I meet one of my sponsored children. She's bright, and beautiful with big eyes and long eyelashes, a recognized and honored leader in her school and lined up to graduate next year with her diploma. I'm so proud of her and I hardly know her.
Reading “They Fight Like Soldiers, they Die Like Children” by Romeo Dallaire and thinking of so many connections between child soldiers and the youth I work with caught up in gangs; both in recruitment, normalizing to violence, maintaining order and recruits, as well as the struggles for rehabilitation. So many similarities, so many of the same roadblocks. But I'm feeling inspired, as well.
We drive north to Arua, and buy oranges, but without any change we end up purchasing so many oranges they are a pile on the floor of the car. We toss the oranges to the wild baboons that scramble for them, running under the car and scare me, popping up beside my window.
We make a random stop to visit an acquaintance of the driver; driving through a field in a Toyota sedan and I am amazed at the capability of this car to drive right through a field on what is basically a rough bicycle path. We unload the remaining pile of oranges to the children of the family, who dance around in awe that our oranges seem to never run out, and their hands are full, the pockets of their pants to capacity, their t-shirts loaded up and still we offer more oranges.
We stop to use the toilet at a roadside establishment and after they realize a white tourist (or 'muzungu') has used their facilities they demand that we pay something for the privilege of squatting over their fly-infested holes; $10,000 shillings to be exact. The equivalent of around $4 each, which is an outrageous amount for using a toilet even in North America.
Together we laugh at the absurdity and drive away.
I went for a nice morning jog, came back to the compound to do some weights (which means lifting up rocks or bench pressing my friend's 6 year old). They think I'm strange and cannot understand why I would want to run unless I'm in a hurry, or why I would want to do sit-ups to work on my abs. “We like big women in Uganda!” one of them yells and I just laugh. They keep heaping food on my plate at meals in an attempt to fatten me up.
It is a compliment to your host if you leave having gained weight during your stay and are determined that I be bigger when I return to Canada.
I visit Naima's grave and to my own surprise I tear up as I remember this woman's influence in my life. I thank God for her, and for her accepting me into her family. I truly believe she would have been proud of me.
I didn't like ugali last time I was in Uganda. It is a starch that people eat with meat, stew, or really any sauce. Its a beige color, a mushy ball that is is pulled apart with fingers. It had the texture of raw pizza dough with a fermented taste and a gritty substance like heaps of sand.
This time around in Uganda I learned that it doesn't have a sand-like substance- it really IS sand.
I don't care how poor a community is, that is no excuse to eat sand on purpose!
They laughed at me when I told them why I didn't like it. After explaining that it does have sand, they further laughed at me. “You don't chew it! You just swallow it.” How silly of me.
I declined to go to the wedding in Yumbe, even with the offer to meet a 116 year-old-man. Imagine! Someone born in 1898 (maybe 1897!!!)! Amazing.
But something didn't feel right. So I stayed in Arua with Hanan's sweet sister and her father. And I'm glad I did.
I practice my Swahili and whatever appropriate little medical knowledge I have as the father's blood sugar is remarkably high. After several international phone calls with his daughter who is a nurse, we discuss not having white rice and greasy, salty beef for dinner. He will take his medicine and have lentils.
An hour later dinner is served, rice and beef for him as well. “I will eat lentils tomorrow.” He promises me, tapping my knee to give me some comfort. I shake my head, unable to properly express in Swahili the importance of his diet when he has diabetes, I audibly say a prayer for him and remember that he has been eating this way, while living with diabetes for going on a full year, he probably will not die tonight. At least I hope so.
I run in the evening. Bad idea. I was mobbed by 20 or more children who decided they wanted to jog with me, or chase me through the red-dirt paths. My sprinting did not shake them off or tire them out; only inspired them to try harder. I even tried faking a forward sprint, then doing a quick u-turn and running the opposite way. I think it added two children to the pack.
Finally, I run off in the wrong direction to get away and run too close to someone's private compound. I greet them and apologize for running pretty much in their front yard. They invite me over, and I have to come because I'm already on their property. And then they don't let me leave unless I demonstrate three “banana jumps” to them; which I decipher are basically squats-to-vertical jumps.
I pay my fare of three jumps and run away.
I run back home with 10 or so children in tow and Warida, sweet woman that she is gets mean and chases them away with a stick, threatening to beat them unless they get off the property.
