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.
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…
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…
Back in my world of wide eyes and even wider smiles and little hands that find my own. After six weeks on the road it really did feel like coming home pulling into KAASO where children came running to greet us from all directions. It’s like being a celebrity in a middle-of-nowhere, rural Uganda kind of way.
We had barely jumped off our motorbikes when we were taken by the hand and led on what felt like a glory tour around the school, hearing shouts as children ran from dormitories, racing over to welcome us home. We were given Ugandan hugs – i.e. being launched at with such force that last time we returned from a trip I ended up with a bruise on my hip bone.
We soon discovered that two months had not been enough time to fix the broken water pump and the children were still having to carry water from the well in jerry cans on their heads – this was ‘Africa time’ in the extreme. Energised from our trip and feeling the full motivation of just-returned-ness, Cherie and I decided the next day to go to the well with the children to fetch our own water rather than going out of minds with no water to bathe, wash clothes – or flush our toilet. I don’t think we quite realised what we were in for. We followed the children through the school, past several mud huts, through the forest, into a field where we continued to walk until we finally spotted the well – at the bottom of a rather large hill. Trying not to look fazed, we traipsed down the mud path until we got to the well. There was a crowd of children filling their jerry cans and no line that I could decipher but the children seemed to have some kind of system arranged between them. From what I could gather, it was largely based on hierarchy. Being two red-faced muzungus, we did not feature in this hierarchy.
Eventually, we realised that we would wait all day unless we just shoved our jerry cans under the water spout, pumped by a small child that seemed happy to continue pumping for us. We ambitiously filled two 10L jerry cans each then quickly realised our mistake; most of the children had one 5L jerry can. Yes, we were much bigger than most of them but not necessarily much stronger. We struggled back along the dirt track, having to pause embarrassingly frequently along the way. It was hugely satisfying to make it back to school and the looks on the teachers’ faces was worth the effort when they saw the two of us emerge amongst the children carrying our own jerry cans. Unfortunately we got distracted by the gorgeous nursery children who came running out to see us; many of them we hadn’t seen since we got back so we picked them up and spun them around and chatted as best you can with a 5-year-old Ugandan child. It wasn’t until some time later that we turned around to realise our jerry cans had gone. We searched everywhere until we finally asked Rose in desperation – ‘Where would you take a jerry can if you were a small child?’ To the kitchen, she smiled. Back down across the school and there were our jerry cans lined up neatly outside the children’s kitchen – a wooden shack with a fire and giant cauldron-like pot full of porridge. We grabbed our jerry cans and vowed to take more care next time – if we could manage a next time…