My big fat Ugandan wedding – and other stories…

 

My trips to Uganda are always incredibly busy but I think this one has to take the cake. Somehow I didn’t quite get my head around how manic it would be juggling my 56 sponsor visits, the official opening of the Bermuda Water Project, the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, starting up a placemat and crafts business, going through all the Suubi Sanyu student microloan fund projects, celebrating our very own Ugandan wedding and hosting 10 muzungus (Swahili for white people – literally means ‘one who wanders aimlessly’ after the early missionaries in Africa!) in the volunteer house… Throw in a safari, the nursery students’ graduation, an accounting workshop, a day at the lakeshore for the teachers’ annual staff party and a visit to a local coffee producer, and there hasn’t been much time to breathe! But I can’t help but love every second.

Image 29-11-17 at 12.53 PM (8)

As I write, Nath is outside with a team of Kiwi Sponsorship boys building much-needed pathways through the school, stopping the students from skidding through pools of mud when the rainy season hits with force and preventing the waves of dust that billow through the dry season. Work is also underway on a netball field thanks to funds from St Paul in Australia – Nath’s old school where his mum works – as well as the St Paul Australia/St Paul Uganda garden. Other donations are going to construct a latrine and changing room for the teachers – for 18 years, the teachers have shared the children’s pit latrines and it’s about time they had a toilet of their own. These are just some of the many projects on KAASO’s priority list that are being tackled and, as always, the vision of the school continues to blow me away.

Our Ugandan wedding was only 10 days ago but I have to pinch myself to believe it actually happened. Of course I knew that it was going to be huge but it’s another thing to actually experience the full weight of the love of a school, a village and a community. The day started at 6:30am, in the dark, being told it was time for me to leave to get ready – had I bathed? I was still in bed but jumped out and tried to quickly prepare myself for what was about to be one of the biggest days of my life. Mama, Jas and Haylee came with me to the local Bridal Salon in Kyotera where absolute hilarity ensued as they tried to work out how to style my hair – no one had ever worked with Western hair before, never mind long blonde locks – most African women wear synthetic weaves. Haylee fortunately stepped in to help create the bun required to prop up my (compulsory) crown and veil. Being sewn into my enormous princess dress, having high heels strapped to my feet and jewels bedazzling my neck will forever be etched in my memory – not to mention the moment we all stepped out onto the main street of Kyotera which didn’t know what had it hit it – a giant muzungu meringue with a team of hot pink bridesmaids (I love that Haylee’s first time as a bridesmaid was in Uganda!) and two muzungu mothers in satin gomesi, the traditional Baganda dress. We certainly caused a stir! We drove through the streets of Kyotera to the home of a parent from KAASO who hosted us for a wedding breakfast of beans, rice, chapatti and spaghetti. An hour and a half late, the boys joined us, inverting the tradition of the bride being the one to keep the groom waiting… We had a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it photo shoot in the back streets of Kyotera before starting our police-led convoy through the town, Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ blaring as our 25 car convoy hooted and bounced its way through the pouring rain, creating a spectacle I don’t think will ever be forgotten in Kyotera.

Image 29-11-17 at 12.55 PMImage 29-11-17 at 12.54 PM (7)Image 29-11-17 at 12.54 PM (4)

Arriving at KAASO, all 600 children along with hundreds of parents and people from the local community were standing in the rain waiting to welcome us, chanting and singing our arrival. We performed the traditional Baganda wedding ritual whereby Nathan has to offer a cock (a rooster!) to Nick, the muko – brother in law – at which point Nick must decide if Nathan’s cock is big enough to trade for his sister… Needless to say there were plenty of laughs! The day continued with speeches, traditional dancing, a song from Brenda which she had written for me, a beautiful tribute from Kim with the Primary Five students, an insane procession of gifts and no less than three outfit changes – from my huge Murial’s Wedding-style white dress to the traditional gomesi to my final ‘party dress’ made by an old student of KAASO who is now a fashion designer in Kampala. I never could have imagined when I first came here that one day I’d be back marrying the love of my life (again) with my entire family there to witness. Beau was a legend, capturing it all and I’m sure there will be a rather entertaining video to come… To top it all off, Ugandan TV was also there and last week, our wedding featured on the national news!

