Driving through the Kampala traffic seems like any other city in a non-western world that I have been to, close to what I experienced in Cairo I guess, so it was no shock to me the sights and smells that I saw, it differed to the Africa that gets shown to us on any commercial for aid that we may see on the TV or billboards, this was not the place that sad, crying and starving children are filmed. Instead, I found it dirty but functional, there were business people, not to Wall Street standards, but nonetheless, businesses that worked and professionals that studied. On the contrast, there were street people and children, who begged at cars that drove past, but who were fed, clothed and ultimately looked after.
Driving outside of Kampala, on the other hand was the real Africa, the one that constantly invades us while watching TV or a movie or while driving down the road when we see that billboard. The one where there are dirt roads, where families live in one, unstable mud brick room, where they have no option but to walk for miles to fetch water, where they eat one meal a day, where they have no shoes, where the children don’t go to school because it is far too expensive, where the family earns per month what we spend on coffee per week. This was the Africa that is portrayed to us and this is the Africa that I encountered – all but one part…the people. We are so under the illusion that all people in Africa are miserable because, ultimately, they don’t have the money to better themselves. I have come to the conclusion, that it is actually us that are miserable because we do have the money to better ourselves…yet, we never really do.
Let me unpack that a bit.
Yes the images are real that we see, but we can never know people from a single persuasive shot. It was in my experience that I looked at, and met people that were happy. In the tiny villages, children who would run and smile and laugh and chase after our van, waving and yelling and hoping that we would wave back, where we would get out and all the children would gather, want to play and give to you. Where families invited us into their homes and fed us lunch – not out of their extra, but out of their best. The Ugandan people were happy, full of smiles, they welcomed, they loved and they thanked.
That is what struck me the most, everywhere I went, people thanked me for being there. If I was in a café and talked about spending Christmas in Uganda, they thanked me for just staying in their country, if I was holding a baby, they thanked me, if I was talking to a mother, they thanked. They thanked me for coming into their home and eating lunch, they thanked me for visiting, for helping, for coming to see what life is like for them. We have a thing or two to learn about embracing what you have and being thankful for it, they live life well, with the most amazing attitudes.
I couldn’t understand why they thanked me so much; my reply would be ‘no, you don’t understand, thank you so much for having me’. I still don’t know why they were so thankful for me being there, but I did ask one lady and her reply was…
‘So that you can go, and tell our story’
And that is what I am endeavouring to do. Tell a story of Watoto and the hope that it has bought to children, women, men, families, and ultimately, a country. Every person I talked to down the rugged but busy Kampala streets knew of Watoto, or knew of someone that was changed, healed, rescued or raised because of the work that Watoto does. Watoto is more than a babies home, more than a village, more than a church, it is a vision. A vision for the future of Uganda and the hope that it has, the vision to stand on its own feet, unaided by other countries, and able to aid and give to others in need. Watoto is an organisation that is well established, well grounded, has built a name and reputation in the eyes of government and other organisations, it is an organisation that has been built on the selfless sacrifice of its leaders, employees and volunteers so that it can literally save lives.
Joy is the woman who told me to go and tell their story. She is beautiful and she volunteers her time to Watoto in the Living Hope programme to train HIV positive women who have been ostracised out of their community, who were previously abducted to become child soldiers, or who have, through Aids, lost their husbands and therefore their welfare. They are trained to sew and to make jewellery and helped to start businesses.
I was able to spend some time in the production unit just talking to these women, listening to their hearts and stories, listening to them being so thankful for being rescued and their lives being restored. I loved watching them work, and laugh and smile and interact with the other women; they had such amazing, positive attitudes and actually loved the work that they did. For something that seems so demeaning in the western society, was actually giving them freedom, giving them hope and giving them a life to be so proud of. It was humbling seeing it, being a part of it, and then of them thanking me. How could they thank me, it was me that needed to give the thanks, me that was being impacted and changed. Just when I thought I couldn’t be any more humbled, all of the women stood up and started praying, Joy then lead them in prayer. Tears rolled, prayers of thankfulness flowed and worship was born out of their hearts, they started singing and clapping at their sewing machines, no hesitation and no boundaries, nothing restraining them back, but giving their all to their God who has literally saved their lives. God has literally saved my life too, but I have never been so in awe as I have in that moment.
