I have shown astounding delinquency in getting this post up. It’s a wonder that Chelsea is even talking to me anymore. But I’m going to push through the shame of it all and give you some of my journal entries from my time at ATIN AFRIKA. I was in Uganda for this past March, April, and May – mostly in Jinja but also in Lira. One thing I am sure of is that my memory of ATIN has not been dulled in the least. In fact, as I sit here writing in my living room at 103 Ramsay Ave. Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, photos of ATIN kids on my walls keep me company reminding me of a mesmerizing world that is 11672 km from where I sit. Incidentally, as I write I am also grooving
to the African reggae that Morris sent me home with. I wonder if this music has been part of the reason it has taken me so long to get things done these days…I mean…what’s the rush anyway?
If Jinja is the intro to east Africa then Lira is senior year advanced seminar. From what I hear if you hit Kitgum or Pader you’ve reached graduate school. Jinja squeezes the western comfort out of you a bit here and a bit there. It certainly shocks the sensibilities but you can stay kind of prune-like with it’s coffee shops, restaurants, the fountain of ngo’s, the odd hot shower, and the scenic adventure vibe of the lake and Nile. If things ever go sideways you can always scoot into Kampala to get yourself sorted out and worse comes to worse you board a plane. Lira, on the other hand, gives you the choice between posho, posho, or posho for dinner. It has insects the size of squirrels. The land, its rock and dirt, slaps you just for thinking of complaining. People are built tough as hammers. They could be dying in front of you and still ready to walk the 6 miles to town. Law and order has a wild west feel to it. Lira is like being on a fruit diet. The good news is that after the detoxification, which includes a healthy dose of hanging out with street kids, you can feel the softness leaving your psyche. I love comfort. Comfort in Lira is having a relatively calm intestinal tract. It doesn’t matter that the toilet in my room doesn’t have a toilet seat. It’s actually a luxury. Why do they even come with seats? The bowl feels unnervingly large at first but you don’t really need one. Try it.
If you are in need of a boost to your sense of importance I would suggest visiting the kids at ATIN. They mob you every time you arrive even when you come and go several times in the same day. Each time I get to the gate I am flooded with hugs and ‘welcome back uncle’…’Uncle welcome back’. Yesterday I tooted the horn at the gate (to get someone to open it) but when they saw it was me suddenly I realized that they were ‘all’ pouring into my car. Every door was open and kids were jamming in everywhere. Little Joel was practically on my lap. I began telling them to ‘stop’, ‘wait’, ‘get out!’, but they weren’t accustomed to any sort of car etiquette. When it comes to the vehicle there was no sense of anything being off limits. Eventually, I succumbed to the idea that when I arrive at ATIN, 17 kids will attack and infiltrate the vehicle and then I would give them a ride around the neighbourhood. Actually, I never felt I had much of a choice in the matter. Whether it was safe or not is something else altogether. The fact that Immanuel stands on the back bumper and holds onto the spare tire suggests that I go slowly. On a similar note if I’ve got anything that I want to keep inside the vehicle there is a good chance that it will be gone once I get them all out. It’s not stealing they just came to believe that whatever was in my car was for them!
Sadly, one of the girls at ATIN tested positive to HIV today. She is about 13 years old. They have not told her yet because they want to do it in the most supportive way possible lest she return to the streets to try to forget her problems through reckless living. She most likely contracted the virus through sexual activity either by force or as a means to earn money, which in the end is not much of a choice when you’re a 13 year old street girl in Lira.
The kids hold on to you when you enter the gate at ATIN as if you’re a war hero, as if they never want to let you go. Greetings and farewells are big deals in Africa especially among street kids and orphans. The wounded attachments with caregivers that were truncated want to compensate by clinging and trying to avoid ‘goodbye’s’. Of course, all males who come to help and work with the kids are called, ‘Uncles’ and all females are called, ‘Aunties’. For the first while, since I arrived with a car, I was called ‘Uncle Car’ until they learned my name.
Morris and I are currently shepherding the procurement of shelves, filing cabinet, school desks, and two couches for ATIN. Finding the carpenters is easy. Getting their prices is easy. Settling on the guy you want to build your furniture – easy. The only tricky part is getting them done by the due date. This is where all bets are off and you get into the trenches and even start employing some less than puritan tactics to motivate the carpenter.
I have learned that he will tell you that he can have it completed when he knows deep down that he cannot. I am trying to work on this area of communication so that he can speak freely and tell me the truth but for any of you who’ve been in Africa this is where our cultures don’t understand each other in the least. His tendency is to tell me what I want to hear so that he keeps my business but I try to tell him that if it isn’t done on time then it actually hurts any chance of doing business with him again but he isn’t usually thinking that far ahead. I massage it a little by reassuring him that I would rather have him say a day later and it be the truth than tell me what I want to hear only to come on that day to find it is not done. If anyone out there has found a way through this dilemma you should write a book…quickly…
So, I figure I’ve got to push hard but then allow a back door for the guy’s honest truth to come out. Somewhere in there we have a deal. But it requires constant vigilance. Morris or I will drop by the carpenters tomorrow and the next day just to let him see our faces and have the reminder reverberate throughout his nervous system. Deep down I’m hoping it instills flickers of fear as stress can be a powerful motivator. I have also tried using a tapered payment system wherein he gets less money the longer it takes. Then, at other times, I might buy him a soda. Kind of like a peace offering, a salve to ease the pain of this rigorous muzungu timetable.
