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Uganda - Smiles, tears and a lot of hard work - Part 1

>> Friday, April 10, 2009

So after quite the long journey to Uganda, we had finally arrived and were ready to start our actual work in the field on Wednesday March 11th. We usually spent the bulk of our days focused on one or two of the following tasks: delivering "family kits" (each kit was made up of things like a foam mattress, water jug, mosquito net and cooking pots), helping out at one of the primary schools or orphanages, or painting a school. Most days we would divide up into our family groups and decide which group wanted to do what task and when. We were normally out of the guesthouse by 9am (after a 7:45 morning devotional followed by breakfast) and would return typically around 5:30pm or so.

Our first day started with a quick trip into the shops in Jinja so that all the females in our group could buy some sarong skirts. It is common-practice in Uganda for women to have their knees covered, and for the entire leg to be covered when out in the rural areas. Ryan said that if one of us went out to a village wearing shorts above the knee, the locals would view us in the same way we would view someone if they came to church on Sunday morning wearing a thong bathing suit! Needless to say, that was not the impression we were hoping to make, so we all made sure our legs were always covered up while we were out (although wearing shorts - albeit longer shorts - was acceptable when in the actual town of Jinja or in Kampala).

After we were all decked out in our Ugandan finery we were off for a visit to Welcome Home Orphange, which is located right in the heart of Jinja. Welcome Home is a orphanage that takes care of children from birth to age 6, and the kids there are from all parts of Uganda. Sadly, many of the orphans mothers died in childbirth or from AIDS or other complications, and many are just abandoned from families who either don't want to, or can't afford to care for their children. They also provide a safe home to babies who are born in prison and wouldn't otherwise have a chance to be raised in a loving, compassionate environment. On a positive note, Welcome Home is an amazingly clean, modern, and well-funded orphanage that has over 40 people on staff and average 1 "Mom" (care-giver) to every 3 children. We were all really excited to get a tour of the orhanage and then to be let loose for a few hours to just walk around, play with the kids, and help out in whatever way we could. I spent some time playing with the toddlers in the playground and pushing them on the swing, then ducked into the baby house in the back to spend some time holding and playing with the really little ones. The high-lite of my morning at Welcome Home by-far was bath time! They had some of us help bathe, dry and clothe the girls and it was the cutest thing ever. They were all so excited and ran to the water hose when one of the mom's yelled that it was time for a bath. They were also so cute and well-behaved as we dried them off and found clothes for them to wear. There was a really sad moment for me though as I dried off one of the girls. She must have been around 3 years old, and as I wiped her off I noticed scars all over her back and her legs. I didn't get a chance to ask one of the moms what had happened to her, but I imagined the worst. I was glad though that whatever her past had held for her, she was now being well taken care of at Welcome Home and was clearly now happy and healthy.

A little later on in the early afternoon, after many thank-you's and waves, we all boarded the bus and drove out of Jinja into the more rural areas for our first of many visits to God's Gift Primary School. We would spend a lot of time there in the days to come, as God's Gift was the school we would be painting, and it would also act as our "hub" or starting out point for handing out the family kits. Pulling into God's Gift was an amazing moment - the kids were all in class but when they saw the bus pulling up they all rushed outside cheering and waving. The excitement in the air was palpable. I got off the bus as quickly as I could and was immediately surrounded by kids who wanted to shake my hand, say hello and even give me a bug hug! The lady who runs God's Gift (an amazing women named Baby Justine) ushered us all over to an open area in front of the school as the students had prepared a welcome song for us. This was our first time being welcomed in song and dance and for many of us it completely took our breath away and had some of us wiping away tears (yes, me included). One of the amazing things for me was looking at the complete and utter expressions of joy on the children's faces as they sang and danced, and then looking behind them at the school. God's Gift was the complete opposite of Welcome Home. While Welcome Home had been in a nice, clean, big house, the main school area of God's Gift was basically a run-down schoolhouse with only a few classrooms - peeling paint, dirt covered, only a few benches to sit on, and a roof that looked like it would fall off the minute the wind picked up. That was probably the first time (out of many on this trip) that I saw how joyous and hopeful and happy the Ugandan people are, even when they have so little and are continually in the face of such poverty and struggle.

After a rousing round of applause as the welcome song came to an end, Baby Justine and some of the teachers showed us around the property. My family group was going to spend the afternoon getting a start on the painting, so she showed us around the office building (which also had 2 classrooms) that was going to be the recipient of some new paint. A small building with pretty much no air circulation, it broke my heart to look into the classrooms and imagine them trying so hard to learn while sitting on a hard bench and trying to do their work on a broken table (and in that heat!). Being a bookstore manager, what really broke my heart was poking my head into a completely emtpy room and then Baby Justine telling me that the room was their library. It was their library but they didn't have any books! They were calling it their library as they were hopeful that one day they may have a few books to keep in it, but until then it would remain empty . . .

Chris, George, Nicolle, Jamie, Katia and I started painting as the other two groups gathered supplies and headed out for family kit distribution. We spent a good several hours trying to get as much done as possible, but I'm pretty sure the best part of the day for all of us was when each of us took a break from painting and got a chance to just play and hang out with the children outside. The kids were fascinated by us (and us of them). The little girls seemed particularly interested in my hair (some of them had never seen a white person before, so a blonde white person was quite shocking I'm sure), and I would constantly feel little hands stroking my hair or touching the skin on my arm. It was also the most heart-warming thing ever to just be walking along and feel little fingers grab your hand or skirt. Most of the time, whenever I was walking around I had about 5 to 10 kids attached to me in some way, and I loved every minute of it! Most of them spoke a little bit of English, but the typical response to any question or comment I had would be a shy "yes" in the most adorable accent you've ever heard. We all quickly learnt that that would be the standard response from kids when you spoke to them - either because they were shy or because they didn't understand what you were saying to them but didn't want to be rude. Some did speak a little more English, but I found that I could communicate perfectly with them just through gestures, facial expressions and by smiling and laughing.

I could have spent hours and hours playing with those kids, but soon enough it was time to pack up and head back home for the night. We promised them all we would be back soon to continue our work (and of course for more play-time!) and got back on the bus for our journey back to Mto Moyoni.

It was an amazing first day and I was filled with both joy and sadness throughout dinner and our nightly "de-brief" (when we would all get together and talk about what we did that day and what we were feeling). After looking forward to going to Africa for so long, it was a little surreal to actually be there and be seeing the kind of poverty we had seen (and just in that first day!) I had never been to a third-world country before and had only really seen extreme poverty on the news or portrayed in movies. To see it in real life, and to be interacting with people who lived in these situations was very different and shook me up a bit. I kept thinking "I'm 28 years old - how can I just be seeing this now?"

It would not be the only time throughout this trip that I questioned myself, my faith, my country, and the world . . .


Sara April 11, 2009 at 2:04 PM  

GAH my heart!

thanks for the blogs girl! you're such a blessing!

peace and LOVE

Sheryll April 11, 2009 at 5:29 PM  

A wonderful account Suzanne!

My heart can feel the emotion!


Franciska April 23, 2009 at 11:24 PM  

Not once, but several times your moving story brought me to tears. As your mom put it..."my heart can feel the emotions." Beautifully written. So amazing that you experienced all that. Here's a little secret - you guys are the source of my envy and I hope and pray that one day I will be doing mission work around the word. Much like you guys did. Imagine if everyone was required or better yet wanted to help out the world where and when needed, and was able to actually do it!

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