Sun sets in the west

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As the sun set in the west, we flew east, out of Uganda and out of Africa. I’m now sitting in Dubai airport full of tinsel, fake snow and bling, neon signs flashing in my tired eyes, trying to convince me I need their diamond jewellery, gold watches, top shelf spirits and overpriced goods. There’s even a Lamborghini on display. Overwhelming to say the least after the week I’ve just had. My cup of tea feels like all that’s keeping these dusty feet grounded.

My trips to Uganda have always been packed to bursting but I feel like this past week has surpassed all others. Refugee camps, solar budgets, Christmas parties, countless visits to far-flung families, several tearful farewells, a journey across the country to visit Rose’s father, a final meeting in the back seat of Dominic’s car flying through traffic en route to the airport… It’s been a busy time to say the least and my head is still spinning trying to take it all in. Where to start?

I returned to KAASO from Kampala on Monday, not riding co-pilot as I had hoped with my solar technician but on the back of a boda to the heaving taxi park where we negotiated our ride on a bus headed south and spent the next four hours sweltering sitting on the engine jammed in between sacks, boxes and of course the obligatory chickens. The pounding Kampala rains made it a steamy affair and I was immensely happy to return to my village home that afternoon. The solar story is long to say the least, and ongoing – negotiations and discussions continued right up until this morning when I had to cut them short to make my flight in time but we still hope to be able to have things resolved before the children flood back through the KAASO gates next year. I will keep you posted…

On Tuesday we packed all of the sponsor children into two cars and with me at the wheel of one and Harriet, the other volunteer, at the wheel of the other, we set off, headed towards the Tanzanian border. At Rose’s suggestion, we were to visit Sango Bay refugee camp on an educational tour for the sponsor children to remind them just how lucky they were. And that they did.

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Not really realising what a refugee camp was, the students dressed in their Sunday best, and on passing through the security checkpoint, were soon surrounded by swarms of wide-eyed children, hopeful of receiving some of the clothing the students had gathered to distribute and no doubt keen for a bit of excitement to break up the monotony of their lives in the camp. It’s a veritable no-man’s-land – many of the inhabitants are in fact Ugandans who left their homeland some 50 years ago in search of more land in Tanzania. Last year the Tanzanian government decided they didn’t want these foreigners in their country anymore and exiled people in droves. Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese were given warning of the impending exile but few believed it to be serious until soldiers arrived on trucks and forcibly removed them, leaving them time to take nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They trucked them across the border and handed them over to the Ugandan government who sent them to Sango Bay refugee camp. The camp now houses 5,000 people, over half of which are children. Unicef and other NGOs are helping to supplement the government supplies and rations in the camp and there’s a makeshift school for over 1,000 children but conditions are pretty dire. I felt uncomfortable being a spectator to such a scene but speaking to the students later, it was clear the visit had had quite an impact and it was interesting to watch the tables turned – the sponsor students are largely orphaned or with little family support and it’s easy to think of them as hard done by but here they were distributing their own clothing to those in even greater need. Everything is relative.

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The following day I threw a Christmas party for the sponsor students and those children still left at KAASO. There are a handful of kids whose parents or guardians have “failed to pick them” as Rose tells me, so they remain drifting around KAASO looking slightly lost and downbeat. So it was a delight to watch their eyes light up when I told them that of course they too were invited to the Christmas party and they eagerly took their place in line to enjoy the feast we had prepared. Henry and I did our annual Christmas tree trip to his mother’s garden where I stood holding a rusty ladder while he hacked at branches with a machete and the car was soon full of the smell of Christmas. His mum took the lead in decorating and soon the classrooms were strung with decorations, balloons and streamers I’d brought with me from San Fran and the Christmas tree was dotted with tropical flowers that the boys brought from the gardens. As I sit writing, Dubai airport is playing ‘Feed the world – do they know it’s Christmas time at all…’ Yes, yes they do.

