A Travellerspoint blog


Yesterday, I looked over at Jennifer, chilled out in a chair, relaxed and smiling, a stalk of sugar cane in her hand, a picture she was in the middle of drawing on her lap. I was momentarily overwhelmed at how ordinary she looked. This time, we are visiting a family that works. A director-father that I'm told is "a real leader," who has put an end to any drama and seems to have an endless well of patient wisdom for the kids. He guides, supports, creates structure. This is the first trip where we've had no crises, where we completely trust our Director and Social worker to solve problems, to plan and talk about budgets with us.

We brought the big kids -- 27 of them! -- to the hotel for lunch today. School end, celebration, a tradition now that we've done it twice, one that the younger secondary school kids are so excited to have graduated to. We ask them to go around the table and say what they're most proud of. Saphra was elected head girl of her school. Baptiste's football team came first in their intra-school tournament. Someone was elected class monitor, jethro team captain, innocent first in his class. A long list, something from everyone. Young adults, grateful and opened up. Seeking. Nodding earnestly when we talk to them about how the people who fund us want to believe in them, and that they have a commitment in return. They get it.

Yesterday, we sat in the sun, the children presenting songs and poems that they had prepared for us. The "Oh Canadians" song where everyone took turns going into the circle, showing off some body part -- "this is my arm, this is my arm, and this is what I do!" Alex showed the missing milk teeth -- this my gum, this my gum and this is what I do, moving his mouth like a fish. On the ground, howling.

Internet has been very wobbly this trip, the power frequently out, so I can't say this out loud. But... this is the most important thing I will ever do. The children are amazingly well, relaxed, happy, safe. Joel told me tonight he trusts us. We have conversations about the mundane, goofy things. The kids throw themselves fully into playing, all reserve gone. They feel parented. They feel loved. This matters.

Posted by CateinTO 10:40 Comments (4)

"Why does your uncle not know you have a mother?"

The theme of this week is kinship ties. What makes connection count, why blood matters, why we think it matters so much when it doesn't.

Kin in Africa is slippery. Brian asks Blair in a tiny voice if he can come home to Canada with him. We unpack. For the holidays, he means. His grandmother that he goes to doesn't want him. Who is his grandmother, we ask. His grandmother is the mother of Robina. Isn't Robina the sister of Fred and Melon? Robina and Fred and Melon have the same father. Three mothers. That father is married to Robina's mother. (Although Melon is younger, so how that happened is confusing). Brian's mother was the sister to Melon's mother. Or Fred's mother. Robina's mother (the father's wife) hates Brian because she hated Melon's mother. Or Fred's mother. (Untangling this is the work of a full day). Robina's mother (who isn't Brian's grandmother in any way, although she is married to the man Brian calls grandfather, though he is perhaps an uncle in law) says if Brian comes home, she will poison him or run away herself. "She is an awful woman," says Fred, "but she does not abuse me because I work when I am there." "Will she see reason," says Gabriel, "that if we are taking care of her child, she should be kind to another child?" He is paternal and wise, and we look at him, aghast. "She threatened to poison him!" Brian is 9, carries our bags, is very focused when he takes photos with our compact cameras.

After dinner the first night, Kagame is at the centre of a morality play. The husband who drinks too much, beats his wife and leaves his children begging in the street. The recurrent themes of the plays the kids make up. People we call parents who don't parent, people who marry your parents then leave you on the street.

Andrew and Kagame go to the same family for the holidays as Deheri and Enock and Kiisa. How is that possible? The grandmother of Andrew and Kagame is married to the man who is a friend of the dead father of the other three.

We spend the week trying to hunt down paperwork on the boy in Canada to be adopted. There is the man the boy called uncle, who is Gabriel's landlord's brother. Baptiste thinks the boy is from Ibanda originally, where he was tortured by rebels and left to die. Who brought him to the project is unclear, relatives, but Fred doesn't think anyone visited him. We go in circles, trying to put these ties on paper in a way we think Immigration Canada might understand.

