Out of Africa

It is the beginning of the end. I am now in Kampala on the start of my long journey ‘home’. Home being London for 48 hours then the south of France where I will be working on the Louis Vuitton Trophy for three intense weeks before crossing the Atlantic on the good ship Sojourn… Nothing seems quite real and my head is spinning trying to comprehend the fact that I have, after six incredible months, left KAASO and will soon be out of Africa. Half a year seemed like such a long time from the outset and there were definitely times when it felt like time was standing still – when you’re tired, when you’re scared, when there are bats in your room, when the pump is broken and you have no water, when the solar power dies yet again and you’re sitting in darkness… But these last few days have flown by so quickly and now I’m left wondering where the time has gone. I will soon be sitting on a plane wondering if this was all a dream, knowing that I will never fully be able to comprehend all that has happened, all I have seen and done and been fortunate enough to have been a part of for the last six months. It’s overwhelming.

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This last week has been an extended farewell, a week of finality – final classes, final songs, final hugs, final smiles, final meals, final bucket bathes, final discos, final KAASO hill evenings, final goodbyes and, inevitably, final tears. It’s so difficult leaving such a special place not knowing when I will be back, not knowing when I will see these gorgeous little faces again. But one thing that has emerged over the past months is that there is no way I cannot return. Somehow, I will find a way to get back to this incredible world. I don’t think I could live here forever – I have missed the sea, missed family and friends, drinkable wine, food other than matooke and beans and I am a beach girl at heart – but Uganda will forever be a part of me, part of my history and a part of my soul and the idea of walking away forever is incomprehensible. So I will be back, this much I know. The ‘how’ will follow…

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Before leaving, I spent as much time as possible with the children, in classes and around the school, trying to make the most of my final days with them and making sure these memories were etched in my mind forever.

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The teachers tried to explain to the younger children that we were leaving and would not be coming back (for now) but I don’t quite think they understood. The older children certainly did though and we received floods of letters and notes asking us not to go and telling us that they will never forget us. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to leave.

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On the road

After a whirlwind of dust, discos, catastrophes, hospitals, illness, heartbreak, vino and ultimately laughter, we are at last on the road. In a Jack Kerouac-does-Africa sense of the word. We will be jumping on and off public transport as we journey across East Africa for the next six weeks. It’s going to be intense, amazing and I can’t wait.

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But first… Stories from the last couple of weeks. We arrived back at KAASO after our Nile adventure to be met with an epidemic of sickness. Children were lying everywhere in various states of disarray, burning with fever and delirious from malaria and other unidentified illnesses. It was heartbreaking to see and I have never felt so helpless. Here, it seems, there are two types of medicine – malaria medicine and panadol. If it’s malaria, you take malaria medicine. Anything else can be fixed by a panadol and a cup of syrupy juice. Apparently. Except for the other day, when Rose came back to school dressed in her beautiful gomesi. She had been at the funeral of a 17-year old girl who had died the previous day. I asked her how she had died.

‘Headache,’ was the reply.

I looked at her in disbelief. ‘She had a headache and… then she was dead??’

‘Yes,’ Rose said simply. ‘You know these village people, they won’t take someone to hospital until they’re in a coma.’

No, I don’t know.

It’s worlds away from all I’ve ever known. But that’s just the way it is. People here have such an acceptance of death, they understand the close proximity between life and death and people believe that there is nothing you can do about it. Just keep on going, hoping it’s not yet your turn.

I came back from class a few days later, buzzing from having had 50 five-year olds clapping and dancing, only to turn the corner to be met with a sea of bodies sprawled across the dusty ground. I was horrified and asked them what they were waiting for. The nurse. They were so hot and half of them still wearing their woolen jumpers in the scorching sun so I took them off and stood helplessly wondering what on earth I could possibly do. Endongo. My guitar. I ran inside and came back carrying this most prized possession which is still met every time with wide eyes and shy smiles. I sat down next to Brenda, a tiny girl from my P1 class and began to play ‘You are my Sunshine’. Soon there were little faces popping up all around me, lighting up in smiles, those that had the energy sitting up and singing along quietly. It wasn’t much but at least it was something. It helped to pass the time until the nurse arrived and gave them hope that at least someone cared and wanted to spend time with them when they had no parents to do just that.