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The Kiwi Sponsor Committee we formed last year is still going strong (Ugandans LOVE committees) and every holiday they’ve been meeting to discuss the term, write letters to their sponsors (tragically both packages of letters from the last two meetings were lost in the mail but this time I’ve got all the letters safely in my hand luggage) and catch up on school life. Henry lead the proceedings as the Chairman of the committee and Dominic and Rose gave inspiring speeches. Rose talked of the “treasure of education,” reminding them just how lucky they were to have the support they did, encouraging them to “try your level best to find your way” but not to “jump for something – go step by step.” Dominic has the uncanny ability of being able to get across a serious message while still having the room in fits of laughter, myself included. He stressed the importance of the KAASO family, something we all belong to and that even though there are ups and downs, if you are family, you love each other regardless and will tolerate people for all that they are. Rose had the final word, thanking me so much for somehow managing to find sponsors for all these students and therefore changing the course of their lives. Her words reduced me to tears with their simple beauty: “Emma is not just a volunteer, she’s not just Emma, she’s a big lady – even if she looks a bit small. You see – she can create a way where it isn’t.” But that thanks is not mine – it’s to all of you who help, support, encourage and follow my journeys to KAASO. You help me create the way and for that I thank you.

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I managed to catch up with all 25 sponsor students – in their homes, at their schools or back at KAASO. It was nothing short of epic as what started as trying to help one 13-year-old Henry get to secondary school has become a kind of mentorship as I sit and discuss the futures of each and every student. It can be both exhausting and heartbreaking but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are now four students at nursing school, two doing veterinary certificates, four more about to finish secondary school next year and range of others at various stages of their schooling. My dream is that one day they will all be qualified in one way or another, they will be working and able to support themselves and their families, especially the incredible grandmothers who tirelessly keep families afloat across Uganda, and that they will go on to become role models in their communities as a way of repaying the support they have had both from their sponsors and from the KAASO family.

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My final morning at KAASO, I went to visit Damian’s tomato garden. I didn’t know what to find as the days had run away from me and it had been almost a week since our first discussion. Turning the corner on that dusty path on a scorching morning, I couldn’t have been more impressed. He had slashed two thirds of his half acre plot, dug holes, filled them with manure, planted seedlings and carefully covered each one with homemade banana palm shades to protect them from the relentless equatorial sunshine. Hoe in hand, he was hard at work when I arrived and as he came bounding over to meet me, he couldn’t stop grinning. He was radiant and when I asked if he was enjoying himself I thought his face might explode from smiling so much. He was in his element.

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We went through the budget and he showed me his calculations of each and every shilling I had given him so far and outlined how he planned to spend the rest. I walked away feeling that if nothing else, that one project made every minute of waiting for this trip worthwhile.

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I left KAASO biting back tears as I said my goodbyes to Stellah, the girl I sponsor whose 17th birthday we celebrated together on Thursday, Henry and all the other remaining children. I know I will be back next year but it’s always hard giving those last hugs and turning out the gates with a sea of sad eyes and little waves following me. Loaded with children, suitcases and crops to take to Kampala relatives, I drove Dominic’s car with Rose as my navigator up to Kampala, distributing people and cargo along the way. We arrived late and hit Kampala’s notorious traffic, ending up thoroughly wedged around a roundabout in a pile up of cars, trucks, taxi vans and suicidal motorbikes, of which I inadvertently managed to hit two along the way. Fortunately no one was hurt, just a bunch of shouting at fist-waving at this crazy muzungu driver.

We set off the next morning to visit Rose’s father, ‘just outside’ Kampala – what turned out to be over a two hour drive away. It was a long and dusty road but wow was it worth it. Husband to eight wives, father to over thirty children (Rose lost count at 25) and a prominent magistrate in the area, her father is a fascinating man. In spite of his success, he insisted that all of his children learn the value of money, that food must be worked for and nothing taken for granted. Rose grew up with 15 siblings her age and together they would work in the gardens to ensure there was food on the table. When he retired, her father decided to open a primary school next door to his house to help educate needy children from the area and to keep himself busy. Rose clearly took after her father. Well-spoken, highly educated with excellent English, her father sat with me and thanked me profusely for coming all that way to visit him, saying he was honoured by the effort I’d made to “put him in my programme.” As we spoke, he sat looking from me to Rose and finally burst out laughing saying it was confirmed. I looked at him in confusion – what? It turns out that except for the colour of our skin, he believed that Rose and I looked so similar we could be sisters and henceforth declared that I was a daughter of his and part of his family. It was my turn to be honoured.

