The skies are grey but there’s still a certain kind of light here which means the colours remain so bright and alive – the banana palms are vibrant green, the muddy earth so red. These last two months have been the supposed rainy season but the rains have largely failed, with only three or four days of what people here would call ‘real’ rain. For a summer sailing girl like me, sunny days have always meant being outside, swimming, soaking up the sun and enjoying evening happy hours at sunset. I’m quickly learning that sunny days here mean famine. Dominic came in looking grim the other day and said that because of the lack of rains, next year much of the country would starve. He said it with regret but without sensation; here such things are a fact of life. Teacher Sarah has planted her own garden of crops and actually knelt down and praised the Lord when it started raining yesterday.
It really feels as though a change has taken place in me this term. While our first few months here were all about learning, asking a million and nine questions, trying to piece it all together and make sense of everything, since we have been back it now feels as though this place is our home. Yes, everything is still completely different to all I’d ever known before I came here but now I have finally formed a kind of routine in which I have come to accept that nothing will go to plan, plans will change and no one will tell you, but that’s life. Once you get your head around that, it all feels strangely ‘normal’.
I teach English classes most days to my gorgeous little 5-year olds and everyone is amazed that they actually understand me but I have been teaching them almost every day for the last few months and we have reached some kind of hilarious understanding – usually involving me jumping and dancing around the room to get my point across. They laugh, they learn, we get there. I’m also teaching English to the older children who are preparing to sit their Primary Leaving Exams. It’s a big deal here – if you fail you have to repeat the year again and again until you pass to go onto secondary school – if you can afford it and that’s a big if. Some in Primary 7 class are 16 or 17 years old, either due to being held back or simply because their parents could not afford to send them to school until they were older.
I do a bunch of music classes which leave me with no voice but a huge smile, watching the children dance and sing – along with the teachers who love to join in. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity in my life – I only have to walk near the classrooms with my guitar and all of the children run to me screaming “P1?!”, “P2!?”, “P3?!” desperately hoping that it will be their class I’m coming to. One of my little favourites, Brenda, took my hand as I walked into the class of rioting children who had already begun to sing and whispered in my ear with a little smile, “Thank you for coming Madam Emma.” It makes me want to smile and weep at the same time, their gratitude is immense. I’ve just started teaching them ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and it’s all I can do not to cry every time I play it but I can’t help myself. It’s incredible to bring songs from my childhood to the children here and I know that they will live on at KAASO forever – these children never forget a song!
I also help the teachers to mark exams which provides endless entertainment (in an exam letter to a friend, a girl called Florence signs off “I command you to stay a virgin and lovely as you were”) and frustration (when the English exam is written in improper English – how can a nation learn??). As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I really quite understood when I came here that I would be living and helping in a school not an orphanage and although many of these children are orphaned by AIDS, most go about their day quite normally as you would find in any school around the world. Well, not quite, but it’s not the dramatic scene I had pictured before coming here. My days are filled with wide eyes, big smiles, little hands, greetings of “Madam Emma!” and usually no more drama than a scraped knee. I’m going to miss it.
Excitement is growing in the school for Visiting Day this weekend when (supposedly) all the parents and guardians of the children come from far and wide to bring them a picnic lunch and spend time together. It’s a day both beautiful and terrible. Children walk around grinning, hanging off their parent’s arms sipping sodas while others stand all day at the front gate, desperately watching the dirt road for signs of parents who never come.
This Visiting Day is particularly special for Cherie and I because it is going to be the opening of Kiwi House. This entails an 8am mass followed by a blessing and then the official opening by a Rotarian from Kampala who has helped the school immensely over the last 10 years. Cherie and I spent the afternoon yesterday making paper chains with the younger children who were amazed and delighted to see their painted sheets of paper growing into colourful chains which will be draped all over Kiwi House as decoration for the big day.
Later that afternoon is ‘opening night’ – or afternoon – of The Wizard of Mwanza and all the children are beside themselves with excitement. We’ve been rehearsing every night this week and they just keep on getting better and better. I thought I was mad trying to stage a play in another language with a cast who had never performed before but they’ve taken to it like fishes to water and I am the happiest director in all of Uganda! I never thought my directing debut would take place in a village in East Africa but I guess stranger things have happened…
Life has a funny way of taking on an increased intensity as you get closer to leaving. There have definitely been days when I’ve struggled hugely and wondered how I could possibly stick it out until November. There are times when bathing in a bucket is not fun, being constantly surrounded by 600 children drives you mad and never quite knowing what’s going on does your head in. But there are so many other little moments that make up for it. Now, with just over two weeks to go, I feel as though every moment is precious and the thought of actually having to say goodbye to so many makes me feel sick. I’ve never been one for goodbyes but when you really don’t know when you’ll see these people again who have come to be your entire world, it’s especially tough. I torture myself wondering when it will be that I make it back and if by then all my little favourites will have grown up and forgotten who I am.
So I will go and enjoy my final days here, knowing this place will forever be a part of me. The skies are already clearing – it never stays cloudy for long – and soon the sun will be scorching upon me. Coming here was so different to anything I’d ever done and although it’s by far the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced, it’s definitely been the most rewarding.