The swinging pendulum of village life

Sitting at my little desk, clean and fresh after my evening bucket bathe, listening to the children out the window singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – a song that has never gotten old since my first trip in 2009. Now each generation teaches the new one the songs we sang and I’m forever smiling as I listen to the songs of my childhood wafting through the school.

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The past ten days have flown by in a rush of excitement, colour, laughter and whirling dust and I already feel myself wishing time could slow down. But as surely as the rains continue to fall, the days march on.

We arrived last Monday to an exceptionally overwhelming welcome – and that’s saying something for Uganda. Dominic and Rose had driven up to Kampala to meet us and drove us down to the village. I had warned Nath of the reception that was likely to be waiting for us at school, but I was totally unprepared to find that the welcome extended to the main road, some 10km from KAASO itself. Teacher Sarah and a busload of children were at the turn off from the main road onto the dirt road singing and dancing, beating drums and shaking shakers. Through the darkness, they launched themselves at us in welcome and then proceeded to escort us thorough the villages back to KAASO, the children hanging out the windows singing and cheering as we drove, the teachers jumping out in every village to do a celebration dance and announce our arrival as we passed. Pulling into the school gates, the entire school was waiting to meet us, leading us down to the main hall where the festivities continued with speeches, traditional dances and musical performances. As if they had read the email I wrote on the eve of our arrival, they all said time and time again that we should feel at home – for we had, in fact, come home. They told Nath that this was my home so it was now also his and he should “feel free”. It certainly was a night to remember.

In true Ugandan fashion, our world quickly plummeted from a great high to a terrible low. On the way down from Kampala, we had stopped into a clinic to visit the father of Juliet, one of our beautiful sponsored students, who had collapsed the previous day and was on oxygen, struggling to breathe. Juliet’s mother and brothers were at his bedside while Juliet, was away at her nursing school. We left the clinic around 7pm on Monday evening. Nine hours later, Juliet’s father was dead. We all went to the burial where there were close to five hundred people all mourning the loss of this great man. Many of the students from the Kiwi Sponsorships were there in support of Juliet and it was bittersweet to finally introduce Nath to Henry and so many others he had heard about for years, while trying to also be there a heartbroken Juliet. Antonio, Juliet’s father, while unable to pay school fees for his children, had instead supported the school in a self-taught engineering capacity, pumping water from the pond and running the school’s maize mill. He will be sadly missed.

The pendulum swung the next day when we all headed into Kyotera, to the grounds of the newly formed Kyotera District, a breakaway from Rakai District, where we were to meet not one, but two African presidents. Uganda’s President Museveni was coming to Kyotera with President Magufuli of Tanzania in celebration of a new oil pipeline due to run the length of Uganda and down into Tanzania. While the idea of ripping up the land in Uganda to run an oil pipeline to Tanzania somewhat terrifies me, the chance to watch KAASO perform before two African leaders was too much of a draw card to keep me away. We arrived diligently at 9am for the function, only to wait another 8 hours before the presidents pulled in on their armed convoy. During that time, we witnessed several school performances, endured ear-drum bursting “background” music and watched in wonder as a road was built through the mud from that morning’s rains to ensure the presidents’ cars didn’t get stuck in the bog. Finally, at 5pm, police cars came screaming across the newly-laid gravel road and behind them, the two presidents stood waving out of their open topped armed 4WDs and took their seats on their red-carpeted floor under their decorated tent. It definitely was a sight to be seen. In spite of my skepticism at how this new pipeline was possibly going to benefit the local people, I couldn’t help but get swept away watching the KAASO students perform for the presidents. They were the only school to do so and the thousand-plus crowd cheered them on, seriously impressed. After performing, the children got to meet the presidents and both Rose and I had tears streaming down our faces like proud mothers as we watched our students shake hands with the presidents. To think that this school began 18 years ago in a grass-thatched hut to help young orphans get the chance of an education and now they were the only school chosen in the whole district to perform before their nation’s 31-year leader. How far they have come.

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The water project is now complete and it’s just amazing to watch as the daily rains come pounding down and the water flows satisfyingly from the roof into the gutters and is then channeled down into the waiting tanks. Since the project was completed, KAASO has not had to pump water once from the pond, saving over 300,000 Ugandan shillings (close to USD$100) in less than three weeks. I’m so grateful to all those who played their part in making this happen. I’ll be sending more photos and a full report later!

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Image 16-11-17 at 9.23 AM (1)My sponsor visits have started I have been catching up with students at KAASO and across the country, hearing their stories and news from this past year. My heart was full to bursting as I saw Caroline off on her way to nursing school, one of my original Kiwi Sponsorships students who failed her Senior Five year in the days before we had students branch off to vocational courses after Senior Four. Caroline pulled herself together and not only went on to pass her Senior Six final exams but also got accepted into nursing school. She’s on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor and I couldn’t be prouder. Today we drove inland along bumpy dusty roads to visit both Teddy and Irene, two of our nurses who will be graduating next Sunday, the completion of four years of secondary studies and two-and-a-half year nursing certificates. They are now making their own way in the world and it’s such a joy to watch these students take their futures into their own hands.

