A Travellerspoint blog

"We won't make a drama out of a crisis"

That's what the insurance sticker in the suzuki says, and it makes us laugh every time. There is little in Uganda that isn't dramatic, from the blue/green contrast of sky and hills to the familiar tropes of mud-thatched huts, villages, women in colourful clothing carrying their babies on their backs and big yellow plastic water jugs on their heads. A child in our project taken to his relatives to "say goodbye" instead of to a better doctor.

Blair's first observation was that the people in Kampala didn't look very joyful. Ugandans are a fairly taciturn bunch on first glance, and often rife with litotes. On discovering that our director seems to have misplaced a child, our NGO partner said "this is unfortunate." You offer someone a new job and ask how that works for them and they say, without apparent affect, "it's okay." And then of course there are the chasm-cracking grins that burst from those same laconic mouths. Even the shifts in mood are dramatic.

But in the end, it's not the drama that wears me down -- it's the constant interaction, the complications. The circa-1995, dial-up computer that takes 20 minutes to reboot if I accidentally flip the power switch when I'm looking for the power button for the circa 1993 Laserjet (buttons labelled in afrikaans). The hovering attempts to offer help, with refusal to actually GIVE the help that would be helpful. (Carissa and Yerina still don't have their luggage, every day a dance with Egypt Air, the baggage people at Entebbe, and the security people at Entebbe, beginning with an enjoinder for Carissa to come and pick up her bags, seven hours away, and the same discussion of the already completed paperwork). The friendly reactions -- the people who pepper us with questions on the street, want to mug for the camera, the hotel staff who hang around, just wanting to be near us, practicing their english. They're lovely, and it's tiring.

The food dance is also wearing. The children want us to eat at the project, to share their food with us, but other than the most minimal attempts, we've tried to avoid it -- it's just not hygienic enough for our poor spoiled tummies. We know it upsets them. But it's them or our digestive systems. If the hotel actually served simple ugandan food -- beans and rice, greens, matooke -- we'd eat it, but instead, we end up with a variation on carbs and tomato sauce every night -- spagetti and tomato sauce, pizza margarita, chips and ketchup. The dip into curried chicken resulted in raw poultry, and so much of the other meat is suspect. Breakfast is fine -- shiny white bread toasted with peanut butter and a banana, maybe a teeny tiny mango, a boiled egg, and lunch is power bars of some kind. And a coke, for the caffeine deprived. But the constant carbs... not a drama, but we're feeling more and more sluggish as the week wears on.

We sleep more, too, every night, dreams as full as the days.

Most days, we are plastered wth the skin of the many children all day long. Today, it was good to sit with three of the introverted, quiet kids, playing with shells, talking quietly. Yesterday Blair commented that his hat smelled like the kids -- "it's like when you have a really stinky dog but you like the smell of his blanket because you love your dog."

Tonight is blair's last night with the kids, and carissa and I stayed at the hotel working on the paperwork about the impenind staff changes, until we'd missed the window of going. I feel guilty for missing what I know must be soul-ripping.

Posted by CateinTO 11:16 Comments (1)


We're all exhausted. We took the kids to the beach at Lake George today, because the half-built hotel that has the pool that we took them to last year is closed because the owner was murdered by a prostitute.

I told the kids that I've been to many places in the world, and where they live is one of the most beautiful. Skiffs of fishers poling through the still water, rwenzori peaks shadowed behind. An elephant just hanging out in the water for the first hour we were there, then into a field, kids enthralled.

We crossed the equator on the way, all 64 of us on this trek stuffed into two minibuses (licensed to carry 14 passengers!) and the tiny suzuki jeep. I sat in the way -back with the 3 boxes of bread, peanut butter and jam, bottles of fanta. On the way back, blair had brian on his lap in the front, carissa had kiisa on her lap, yerina had some random kid who doesn't even belong to our project on her lap (another of the crazy unanswerable questions -- where did this kid come from? whose kid is this?) and Tina sat in the middle, unflappable as always. The smell of burning underneath my butt was never quite resolved.

There are no big concepts today, just the shouts and splashes of the kids as they swam in the shistosomiasis infested water that we avoided. We didn't see hippos, though they apparently come out at dusk. It cost S90,000 for admittance to the beach for all of us (about $60), and apart from another pair of muzungu -- shiny peace corps folks showing off their muconjo -- we were the only ones there. Kids from the village swam around the fence and rounded us out.

It's blair's last day, and it's hard to imagine the little boys for the next couple of days without him. We're all so enervated from the sun anyway, and still an immense amount of actual managing to do. I spent an hour with the baby sleeping on me today, and it was about as peaceful as I could imagine.

Posted by CateinTO 06:53 Comments (2)


I was reading my comments, and it's hard to explain how important it is to hear voices from the other side of the world in the middle of all this, even if completely surreal.

This is all africa as we expect it to be -- petty corruption, absolute poverty, having to fire the director who is, at the very least, ripping us off in petty ways, and at the most, may have somehow disposed of a kid and substituted his daughter in the kid's place in school. And all of the magic and most gritty life there is.

The big boys walked us home tonight, in the dark. I walked with Rafiki, and talked about how he was born in 1994 in Rwanda, during the year of the genocide, and spent his first years being carried on foot to Congo to hide and back.

I'm covered in baby urine. African babies are just passed around, 17 year old boys looking after them, 12 year old girls, 7 year old boys.

12 year old african girls snitch on each other and form girl cliques. But they can be diverted by dancing.

I tried to get middle-school kids to tell me today how they thought Danny could have got a baby without a wife or a girlfriend. Kagame thought he might have produced it himself, but he would have had to go to the hospital and have it cut out of him. Others thought his wife died in childbirth. No one guessed adoption, and they were sure that the baby's mother would come and take her back.

