Rashid’s the oldest brother and has a gift for drawing. He can be quiet yet forward, asking for papers, a pencil, colors. Yet he will stop his twin brothers from pestering me when they start to ask me for sweets. When he watches me swinging his brothers around, I sense he wishes he was a little bit smaller so I could do that for him, too.
Hussain is the boy in the striped shirt. In one of our first encounters, he was so excited by all of our high-fiving and interactions that he looked right into my eyes and screamed. I squatted down in front of him so we could be eye to eye, and responded with a scream of my own. That moment of intensity matching intensity created a bond between us. Every time I approach their compound, he comes running up to me, full speed, knowing I’ll be right there to receive him and lift him up into a swirling spin.
Assan is Hussain’s twin. He watches everything, follows his brother’s lead, and whenever I bring pages for them to color, insists I give the baby a piece of paper, too, so he’s never left out.
And the baby! Oh, the baby! He always wants to be included, lifts his arms up to me so I’ll pick him up and spin him around, cries if I give the big boys treats and not him, and got so dizzy the first time I spun him around that he plopped down on his tush and cried. Yet his tears are often quick to dissolve when I call out to him, “Baby, it’s OK! Come here…”
These boys, who live down the red dirt road from me, got to be part of my photography lesson today. (I took all of these shots – except for the ones that I’m in!) This is the beginning of my goodbye… I let them know I’m leaving in 2 weeks. My heart is aching with joy-gratitude-tears, knowing I’ll soon be departing. How do you say goodbye to a place and people who you know will forever live in your heart?
In October, we created a Dream Ceremony for ~200 adolescent girls here in Uganda. They were invited to write down their dreams of what they wish to be when they grow up. Then, each girl got to read her dream out loud and be witnessed and celebrated by a small circle of her sisters and one of the coaches from the Girl Up Initiative Uganda Team. I was deeply touched by this experience. And I wasn’t the only one!
We were so inspired by these girls and their dreams that we decided to include all of them in our book, “We Have Something To Say: True Stories Written By Adolescent Girls Growing Up In The Slums Of Kampala.” So if you get our book, you’ll not only get to read 20 stories from the girls themselves, you’ll also get to read almost 200 of their dreams!
It’s a beautiful thing, when an adolescent girl growing up in the slums has the courage to dream of a better future for herself. It’s not only beautiful, it’s revolutionary! In daring to dream, she’s valuing herself and acknowledging her ability to change her circumstances. This is HUGE!!
On this first day of 2018, I wished to share with you a few of their dreams:
“I want to be become a doctor because I feel bad when I see people dying because of poor medical services. I want to help people to live a better healthy life. I really feel sorry for pregnant mothers who die in pain because of lack of midwives to help them give birth and sometimes their bodies die because of poor hygiene so I want to become a doctor to advise young girls who become pregnant because of love for boys. I want to help pregnant mothers to give birth to a healthy lovely baby. That is the reason why I want to become a doctor.”
~ Akirior Flavia Bernadeth, age 12
:::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * ::::::::
“My dream is to become a musician. I want to pass my message of hope through music and reach out to the children who sleep on the streets.”
~ Kabagweri Shipa, age 14
:::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * ::::::::
“I want to be an accountant because I am a mathematician and I want other girls to know that they can do it confidently. I want to be a musician because I like singing songs and other girls know singing like me but keep it up because you can do it. God help me because I want it.”
~ Kasiringi Teddy, age 12
:::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * ::::::::
“I want to become a lawyer because I want to help the women who are imprisoned, mistreated and tortured and also to help those who are imprisoned for nothing, to fight corruption in my country so that even the poor can get justice in this country. Third, I want to fight the human rights especially the women because I see they are the one who are most violated. And lastly, I want to become the first woman Chief Justice of Uganda.”
~ Namulemeri Cissy, age14
:::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * :::::::: * ::::::::
Ahhh! Aren’t they inspiring?! I’m so grateful for Girl Up Initiative Uganda, for giving these girls the tools, support and encouragement to go for their dreams.
