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.

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How KAASO came to be

It recently occurred to me that many of you may not know how KAASO came to be. For those who have followed me since day one, it’s been over five years since I first shared this remarkable story. Others who have only recently joined the journey won’t know that KAASO began in 1999 when Dominic and Rose opened their home to twelve young orphans and a school was created.

Thanks to the incredibly talented Beau Outteridge who has pieced this together for me, I share with you a short film outlining the journey of KAASO from its inception through to today.

It moves me endlessly to think of all that has been achieved in that space of time – and all there is still to come.

A dozen villages, a thousand smiles

Who would have thought you could be so busy in a small Ugandan village but the past two weeks have been filled to bursting. During that time I have travelled for miles and miles along dusty, bumpy roads, visited over a dozen families, been showered with thanks, met armies of relatives, drunk countless cups of tea, and been gifted more chickens than I care to remember. Fortunately Rose now knows to intercept these squawking chickens that so often come my way, graciously accepting them on my behalf. It’s funny to think this whole journey in 2009 started with a chicken flying from the boot of Dominic’s car as I bent to offload my heavy backpack. And here I am now, almost 5 years later, still up to my eyeballs in flapping chickens. Some things never change.

Since I last wrote, the school has almost completely emptied out, leaving a small group of children either related to Dominic and Rose or fully orphaned with nowhere to go. Some of the the sponsor children have also come back to KAASO for the holidays to help out around the school – and because it feels like home. The other day Dominic and Rose’s daughter Rhonah came home from school with Teacher Sarah’s son Joy. They had with them their report cards and when Joy passed his over to Teacher Sarah I thought she was going to faint. She shrieked for joy, embraced her son and then, fanning herself, sat down heavily. I looked at the report card shaking in her hands and saw what she saw – Joy was top in his year with percentages in the 90s for every subject. I sat next to her and she just shook her head, smiling to herself, taking it all in. Once the shock had worn off she turned to me, her face full of pride. ‘Madam Emma, my son – first! In that good school. I’m just a simple girl from the village and that school, eh! The children of people with so much money, people from Kenya, Congo – overseas countries. Big people! And it’s my son from the village, he is first. Of all of them. Can you believe? Eh!’ She shook her head, smiling, soaking up the wonder of it all. It was a beautiful moment.

Yesterday I completed the last of my visits to the 12 Kiwi sponsor children and thus ended a chapter of joy, wonder, heartbreak and humility. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed into homes, made to feel part of the family, showered with love and offered all the food they had to give.

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There was Justine, a girl whose parents are both living HIV positive so sent her to live in a neighbouring mud hut with her aunt who looks after her and three of her grandchildren whose parents have either died or are unable to care for them. There was Caroline, who was out tending to her cabbages when we arrived, whose mother took me in her arms and embraced me with all her heart, introducing me to the 8 other children who live with them – abandoned, disabled, unwanted children left to this big-hearted woman to care for them.

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There was my lovely Henry, whose father died when he was 6 years old but who was brought up by his loving mother who cooked for us a feast as large as her smile, insisting we enjoy the fruits of her labour from their gardens. A two hour drive followed by a half hour trek brought us to the home of Charles who lives in a little house on a hill with his Rwandan grandmother – he does not know whether his mother is dead or alive and his father tragically died of AIDS in 2010. His family literally fell upon me in flood of tears, thanking me for helping to support Charles, the grief still so raw within the stark concrete walls of their home.

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Humbled

The heavens finally opened, bringing thunderous rain tumbling from the sky and everyone is rejoicing. Since morning, the school has been a hive of activity with children and adults alike running around positioning strategic tubs, buckets and jerry cans to savour every magical drop. A river of muddy water is running through the school, bringing justification to the bridge that otherwise does nothing but span the dusty earth that takes me from my room to Dominic and Rose’s house.

The week since I last wrote has been a roller coaster of emotions, of highs of lows, of heartbreak and happiness. And above all, I have never felt so humbled in all my life. One of the main reasons I wanted to come back this year (other than the fact that these visits have turned into annual pilgrimages) was to visit all of the sponsor children as the first wave finished up their fourth year of secondary school and it’s time to start thinking about their futures. Many children leave secondary school after their fourth year to pursue more vocational courses which helps to speed up their education and get them out in the workforce earning money sooner so that they can support themselves or their families or both. The amazing thing about this year’s visits has been that because the school term has ended, I am visiting each of them at their homes in their villages, meeting their families, and consequentially feeling the full weight of their gratitude for the first time.

My first visit was with David, a boy whom we met in his final year of primary school in 2009. I’ve visited David several times at his secondary school and he is one of those boys who is always smiling, always upbeat and positive. I had no idea what to expect from meeting his family when Rose and I jumped on the back of a boda, the motorcycle taxis used for transport here. We rode over dirt roads for about half an hour before pulling up outside the crumbling mud hut that housed David and what remained of his family.

