Sun sets in the west

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As the sun set in the west, we flew east, out of Uganda and out of Africa. I’m now sitting in Dubai airport full of tinsel, fake snow and bling, neon signs flashing in my tired eyes, trying to convince me I need their diamond jewellery, gold watches, top shelf spirits and overpriced goods. There’s even a Lamborghini on display. Overwhelming to say the least after the week I’ve just had. My cup of tea feels like all that’s keeping these dusty feet grounded.

My trips to Uganda have always been packed to bursting but I feel like this past week has surpassed all others. Refugee camps, solar budgets, Christmas parties, countless visits to far-flung families, several tearful farewells, a journey across the country to visit Rose’s father, a final meeting in the back seat of Dominic’s car flying through traffic en route to the airport… It’s been a busy time to say the least and my head is still spinning trying to take it all in. Where to start?

I returned to KAASO from Kampala on Monday, not riding co-pilot as I had hoped with my solar technician but on the back of a boda to the heaving taxi park where we negotiated our ride on a bus headed south and spent the next four hours sweltering sitting on the engine jammed in between sacks, boxes and of course the obligatory chickens. The pounding Kampala rains made it a steamy affair and I was immensely happy to return to my village home that afternoon. The solar story is long to say the least, and ongoing – negotiations and discussions continued right up until this morning when I had to cut them short to make my flight in time but we still hope to be able to have things resolved before the children flood back through the KAASO gates next year. I will keep you posted…

On Tuesday we packed all of the sponsor children into two cars and with me at the wheel of one and Harriet, the other volunteer, at the wheel of the other, we set off, headed towards the Tanzanian border. At Rose’s suggestion, we were to visit Sango Bay refugee camp on an educational tour for the sponsor children to remind them just how lucky they were. And that they did.

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Not really realising what a refugee camp was, the students dressed in their Sunday best, and on passing through the security checkpoint, were soon surrounded by swarms of wide-eyed children, hopeful of receiving some of the clothing the students had gathered to distribute and no doubt keen for a bit of excitement to break up the monotony of their lives in the camp. It’s a veritable no-man’s-land – many of the inhabitants are in fact Ugandans who left their homeland some 50 years ago in search of more land in Tanzania. Last year the Tanzanian government decided they didn’t want these foreigners in their country anymore and exiled people in droves. Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese were given warning of the impending exile but few believed it to be serious until soldiers arrived on trucks and forcibly removed them, leaving them time to take nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They trucked them across the border and handed them over to the Ugandan government who sent them to Sango Bay refugee camp. The camp now houses 5,000 people, over half of which are children. Unicef and other NGOs are helping to supplement the government supplies and rations in the camp and there’s a makeshift school for over 1,000 children but conditions are pretty dire. I felt uncomfortable being a spectator to such a scene but speaking to the students later, it was clear the visit had had quite an impact and it was interesting to watch the tables turned – the sponsor students are largely orphaned or with little family support and it’s easy to think of them as hard done by but here they were distributing their own clothing to those in even greater need. Everything is relative.

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The following day I threw a Christmas party for the sponsor students and those children still left at KAASO. There are a handful of kids whose parents or guardians have “failed to pick them” as Rose tells me, so they remain drifting around KAASO looking slightly lost and downbeat. So it was a delight to watch their eyes light up when I told them that of course they too were invited to the Christmas party and they eagerly took their place in line to enjoy the feast we had prepared. Henry and I did our annual Christmas tree trip to his mother’s garden where I stood holding a rusty ladder while he hacked at branches with a machete and the car was soon full of the smell of Christmas. His mum took the lead in decorating and soon the classrooms were strung with decorations, balloons and streamers I’d brought with me from San Fran and the Christmas tree was dotted with tropical flowers that the boys brought from the gardens. As I sit writing, Dubai airport is playing ‘Feed the world – do they know it’s Christmas time at all…’ Yes, yes they do.

