A Travellerspoint blog


Jordan snapped a picture with my camera last year, of our director, head only, looking directly at us, unsmiling. I always interpreted that photo as capturing something about his "essence" -- a gnarled face and worn tight body, hard fought life, warmth and humanity.

When we first landed here, there was an onslaught of information, overwhelming, that made me question some of what I'd chosen to believe was captured in that photo. We'd realized, over the year, that he was a pretty shoddy manager of money, always reacting and trying to fix things he'd let slip from his grip, no planning. Some eyebrow raising responses when the children tested him. But the reports were reasonably credible, and he provided receipts, and we're busy -- we'd wanted to believe he was running things adequately.

The budget meeting the other day showed us just what a slim grip he has on what it takes to run this project; the flurry of whispered gossip and indignation from the older kids made it clear that he certainly hasn't won them over at all. The week was full of layers of fingerpoints, and unearthing of stories like the kid who hadn't returned to school, whom he hadn't tracked down, another kid living in a hostel he runs in his hometown instead of boarding at school, kids living at the house who aren't in our project, the child who recovered in one day after the right medical treatment, after being taken to his relatives to see them before his presumed impending death.

It's hard to capture how petty and not out of the ordinary all of this is, just as much as it's outrageous to all Canadian notions of accountability. It's how things are done. Tiny pile of money is moved from box a to box b, a filthy bill or two of it slipping out on the way. A kid's mother dies and she piles into the nest of kids living where her mother's sister works, then stays after the auntie moves on. A struggling man sees an opportunity to pocket board money and house a kid instead of putting him in a dorm. Terrible decisions, and an overall picture of ineptitude at the least, but in many ways, the same kind of unintentional harm as the lady bountiful with the box-on-the-head .

Today we conducted this charade of a performance appraisal, because that is the proper channel before dismissing someone. I led a conversation in which I detailed a man's failings in the kinds of terms I would use in Canada, realizing the whole while that this thin strong reed of a man really couldn't begin to grasp what we had expected of him. He kept admitting his "mistakes" and asking for another chance. He literally foamed at the mouth, spittle collecting and flying, as he realized that our displeasure was absolute. Told us that this project had "killed" his wife, when she was "charmed" by the now-deposed founder who was seeking revenge.

As a co-lead of this project, as auntie and parent, I'm accountable for the welfare of these children above all, and equally to our donors and umbrella agency. I was genuinely angry and upset -- a child missed two terms of school, another got lousy medical care and could have died. Of course there was no choice but to fire him -- as always on these trips, now equipped with wells of comprehension that we didn't have a year ago, it seemed outrageous to us that we hadn't realized this before. The social worker who's been there since April trusted by the children and demonstrably smart, savvy, loving, equipped. The guy who's been nominally overseeing the project equally loving, experienced, resourceful, thoughtful. The right two people to run it.

And, there was a sugar-cane core of discomfort in this conversation, where I felt I was beating a caged animal. Here, there is such a tendency to categorize people as "good" or "bad." Our social worker called him a "cunning" man, and he may be. (Everyone is pretty sure his wife is still alive). He may have made some deliberate choices to rip us off in petty ways, perhaps taking our television to his home and charging people to show movies. But most of it, I suspect, is a profound delineation of the gap between the resources and strategies this man has been able to construct because of a life we can't imagine, and what we well-meaning, accountable, passionate Canadians expect.

This gap is not... general. There are certainly people in Uganda who have a much more aligned frame of what it means to do a job like this well. The two previously mentioned people, the youth councillor from the town of kasese who came to dinner with the mayor tonight. (The mayor himself was a bit of a lecherous buffoon, on a clear missiong to make carissa his wife; the youth councillor worked with us to developed community projects for the kids).

We go here from the most intense, unrelenting hugs from the kids where we reach across all culture to the core of human need, to moments where I am a fish trying to talk to a banana. Sometimes these are instructive (ah, it's OKAY to sit in the hatch of the suzuki, the world will not end if I'm not wearing a seatbelt), and sometimes they require everything I have to sit with the discomfort of being White Westerner with the Money and Power speaking to someone who could never in three centuries do what we've asked of him.

Sitting there today, watching spittle flying, wondering about the dead charmed wife, glancing down at my carefully documented list of failures, I had to tap into what I learned from the nurses I work with: grace is staying when you want to go. It was hard to stay in that conversation, but staying in it made me think again about the unintended harms.

Where I'm left is thinking about the little girl Agatha, the one whose mother died and whose auntie left, and who sees herself in our project, and who is out of our scope. We cannot keep taking children in -- we would have double the number in a month. Everytime we mention our project, someone offers us a child. Our construction is that nikibasika is a family, and we are committed to these 51 kids in the family. Agatha makes 52, and we need to draw that line. And because of our director's well-meaning thoughtlessness, we're going to have to draw the line across the hopeful grin of an impish little girl, who hugs the same as the other kids, sings the same songs, and lost her mother.

Staying when I want to go indeed.

Posted by CateinTO 10:41

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


This is so sad, and so frustrating, and so complex and ordinary. I thought about these things incessantly oh-so-long-ago when I lived in Congo. And I still don't know how to live with it, even from here. Now, though, it's so much easier not to think about .

by Renee

Hi Cate,
I'm a friend of Melissa, and I love your blog. I work for CARE Canada and specifically I work to help build capacity among our international and national staff so that they might do better work for the women and children we help. Your story rings very true.

Keep up the unbelievable writing, you're making the rest of think.

by Mara

What a difficult conversation. And so necessary. And painfully gut wrenching for everyone involved. But I can see your clear focus on the children to whom you have made a commitment. It is inspirational Cate.

by Linda Blong

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.