Volunteer Blog

11-7-2017, An Emotional Rollercoaster

It's been almost a week now since our last blog and since we left Masaka. We haven't had internet connection or phone contact with the western world (which has been quite liberating) and now that we are on the last leg of our journey, we thought it was timely for us to record our experiences of our last day at Elite Backpackers and our life in Suubi Centre and Lubanda village. We thought this was going to be an exciting moment - travelling to start our 4 day national park and safari tour, but instead we drive away from the village holding hands and wiping tears. Hopefully you will understand why below.

Our last day in Masaka had us visiting the other Smiling HeARTs group, 'Good Samaritan' - a school for the deaf and mute (every single student in the school was both deaf and mute). We don't think any of us had really thought about what to expect on our arrival. As we pulled up we saw all the kids running towards us excitedly, like always, but this time as we opened the back doors to get out of the Land Cruiser we were confronted by absolute silence; an almost eerie silence. These kids were expressing just as much excitement and sheer joy to see us as the other groups, but this time it was all through sign language and facial expressions - you could hear a pin drop in the school yard. We were immediately presented with photocopied books about sign language and small groups of children grabbed each of us separately, sat us down and proceeded to teach us how to sign. They did each phrase once with us, then asked us to try it on our own. If we did well, they would sign 'very good', if not they signed for us to repeat it. They were so excited to be showing us their special skill. No matter how less fortunate you are than someone else, you always have something to learn off them. We were also treated with a dance performance. The children were able to 'feel the vibrations through the ground as well as the music in their heart'- we were told by the teachers. This was really special. Each one of the Smiling HeARTs students then sat us down and showed us how they made the bracelets that we have previously sold at markets. It was wonderful to see how much time and effort goes in to these, as when we are back in Melbourne, we'll be able to share this with others. Another truly special day.

It was then a long drive out of Masaka in the back of our trusty Land Cruiser, along the dusty pothole ridden roads. Our luggage was packed on the roof and the back was filled to the brim with food to last us the week in the village, along with second hand laptops, medical supplies, microscopes, cycling jerseys, curtains, art and craft materials etc for the community.

Before we reached Suubi centre we stopped off at the Suubi Secondary School which is located at the entrance of the village. We were greeted with the most spectacular performance of song and dance. Their school anthem, the national anthem and some traditional drumming and dancing. The school was opened in 2015, with this year the 3rd intake of students. Some parents were sceptical about sending their children to Suubi SS as they weren't sure what to expect. But now, they have gained trust and the school is growing fast. Those first year of intake students are very proud and we can see why. So much has been achieved in such a short time, by HUG founders Helen Brown and David Ssemwogerere. The passion and drive to see this village develop is something you need to be here to really understand. We were given a tour of the school- seeing the desks and uniforms which were made by the students themselves - their aim, to be 'academic giants'. They were well and truly on the way. 

Just next to the school, 3 young men (maybe older teenagers) were boring for water. They had dug a well, by hand, by sending one person down in the dark with plastic buckets on a rope wench, to dig 4 ft a day - it's currently at 130ft. They had only just finally reached water that day and it was a pretty big deal. Water, something we take for granted, in any form, is a pretty big deal. The school was scattered with attempts to grow vegetables, but as the principal explained to us, usually the projects didn't take off, as they simply ran out of water. What we saw was small areas with dry grass and very little greenery. At home we leave the tap running while we brush our teeth, we have 10 minute long showers, we water our gardens with hoses and we throw out half finished bottles of drinking water. The Ugandans need to save every drop. It made us feel sick to the stomach with how wasteful we are at home.

At this school was where we were first introduced to the Ugandan drop toilets. Beth was unfortunate enough to have a blow fly come up out of the drop and fly in to her mouth. Needless to say, she didn't finish what she started! We were told to prepare ourselves we suppose!

Our ride from Masaka to Suubi was an uncomfortable ride, but nothing could prepare us for how uncomfortable we were going to be for the next week and the challenges we would face in the village. Nothing!

In Masaka we did have to give up some home comforts such as warm water to shower in, fresh drinking water from taps and our extravagant meals. But in the village, it was next level - drop toilets with blow flies flying around our bums (you can just imagine the smells), no power in our banda (hut), which meant no light once dusk settled in (weirdly the thing that we struggled most with, more than the toilets), wasp nests inside the bandas, no showers - just a jerry can of water and a bucket to stand in (wet wipes became our new friends) no refrigeration, a food cupboard which mice/rats found wonderful to munch through!