So in the midst of all this sickness, I guess it was only a matter of time before one of us fell prey to it. I was the lucky one. Fortunately it wasn’t malaria but I was hit by some chronic stomach bug which left me doubled over in bed wanting to die. Kirsty was a wonderful nurse, giving me plenty of drugs and forcing me to drink electrolyte solution tasting so foul I couldn’t help but wonder if the people making it had ever tried it – especially when you feel like you have an army marching through your belly…. And then a few hours later, Kirsty was struck down so the two of us lay in bed, writhing in pain and taking solace in the fact that at least if we died, we’d die together. After what felt like forever (in reality only two days) it passed and we are now fit and healthy. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat maize porridge again which was what I’d eaten just before the pain started. Not a major loss.

I was one of the lucky ones. My illness left as quickly as it came. Others have not been so lucky. Two days ago I was walking through the school when Claire, one of the tiny girls from nursery came stumbling along looking awful. I crouched down to speak to her and quickly realised she could hardly breathe and was struggling with each breath. We brought her back to the house where Cherie tried to give her a spoonful of medicine but she vomited it straight back up over me. We needed urgent help. So I’m standing in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere with a seriously ill child who has no family for miles and we need to get her to hospital but there is no transport. It’s a terrifying feeling. I became more and more panicked as the girls tried desperately to find a boda boda to take her and I held her as she battled for breath. Finally one came and I jumped onto it with Claire and the school secretary. Half an hour of bumping along the dustiest roads with the worlds largest potholes (you could picnic in one), me clutching Claire, my ear to her head to make sure she was still breathing, we finally reached the hospital where, amazingly, the doctor saw us straight away. Sorry to the lady already in the room with her coughing baby.

It was infuriating not knowing what was going on – no one here asks questions. Like the girl who died of ‘headache’, you trust the doctors blindly and don’t bother to even ask what the problem is. Doctor knows best. Fortunately the doctor put up with my frantic tirade of questions and diagnosed it as an allergic reaction to the ‘environment’ which had swollen her breathing tubes and caused them to spasm. Or something along those lines. There was one moment of laughter when he first said she had allergies and I asked to what – food? He looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said that she probably hadn’t developed a sudden allergy to porridge, posho or beans – the only three things the children here are given to eat. They have eaten these all their life and will probably continue to do so. There is no variety. Continue reading

Crossing borders & disco dancing

Another scorching day in the town of Kyotera where children still run down the street chasing us with cries of muzungu! I don’t think I will ever again feel so famous as I do in Uganda. It’s funny that after almost a month here we feel as if we are beginning to blend in, yet every time we venture outside the grounds of KAASO we are reminded of how much we stick out, the colour of our skin blinding white in contrast to these faces that live under the scorching African sun.

The last few days have been yet another whirlwind adventure – the story of my life currently. Dominic took us to the government school that he runs down near the Tanzanian border. It was an eye-opener to say the least. All the time we have been here we have been taking our perception of ‘norms’ from KAASO, overwhelming though they may be. Kamuganja School was another story. Located in the middle of nowhere, it serves a community that largely consists of Rwanda cattle herders that fled their homes during the genocide of 1994. The people carry the scars of unspeakable tragedy and the children are understandably affected. The families are scattered far and wide around the surrounding area and to get to school, some children must walk over two hours and be ferried across a river, an offshoot of Lake Victoria, by boat if they can find one. There were less than 100 students here when Dominic took over as headmaster two years ago; now the school roll is over 300. The community is extremely poor and although being a government school there are no school fees, there is no provision for such things as uniforms, resources or even lunch. Most families cannot afford even to pay for the children’s lunch which consists of one cup of watery porridge to sustain them for the day. For some, this may be the day’s food.

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So we arrived at Kamuganja to be met by 300 faces, half thrilled, half terrified who clapped and sang for us as we bumped our way along the dirt road. Dominic stopped the car for us to get out and walk amongst them into the school grounds. The red earth felt like a red carpet. They were so genuinely grateful to simply have us there and it was overwhelming to say the least. Continue reading