A Travellerspoint blog


In this part of Uganda, the bride price is measured in goats. Our partner from Kampala is fond of reinforcing this tradition; our social worker says it is important to reward the parents for their sacrifices in raising a child; our big boy Fred says it is much better to just marry because you love someone.

We have a throughline joke that we will need to create a pool of goats and cows and marry off the girls in order to acquire enough animals for the boys to marry. Carissa jokes about a cow-raising fundraiser in Alberta, where she's from. But I'm not really certain if there will in fact be a time when we are presented with goats and cows in return for raising our girls.

Yesterday, a wedding party was honking its way along the road, en route to the nice new small hotel that has the beautiful gardens, for photos. Racing ahead of the overstuffed cars and motorcycles was a pack of 10 or 12 goats. I was completely excited -- the wedding goats! The wedding goats! I reached for my camera as the goats ran off into a field and the wedding party continued toward us. "What happened to the goats?"

They were random coincidental goats, it turns out. The bride price goats don't actually attend the wedding or pose for photographers. Stupid muzungo. I was crushed.

Posted by CateinTO 06:06 Comments (3)


Yesterday we met the king of the baconzo. Many layers of protocol -- a lackey introduces the prime minister who prays and then introduces the purpose of our visit, and then gabriel discusses our project, and then each of us says a few words. A small living room filled with overstuffed furniture, cabinet members perched on straight chairs at the edge of the room. The personal secretary in a very formal suit, another one moving audio recorders around, her four inch silver heels tapping hard on the tile floor. The photographer very particular, taking many pictures with my camera until he's satisfied. We have brought Innocent, the 13 year old who came first in his class. This is not his king -- he's from Rwanda -- but he's amused and pleased. The prime minister instructed Carissa not to ask any ticklish questions of the King. The king promises us that the queen will work with us on our humanitarian work, and tells of the history of the Rwenzururu region.

I knew a little bit of this -- there are 7 kingdoms in Uganda, but this king was exiled until last year. He lives up the road from us, though most of the people in his kingdom live in Congo. This is a mountainous people, in the Rwenzoris. He fought for recognition of this kingdom and finally got it from the government. I think there were riots over this, but all of the Baconzo people I encounter are so pleased this king is here to represent them. We are very unclear about what he actually does, but it seems to be like kings everywhere -- ceremonial -- though the hut containing the ancient artifacts and animal skins is locked, and the cabinet minister who proudly wants to show us doesn't have the king.

This king is going to climb to the top of the highest one of the Rwenzoris in January, and as we are leaving, the minister of the environment makes a pitch to us to sponsor the trek. We pretend he's merely given us information and wish them well. "The king wants people to know that they must treat the mountains well -- that if they cut a tree for firewood, that affects the mountain and the environment." A good cause, but not ours.

This king and the mountains sits at the edge of my day as we mop up errands. Carissa and Blair leave (and, according to a phone call I get at 1 am, Blair barely makes his plane, and Carissa needs to retrieve her lost blackberry from Gabriel's car). Shopping for a football for the Rwanda kids to take home, shoes for Innocent, Brian and Mary, cases for everyone to carry their clothes. We buy World Cup plastic tote bags with zippers for around $1.50 each. When we get back, Dorcas mopes because she forgot to tell us she needed one, and Saphra mopes because she wanted a better case than the one she has. Innocent is favoured and gets a $3 backpack because Rwanda bans all plastic bags at the border. (I think about my carefully files meds in multiple ziplocks and worry).

In the middle of the errands, in the middle of being cheated over the cost of the passport photos, doubled because I'm a mzungo, Tina sharply admonishing the passport photo lady, and the passport photo lady clear that my mistake was coming without an African so I should have KNOWN she would cheat me. She yells at Tina for telling me. I tell her about our now 53 children, that she is taking food out of the mouths of orphans. I have become shameless.

In the middle of all of this, Tina and I, Brian in tow, meet a man in a tiny hot office in the Shell station. Finally the uncle of the boy who is in Canada. He is willing to sign papers saying that it's okay for the boy to be adopted in Canada. I've prepared some barely acceptable documentation, ask him for the story. When he was four, living in the mountains, the boy's family was abducted by rebel soldiers who thought they were sheltering government soldiers, They tortured his father, trying to get him to admit it. Killed him, then mutilated the boy in front of his mother to get her to talk. She told a lie to get them to stop. Somehow in this, the other children were killed or disappeared, the mother drowned. The boy was left in the bush, and was looked after by people in the mountains for 2 or 3 years. Finally, someone said to the man in the gas station, that boy in the mountain, I think he is from your village. The uncle retrieved him, tried to find a place where he could be cared for, his injuries quite severe. He found the man who founded the orphanage, who was nursing his dying mother in the hospital in Kilembe, and handed him over.