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The Kiwi Sponsor Committee we formed last year is still going strong (Ugandans LOVE committees) and every holiday they’ve been meeting to discuss the term, write letters to their sponsors (tragically both packages of letters from the last two meetings were lost in the mail but this time I’ve got all the letters safely in my hand luggage) and catch up on school life. Henry lead the proceedings as the Chairman of the committee and Dominic and Rose gave inspiring speeches. Rose talked of the “treasure of education,” reminding them just how lucky they were to have the support they did, encouraging them to “try your level best to find your way” but not to “jump for something – go step by step.” Dominic has the uncanny ability of being able to get across a serious message while still having the room in fits of laughter, myself included. He stressed the importance of the KAASO family, something we all belong to and that even though there are ups and downs, if you are family, you love each other regardless and will tolerate people for all that they are. Rose had the final word, thanking me so much for somehow managing to find sponsors for all these students and therefore changing the course of their lives. Her words reduced me to tears with their simple beauty: “Emma is not just a volunteer, she’s not just Emma, she’s a big lady – even if she looks a bit small. You see – she can create a way where it isn’t.” But that thanks is not mine – it’s to all of you who help, support, encourage and follow my journeys to KAASO. You help me create the way and for that I thank you.

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I managed to catch up with all 25 sponsor students – in their homes, at their schools or back at KAASO. It was nothing short of epic as what started as trying to help one 13-year-old Henry get to secondary school has become a kind of mentorship as I sit and discuss the futures of each and every student. It can be both exhausting and heartbreaking but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are now four students at nursing school, two doing veterinary certificates, four more about to finish secondary school next year and range of others at various stages of their schooling. My dream is that one day they will all be qualified in one way or another, they will be working and able to support themselves and their families, especially the incredible grandmothers who tirelessly keep families afloat across Uganda, and that they will go on to become role models in their communities as a way of repaying the support they have had both from their sponsors and from the KAASO family.

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My final morning at KAASO, I went to visit Damian’s tomato garden. I didn’t know what to find as the days had run away from me and it had been almost a week since our first discussion. Turning the corner on that dusty path on a scorching morning, I couldn’t have been more impressed. He had slashed two thirds of his half acre plot, dug holes, filled them with manure, planted seedlings and carefully covered each one with homemade banana palm shades to protect them from the relentless equatorial sunshine. Hoe in hand, he was hard at work when I arrived and as he came bounding over to meet me, he couldn’t stop grinning. He was radiant and when I asked if he was enjoying himself I thought his face might explode from smiling so much. He was in his element.

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We went through the budget and he showed me his calculations of each and every shilling I had given him so far and outlined how he planned to spend the rest. I walked away feeling that if nothing else, that one project made every minute of waiting for this trip worthwhile.

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I left KAASO biting back tears as I said my goodbyes to Stellah, the girl I sponsor whose 17th birthday we celebrated together on Thursday, Henry and all the other remaining children. I know I will be back next year but it’s always hard giving those last hugs and turning out the gates with a sea of sad eyes and little waves following me. Loaded with children, suitcases and crops to take to Kampala relatives, I drove Dominic’s car with Rose as my navigator up to Kampala, distributing people and cargo along the way. We arrived late and hit Kampala’s notorious traffic, ending up thoroughly wedged around a roundabout in a pile up of cars, trucks, taxi vans and suicidal motorbikes, of which I inadvertently managed to hit two along the way. Fortunately no one was hurt, just a bunch of shouting at fist-waving at this crazy muzungu driver.

We set off the next morning to visit Rose’s father, ‘just outside’ Kampala – what turned out to be over a two hour drive away. It was a long and dusty road but wow was it worth it. Husband to eight wives, father to over thirty children (Rose lost count at 25) and a prominent magistrate in the area, her father is a fascinating man. In spite of his success, he insisted that all of his children learn the value of money, that food must be worked for and nothing taken for granted. Rose grew up with 15 siblings her age and together they would work in the gardens to ensure there was food on the table. When he retired, her father decided to open a primary school next door to his house to help educate needy children from the area and to keep himself busy. Rose clearly took after her father. Well-spoken, highly educated with excellent English, her father sat with me and thanked me profusely for coming all that way to visit him, saying he was honoured by the effort I’d made to “put him in my programme.” As we spoke, he sat looking from me to Rose and finally burst out laughing saying it was confirmed. I looked at him in confusion – what? It turns out that except for the colour of our skin, he believed that Rose and I looked so similar we could be sisters and henceforth declared that I was a daughter of his and part of his family. It was my turn to be honoured.

