Full and fulfilling

It never ceases to amaze me that in a country characterised so fully by ‘Africa time’ you can still feel as though you have lived a week in a single day. Every morning I write a huge list of all the things I hope to get done and every evening I laugh at myself as I see how few of them I have actually managed – and yet the days are so full that I often can’t remember the morning by the time I go to bed. Full and fulfilling.

So much has happened since I last wrote that it’s overwhelming to try and choose what to share with you in your far-flung corners of the world. I have sat on a white sand beach and watched the sun set over Lake Victoria, travelled over more potholes than I ever thought possible in one road, danced at a traditional wedding ceremony amongst over 1000 Ugandans, joined the school choir singing in three part harmony in Luganda, attended an inspiring and heartbreaking AIDS workshop, helped at a fundraiser for an incredibly poor school near the Tanzanian border, shared a beer with the Chairman of the district and watched hundreds of school children perform in a music festival under a makeshift marquee held up with sticks. And that’s just the last week!

The Ssese Islands were stunning. Breathtakingly so. After one of the longest short journeys of my life (how can you travel so far and cover so little ground?!) we arrived, barely recognisable we were caked in so much dust, at a campsite by the shores of Lake Victoria. We were overwhelmed to see so many fellow muzungu, it almost seemed indecent to see people in bikinis after so long of our modest village dress. It was amazing to enjoy a beer that was actually cold and to meet an mixture of interesting people from around the world who had been volunteering and travelling in various parts of Africa. The sunset was spectacular over the lake and as we sat sipping our drinks it was easy to forget where we were. There is a kind of bitter-sweet feeling to be somewhere so overwhelmingly beautiful as it’s constantly undercut by guilt at being so lucky to enjoy such paradise while so many suffer.

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We met a local boy working at the campsite named William. He had dropped out of school last year when his father died and his mother was unable to pay for his school fees. He was spending this year working to try and save enough money to finish his final year of secondary school. He was 22. The dedication to education here is phenomenal, if children back home had any idea how hard people here worked to put themselves through school and just how devoted they are to their studies – it’s inspiring! We returned to KAASO dusty, battered and bruised from another epic journey crammed into a taxi van with 20 people, 10 sacks of sugar, 4 babies, more bags than I could count and no doubt a chicken or two had found their way in… It felt good to be ‘home’. Continue reading

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Sunset moonrise

As if the wild and wonderful disco wasn’t enough, my Ugandan birthday celebrations continued. Sunday dawned a beautiful sunny day and Cherie and Kirsty cracked open some latte sachets they’d brought from home. It was absolute bliss to finally be drinking coffee again (the irony of it all – one of Uganda’s main exports is coffee and yet they do not process it here so by the time it gets back to Uganda, it is too expensive for the locals to buy). I opened my presents, mostly hilarious things the girls had managed to find in Kyotera, but also pictures and cards Cherie had had the children make for my birthday and they were amazing. They contained the most gorgeous messages:

‘Teacher Emmy I am happy because your going to do happy birthday on Sunday.’

‘Emma I am going to be your friend thank you to be your friend. I am going to sing for you. I love you so much.’

Then came the showstopper – the girls had had a gomesi tailor-made for me – a traditional Ugandan dress, a little like a kimono. Rose and the other women were in hysterics watching me try to tie it and all the children came out to see this blonde muzungu dressed like a Ugandan woman. I totally blended in.

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Crossing borders & disco dancing

Another scorching day in the town of Kyotera where children still run down the street chasing us with cries of muzungu! I don’t think I will ever again feel so famous as I do in Uganda. It’s funny that after almost a month here we feel as if we are beginning to blend in, yet every time we venture outside the grounds of KAASO we are reminded of how much we stick out, the colour of our skin blinding white in contrast to these faces that live under the scorching African sun.

The last few days have been yet another whirlwind adventure – the story of my life currently. Dominic took us to the government school that he runs down near the Tanzanian border. It was an eye-opener to say the least. All the time we have been here we have been taking our perception of ‘norms’ from KAASO, overwhelming though they may be. Kamuganja School was another story. Located in the middle of nowhere, it serves a community that largely consists of Rwanda cattle herders that fled their homes during the genocide of 1994. The people carry the scars of unspeakable tragedy and the children are understandably affected. The families are scattered far and wide around the surrounding area and to get to school, some children must walk over two hours and be ferried across a river, an offshoot of Lake Victoria, by boat if they can find one. There were less than 100 students here when Dominic took over as headmaster two years ago; now the school roll is over 300. The community is extremely poor and although being a government school there are no school fees, there is no provision for such things as uniforms, resources or even lunch. Most families cannot afford even to pay for the children’s lunch which consists of one cup of watery porridge to sustain them for the day. For some, this may be the day’s food.

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So we arrived at Kamuganja to be met by 300 faces, half thrilled, half terrified who clapped and sang for us as we bumped our way along the dirt road. Dominic stopped the car for us to get out and walk amongst them into the school grounds. The red earth felt like a red carpet. They were so genuinely grateful to simply have us there and it was overwhelming to say the least. Continue reading

World of Wonders

It is hard to describe the feeling of being constantly busy, constantly overwhelmed and forever spinning when it seems that all I achieved today was my washing. It is said that Africa runs on a time of its own, that if you get one thing done in a day you’re doing well. It is very easy to think that you understand such things without actually having experienced them for yourself. I am doing so now.

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The rainy season seemed to stop overnight (with a very dramatic final thunderstorm) and now our days are filled with scorching sunshine that goes right through you. We are a stone’s throw from the equator and it really does feel as though the sun is directly overhead, beating down mercilessly as we try to do such simple tasks as washing. I showed Rose a picture of a washing machine today and she laughed in disbelief that we simply push a button and the clothes come out clean. Here it involves hours of backbreaking scrubbing, multiple tubs of water (to be filled from a slow-running tap on the other side of the school) and that good old multi-purpose laundry soap.

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This morning was filled with much amusement, despite the sweat pouring from me, as every child, adult or animal that passed me paused and thanked me. I was confused as this had happened before and it made no sense for everyone to be thanking me for washing my clothes. Thanking me for being clean? For finally scrubbing up? Because they thought I might do theirs too?? As it turns out, in Ugandan culture each time you pass someone doing any kind of work it is customary to thank them. In fact you must. You must thank each person for the work they are doing, whether it benefits you or not. I guess they just like to encourage things getting done. Now that I can understand.

Every day here is full of wonders. Wonder in the sense that I wake up each morning having no idea how the day is going to pan out, what wild tangent it will end up on. Yesterday we went into Kyotera to go to the food markets and buy school supplies at the local stationery shop. The markets are a feast for the senses; mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables are piled high on makeshift tables on an uneven dirt hillside. Children either run towards us or away from us crying muzungu!! in wonder, horror or a mixture of both. We bought huge juicy pineapples and bunches of tiny sweet bananas and sat munching them on the side of the road (you can’t eat while walking here but there are convenient bench seats all over the place). The markets also feature hunks of dead animal suspended from hooks, swarming with flies. Kirsty is thankful everyday that she is vegetarian. Cherie and I have vowed to try everything here which is quite a challenge at times. I have eaten unchewable meat, an untold number of stones in my rice, any stray bug that flies into my meal, as well as Uganda’s favourite treat – grasshoppers. They’re crunchy, they’re green and they still have eyes that look at you as you eat them. Can’t say I’d recommend them. Continue reading