Inspired by Bermuda, underway in Uganda – KAASO’s new water harvesting system

I often find myself trying to explain why a Kiwi girl married to an Aussie living in Bermuda thinks there are parallels between the international sailing community and a rural village community in Uganda. It all seems a bit improbable. … Continue reading

So much more than just a bus

 

At this rather crazy time in history, I sit here wondering how it can be that the world seems to be happy to embrace such ludicrous politics – first Brexit and now Trump… How can this be? I feel very fortunate to be where I am here in Uganda, surrounded by such amazing people continuing to do amazing things in the world. The village has never been more appealing.

Leaving politics behind, I reflect on the past ten days since arriving in Uganda. I have been so fortunate to share my KAASO life with both Beau and Rebecca and the school bus delivery will forever go down as one of the most incredible moments of my life. My returns to KAASO have always been such a happy time, so full of love, excitement and anticipation for the weeks to come. But I never could have prepared myself – never mind Beau and Rebecca – for the welcome that awaited us with the school bus. Despite blowing a tire 20 minutes into our journey, we were back on the road an hour or so (and several tire changes) later and continued our trip south. Rebecca had come prepared with dozens of beach balls and hundreds of balloons to fill the bus so we dizzied our already excited selves by blowing up balloons while the scenery of Kampala flew by, the urban slowly giving way to rural. We stopped at the equator to take photos to mark this momentous occasion – we were to leave the northern hemisphere behind and make our home in the south. I have had so many of these photos over the years but this year there was a very special guest in the photo – the school bus, proudly positioned in the background behind the equatorial ring. I couldn’t have been happier.

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Arriving at the turnoff from the main road to the dirt road that leads to KAASO, we were met by the school truck (yup, the old one that used to move the children around that the bus was replacing…) loaded with children all waving branches and cheering our arrival.

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They came flying off the back of the truck and loaded into the bus to begin the final leg of our historic journey. All along the way as we passed through villages, people came out to wave and clap and cheer our arrival. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Along with the school truck, we also had an escort of a dozen boda bodas (motorbike taxis) and people running along the side of the road with us. Tears were rolling down my face and the children’s excitement intensified as we came down the hill towards the KAASO school gates and my heart was pounding in anticipation of what would await us. I heard them before I saw them. Literally hundreds of people running down the road towards us, the happiest mob I’ve ever been engulfed by – they came flying towards us and literally launched themselves at the bus, hugging and crying and cheering our arrival.

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Teacher Sarah, one of my oldest friends from the early days at KAASO, was among them and when I caught her eye she came running around to the window where I sat and grabbed my hand. There were no words – we just held each other tightly, sobbing through the window. It was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life – we had done it! Teacher Sarah eventually let go as the bus rolled down the tiny dirt path to the lower school field, which was where the full welcome committee was waiting for us – all 600 children and hundreds of parents and well-wishers. The bus was blessed by a local priest and the whole community sang prayers of thanks and praise for their beloved bus. The evening that followed was filled with celebratory dancing, heartfelt speeches, tearful thank yous and the most overwhelming sense of achievement. I thought of the night five months earlier when I had stood in front of everyone in Bermuda and promised that I would drive the bus they had made possible into the village and that I would think of them. Now, the bus parked in the KAASO school grounds, I thought back on that night and once again, the tears flowed freely. I wished that they could all be here with me to experience this moment but I was so incredibly grateful that I had Rebecca and Beau with me to share in the joy.

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Since that Sunday, Dominic has – literally – not stopped smiling. Two days later, the bus was used to transport the Primary Seven (final year) students to sit their Primary Leaving Exams and the children, usually nervous, were all smiles and full of excitement – they got to ride on the BUS! We have been inundated with thanks from the entire community who all feel so proud to have been a part of the fundraising efforts and who promise to cherish this bus forevermore. In the world that most of us come from, a bus is, quite simply, a means of transport. For a village in Uganda, it is so much more than that – it is a sign of development, a symbol of hope, an achievement worth celebrating and, most importantly, proof that anything is possible. When Dominic first told the community that KAASO was going to try and raise funds for a bus, few believed it would be possible. However, with the coming of the bus, as Teacher Sarah explained to us the night of its arrival, the community has seen – yet again – that Dominic and Rose are not only true to their word, but that can make dreams come true. I feel so honoured to have played my part in that and I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all those who contributed to make this happen.