I know that the woman who wants to adopt the boy in Canada doesn't understand why the uncle wouldn't look after him. It's very very difficult to see this. This story is dramatic, but commonplace. Uncles have dozens of children of relatives, and rarely enough money to look after their own. As the manager of a fueling station, I imagine this man has more money than most. I also imagine that the pragmatism of the region overtook him, and he couldn't imagine a boy with these injuries becoming ultimately productive. Hard to imagine, but it's a fact.

Holding the king's story of his peaceful people, the story of the boy in the mountains, I go back to the project, weary. Tired from the barrage of requests, worried that Andrew and Benson barely want to hug me goodbye, wondering if they feel others are favoured. They probably do. Wanting each one to feel special, and it's impossible. I leave with a dusty taste in my mouth, not satisfied. Saying no in any way has such consequences.

I climb on the project motorcycle with Brian the watchman and Alex, an 8 year old boy missing two teeth in the front, to take him for dinner. He ranked highest in his class of all of the primary kids. We want to reward him. I take him to dinner, probably the first time he's ever been served in a restaurant. We have chicken and chips, which takes forever to come. French speaking mzungo smoke and dangle their multiracial babies behind us. Alex is delighted by the flush toilets, the water coming out of the taps, the hot air dryers, the stools in the bar, the grounds, the tiny craft shop where he touches everything. I cut my finger on a cheap bracelet. He doesn't know how to eat chicken that requires a knife and fork, and I have to cut it for him. He eats the chips and salad, and we give the rest of his chicken to Brian, who has come back on the motorcycle to take him home.

Exhausted, I head for the little room where the computer is housed, yank open the lock with the special turn it requires, enter the passwords and connect to dialup. They trust us with the keys. I need to email the mother of the boy from the mountains. While I am waiting for the computer to lumber to life, the sparky waitress asks politely if she can see me. She has heard we support orphans. She is an orphan, she wants to go to school. I let her tell her story, and tell her softly that I am so sorry, my money is limited, but that we have seen how bright she is, that I believe that if she works hard at the hotel, she will be manager one day. Despite the refusal, she beams and smiles and thanks me with a bubbly little curtsey.

I email some hotels in Rwanda, and go to bed, so weary, dust in my throat and ears. I ask Jane at the desk to please come and retrieve my few clothes and have them laundered. The day has been hot. The cleaner has arranged my mosquito net for me, and I'm so grateful.

I'm awakened at 1 am by Carissa calling from entebbe, needing a phone number, and I collapse back into sleep. Awakened at 930 by Jane (does she ever sleep?) telling me John is here. John was a waiter at the hotel for two years, and is now in school. I've promised him I will see him this morning, and I've slept in. I buy him breakfast at the hotel where he used to serve, and we talk. His English is so much better. He is what? An orphan. Mother died of illness when he was 12, father killed by rebels when he was in secondary school. School fees suddenly cut off. I gently tell him I can't give him money, explain to him and the other waiter, Kilandaro, whose name means "small shelter" because he was born in a rain hut in the mountains, that our money is limited -- but I tell him I will ask our project director if he can help him find a part time job. I tell him I'm proud of him for trying to work and go to school. Like the waitress Lillian, he beams.

All of these smiles, never ever enough.

Posted by CateinTO 00:07 Comments (2)

Pool dancing

Dancing with happy African kids in a rather fetid pool may be the happiest thing I've ever done in my life.

At the pool, in search of our lunch, I went down a slope to find the manager and there was a little family there. a 3 year old girl named patience saw me open the gate and screamed like I was a bear lumbering out of the bushes. She'd never seen a mzungo before. I called to her like she was a little squirrel. She trembled while she bravely touched my arm, then ran away.

Posted by CateinTO 08:24 Comments (1)

Cheap silk flowers

These trips have a pattern, I'm noticing. There is entry, which is joyful and warm, the kids hugging us tight, one of the little ones presenting us with flowers, this time. (Silk ones that smell like cheap perfume -- a splurge from the director or social worker. I'm trying to imagine a flower market in dusy kasese, where the market is jammed with local food (elemental mangos, grasshoppers, meat, matooke), local fabric, gorgeous, and cheap cheap plasticky western goods. It's not a romantic place, the market, dirty and jammed and filled with boxes that you have to look at to know if they're goods or trash. Plastic everywhere. I met our butcher, the clean one. He put on his apron to pose for me, though the meat was done for the day).

At the beginning, the kids are happy and affectionate, and we're grateful. Then about two or three days in, they get tight. Hugs last minutes, hands clasping tighter on our backs. Requests for a few minutes alone, one after the other. Whispered questions and requests and gratitude. The shift from sponsors into parents. We field requests from random people who show up to ask the mzungo for sponsorship, for help.

