Smiles and a Chance-Aiding the children of the Ugandan Slums
After waking up this morning to the sounds of roosters whaling and the sun slowing rising over the distant hill, I was happy to arise to the colors of the sunrise after my first night in Uganda. The sudden reality that hits you when you arrive again in a third world country sometimes doesn’t truly sink in until you see it with your own eyes and the overwhelming realization how little your complaints matter in the Western world.
Uganda was named the “Pearl of Africa”after Winston Churchill’s famed book, “My African Journey,” due to it’s glorious natural scenery. Although the landscape is magnificent, it is also a pearl because of the humbleness of its people. Shy, giving and accommodating, they are raised to be extremely polite, greet guests with open arms, especially tourists and show overwhelming gratuity when necessary. As a strong Christian society, they believe their faith will help them through the hard times and to be grateful for all that you have. That as long as they pray and our grateful, that is all that truly matters.
As I have been to many third world countries in Latin America, Uganda may have made an even greater cultural impact on me. As it fits the third world mold with run down dirt roads, little running water, scarce resources, shopping centers that look like lines of outhouses and stacks of tiny open doored slums that topple over one another, there is still something more eye opening.
What seems unbearable living conditions to most Westerners, is just normal life for the local community who is working hard to make the best with what they have.
Though it is human nature to want more, the community still has a basic version of everything needed in our current world. Although, what is considered “basic” is very different from our “basic.” but a part of everyday life. A local doorless salon with its concrete room and three dirty chairs, is just a salon. The mobile phone store, is a phone store and the doctors office with the plastic table clothes, plastic chairs and no door, is just the doctors office. Nevertheless, the accurate reality is that many Ugandans don’t have access to these very basics, especially children.
There is a large population in Uganda, where a toothbrush is the best gift they have received in their life and getting your hair done is a massive “luxury.” The harsh reality in the pictures we see from a far of the African slums, does exist. The children have never learned to bathe themselves, they have worn the same ripped clothes for months and have never owned a pair of shoes. Hence, the reason why I wanted to come and help. Not just to help bring the gift of health, hygiene and basic care, but the care of education and learning. However, the beauty of coming to volunteer with the children of Uganda, is that they were going to teach me more than I was going to teach them, even just on the first day. That simplicity and happiness is a gift, which was the biggest lesson I was about to learn.
I came to Uganda because there was nothing more in the world I wanted more than to teach the underprivileged children of Africa while accomplishing my childhood dream of walking in Diane Fossey’s footsteps. I was able to connect with a fantastic organization which helps deliver education, hygiene, food and just play time to the children of the Kampala slums. It is an amazingly well organized society which is driven to give these kids as fighting chance for a better life.
As today was my primary initiation into the program, it was also going to be a true introduction into the local slums. I had seen a preview of Ugandan life through the society’s car windows the night before but as a Parisian girl coming from a world of overindulgence, I wanted to be part of something humbling. Something that would help truly change the lives of others who really needed it and that meant going directly to the neighborhoods were the help was needed.
As a typical “Mazunga” arriving from the luxuries of my Parisian world, I was hosted by the organization in a beautiful guesthouse full with drivers, housekeepers and security guards because it is best to be protected at all times. Although, it made my feel more secure, it sometimes made me feel more alone.
After, being introduced to the incredibly humble,caring and welcoming staff at the main offices, I was taken for a tour of the local area outside the compound. Majority of the upper class homes here have barbed wire a top the outside wall, security guards and big gates but outside is the defining separation of classes. Garbage in many neighborhoods is thrown and stacked for months and children in poorer areas can’t afford to go to school so they work with their parents or older siblings.
It was a sunny day out today and even though I was the only “Mazunga” (whitey) for 40 miles, I was ok. I had the club’s staff with me and all they could say was, “The kids are going to be so excited to see you, they will want to be all around you.” Seeing a white person or anyone else of another color, is like seeing the shiny white horse from a story book come through their universe and all they want to do is touch you. The run and gather around you because you are a rare new being. They call, white people, “Mazunga” and as I was noticed in every car, the funny part was it wasn’t “Hi Mazunga” it was “Bye, bye Manzunga” with a big wave and a smile. I had never felt so privileged to be a part of someone’s world.
When heading to the my first slum in the area of Kutunga to discover the classroom, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming hospitality that I was to receive from the community. As I entered the small, doorless concrete classroom, full of children ages, about 3-12, I felt a warmth I had never felt before. The smiles on their faces reflected off mine and we couldn’t stop looking into one another’s eyes. Then, the most incredible thing happened as the teacher made them stand up and say simultaneously, “You are most welcome!” (Ugandans, say, “You’re Welcome” to greet you not just after “Thank you.”) I was blown away!
I couldn’t say anything as I was about to burst into tears. As water filled my eyes and I tried to hold back the drops from steaming down my face, the staff member said, “They are welcoming you!” I know, I just need a minute. I have never felt so loved and so amazed by the hospitality of someone welcoming into their home. A moment that was unforgettable.
Majority, of the children had extremely ripped and dirty clothes, many without shoes and little hygiene. One child I noticed, a small young boy with a half torn shirt, held a dirty toothbrush as if it was a blankie and by far the most valuable thing in his world. What is the most incredible thing out of all this is that these children come to this classroom on their own. They are excited to be given an opportunity to learn and once you provide a child an opportunity, they will take it. That forcing them to learn is not always the answer, which is something that we sometimes take for granted in Western society.
I was initially supposed to observe today and prepare for tomorrow but before I knew it, I heard ok, “I will leave you with them.” Wait, what? Completely unprepared I just started reviewing all the basic ESL lessons I teach my children back in France. The older children especially, had a substantial English language base which was great to discover. We sang the classic children’s song “Old MacDonald” and before I knew it was time to go. It was a bit difficult at certain moments to keep the children organized due the environment of the class structure, but it was exciting to see the overwhelming amount of anxious hands that sky rocketed up when it was time to show their knowledge.
The children were very smart with outstanding potential. At one point I asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Many children burst out, “a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer.” Others had alternate dreams, “a gatekeeper, a flight attendant.” Although, my favorite might have been the child who shouted, “I want to be a cat.” Whatever you want to be, we all have dreams! Nonetheless, the one who made the lasting impression on me was a young girl who shyly raised her hand and said, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” A statement that will stay in my heart forever.
Today, was an emotional but eye opening day. The vision we see of African children suffering in the slums, is a very harsh reality. They are trying to survive in a tough world but the bottom line of this reality is, that no matter what resources a kid has, a kid is just a kid. That all children love to give high fives, play football, imagine their future, laugh at jokes, color and just play like all kids are entitled to. They are eager to learn and want to be given the chance to have a better life for themselves, just like the rest of us. As for this “Mazunga”, I can’t wait to be a kid with them again tomorrow and dream for a better future.