Off the beaten track

There is dust that won’t wash off, there are smiles that won’t fade, there is laughter that won’t be silenced and time that won’t slow down. In a place where everything happens slowly, my time in Uganda went all too quickly and before I knew it I was being rocketed from the dusty roads of the village to the sandy freeways of the desert wondering if it was all just a dream. In a way it was.

In Uganda you feel as if you have lived a thousand days in one and by the time you crawl into the cocoon of your mosquito net each night, the morning seems like a distant memory. The days are so full and phenomenal that your head is constantly spinning. On this visit to Uganda, Rose took it upon herself to show me the world beyond KAASO, straying seriously off the beaten track, wandering down every vaguely trodden path in the village, visiting over twenty households from the Empowerment Group, meeting pigs, chickens, goats and cows, traipsing through banana plantations, admiring expertly crafted woven mats and baskets, and meeting hundreds of extended family members from 9 days to 90 years old. It was an intense but incredible experience.

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When I was last at KAASO in 2009, the Empowerment Group was little more than a chance for the women to gather and chat through the evening while weaving mats and rolling magazine beads. It’s amazing the changes that have taken place over the last two years. The group is now well organised, motivated, determined and ultimately empowered. Their microloans project is thriving and helping solo mothers to send their children to school and feed their families. I felt humbled to be so warmly welcomed into their mud and thatch homes and embarrassed by their generosity as we were showered with gifts of avocados, melons, pineapples, cassava, matooke and even a feisty rooster which Rose carried for the rest of the day flung over her shoulder. I kept my distance behind while its eyes watched me the whole way home. That night we feasted on chicken. Life is immediate in the village.

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I was happy to find Kim still living in Kabira and we shared many special evenings watching the sun set over KAASO hill with warm beers on intricately woven flax mats while long-horned cattle roamed. Sonia and Paul were also still in Masaka running their incredible Afripads business which provides washable sanitary pads for girls in the villages; a necessary but often-neglected need. I spent a blissful weekend staying with them in their home looking out across the valley of green sharing stories of life in Uganda and beyond.

 

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An old friend from Wellington surprised me by turning up in Uganda two years ago and he is still living there now. John came with me back to the village from Kampala one weekend to see this world I have talked incessantly about. We caused quite a stir arriving on the back of a motorbike with John balancing his guitar between me and my flax bag. The children were thrilled to meet another guitar player and my lone strumming was filled out by John’s chords and thus the guitar population of KAASO was doubled. We sat under a tree and played every song the children knew and then every song we knew while the children watched on with interest as the music of Neil Finn wafted through the village.

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It is amazing to have such inspiring friends living in Uganda and my experience would not have been the same without them – John, Sonia, Paul and Kim webale nyo for ‘somehow’ everything. We will meet!

Although school was meant to break on 12th August, the term was cut short by two weeks when drastically rising food prices and overwhelming inflation (the Ugandan shilling was recently ranked the worst currency in the world) meant the school could not afford to feed the children any longer. So they were sent home. Except that many of the parents could not afford food for the same reasons as the school and so by the end of the day, over one hundred children remained, unwanted, their parents unable to bear the burden. It was painful to watch.

Slowly, slowly over the coming days, the school emptied out leaving only the final year students who were preparing for their exams, studying from dawn till dusk as well as the handful of small children who really, really had nowhere to go. It was heartbreaking to think they had no one in the world and yet they still greeted me each morning with a smile and gratefully accepted the puzzles, coloured pencils, paper and books I threw their way. I bravely attempted guitar lessons with an eclectic class of 5, 6 and 7 year olds. Their little fingers could barely grip the strings but they managed to crank out G, A and C and I was very proud of them!

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A major highlight of my time in Uganda was visiting the children I had arranged sponsorships for in 2009. Family and friends generously responded to my request as I was leaving KAASO to help those unable to move onto secondary school and to see these children now in their second year of high school doing so well and overwhelmed by gratitude moved me to tears. Over the past month I have bumped my way along countless roads, tracks, paths and potholes to visit all 7 children and it has been worth every second.

I left the village on Saturday with a million and nine memories and another promise to return. And, having kept my word once, I know I will be back. This is not a short-term relationship; it is forever. I drove to Kampala with Dominic and an Irish volunteer, along with Susan the Secretary & Teacher Lillian who wanted to see the airport for the first time. My dusty backpack was tossed in the boot along with a last minute suitcase purchased to fit the gifts showered on me before my departure. Then, just as we were pulling out of the school, two men appeared from the village with boxes on their shoulders which they loaded into the boot on top of my bags. There was a strange grunting sound followed by the most terrible smell and then a little snout appeared out of one of the boxes… Piglets. Our precious cargo provided endless entertainment on the drive up to the capital and was a fitting farewell after my chicken-in-the-face welcome two years ago.

As I left KAASO and said my final goodbyes, Teacher Sarah took my hands and said with her beautiful wide smile, ‘Thank you for loving us.’

I could barely find the words to reply that it was impossible not to love them.

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