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My final night was spent at John and Mirriam’s where I watched on with amusement as Rose and her brother tried lasagne for the first time and her brother’s young boys raced around the front courtyard in John and Mirriam’s daughter’s pram, captivated by this alien contraption. As I sat at the dining table, enjoying a precious glass of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc which John had been saving for a special occasion, I felt so incredibly grateful to have this amazing network of friends who have come to feel like family in an unlikely corner of the world. The best part is knowing that I will always be going back and that these relationships are forever.

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Fittingly, my last day in Uganda was hectic. Dominic was meant to join us in the morning, coming up on the early bus from KAASO as he had had two weddings to attend in the village the previous day. Of course, the bus never showed and so he missed the meeting Rose and I were having with Rotary John. We were just driving out of his compound gates for the airport when a motorbike came flying in with Dominic hanging off the back, grinning as he jumped off the bike and into the car. All the way to the airport I sat discussing the future of KAASO with Dominic and Rose, hearing their hopes and dreams and brimming with pride. Every time I come back here I am reminded, yet again, of how incredible those two are and how lucky I am to have stumbled across this little gem in a tiny village in the middle of the African continent. What they have done, what they do and all I know they will do, inspires me endlessly and as I look around this glittering consumerist world of Dubai at Christmas, I close my eyes and picture all those little faces I left behind and I am reminded of what’s important in life. And for that I feel truly, truly grateful.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas with those you love.

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A tough decision

Yesterday I made one of the toughest decisions of my life. As you will all be aware, the Ebola virus has been causing devastation throughout West Africa since March this year, leaving a trail of fatalities in its wake. It’s an unthinkable tragedy and I have watched on with huge sadness as these events unfolded.

However, my plans to return to Uganda remained unchanged. This was an epidemic taking place over 5,000 kilometers away on the other side of a continent. People so often speak of ‘Africa’ as one place, a single country rather than a landmass covering 30 million square kilometers, triple the size of Europe, with 54 counties, home to over a billion people. I sometimes wondered if there was an Ebola outbreak in Ukraine it would stop people travelling to Paris. I highly doubt it and yet it’s half the distance between Uganda and West Africa.

Last Sunday the Ugandan Ministry of Health notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that there had been a fatality in Kampala from Marburg, a virus from the same family as Ebola with similar symptoms and fatality rates. I began to do some research into this disease and learned that there had been small outbreaks of both Marburg and Ebola in Uganda in 2011, 2012, and 2013. These ‘outbreaks’ were all regionalised, all quickly contained and shut down. The tragedy for the West African nations where the Ebola virus is currently running wild is that the outbreak comes after a decade of civil war which has left infrastructure in tatters and confidence in governments low.

In Uganda, people have been educated to be much more open about illnesses since the government’s widespread HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the 1980s and confidence in public services is far higher than their West African counterparts. Uganda has been widely praised for its response to the 2012 Ebola outbreak that killed 17 people. Together with the WHO, Uganda’s health authorities worked to quickly and effectively quell the outbreak with public announcements by President Museveni on radio and TV urging Ugandans to take precautions against the disease.

The current situation in Uganda is that there has been a single case of confirmed Marburg which has killed one health worker. Five people remain in isolation and there is every expectation that the virus will end there. I have been in touch with my friends in Uganda and a fellow Kiwi living Uganda in since 2009 has assured me that life in Kampala continues 100% as normal.

I was due to fly out tomorrow and my boyfriend’s younger brother, Beau, was meeting me the following week in Kampala. I’d spoken with the boys’ parents and their dad had asked if they should be concerned about Ebola and their mum had smiled and said Emma wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t safe. They trust me to ensure that Beau will be safe, and while he is old enough to make his own decisions, he was coming with me based on the fact that I deem Uganda safe – as it always has been on my four previous trips.

