This is my third day in Uganda, and I already – bizarrely, feel right at home here at the Nyaka AIDS Orphans School. Despite a few tiny differences.
First, there is virtually no internet connection possible here in Nyaka in the far southwestern corner of the country, in the mountains – and when you can connect, it’s slow as melting tar. Forget downloading a photo – it ain’t gonna happen. Which means I can’t post a blog until I get back to Kampala on November 7 (actually, I couldn’t post til November 10 when I got back to the USA).
On my way to Nyaka, I purchased a 100,000 UGX Airtel mobile modem (relax, that’s $40) but today, the hit-or-miss connectivity turned into a complete miss. Luckily I have Jennifer, the fabulous Nyaka Country Manager here with me, and she also couldn’t connect on her Airtel modem, so she called the 1-800 Kampala Customer Service number. And heard: “Welcome to Airtel Customer Service. Thank you for calling. Good bye.” Click. Wow, I’m sure Verizon will be using that one soon.
Speaking of Verizon, I have no cell phone service at all, which is surprisingly relaxing and probably accounts for the joyful nature of the people here. You can’t miss what you don’t have, and it is astonishing to discover how much you really don’t need.
Like vehicles, for instance. There are almost no cars in the village and everybody walks everywhere (although we white people are generally squired around in a van). And when you go to church in Nyaka (it’s mostly Seventh Day Adventist here, so the Sabbath is on Saturday), you’re well advised to bring your own pew. And prepare to be there for a while – the service is about 3 hours long.We mostly have no electricity during the day and if you plug in your computer at night (oops, my bad), you’ll blow the solar power out for the evening. And then you (and everybody in the guest house) will be literally and figuratively in the dark. There’s also no hot water, so you can either go for total immersion in a cold-water shower or take a warm sponge bath in a plastic basin. Of course, in order to get the warm water, you’ll have to elbow out all your bunkmates to get to the one jerrican of heated water first – but somehow that’s posed no problem for me & Jennifer.
More difficult is simply understanding what people are saying. Ugandans speak a beautiful, mellifluous patois that sounds like The Queen’s English meets African propriety–and they can’t understand our slurred, lazy speech any more than we can understand their formal vernacular. Ugandans are taught never to use contractions, so when you say, “Hi, how are you?” even the smallest child will respond gravely, “I am fine.” When I was running down the road after a beautiful woman with a red & white parasol to take her photo, a laughing man asked me, “Madame, why are you speeding?” And my new friend Huntington, who walked me the 2 km to the library, tried politely to establish a connection with: “Madame Bet-ty, what crops do you grow?” It’s pretty delightful.
If you want clean clothes, you also have to handwash your own laundry, or pay somebody to do it for you (personally, I love doing laundry, which makes the African women laugh at the crazy white woman hanging out her own clothes). And yeah, there is always the threat of malaria from a mosquito bite so you do have to dip yourself in Deet, night and day.
Most disconcerting, because we are “role models” (that’s a frightening thought) for the children of Nyaka, there’s no alcohol, cigarettes, or swearing allowed – which is by far the worst deprivation for me.
But honestly, you pretty much get used to all these things the first day. Even these alleged “hardships” pale in comparison to the way most of the people – and certainly all of the children at our school – live. In fact, by Ugandan standards, we’re residing in palatial splendor, with plenty of food, soft beds with clean sheets and blankets, a generator for electricity when I blow out the solar, and gentle Evelyn making all our meals. The Nyaka children have all lost at least one parent to AIDS, live in abject poverty, and without this school would never get an education at all — not to mention two good meals a day. And they know it.
So when they come to school in their pretty purple or green uniforms and ragged shoes (most of them walk at least 30 minutes each way – even the 5-year olds), they are happy to pick weeds from the schoolyard, sing their songs, study hard, and dazzle you with their smiles.It shames you for every bad attitude you’ve ever had. And makes you grateful you can help. As the Ugandans say, “I am happy I am here.”
***Be an angel and Click Here to contribute $10 (or heck, $10,000) to help Nyaka AIDS Orphans School win the Nike Girl Effect challenge.