Mzungu, bodabodas, and soul-shaking welcomes

I’m not sure where to begin. My first week in Uganda has been nothing short of amazing. There is so much to convey from only a week. I’m finding it hard to remember that I’ve been here only a week, it feels like forever. I’ve been amazed at how naturally I’ve flowed into this life and to the work. I already know leaving will be among the hardest things I have had to do in my life. The people I live with and the children, women and boys that I work with, have already made their way into my heart. The amount of love and sincere welcome I have experienced have broken me open. The Western hardness that I’ve carried because our culture is so lacking in the warmth that Uganda espouses, has disappeared completely. It was instant, the connections I have made here. I was originally only supposed to volunteer the first month, but I will be staying with Hopeline for the second month as well and I couldn’t be happier.

Hopeline runs two women’s groups, a boys’ group, a school and helps with a medical center in the villages. Tony, the director, is the most selfless, strong and giving person I have ever met. What he is trying to do for his home village is amazing. The women have unimaginably difficult lives, full of work and much misery. Tony and Hopeline have given them the little step up they need to begin to better their lives. Through basket making, chicken coops, wells or the impending brick making business, the women have been able to gain much need income. Many of the women work on Mehta’s sugar cane plantations outside of Lugazi. They must rise early in the morning (4-5am) in order to maybe get work. Lateness is not tolerated. Even if they manage to gain work for the day, often their labor can be cancelled if they fail to find enough sugar cane in the fields. At the end of the month, the most they can expect is 20,000 shillings, or about $8. No one can live on that. Not even here. Often they must look into their children eyes and tell them that there won’t be any food that day. In these circumstances, schooling is but a lofty wish. Yet, despite the hardship of their lives, they have welcomed me with open arms and souls. The welcome ceremony from the women was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Singing, dancing, hugs, and words of welcome were showed upon me. At one point they expressed ‘who are we to host a mzungu like you?’-how do you respond to something like that? For me, it’s more like, ‘who am I to be here with you?’. During the welcome is the hardest I have ever worked to keep from breaking down completely and that was only because I did not want to send the wrong message with my tears. At that time I was completely at a loss as to how I could possibly help the women, but after speaking with Jacky (the volunteer coordinator/co-director of Hopeline), I will be able to put some of my money towards the Bulyantete women’s group to purchase chickens, build a well, and begin a brick building business. I hope to teach them English as well, but I’m still puzzling out how to do that best.

KKoba school has been great. The goal at Kkoba is education, but also to build confidence and foster socialization. The attitude in the villages is bleak. Alcohol and hopelessness is rampant and no child can possibly thrive under those conditions. That is why Kkoba is so important for the kids. Giving kids even a little education in combination with the confidence that gain from interaction with mzungus, their teachers and classmates dramatically improves their lives. Someone who has a bit of education and confidence will fair much better than someone who doesn’t. So far I’ve played with the children (volleyball and bubbles), taught them about the the life cycle of butterflies as well as a bit of addition in the form of a game called math mountain. I hope to teach them more English, math and random science things.

We travel to our projects on the back of bodabodas (motorcycles), which are a main form of transportation here. I loved it from the start. I love whizzing past the lush fields and smiling children waving and screaming ‘mzungu, mzungu-bye mzungu!'(mzungu is the word for foreigner/white person-which is a kick in the pants for me, being that I’m mixed) There is nothing else like it. The group of children that gather in my courtyard grows day by day. Motokas(toys cars), coloring and general play are what I come home to after my time at the projects.

By the end of the week, I had never needed a weekend more. I was beat-mentally, emotionally and physically. I love the work I’m doing, don’t get me wrong, but it is tiring-especially since it was only my first week. I’m not even sure how to capture the poverty. I haven’t written directly about it yet because it’s simply everywhere, all the time. It’s there in the barefoot children at KKoba, it’s in the women who are struggling to feed their families, it’s in the men who were not able to attend school and it’s in the children who greet me on my porch, one of whom will look up at me after I ask about his day to say: ‘it was bad, I don’t have a toy airplane, the dirt burns my feet and I haven’t eaten today’. It’s enough to crush the soul. But it also inspires and strengthens me to do what ever I can to create hope. That is what I get to do- teach and give whatever I can so that maybe, just maybe, hope will grow.

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