If it were up to me alone, I would proceed with the trip as planned as I truly believe we would be safe and that the chance of either of us coming into contact with either Marburg or Ebola is minuscule.  But over the past few days I have come to realise that this is not a decision that affects only me and I cannot ignore the fact that my going to Uganda has widespread ramifications for those close to me. For the very first time in my life of spontaneous, out-of-the-ordinary adventures, my parents have stepped in and asked me not to go. This morning I had a heartfelt conversation with Rose who, ever wise, told me of a Ugandan proverb:

‘The elders sometimes do not see so well but still, they understand some things.’

So I am going to have to abide by this proverb and it is with huge sadness and disappointment that I let you know I have postponed my trip to Uganda. I will most certainly return – hopefully sooner rather than later – but for now I need to be selfless and make a decision for those around me rather than for myself. I don’t want to put my family through that worry as I can’t assure them that everything will be alright because I simply don’t know. I have every confidence that Ebola will not reach Uganda but who am I to say? Just a Kiwi girl who left her heart in Uganda.

It particularly hurts to know that this is a luxury I have – to choose to go now or not – but that is the point my parents have raised. There is no reason I must go now – the school, the village, all those I know and love will still be there in a few weeks, a few months and there is no pressing reason I must leave tomorrow. Rose reminds me that they will be looking forward to my arrival any day and says ‘for our love for you and your family, we will respect you.’ I hope with all my heart that this devastating disease is soon stamped out across the entire African continent to let innocent people return to their lives – and so that I can return to my Ugandan home.

Thank you to all those who have supported and encouraged me in the lead-up to this trip. Tomorrow afternoon will be a difficult moment as that plane leaves without me but one thing I know for certain is that this is not a cancellation but a postponement. I will be back soon.

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Uganda awaits

It feels like an eternity since I last wrote – the past months have been full to bursting. But now, sitting in yet another airport, it seemed like an appropriate time to sit down and reestablish contact with the world. Outside the light is fading over Amsterdam where I have been for the past 24 hours for a brief but amazing catch up with a long lost friend I met one afternoon in the Greek Islands on the eve of my very first departure for Uganda. And here I am now, four and a half years later preparing to board my flight southbound, back to the African continent.

This trip to Uganda is about getting grounded, reconnecting with the village and catching up on the past year and a half since I was last there. In that time, thanks to so many of your generous donations, Mark House was completed and I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes and to visit all the boys who now call our dormitory home – there will be pictures coming for sure! Also, thanks to the incredible kindness of a few and the outstanding organisational skills of Madam Kirsty, we brought Dominic to the USA in July this year to speak at an educational conference in LA and attend an educational workshop in Florida. I can’t wait to hear all about it and, in Dominic’s words, to ‘compare stories of being American!’ I’m not quite sure I consider myself American after a year and a half in the States but will be hilarious to compare notes all the same…

I’ll be in the village for one month, and during that time I also plan to visit all of the sponsor children at their respective high schools on my magical mystery tour around the country with Rose as my co-pilot, navigating my way across the pitted roads, past the fish-sellers and fruit-laiden roadside stalls. It will be almost Christmas by the time I leave so I’m looking forward to having some pre-Christmas celebrations with the children and to spending time with those who are back at KAASO for the holidays.

It’s hard to believe I left my Bondi home in Sydney nearly two years ago. Since then, it’s been an incredible adventure of ever-changing horizons followed by planting my feet in one place for over a year – a rare miracle in my world. I met so many amazing people in San Francisco and it’s a really special feeling to be able to take your world with you – this travelling circus of people that follow the America’s Cup around the globe are like one big family to me. While the past year was marked with ups and downs, I ultimately left with great memories of the foggy city.

It’s a strange feeling now, sitting in a brightly lit room full of people going about their business, music playing, suitcases wheeling, laptops tapping, TVs buzzing and glasses clinking, knowing that this time tomorrow I will be back in the village, sitting outside under a tree, strumming my guitar and surrounded by singing, swaying, grinning little faces. I close my eyes and try to picture it and it still feels like another world, so very far.

But it’s undeniable, Uganda is calling me back. That dusty road is stretching before me and I can’t wait for the cacophony of sound, the flying hugs and tangle of limbs that await me. It’s been a while, but it’s time to return to my Ugandan home.

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