The landlord is the uncle of Brenda. He does not ever come to see her. Gabriel asked him to come and see his niece, mentioned that her mother came. Is that your aunt or your mother? Ugandans call female relatives who raise you mother, Jimmy explained to me. My mother. The uncle says it is her aunt. "Why does your uncle not know you have a mother?"

The beautiful tall Phiona asks us again if we can let her write to her little brother, who was adopted three years ago. Again, we have to tell her no, that his adoptive father thinks it would be too disruptive. We try to explain his thinking, that the boy would miss her too much. I don't tell her that the father asked "is she a real sister or an African sister." That question feels offensive to me. They share a parent, and no one gave her a chance to say goodbye. She tries valiantly to understand, our arms around her, silent tears. "Does this mean I will never see him again?" I promise her I will never lose track of him, that in Canada kids who are adopted usually try to find their birth families at some time when they are grown.

For shorthand, we call these children orphans. But few are completely alone in the world, in terms of blood ties. For many, it's worse. Siblings have been killed by rebels. Parents have died, been mislaid, laid ill, laid bare, laid down, given up. A father marries a new wife and the child is simply extraneous. And they make a play about it, where Kagame's buffoonery, fake drunkenness, makes the children howl with laughter.

Fred tells us that we are making a new family. Joel says "our generation -- we won't have 6 children. We can change Africa."

Posted by CateinTO 10:18 Comments (3)


I ate vegetarian Indian food in Uganda today with a Bulgarian man who is dating my friend who lives in Canada. Global nutshell.

My friend jess' boyfriend (whatever noun she wants to use) lives here, and he picked me up on his moto today and swooshed me around. I loved kampala on the less tumultuous sunday streets, whooshing past stopped cars, almost outrunning the exhaust dust, braising the edges of other cars and bikes. We rode up to a mosque on a hill, and found ourselves in the prep for a Royal wedding. One of the Bugandan princes was getting married 2 hours after we were there. The Mosque Administrator told us all about the history of islam in uganda, a king known as The Buffalo, the design on his robe signifying four types of people: someone with a bugandan mother and a bugandan father; someone with a bugandan mother and not a bugandan father; bugandan father and not mother; and the not-bugandans living among the community. I still couldn't quite figure out why this lovely linen robe needed to have a suit jacket put over it for the occasion (he explained it as a sign of respect in times of happiness; no jacket for a funeral), but I loved the egalitarian symbolism.

Headlines in today's Sunday paper: Obama's lips injured in ballgame; much politicking (there is an opposition, though not REALLY); Inside the Bahima fattening huts; man who committed child sacrifice jailed for 70 years; man held by hex for 20 years freed from spell. Tabloid template, content so sideways.

An idyllic day for the most part, including getting to know Bozhil and lounging by a pool up on a hill sipping soft drinks. Loving being on the little bike. But hit by jet lag crankiness later, when the phone I bought proved not to work and the woman in the sister store really saw it as nothing to do with her, my wifi didn't work, and my tummy woes resurfaced. And while Carissa and I thought our NGO partner was coming to meet us and take us to see the home of two of our older girls who are studying here -- just didn't show up, and when we tracked him down, claimed not to know about this. The relationship is already a little strained since we transferred so much of the authority from this contact to our director last year, so I'm trying to find the necessary deep breaths.

The wifi is so rickety that this page is only half-loaded, and I'm typing this in a box where only one line is viewable at at time. It was friendly of Africa to give me patience-testing stuff so early on. :-)

Very happy to be here.

Posted by CateinTO 17:07 Comments (7)

barely down

Impressions, after just landing in Kampala: the acrid charcoal/wood smell in the air is home. You always have to have a conversation with a stranger here to do development work in the van into Kampala from entebbe. I'm enough of a westerner to really revel in the Sheraton's comfy bed, room service and rainshower spout for my first night, even if the thumping from the disco downstairs is bloody annoying. The babies on the plane from London were inconsolable. It's unpleasant to travel with a sore tummy (bad spinach feta egg wrap at starbucks thursday morning). I have a difficult time understanding Haitian french, judging by my conversations with Montreal cab drivers last summer and a droopy-eyed man on the plane today, so I'm not feeling overly optimistic about understanding Rwandan french. My Kinyarwanda iphone app isn't going to be much help either -- the words and phrases are pronounced with two different voices, and I can barely tell they're saying the same thing.