Rebecca’s time at KAASO went all too quickly but we certainly made the most of every moment. She helped to teach art classes and PE classes and had the children in fits of laughter making balloon animals, their eyes wide with wonder as she twisted the colourful balloons into dogs, giraffes and dinosaurs. We had a tearful farewell after sharing a beautiful night together at Lake Mburo, a nearby national park, but I know that Rebecca, having experienced the magic that is KAASO, will be back one day.

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Beau and I continued onto Mbarara where we had a joyous reunion with Henry – now 19 years old and in his first year of university. I had to pinch myself seeing this 12-year old boy I once knew now funding himself through university, his 6-year sponsorship over. He is an inspiration to the other sponsor students and I feel so proud of what he has managed to achieve.

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Yesterday, Beau and I drove to Kampala and, aside from running out of petrol along the way, we managed to arrive without further incident. Scooping up my old friend and long-term Ugandan resident John, we made our way to Entebbe airport where we picked up Beth who has come to join me for three weeks in the village. It’s such a thrill to have her here and I’m so excited for the weeks ahead. I was a bittersweet day as I also had to bid farewell to Beau who is headed back to Australia and then onto Bermuda but I will look forward to being reunited with both him and Rebecca in December when I get back. We will have so many stories to share!

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From Qatar airport in between flights, Beau has managed to put together this short video of the bus arrival at KAASO – there is much more to come but what a legend to have done this so quickly! Don’t miss Teacher Sarah in the lime green gomesi (traditional dress) at the end…

I sign off here as it’s time to get back to the village before darkness falls. I thank you all for your incredible love and support – reading all your amazing messages helps motivate and inspire me to keep on pushing, to keep on striving and to make each day I spend here really count.

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The school bus has reached its home

I have always been truly humbled by the reception I receive each time I go back to Uganda but arriving with the school bus was one of the most emotional, incredible, heartfelt, inspiring and beautiful moments of my life.

I will let Beau’s stunning photos speak for themselves….

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A school bus sails into the village…

Greetings from the shores of Lake Victoria!

Two days and several thousand miles later, from an island in the Atlantic to a land-locked nation in East Africa, I have arrived back in Uganda. This is my seventh annual trip here and I’m so excited to catch up with everyone in my village home, to hear about the highs and lows the year has brought and to share in the celebrations of those who are soon to be graduating from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme. However, this trip also has a particularly special purpose. For years, KAASO has had a dream dangling on the horizon but, until now, it has remained just that – an unattainable, far-off dream. Tomorrow though, that dream will become a reality. KAASO is getting a school bus.

Since 2009 when I first came to Uganda, Dominic and Rose have been telling me how much the school needs a school bus. The alternative – children riding on the barred tray of the school truck – is both illegal and incredibly dangerous. The truck has tipped several times and fortunately none of the children were badly hurt but we all feared that it was only a matter of time. It was not a sustainable option. A couple of years ago, KAASO began reaching out to the community requesting funds towards the school bus and over $1,500 was raised but, in a community where it’s hard to find the money for school fees, coming up with the remaining $30,000 for a bus was a colossal challenge.

And here’s where my story begins.

It all started in the most unlikely of settings – a beach-front restaurant for a rosé-infused lunch with a friend called Rebecca. I was explaining how much KAASO needed a school bus but how daunted I was by the task of trying to raise $30,000 USD to make this happen. You can gather donations for buildings and piggeries, I explained, brick by brick, sty by sty, but wheel by wheel doesn’t really work for a school bus. You kind of need the whole thing.

So Rebecca and I teamed up with the mission to make this actually happen. Her company, RenRe, was hosting their annual sailing day in early June and Rebecca suggested we use this day to help raise our funds. If I could get a bunch of America’s Cup sailors to helm the boats that RenRe’s clients and brokers would be sailing on, we could ask for bids to secure their favourite Cup sailor on board their boat. I emailed sailors from Artemis Racing, Oracle Team USA and Softbank Team Japan asking if they might help out – ‘an afternoon sail for a school bus?’ was my pitch. Within an hour, I had Dean Barker, Chris Draper, Jimmy Spithill, Tom Slingsby, Grant Simmer, Iain Percy, Francesco Bruni and, not surprisingly, Nathan Outteridge, committed to helping. We were on.

