Never has a year passed so quickly and left me in a such a state of awe. My connection to the world has become less about the intellect and rather about the heart. I wonder if we are meant to explore and experience the world in a perpetual state of awe.
Things seem less clearly defined as good or bad but instead, unfold exactly as they should.
My last weeks in Uganda included their share of ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ as each week on the ground does. Each low with it’s respective high, gave space to appreciate each consequent event as part of the greater scheme unfolding in the present moment.
The biggest shocks of the week came from a chicken market and one of the our Fish Pond Groups…
During one of my last days in the field, I took the boda boda (motorcycle) out for a solo trip to do some things in town and say a few goodbyes to some of the projects in further away villages. I will say, that driving the boda will be something I miss a lot.
While in town, I stopped by an India restaurant to pick up some money that was owed to us for chicken. I asked for the owner by name and they told me he wasn’t around. I asked when he was expected to return since we had planned on picking up payment that day.
They looked at me blankly before telling me he was no longer around. After inquiring further I was shocked to find out that he had skipped town that Monday. I glanced down and saw that the name of the restaurant had been changed. Evidently he owed over 90 million shillings ($3,500 US) and had tried to fool the new owner, who had just started that day, out of 40,000 million shillings ($15,500 US). There had been people coming in all week demanding money. This was quite the sum of money in Uganda.
I tried to explain that the money was for a women’s group in the village and all the new owner could say was that he would see what he could do. More alarming, was that the runaway owner was someone I considered a good business friend.
When I had issues getting my India Visa from Uganda he gladly accepted to assist me with a copy of his passport and a letter saying he was responsible for me while I would there and that I was staying at his house. After numerous trips to the India High Commission, it was because of him I was granted my visa. More so, I had even had tea with his family, he had donated sodas for our Community Meeting and seemed to be unlike other Indians; he paid for his employees school fees and was kind to them which is more than I can say for the majority of Indians in Jinja.
I wondered if it was premeditated or if he had just found himself too deep in debt to dig out. I know things like this do happen, but I had never been so close to such a thing.
Earlier that week, I discovered that Naminya had been missusing money they had in their account. It is a discovery that would lead to total restructure of the group, changing bank account signatories and shifting current leaders out of power. For Brooke, myself and S.O.U.L. it was a big blow as I have personally spent the last year of my life working very hard and closely with the group, often several times each week. It was a group I took much pride in and had, what I thought, had a very strong relationship with. Our trust had been betrayed and it wasn’t the farewell I had had in mind, but I know this is for the better in the end and in many ways it is good this is happening now and not down the road when they are completely independent. A tough lesson learned but I look forward to seeing what kind of progress they make upon coming back.
Yet, as one fish pond was down another was up, with the amazing women of Namizi Fish Ponds estatic as ever. They seem to understand what is needed of them to succeed and they are excited about what is come, especially since Tenywa, Local Chairperson, father to one member and husband to two members, signed a contract after much negotiation to extend the lease of the land used for the ponds by another six years. They now have the security of knowing they have the land for 11 years total and there is much work but lots of potential for these 17 members.
They wanted to host a “surprise” lunch as my going away, so after having a farewell lunch at Mama Ali’s with our nearest and dearest families, we all headed to Namizi for yet another lunch.
The women, each with their different personalities are so much to watch. They laugh and joke and are the most animated when all together. In true Ugandan/S.O.U.L. fashion, we took turns giving speeches of appreciation all led by Justine, the Chairperson of the group.
As my parting gift, I laid out on the table several pairs of pants since they have started to wear them in the pond, to avoid the tilapia getting into unwanted places. They couldn’t have been more excited, Namata, a heavier set women but one of the hardest working, looked through each one find the ideal pair for her. Oddly enough she picked out one of the tightest yoga pants in the lot. In many ways, they wear the pants in the group and so as they jumped, screamed and waved goodbye I knew there was much to look forward to for these women (and few men).
We also graduated our second group of tailoring women. Last year it was 54 and this year it doubled with 97 women equipped with a year of skills to start their own business. Instead of giving them each a sewing machine, we are trying something new. We found that many of the previous students did not take full advantage of the sewing machines; they did not feel the effort of acquiring the machine themselves. So going back to our no handout but hand up model, we will partner with the women and instead will pay for half of their national DIT (Department of Industrial Training) exam which is 50,000 ($19 us) total. This way they are able to be certified and recognized nationally.
At one point, Nora, a top student, adorably old with round glasses sitting on her nose and a perfect roller pin curl atop her head, announced that a group of women had each committed to saving 25,000 ugx ($9.40) per month to each buy their own sewing machine. Each machine costs between 200,000-250,000 ugx ($77-97) so after ten months they would have machines of their own. This amount of savings per month is huge for women living on $1 a day but their willingness to save and commitment to survive beyond this moment are signs of big changes to come. The women are less short term thinkers, they have big dreams and goals and as we say in the office, they are “empowered, trusted and admired.”
