After two days of travel and one day of rest in Kampala, I finally arrived to the village of Bujagali Falls. Emotions raced through my body as I pulled up to the S.O.U.L. Shack, a place I had seen in pictures and imagined for months. Not only that, but I had waited for this exact moment for so long. Simultaneously, a cloud of doubt entered my mind. I wondered if the villagers would accept me and if I was really ready to undertake such a task. To say it was surreal is an understatement.
I was greeted by a group of lingering preschoolers and a handful of women. They began to clap, sing and dance and I noticed that Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was playing in the background. Brooke began introducing me to some of the women, including Jane (S.O.U.L’s office manager) and my host mother while I live in the village, Mama Ali. Mama Ali dropped down to her knees for a respectful formal greeting to Brooke and myself. She is a strikingly beautiful woman and her presence is strong. Dressed in a traditional Gomes, yards of shiny embroidered material draped her body, with shoulders sewn so that they reach for the ears. Her demeanor is gentle but her hard work and strength acquired over the years is evident in her weathered hands. Strong cheekbones extend beneath her dark chocolate skin and when she smiles you can see that she is missing her top front teeth. She embraces me with a hug on both sides.
Next we traveled the short distance to Mama Ali’s house. It was a modest yet comfortable mud hut, closely surrounded by a few other smaller huts and a thatched roof kitchen hut a few steps from the main house. I had my own room that they had recently fixed up in preparation of my arrival. Instead of merely having an iron sheet roof, they had cemented a ceiling and painted it green, pink and yellow. My room came set with a small bed just a foot or so off the floor and a brand new blue mosquito net. All of this was very generous with a $1 US/day budget.
Soon I met Tata Muganda who is Mama Ali’s husband. Mama Ali is the first of Tata Muganda’s three wives he currently has. Brooke has coined Tata Muganda the Father of the village and it is easy to see why. He is very warm with a huge smile and a grand laugh that fills the room; more than that, he is the head of the Parent Committee that Brooke started almost two years ago. Between his three wives, he has 17 kids, all of which he puts through school. He owns two matatus (taxis vans) one of which he drives himself almost every morning starting at 5am. This kind of commitment to family and their schooling is virtually unheard of in Uganda.
After taking a few minutes refuge under my mosquito net for a nap, Mama Ali woke me to tell me that Brooke wanted me at the S.O.U.L. Shack. Happy commotion was in full force in preparation for the Appreciation Dinner with the Elders. What seemed like hundreds of kids frolicked, romped and ran around with no worry in the world. Parents and Elders gathered around the Shack as the younger generation and S.O.U.L. staff prepared dinner for them. This in it of itself is a big deal. The meeting was all about appreciating village members who have supported S.O.U.L., so Brooke specifically asked that the dinner be prepared by S.O.U.L. staff. Not preparing dinner is completely out of routine and the norm for women in the village.
I quickly met the other two full-time Ugandan Field Coordinators, Phoebe and Oko. In many ways it was a relief to see a familiar face. Although I had never met them, I got that nice feeling when meeting a friend of a friend you have heard so much about. I joined in to help cook and was given the job of okulonda omuchere (sorting rice). I found this task particularly calming and it was at this point that I realized I was in a shock of sorts. Although I had gained much knowledge and education in the 6 months prior to coming, there is still a huge disconnect of what it is really like. Surprisingly it wasn’t the utter poverty that these people live in that effected me, as I had seen this before. What I found most overwhelming was all the stimulus of people, colors, sounds, smells and language, most of which were foreign.
Before the dinner commenced, I met an empowered local council woman, my child sponsor and the local drunk. Annette is on the executive committee for the Jinja District. She oversees community projects and looks over 100 villages. She heard about S.O.U.L. over the years from our various projects and then attended one of the community meetings. For the last seven months she has been advocating for S.O.U.L. and in the meantime, has become close friends with Brooke. Next, I was surprised to be greeted by Namudira, the primary school girl I sponsor. She was accompanied by her father, mother and grandmother. Each were grateful to meet me and it was a treat to meet my sponsor so early on. Like many young girls here, she was quite shy, but I look forward to getting to know her more. As we continued to cook, a young Ugandan man enthusiastically stumbled up to the Shack. His name is Portugo, a local drunk who LOVES S.O.U.L. He is completely harmless and really only speaks if he is drinking. He loves to make frequent visits to the shack to show his support. I struggled to understand a word he said but he managed to get my name and since then has not forgotten it…quite the memory for a drunk.
The meeting was attended by forty-two villagers. Brooke would speak and then Jane would translate for those who don’t understand English, which was the majority. Brooke thanked the Elders for their continued support and let them know how S.O.U.L. plans to continue to help the community grow in the future. Some Elders had questions but for the most part, many of them took the time to thank Brooke for all the great things that S.O.U.L. has brought to Bujagali Falls. It is clear that changes are being made everyday and that the villagers are aware of this since they are now stakeholders in their future like never before. Despite being utterly exhausted, it was such a great night to witness and be a part of. It is not every culture that will welcome a newcomer as they did me, and thinking about getting to really know and understand a whole village is so exciting to me.
After a full day of being introduced to many people ranging in age from three to seventy, there appeared to be a pattern. Brooke would introduce me as Stephanie and this turned out to be a lot harder for their Ugandan tongues to spit out. Opposed to my full name or Steph they could manage somewhere in between. Unless I make an effort to change this, it looks like I’ll be referred to as “Stephan” for the next 7 months. Could be worse.
Welaba (goodbye) for now friends….
“In the history of NGO’s in Uganda, I have never seen such a positive change in the community as S.O.U.L. has created.”
– Annette Museka, Jinja local chairwoman