The team from RenRe, spearheaded by Rebecca, did an impressive job of rallying up support and enthusiasm and, once again, Claire’s amazing graphic design skills came into play, helping to create an infographic to explain what we were trying to achieve. All six America’s Cup teams donated signed merchandise which I had gathered at the America’s Cup World Series event in New York and, along with some LV Cup products from previous editions, I also had donated experiences from America’s Cup – and from my very obliging husband!

The day of the fundraiser, I felt sick with nerves. There was so much riding on this day and while I knew anything we could raise would be amazing, I was acutely aware of how much money was needed and that it might in fact take several fundraisers to achieve our goal. I so badly wanted this to work.

I boarded RenRe’s superyacht where I spent the day on board with a bunch of wonderful people, drumming up support for the silent auction items as well as encouraging those on the boats to bid higher and higher for their favourite sailors to join them for the final race of the day. Momentum gathered quickly and I was blown away not only by people’s generosity but also by how interested they were in the cause and how much the idea of providing a school bus to children in Uganda struck a chord with a bunch of people on an island in the middle of the ocean.

The final race was incredible. The Cup sailors did an amazing job of showing everyone a good time – and doing all they could to ensure that they were ahead of their team mates. By the time everyone rolled into the RenRe dock, the day had already far surpassed my expectations. And that was before the live bidding even began.

Originally there were only supposed to be two live auction items – a two-hour foiling sailing session with Nathan and a 4-person ride in an America’s Cup chase boat to watch the boats training on the Great Sound in Bermuda. However, a combination of much excitement, many drinks, and overwhelming support saw these two auction items multiply to six. Iain Percy from Artemis Racing, realising that there were multiple groups willing to pay good money for the chase boat ride, threw in two extra rides on the Artemis chase boat, spurring on Grant Simmer from Oracle Team USA to donate a ride as well.  That act alone raised us $12,000. Then, the CEO of RenRe, deciding that his wife should also have the chance to sail with Nathan, asked if Nath would donate another foiling experience (the first had already been won) which he gladly agreed to and the bidding opened once more. While Rebecca was helping coordinate the auction, I was madly running around trying to calculate where we were at so far between the boat bids, the silent auction items and the ever-growing live auction funds. As the live auction closed, I pushed EQUALS on my calculator, and then stood staring at my screen, stunned. Then the tears began to fall. We had raised $30,190.

I gave an impromptu – and hugely tearful – speech, letting the room know that we had reached our goal – we would have our school bus. A sea of smiling faces erupted into applause and cheers and I just stood there, crying and grinning dumbly before engulfing Rebecca in a huge hug. We had done it!

In the weeks that followed, Rebecca did an incredible job of helping me collect each and every dollar and I was amazed to find that our total amount just kept going up and up – people were so moved by the experience that they wanted to donate more, to give more, to help more. I was blown away.

In the end, we raised over $40,000, all of which has now reached the village and, on Wednesday, Dominic purchased the bus. As if that wasn’t enough, a few weeks ago, Rebecca decided to join me to help deliver the bus along with my brother-in-law, Beau, who is going to make a short film about the bus delivery. Things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.

So now I sit looking out across Lake Victoria with Rebecca at my side, and I have to pinch myself to realise it’s not just some amazing dream that I’ll soon wake up from. Beau flies in tonight and Dominic will pick us all up in the bus tomorrow morning and together, we will drive to the village.

I am so hugely grateful to each and every person who helped make this happen – to the sailors, the donors, the far-away cheerleaders and of course to Rebecca, whose huge heart and incredible determination that this was going to happen has meant, quite simply, that is has. Tomorrow is going to be one for the record books – and one requiring quite a few tissues I feel…

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Lake Victoria, Uganda

‘A chance to change KAASO, Uganda and the World’

Five years ago when I was first in Uganda, the idea of Dominic going to America seemed about as likely as me becoming a pole vaulter. He was born and raised in Uganda and had dedicated his life to helping the children of the area in which he grew up. The only time he ever left Uganda was to cross the border into Tanzania at the start of each school year to pick up the handful of Tanzanian orphans who boarded at KAASO.