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My final night was spent at John and Mirriam’s where I watched on with amusement as Rose and her brother tried lasagne for the first time and her brother’s young boys raced around the front courtyard in John and Mirriam’s daughter’s pram, captivated by this alien contraption. As I sat at the dining table, enjoying a precious glass of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc which John had been saving for a special occasion, I felt so incredibly grateful to have this amazing network of friends who have come to feel like family in an unlikely corner of the world. The best part is knowing that I will always be going back and that these relationships are forever.

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Fittingly, my last day in Uganda was hectic. Dominic was meant to join us in the morning, coming up on the early bus from KAASO as he had had two weddings to attend in the village the previous day. Of course, the bus never showed and so he missed the meeting Rose and I were having with Rotary John. We were just driving out of his compound gates for the airport when a motorbike came flying in with Dominic hanging off the back, grinning as he jumped off the bike and into the car. All the way to the airport I sat discussing the future of KAASO with Dominic and Rose, hearing their hopes and dreams and brimming with pride. Every time I come back here I am reminded, yet again, of how incredible those two are and how lucky I am to have stumbled across this little gem in a tiny village in the middle of the African continent. What they have done, what they do and all I know they will do, inspires me endlessly and as I look around this glittering consumerist world of Dubai at Christmas, I close my eyes and picture all those little faces I left behind and I am reminded of what’s important in life. And for that I feel truly, truly grateful.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas with those you love.

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And rain will make the tomatoes grow

Time in Uganda is a funny thing. While a single day can seem to span for a week with so much happening and so much to get your head around, somehow a week can pass in a day, leaving you wishing there was more time. This time two weeks ago I was arriving in the village; in just one week I will be on a plane home. I wish there was more time but I am ever grateful for my annual visits, especially this one which made me realise with newfound intensity just how much I value my time in Uganda.

Last Sunday was KAASO’s Speech Day which was a huge celebration marking the end of the school year, combined with the graduation of the gorgeous nursery children who are now promoted to Primary One.

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It was a moving day, with children of all ages performing before their parents and guardians, singing, dancing, drumming, moving and shaking. I was so proud watching them all, those I first met almost six years ago, now all grown up. Brenda did an incredible job of her performance and received a huge reception from the crowd.

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Dominic gave a heartfelt speech thanking me for all I had done for KAASO and I was humbled by the gratitude and kindness that flooded my way from everyone I met. I still marvel at how far this school has come over the past few years and how lucky I feel to have stumbled across this very special little corner of the world, nestled in a tiny village amidst banana palms and mango trees.

Speech Day ended with a disco which saw people from 3 to 93 up dancing in the school’s front courtyard. We were hugely fortunate that the rains held off as we’re in the midst of the rainy season and the previous day had seen the most torrential downpour I’ve ever experience in Uganda with pounding rains turning dust to mud, flowing in rivers through the school for hours. I can’t help but smile as I write, as the thumping music from a nearby bar pounds out “I bless the rains down in Africa.”

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In the midst of the dancing, the school year officially ended and the children started to flood out of the school gates with their mattresses, metal suitcases and worldly belongings on their heads. I tried to farewell everyone but it was overwhelming trying to take in the mass exodus of over 500 children who marched like ants out the school gates, spreading out across the country for the holidays with parents, grandparents and distant relatives.

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The consolation of all these departing children is the return of the sponsor children and every day it seems I am met with another flying hug from a newly returned secondary student. The children I met in 2009 are now 18 and 19-year olds who dwarf me and have matured into a bunch of incredible young adults. I went to Masaka on Friday to pick up Henry and David from school and beamed with pride as these two handsome young men in crisp white shirts and ties showed me around their school, grinning as they explained their responsibility to set an example for the younger children as they are now the ‘elders’ and role models of the school – next year is their last year of secondary school before they will head out into the world.

