Cutting the ribbon

Sitting in my room looking across at my wall plastered with hand-drawn welcome messages, painted pictures and banners welcoming me home. Outside the music is blaring as the children bounce to the beat, scrubbing up a mountain of soapy laundry suds. It’s washing day in the village. And god it’s good to be here.

My annual welcoming committee seems to grow each year and this time, Nicko and I were met not only by Rose and Dominic but also the new head teacher, Teacher Sam and Courtney, our fellow Kiwi volunteer (whose boyfriend I worked with in the Greek Islands – it’s a small world!). We reached KAASO where the school term had already ended but our arrival was colourful as always. The children had strung a ribbon across the school gates and stood waiting for us, squealing with excitement, waving us in. Teacher Sarah invited me out of the car and handed me a pair of scissors. I cut the ribbon and cheers rang through the village: we had arrived.

The best part about coming back during the holidays is that the sponsor students are back from secondary school and I am reunited with these handsome young men and beautiful young women whom I first met as hopeful little children almost seven years ago. Some of them are now finishing school, others graduating from vocational courses, while others are preparing to start courses that will help send them on their way to getting jobs which will enable them to support both themselves and their families. I have learned so much on this journey over the years about how the schooling system works, how educational courses operate, the opportunities available to children here – and the challenges they face. With Dominic and Rose guiding me every step of the way, I am proud to say that we are making progress. Our graduation celebration is set for next Tuesday and I can’t wait to recognise the tremendous dedication these students have shown over the past six years.

Everyone has been so thrilled to finally meet ‘Brother Nick’ – family is everything here and it means so much to the KAASO family to finally meet the last member of the Blackman family. Needless to say, Nathan’s future visit is much-awaited (which will coincide with our Ugandan wedding…).

Nick has joined me on my village visits over the week, walking muddy tracks through villages to meet families who welcome us with open arms into their homes and we catch up on the year that has been. As always, it is incredibly humbling and it has been amazing to share this journey with Nick – one he has been following from afar for years but there’s a huge difference between reading words on a screen and kneeling on mud floors with the people that feature in these emails. It was with great joy that I watched Nick and Henry meet for the first time. They are now brothers and have spent many happy hours together catching up on Nick’s sailing – with Henry dressed head to toe in Nick’s sailing gear.

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Life in the village has been busy as ever. The Pope flew in two days after our arrival which saw the entire country transfixed as this predominantly Catholic African nation welcomed their beloved spiritual leader. Dominic, as only Dominic could do, managed to get an invite to meet the Pope and he now grins as he shakes everyone’s hand back in the village – sharing his holy blessings. This boy from the village who now runs a school, is a mentor throughout the whole community and who inspires a generation, never ceases to amaze me.

Nick’s journey is ending but mine will continue for another few weeks and I am excited to continue my visits and to keep moving forward with all the new projects we are undertaking. It’s been amazing to see the progress of the past year – the solar is now fully functioning and powers the entire school, the water pump brings running water to the school each day, the school truck continues to be loaded to the heavens transporting supplies around the community and the chickens are thriving. Thanks so much to all those of you who have contributed to these projects over the past year. Your donations go a long way here.

Sending much love from beneath the banana palms.

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It’s time to row inland

What an incredible whirlwind the past year has been. As most of you know, over summer in Wangi, Nath proposed with a handmade ring of sailing rope at the dinner table with both sets of parents watching on in speechless delight. We resumed our colourful magical mystery tour around the globe, hopping from 49er regattas to America’s Cup events before packing our life into a container and setting up camp in Bermuda. In the midst of it all, I did an incredibly enlightening writing course at UCLA where I met my inspiring mentor, Jennie, and, after working from satellite desks around the globe all year, last week I finished my manuscript while bobbing on a houseboat in Buenos Aires. It seemed only appropriate – it’s certainly been a year full of adventures.

Houseboat living was a hilarious juggling act. It turned out our floating homes were actually on an island up a river which meant that Nath and Goobs would go by RIB to the sailing club each morning while Claire and I rowed our tippy little dinghy around the marina in search of wifi to upload Claire’s graphic designs and my latest writing submissions. Thunder and lightning storms, torrential rain and power outages made some days more challenging than others, particularly when we lost water for three days but, as I keep reminding Nath, it’s all just practice for when we sail off into the sunset and cruise around the world together. He just smiles. One day, I will to teach him the pleasure of sailing slowly. But in the meantime, with the Olympics and the Cup just over the horizon, I’m happy for him to keep sailing as fast as he can!

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Yesterday evening, Nath and I farewelled our little houseboat, stacked my tower of exploding bags into the dinghy (plus a violin – thanks Alex, young Mark will be over the moon!!) and paddled ashore. We boarded separate flights headed in opposite directions and now it’s time for this girl to row inland. Thus I find myself on my own in the hazy midst of a two-day journey that will take me from a river in Argentina to a village in Uganda.

But I won’t be alone for long. Tomorrow I will be stepping into the customs hall of Entebbe Airport where the immigration officers are going to be baffled by not just one but now two Blackmen in Uganda – five minutes after I land, so does my brother. I can’t wait to share the incredible world of KAASO with Nicko who has been hearing about Uganda for so long and now he’s joining me on my annual pilgrimage back to the village. A huge thank you to Nicko not only for having the faith to follow me down the red dirt road – something I hope many more of you will do one day – but also for patiently receiving the bombardment of parcels from sponsors that I have been directing his way. Gifts for the children now take up 28 of his 30 kilo baggage allowance leaving him not a lot of space for his own clothes or belongings. That’s dedication. Luckily it’s warm on the equator.

This, my sixth trip back to Uganda, is a particularly special one. Six and a half years ago, I first tumbled onto African soil, wide-eyed, green, naïve, hopeful and full of aspirations to save the world. I quickly worked out the whole world might be a bit ambitious but I had to at least do something. Then I met Henry. He was twelve-years old, he had a smile as wide as the Sahara and enormous dreams to match. He wanted to go to secondary school. Thanks to mama and daddy-o, that dream has come true for Henry. And thanks to my other amazing sponsors, there are another 31 children able to continue their education. As I write, Henry and the original five sponsor students of 2009 are about to graduate from six years of secondary school. Nicko and I will be there to celebrate this incredible achievement and I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.

For those of you who have followed my trips since day one, a heartfelt thanks for your continuing support. Every single word of encouragement, every message, every conversation has spurred me on, enabling me to do what I do and I’m forever grateful for that. For those who are just joining the journey now, welcome. I hope you will enjoy being carried through the villages in my dusty backpack as much as I love sharing this adventure with you all.