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However, last year the National Educator Program (NEP) of the USA heard of Dominic through a past volunteer and invited him to present the story of KAASO at an educational conference in California and then attend a leadership workshop in Florida. Within the USA, his food and accommodation would be covered by NEP but it was up to us to get him there. Kirsty and I launched a fundraiser and thanks to the generous support of family and friends, in particular Judy Johnson and Iain Percy, we raised the money for his flights. Kirsty, Justin and other volunteers helped Dominic through the arduous US visa process and we were happy to learn that Dominic had already obtained a passport a few years earlier in case the chance ever arose to head overseas.

Arriving in the USA on 29th June 2013, Dominic was taken under the wing of Mark Thompson, the inspiring Executive Director of NEP, who guided him through American life and introduced him to people from around the world. Despite being far from Uganda and all those he knew and loved, Dominic tackled life with his usual optimism and exuberance and all who met him were blown away by his charisma – and by the incredible story of KAASO. He made many great connections and formed a sister school partnership with a primary school in Flordia who have since donated 21 laptops to the KAASO computer lab. He learned about new teaching methods and the concept of ‘career academies’ whereby students are encouraged to learn practical skills which will help them in life and not just academic teachings. This has been implemented at KAASO in the form of the self-sustaining poultry project which is largely student-run, helping educate the children about how to generate an income alongside their studies. There are many other exciting projects that KAASO one day hopes to launch such as a bakery and a local coffee processing plant.

Not only did Dominic introduce these ideas to KAASO, he also shared them with Zaake Secondary School, Ssanje Primary School (the government school at which Dominic is also head teacher), presented at various community meetings around the district and was invited to State House to give an account of his trip. In Dominic’s own words:

‘Attending an international conference has changed my thinking, my way of life and even my status in the society. So many people are consulting me.’

All in all, the trip was an incredible success and Dominic, KAASO and the community at large have greatly benefited from his experiences.

So when Dominic was invited to return to the US to complete the second part of the International Leadership Fellows Institute he began last July, I knew he had to take this opportunity. The course is ‘a year-long professional program designed to challenge and strengthen exceptional candidates. The Institute’s goal is to develop principals with the knowledge, skills, and vision to lead progressive, innovative schools where teachers are empowered to be leaders and all students have equal access to success.’

Thanks to the generous support of Nathan Outteridge, Dominic will be flying out next Saturday to Tampa, Florida, to complete the final stage of this two-part course. Mark Thompson will again be mentoring Dominic through the process and helping Dominic to build on the relationships and connections he formed last year.

I am excited to follow his progress and look forward to hearing about all he will learn, experience, see, and ultimately share with the KAASO community.

Dominic wrote to me saying, ‘I feel that if I continue with this course, it will give me a great chance to change KAASO, Uganda and the World.’

If anyone can, Dominic will.

Dominic with the Ugandan flag

Back in my village home

I’m sitting at my makeshift desk looking out the window at the children sweeping the dust and cleaning the compound, moving quickly as the skies have darkened and thunder is rolling in. After months of no rain with only a few scattered storms, everyone is desperate for the water that will quench the thirst of the dry fields and withered crops. I am back in a world where the weather gods dictate the fate of the people who rely so heavily on the land below. Worlds away from our society of overflowing supermarket shelves and produce imported year round so that we barely know what should be in season when. For a city girl, this was all new to me in 2009. Now I just feel an overwhelming sense of belonging being back in my village home.

I arrived to the waiting smile of Dominic and, as usual, the journey south to the village was colourful. We stopped by to visit Rotary John who welcomed me warmly and filled me in on the projects that had been going on in Kabira. Beehives, micro-finance projects, eucalyptus forests, poultry farms, pineapple plantations and piggeries have kept people busy and while the drought hinders such efforts, the determination of the people is strong. We left John in Kampala and continued our journey south, making our way along roads which have been steadily improved over the years but this doesn’t seem to decrease the length of the trip. I first thought that we lived a thousand miles from Kampala but in reality it is only around 300 kilometers.

