Que Sera Sera – whatever will be will be

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Growing up as a little girl, mama always used to sing to me ‘Que Sera Sera’ – whatever will be will be. It quickly became one of my favourite songs and so, arriving at KAASO in 2009 with my guitar on my back, it was an obvious choice to sing with the children. They adored it and the school grounds would often be ringing with little voices singing their ‘que sera seras’.

When I listen to this song, it reminds me that while life is full of the unknown, of ups and downs, twists and turns, and forks in the road, somehow everything works out in the end. Whether or not we have rainbows day after day.

This video is a celebration of all those gorgeous little children at KAASO, those I have come to know and adore over the past five years.

You can’t help but smile when you see their faces, their happiness is contagious.

Thanks once again to Beau Outteridge Productions for editing this for me – your time, patience and support is much appreciated.

Sing along and enjoy!

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A busy year in the village – KAASO’s latest newsletter

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Good things come to those who wait and at long last, we have the latest KAASO newsletter. A very loosely ‘monthly’ affair, this one incorporates news from January – October…

It’s packed with all the latest happenings at KAASO, everything from visiting refugee camps to building libraries, from Dominic’s trip to the USA to receiving a generous donation of 20 laptops from a school in Florida. There’s even a section on the delicious meals at KAASO!

Read about the school’s computer classes and Dominic’s hilarious update on the various projects running at KAASO – you will hear all about Mr Passion Fruit, Mr Piggery, Mrs Sweet Potato, Mr Maize…

My personal favourite is Teacher Sam’s section on the Education Week celebrations. Read how the music “boomed like a gun and covered the audience like wall paper”, how “the melodious voices evaporated like a fragrance leaving the audience in suspense” and “in the blink of an eye the audience was like dustpans waiting to swallow rubbish.”

Enjoy!

‘My very nearby sister’

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It is impossible to get off the phone from Rose unmoved.

Sitting under the window of Kirsty’s second floor apartment, sun streaming in, the streets of London bustling as people go about their Wednesday morning business, I am transported to the dusty roads of Uganda, picturing the day as Rose describes it – ‘it is so much rainy and then it shines’. The crops are growing well and soon it will be time to harvest the maize and potatoes and the stores will be full with new season’s produce. Rural village life, worlds away from my city view and yet somehow technology allows us to be brought so close together that it feels as if Rose is here, talking and laughing as if she were sitting next to me.

‘You are my very nearby sister,’ she laughs. It feels so.

The children are all busy preparing for sports and music competitions that will take place this weekend. They are hoping to emerge victorious this year after coming so close two years ago when they were pipped at the post, coming a close second to another, better-connected primary school. In Uganda, as everywhere, it’s who you know not what you know.

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The chickens have started harvesting eggs and the children are delighted to be sampling the fruits of their labour. Rose tells me the chickens are ‘very fine, they have started laying and we are really happy for that.’ Thanks once more to all those who donated to the chicken project, it is proving to be a great success!

Thanks also to a generous donation from Willem Jan van Andel, the school will finally be secured. Until now, there have been fences and gates surrounding most of the school perimeter but the front remained open due to lack of funds for school gates. Construction is now under way and soon the school property will be fully fenced and enclosed, helping keep the children safe at night.

We have new sponsors, new projects and many new exciting initiatives in the mix. Rose thanked me again and again for all that I and my wonderful family and friends do for KAASO. ‘We sang you our thank you song but you did not hear!’ she laughed when I asked if my latest money transfer had arrived. ‘Thank you for trying to make so many friends for KAASO, we are really appreciating all that you do.’

It puts everything in perspective to have conversations like this in the context of a world that all too often forgets to stop, listen and engage, to make time for each other without distractions, to value other people and listen to the story they have to tell. Conversations with Rose help remind me to take time to smell the roses.

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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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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

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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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

River wild & stories shared

We have ventured along the red roads of Rakai, through the madness of Kampala and now find ourselves in a town called Jinja. From here, the Nile springs from beneath the ground to join a flow from Lake Victoria which winds its way through Uganda and Sudan, eventually finding itself in Egypt which most people (myself included until now) think of as the home of the Nile. As of today I stand corrected – Uganda is in fact the source of the Nile.

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It was not until arriving in Jinja that we realised just how rural Rakai is. Here there is electricity, running water, large buildings and even a brewery (Nile Lager!). We crossed the Nile today over the Owen Falls Dam which supplies power not only to Uganda but also to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. Tragically, most of the power goes overseas and for some insane reason the price of power is more here than what they sell it for in neighbouring East African countries. Sometimes the logic of this place is lost on me.

