A warm breeze rustled through the banana trees’ leaves as I dismounted my piki-piki and straightened my skirt. How any air was able to make it through the dense foliage in that part of the village without getting lost, I could not be sure. How we were able to make it without getting lost, I could not be sure either.
Removing my helmet, I glanced around our destination: the family home of our student, Nantale. It was not the first time we had journeyed to her home.
Nantale is quiet, but not shy. Like so many of our girls, she is strong and possesses survival instincts. We understand more of why, each time we visit her family.
As usual, it had been an exhausting ride to the far end of the village, consuming most of my mental and physical strength to complete. The rains of March created deep muddy ruts along the dirt paths, baked later by April’s hot sun — miniature canyons for my piki-piki to hit and send me flying feet over handlebars if I was not careful.
Dazed by the afternoon heat and in need of caffeine, it took me a moment to realize that something was not right as I stood looking around the familiar grove. The usually manicured garden was overgrown and the yard unkept, the rubbish pile heaping where it had not been burned for some time.
It was a sharp contrast to the home’s appearance during our previous visit, no more than one month prior. During that visit, we learned that Nantale’s mom was sick, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Maybe she was having to rest more? The younger siblings were too small to help around the house, which explained why things were less tidy than usual.
But what was more unsettling than the property’s appearance was the heavy blanket of silence that rested over the home. Where are Nantale’s younger siblings? Where are her parents?
Usually, families in the village hear of our approach and are waiting to greet us before we arrive. Sometimes it’s because we tell them in advance that we will visit to discuss their child’s progress in school. Other times, it’s because word spreads quickly that mzungus are in the village.
Nantale’s family knew we were coming. So where were they?
As we called out “abeno? abeno?” and were met with continued silence, an uneasy feeling settled over me. The place felt deserted as the surrounding foliage closed in on us.
It was only when I caught sight of the family’s neighbor that I released the breath I had unknowingly been holding. But the relief was only momentary as our translator’s facial expression and tone prepared me for bad news. It came swiftly, but that did not lighten its blow.
“This woman, she tells me that the family is not here. The sickness is too much. The mom has gone to Kampala.”
“When did the family leave?”
“Last night. Maybe 2 or 3 am.”
I closed my eyes, understanding the implications of that statement. People rarely travel at night, due to dangers on the road. For the family to go to Kampala at such a late hour meant the need was dire — the mom was dying.
God, what happens if she dies? What happens if I return home today and, instead of showing Nantale a photo of her family, I tell her that her mom is gone?
My stomach was in knots the entire ride back.
Because healthcare is unaffordable for many in Uganda, preventative care or regular check-ups are not practiced. By the time someone goes to the doctor and discovers they have cancer, it is often too late for treatment. They are kept as comfortable as possible for their remaining time on earth, which is usually not long. Nantale’s mother was diagnosed with cancer three months ago. How long did she have left?
I thought of the family’s home — a concrete block foundation with mud sides and grass roof. There was no furniture inside, only some soiled blankets that formed a pallet for the mom to spend her remaining days on. It was only a thin layer of comfort to separate her from the hard, dirt-stained floor.
The children were too young to carry much water, so there was no one to do the washing. Their few clothes laid in a pile of filth in the corner. Dishes were encrusted with layers of food from multiple meals. The home had not been mopped or swept in weeks. Produce was rotting in the garden because no one could harvest it.
I didn’t want to return to school and report to Nantale all I had seen. I couldn’t lie to her and tell her all was well at home. And I knew I needed to prepare her for the changes she would see when she returned.
At the end of this week, all 24 of our girls will return home to the village for term break. And they will remain there for three weeks until the second term of school begins.
While Nantale’s situation is unique, it remains a difficult transition for all of them. Before coming to school 10 weeks ago, some had never received three meals in one day. Many had never taken a shower (only bucket baths, when water was available). Most had never accessed tap water. To get water in the village, they had to walk kilometers to the nearest well or borehole. Almost none had seen electricity in a home.
Our girls are excited to see their families, but they also realize their days are about to look much different. Instead of digging through the pages of textbooks in classrooms, they’re going to be digging in their families’ gardens for food. Instead of taking care of their own space and personal chores, they’re going to be caring for their younger siblings. Instead of washing their dishes in the evening, they’re going to be preparing meals for the entire family.
For some like Nantale, they will also be caring for ailing parents and grandparents.
When I ask her what she feels when she thinks of going home, she doesn’t say much. But the sweet smile on her face tells me that she has been counting down the days for some time. It’s only when I ask her why she is so excited to go home that she speaks —
“So I can take care of my mum.”
For some of our girls, I worry about sending them home because I fear they will be a burden on their families and not pull their weight. Anyone who has seen the Disney movie, Queen of Katwe, might know what I’m talking about. They have been sponsored to attend a beautiful new school that offers all of the amenities they could hope for. We pray they don’t feel they are now too good to fetch water in the village.
But for some of our girls like Nantale, I worry about sending them home because I fear they will not come back to school. I fear they will remain in the village because leaving their family a second time will be too hard. Or I fear that, instead of continuing their education, they will choose to remain in the village and start their own families.
Whenever we go into town for groceries, or leave for a date on one of our days off, the girls gather around us with questioning looks in their eyes, their hands clasped together behind their backs. And then they slowly start to ask the questions plaguing their minds —
“When are you returning? When we will see you again?”
It breaks my heart to know they ask because they have been abandoned before. And it hurts me to know that we will not always return to them, but will one day leave for good. For now, we laugh with them and tell them they are silly and that we will return to them in no time at all.
Relieved that we are coming back quickly, they scatter and return to whatever was occupying them before our departure distracted.
As we prepare to say our goodbyes this week, I want to ask each of them, “when are you returning? When will I see you again?”