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This winding journey  is an appropriate way to adjust to African time. Dominic and I chatted about his trip to America and it was clear that he had been affected hugely by his time there. I didn’t think it possible for him to be even more motivated, even more determined, even more inspired than before but he has proven me wrong yet again. The trip opened his eyes to a world beyond his own and he made a huge number of friends from across the globe with his contagious enthusiasm and magnetic personality. Already some of these connections are starting to help KAASO and I feel incredibly proud that we could help facilitate these relationships.

At KAASO, I was welcomed by a mob of excited children who sang and danced and clapped as I entered the school gates. The first face I saw was that of Brenda, one of the little girls from my P1 class in 2009, now 11 years old and growing up fast. It is amazing to watch these children grow over the years and even though every year there are more and more new faces, the old ones take me back to the time when I called this place home. Continue reading

And then there was a roof…

Sitting at my kitchen table after a glorious sunny weekend in San Francisco and wanted to share a quick update on the progress of our new dormitory. The foundations have been laid, the walls have risen to full height and at last the roof is going up! As the funds flow in, the bricks are gathered, the roofing poles lined up and the older boys of KAASO eagerly await their new home.

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We have been blown away by the support shown and I am incredibly proud to report that we have now raised over NZD$10,000! A phenomenal display of generosity which means we can now do more than our original dream of just completing the basic construction; we can actually furnish the dorm with double-decker bunks (required by the school authorities – the original motivation for building this dormitory) so that KAASO stays legitimate in the eyes of the government. We still have an amazing donor who is matching $ for $ any donation made between now and the end of September and for this I am eternally grateful. We never dreamed we’d be able to come this far in such a short space of time so thank you, thank you, webale nyo.

I spoke to Rose a few days ago and she was absolutely speechless when I told her the second transfer of close to 7 million Ugandan shillings would soon be in her account. When she finally found her voice she said with a huge grin, ‘Ah Emma, thank you please to all of your friends for loving us. Really, they are loving us and we are appreciating soooo much!’

I’m forever humbled by Rose and Dominic and the world I stumbled upon at KAASO and I am so happy to be able to share with you this story of hope.

From a foggy city to a village of hope

I have finally settled into a home on a hill where from my window the city of San Francisco sprawls across rolling hills and the fog, ever-present, hangs quietly overhead. It appears that after many, many months of roaming all four corners of the globe, this wanderer has finally put her feet to rest – at least for the time being. I moved to San Francisco a month ago and since then have traipsed far and wide across the city searching for a home, hiked vertical streets, dodged bell-ringing cable cars, and run around madly entertaining guests at sea and on land as the first San Francisco America’s Cup World Series event unfolded across the Bay. I have slowly begun to unpack and plant roots and, ultimately, come to love my new part of the world.

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Meanwhile, in Uganda, progress is being made. Since I last emailed from Paris, just one month ago, we have raised almost $5000 NZD – close to half of what we need to get this dormitory up off the ground. The pile of bricks we started with is rising and construction is ploughing forward. Thank you so very much to those of you who have donated so far, the gratitude flooding out of the village is overwhelming. If anyone else is still interested in donating, we have a truly incredible sponsor who has offered to match dollar for dollar any money received between now and the end of September! A very humbling show of generosity.

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There is a Canadian volunteer, Justin, at KAASO who has been keeping us updated on the dorm’s progress and sending through photos as construction continues. The goal is to have this building finished by the end of the year so it can be opened and the children can move in before Christmas.

Thanks so much to you all, from my little corner of San Francisco draped with African beads and dotted with Ugandan baskets…

Dreams take flight

From my open window I look across the rooftops of Saint Germain in Paris, my bags packed beside me, ready to jump on this afternoon’s flight to San Francisco and the start of yet another chapter on this wild and wonderful journey. My well-loved backpack looks slightly out of context in my clean, white hotel room and while I managed to wash the dust off both my clothes and my feet, there is a kind of dust that remains within and cannot be washed off.

Uganda was, quite simply, magic. The very first time I went it felt like I was stepping off the beaten track, light years from my known world and everything was new and different and challenging and we spent our days grappling to understand our brave new world. My return last year with my parents I approached with curiosity – unsure whether I would have to acclimatise all over again or if it would feel natural to be back. Fortunately it was the latter and it was such an incredible thrill to watch my parents wholeheartedly embrace village life, which had come to feel strangely familiar to me.