But all of this was simply a reminder for how lucky we really are. These everyday difficulties really brought us down to earth. Grounded us. They have made us appreciate what we have at home. The quote 'Siima Kiyolina' really resonated with us. It means 'Be grateful for what you have' in Lugandan. Every day in the village became survival - rationing every bit of food and water we had (and being a bit protective when someone else ate something you were saving or had more than their fair share), deciding what to eat and when to eat it and whether it will give us crook guts or not. Working out the best way to get a decent wash without wasting water. Deciding when was the best time to do what we needed to do in our banda before we had no light. Calculating what time to use the toilet before the blow flies or mosquitoes took over. All exercises we take for granted at home.

On our arrival at the Suubi centre/clinic we were welcomed again with dance and song by the 'suubi craft ladies'. They were especially excited to see Loretta again as she had developed a special relationship over the years.

The community was so proud to show us their health clinic, and rightly so. Elias (the lab technician, but also a bit of a town leader we discovered throughout our week here) gave us a thorough and animated explanation of what happens in each of the clinic rooms - family planning, counselling, pharmacy, delivery room, inpatient room and the impressive laboratory that is able to give you a malaria or typhoid diagnosis through blood tests within 2-3 minutes! It was great to hear about the shift in attitude within the community regarding the clinic. The Lubandan's are embracing and understanding the importance of early diagnosis, and even more importantly - preventative measures. This is evident through the increased number of patients presenting at the clinic.

Another great moment here, was seeing the privacy hospital curtains that Loretta bought over from The Kyabram Hospital (that were going to be thrown out!). The inpatient room previously had very little privacy between beds and now they have a full curtain between each bed. Sounds so basic and not that exciting to most of you reading this, but this really was like Christmas for the clinic. Everyone rushed in to see them. Photos were being taken and shrieks of excitement and applause could be heard from the other side of the village. We couldn't wipe the smiles of our faces.

It's crazy how much stuff we throw out back home that we now see how valuable they could be here. We are so wasteful. The Ugandan's would be disgusted if they saw just how much of a throw away society we have become.

In the afternoon we took a walk down to the 'water hole' (small creek) where the village collect fresh water from. It was a long walk, downhill on a narrow track through the jungle. As we ventured down, small children were overtaking us with empty jerry cans and others coming towards us up the steep track with full jerry cans of water. The children did this twice a day, just so that they could get water to take back to their families. We helped them, to give them a break and to see how heavy it was. Wow- these jerry cans were so heavy and some of these kids were no older than 6yrs of age.

Day 3 we headed off with Beth's dad John to help some farmers tag some of the 'Suubi goats'. 203 goats to be exact. This was an experience that we won't forget that's for sure. All 203 goats were squashed into a raised platform. The purpose of the day was to educate the farmers on how to keep track of their live stock - which kids belonged to which mothers, which were sick etc in order to learn more about them. Currently they have no system at all. The noises they made when being tagged was both hilarious and hideous at the same time. The platform floor was completely covered in poo and wee and the local farmers walked around barefoot. We were so pleased that we were able to help them work out why some of their livestock was sick and how to prevent it moving forward. John was even able to administer some medicine and saw instant improvement in health by one of the pregnant goats (with twins). Mission accomplished! Fair to say, he introduced himself as Professor J Lilford from this point on.

Our little treat most nights was heading down to the local 'bar' to bring back a drink. This was basically a small structure in the front of a house with a bar fridge inside and 8 small plastic outdoor chairs. We would purchase one Smirnoff Ice each (the only alternative to a local beer) which was 3,000 Ugandan Shillings ($1.08). Although they were a tad cooler than room temperature and often had cockroaches scamper out from behind them, they were our saviour at the end of a long day.

As we would walk around there, all the young kids would run out to wave at us and saying 'hello' or 'how are you' (2 of the very few English phrases they knew). We would often hear them saying 'Muzungu' to their parents or to each other, meaning 'white person'. They were fascinated with us as it was rare to see a Muzungu in the village. We would ask how they were, sometimes in English and sometimes in Lugandan - they would always reply with 'I am fine'..... so polite and adorable. The kids in Uganda are just beautiful.

Another fascinating thing to see on our walks through the village was all the coffee beans drying out in the sun in front of shops or houses. These were laid on large plastic sheets and would often have chickens and their chicks walking over them, pecking at them or digging through them. It would make us wonder what the process was after this? Where do these beans end up. We would stop sometimes, towards the end of the day and help the kids cover them up for the evening to prevent moisture getting into the stock.

