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.