I run in the morning this time, without collecting a mob of small children. However, as I complete some exercises in the compound's yard (including bench pressing and adorable little boy who lives with this family) I look around and see groups of children scattered in all corners imitating my exercise positions (the plank, then kneeling push-ups).
Checking blood Dad's blood sugar. The testing machine has an error and I am surrounded by a mess of papers as I read the manual, compare to the user guide, then translate it all with my Swahili dictionary in very rudimentary language. “Error” is 'problem' or 'kuna' in Swahili. Kuna Mbili, Problem 2. As I very poorly, and in terrible grammar, describe that Kuna Mbili means that dirt has entered the testing strip and Dad must re-wash, then re-sanitize the testing finger, then cleanse the testing machine and complete the process again.
The whole time I moved around the different papers and pamphlets, Dad held the French version of the user guide upside down and attempted to read it backwards, as he is literate in Arabic. It was quite funny and I would have laughed more had I not been straining my mind to translate.
I run in the evening, but take a path away from the huts to where Warida has promised I will easily find the church on a nearby hill.
I slow my jog through the tall grasses as I mentally calculate the distance of the game-park where tourists are taken to see lions. 2 hours away by car... that's far enough away that I won't be prime bait as someone jogging through tall grass...just as I round the bend of the narrow path and come face to face with:
Tethered to a small tree, staring at me as it chews its cud.
I guess if its safe enough to leave a cow out here, I will be pretty safe, too.
I continue my run, after nodding to the cow, of course and jog up the hill. The church is easy to find; and really beautiful with decorative etchings and cut-out designs in the windows as no glass is available. The inside has local-artists depictions of Jesus in the 12 stages of the cross and I am relieved that Jesus looks distinctly African.
I exit the church and look at the view from the hill and immediately regret not having brought my camera. It's just before sunset and the lighting is perfect; I'm overlooking the neighborhood where I am staying and can see the clusters of little huts below, all surrounded in vibrant green. Here on the hill are winding red roads (real roads, not bicycle paths) and there are some school children totally immersed in their soccer game on a sloping hill; chasing wildly for the ball after a bad pass.
I continue jogging a little and take many mental pictures.
Sometimes when we see something too up-close, we miss it: the buzzing flies, the smell of the latrines, the regular dust, the cheap plastic utensils, the violence, abuse, oppression, corruption.
And then you climb a hill and you look out and see so much further than you could see in the valley and you see Uganda is truly a beautiful country with so much to offer, so much that hasn't even been realized.
After breathing in, and savouring the view, I took the boys up on their offer to play soccer. Of course. I am always up for a soccer game, even on a dusty hillside in Northern Uganda. Maybe especially there.
We drive back to Kampala.
We are stopped by the traffic police three times for speeding. The driver smiles, politely announces he works for the government; shows his official ID and off we drive (he was really a safe driver, just fast!). There was no bribery here, and actually, I have seen the same tactic used by a friend in who worked for the military in Texas and the son of a state trooper in Indiana. The world is often more the same than it is different.
I realize how crazy I was to travel in Northern Uganda on my own, during the dangerous time that I did years ago. My host, who works with the Ministry of Defense shares some statistical facts and relevant knowledge regarding the violence in the area when the LRA were active, pointing to specific fields, landmarks and commenting on deaths and raids that happened just beyond the road on which we drove.
We talk about our own experiences with silent, prayer-filled bus rides where passengers held their breath and prayed to whichever higher beings they believed in for the dangerous stretches of road, or the government-provided bodyguards to accompany vehicles during insecure roads (including mine, who sucked away on bags of cheap gin and then waved his weapon around, regularly pointing it in my direction and getting my attention by yelling “America!”. I did not feel very safe with him as our protector).
I thank God for protecting me, for keeping me safe and remember that while I was crazy and naively fearless, I also was called by God to come, and to come when I did.
I picked up the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina (the brave man made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda).
I realize that I travel like a Rwandan: he speaks of the irony of a hotel in Rwanda saving the local Rwandan people, because hotels are foreign to them. There did not even exist a hotel, inn, guest-house or the like in the country until foreigners wanted to begin enforcing their own government. Why? There was no need. When the Rwandan people travelled, they connected with a distant relative or the friend of a friend and stayed in their home.
Yes, I am cheap (I like the terms economically-minded or at least, frugal). But that's not the reason I would prefer to stay with local people than in a hotel.