We decided one morning we would like to head back to Kakunyu school, so we could spend some more time engaging with the children - our last trip felt more like a tour, plus, we felt we didn't get to say goodbye properly to the Smiling Hearts kids. All the way there, in the back of the land cruiser, we sang Aussie songs like 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'Give Me a Home Amongst the Gum Trees' which was a great experience for the locals in the car - David and Frederick. Arriving back at Kakunyu was wonderful- last time it was all tears, but this time we were just so happy to be coming back to some familiar faces. So it was all smiles. We spent the whole day sitting with the children helping them with their art work. It was great to really be immersed this time and get to know the children better. We made bowls and cards as well as experimented with other art work. This time, as we left, we had yet another full performance. The children sang 'farewell Aunty Betty' and 'farewell Uncle Ronnie' it was adorable. We danced again with them, were thanked by the principal and director and were presented with thank you letters and drawings from the children. So touching. We have come to realise that Ugandans, in general, are just so appreciative of everything. Always thanking us. For even the smallest of things. Something we are taking with us and hoping to apply to our own lives.

On the way back from Kayunya we 'dropped in' to Kinnoni town to see the water tank that was donated some years ago at the secondary school (Kinnoni Town Academic). We discovered at this point that there is no such things as 'dropping in' to a school when you have done something good for them. Yet again, another full on performance upon arrival. These kids were REALLY good dancers. So entertaining. We were given a tour of this school. Another smack in the face of just how tough these kids have it. The dorms were dark, crowded and dirty. The classrooms didn't really look like classrooms - just dusty, concrete rooms with a few desks scattered around .... we wondered just how these students were able to learn in these conditions. But they don't know any different. It's their school, they are proud and they are genuinely happy. They know they live in poverty and they know they need support (as all of their songs tell us so) but they make the most of what they have and they love life to the fullest. They were even rehearsing for their school house dance competitions, all very excited and competitive.

That night, back in the village, we witnessed something very special and rare in the village for Mazungus. A baby girl was born in the Suubi clinic. This is exciting on many levels, not only is it a precious new life in the village, but the mother presented at the clinic with her support person so she was in a safe and sterile place to deliver her baby - something that previously never happened. Mothers would historically give birth at home, having no access to any medical assistance, giving rise to risk and potential birthing complications for both mum and baby. But not today, process was followed perfectly - the birth happened quickly and with the mother's consent we were allowed see her beautiful little girl shortly after. She was wide eyed and alert, looking around and taking in all her surroundings.

That night, we realised it was half way through our trip and it was time to break into our emergency stash of home comforts - a pack of tim tams and a mini bottle of red wine that we took from the plane on the journey over. Some may say we were 'cheating' but if you were here, you would understand. 99% of the time we are living just like the locals, but 1% we slip. And that's ok. You go through moments when you are here where it's just so, so challenging. It's so different to life at home. Village life is a struggle - you are constantly just trying to 'get by'. You have moments where you question why you are here. Luckily we had each other to lean on. We had our little treat. Reminded each other why we came here and shook it off. We had our reset and we were ready to tackle what was ahead. 

The next day was what we would say is similar to our open days at The Suubi Secondary College. A chance for the parents to see their children on their rare visit to the school. The students had all ironed shirts, trousers and skirts. It was a big deal. All the visitors were also advised to make an extra effort to look their best. We headed down and had the opportunity to see the students partaking in their vocational studies - mostly
knitting their own uniform jumpers, with knitting machines, welding such things as window frames and doors, sewing uniforms (practicing first with paper from cement bags instead of fabric and then mini versions with fabric before the real deal - material was scarce). All valuable skills for these students to take on to life after school. Such talent and resourcefulness.

Our time at the village was nearing an end, a moment that at times we were selfishly looking forward to, but when the time actually came to leave it was awful. We wanted to freeze time and not go into the next moments of saying 'goodbye'. Our hearts were heavy - from sadness, but also from the abundance of love we were shown and the spectacular memories and friendships we created. This community of people had totally embraced us and welcomed us to their family, we were totally immersed in their culture and living as one of them - and now we had to say goodbye and leave them. It didn't seem fair, it wasn't sitting right, how do you walk away from family? You could see the sadness in their eyes and feel the heartache through their 'hugs'. I don't think words will ever be able to describe our time in the village. We are struggling with them ourselves.

Lubanda, thank you for your teachings, for reminding us what is real and for opening our eyes to all the amazing and ugly sides of the real world. You people are 'diamonds in the rough'. How can we stand here in front of you and not be amazed at your fight for life, your resilience and your general love of life ? You are the teachers here, not us. You are the rich ones, not us.

This is not goodbye, it's see you soon.

Webale, Webale, Webale! 

Beth and Az


DJ commented on 12-Jul-2017 09:49 AM
What a fabulous blog! Resonates with genuine emotion that clearly is life changing - what an experience to treasure & build on for everyone, Ugandan & visitors alike - Thank you for sharing!

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