Shined with Kiwi Shoe Polish

When I first came to KAASO in 2009, I had no idea where my journey would lead. I hoped my time in the village would change me and the way I viewed the world, but I could never have imagined how great the impact it would have, that it would change not only the way I saw the world, but my place in it. KAASO has now become a huge part of who I am and I just love these trips back to my village home.

As many of you know, the Kiwi Sponsorships programme I have been running for the past six years all started with Henry, an irresistible little boy with a huge smile and even bigger dreams. He had more than enough determination to make those dreams come true, but not the funds. My parents and I stepped in to help him and the Kiwi Sponsorships was born. Other friends and family members soon joined and, over the years, as I find myself unable to stop talking about KAASO, even more people have joined in to support those students unable to continue onto secondary school. There are now have 32 students who are receiving an education thanks to that love and care.

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It is easy to feel in life that we are just one small drop in a great ocean of need and what can one person possibly do? My time at KAASO has taught me that we can do more than we realize, not just by financially supporting a student but, most importantly, by believing in them. Many of the children here come from families ripped apart by AIDS, poverty and incredibly difficult circumstances. Yesterday I visited a girl whose father was shot dead on the side of the road when she was still in her mother’s womb, another whose father was killed in a motor accident when she was just two months old and whose mother, unable to cope, abandoned the girl with her elderly grandmother. There are so many difficult stories, sometimes it’s hard to take. But in spite of their challenging situations, these children still have spirit. They have determination and drive and the will to make something of themselves. They finish primary school fired up and ready to take on the world. However, without the benefit of KAASO’s incredible system of free primary schooling, their dreams of further education are quickly cut short.

So I can only imagine how it must feel for such children to then find out that someone across the world, someone they have never laid eyes on, has offered to help them, to believe in them, to support them through their schooling so that they can have the opportunity so many of us take for granted. An education. It’s overwhelming seeing what the promise of an education brings to the children here, the look of disbelief on their faces when they learn that someone they have never met believes in them and is giving them the chance to learn. It is humbling in the extreme. No wonder my time at KAASO is so incredibly emotional but so immensely satisfying.

On Tuesday, we celebrated our first Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation ceremony. We first met with all the sponsor students in our annual sponsorship meeting, run by our Chairperson, Henry. He thanked me for coming back every year, explaining that it was so much more than just the financial support, it was the hours and hours we spent talking together, discussing futures and believing in them. “That shows it is love, it is care, it is endless support.” We met with the parents and guardians of the sponsored students, mostly elderly jajjas – grandmothers with faces weathered by age and responsibility – and Dominic gave an inspiring speech about how when the three Kiwi Girls – Cherie, Kirsty and I – first came to KAASO, all anyone knew of the word “Kiwi” in Uganda was Kiwi Shoe polish. Over the years, they have come to learn that a Kiwi is so much more than a kind of shoe polish. “But,” Dominic said with his cheeky grin, “in a way, Madam Emma is like Kiwi shoe polish. She has really polished KAASO!”

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After the meeting and a huge feast for lunch, I stood, bursting with pride as our graduation ceremony got underway. Courtney, the wonderful fellow Kiwi volunteer at KAASO, had decorated Kiwi House with the children, just as Cherie had done so six years earlier for the opening of Kiwi House. Now I watched as eight of our students were celebrated for their achievements over the six years of their sponsorship. Four students have now finished Senior Six, their final year of secondary school, and another four have graduated from two-year vocational courses following Senior Four – two nurses and two vets-in-training. After the speeches, I was called to the verandah of Kiwi House dressed, somewhat hilariously, in a graduation gown, where I read the names of each student to an audience of parents, guardians, community members and children. As each child came to the stage, Dominic presented them with a graduation certificate while Rose pinned their GRADUATE sashes to the happy students. As I hugged each one tightly, I thought I might explode with happiness.

The day ended with a disco, typically upbeat Ugandan music blaring from a borrowed sound system and as I danced amongst the students, now as tall as me, I thought back on when I had first met them as young 12-year olds and Dominic’s words from his rousing graduation speech rang in my ears:

“This school began in 1999 and we had little. Henry was in our first grass-thatched classroom as a tiny small boy and one day during the rainy season it collapsed on top of him. The whole village came to help rescue Henry and his fellow students. Today, that same small boy is graduating. We first saw these students when they were small, small insects. And now they are big elephants. We congratulate them!”

From everyone at KAASO, thanks so much to our family of sponsors. You are changing lives, giving hope, and raising elephants.

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Computer Connection

In 2009 when I was first in Uganda with Cherie and Kirsty, we built Kiwi House to rehouse the 100 girls currently living in the library and computer lab. With a grant from the Rotary Club of East Coast Bays in Auckland, we plastered, painted and furnished both the library and computer lab then diligently set out to fill the shelves and tables with as many books and laptops as we could find. When we left in November 2009, the shelves were sparse but it was a start.

On my return to KAASO in 2012, I brought with me 12 laptops which had so generously been donated by Louis Vuitton where I was working in Paris. They were just three years old and were received with open arms by all at KAASO. The computer lab was growing.