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It makes me so immensely proud to see all these grown up students back at KAASO, helping around the school and guiding and inspiring the younger children. I have been meeting with each of the sponsor students, catching up on their year, hearing of their hopes and dreams and what they hope to become given the incredible boost they have had by being sponsored through secondary school. I listen to their dreams of becoming doctors, vets, pharmacists, nurses, businessmen… Most importantly, what has impressed me this time is that these students have grasped the concept that their sponsorships are not everlasting but amazing head starts in life which they must not take for granted. Those that are approaching the end of their studies are mapping out their next paths, working out how they can cultivate gardens and set up poultry projects and get jobs to help support themselves and their families and fund the next stages of their lives. It has been so heartening to meet with them all and to feel the overflowing gratitude towards their sponsors that pours from each and every one. I started this project five years ago, having no idea where it would lead, never imagining I would now have over 20 children being given the simplest gift of all, one we so often take for granted – an education.

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While sitting with one of the sponsor students last week, a new idea was born, one I hope will set a precedent and be the start of something truly incredible. He was explaining to me that he wanted to create his own tomato garden in the holidays which he could harvest before going back to school in early March. He lost both of his parents and in the holidays stays with his grandmother not far from KAASO in her small mud-brick hut where she takes care of half a dozen other orphaned grandchildren. He explained to me that his grandmother had a plot of land she was willing to give him for the project, all he lacked was the initial capital to get his tomatoes in the ground. Sitting together on the floor of my room, I listened intently as this 18-year old boy carefully explained the process of creating a tomato garden, the materials required and the costs involved. I was well and truly impressed. I gave him a blank sheet of paper and told him that if he could come back to me with a detailed budget and plan as to how he would achieve his goal, I would lend him the money. He looked at me in shock, clarified that I was serious, thanked me profusely and disappeared. Two hours later, he was back, budget in hand. Under the supervision of Teacher Sarah, the project is now underway and it’s something I hope will be the first of many such student-driven initiatives. It’s incredible what can be achieved with a whole lot of determination and a little bit of capital. He has been busy slashing the land with a machete and purchasing seedlings and manure and when I went to visit the land one evening he just smiled at me and said, “Madame Emma, thank you so much. Really, I am appreciating so much.” I can’t wait for the first bite of juicy tomato when I return next year.

With another volunteer at KAASO and a couple of others we picked up along the way, I ventured west to Queen Elizabeth park. I had never been to the Western Region and was amazed at the contrast in scenery. While Kabira overflows with green banana palms, fertile crops and striking red earth, Queen Elizabeth was a dry savannah with the spectacular Mt Rwenzori rising in the background, lakes George and Edward glistening in the sun and on the distant horizon, the hazy mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We followed packs of lions, were chased by territorial bull elephants, trekked chimpanzees through the rainforest and dined in the light of paraffin lanterns under the stars. It was amazing to see another part of Uganda and the vast diversity of this country, smaller than New Zealand in landmass but with a population almost 10 times our 4 million people.

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I travelled to Kampala yesterday, bumping into Kim along the way and we caught up on the progress of her malnutrition ward and the gardens she uses to feed her young patients during the crowded bus trip north. Dominic met me off the bus and together we met with solar companies in Kampala. Tomorrow morning I will travel alongside a solar technician back to the village as co-pilot in the truck of Solar Energy for Africa, hopefully one step closer to getting the solar system sorted. I had a lovely to catch up with John, a Kiwi friend who moved here in 2009, and his gorgeous two-year old daughter and have enjoyed staying with my dear friends Sonia and Paul, who I first met in 2009. AFRIpads, their business of washable sanitary pads has gone from strength to strength and is now helping girls not only in Uganda but in refugee camps and disaster areas around the world to cope with their monthly periods.

Every time I come to Uganda, I learn more and more about this country, its people, culture and life in the village. It’s a world of contrasts, a world that is deafening and peaceful, frantic and slow, contradictory and yet somehow, somehow, things make sense.