Muzungu Benson wryly told me "Africans produce like rats." So we talked about condoms.

The big girls told me they suffer from syphilis because of the toilets at school being dirty.

8 children took me to see the palace of the king of the bakonjo. He lives around the corner.

We went back to the hospital to pick up brian, and the little girl in the bed next to him had just died of dysentery. They just put her in a tiny, purple-wrapped coffin, placed her in the trunk of the car, and all piled in to take her to be buried.

A big man also died at the same time. Women wailed.

While we waited to pick up brian, Gabriel asked for 1000 shillings for an HIV test. Tina took one too. Just, randomly. They proudly showed me the negative results.

Abdu told me he thinks I love him more than anyone ever has, care about his future more. Brother to Rafiki, he told me passionately how much he hates fighting and will always step in to make people stop. I promise to take him to the memorial of the genocide some day.

Anita won't stop hugging me for a full 5 minutes. Derick folds the love letters from the kids into a careful pile for me. Everyone wants to carry my bags. Tiny things they can do to demonstrate how much it matters that someone in the world knows their names.

Blair is constantly draped with little boys ravenous for a big man to love them. When Moses falls asleep in his lap, this gay hair salon owner who has never imagined himself a parent tells me he feels like a father for the first time in his wildest imagination.

Yerina teaches the kids simple charade. Brendah gets "Cate" as her turn and just drags me into the circle, pointing. No one, guesses Cate, though "muzungu" and "woman with a baby" and "brainy person" (the glasses) are tried. Moreen is outraged, shouting "that's not acting!"

So much life, and so much management to this project. A disgruntled former worker shows up at breakfast. We meet with the social worker, the overseer, decide to fire the director, fix an earlier decision about a girl who slipped through the cracks in the program for the older kids. She left the project and ended up selling tomatoes on the streest of kampala. We call her back, get her agreement about studying procurement and logistics, arrange for her to reapply to university, computer course. Few lives have been so altered with so little money in so few hours.

It's huge and impossible and absolutely required. I'm too small, and I'm mother to the world, finding the right things to say to the big boys, the middle girls, the babies. I discover that the average ugandan lifespan is 48.

Magic, wholeness, life indeed.

Posted by CateinTO 10:56 Comments (2)

In a Ugandan hospital

In Ugandan hospitals, you need a person with you. The food costs money, and they don't even give you water to take your meds with, or make sure you take them. If you have to use the bathroom, you unhook your IV, limp out of bed and outside, past the people waiting for the clinic, the people waiting for the woman having the baby, the men hanging out at the dispensary, and use the same bathroom as the outpatients, the doctors, the woman you buy chapati from.

You lie on your cot in your shabby clothes, quinine and anti-biotics shot into your drip, tetanus in your arm, and if you're 8 and you've had malaria and an untreated infection for weeks, and your muzungu auntie is with you, your back gets rubbed as you finally stop crying and sleep.

Babies suckling make the same noises in Uganda as they do in Canada, and little girls covered in burns scream as pitiously. Tiny little babies lie in the same hospital beds as adults, and labouring women make shockingly few noises.

If you're muzungu in a hospital in Uganda, people say thank you, automatically, as soon as they hear that the boy with you is an orphan. Who knew a muzungu could be like a child's mother?, says the woman. Local women accompanying their sick babies bring their ground mats to lie on, or sit on the bed, vacantly, while the doctor drips ointment on your daughter's burns as she tries to push his hand away. Muzungu get chairs, and thanks, and a tin cup so you don't have to share your water bottle with the sick boy. The bed with the green and white checkered curtain around it.

You don't smell dysentery in Canadian health centres, and doctors have more equipment than scales, blood pressures cuffs, ear-looker-inners. You don't have to get to the hospital, 12 of you crammed into a tiny suzuki jeep, 2 aunties in the rear hatch. But you never get your lab results in 15 minutes in Canada, with a consult between the aunties, the children, the lab tech and the doctor. And you never have a doctor with so much patience, humour, care, wry irony, who moves you and the 9 children to the front of the line, just laughs when one child's cough turns out to have been in second term (that is, a cold she had in May).

Ugandan hospitals cost 3000 schillings to admit, 10,000 schillings a day, plus medicine. About $12, all told. One slice in another century lived in a day.

Posted by CateinTO 11:04 Comments (3)

Hot springs

Last night was sleepless, the weight of all of this, the fragility of me and the fact that I came to the genocide section in the memoir by the people studying the mountain gorillas in rwanda all conspiring to whack me awake. Got up really early this morning and wrote about my experienced, unvarnished, throwing away a half-finished chapter for a book I'm contributing to and doing in the moment meaning-making instead, cross legged in my bed, under the mosquito net.

At 645, went for a long walk on the kilembe road. People walking to work with burdens on their heads, machete at their sides, two or three on a bicycle, occasional boda bodas. The hills are magnificent, green and sensual and slightly hazy, the road curvy. Everyone smiled, said hello in the tones of someone deliberately using an unfamiliar tongue. Some goats by a house near a road charmed me, and I asked if I could take a picture of the family. The man clowned for me, the woman and the child ducked away, laughing and covering their faces. I showed them the pictures, went on.

On the way back, the man beckoned me in and called to another man to show me something. We went over a little hill and there was an amazing hot spring, about 40 C, with people bathing in it in their clothes. My "guide" was a congolese man who's teaching here, told me to put my hand in, that the men lying in it in their ragged pants were sick, that the spring was healing them. Another woman was bathing upstream, breasts naked, skirt wrapped around her waist. We spoke fractured french together and he taught me to say "goat" in swahili. Whatever it is I'm doing, well or badly, I'm taking it in.

Posted by CateinTO 22:24 Comments (0)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 41) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 8 9 »