In this New Year, I encourage YOU to go for your dreams, too!
P.S. If you’re inspired by these girls and would like to contribute to them AND get a copy of our book, you can donate to our book fundraiser! Click her for details and to donate: https://igg.me/at/BSKpc2yIaq0 Thank you! ❤
The two girls aren’t able to catch the hen, so they go up the hill out back with Annet to pick beans for our lunch.
I finish my laundry, hang the clothes on the bushes to dry and join them when they return in the task of shelling the beans.
We sit on the stone ledge of the house facing the valley. The girls sit between us, talking in the ways teenagers do, about anything and everything, nonstop.
As I pick up the bean pods one after the other, breaking them open to scoop out their contents (some beans are soft white-green, others maroon with white spots) I reflect on what I’d written earlier.
It’s easy to romanticize this place. I’m here temporarily, over the holidays. Everyone is in a happy, festive mood. All the different ways of doing things are fun and make me appreciate the little and not so little differences between life here and in Kampala and the States.
I’ll leave here soon and return to Kampala where we have running water, electricity, porcelain raised toilets instead of squatters… and yet I’ll still take cold showers and all meals will be made from scratch and cooked over charcoal.
And in about 6+ weeks I’ll return to the States, where really, I have access to anything I desire. I’m more aware than ever of my wealth and privileges.
There are hardships here that are also very much part of the daily life of these folks. Poverty, hard labor, early marriage instead of continued education, gender inequality.
There’s always digging, planting and harvesting to do to feed and sustain their families. On a drive the other day we passed a quarry where women, men and even children were using small hand tools to break up the stones into different sizes to earn money. I see women carrying babes on their backs and hoes in their hands as they head to the gardens to dig. Water has to be carried from the village tap every day, often for miles each way.
Children might not go to school at all or stop after P7 (middle school). If they are able to raise money for secondary school and college, they still might wind up back in the village, unable to find a job in the city.
A man might amass a great deal of land and wealth for his family, yet when he dies, his brothers can demand that the widowed wife hand over the keys to the house and claim the land and wealth for themselves.
Now as I write this, I hear the voices of the women outside who, at least when I left them, were preparing small mushrooms, just picked today, for dinner, by tearing off the bottoms covered with dirt. The teenage girls are in the other room taking tea. The sound of a baby’s crying is getting louder as she’s brought up the hill to one of the mamas outside. The baby goats start echoing her cries too, calling out for their mama who has been taken out to graze.
Life moves forward. More children are gathering outside. Soon, if I don’t go out to say hello, they’ll come in and find me and my writing will be paused for the moment.
So I’m aware of romanticizing life here in the village. That lives hand in hand with my desire to hear the many different stories of what life is really like for people.
Being here with my Ugandan family has given me a unique experience of village life. It’s been a privilege to step into their lives and homes in a more intimate way. And it’s been a beautiful luxury of timelessness that has filled me up, not unlike the beans and rice we had for lunch.
There is a timelessness here in the village.
Questions like, ‘What time is it?’ and ‘How old am I?’ and ‘What year is it?’ seem not only irrelevant but also, somehow, unanswerable.
It’s time to get up when we get up. It’s time to take tea or eat when food is on the table. It’s time to head out for the day’s outing when we’ve all taken tea and bathed. It’s time to head home when the moon is high up overhead. It’s time to sleep when we’re tired and the last visitors have left.
The time it takes to get anywhere or do anything is the time it takes. We’re always passing people the family know so we stop the car in the narrow dirt road and shake hands through open windows, exchanging pleasantries in Rukiga. (The local language, pronounced ‘roo-chi-ga’.) One man even brought his little girl over to my side of the car so she could touch the ‘mzungu’ (white skinned person).
We drive through herds of long horn cows and goats, all tended by a young man or old boy. I saw one boy running barefoot along the rocky edge of the road to catch up with his herd of goats.
