Leaving on a jet plane

On this, my final day in Uganda – for now – the heavens have opened and the rains are falling. Unfortunately not on the crops of the village but on the capital of Kampala, where rivers of mud flow through the streets and the traffic has come to a standstill. It’s hard to believe I have come to the end of my time here, and this past week has been full to bursting, trying to fit in every last minute task on my list, saying a thousand goodbyes and sharing countless hugs.

Last Saturday we had a wedding at KAASO for some of the school’s neighbours who tied the knot on our school field. In the days leading up to the wedding the school was a hive of activity, with friends and relatives arriving throughout the day and night and Rose and Teacher Sarah running around preparing mattresses in the classrooms to house the onslaught. I was dressed in one of Rose’s beautiful satin gomesi, the traditional Ugandan dress, and was inundated with praise for how smart I looked from every man, woman and child. A muzungu in a gomesi causes quite a stir in the village.

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A Ugandan wedding is like nothing you have ever seen. Over 1,200 chairs were lined up under circus-top marquees and strings of lights, flowers and lace criss-crossed in between, leading up to a giant central maypole. No sooner had the bride and groom entered with their entourage, than the rains came crashing down. Thunder and lightning filled the sky as over a thousand of us tried to squeeze under the sodden tents. I had Brenda with me and we huddled together until the tent looked set to crumble and the water was past my ankles; we decided to make a run for it. We splashed our way across the water-logged field and took refuge in one of the classrooms, where dozens of others had had the same bright idea. Taking a seat on a damp mattress on the floor, Brenda promptly fell asleep in my lap while we waited for the rain to stop. Two hours later, the skies cleared, the marching band recommenced and the festivities continued. We ate and drank and danced until I finally snuck away with Brenda to get some sleep, waking at 5:30am to hear the music still blaring from the field. Ugandans sure know how to celebrate.

Before coming here, I had had a generous donation from a friend who suggested I throw a Christmas party for the children. I ran the idea by Rose and it was quickly decided that we would use this occasion to bring together all the sponsor children to celebrate, along with those few children remaining at KAASO for the holidays. Rose and I hit the Kyotera markets, buying sacks of rice, bargaining for bunches ofmatooke, selecting tomatoes, avocados, cabbages and potatoes. In the midst of it all, the car broke down and several hours ensued with me at the garage, somehow having lost Rose, driving around Kyotera in circles, eventually finding her at a roadside stall where she’d gone to visit Dominic’s sister. It was dark by the time we got back to KAASO where I was grateful for our team of helpers who magically appeared to unload the car for us.

The day of the Christmas party, we awoke at dawn. Sacks were laid across the dirt courtyard, giant cauldron-like pots lined up, fires were lit and the peeling began. The sponsor girls were responsible for the food while the boys slaughtered chickens then decorated the school ‘hall’ (three of the classrooms with the wooden petitions removed). I made myself scarce for the chicken slaughter but enjoyed helping with the decorating. I had bought Christmas decorations while in London staying with my brother and the children delighted over the flags, banners, streamers and mini Christmas trees I pulled from my bag.

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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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Sunrise over sea, snorkelling with lions & Maasai hosts

Life really has been a beach of late. We arrived in Zanzibar intending to stay five days; two weeks later we finally dragged ourselves away. It is an island that can quite simply be described as paradise and I loved every minute of our white sand, palm fringed, tropical breeze existence. After wandering the streets of Stone Town, we made our way to the east coast to a beach called Matemwe where the waves crashed on the outer coral reef and the sand was so white it was like talcum powder. We met up with new-found friends from our safari and headed out on a dug-out canoe to go snorkelling on the reef. The colours were spectacular, the water so turquoise it was almost luminous.

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We were joined by a couple of English friends we’d picked up along the way for Kirsty’s final night – a giant punch party complete with tropical juices and local gin. The tiny restaurant that was hosting us soon cleared out as we moved back the tables and danced to the ‘Jambo Jambo’ CD Kirsty had bought in Dar. We danced and drank our punch under the stars and it was a wonderful farewell to an amazing friend. We tearfully put Kirsty on the ferry the next day, trying to get our heads around the fact that the three musketeers were now down to two.

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More time in paradise was urgently needed.

We spent most of our time at a spectacular beach further down the coast called Paje – aka Paradise. I’m not sure it means that but it should. I’ve never been anywhere so breathtaking and lying under palm fringed umbrellas on the beach having massages from local women and sipping gin and tonics with the sweetest Zanzibari limes I’ve ever tasted was heaven. I managed to find a guitar from the local Rasta guys and sat on the beach writing a song as the local children came and danced before me, swaying in the sand. I couldn’t help but smile.

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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