My life felt like it made sense today. Driving down red dirt roads in a 4×4, across fields, through ditches, sun in the sky, deep into the land outside of Lira, passing smoke rising, babies and more babies chasing goats and playing with sticks, old weathered faces, mud home after mud home, I was with Morris as he went about the work of resettling street kids in their home villages. Assessing the home environment, trying to figure out why the child left, seeing if there is family who is willing to take care of the child if they got help with school fees. Today, we met Solomon’s aunt and uncle and his sister and learned that his mom was killed in an LRA attack just after his sister was born and his Dad is blind and lives somewhere in Kampala. His Aunt and Uncle were raising him but had no money for school fees. At 9 years old Solomon has been trying his hand at living on the streets and making his way in the world. Where we were today there was no connection to the outside world. This is a place where there is no phone network. People walk or ride bikes. They farm the land but it’s a harsh, low bush, hard soil with little water. There is no electricity, no medical care, no place to fix your vehicle, just land, endless African land.
Then back in town I hung out with the kids at ATIN AFRIKA. There are now 17 street kids living at ATIN. They discovered a football in my vehicle and it quickly became theirs. Late in the afternoon they all walked me back to my room at the Lira Hotel so I could get some water and I felt that rare feeling of having my insides and my outside in tune. It doesn’t hurt that they greet me like I’m world famous so I tend to feel quite good about myself here. The sun was beginning its final descent today, chickens pecking by the road, warm air cleansing me as I arrived on a boda bringing dried fish, g-nuts, and tomatoes to the home for a special supper. As dinner was being prepared the watchman Dennis shared part of his story with me. I listened as if sitting before royalty as he recounted the two years of violence he suffered during the conflict in northern Uganda. After every stomach was happy again we had singing and the learning of songs around the table. A good day in Africa is unbeatable.
All these kids off the street living together produces a remarkable energy in the compound. And they can eat. I was asking them what their favourite foods were and I discovered that there is no such thing as food they don’t like. The matron ‘Grace’ pointed it out to me that these are not like kids who grow up in homes where they have some choice in the matter. They eat what is there and they love it. Posho, rice, beans, matooke, cassava, sweet potato, Irish potato, fish, chicken, greens, that about completes their entire diet. The little one ‘Lamek’ eats like it’s his God given vocation, like he’s taken a solemn vow. He destroys his food tearing apart the toughest sinews of chicken with his bare hands. I had to wipe pieces of chicken off the top of his head the other day. By the way if matron wants chicken for supper the kids will make short work of the juiciest looking bird in the yard, feathers fly everywhere, and ‘wall la’, chicken ready to be cooked.
I was once again visiting ATIN in Lira where I went along with Morris as he did his ‘street visits’ talking to street kids and giving them the option of coming to live at the house. We went to pay for school fees for several of the kids who were resettled through ATIN. This visit helped me appreciate the frustrations that Morris lives with as he tries to resettle kids and keep them in school in their villages. After driving who knows how far outside of civilization we ended up not being able to pay the fees because the headmaster wasn’t there that day but meanwhile the child couldn’t go to school until the fees were paid. This is one of those moments where you lean your head back, take a deep breath, bite into a mango, and let it all go. At one point we had to walk to a boy’s home to find him as he wasn’t at the school when we arrived and the road to his house was impassable. I learned then and there that when a villager from northern Uganda says that a distance is ‘not far’ to walk it has next to no bearing on any definition of ‘far’ that I know.
While in Lira we also ended up interceding for two 16 year old girls from Moroto who were stranded in Lira after coming with a singing group three months ago. They didn’t get back home because their vehicle broke down and while the rest of the group had money to pay for transportation they ended up stuck in Lira and staying with a single man twice their age whose intentions were less than clear. We went to the police station to report their situation so that they could safely stay at ATIN for the night before putting them on a bus the next morning back to Moroto. While Morris and the other ATIN staff thought nothing of the police visit I was as nervous as the two girls thinking that at anytime we’d all be locked up for some fabricated charge and spend the rest of our days in a Ugandan jail digging ditches in the blazing heat. Morris and the girls would probably be fine…me on the other hand…I’m sure I wouldn’t make it past lunch before inquiring about an infirmary.
Thanks to Morris and Chelsea, Grace, Dennis, interns, and the beautiful children of ATIN AFRIKA! I won’t forget you.