In that space, the emotion of it all hits me. I have one day of meltdown, always, where the vulnerability of the place overwhelms. Yesterday it was over a discussion about the new kid, Good. We have a policy of no more children, it's a closed program. 52 is already an enormous commitment. Sending 52 kids to primary school is one thing -- manageable. Secondary school fees are nearly $1000/year, and university costs three times that. The math drowns me, eventually, but it's a commitment of at least another 15 years.

So we have a policy of no more kids, a line drawn around the kids who were in the program in 2008, but as with everything here, nothing is firm. What about the children of the staff, the two boys who turn out to be the children of the matron, which we didn't know until this year. I took her out for a coca cola yesterday and talked to her about why she decided to confess to me last March, via ill-spelled text. "I got saved," she said, "and I didn't want to lie anymore." Did you feel better after telling, I asked. "No," she said. She's afraid now that if she leaves her job, she won't be able to support the boys. She got pregnant at the end of primary school, and the man ran away. It's illegal for a man over 18 to "defile"a girl under 18, and he was afraid he'd be in jail. She has a primary school education, and doesn't want to work for us for 20 years -- but is beside herself with worry about how she'll support the twins.

Then there is Good, who was dropped off at the police station a few months ago. The Director and I agreed that we could't take him, knowing it contravened all of our policies. And we both understood that we would probably end up with him. The Director looked for another place, but we look like a perfectly good place to house a 5 year old from the outside, more equipped than other programs. So now we have Good, a sweet, quiet, kind little boy. Button-cute. An addition, in complete violation of our own policies. Yesterday, I melt down over the conversation about this, choked with emotion when it triggers a discussion about where the lines are drawn.

So many outlying situations. Desire, a 13 year old, who isn't formally in the program, but has been around for a couple of years. An aunt paying her primary school fees, but hanging out at the project when she's not at school. We decided to let that fluid area go -- especially after she gave carissa a note saying that she was afraid to stay with her uncle because he raped her. So we've let this float, giving her shelter, not paying her fees, not making the commitment to long-term support. But now there is a decision point, because it's time for secondary school. I find out that the Director has paid her last three terms' school fees out of his own pocket, but there is an outstanding balance. In our meeting, we discuss her status, and it's clear that the line was drawn with her outside of it. So arbitrary. I agree to pay her fees personally, conspire with the Director to find a day school for her to go to. I tell her, she cries, promises to make first grades. I ask her where she'll go for holidays; she says "no one wants me." There is not enough breath in my body for me to sigh deeply enough. I hug her tight.

We have to deal with the issue of whether the other Moreen (there are two, like the two brenda and the two angellas, who are known as angella brown and angella black). Accusations that she is the daughter of our former director. We ask to meet with her, and she is both stiff and trembling. I assure here that she won't be dismissed from teh program in either case, we just want to understand. I ask her if she's been worrying about that. She sobs and sobs and nods. She's in her final year of secondary school, doing very well.

The lines are completely arbitrary, the truth that there is practically no child in this entire district who is not a vulnerable child. Few of our kids are "total orphans," but all are vulnerable. This program is genuinely the difference between the possibility of a dirt-scratching life or a full life. The three older kids who fell out when we didn't have the post=secondary program yet and who are now back in -- Ronny, Elinah and Sylver -- they know grief, they know suffering. Working for 3000 UGX a day -- about $1.50 -- unable even to save enough to take a bus to visit a relative. Exhaused Ronny politely entreating us to let him go to mechanic school, his filthy tattered envelope with his primary qualifications carefully handed over.

It's easy to love the babies. I met a woman on the plane who was coming to volunteer at an orphanage, to care for the babies, read to the little kids. That part is easy. Babies and little kids are cheap in this country. But having to draw lines in the face of endless need is the hardest thing I will ever have to do. Random and arbitrary. Good in now, Desire out. The random fact of relationships counting.

Carissa and I talk after our difficult moments over this, and we both really have the same perspective. 52 is manageable, the possibility of making a difference. Beyond the 52 is a teeming galaxy of pain and need and dirty ragged clothes. We cannot NOT draw lines -- there will always be another 50 Goods, another 150 Desires. The best they could ever do the job of the matron, who makes almost no money, is isolate, feels indentured. The job of the cook who has been with the program for 12 years, mingling huge pots of posho over a fire every morning. She hands us a letter of resignation yesterday, saying she's tired.

This is impossible to do, and impossible not to do. Every afternoon this week, there's been a sudden storm. Yesterday was my sudden storm of tears at my smallness, at the significance over every move.

Posted by CateinTO 21:45 Comments (6)

(tummy woes)

Apparently, coffee-addicted mzungo are too foolish to understand that the milk is unpasteurized.

Posted by CateinTO 10:51 Comments (2)

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