Watching the women walk down the isle to receive their certificates from our Guest of Honour, Asio Florence, Ministry of Education and Health, was a treat. For many, this was their first time graduating or receiving a certificate of any kind. Their happiness was contagious and left my cheeks sore from smiling.
The parties continued throughout the week including a lunch at the S.O.U.L. Office. We did our traditional chicken, rice and cabbage meal and crammed some 20 staff, volunteers and friends into the small space. I had been doing well all week not getting too emotional but after each person had gone around the room sharing some words, it came to me and I broke down. The tears came faster than I could breathe and I tried my best to communicate words of gratitude. But I felt at a loss of words for no words would be able to fully or effectively express my words of thanks.
Sunday was my last day in the village and Sal (one of our main father’s in the village and where Cassidy, my brother, had stayed) and his mother Naafa (my grandmother/neighbor/landlord) wanted to through a going away dinner. I had imagined a small gathering around her house with food. When I arrived back home I quickly found it was a different story. There was a big tent set up with about 100 chairs and a DJ. Sal approached me to show me the cake they had bough set up on a table in front of a row of chairs, where the Guest of Honor and friends are to sit. I again, was “zero worded.” I still had some packing to do but I told them I would hurry and then come back to start celebrating.
Buyati, Sal’s 14 year old daughter had been with me the whole weekend, helping me pack and giving me moral support, more than she could have ever imagined. I crammed the last few things in my now busting from the seams luggage and then joined the women outside who were joyously dancing. Baby in arms, I danced with the women surrounded by other kids aged form 2 to 16; this has become one of my favorite things about the village. More people began to join and as Brooke and Laura arrived, we were swept into the house, stripped down and gomes were thrown and wrapped onto our bodies. Mine was a soft pink and Naafa gave me bright pink earrings and necklace to take back to the states to help remember her by.
As always, we danced to our seats in front of the guests and the party had begun. We were a bit in disbelief that this kind of party had been organized. We didn’t see it coming. Sal was so serious and the party commenced with a reading of the agenda complete with speeches and cutting of the cake. It was all very unexpected and I couldn’t believe that it was all for me.
Naafa, myself, Sal, Brooke and Laura spoke and in between we would have dancing interludes which is something the States should adopt more. I danced with Naafa, her short stature beaming with happiness. In fact, I had never seen her this happy before. As she spoke she said I was the first Mzungu to stay at her house, something I never knew. I thanked her for keeping Buja and making me feel so content leaving him behind.
Before eating, Naafa and I cut the cake and and served small pieces to the guests. Then the feast began. It was my last Ugandan meal for some time so I enjoyed every last bite. As I ate, I couldn’t help but look around at all the familiar faces that had become family. Each triggered a memorable story, one that I would bring back home with me, one I hope I would be able to share. A party like that has never been thrown for me before and I was beside myself with thankfulness. Sal and Naafa had spent so much time and money organizing and it really spoke to how far they have come as a family being able to splurge to pay for food, a cake and a dj for all these people. If nothing else, this is a huge sign of growth for their family and the village.
At the end of the night, Naafa called me over and said that they had bought a tree and they wanted to plant it outside of her house as a remembrance of me and my stay there. Together we carried the tree into the hole and pushed some dirt over it. As if the party wasn’t enough, there was now a tree, which they would call Steph or more likely Stephan. It was hard to believe this was all for me. After we all danced until the DJ stopped around midnight. It is a night among many, that I will never forget.
The next morning, I had to say my finals goodbyes, or rather, see you laters. The first was around my home area. I hugged all the neighbors and family around. There were tears in Naafa and Mama Stepha’s (mother who named her newborn after me in November) eyes. The hardest was saying bye to Buyati. She looked sad as she ran into my arms first whispering, “I love you so much” before bursting into tears. We held each other for some time as tears fell down my face, she was crying uncontrollably. We had spent some time together over the last couple of weeks but I was still surprised by her reaction. She is indeed a special one, wise, responsible and well-spoken beyond her years. I promised her I would be back and that I would never forget her and think of her each day.
Last was the S.O.U.L Shack. I really don’t like saying goodbye, but the thing that made it somewhat easier was knowing I would be back sooner than later. Again the tears came as I hugged Pheobe, someone I had worked almost everyday with but someone who had become more life a sister and friend. Each time we thought we had finished, the tears came once again. We exchanged many words and hugs, as if those would keep us connected during our time in separate hemispheres, countries and cultures.
As we drove away, my heart was full and unlike other times when sadness has dominated a departure, I felt no such void of happiness. Perhaps there was more disbelief that it was over, but inside I was celebrating everything that the year had been. Digesting and integrating it all is going to be an enjoyable journey that has only just started.
The help me with that is 10 days in a long awaited trip to India…
Until next time Uganda…Nkwenda eno eno eno (I love you very much)!
Steph aka Stephan aka Takoba