Out of Africa

It is the beginning of the end. I am now in Kampala on the start of my long journey ‘home’. Home being London for 48 hours then the south of France where I will be working on the Louis Vuitton Trophy for three intense weeks before crossing the Atlantic on the good ship Sojourn… Nothing seems quite real and my head is spinning trying to comprehend the fact that I have, after six incredible months, left KAASO and will soon be out of Africa. Half a year seemed like such a long time from the outset and there were definitely times when it felt like time was standing still – when you’re tired, when you’re scared, when there are bats in your room, when the pump is broken and you have no water, when the solar power dies yet again and you’re sitting in darkness… But these last few days have flown by so quickly and now I’m left wondering where the time has gone. I will soon be sitting on a plane wondering if this was all a dream, knowing that I will never fully be able to comprehend all that has happened, all I have seen and done and been fortunate enough to have been a part of for the last six months. It’s overwhelming.

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This last week has been an extended farewell, a week of finality – final classes, final songs, final hugs, final smiles, final meals, final bucket bathes, final discos, final KAASO hill evenings, final goodbyes and, inevitably, final tears. It’s so difficult leaving such a special place not knowing when I will be back, not knowing when I will see these gorgeous little faces again. But one thing that has emerged over the past months is that there is no way I cannot return. Somehow, I will find a way to get back to this incredible world. I don’t think I could live here forever – I have missed the sea, missed family and friends, drinkable wine, food other than matooke and beans and I am a beach girl at heart – but Uganda will forever be a part of me, part of my history and a part of my soul and the idea of walking away forever is incomprehensible. So I will be back, this much I know. The ‘how’ will follow…

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Before leaving, I spent as much time as possible with the children, in classes and around the school, trying to make the most of my final days with them and making sure these memories were etched in my mind forever.

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The teachers tried to explain to the younger children that we were leaving and would not be coming back (for now) but I don’t quite think they understood. The older children certainly did though and we received floods of letters and notes asking us not to go and telling us that they will never forget us. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to leave.

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Our farewell disco was, as always, a hilarious event. So very Ugandan and so very difficult to get your head around. These discos comprise of a few people dancing to insanely loud African music while the rest watch on. The ‘dance floor’ (one of the classrooms) isn’t big enough to accommodate all the children so they have to wait their turn. By 10pm the little nursery children were literally asleep on the concrete floor so I was surprised when it was announced that they would now dance. They jumped to their feet, the music started and… nothing happened. I was confused. I looked to Rose who explained that they did not like the song so would not dance to it. A room full of 5-year olds who had decided to stage a boycott. The DJ frantically searched for another song while the whole room waited the duration of the song until the next which the children deemed good enough and danced madly with some hidden store of energy. It was hilarious. The choir performed the songs I had practiced with them – ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and ‘Jamaican Farewell’ – which of course had me in tears while strumming my guitar but they were so beautiful it was worth the heartache. Dominic and Rose gave moving speeches conveying their heartfelt gratitude for all we had done over the last six months. For once, I was lost for words and found it hard to express all I wanted to say in return.

We had farewell drinks up KAASO hill with Kim, a Dutch girl who came to KAASO three years ago as a volunteer and never left. She now lives here with six Ugandan children that she has taken from dire family situations – Babirye was thrown down a pit latrine as a baby, Rosa was left tied to her bed, Frank was set alight by his father, Sage was hung from his penis to stop him wetting the bed, Betty and Noae arrived barely able to stand from malnutrition. Kim has done incredible things here and has been such an amazing friend and neighbour to me and Cherie and it was so nice to spend a final night up KAASO hill watching the sun set and the moon rise with Lake Victoria in the distance. Her kids joined us too and shared sodas as we indulged in a final cask of warm wine. We stayed on after dark in the light of the almost full moon, talking about life in Africa and still disbelieving of the fact that we will soon be far from here.

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Our final days at KAASO were spent madly running around trying to get everything done before we left. While building Kiwi House was a mammoth achievement (thank you so much once again for all your support!), it was not the end of the journey – the library and computer lab remained. With the grant from the Rotary Club of East Coast Bays we have plastered and painted the interior and the building and there are now huge shelves and tables hosting a scattering of computers and books. We spent Friday melting in the sweltering heat moving shelves and arranging the books that we do have here in an attempt to set up the library as much as possible. The children were ever curious and kept on coming in to see what was going on as Cherie and I set up our own dream – Kiwi Corner. So now there is a little corner of Uganda with pohutukawas, tikis, Maori designs, kiwis and a world map featuring NZ enlarged proudly in the middle – proving that we are NOT part of Europe as most people here still think.

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A final tie with Uganda came almost unexpectedly. The P7 students were leaving to go and sit their final exams and a conversation with Rose brought to my attention the fact that many of them would be unable to continue on to secondary school due to lack of funds, support or any kind of family. The tragedy of these dedicated children having their education finish at primary school despite their hunger to learn struck a chord. I ended up spending hours with Rose discussing the situations of individual children and the result was that I have decided, with the generous support of my parents, to sponsor Henry, a hugely talented boy in P7 whose mother is unable to put him through secondary school. I have taught the P7 class the last six months and seen for myself that he is so eager to learn, so helpful and conscientious – and his smile won me over. So I am thrilled not only to be able to help him realise his dream – an education – but to have yet another reason to return to Uganda. Henry’s story inspired me to put together a document outlining how the sponsorship process works here along with profiles of those Rose identified as being most in need so please feel free to contact me if you are interested in sponsorship.

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So as the sun begins to set on my time here, I try to collect my thoughts, my memories, my experiences and the images of little hands and smiling faces. There is music blaring across the road, a typically upbeat African tune that makes it impossible to feel sad despite the heartbreak of leaving. There is a certain rhythm to Africa that pervades all aspects of life and even in times of sadness, the people here will laugh and even if your heart is breaking you cannot help but laugh too.

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So the winds of change are blowing my way and it is time to embark on a new – and totally different – adventure. I am both sad to leave and excited for new horizons, two conflicting emotions that vie for place within my heart. Thank you all so much for sharing the journey, for encouraging me along the way and for all your support for this dream of mine. I look forward to telling you about my return to Africa!

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