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Uganda awaits

It feels like an eternity since I last wrote – the past months have been full to bursting. But now, sitting in yet another airport, it seemed like an appropriate time to sit down and reestablish contact with the world. Outside the light is fading over Amsterdam where I have been for the past 24 hours for a brief but amazing catch up with a long lost friend I met one afternoon in the Greek Islands on the eve of my very first departure for Uganda. And here I am now, four and a half years later preparing to board my flight southbound, back to the African continent.

This trip to Uganda is about getting grounded, reconnecting with the village and catching up on the past year and a half since I was last there. In that time, thanks to so many of your generous donations, Mark House was completed and I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes and to visit all the boys who now call our dormitory home – there will be pictures coming for sure! Also, thanks to the incredible kindness of a few and the outstanding organisational skills of Madam Kirsty, we brought Dominic to the USA in July this year to speak at an educational conference in LA and attend an educational workshop in Florida. I can’t wait to hear all about it and, in Dominic’s words, to ‘compare stories of being American!’ I’m not quite sure I consider myself American after a year and a half in the States but will be hilarious to compare notes all the same…

I’ll be in the village for one month, and during that time I also plan to visit all of the sponsor children at their respective high schools on my magical mystery tour around the country with Rose as my co-pilot, navigating my way across the pitted roads, past the fish-sellers and fruit-laiden roadside stalls. It will be almost Christmas by the time I leave so I’m looking forward to having some pre-Christmas celebrations with the children and to spending time with those who are back at KAASO for the holidays.

It’s hard to believe I left my Bondi home in Sydney nearly two years ago. Since then, it’s been an incredible adventure of ever-changing horizons followed by planting my feet in one place for over a year – a rare miracle in my world. I met so many amazing people in San Francisco and it’s a really special feeling to be able to take your world with you – this travelling circus of people that follow the America’s Cup around the globe are like one big family to me. While the past year was marked with ups and downs, I ultimately left with great memories of the foggy city.

It’s a strange feeling now, sitting in a brightly lit room full of people going about their business, music playing, suitcases wheeling, laptops tapping, TVs buzzing and glasses clinking, knowing that this time tomorrow I will be back in the village, sitting outside under a tree, strumming my guitar and surrounded by singing, swaying, grinning little faces. I close my eyes and try to picture it and it still feels like another world, so very far.

But it’s undeniable, Uganda is calling me back. That dusty road is stretching before me and I can’t wait for the cacophony of sound, the flying hugs and tangle of limbs that await me. It’s been a while, but it’s time to return to my Ugandan home.

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Setting forth

One year and seven months later, I am flying high. I left Sydney in the red light of dawn this morning, the rising sun following behind as I flew westwards. In September last year I moved to Sydney to write and to pause, to collect my thoughts and create some semblance of stability in the ever-changing tide that had been my life on the road for the past four years. I adopted local cafes, local bars, local walks, local bookstores and of course my local beach. And in spite of my perpetual fear of ‘settling’, I found myself overcoming such worries and falling head over heels with my new home. It’s nice to know I now have a base in the world from which to flit and as my taxi took me through the deserted 4am streets, I was sad to leave. But I will let the winter take hold in my absence and return in August with the scent of spring.

I went to the beach yesterday evening one last time and watched as the sky faded from pink to blue and darkness overtook. The surfers squeezed the remaining light out of the day and two ambitious fishermen cast their lines into the surf. I was bombarded by seagulls and shared smiles with evening walkers, fellow drifters able to enjoy the last of the light that slips away while the 9-5 workers battle the traffic home. I walked on the warm sand at the water’s edge, retrieved my flip flops where they faithfully wait for me each day and farewelled the beach that has come to be my source of inspiration over the past months.

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I made a promise, not only to myself but also to the children of KAASO that I would be back to Uganda within two years. I’m not sure they really understood but I am a girl of my word and now, 19 months after leaving the village, the time has come for me to return. Thus I find myself on the start of a journey that will ultimately deposit me back in the place that stole my heart. I have with me over one hundred children’s books, laptops, cameras, coloured pencils & paints, mosquito nets, malaria tablets, my guitar and my parents in tow. I still can’t quite believe I managed to convince mama and dad to join me on this potholed road but in spite of initial hesitations as riots erupted in the streets of Kampala when we were about to book our flights, the dust has settled and I will have at my side two very excited companions on my journey back to KAASO.

I am holding my breath for that first step on African soil, those first crushing Ugandan hugs, the first sight of Kiwi House, the first song shared beneath my music tree and of course my first bite of matooke…

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