Going into Bulrushes Baby home was a beautiful experience, where the children have nannies, they are loved and looked after and they are well rounded and adapted. This is not an orphanage; it is a home, where the nannies know their children. A couple of people have asked me if I wanted to take any of the children home with me, and yes, while they are beautiful and ultimately orphaned, they have a home, they are loved and they are well looked after. While it is crazy and chaotic at times, I had no problem leaving these children right where they are. As I sat and played, cuddled, fed and bathed these children, I picked each child up and got to sit and listen to the nannies tell their stories. Some have a mum or a dad, but most do not, and were left unnamed and abandoned at the hospital. The ones that have a dad are the ones that their mums died at birth and the father could not provide milk for the child, and the ones that have a mum were not equipped to deal with the medical expenses of giving birth to a premature baby.It was my privilege to be able to spend quite a bit of time in the Nursery, where at the time; they had 4 wee babies in incubators and 4 other newborns.
As I sat in the room feeding and burping and rocking 3 babies at a time, I thought back to that exact time the year before where I was in New Mexico with some precious friends in the Neonatal Unit with their Grace who was minute by minute, fighting for her life. What a contrast, here I was 14,000kms away in the middle of
Africa in the ‘Neonatal’ unit of Bulrushes Baby Home which was just a room, with the door and windows open to the outside world. The smallest baby to go there and live is 700 grams (1.5lb), which is about the same size as Grace was. This photo is of Meg, who is that precious little 700 gram girl who is doing really well and can even keep her temperature and heart rate up when out of the incubator.
This whole experience highlights to me just how much God is in control, and how much His story is going to be exalted. If some untrained nannies and social workers can keep a baby alive that everyone passed off as dead, then there is a bigger picture here. She is not the only tiny baby that was left unnamed and abandoned who has come in and survived and doing well, she is the beautiful one of many, that together will one day, tell their miracle story, just like my friends Grace.
Watoto have a growing population of children that have been abandoned and mistreated, who have been left to survive on their own, who through Aids have lost their mum and dad, or who have been rescued from being child soldiers in a very perverse army. They have 3 villages that are based around family and community values, where the children get to be a part of a functioning family with siblings and a mother, be part of a community and go to school. We got to spend some time in the 2 villages not too far outside of Kampala, the houses are in clusters of 8, giving children neighbours and a feeling of community. All of the children go outside and play together, laugh and have fun.
The moment we started walking around these villages, the children just ran to us, wanting us to play with them, some even giving us performances. We got invited into homes and shown around, we got fed and were able to sit with the mothers and listen to how much she adores her new family, of how much she knows and cherishes her children. It was an incredible picture of restoration, of taking something that was so broken and giving it hope, giving not only the children love and life, but the mother too, she finally had purpose, meaning and love.
Walking around these communities, I got a deep sense of how much love matters. People who are marginalised and oppressed don’t only need freedom from their circumstances, but they need the expression and to be an expression of love. Watoto has allowed people to receive the ultimate expression of love, and are placing people in an environment where they can give love. They matter because of love.
I guess I want to say is give to Africa, give to Watoto, give to water projects, give to education, give to health initiatives and give to the quality of life to be improved. Find something that you believe in, find something that doesn’t just show you a convincing image that they are miserable without your help, it’s not true, their quality of life is worse, they may even die without your help, but simply money enough won’t make a difference, it is love that changes everything. Find something that is breathed out of love for people, because whatever it is that we have given to, they are thankful beyond description, they weep tears of thankfulness as you talk to them, by giving, you enable people to find hope, freedom, love and meaning.
And that is Joys story, as well as many other women, children, men and families that have been changed, made new and given hope.