From my open window I look across the rooftops of Saint Germain in Paris, my bags packed beside me, ready to jump on this afternoon’s flight to San Francisco and the start of yet another chapter on this wild and wonderful journey. My well-loved backpack looks slightly out of context in my clean, white hotel room and while I managed to wash the dust off both my clothes and my feet, there is a kind of dust that remains within and cannot be washed off.
Uganda was, quite simply, magic. The very first time I went it felt like I was stepping off the beaten track, light years from my known world and everything was new and different and challenging and we spent our days grappling to understand our brave new world. My return last year with my parents I approached with curiosity – unsure whether I would have to acclimatise all over again or if it would feel natural to be back. Fortunately it was the latter and it was such an incredible thrill to watch my parents wholeheartedly embrace village life, which had come to feel strangely familiar to me.
This trip I didn’t know what to think. I knew it wouldn’t be the overwhelming head spin of the first time but I still wasn’t sure whether after a year away and the huge contrast with my life in Europe, adjusting to the village would be a challenge. From the minute I stepped off the plane and spotted Dominic’s beaming face through the crowd, it felt as normal as if I was arriving at Auckland airport. During the trip down to KAASO we chatted like old mates and it wasn’t until we pulled into the school gates to find a throng of children screaming my arrival home and Cherie and Kirsty standing there as if 2009 were yesterday, that the tears started to fall.
Two and half weeks is but a heartbeat in a place where so much happens in a day, where you want to find out every detail of every project that has developed since you left, where every conversation leaves you inspired to do more and where every second spent with the children leaves you grinning from ear to ear. This trip was a time of reconnecting. Of visiting old friends, of reviving once again our faith in the fact that KAASO truly is an incredible project and that, with barely any money, Dominic and Rose somehow manage to perform miracles to keep this school running. And the success of the school has been spilling out into the community who now have access to the library and computer lab that we built in 2009 which, thanks to the generosity of family, friends and workmates, is slowly filling with books and computers. Beyond our wildest dreams.
In my short time back in Uganda, I navigated countless atrocious roads to visit all thirteen children being sponsored through secondary school. With me at the wheel and Rose as my guide and copilot, we ran out of petrol, ended up wedged in potholes that seemed sure to devour us, got lost countless times, were refused entry into a school due to the fact that I was wearing long, baggy pants (rather than a skirt like a proper female) and ended up doing exactly what I had vowed to avoid – driving at night in a country where no one knows lights can be dimmed from full beam and everyone prefers to use your side of the road – particularly trucks. There was a lot of time spent in the ditch! But we survived the various journeys and the love, hope and overwhelming gratitude I felt from the children was worth every steering-wheel-gripping second.
In the year since my last visit, KAASO had received some great news: the school has finally been registered. Until then, it was not officially a school in the eyes of the Ugandan government and the pupils had to travel illegally on the back of the open school truck to sit their exams at another school. Thanks to a lot of determination and hard work, Dominic and Rose have now officially registered the school which is a huge step forward for KAASO. There are now 600 children ‘officially’ receiving a valuable education – an impressive achievement when you think back to 1999 when the school comprised of a single thatched hut and 12 young orphans.
However, there are certain regulations in being registered and one of those is that bunk beds should be double-decker – rather than KAASO’s stacks of triple-decker bunks. While the government doesn’t always get it right, this decision is one I agree with. The triple-decker bunks are uncomfortable, unhygienic and difficult for the smaller children to climb. Not to mention unsafe considering the outbursts of arson that have been rife across Ugandan schools. The fewer children per dormitory the better.
So, here’s where we come in. With Dominic and the other volunteers, we have put together a budget to build a new dormitory. Like Kiwi House, the foundations have been started but, again like Kiwi House, due to lack of funding, the bricks trail off where the money ends. There are many ways you can help and every donation, no matter how big or small will make a huge difference.
To give an example of the costs involved:
A single brick costs 4 US cents
A bag of cement costs US $13
Iron sheets for the roof are US $15 each
Big iron doors cost US $100
A tin of paint is US $2
And my old favourite, the roofing poles, are also $2 each
The total cost to complete the dormitory is 19,831,000 Ugandan shillings. That translates to around $8000 USD, $10,000 NZD or 6,500 euros. If any of you feel compelled to donate, please contact me and I will let you know how you can help.
Thank you all so much for your continued support and I’m not just talking financial – every email, every word of encouragement, every conversation I have had with you all fills me with hope and inspiration that people really do care. I can vouch with all my heart that KAASO is a worthwhile project, that Dominic and Rose work tirelessly and selflessly to give these children a chance – and they do so always with a smile.
As I take in my final views of Paris, I wonder, as I do so often, how it is one can move between two such disparate worlds. For me, it comes down to the people. In each of my two worlds I’m surrounded by genuine people with hearts of gold which means that no matter where I am, I feel at home.