Image 29-11-17 at 12.54 PM (3)

We barely had time to recover from the wedding celebrations before it was time for the Kiwi Sponsorships Graduation, celebrating two of our nurses – Irene and Teddy – as well as Brian who has completed his secondary school. The day began, as always, with a meeting of the sponsor students who all began by introducing themselves and sharing their dreams of what they hope to become – young doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, accountants, plumbers and businessmen in the making. It always makes me so proud to listen to the students inspiring each other, encouraging their fellow students in reaching their dreams. The guardians’ meeting is always one of the highlights of my trip, while being one of the biggest heartbreaks. I struggle to get through my speech each time as I am floored by the humility, strength and gratitude of these guardians, many of whom are elderly jajjas, grandmothers. Having my family there to bear witness to it all was especially moving for me as I am so often overwhelmed by trying to take it all in alone. The graduation ceremony that followed was a time of festivity, laughter and dance as we celebrated our three students who have now completed their education – and thus ending their 6-year Kiwi Sponsorships. That now takes us up to a total of 13 graduated students, all of whom are now making their way in the world in various vocations around Uganda – nurses, vets, pharmacists, plumbers and lab technicians. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a child, you can find more information about it on our website at KAASO Kiwi Sponsorships or contact me directly – I have a list of 11 students who won’t make it to secondary school next year without help so any new sponsors are highly welcome!

Image 29-11-17 at 12.52 PMImage 29-11-17 at 12.51 PM (6)Image 29-11-17 at 12.51 PM (5)

Image 29-11-17 at 12.52 PM (1).jpg

Time is spinning way too fast and while we have already been here a month, it has passed in a heartbeat. With less than a week to go, I wish I could slow down the clock. I love my Ugandan family with all my heart and I love even more that my three families are now joined. When people around the world ask what I do, I always smile and simply say, “KAASO.” It is the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine doing and everyday I feel grateful to have left my heart in this magical little corner of the world.

Image 29-11-17 at 12.51 PM (3)Image 29-11-17 at 12.53 PM (3)

 

Advertisements

As Close to Coming Home

On a plane bound for Uganda, I sit reflecting on the journey that got me to this point.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I left Uganda for the first time. I had just spent six months in the village of Kabira living at a school called KAASO and, while I knew that something unbelievably special had happened, I didn’t realise that the entire course of my life had forever changed. I had no idea that eight years later I’d be headed back to Uganda for my eight visit – with my husband at my side. I could never have imagined that the village would be planning a Ugandan wedding for us, that both of our families would be flying from all corners of the globe to be there for that most humbling, most incredible day. And yet, here I am. Here we are.

Eight years ago, I left KAASO with a promise to sponsor a boy called Henry. A few other wonderful souls had also agreed to sponsor children that, without support, would not have made it past primary school and onto secondary school. I was filled with hope and optimism that we could make a difference in the lives of these few children. Within a couple of months of my return from Uganda that first time, all seven children I hoped to find sponsors for were supported. I didn’t realise that this was to be the start of the Kiwi Sponsorships, a programme that today helps 55 children – now young adults – to have the chance of an education. Nine of those students have since graduated and later this month we will celebrate the graduations of three more. We are making progress and, slowly but surely, changing lives.

Eight years ago, there was no such thing as the Suubi Sanyu Fund. I had sat through countless meetings of the Women’s Empowerment Group – now the KAASO Empowerment Group – which enables members to access the microloan fund that has so helped the community that surrounds KAASO. I had witnessed the phenomenal impact this fund was having on the lives of adults in the area. And as I watched the children from the Kiwi Sponsorships become teenagers and then grow taller than me, I realised that they too needed access to capital, a chance to get ahead. Together with Nath, we created a fund that now enables KAASO students and graduates to get loans that would have previously been unavailable to them. It’s a source of great pride to see these young entrepreneurs take their futures into their own hands and I can’t wait to tour the various projects this fund has enabled – and to show Nath what the vision we dreamed up together has helped to create.

Eight years ago, I decided to write a book. Across the dust-strewn pages of dozens of notebooks, I scrawled stories, thoughts, observations and countless words of wisdom spoken by Dominic, Rose and the other inspiring people I met in the village, ideas I hoped to one day share with a wider audience. Multiple drafts, rewrites, days, months and years later, my manuscript is now finished and I hope with all my heart I will soon find the right agent and then publisher who shares my passion for this story so I can bring it to the world.