Volunteers at KAASO have continued to bring over second hand laptops and to teach computer lessons to both the children and teachers and computer literacy has been steadily growing. And now, thanks to Dominic’s trip to the USA last year, the computer inventory of KAASO has doubled. Corbett School in Tampa, Florida where Dominic visited with Mark Thompson, the head of the American National Education Program, sent over 20 computers and today Dominic has written to let us know that they arrived safely at KAASO. He also shared the exciting news that a full-time computer teacher has been employed to focus specifically on computer lessons for both the school and the community.

The shipping expenses of the computers were generously covered by the Trinity Rotary Club in Florida and KAASO wishes to express their gratitude for this as well as to John Mpagi in Kampala who assisted with receiving the computers at the airport in Kampala and transporting them down to KAASO.

It’s so heartening to see the KAASO support network growing – this was exactly what we’d hoped Dominic’s trip to the USA would achieve; through his travels his incredible charisma, passion and magnetic personality have helped spread the word about KAASO far and wide.

A huge congratulations to all who helped make this possible. I wish the students and Empowerment Group members all the best in their computer lessons and I look forward to seeing the newly stocked computer lab on my return to Uganda.

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Some of the laptops I brought from Paris in 2012

A new home in a village far away

Summer has arrived early in San Francisco and I’m loving every minute. While it’s not exactly Ugandan tropical, my evening walk along the waterfront tonight was full of smiling people, parks of picnickers, pathways lined with those soaking up the last of the light, and as the sun slipped down behind the Golden Gate, some mad people were even swimming…

And on this beautiful evening I have some incredible news to share with you – our dormitory is finished. Mark House was officially opened on the school’s Visiting Day and is now the handsome home to dozens of gorgeous red-sock wearing boys. While the girls proudly moved into their very own Kiwi House in 2009, now, in 2013, the boys have Mark House.

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The dormitory was named in honour of an incredible man named Mark Blomfield. I first met Mark in 2011 when he turned up to one the typically chaotic dinners my mother hosts for hundreds on the deck of our house in the Bay of Islands. He was captivated by the story of KAASO and immediately offered to sponsor two of the children through secondary school. But he didn’t stop there. When I sent out my fundraising appeal in July, voicing the ambitious hope of raising $10,000, I was sitting in an airport frantically typing as my flight was called to San Francisco. Before I’d even managed to board my flight, Mark had pledged £1000. He was a passionate supporter of this dormitory and a constant source of encouragement for me to keep going with the fundraising, believing every step of the way that we would get there. To help get us over the line, Mark offered to match every donation dollar for dollar, an overwhelming act of kindness and compassion. Tragically, last November, Mark died of a heart attack. It was a devastating loss and while I had only known him a year, he made a huge impression in that short time. He was someone who cared deeply and, with quiet determination, made sure this dream would come to life. This dormitory is dedicated to his wife Jan and to Mark’s memory. I know he would have been proud.

Mark House

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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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Back down the red dirt road

I left this place with a promise to return. Whether or not anyone else remembered my promise, I certainly did and I know I would not have felt complete had I not honoured my word. To return at all was a dream come true. And to return with both my parents was beyond a dream.

After so much time away you can’t help but wonder if the children will still remember you, one of many volunteers to have made the trek down this red dirt road and I worried that maybe time had washed away the sense of belonging I once felt here.

I was wrong.

From the minute we touched down on African soil I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging, a warmth that extended past the heat of the day and a feeling that everything was in its place; I had come home. Dominic greeted us like the long lost family we came to realise we were to him, engulfed in emotional hugs. We spent a night amidst the chaotic rumbling of Kampala where you feel as if nothing is ever still and if you pause for too long you will be carried away by the crowd.

The road back to KAASO took my breath away. It felt as if I had never left as we flew back over dirt roads, through villages that had changed little in my years away, the urban quickly giving way to rural as banana palms overtook the roadside and buildings turned to mud. We arrived late at KAASO in the black of night and I assumed the children would be sleeping. Yet again, I was wrong. There was a cacophony of sound as from the darkness emerged a hysterical mob of children who would have carried away the car like a sea of ants had we not quickly jumped out and instead let ourselves be engulfed by the swarming crowd. Little hands fought to find my skin with cries of ‘Madam Emma! Madam Emma is BACK!!!’ White teeth and eyes smiled at me through the night and as their cries turned into song, my tears fell freely. ‘You are my Sunshine’ merged with ‘In the Jungle’ and the guitar soon came out for an impromptu rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’, little bodies swaying, overcome with joy. I was home.