Last night was spent in the home of a Ugandan pastor named John who runs a school/orphanage just outside Jinja. He is hoping for his project to be added to the Kids Worldwide portfolio and so we spent a night asking him a million questions and feasting on Ugandan food – the hospitality here is outstanding. We went into the school today and met all of the kids. There are only 60 in the whole school (a single class at KAASO!) but next thing we knew, the entire school was in a classroom and we were singing and dancing with them, teaching them songs and I just wished I’d brought my guitar. John, the director has intentionally brought all of his teachers from the north of Uganda where people do not speak Luganda so the children are taught entirely in English. They are hugely intelligent and have the same warm smiles as the kids at KAASO. It feels strange to be away from KAASO, our Ugandan ‘home’, so it was nice to have the chance to spend some time with new children in a different part of the country.

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The few days we spent in Kampala were overwhelming – three city girls plunged into the middle of rural Uganda for two months then pulled back into the big city… We were amazed by everything we saw (I actually asked someone if their lights ran off a generator or solar power – he looked at me as though I was mad – ‘Uh, we have electricity.’ Of course.) We stayed in a little guest house in the middle of Old Kampala and when we checked in I tried to show off my Luganda. The man at the reception looked at me confusedly. He did not speak Luganda. Patrick was his name and he was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I launched into French (a damn sight better than my Luganda!) and found out his life story. Continue reading

Muddy feet, music lessons and many mozzies

P1000260Africa is inspiring. I am constantly lost for words, overwhelmed and blown away by the spirit of the people in this place. There is so much to absorb, so many wonders around every corner that it is hard to keep track of them all. I am a child again. Muddy feet and wide eyes, everything is new. I truly love it here.

Sitting down and trying to capture it all is a challenge but I will attempt to rise to it, to bring this place to life for you all wherever you may be. At first it was a little daunting, trying to work out what exactly we was best for us to do and we quickly learned that there is no such thing as a direct answer around here. Life is not black and white but shades – time is flexible, schedules are constantly shifting (if they exist at all), you start one thing and then find yourself half way through another, spontaneity is the name of the game and yet there is some kind of organised chaos in which everything gets done in the end somehow, in someway. You soon let go of any attempts to pin this place down, it moves to the beat of its own drum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASchool has begun. Monday saw a flurry of activity as children arrived on the back of motorcycles, bicycles, some lucky enough to come by car but the vast majority on foot. The arrival of the students meant a flood of sugar, laundry soap (used for washing: clothes, dishes and people), books, sugary toothpaste, razor blades (used for sharpening pencils, cutting fingernails and shaving hair), pens, pencils, safety pins, brooms (bundles of tied-together straw), hoes (?!) and of course jelly – the wonder cure which boasts to fix pretty much any illness, including every kind of rash imaginable. I’m sticking with my talcum powder for now… The arrival of the children was exciting and heartbreaking at the same time. So many of them were without parents, without school supplies and or any money to pay for them. We soon learned that there was no set rule as to who paid what – or didn’t pay at all and so we quickly resorted to stacking the supplies and left the decisions to the teachers. The school is now filled with laughter. The children are so spirited, so excited by everything and they never stop laughing. There is so much joy here, it is contagious. We are still only half way through receiving the students but by next week we will be: 623 children, 19 teachers, 9 cooks and matrons, Dominic, Rose and 3 muzungu. We are quite a sight.

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Under African Skies

Everyone had told me that Africa gets under your skin and I had understood the concept but not yet experienced it. It’s hard to believe we have only been in Uganda for five days, at KAASO only four. And yet I feels as if I have been here forever. While the enormity of everything continues to overwhelm, I know this is where I am meant to be.

When we first arrived in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, we were met by Dominic, the director of the orphanage/school at which we are living. He was and continues to be full of smiles, full of life and a complete inspiration to us. We were led to the carpark and directed to put our bags in the boot. He opened the boot to make space and I blindly put my head in only to be hit in the face by a startled chicken rocketing towards me that had been held captive in the boot – a gift from his cousin. It was a hilarious start and set the scene for this world of surprises that we have come to accept as (almost) normal.

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Kampala was a feast for the senses – smells, noises, sights and tastes we had never before experienced. Baskets of bananas balanced on heads, boda bodas weaving precariously through gridlocked traffic, markets overflowing with fresh fruit, chickens running freely, brightly coloured clothing wrapped around tall, proud women and an overriding sense of movement.

Dominic drove us down from Kampala into the countryside. Here the earth was so red, the sky so blue and the mass of banana plantations the most stunning green. We crossed the equator and into the Southern Hemisphere and I was amazed to simply pass from one hemisphere to another without ceremony – I was brought up to believe it was by sea that you crossed the equator with the obligatory toasts and libations to King Neptune. We arrived at KAASO in the evening, exhausted but happy to have arrived at last.

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