parents lie in the shade, waiting for the occasional customer, dust and red dirt everywhere.

It IS possible -- that these 51 children can grow up as healthy and educated as we can make them, can become contributors to this place. And it hits me over and over, contractions of recognition, when I really take in, again and again, that these people have nothing. The meat that I find so difficult to look at is a precious offering to visitors.

I'm certainly not the first person to have this so-called insight. But realizing how hard it is to pull the resources together for food, shelter, schoolbooks and clothing that we would find absurdly inadequate -- I feel fat and white and untethered. What we're doing is, I think, one of the only sane responses -- strengthening a little group of people who can grow up and be resources to their communities -- but when I hold Brian on my lap and he never lets go of my hand, when Kiiza cuddles into me before dinner and then falls asleep on Jordan, when Baba lifts his little head up when he's singing to find his fullest voice, when Rodgers hangs on the edges kicking the ground, when Kigami laughs out loud as he chases the new fancy football -- it all seems impossibly hard to let go of them and go back to Canada. Impossible.

Posted by CateinTO 21:57 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (3)

Overheated, overwrought

(The email is on an elderly Benq computer in a rickety but airconditioned room at the back of the hotel -- Africa-cliched slow, the connection, and access difficult to arrange. Unidentifiable giant pinging clicking bugs whizz around as I type).

So hard to swim out of the dream to say something about it. I'm sticky and dirty, emotionally and physically. Last night I sat on the floor of a tiled porch in western uganda eating matoke and rice and goat stew surrounded by sweet-animal-sweaty children, clutching each of them inside me as they smile and said their names in their soft voices, peppered me with questions about my life, demanded games and songs.

And today, I found myself almost nodding off with heat and drowse-fatigue in the regional district commissioner as the crazy founder of the orphanage, whom we let go of a year ago, accused us of all manner of corruption. He followed us to uganda, it seems, since we wouldn't talk to him anymore in Toronto, and appears to have followed us in actual fact to the politico's office. Chase scene on a boda boda.

Renee told me I'd have at least one truly frustrating time. Mine was in that office, somewhere toward the end of the three hours that this unplanned conversation looped on, when I couldn't bear the circuitous path toward a resolution that reqired proverbs (when two elephants fight over grass, it is the grass that suffers") and framing the word aid we provide as "peanuts" and suggesting that we get all the children in the room to choose between us and the founder to get to its sort of conclusion. In the end, the head honcho guy told the founder guy to leave well enough alone, and we all shook hands and left, but then, he of course went back in and hollered at the chief honcho guy. I was still frustrated.

There's just... drama. You can hear about the drama, and know about the overripe papaya smell and taste of everything here, but until it washes over you, you don't know what it is. We were at the office of the probation officer, who gave us an itemized list of 5 things we needed to fix, and who referred to the founder this way "I don't think he has the character of a social worker. He has the character of a wounded buffalo." Deadpan. This before he put the founder's possible actions in the same realm as the unknown people responsible for a rash of recent burnings of schools. Great. Now we have arson to worry about. Just... drama.

His office was filled floor to ceiling with roughly drawn morality posters. "Child labour is cruel." "Stop sacrificing children." (THis one with a helpful cartoon sequence depicting a man in tribal garb dragging a child away with a machete to his throat). Picture of a man beating a wife while children cower behind a wardrobe -- "What are your children learning??" "Look where self-respect got me!" THis one an actual photo of a girl in a graduation gown. "Abstinence is still the stronges shield. But when you can't avoid having sex, use a condom." Cartoon man and woman naked in bed reaching for something on the bedside table. So many narratives, looped against our kids who joyfully sing songs about parents dying of Ai-des, a carefully choreographed number with one of the teenage boys singing a song about losing his lover because of the horrible disease, while other children point at him as he cowers on the floor and sing about how he should have known better than to be blinded by love and forget about disease.

All of this, looped against the moment where we met with the headmistress of the primary school most of them go to, while we moved from "this is a courtesy call" to "do you have any complaints about our children" to "do you teach them sex education" and "we know that the government forbids beatings in school, but we also know that everyone does it, so how many strokes are the maximum you do" (the answer is 2). To "do you practice female initiation here." This last, asked first in Luganda, then translated sideways into english. We're still not sure what it means, exactly, though we know the answer is "not yet."

Any one of these moments catapults me out of what I think I know, challenges every moment of certainty I have. Am I going to be remotely stony when these children sing about Jesus loving them? No.

Capped by three people representing the guardians of the kids who were profuse with thanks for what we are doing, and watching the children run screechingly around the yard playing with balloons. A steady refrain "Auntie Cate, mine is busted." And another. And another. Teaching them to use my camera, learning each one of them, slowly. Glum rodger that I think just needs his own room, a computer, geek stuff. He loved my camera and got so frustrated at everyone else grabbing for it. Mary, the show off, who wants to dance herself into someone's heart. Rita, a bit sharp and shy, but who sings herself silly. Moses, the youngest and the clown, demanding his picture be taken over and over and screaming with delight when he saw himself in the display. Baba chris, wanting the same attention as moses, but more impish. Angela, leading the kids in the singing. Fiona, tall and lovely and quiet and shy, asking if we know where her brother, who was adopted, is. Brian, proud of carrying my backpack around, appointing himself my helper. All of them. All of them.

I'm facing my own inadequacies at every turn. There is so much that matters, here. There's typhoid about because of the refugess at the edge of this district, and I'm ultra paranoid about the water. But apart from exhaustion and self-doubt, I'm fine.

I wish I could post the balloon pictures and the dancing pictures. But that will have to wait for kampala. Or schiphol. Or home. Impossibly impossible.

Posted by CateinTO 12:49 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (3)

The kids

the kids. Emotionally overwhelming. Internet access very scarce, no time to write of the bumpdusty trip from kampala to kasese in a shockless landrover. We saw elephants right beside the road in queen elizabeth national park (and antelope, and buffalo, and boar), and we met the kids. Overwhelming, each one of them. And, turns out, I don't know any games.

More full when I can. Full.

Posted by CateinTO 21:38 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (2)


This interface + crappy software + crawling connection are not dancing well together... so just three photos from the day. Typical Kampala street scenes:



(Note the "pioneer mall" sign in the second one -- boasting of Kampala's best mall! I did not go in).

And the embodiment of the hybrid that is Kampala as a city. Sign from the hotel lobby today -- a development project meeting, and Personal Branding for Inspired Performance!


Posted by CateinTO 23:51 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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