We drive along the bumpiest dirt roads I’ve ever ridden on. The car rattles and our bodies shake and bump into each other as we cross over rocks and holes and crevices cut through from rainstorms and floods. And yet the countryside we travel through: rolling hills, terraced gardens all along the hillsides, fringed leaves of banana and matoke trees waving in the soft wind, green life and signs of fertility everywhere, make the crazy drives worth every bump.
Everything is beautiful, different, new. Yet there’s also a familiar rhythm of cleaning, cooking and doing laundry; while all done in different ways here, they’re the daily tasks women have done together for eons.
(Sweeping is done with a broom made of some kind of stiff hard grass; cooking is done outside over charcoal fires; laundry is done outside by hand in plastic basins filled with cold water; the wet laundry is hung on bushes to dry.)
There are so many children around. They stare or wave and smile. ‘Mzungu!’ they call out. After church the other day I was surrounded by about thirty kids. At school they’re taught in their local language, not in English, yet some are able to ask, ‘How are you?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ We play high five and enjoy smiling and laughing with each other. I sing a call and response song with them. ‘They are happy to see you here,’ I’m told. Mzungus are rare sightings here, and held in high esteem.
I see the ancient ones here, too, with their gap tooth smiles, moving about bent over with a walking stick in one hand. They tie their lasso (shawl/sarong) around themselves like a sideways cape to keep warm in the mist filled mornings and chilly nights. They still dig in the gardens and pick tea leaves and do their part in taking care of the family while also being taken care of.
As we drove through the hills last night towards home, after an outing in the wild bush at what felt like the top of the world, Ronald pointed out the three lights in the distance that marked their compound. Most of the rest of the village rested in darkness. Only a few people have small solar panels on their roofs. This allows us lights at night and enough power to charge our phones; a rare luxury in these parts.
As we got closer to the center of the village, we passed women carrying jerry cans (plastic jugs) full of water on their heads; children carrying smaller jugs at their sides, all of them heading uphill away from the village tap. I gave thanks for having a tap in our bathroom for showers and a tap in our side yard for all else. (If you want hot water it needs to be boiled over a charcoal fire first.)
When we arrived home there were a few people waiting outside to visit with the family. Waiting is just part of life here. We women had waited earlier, as the sun sank over the horizon, talking and laughing in the car together, while the men went off to finish their surveying of recently purchased land.
We didn’t know how long these visitors had been waiting at the house, nor did they know how tired we were, yet they were invited in to join us for dinner when we arrived home. Their laughter and conversations continued long into the night after I’d gone to bed.
As I write this, something small and black runs by the open doorway, followed by the teenage daughter of the family I’m here with and her cousin. I realize the black creature is the hen they’re trying to catch for lunch. (‘Aren’t you tired of beans?’ Annet asked me this morning.)
After I write this I’ll go outside again and do my laundry in the cold water. Annet is out there, preparing the fire for the hen. She’ll soak its body in hot water to make it easier to pluck all its feathers.
I hear the chickens clucking. Other birds are singing their melodies. The wind is whispering through the big banana tree leaves, inviting me to stop writing about living, put down my phone, and return to the timeless flow of activity that is daily life here in the village. So here I go…
Merry Christmas from Uganda!
It’s been an unforgettable kind of Christmas! Early this morning there was the sound of drumming coming from the church up the hill, letting everyone in the village know it was time to prepare ourselves.
After a cold shower and a hot breakfast of kartogo (plantains with g-nuts), we heard the second round of drumming, signaling that services would be starting soon.
It was time to get dressed and go. So off we went, me in the traditional dress, called a mushanana.
The church was already full of hundreds of village folks dressed in their Christmas best. We were escorted to sit on special benches up front reserved for those families visiting from Kampala. My presence as the only mzungu (white person) created a bit of a stir as we walked in.
The services were all in the local language (Rukiga), so Annet (my Ugandan mama) translated the main pieces to me.
We walked in when the Reverend was talking about climate change and the importance of taking care of the earth by planting trees. (They recently had severe flooding that destroyed many of their crops.)