This trip I didn’t know what to think. I knew it wouldn’t be the overwhelming head spin of the first time but I still wasn’t sure whether after a year away and the huge contrast with my life in Europe, adjusting to the village would be a challenge. From the minute I stepped off the plane and spotted Dominic’s beaming face through the crowd, it felt as normal as if I was arriving at Auckland airport. During the trip down to KAASO we chatted like old mates and it wasn’t until we pulled into the school gates to find a throng of children screaming my arrival home and Cherie and Kirsty standing there as if 2009 were yesterday, that the tears started to fall.

Two and half weeks is but a heartbeat in a place where so much happens in a day, where you want to find out every detail of every project that has developed since you left, where every conversation leaves you inspired to do more and where every second spent with the children leaves you grinning from ear to ear. This trip was a time of reconnecting. Of visiting old friends, of reviving once again our faith in the fact that KAASO truly is an incredible project and that, with barely any money, Dominic and Rose somehow manage to perform miracles to keep this school running. And the success of the school has been spilling out into the community who now have access to the library and computer lab that we built in 2009 which, thanks to the generosity of family, friends and workmates, is slowly filling with books and computers. Beyond our wildest dreams.

In my short time back in Uganda, I navigated countless atrocious roads to visit all thirteen children being sponsored through secondary school. With me at the wheel and Rose as my guide and copilot, we ran out of petrol, ended up wedged in potholes that seemed sure to devour us, got lost countless times, were refused entry into a school due to the fact that I was wearing long, baggy pants (rather than a skirt like a proper female) and ended up doing exactly what I had vowed to avoid – driving at night in a country where no one knows lights can be dimmed from full beam and everyone prefers to use your side of the road – particularly trucks. There was a lot of time spent in the ditch! But we survived the various journeys and the love, hope and overwhelming gratitude I felt from the children was worth every steering-wheel-gripping second.

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The Kiwi takes flight!

It’s raining outside which puts us under a strange kind of KAASO house arrest – leaving is at your peril as the dry earth turns to lethal slippery mud and you are saturated within seconds. Trying to get into town is impossible, the boda boda (our only way out of here) drivers won’t risk the roads in the rain and the whole place just kind of comes to a stop. So I sit under my mosquito net listening to Kiwi music and waiting for the rains to clear and the scorching sun to dry the earth once more. At least it’s good for the plants…

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As always, I feel as though the last week has flown, even more so when I open my diary to see written on tomorrow’s page: “One week”. Six months is fast coming to a close. The days are frantic in an African kind of way which means that while you feel busy you’re not often getting a lot done but still end up exhausted by the end of the day. You learn to live that way. It’s going to be a shock to the system to get back to the ‘real world’ where you’re expected to actually tick off everything on your day’s list and not just be satisfied with one out of ten…

Last Sunday was a day of epic proportions. School visiting day saw what felt like hundreds of parents and relatives flooding through the school gates in their colourful gomesis to be met by children who raced to greet them then hung off their arms in delirious excitement. It was wonderful to see so many reunited with their families and to confirm that some did, in fact, have families.

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You can never be sure here. I was proudly introduced to numerous mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters and had many hilarious conversations in Luganda – needless to say, they were short conversations! This joy was undercut by the the children who stood waiting at the gate all day for parents who never came, leaving them in tears of disappointment.

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The day began with an 8am two-hour mass which Cherie and I somehow managed to dodge – it was our job to decorate Kiwi House for the official opening and we, of course, took our job very seriously. Unfortunately the moment that we chose to begin decorating was not exactly ideal. We’d tried to wait until the mass was over to avoid causing a commotion outside the window hanging our paper chains and fans that we’d made with the children but eventually mass dragged on a little too long and we decided to just begin. So I was balancing bare foot on a chair trying desperately not to fall off in the scorching heat as I tried to thread the paper chains through the rafters, Cherie was laughing at me and trying to help at the same time when the entire congregation came outside. To our horror, the priest began to bless Kiwi House, half dressed as it was with us standing covered in paper chains. Not quite how we’d pictured it. The crowd watched us with amusement as we tried desperately to get it done but we gave up and stopped as they started to take photos of Kiwi house half-draped with paper chains and boxes all over the veranda. It was hilarious.

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