On the road

After a whirlwind of dust, discos, catastrophes, hospitals, illness, heartbreak, vino and ultimately laughter, we are at last on the road. In a Jack Kerouac-does-Africa sense of the word. We will be jumping on and off public transport as we journey across East Africa for the next six weeks. It’s going to be intense, amazing and I can’t wait.

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But first… Stories from the last couple of weeks. We arrived back at KAASO after our Nile adventure to be met with an epidemic of sickness. Children were lying everywhere in various states of disarray, burning with fever and delirious from malaria and other unidentified illnesses. It was heartbreaking to see and I have never felt so helpless. Here, it seems, there are two types of medicine – malaria medicine and panadol. If it’s malaria, you take malaria medicine. Anything else can be fixed by a panadol and a cup of syrupy juice. Apparently. Except for the other day, when Rose came back to school dressed in her beautiful gomesi. She had been at the funeral of a 17-year old girl who had died the previous day. I asked her how she had died.

‘Headache,’ was the reply.

I looked at her in disbelief. ‘She had a headache and… then she was dead??’

‘Yes,’ Rose said simply. ‘You know these village people, they won’t take someone to hospital until they’re in a coma.’

No, I don’t know.

It’s worlds away from all I’ve ever known. But that’s just the way it is. People here have such an acceptance of death, they understand the close proximity between life and death and people believe that there is nothing you can do about it. Just keep on going, hoping it’s not yet your turn.

I came back from class a few days later, buzzing from having had 50 five-year olds clapping and dancing, only to turn the corner to be met with a sea of bodies sprawled across the dusty ground. I was horrified and asked them what they were waiting for. The nurse. They were so hot and half of them still wearing their woolen jumpers in the scorching sun so I took them off and stood helplessly wondering what on earth I could possibly do. Endongo. My guitar. I ran inside and came back carrying this most prized possession which is still met every time with wide eyes and shy smiles. I sat down next to Brenda, a tiny girl from my P1 class and began to play ‘You are my Sunshine’. Soon there were little faces popping up all around me, lighting up in smiles, those that had the energy sitting up and singing along quietly. It wasn’t much but at least it was something. It helped to pass the time until the nurse arrived and gave them hope that at least someone cared and wanted to spend time with them when they had no parents to do just that.

So in the midst of all this sickness, I guess it was only a matter of time before one of us fell prey to it. I was the lucky one. Fortunately it wasn’t malaria but I was hit by some chronic stomach bug which left me doubled over in bed wanting to die. Kirsty was a wonderful nurse, giving me plenty of drugs and forcing me to drink electrolyte solution tasting so foul I couldn’t help but wonder if the people making it had ever tried it – especially when you feel like you have an army marching through your belly…. And then a few hours later, Kirsty was struck down so the two of us lay in bed, writhing in pain and taking solace in the fact that at least if we died, we’d die together. After what felt like forever (in reality only two days) it passed and we are now fit and healthy. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat maize porridge again which was what I’d eaten just before the pain started. Not a major loss.

I was one of the lucky ones. My illness left as quickly as it came. Others have not been so lucky. Two days ago I was walking through the school when Claire, one of the tiny girls from nursery came stumbling along looking awful. I crouched down to speak to her and quickly realised she could hardly breathe and was struggling with each breath. We brought her back to the house where Cherie tried to give her a spoonful of medicine but she vomited it straight back up over me. We needed urgent help. So I’m standing in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere with a seriously ill child who has no family for miles and we need to get her to hospital but there is no transport. It’s a terrifying feeling. I became more and more panicked as the girls tried desperately to find a boda boda to take her and I held her as she battled for breath. Finally one came and I jumped onto it with Claire and the school secretary. Half an hour of bumping along the dustiest roads with the worlds largest potholes (you could picnic in one), me clutching Claire, my ear to her head to make sure she was still breathing, we finally reached the hospital where, amazingly, the doctor saw us straight away. Sorry to the lady already in the room with her coughing baby.

It was infuriating not knowing what was going on – no one here asks questions. Like the girl who died of ‘headache’, you trust the doctors blindly and don’t bother to even ask what the problem is. Doctor knows best. Fortunately the doctor put up with my frantic tirade of questions and diagnosed it as an allergic reaction to the ‘environment’ which had swollen her breathing tubes and caused them to spasm. Or something along those lines. There was one moment of laughter when he first said she had allergies and I asked to what – food? He looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said that she probably hadn’t developed a sudden allergy to porridge, posho or beans – the only three things the children here are given to eat. They have eaten these all their life and will probably continue to do so. There is no variety.