Eight years ago, I didn’t know the boy sitting next to me. It would be another two and a half years after leaving the village before he walked onto the rooftop of a Newport hotel in Rhode Island and changed my life. It still feels surreal that now, one year and eight months after daddy-o rowed me ashore in the Bay of Islands to marry the boy of my dreams, I am about to repeat that experience – minus the boat, the beach, the ukulele orchestra and the naked people (yes, we got married somewhat unintentionally on a nudist beach…!). While our ‘real’ wedding has already taken place – as Nath keeps reminding me – the wedding that is about to take place is just as special to me. Not many people are fortunate enough to have the incredible honour of having a wedding thrown for them – not to mention one in a village a world and a half from home. We haven’t even touched down on African soil and yet I already feel it in my bones, in my heart, this overwhelming sense of anticipation and humbling gratitude, which creates tears of excitement that keep threatening to spill from my eyes.

Eight years ago I left Uganda at the end of my first African journey. Since then, I have lived the life of a continent-hopping nomad, calling many places home along the way. It’s an adventure for sure, but sometimes it’s hard to define ‘home’ when your horizons are forever changing. But one thing is for sure – returning to my Ugandan family with my husband at my side, soon to be joined by my Kiwi and Aussie families, is as close to coming home as it gets. It seems that now, more than ever, the words I read at our wedding in New Zealand last year ring true:

“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.”

IMG_2115.JPG

Back in the world again

And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s September. All my best intentions and New Year’s resolutions to keep in touch more, to write more, to share more stories seem to have gone by the wayside. But yesterday, while cruising with Nath through Ely’s Harbour, brainstorming book proposals and future plans, he reminded me that it’s never too late to get back in touch with the world. So here I am.

My last post, A Year of Milestones, summed up 2016 and all that it was. 2017 has been similarly epic, but also interspersed with the moments of calm and reflection that come from (finally) having your own space in the world, a place to rest your travelling shoes. From January until July, with the exception of a brief Easter trip to Newport, RI, we went almost half a year without getting on a plane, a record for us given the past four years of frenetic travel. It was such bliss to have a home of our own, a fixed, immovable place on a far-flung island, one that has come to mean the world to us. The people we have met, the opportunities we have had and that breath-catching view that never ceases to fill me with joy – Bermuda, we will miss you.

The America’s Cup came and went like a hurricane. After over three years of trying to convince people that being married to Nath did not compromise my ability to work on the Cup, I finally got a job. I spent the event period running the Longtail Lounge, a corporate hospitality lounge filled with Bermudians and international guests who came to fill themselves with Moët and gasp at the flying rocket ships that sailed before them. I put together a team of fabulous girls, friends old and new, and together with Mark and Ben, the Longtail Legends rocked the Cup village.

Being part of Artemis Racing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so immensely proud of Nath and the entire team for what they managed to achieve – from where they started to where they ended up was a phenomenal leap. To me, most importantly, was also how they did it – the spirit, the sense of family, the determination and the refusal to give up right to the very end was extraordinary. “We are Artemis,” is a cry that will echo in my ears for many, many years to come.

Nath and I left Bermuda two weeks after the Cup ended for a whirlwind month around Europe – Nath competing in the moths, flying at a thousand miles around Lake Garda, a huge contrast to cruising with my parents along the south of France on their new boat, Sojourn II, Nath learning how to sail slowly. A brief stopover in England, sharing stories with friends and family before heading on to Sweden to celebrate the wedding of Nath’s teammate and his gorgeous bride on the Stockholm archipelago before returning to our Bermudian home for the last time.

So now is a time of reflection, of gathering our thoughts, of hypothesising about what the future might hold – something entirely out of our hands now – and, inevitably, packing up our home. To go where? That is still uncertain. What is absolutely certain, however, is that we are going to Uganda – together – in November. After five years of hearing stories about the village that stole my heart, it’s time for “Mr. Nathan” to meet his Ugandan family. Oh, and we thought we’d just throw a big, fat Ugandan wedding in there too. A date has been set – 24th November – the planning committee is underway, and family and friends are starting to book flights from around the world. Dominic and Rose have timed the date so that not only can the 638 KAASO students and 46 staff members attend, but also the majority of the 53 sponsor students, their families and those from the surrounding community. As the preparations get underway, Nath just watches me with a patient, albeit slightly terrified, smile, knowing how much this means to me but struggling to comprehend just how huge it is going to be. Even I have no real handle on how the day will unfold. When I ask Rose what exactly is going to happen at this wedding of ours, she simply laughs and asks, “But Madam Emma, you want to spoil the surprise??” No, no I don’t.