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There is always the worry that in returning somewhere, things will have changed. Here, I had feared that perhaps this would be for the worst. I was crazy to have doubted for a moment. Dominic and Rose have taken this school, in the words of Ivan and Miral, from good to great! Kiwi House still stands as proudly as ever, there is a full-time librarian in a library complete with books, the other volunteers here have been taking daily computer classes on the laptops we left behind, there is a live-in nurse in the sick bay Cherie so lovingly painted in the hope that one day it would be used for its intended purpose and the children are still laughing, smiling, living, loving – and singing. Even the new children know every single word to the songs I taught in 2009. It is overwhelming. Continue reading

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…

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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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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Home Sweet Home

The skies are grey but there’s still a certain kind of light here which means the colours remain so bright and alive – the banana palms are vibrant green, the muddy earth so red. These last two months have been the supposed rainy season but the rains have largely failed, with only three or four days of what people here would call ‘real’ rain. For a summer sailing girl like me, sunny days have always meant being outside, swimming, soaking up the sun and enjoying evening happy hours at sunset. I’m quickly learning that sunny days here mean famine. Dominic came in looking grim the other day and said that because of the lack of rains, next year much of the country would starve. He said it with regret but without sensation; here such things are a fact of life. Teacher Sarah has planted her own garden of crops and actually knelt down and praised the Lord when it started raining yesterday.

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It really feels as though a change has taken place in me this term. While our first few months here were all about learning, asking a million and nine questions, trying to piece it all together and make sense of everything, since we have been back it now feels as though this place is our home. Yes, everything is still completely different to all I’d ever known before I came here but now I have finally formed a kind of routine in which I have come to accept that nothing will go to plan, plans will change and no one will tell you, but that’s life. Once you get your head around that, it all feels strangely ‘normal’.

I teach English classes most days to my gorgeous little 5-year olds and everyone is amazed that they actually understand me but I have been teaching them almost every day for the last few months and we have reached some kind of hilarious understanding – usually involving me jumping and dancing around the room to get my point across. They laugh, they learn, we get there. I’m also teaching English to the older children who are preparing to sit their Primary Leaving Exams. It’s a big deal here – if you fail you have to repeat the year again and again until you pass to go onto secondary school – if you can afford it and that’s a big if. Some in Primary 7 class are 16 or 17 years old, either due to being held back or simply because their parents could not afford to send them to school until they were older.

I do a bunch of music classes which leave me with no voice but a huge smile, watching the children dance and sing – along with the teachers who love to join in. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity in my life – I only have to walk near the classrooms with my guitar and all of the children run to me screaming “P1?!”, “P2!?”, “P3?!” desperately hoping that it will be their class I’m coming to. One of my little favourites, Brenda, took my hand as I walked into the class of rioting children who had already begun to sing and whispered in my ear with a little smile, “Thank you for coming Madam Emma.” It makes me want to smile and weep at the same time, their gratitude is immense. I’ve just started teaching them ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and it’s all I can do not to cry every time I play it but I can’t help myself. It’s incredible to bring songs from my childhood to the children here and I know that they will live on at KAASO forever – these children never forget a song!

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I also help the teachers to mark exams which provides endless entertainment (in an exam letter to a friend, a girl called Florence signs off “I command you to stay a virgin and lovely as you were”) and frustration (when the English exam is written in improper English – how can a nation learn??). As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I really quite understood when I came here that I would be living and helping in a school not an orphanage and although many of these children are orphaned by AIDS, most go about their day quite normally as you would find in any school around the world. Well, not quite, but it’s not the dramatic scene I had pictured before coming here. My days are filled with wide eyes, big smiles, little hands, greetings of “Madam Emma!” and usually no more drama than a scraped knee. I’m going to miss it.

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Bats & beads, dorms & divas…

I have blisters on my fingers from sharpening coloured pencils, I now find it normal to kick giant centipedes from my room, I’ve gone cross-eyed from tying knots in beaded fishing line, the bat that lives in the roof above my head no longer bothers me, I hardly notice the cockroaches that run across our dining table, I say sorry to people for things I didn’t do, I know that I will not be able to walk past a single person without greeting them for five minutes repeating the same phrase, I think nothing of crunching gravel in my rice and when the pond water is muddy brown, I bathe in it anyway. I am officially becoming Ugandan.

So we thought it was about time we got out of the village and had a weekend in the city. Yes, that same city where people literally ran riot through the streets not so long ago but now you would hardly know except for the marked presence of soldiers in the streets. In typical Ugandan fashion, they rioted, made a horrifically gory calendar to celebrate/commiserate/commemorate the dead and dying and forgot about it. And so here I find myself, in the Kampala in search of a glass of wine and a good coffee. So far so good.

With less than a month left at KAASO, time really is flying and the days are so full. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly watching the girls move into their new Kiwi House. And when I say move, I mean move. Triple-decker bunks were carried from the library/computer lab to the new dorm by the 100-odd girls who are now living in Kiwi House. It’s hard to give an idea of the scale of it but picture 100 girls, 100 metal trunks containing all their worldly possessions, another 500 children watching on with interest and in the midst of it all, workmen still working, making bricks and mixing concrete (with their bare feet). It was a sight to see. But construction is all but finished, they are just finalising a few last minute things and then Kiwi House will be complete. It’s an incredible achievement, one we only dreamed could ever be possible and you all have made it happen so sending you all more thanks than you could ever imagine. The official opening is going to be held at Visiting Day on 18th October so we will celebrate in style, probably with an insanely sweet orange soda or some such delight…

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