by Gena Thomas
Five days ago feels like an eternity away -- that dirt-floored and fabric-doored house is cultures and ions away from where I sit now. A carpeted airport with Iphones, laptops and refrigerated show-cased food are all within my arms reach. But in my mind, I'm walking through the slum-- a word my friend, Moussa, snubs at. There are seven of us on a Sunday morning following each other through the tightly packed "houses" made of tin, mud and fabrics. We pass a large group of men playing a board game that reminds me of Parchesi. They make bets. "Hello," one calls at me. And then another chimes in. "Hello. Mzungu. Hey. Hello." I keep walking, pretending their stares and words do nothing to me. Moussa turns around and smiles at me. He puts his arm around my shoulder and points at several freshly chopped fish heads on a makeshift counter to my left. "Are you hungry?" he laughs. I'm thankful he's smiling. I'm thankful his skin is the same color as the men playing Parchesi. I'm thankful he's looking out for me.
We walk ahead, passing a hair dresser shop on the left.
Three chairs, mirrors, combs and scissors inside. A man is getting his hair cut. The woman cutting it is laughing louder than Adele's Rumor Has It in the background. The ground is so uneven, and there are so many people walking to and fro that I must pay attention to keep up. Women on the right are washing clothes in a tub. One woman washes her screaming 8-month-old. "Mzungu," little children call out to us. They come and grab our hands, easing our hearts as we internalize all the public staring. Underneath soaking wet clothes dripping on a line pitched between two houses, we walk like ducks in a row. Chickens walk next to us reminding us how follow-the-leader works.
We walk to a dead end where fifteen children line the outside of one child's house. Our leader, Ivan, has brought us to see where and how the children live. I cannot make it inside the first house because there are too many kids. Two girls are fighting over me in Luganda. "She's my friend," says one. "No she's mine," says the other. Moussa informs me of the conversation as one girl stands up and takes my hand. She starts pushing her fingers against each of my fingernails-- I wonder if she realizes how deep her touch travels and unravels my soul.
Later, Ivan tells us that some of these children are born out of prostitution. He tells us that one 9-year-old girl was recently raped on her way to school. He tells us how he feels bad because he had made funds available for her to go to school. We visit five houses. We meet five mothers and several aunts. There are no fathers around. I walk into house number two, directly adjacent to the first one. The mother is holding two baby twins, maybe five months old. She happily welcomes us in her home -- a one room, dark and dingy place with sheets hanging up to divide the "bedroom" from the front room. There is no furniture. There is no bed. Five of us can barely fit inside. The child smiles with delight that we are in his house. Ivan tells us he's not sure the twins will live past five. "Malnutrition," he says. My heart sinks, and I think about my own son, only months older than these twins. How would I feel if such a fate was pronounced on him? "It's a crime against humanity," says my South African friend Lloyd.
Indeed I agree. But who are the advocates? The change-makers? The lawyers that will defend humanity? And where do we start? We walk back toward the main, path ducking laundry and passing ducks. We take lots of pictures with all the children. One grabs my camera and asks to take a picture with it. I keep my hands on it as she takes a shot. We say goodbye to some of them. Others remain in our shadows. As we walk away, a stranger about 13 years old bumps hard into me. Immediately I wonder what to do. Should I chase him? Expose him? Change getting lost in this place?
I decide my camera isn't worth it. I decide I would steal too if I were in his shoes -- or at least be heavily tempted to bump hard into others to find pocket treasures. We keep walking. My anger turns to understanding and then to self-reflection. Why did I put the camera in my back pocket? How stupid was I? Why do I feel violated? Ignorant? Powerless?
Now I wonder: my thoughts were rare and in that moment foreign to me, but are those daily and normal thoughts for these children, for these women? I got to leave. I said goodbye to that place. Long after I write this story, long after everyone reads it and forget it -- they are still there. They are still being violated, feeling ignorant and personifying powerlessness. Who will stand for those women and children? Who will teach that 13-year-old boy there is a better, more abundant life than one of pick-pocketing? Who will teach those men how to be leaders and examples? Who will put their arm around these and lead them laughter?
God has blessed my family with enough money to be able
to invest in the life of Asha, an 11 year old orphan, and I had
the opportunity to travel to Uganda and meet her.I went as a
volunteer with UYSA for one month. During this time I stayed
with the family of Ivan Kakembo, who arranged everything
(transportation, food, laundry, etc.). It was such an amazing
experience to be able to live in a whole different culture. A
culture where I have heard stories about and seen pictures of,
but actually experiencing it first-hand had a whole new impact
on my life.I decided to go to Uganda not only to meet the
precious girl who has now become a part of my family, but also
to make a difference to some of the other children who live in
the slum. But the truth is, these children had just as much of
an impact on my life as I did on theirs. Just being there with the
children and showing them love meant the world to them. They
had so little, but they were still so full of joy. I am thankful for
this opportunity I had to spend a month of my life with these
children and I hope to be able to go back and visit all the
friends I made there.