When I returned to Uganda in March of 2008, aflame with a passion to change the world, one country at a time beginning in Uganda, I spent countless hours online researching volunteer opportunities. It was a discouraging endeavour since most organizations seemed to be targeting young, single professionals. Hmmm. Am I young? I used to think so. Single? Sort of -- if you don't include the four kids. A professional? Well, I make a pretty good domestic engineer!
Finally, after some deep digging, I discovered a great grass-roots organization that caught my interest. I followed the progress of the Uganda Rural Fund for a couple of years and felt I could really buy into their philosophy and approach. I decided I was ready to fill out the volunteer application forms. I had telephone conversations with the founder, and, at one point, was prepared to hop on a plane to Uganda on a fact-finding mission in preparation for a full-fledged move with the whole family.
The only problem? Masaka, URF's headquarters is a three-hour drive from Kampala, where Pat and Kara, my close friends and my only support network while I would be living in Uganda, had been assigned. The more I weighed the pros and cons, I realized I really needed to be near them. Instinctively, though, I rebelled at the thought of living in the capital city with all its pollution and congestion for an entire year. I was sure once I got here, I'd find an escape route to a more rural location.
Those who have been following this blog will know that I moved here in July of last year. Early on, I attended a meeting of URF's Kampala chapter but nothing really came of it. In fact, there were really no other leads to any rural volunteer opportunities, and, as weeks turned into months, I realized that Kampala was destined to be my "permanent" home. I've been here seven (wow! has it been SEVEN?!) months and a couple of days ago I had a bit of an epiphany. "Grow where you're planted" were the words that brought my stay here into sudden focus. I guess I feel that's what has happened. I was planted here in Kampala, not because I necessarily wanted to be, but rather as a matter of circumstance. And slowly by slowly (that's a Ugandan expression, by the way) I've spread my roots and sent up shoots. One branch, one leaf at a time. And suddenly, like a plant that blooms overnight, there's real fruit on the tree. It's so exciting to see what happens when you mix together a little bit of vision, a little bit of faith and a fair bit of effort.
Just this week, I met with the founder of a local health clinic to discuss some form of a partnership with our resource centre. He, in turn, gave me several other useful contacts, informed me of grants to the tune of $10,000 which are available to applicants involved in income-generating projects, and suggested the idea of using bark cloth to make dolls. That suggestion led me to a woman from Texas who has launched a Bark Cloth Project to promote the use and preservation of Ugandan bark cloth. She has partnered with a very successful artist from Kampala has founded an initiative called Let Art Talk which aims to strengthen leadership, advocate reconciliation, and impart problem solving skills (the same objectives we have for our resource centre). It turns out the artist is already involved in making doll clothing out of bark cloth and is looking to partner with other organizations. We are meeting tomorrow!
In other news, we had our first school visit the centre today and, due to a miscommunication somewhere along the line, they sent most of the school (over 150 students) instead of just one class! We could here the children chanting as they approached the centre on foot and from the volume of their chorus, Kara and I knew we were in over our heads. When they arrived, we attempted to sort them by class level but soon realized that class level by no means corresponds with age. As we directed the P3s and P4s into the playroom where we house the lego, we were a little shocked to see fourteen year-old former Sudanese soldiers (some of them close to six-feet tall!) file in alongside the usual eight- and nine-year olds. It was soon evident that we needed a new strategy!
In the end, the centre was the prefect picture of chaos and confusion... but blissfully so. Children filled every occupiable space, both inside and outside of the centre. Everywhere I looked, I saw smiling children -- playing netball or frisbee, reading books, working on puzzles, building with lego, manipulating tangrams. Many of the children thanked me for letting them read our "beautiful books" and were asking when they could visit again. Another school is scheduled to visit on Monday: this time we'll be sure to limit the numbers.
Also today, my two house helpers ventured to our weekly Ambrosoli chips and salsa sale on their own! They did great. I'm so proud of them, and I could hear the excitement in their voices as they told me how well the sale had gone. When I arrived home this afternoon, I found a note which said, "Madam Jocelyne, Thanks a lot for the good work ur doin for us." I reflected on how little I have done really; these women are extremely hard-working individuals and it is their own drive that will get them where they want to go. They just needed that first little step up, and now they're on their way. This aspect of my stay here has been so rewarding.
Tonight, Kara and I set up a sheet of plywood against one of the walls at the centre and played Tom and Jerry cartoons on the big screen for some of the neighbourhood kids. I loved hearing the sound of their laughter; it made me feel like we were giving them a chance to just be kids -- to escape, even if only for an hour, the challenges of living in poverty and to forget, for awhile, their chores and studies and responsibilities (though several of the girls had little ones on their hips). Here are some of the children who attended:
Kara sorting out the technical side of things
Alima settles the dust