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“Thank you for loving us”

Greetings from under the shady palms of Uganda,

It hasn’t even been a week but I am well and truly back into the swing of things here in my Ugandan home. With a stomach full of fried grasshoppers (’tis the season…) and teeth sugar-coated from sweet sodas after a local school visit, I sit reflecting and trying to capture the past few days.

Rose surprised me at Entebbe airport, meeting me off my flight with Dominic and a bunch of roses wrapped in colourful cellophane. It was incredible to see her, I have always had to wait for the long journey south before being reunited with this amazing mother-to-600 and friend to me. The three of us chatted animatedly on the trip down to KAASO, catching up on all the latest news from KAASO and the surrounding community. We pulled in through the school gates after dark and I was overwhelmed by a 300-child choir serenading my return, their little ‘wimowaes’ ringing through the village. My room and the dining room were all hung with hand-drawn signs welcoming me home, plastic flowers adorned my mosquito net and balloons hung from my chair inviting me to ‘sit comfortably.’ It was good to be back.

I don’t know whether it was the postponement of my trip or simply the fact that I continue to return every year, but since being back I have felt an enormous sense of appreciation from everyone I meet for my annual visits and I am constantly showered by thanks and gratitude. “Thank you for loving us,” rings in my ears daily. “Really, you are loving us so much and we are so grateful for all you are doing and those people back home, eh, they are loving us too!” More than they could ever know.

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It’s the last week of the school term before breaking off for the Christmas holidays and the children are preparing with fervour for the upcoming speech day on Sunday at which I have been invited to be the guest of honour. It seems this is an event to rival any Broadway production as the school constantly rings with the sound of drumming and singing as the children practice over and over again, ensuring their Sunday performance to the parents and guardians will be perfect. Little Brenda, a girl I first met as a 6-year-old in 2009, is the main soloist and I feel so incredibly proud watching her move around the grassy stage, thinking back on the days when she was too shy to look me in the eye, never mind perform to a crowd. These continued visits help remind me how far these children and the school as a whole have come over the past 6 years and I am forever humbled to be part of something so extraordinary.

The children have also been enjoying picking up where we left off with our music sessions, singing with me under the shade of trees around the school grounds. Stephen, one of the Kiwi Sponsor students, is back from secondary school for the holidays and has been coming for daily guitar lessons. He learns so quickly and can’t stop beaming as he plays and it’s just a joy to see. What’s been even more rewarding has been watching him teach the guitar to other children at KAASO, some of the older children who have been singing with me since 2009 and have always wanted to learn to play. Now they have their chance and it’s coming from one of their own students, something I only could have dreamed of a few years ago.

In between rehearsals, music sessions and late-night catch ups over the dinner table with Rose, I have been working with Dominic to put together a solar budget to help bring back to life the system installed in 2009 which is no longer working. We have had many lengthy discussions, I have climbed multiple triple-decker bunks to photograph wiring systems and charge controllers, sat in solar offices in the nearby town of Kyotera waiting for men to arrive on the back of motorbikes bringing information and quotes. It’s a lengthy process but we are getting there slowly and I hope that by the time I leave we will be able to bring solar-powered light back to KAASO.

The Kiwi Sponsor students are slowly trickling back to KAASO as they finish up their year at school and now I find them helping around the compound, cooking, cleaning, sweeping, feeding chickens, bathing smaller children and doing all they can to help Dominic and Rose, their gratitude evident for the adopted parents who have supported them so much and enabled them to get to where they are. It is such a pleasure to see their smiling faces and we are planning a Christmas party for them all before I leave in December.

Every time I come back to Uganda I am reminded of how truly incredible this place is, how determined the children are to succeed against considerable odds, how dedicated Dominic and Rose are to helping them, how far KAASO continues to come and how much joy I receive from simply being here. There is, as always, a long way to go and many mountains still to climb, but as Rose said in the light of a dim bulb hanging over the dining table last night, “You can’t do everything, but at least you can do something.”

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