I am horribly squeamish and particularly terrified of needles so it was not much fun watching them jab needles into Claire’s tiny arms to administer steroids or whatever medicine it was. The nurse threw the used syringe across the room into a bin located right next to where I was standing. I jumped out of the way, only to stand on broken glass which was all over the floor, narrowly missing my foot. I spent the rest of the day lying in a hospital bed next to Claire, singing to her and holding her burning body. The women in the room all gathered around and started chatting away to me in Luganda and seemed surprised when I told them – ‘katono, katono!’ – I only speak a little. It turns out their confusion came from the fact that they thought I must speak Luganda because Claire was obviously my daughter. Obviously. After many wild hand gestures and head shakes, I finally convinced them that she was NOT my daughter.

The biggest heartbreak of the day was a simple moment but it cut me. Claire had been desperately coughing and choking and when she finally stopped I asked her how she was. Her throat was so raw she couldn’t talk but she mustered up enough energy to croak ‘I am fine.’ She was not fine. But they were the only words she knew. I left at the end of the day exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally – in every possible way. Claire had to stay overnight but I was to go home – her elderly grandmother was coming to sleep on the concrete floor and watch her through the night. She’s been discharged now and is recovering in the village with her grandmother. Her parents live in Kampala but apparently wouldn’t care enough to come so no one’s told them. It breaks your heart.

Back at KAASO I had to get myself from hospital mode into disco mode – the school was throwing another crazy disco for Kirsty’s belated birthday/farewell. Despite having so little, celebrations are not done by halves here and somehow they had scraped together the money (or the favours) to have a DJ, a huge cake and what looked like wedding decorations all over the classroom-cum-dance floor. We danced and drank sweet, sweet sodas (my teeth will never recover!) and wiped away tears as the school choir performed songs they’d written about how sad they were that Kirsty was leaving. It was hard to leave the weight of the day in hospital behind but here you learn to do so because you have to. Everyone lives moment to moment and I am trying to do the same – there is no other way.

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The children have been coming up to me for days now asking if I am the one that is leaving. I try to explain that I am leaving for a few weeks but will be back but they don’t quite understand. They are so used to seeing people come and go so every time we leave KAASO even for a day, they come rushing to greet us on our return, so happy that we had not left for good.

Each of us girls brought with us to Africa an ‘emergency’ bottle of wine. Packs exploding full of medical supplies, stationery, stickers, games, toiletries and dirt-coloured clothing, we each managed to squeeze in a bottle of wine. Priorities. So on Thursday, Kirsty’s last night, the three of us took her bottle up KAASO hill where we watched the most spectacular sunset over the rolling hills, banana plantations, mud huts and red earth of Kabira. It was a fitting end to Kirsty’s three months here and we reflected on the time we had spent at KAASO and planned a Ugandan reunion sometime in the future.

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We left early yesterday morning with Dominic for the 3-hour trip to Kampala. We made it in 6. African time.

And tomorrow is a new adventure. We are off on an epic 10-hour bus trip which will take us to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. We have a week in Rwanda, a country I have so desperately wanted to visit since I first heard about the genocide and realised that these things were happening in my lifetime yet no one seemed to be doing anything about it. At school we studied wars and conflicts but they were in the past, been and gone, another generation. So how could something like the Rwandan genocide have happened in my lifetime? Why was I not aware of it? Why did the world not do anything about it? So many questions, I know I will never find all the answers but I hope that my time in Rwanda will at least help to open my eyes a little more so that one more person in the world is aware of the atrocities committed that we can never allow to happen again.

Our fundraising project is going better than we ever could have hoped. I cannot put into words how grateful we are to those of you who have donated so generously. We have now raised over NZ$6,500 and construction is underway. I went through the budget with Dominic to ask him what we should start with first. Roofing poles was the definite response. They take a month to prepare. Prepare? ‘Yes, you must go into the forest and select the straightest ones. We must search for them, cut them down and then dry them. This takes time.’ Of course, I should have known that you do not simply BUY poles, you hand-pick them from the forest.

The beautiful simplicity of life here never ceases to make me smile.

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