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

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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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Continue reading

So let the journey begin

It’s 2am at Dubai airport and this place resembles Oxford St at rush hour. I never knew there were so many people racing around in the middle of the night. I’m in no hurry –  I have a good 8 hours to kill before my next flight and, having dreamed of Africa for so long now, there’s no rush.

So this marks the start of the greatest adventure yet. I will be spending the next 6 months volunteering at a school for orphans in Uganda. Along with my friend Cherie and her friend Kirsty (who I’m yet to meet), I will be living in the village of Kabira in the Rakai District of Uganda, just south of the equator near the shores of Lake Victoria – a good 5 hour drive from the capital, Kampala. There are over 500 children at the school; the area was one of the worst hit by the AIDS epidemic which continues to rage through Africa. I don’t expect to be able to change the world, but perhaps over the next 6 months I will be able to make a difference to the lives of the children I am living with – and no doubt learn more from them than I am currently able to comprehend.

This is it – stepping off into the unknown in a way more dramatic than I have ever done before but I feel as ready as I can possibly be and hope that by keeping an open heart, open mind and living with open eyes, I will allow the experience that is Africa to become a part of me. I don’t want to look back on life wishing I had done something I never did and it’s all too easy to just talk about things without backing up words with action. So here I go.

The next time I step outside the airport will be in Entebbe, where the three of us will be picked up by Dominic, the director of the school, and taken to Kampala for the night. The following day we will begin our long trip south to Kabira. There is no internet in the village and the nearest internet cafe, a half hour boda boda(motorcycle taxi) ride away, burnt down a few weeks ago. However, I will endeavour to keep in touch as best I can, to share stories, observations, experiences and no doubt heartbreaks and inspirations too.

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