I find myself wondering, yet again, how do I put into words my experiences these last two weeks in Kampala, Uganda? How do I share with you all the many ways these people and this place have already left an imprint on my heart?
So I share with you some pieces of the journey…
– Opening my eyes, viewing each new day through the soft pink haze of a mosquito net and the early morning dawn.
– Walking home in the evening with the thick smoke and pungent smell of burning rubbish penetrating my senses.
– Hearing children call out, “Mzungu!” both as a greeting and a beckoning to their friends/sisters/brothers to come see the white person walking down the street.
– Seeing small shops, some with just a few boards and a tin roof, others with metal bars as a door, and still others with no building but a small makeshift grill, lining the street, selling chapatti, cassava, coca cola, roasted corn, fish, bananas, jackfruit, matoke and more. This is entrepreneurialism – and this is survival.
– Befriending a ragtag group of kids on my street and playing the high-5 game with them every night on my way home from the Girl Up office; high-5ing the little boy with a runny nose, who only wears a t-shirt; the girl wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt; the boy who runs down the street after me for one more chance to get another high-5.
– Feeling so inspired by each person on the Girl Up team that my heart just wants to explode all over them to give them a piece of the love and respect that I have for them.
– Standing on red earth under a huge mango tree in a circle of young girls wearing white shirts and pink skirts, dancing and singing a song together that reminds us that every part of our body belongs to us, and knowing that for most of their lives, these girls were taught otherwise.
– Being stared at all the time: while walking on the road, singing in church, shopping at the little local market, visiting a school. Some looks are filled with curiosity, others with envy mixed with judgment mixed with projection, and still others with what appears as hostility. But then, I smile, and almost every time, not all the time, but most every time, those staring brown eyes crinkle at the edges as a smile breaks free in response.
– Experiencing moments of homesickness and yet not actually desiring to leave this place. Although I miss hot showers, privacy, quiet back country roads to walk on, reliable internet, arugula, green smoothies, and familiar loved ones, to return now would be a retreat into the comfort zone… to stay here is the following through of a calling.
– Black goats, brown goats, white goats with black speckles; on the roadside, in the fields, in the rubbish piles; chickens in the store, chickens on the road, chickens in our backyard; dogs barking at night in the distance.
– Interviewing girls who have gone through the Adolescent Girls Program (a Girl Up program) and hearing their stories of change… from shy and quiet to outspoken and asking for what they want; from thinking menstruation is a sickness and sex at a young age is a requirement to learning how to make sanitary pads and say no to the cultural pressure to have sex and get married instead of finishing school.
– Getting the evil eye from Mama Annette (the woman of the house on whose land I’m living) when I say I’m not coming to dinner. Hearing her say, “I made chicken as I didn’t want you to have to have beans again,” and realizing that sometimes the kindest and most respectful thing to say is, “I’ll be right over.”
– Knowing the chicken I’m eating for dinner was alive just a couple of hours ago.
– Helping out in the “cooking kitchen” where meals are cooked over charcoal and every meal is made from scratch using produce from the gardens. Leftovers are fed to the dog or the chickens or heated up the next day, as the refrigerator exists but isn’t used.
– Hearing the story of the peer educator who thought he was supposed to beat his wife and how through the Girl Up training discovered that hitting her negatively impacts her health and their relationship. Now he’s making different kinds of choices and encouraging other men to make different choices, too.
– Being the only white-skinned person in the Anglican church full of almost 200 people, singing along with the other women, men and children of all ages. Although we may have different beliefs about God, religion and spirituality, the song of joy and thanks unites us, at least for the moment.
– Talking with a girl who is afraid to ask her uncle again for money for school. She hopes that next year he’ll be willing to pay for her and let her return to finish her schooling.
– Discovering that it only costs about $75 USD to send a child to primary school and yet so many kids don’t attend school as their families don’t have the money or don’t value sending their girls to get an education.
– Being told that the hospital that is known for treating cancer doesn’t even have functioning equipment to deliver treatment.
– Sharing lunch with the Girl Up team every day, and getting to sit next to Mama Joyce (the mother of Monica, the Girl Up co-founder) as she serves us a warm meal of beans, rice and posho (a firm dough-like paste made with maize).
– Straddling the seat for my first boda boda (motorcycle) ride behind a man wearing sunglasses. Feeling excited and nervous. Comforted in knowing that some of the other Girl Up team members (Emma, Gloria, Sharon and Carol) are on boda bodas behind me. Leaning forward, moments after the driver takes off, to ask, “Can I hold onto you?” as my hands curl around his red t-shirt.
– Seeing rubbish everywhere… on the road I walk on almost every day I see the black sole of a shoe embedded in the red mud, a strip of zipper attached to orange fabric, empty plastic bottles flattened by cars and boda bodas, a blue pair of pants, a child’s size pink high top floating in a mud puddle next to a red bottle cap; more rubbish piled up on the side of the road, burning or smoldering or waiting for someone to light it up; bags and papers stuck in the barbed wire fence; heaps more in the green fields.
– Small homes, made of stone and concrete, wood and tin, leaning against each other, held together by love and need, while across the road stand big houses behind security fences and locked gates.
– Being showered with kindness and generosity by the two families who have taken me in as one of their own and who remind me to “be free” with them, meaning, to relax, enjoy myself, and feel at home.
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This place… it’s intense, intimidating at times, inviting most times; it’s raw, real and beautiful.
These moments… piece by piece they unfold, making my heart ache with the reality of poverty, gender inequality, and racism, while also filling my heart with a sense of peace, knowing I’m doing my little bit of good where I am. As Desmond Tutu says, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
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(*Title of this piece credited to a line in Edie Brickell’s song, “This Eye.”)
Photo Credit: Emmanuel Walusimbi, photographer for the Girl Up Team and volunteer with the Champions of Change program