A Pearl with Cracks

The Pearl of Africa

I thought maybe she was going to survive.

As I entered the cramped slit in the wall where the prostitutes live the smell of stale body odor and feces hit me. It was gross, but after two and a half months working in these conditions the smell was all too familiar. I had been working in the Kisenyi slums since my first week in Uganda. Kisenyi was where a lot of the homeless boys and girls of the capital city, Kampala, would stay. It was fairly safe, and there was plenty of metal scraps they could salvage to make a little money. On this particular day we were doing HIV testing for the girls. They were 12 to 21 years old and had to prostitute themselves to pay for the area they called home. I use the term home loosely for I could hardly call it a place of comfort and security, something a home should be. There was two sets of beds drilled into the sides of the wall stacked three high, six beds total. On each bed slept 4 to 5 girls and whenever one of the girls had to do “business” with a client the others girls in the bed would move to another bed until they were finished. If you looked closely enough at the beds you could see little bugs scampering everywhere, I thought at first they were lice then I thought they were termites after awhile I didn’t really care what they were.

As I was outside doing HIV testing one of the girls came up to me. “Uncle,” she said, (all the kids would lovingly refer to the white people as Aunties and Uncles), “will you go check on Fatimah? I think she is sick.”

After I finished testing all the girls and some of their clients (all of which were HIV negative to my suprise) I went into the area to check on Fatimah. As I entered the little slit in the wall a nasty little man came out. He reeked of alcohol and was tightening up his belt, it was clear he just finshed up his business. Fatimah was on the bottom bunk in the first room with her little baby sleeping at her feet. I felt her head, she was running a fever and was sweaty. It looked like she had just finished a marathon. Her eyes were half closed and all I could see was the whites of her eyes. I snapped my fingers in front of her face in an attempt to wake her up, no response, and gently placed my fingers on her carotid artery to feel her pulse.


It was so slow. Not even close to the heart rate of a normal person. Her breathing was shallow and strained. She needed to go to a hospital. I walked out of the room and found Fred. Fred was my translator and one of the most amazing people I have met, he dedicated his life to the boys and girls of the streets,

“Fred, Fatimah needs to go to a hospital right now.” I said, hoping the urgency in my voice would be clear.

“She’s fine, man. I talked with her yesterday.” he replied.

“No she’s not. She has gotten worse, if she doesn’t go today then she will die.”

Fred’s eyes flashed wide with surprise. He went into the room and checked on her. After seeing her he knew I was right.

“We can’t afford to take her in, Canyon. It is too expensive,” he said.

I pulled out my wallet and gave him 100,000 Ugandan shillings, about $27 U.S. dollars.

“Taker her to the hospital right now.”

I returned to see the girls three days later. I met up with Fred and the look on his face was a clear indicator of what he was about to say. Fatimah had died the night before. The doctors tested her the night we brought her into the hospital and found that she had advanced-stage HIV. She had been taking the drugs that suppress the virus from spreading but stopped taking it several years ago because she could never remember to take them everyday so she just quit. Before she died one of the doctors asked if she knew who might have given her the disease. She didn’t know. It could of been one of her three boyfriends, or the roughly 15 clients who regularly see her. She was 16.

I think often about Fatimah. It hurts me to think about a life cut so tragically short. The entire time I had known her she was very sick but she still managed to be lively and cheerful every time I visited. Whenever I came to visit I always brought her and the rest of the girls some candy. They loved taffy and would always make sure I got a piece too. I always insisted the candy was for them but they still wanted me to have some. Even in the worst of conditions they always wanted to give. I was humbled by their generosity. She loved that baby of hers. I never learned the little ones name but he was so cute. The first time I held him he had this look of shock on his face. I don’t think he had ever seen a white person before.

What is going to happen to her baby? I often wonder but I know the answer. It will either die or live long enough to become another child of the streets, that is what happens to almost all of the orphans.

Fatimah’s baby sleeping by his mothers feet. I took this a few weeks before she died.

When Winston Churchill first visited Uganda he called it the Pearl of Africa, and I’d have to agree with him. There is an abundance of beauty every where you look. The massive Nile River meanders through the country and gives life to everything. Lions, hippos, rhinos, and elephants roam freely in Murchison Falls National Park. One of our closest relatives, the mountain gorilla, survives in the dense Bwindi Impenetrable Forest thanks to the hard work of many conservationists. Ugandans from the city to the countryside are some of the kindest, most-giving people in the entire world. Though with the good comes the bad and there are reminders everywhere which never let you forget that suffering exists. Homeless kids sniff jet-fuel on the streets to numb the pain and hunger. A HIV-positive mother of three can’t afford to send her children to school. Guards are stationed by every single surviving rhino in the country, a reminder that there are people who want to kill these animals for their horns.

So yes, this country is a pearl, but a pearl with cracks.

I will never forget my time in Uganda. This country whipped me back and forth across the spectrum of human emotion and I don’t believe I am the same person I was before I left. Now that I am back home I find there is a whole lot less to complain about and a whole lot more to be thankful for. A good reminder for everyone born into a life of privilege.

On safari in Murchison Falls National Park.
Just a few of the amazing people who I volunteered with.

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