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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

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I love how you are writing about this. It is very tactile.

Although I already have read it twice, I need to read this particular post several times over still. Not because it is difficult to understand, but because it is simply difficult.

You rock. :)

by VenusInTO

So much to take in, reading this, and wondering how you know just what to say and do in all these situations. Cate, you do indeed rock.

by marneyw

Cate- Your blog is so full of those mixed emotions of hope and despair. I spent a year in West Africa in 81-2-82, had six months of weekly preparation followed by a week of orientation in Ottawa and a week in Kano and still experienced bewilderment, culture shock, and had many a meltdown travelling and teaching. Your blog entries bring back those vivid life-altering memories as well as the sheer joy of the children, the vibrancy of people and their rich culture and of course, the huge disparity between our worlds.It will take a long time to process all of this.And you have such a short time to take it all in. It is a journey that you'll have forever. Sending you a big hug. Safe journey.xo

by Modo

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