It was only 9 am and I was exhausted and wondering why the clock refused to move forward. I had been awake for over three and a half hours, but it felt like it should have been early afternoon. Why am I so tired?
Then I reminded myself that I successfully got 24 teenaged girls up, ready for school (that’s 24 girls sharing two showers, mind you), finished with chores and fed breakfast.
I truly love it. As I slip on a pair of sandals and step out onto our verandah each morning at 6 am, I’m met with the most beautiful sunrise. Quickly to follow comes the hushed greetings of our early risers.
“Good morning, Auntie Sarah.”
“Auntie Sarah, how was your rest?”
“When will I see you today, Auntie Sarah?”
The ones who are slower to rise head off to the showers in the later shifts. Scurrying along our sidewalk in their towels (something quite normal and acceptable here), they pause and stand still as they greet me.
By the time the sun peeks over our neighboring hill to the east, they are off to class. Somedays, they are sleepy. Somedays, they are singing as I send them off. But every day, their wishes for me to have a good day echo off the locally made bricks that form our house.
Around 4 pm, I can hear their laughter before I can see them on the sidewalk, returning home. Usually, I’m sitting on the verandah, waiting to welcome them. They tell me all they’ve learned and which class was their favorite that day. Well over half reply “history,” which makes me proud of “Mr. Gabriel” and Mr. Jeff, Gabriel’s Ugandan teaching partner.
Last Thursday was a holiday — Arch Bishop Day. But a holiday at Amazima means the offices are closed, the teachers are off, and the houseparents are all hands on deck.
After completing regular morning chores, Gabriel showed our girls how to use The Mzungu Machine. Skeptical, they threw a stained towel into the first load. Gabriel set up his iPod and speaker and selected an upbeat playlist. He showed the girls how to push the barrel back and forth to create sudsy water for the clothes.
Laughter erupted when he started swaying his hips to a song, telling them they could do "The Mzungu Machine Dance” while they washed clothes (if they felt so inclined). He instructed them to listen to two songs while they pushed the barrel, then empty the soapy water and refill with clean water. They were to push the barrel with clean water for two additional songs before removing the clean clothes.
Humoring him, they followed the instructions, still skeptical of The Mzungu Machine’s powers. But when the “rinse cycle” was complete and they removed the stained towel to find there was no longer a stain on the fabric, a wave of excitement swept across the verandah. Seconds later, a line started to form and the girls eagerly awaited their turn to use the machine.
During the morning’s free time, we introduced the girls to ENO hammocks. It was difficult to detect whether they were more excited about the washing machine, or having something to hang out in on our verandah.
Gabriel walked them through the steps of setting up the hammocks, assisting them along the way. When it came time to actually get into them, there was an impregnated pause as they girls were nervous and couldn’t decide who would be first.
Their fears were quickly put to rest as the first girl mustered the courage to sit in the hanging parachute fabric. Giggling as it swallowed her, the others quickly moved to set up the second hammock, seeing how much fun it could be. Their smiles stretched from ear to ear.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on our verandah and down by the football (soccer) fields. Just before dinner, a storm blew through campus.
The storm knocked the power out, simultaneously knocking out our scheduled evening program. After everyone finished off dinner bowls heaped with beans and rice, we returned to our verandah. We didn’t have anything organized or scheduled or planned. For a moment I panicked, worrying about how we would fill the large expanse of free time that stretched out before us. But I forgot who I was married to.
My dearest husband retreated inside our house and returned with four solar-powered lights. Hanging them above our heads on the verandah, the 26 of us sat under their warm glow. Next, Gabriel retrieved photo albums of our travels and family and life together.
The girls surrounded Gabriel as he told them the stories behind each photo — like the time he was adopted by Waka, an Aboriginal Chief in the Northern Territory of Australia. Or the time Waka took him spear fishing and caught a Pacific Barracuda on the first throw.
The girls were amazed to hear that Gabriel was "adopted" by a non-mzungu. Some of them shared stories of their own failed adoptions, or how their siblings were adopted by Americans while they were left here in Uganda.
As we shared the world with them through our eyes (and photos), they began to share the world with us through their eyes. Staring at a photo of a market in Ecuador, they pointed out blankets and discussed how cold they were (in our freezing 73ºF evening), and how evenings in Uganda will become even more “cold” when it starts raining in March.
A photo of our Japanese friends walking through the golden leaves of Hokkaido's autumn continued the conversation of seasons, and everyone discussed their favorite months of the year.
Looking at a market in Taiwan, one student noticed cassava for sell — a root Ugandans often eat. The girls told us of other favorite Ugandan foods. A dish captured from our time in Nicaragua featured fried plantains, and we exchanged recipes with each other. The idea of frying a plantain, then smashing it, then frying it again, was a novelty to the girls. But they all agreed it sounded good, and something worth trying.
I took a moment and stepped back from the group. Seven of our girls hovered around Gabriel — The Storyteller — two of them cheek to cheek with him, staring at the photos and enraptured by the tales he told. Others were scattered around the verandah within earshot. They joined in the conversation from time to time, too.
This is why we’re here. To simply live life with these girls.
We can say we’ve come to Uganda for this reason or that — to care for children, to learn their stories, to help them in their studies, to guide them, to give them the opportunity and tools to be successful. Those are great things, and they are things we will do while we are here.
But we’re not here to schedule time to get to know the students, or strategically plan how we are going to build relationships with them. Relationships are organic and there’s no recipe or magic formula to make them happen. They are not something to be measured or take pride in.
Most importantly, relationships take time.
It’s only when we are still and let life happen with the students — when we are our imperfect selves and love them despite their own imperfections — that we will naturally form authentic relationships.
One week down. Many more to go. But let's not count or rush this precious time away — let's enjoy it for what it is.