Back down the red dirt road

I left this place with a promise to return. Whether or not anyone else remembered my promise, I certainly did and I know I would not have felt complete had I not honoured my word. To return at all was a dream come true. And to return with both my parents was beyond a dream.

After so much time away you can’t help but wonder if the children will still remember you, one of many volunteers to have made the trek down this red dirt road and I worried that maybe time had washed away the sense of belonging I once felt here.

I was wrong.

From the minute we touched down on African soil I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging, a warmth that extended past the heat of the day and a feeling that everything was in its place; I had come home. Dominic greeted us like the long lost family we came to realise we were to him, engulfed in emotional hugs. We spent a night amidst the chaotic rumbling of Kampala where you feel as if nothing is ever still and if you pause for too long you will be carried away by the crowd.

The road back to KAASO took my breath away. It felt as if I had never left as we flew back over dirt roads, through villages that had changed little in my years away, the urban quickly giving way to rural as banana palms overtook the roadside and buildings turned to mud. We arrived late at KAASO in the black of night and I assumed the children would be sleeping. Yet again, I was wrong. There was a cacophony of sound as from the darkness emerged a hysterical mob of children who would have carried away the car like a sea of ants had we not quickly jumped out and instead let ourselves be engulfed by the swarming crowd. Little hands fought to find my skin with cries of ‘Madam Emma! Madam Emma is BACK!!!’ White teeth and eyes smiled at me through the night and as their cries turned into song, my tears fell freely. ‘You are my Sunshine’ merged with ‘In the Jungle’ and the guitar soon came out for an impromptu rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’, little bodies swaying, overcome with joy. I was home.

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There is always the worry that in returning somewhere, things will have changed. Here, I had feared that perhaps this would be for the worst. I was crazy to have doubted for a moment. Dominic and Rose have taken this school, in the words of Ivan and Miral, from good to great! Kiwi House still stands as proudly as ever, there is a full-time librarian in a library complete with books, the other volunteers here have been taking daily computer classes on the laptops we left behind, there is a live-in nurse in the sick bay Cherie so lovingly painted in the hope that one day it would be used for its intended purpose and the children are still laughing, smiling, living, loving – and singing. Even the new children know every single word to the songs I taught in 2009. It is overwhelming. Continue reading

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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