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Nath and I sat with Rose and Teacher Gerald yesterday to talk through the progress of the Suubi Sanyu fund and I was absolutely blown away. Over 15 loans have been taken so far and almost all of them paid off on time. There have been loans to grow maize, to hire a sound system for a Christmas party, to start up a chapatti business, to create a piggery, to plant a passion fruit garden, even to buy a fridge for the new KAASO canteen. For all those who bought the beautiful African-fabric placemats last year, I’m happy to announce that Nurse Jackie has already made close to 200 place mats, which I’ll be bringing home to sell. Seeing the determination in these students’ eyes is so immensely satisfying and I can’t wait to see the fund continue to grow and inspire these budding entrepreneurs.

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Every day I’m here, I feel a sense of urgency to do more, to see more, to help more and to learn more. Nath and I have spent countless hours discussing the school’s ever-growing vision and priority list and the scope is huge. But it’s so exciting to be part of something where a little goes such a long way and where everything is so greatly appreciated. It’s humbling to play a small role in that, and endlessly satisfying to watch the school go from strength to strength.

We have shared some wonderful evenings up KAASO hill with Kim and are looking forward to catching up with John and Mirriam in Kampala this weekend. I love my huge Ugandan family and am so incredibly excited to share it with my Kiwi and Aussie families. Next time I write, the volunteer house will be full to bursting with 10 muzungus…. I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope with all the love and excitement of next Friday’s wedding without bursting but I will do my “level best”.

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As Close to Coming Home

On a plane bound for Uganda, I sit reflecting on the journey that got me to this point.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I left Uganda for the first time. I had just spent six months in the village of Kabira living at a school called KAASO and, while I knew that something unbelievably special had happened, I didn’t realise that the entire course of my life had forever changed. I had no idea that eight years later I’d be headed back to Uganda for my eight visit – with my husband at my side. I could never have imagined that the village would be planning a Ugandan wedding for us, that both of our families would be flying from all corners of the globe to be there for that most humbling, most incredible day. And yet, here I am. Here we are.

Eight years ago, I left KAASO with a promise to sponsor a boy called Henry. A few other wonderful souls had also agreed to sponsor children that, without support, would not have made it past primary school and onto secondary school. I was filled with hope and optimism that we could make a difference in the lives of these few children. Within a couple of months of my return from Uganda that first time, all seven children I hoped to find sponsors for were supported. I didn’t realise that this was to be the start of the Kiwi Sponsorships, a programme that today helps 55 children – now young adults – to have the chance of an education. Nine of those students have since graduated and later this month we will celebrate the graduations of three more. We are making progress and, slowly but surely, changing lives.

Eight years ago, there was no such thing as the Suubi Sanyu Fund. I had sat through countless meetings of the Women’s Empowerment Group – now the KAASO Empowerment Group – which enables members to access the microloan fund that has so helped the community that surrounds KAASO. I had witnessed the phenomenal impact this fund was having on the lives of adults in the area. And as I watched the children from the Kiwi Sponsorships become teenagers and then grow taller than me, I realised that they too needed access to capital, a chance to get ahead. Together with Nath, we created a fund that now enables KAASO students and graduates to get loans that would have previously been unavailable to them. It’s a source of great pride to see these young entrepreneurs take their futures into their own hands and I can’t wait to tour the various projects this fund has enabled – and to show Nath what the vision we dreamed up together has helped to create.

Eight years ago, I decided to write a book. Across the dust-strewn pages of dozens of notebooks, I scrawled stories, thoughts, observations and countless words of wisdom spoken by Dominic, Rose and the other inspiring people I met in the village, ideas I hoped to one day share with a wider audience. Multiple drafts, rewrites, days, months and years later, my manuscript is now finished and I hope with all my heart I will soon find the right agent and then publisher who shares my passion for this story so I can bring it to the world.

Eight years ago, I didn’t know the boy sitting next to me. It would be another two and a half years after leaving the village before he walked onto the rooftop of a Newport hotel in Rhode Island and changed my life. It still feels surreal that now, one year and eight months after daddy-o rowed me ashore in the Bay of Islands to marry the boy of my dreams, I am about to repeat that experience – minus the boat, the beach, the ukulele orchestra and the naked people (yes, we got married somewhat unintentionally on a nudist beach…!). While our ‘real’ wedding has already taken place – as Nath keeps reminding me – the wedding that is about to take place is just as special to me. Not many people are fortunate enough to have the incredible honour of having a wedding thrown for them – not to mention one in a village a world and a half from home. We haven’t even touched down on African soil and yet I already feel it in my bones, in my heart, this overwhelming sense of anticipation and humbling gratitude, which creates tears of excitement that keep threatening to spill from my eyes.

Eight years ago I left Uganda at the end of my first African journey. Since then, I have lived the life of a continent-hopping nomad, calling many places home along the way. It’s an adventure for sure, but sometimes it’s hard to define ‘home’ when your horizons are forever changing. But one thing is for sure – returning to my Ugandan family with my husband at my side, soon to be joined by my Kiwi and Aussie families, is as close to coming home as it gets. It seems that now, more than ever, the words I read at our wedding in New Zealand last year ring true:

“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.”

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