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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To the beat of the drum

You never know how much you want something until you can’t have it. Postponing my trip to Uganda was a decision I made out of respect for those I love and one I knew I had to make, even if it hurt. This past month has given me time to think, process and reflect, and has made me realise, more than ever before, just how much KAASO means to me.

What scared me most was not knowing how long this postponement would be, worrying that if Ebola did manage to spread across the continent and wreak havoc in East Africa, it could be a very long wait. Luckily, that wait was not as long as I’d feared. The case of Marburg found in Kampala turned out to be just that, a single case. It has been contained and all those quarantined released. While Ebola continues to be a terrible plague across West Africa, life in Uganda continues to move to the beat of its own lively drum.

So, after many long discussions, hours of research and several hilarious conversations with the village (one of which was with Teacher Enock who told me, “Madam Emma, you may come back. Marburg – he is not here!”), my flights are booked and on Friday I return to my Ugandan home. And I do so with the full love and support of my family who are right behind me in my decision.

Thank you for all your messages this past month, to those of you who reminded me how to smile when my face forgot, who reassured me that my little friends would still be there waiting when I returned.

As Dominic replied when I forwarded him my flight details:

“This is very good. We shall be so happy to have you on the 23rd. Everybody here is very eager to receive you and I think the whole school will go crazy when you arrive.”

The feeling is mutual.

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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