I had been planning to visit Atin Afrika since its inception almost a year ago. I was first introduced to the idea last year when I read Morris’ proposal, which outlined the need for a home for street children in northern Uganda. On paper, it sounded impressive, and I was curious to see what would become of it. Throughout the summer back in Vancouver, I watched as Chelsea tirelessly raised funds for the organization, becoming more and more invested in the lives of the children of Atin, despite being a world away.
On my journey to Lira this November, I pictured my arrival at Atin. Daylight faded, and I began to expect that my first meeting with the kids would be the following morning, as they’d probably be in bed. However, as Chelsea and Morris had predicted, the kids had waited up.
When I reached Atin Afrika, I was greeted at the gate by six smiling boys and one beaming girl, who each offered me their hands and eagerly told me their names. Their excitement and enthusiasm were infectious. Finally seeing Atin as a reality was overwhelming.
As the kids got ready for bed, I watched Morris affectionately joke around with them in their local language, Leblango. Their admiration for him was evident. Chelsea, despite limited vocabulary, had no trouble conveying her love to the kids, and I could see that the feeling was mutual. My favourite part of the bedtime routine was watching as the kids arranged themselves in a “dog pile,” moving their bedding from their bunks to the floor so they could sleep together in a heap.
Over the weekend, I watched the kids be kids: they did chores, watched movies, sped around the compound on a bike, played with the dogs and the resident monkey. I got to witness the Sunday camera ritual: Digital cameras were distributed to the kids, who ran around and snapped photos of whatever they wanted. Chelsea told me that she loved the idea of allowing the kids to look through a lens, framing things to see them from a different perspective. She wasn’t kidding when she warned me, “You’re about to get paparazzied.” No matter the activity, the kids made me feel included with hugs, jokes, and quick smiles. The language barrier hardly seemed a barrier at all. What struck me most was the kids’ resiliency. Despite everything they’ve endured, they show a solid commitment to the new task at hand: being kids.
The kids’ bond was evident when we went to the local swimming pool. One of the boys, Joel, had lost his suit at the pool the week before. This time around, the suit-snatcher was identified (just a young boy who had likely found Joel’s discarded suit and decided to keep it). All the boys rallied together with shouts of “Auntie! Auntie!” as they called Chelsea’s attention to the situation; it was obviously important to them that their friend Joel get his suit back.
When the weekend was over, I was expecting a big goodbye from my new friends, but mostly, I got a few sideways glances and a couple waves – I don’t think they’re crazy about goodbyes. I wasn’t ready to leave, either. My time at Atin was so much more personal than I had expected. Atin Afrika, with its beds and hot meals, isn’t just a conduit for the rehabilitation of disadvantaged children. The kids are not in a situation where the idea of having their lives “saved” has been imposed upon them. All of the children at Atin Afrika know that it’s ultimately their choice – they can count themselves in, or walk away. Because of that, “Auntie Chelsea” and “Uncle Morris” have a bond with the kids that’s stronger than that of many biological families, as nothing is taken for granted. In this family, each person has chosen to be a member..