Musceveni in a straw hat for president everywhere. Is there even an opposition? I'll have to find that out.

More than anything, though, I'm overwhelmed with the fact that my friend Dyani -- who, by the way, is not exactly rolling in dough -- is asking the guests at her wedding to donate to Nikibasika instead of gifts. Unbelievable generosity of spirit, and such touching faith in what we're doing. I try to impress this on our folks in the field during budget conversations -- that most of our donations come in $50 and $100 dribbles from people for whom that money really matters. This a very precious fund, and I make a lot of effort for people to recognize that.

(ALso, just because it's come up, we pay our own way when we travel here -- all of the money raised goes straight to the project in the field, except for the 10% we give to CACHA, our umbrella charity, who fund their own projects with a small budget. Any money we spend on fundraising comes out of our pockets, or from separate entry fees for the Triadventure).

Off track there -- that's what happens on no sleep for days. What this project calls forth in people. Unbelievable generosity from people like Dyani, and like my other Habitant friends who scraped together funds for our extra kid when he showed up this year. Connections from people I haven't talked to in a while, including several touching emails from people who got my newsletter. And a growing awareness for me, again, that I don't know very well how to handle people who seem untouched by it.

Landing here is almost routine by now, the context of "long tedious plane ride" replacing previous "excitement of adventure that makes even the tedious journey joyful." But landing in the now-familiar dark-shadowed airfield, smelling the smoked air, I felt both reminded and emotional, and welled up. Africa, again, with the buffer of the crowded, exhaust-filled city on the way to the red roads and the children.

Posted by CateinTO 14:14 Comments (0)

Setting Off

I leave Friday. My friend Pamela asked me what I was hoping for from this trip, and I realized I hadn't much put it into words, yet. Still fumbling.

I do know that it's two quite different sides of the coin. I feel like I know a little bit about what Kasese will be, this time. The roads will be red and bumpy, we'll do budgeting, the kids will be amazing, the folks at the Margarita will welcome us back, and there will be some seriously blind-siding surprises. All expected. I feel so much more confident about understanding this space now, feeling a little bit like I have a latch of belonging.

After Kasese, though, it's a damp blank spot. Rwanda, as a solo adventure. I was thinking about what kind of person makes visiting other orphanages and genocide memorials a holiday. In the Pie or the Holocaust world, definitely a Holocaust person. But I do worry it's a little voyeuristic, even as I attempt to imagine it as bearing witness, keeping stories alive, integrating this into our work at Nikibasika.

The current plan is for me to accompany some of our Rwandan kids to their home village for the holiday, then to go to Kigaili for several days, with side trips into various places, including Gisenyi at the DRC border to visit another project. There will be a lot of public buses and relying on the kindness of strangers. Ridiculous iphone app for basic Kinyarwanda.


I've done the expected reading before this trip -- Romeo Dallaire's stunning book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lisa Shannon's A Thousand Sisters: A Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman; Richard Dowden's excellent Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. A few novels stacked beside the bed. I understand a tiny bit about the rifts of humanity in the Great Rift Valley, the different dynamics. But I am pretty aware that I know nothing, that my most vivid impressions from Dallaire's book are about the impact of the experience of the genocide on him. That he still can't see a piece of clothing on the street without an overwhelming impulse to check whether it's a body. That he had to remove the bullets from his pistol when meeting with the leaders of the Interahamwe in case he couldn't resist his impulse to shoot them. The growing realization that he'd been a puppet of the UN and powerful governments even as he thought he was the one trying to manage the crisis on the ground.

Sometimes I worry about our own analogous role, that we're doing so little, that the seething dynamics in Congo will someday make our little efforts seem mockworthy. But there's nothing else to do but keep going, grab for a slice of pie in the form of a child's hand in mine.

Posted by CateinTO 07:27 Comments (5)

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