Friday, November 14, 2008

Uganda Part 2 - The Orphanage

On a Pilgrimage every moment is unique and every foot step is the first. This has been my mantra and saying it silently awakens my senses to the rhythms of the world around me.

The Countryside

Rev. Mark Kiyimba, founder of the Unitarian Church of Kampala, arrives in the Sheraton lobby at 7 a.m. wearing a dark sport jacket and white shirt. The day’s agenda includes visiting an orphanage for children left alone because their parents died from AIDS and also a Unitarian school. . We travel south stopping on the “equator line” to take the typical tourist photos. Mark wants to make sure we know that we are going south of the equator.

Speaking of the equator, it is a surprise to all of us that the temperature here is very comfortable and there are few insects. Since “Letting Go” has become one of my themes for this Pilgrimage, I add one more false perception to be squashed: the myth of the hot, blazing equatorial sun. That one must have been picked up in science or geography class.

Once freed of the chaotic, heavy, city traffic of Kampala, Mark drives for over two hours past hilly tropical landscape. This is the rainy season and everything is lush and green. We pass trucks loaded with bananas, bundled leaves and steer. The countryside is dotted with long-horn cows and giant anthills sculpted out of Uganda’s deep red soil . I am fascinated that these anthills stand 4 feet high. In some places, there are more anthills than cows. The people, animals and ant colonies share a respectful co-existence.

Lots of children in different colored cotton uniforms walk in small groups along the dusty roads. Mark says that some of the children walk as many as six miles a day to school and back home. Trucks loaded with bananas and bundled banana leaves pass by. Adults are out too, walking children to school, carrying water from the public well, or selling their goods.

Mark turns right onto a bumpy, dirt road and we are in Masaka, the rural village where he was born. He knows everyone here and greets people while driving along, pointing out trade stands and other features of his community before taking us to our first destination.

The Juja Orphanage

Mark stops the car on a strip of grass near a small yard where children in blue uniforms play. They turn their attention to us. Rev. Eric Cherry gets out with his video camera. He squats down and, then, disappears as he is surrounded by children accepting colorful seven principle stickers he is happily passing out. But this is the wrong school. We follow Mark across the road, step into a dark entrance, and emerge into a sunlit courtyard. The bare earth floor is surrounded by small concrete walls and a narrow concrete walkway. Small children sit quietly, lined around the wall, awaiting our arrival. Two young women from the Netherlands sit between them. The children are clustered close, finding security in their caregivers. Two more young women enter into the space behind us. Mark makes some comments and everyone is introduced.

We are strangers. While the children warm up to us, the caregivers answer our questions. The four of them found out about the orphanage on the Internet. They were looking to volunteer for social service in an un-ordinary location. Mark hopes to entice volunteers by offering time in safari at the end of volunteering for six weeks to six months. The orphanage has only been operating for nine months and his strategy is working.

He speaks to us as he moves from one room to another. We stand along the wall in an office too small for us to sit and four children enter bringing us a breakfast of hot porridge in bright colored plastic c ups on plates and, then, quickly leave. Mark shows us around. The fifteen children, two to a room, each have their own beds that the volunteers have helped to build.

Everything is sparse. No running water. No tables, chairs or dresser drawers. The kitchen is just a room with a very large pot for the porridge. Mark talks to us quietly in an adjacent room out of earshot of the children telling us that these children are abandoned because other family members cannot afford to care for them. The center can only afford for three of the orphans to go to school. The name of the school is Ugandan for ‘grandparent,’ because when parents die, the children are taken in by the grandparents. But these children had no one to take them in. He is known as “pastor” by the community. The orphans are referred to him because people believe that he will know what to do. I was glad that we were away from the group because I couldn’t hold back the tears.

In the courtyard, everyone has a colorful cup of porridge and the mood is light. We merge into conversations in twos and threes. Before leaving, Rev. Eric, who by now was being dubbed “the sticker guy,” once again had a crowd of happy children surrounding him. One of the older boys was called to the center of the yard and was receiving praise for cooking the porridge breakfast for everyone. Eric reached into his magic backpack and extended our appreciation as he handed Robert a book of Unitarian prayers. President Sinkford was asked to give closing words. He read an opening prayer written by Rev. Rebecca Parker and ended with, “There is love all around you.”

Making our way to the next site, Mark comments that if the orphanage was a denomination other than Unitarian, it would not have survived in this location. He believes the community accepted the facility because the Unitarian message was inclusive of everyone.