I learned how to make local dishes because I shopped at the fresh-food, open-air markets with Shamira and together we squatted over the charcoal stove, we chopped onions over bowls and stirred peas.
I learned two methods of making fresh juice because Warida showed me how to scoop out the passion fruit seeds and smash them over a mesh wire, while Shamira chopped mango slices and simply rung them out by hand in a cheese cloth.
Because I stayed with a local family I left with something better than souvenirs. I learned more of the language this way, including translating diabetic diet tips. I got to ride the regular public transit instead of taxis, having a random school boy fall asleep on my shoulder during his long commute home.
I played soccer with a group of local men on the worst soccer 'field' I have ever seen: trenches to dribble through, sand to attempt to take shots from and concrete with potholes to avoid breaking an ankle in.
I get wonderful experiences because I stay with families, I make new friends and I leave with memories I will cherish long after I forget why I took a picture of that flower or that building.
There are times when I will use hotels (honeymoon is a big one!) but on adventure trips? Please give me a local family that I can eat breakfast with, I can help wash dishes and we can together rinse out our hand-washed clothing. Because new friendships are so much better than an empty hotel room with a dust-free television set.
Flight to Kenya. All is well, I arrive in Nairobi airport to meet a friend of a friend whom I have spoken on the phone with three times, but have never seen a photo of.
I await, looking for a sign with my name on it among the arrivals crowd, and, seeing none, I take a seat at the cafe and wait.
After 30 minutes, I consider the arriving crowds: I am distinctly the only single, white female in the airport. Even taking into account the white couples, the only white woman I see has long grey hair and looks to be at minimum 50 years of age. There is no way my pick-up could possibly miss me.
Finally, I ask for a public phone and the nice gentleman behind the desk offers me his personal cellphone (after flirting with me and asking for my phone number, of course!). When my ride arrives 30 minutes after the phone call, he walks confidently up to the counter and greets the gentleman in a familiar manner.
As it turns out, he knows most of the people who work at the airport as his import/export business has him at the airport 5 times or more a week. The gentleman who helped me even had my host's phone number! What a tiny world!
My host doesn't drive me home personally, instead, he sends me with his 'driver'. The drive takes 1 hr, 45 minutes from the airport to the apartment. That's for a 1 hr flight. The car ride tired me out more than flying to another country!
I arrive at the apartment and am greeted by a cheerful, spunky house girl.
I'm in a whirlwind.
I was hoping for running water and a toilet; I was happy to have a shower with hot water and constant electricity.
But a car and driver? A house girl who offered to wash my clothes and prepare tea for me? And my host offered me the use of one of his extra cellphones while I hang out around downtown Nairobi. And if the first cellphone he offered was too simple for me, I could use his Galaxy X if I would prefer, as he mostly uses his Iphone 4 for work purposes and the Galaxy is just for personal things (the small, simple phone was just fine with me). I definitely did not expect this!
Around 7 pm the younger brothers of my host arrive home. The house girl, Ann, and I giggle as she runs into the kitchen to hide and I stand at the entrance to the apartment and welcome them home.
They come one by one as there is a long staircase to climb and the smaller ones take longer to trek it. First is the 12 year old who does a double-take, re-checking the apartment number before giving me suspicious look and then politely shaking my hand. Then come the twins, 10 years each and not identical by any means. The first twin walks in and pulls his head back as he stares at me, checks the furniture to ensure this is indeed his home then silently takes my hand in greeting and retreats to his bedroom. The second twin acts similarly, turning his head around, getting his barrings and then quietly greeting me. The youngest, 8 runs up the stairs and is panting for breath. “Welcome home!” I call as I open the door. His eyes grow huge and his mouth hangs open. He looks all around and is only re-assured when the face of Ann pops up behind my back.
Jool, cousin to my host has made himself my personal tour guide and shows me downtown Nairobi; including a tour of his campus at the University of Nairobi and Central Park.
He then discloses one of the reasons why the little brothers were extra shy and surprised around me: the boys were joking with their older brother about why he didn't date or a have a girlfriend. Jool laughingly had said “Don't worry, his wife will come soon.”
I arrived the very next day.
Jool had to explain to the youngest that I was really NOT their brother's wife, although I had arrived just as he had jokingly promised. My host, too, laughed that the youngest brother, when asked who the visitor was, had responded “that is your new wife.” with absolute certainty.