An unexpected part of the service was when I was invited to the front and introduced to everyone. In their language! When handed the mic to greet them, I said the customary, “Hello,” waited for them to greet me in return, and then said, “God is good,” at which point the mic was taken from me and my words translated so they could all respond, “All the time.”
One of my favorite parts of the service was when, after collecting donations, they auctioned off the donations of produce, like pumpkins, beans, avocados, eggs, and even some baskets. It was fun to see the auctioneers working the stage and the bids.
Post church there was a lot of hanging around outside, greeting and being greeted by so many folks. Some extended family, others just happy to welcome me. Lots of kids came and stood nearby, staring. When I first walked up to them, some of them ran away. But not too far. Eventually they stayed close enough to shake hands with me. Some of them even ran after our car when we left, seeing how far they could follow us, laughing when I waved out the window to them.
Fast forward through some more family visits and another meal, and then there was the blissful peace of sitting outside, surrounded by all of this beauty; Annet washing clothes and listening to the radio as the rest of us read our new novels. (I’d gotten the girls new novels for Christmas.) When they played Christmas carols on the radio, we all sang along.
Another family constellation came to visit and busherra and bananas were served. The girls and I set our books aside and played cards with the young girl who was with them, named Moonlight.
I’m happily tired and grateful to have experienced Christmas, Ugandan-style. There are other layers to this story… a richness in each moment that fills me in a way I don’t yet have words for. So for now, I bid you a merry, peaceful and rich Christmas. May your heart be full and fed.
A lot of adolescent girls in Uganda fear menstruation. They might see their sisters and friends crying when they have their periods and think it will be painful. Or they don’t talk with anyone about it so when it does arrive they think something is wrong with them. They’re teased by boys during their menstruation… boys often think the sign of blood means a girl has been with a man or see their blood as a sign that she’s ready to be with a man. It’s a confusing time!
Thankfully, the coaches at Girl Up Initiative Uganda show girls that menstruation is normal! They show girls how to take care of their bodies and make reusable sanitary pads. It is very empowering for these girls to be able to talk about menstruation with the coaches and other girls. Instead of being a taboo experience filled with dread, it can be – if not celebrated – at least accepted and sometimes, even embraced.
Check out this poem written by Esther, a young girl being featured in our book, “We Have Something To Say: True Stories Written By Adolescent Girls Growing Up In The Slums Of Kampala.”
~ Menstruation ~
How I imagine if you were not there for me
Many girls in Uganda are crying because of you
Missing school because of you, fearing to be open because of you
And how I wish you could tell us the day you will come
Many girls are lacking what to use and even pads during their period.
May you stay longer because we still need you in our lives
Without you our mothers could not produce children,
Marriage and other thing and I really thank God because
He has given me a wonderful period.
Girls, women let us come together to solve this problems
Therefore we say menstruation is needed in our lives
So we be free, menstruation doesn’t kill but help us
And it teaches us how to care for our bodies as girls
Join us in turning our book into a reality! Donate to our fundraiser here: https://igg.me/at/BSKpc2yIaq0
I had a really gritty kind of day.
Winston Churchill once called Uganda, ‘The Pearl of Africa’ for all of its brilliant beauty.
The name Megan means ‘pearl’. (It also means ‘strong’ and ‘brave warrior’.)
Well, it takes grit to create that polished gem. So I’ve been leaning into the gritty, grumpy edges with as much kindness and gentleness as I could muster.
That helped. A lot. As did sharing about my grit with friends and loved ones. They got it. And they kept loving me. I didn’t feel so crazy or alone anymore.
While I don’t feel as in need of hugs, kind words and other contributions from you as I did earlier, I want you to know that would all be very welcomed.
It’s not always easy to be doing this ‘living my dream’ thing and bringing a soul project to life. Sometimes I just wanna curl up in my mom’s bed in NY and binge watch Grey’s Anatomy and Outlander and drink hot cocoa as the snow falls outside. (Sigh)
For now, I’m giving thanks for the grace that’s emerging in the wake of this round with the grit.
Your Friend, the Pearl-in-Process