I stood at the edge of the dirt road, clenching the hem of my skirt and fighting to not choke on the thick, midday air that hung over Buziika.
The red dust covers everything. Our feet are stained, my skin a permanent shade of burnt orange. It rises and falls, recycled by the bodas’ tires.
I could see two of them approaching through the red haze. One for Gabriel and I, one for Rhonda and Marion — two of our co-workers. The motorcycle-taxies halted only feet away from where we stood, covering my exposed ankles with a new layer of dust. Marion negotiated price with the drivers while my sweaty palms continued to hold my long skirt in a death grip.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t think twice about hopping on the back of a motorcycle and taking off. And if it was my own motorcycle? I wouldn’t think twice about not thinking twice.
But that day we went into the village to visit some of the families in Amazima’s program. As part of our training, Amazima thought we should see the communities where our students are from.
There are only a few rules when visiting the village:
- Girls must wear long skirts. Boys must wear long pants. All must wear closed shoes (mainly for protection from jiggers).
- No photos are allowed. We cannot take cameras, or even our phones. This is to protect the families’ privacy, as we are there to form relationships with them, not photo albums.
- We must take bodas to the village, not our large mzungu bus.
I didn’t put together the first rule (long skirt) with the last rule (motorcycle-taxi), until it was almost time to leave. Suddenly, I had flashbacks of trying to ride a bicycle in a skirt in Japan. If you weren’t around to read the blog at that time, you can probably guess it didn’t end well.
It also didn’t help that another co-worker shared a horror story about the time her skirt was ripped off of her body, after it was caught in the boda's wheels.
But, tugende! The excitement of meeting some of our students’ families was enough for me to swallow lingering fear of riding a motorcycle in a skirt. I reached between my legs and regathered the fabric in a fist. I pulled it forward, between my knees — only high enough to allow me to straddle the boda without exposing too much of my scandalous knees, and scoot up on its seat behind the driver. Gabriel quickly hopped on behind me, and the three of us took off, leaving the (now familiar) trail of red dust in our wake.
We rode east along dirt roads until there was no road left. Then we dismounted and walked along the footpaths that led through the village. Marion pointed out a few sights along the way — handmade bricks, drying in the sun; banana trees and coffee plants in small, dusty gardens; a hen and her chicks, digging in piles of trash for grub.
Children giggled and shouted mzungu! Mzungu! As we passed. Everyone hid from the midday sun in the shade of their huts. A few sat beneath the banana trees, hoping the trees’ leaves might catch a breeze. The women did chores as they sat. We did not see any men, save a few gathered under the shade of a hut, circling a game of parcheesi. As we passed, I caught the sweet but sharp smell of homemade alcohol.
When we arrived at the last two huts in the village, an old woman emerged from the shade and fell to her knees to greet us. She grabbed our hands and hugged our waists before standing and going inside her hut. A minute later, she returned with four mismatched stools — one for Gabriel, one for Rhonda, one for Marion, one for myself.
We were told this would likely happen, and we would be given a “seat of honor” during our visit. They told us we should also accept, so we sat, slightly uncomfortable at the discrimination between our seating and that of our hostess, who sat in the dirt with her family. But the seat was all she had to offer us — a thank you for traveling to her village — and we did not want to offend.
The woman’s name is Kamali. She is a mother to eight and a grandmother to five more. Like many Ugandan women, she raised the children on her own. Some are biologically hers while others had no where else to go, so she brought them into her home.
Marion translated for us, explaining that Kamali's husband left many, many years ago. He would return, long enough for another child to be born, before disappearing once more. Marion said Kamali was hardworking, and even owned a cow, a few banana trees, and two coffee plants. The plants did not produce enough for her to sell, only to help feed hungry mouths.
Kamali explained this season was very hard. The rains never came, making the harvest little. Food prices will increase, and many will be forced to eat one meal less a day. Her village’s well is drying, and the family can no longer gather water from it. She sent her children far away, before our arrival, to fetch water from another area, so that the family might have some for drinking and cooking.
Despite her hardships, she had a beautiful smile and a beautiful heart and a welcoming spirit.
After sitting with Kamali, we visited her neighbor, another jjaja (grandmother) with a child in Amazima’s program. This jjaja, called Bacia, also fell to her knees and thanked us for visiting. She was sick, and had sent her grandson to fetch water and firewood.
Marion explained to us that the grandson’s parents both died of HIV, but that the grandson has not tested positive. We were amazed to hear other stories like this and realized how far medicine has come, that parents with HIV might still have children without the disease affecting the child. I think in the States, we often have the misconception that to be diagnosed with HIV is to receive a death sentence, and many fear it.
Bacia, like her child and child's spouse, was also HIV positive. As we hugged her goodbye, I realized she is the first person I have knowingly met to have it.
We prayed with both of the women — for their families, for their health and for the rains to come — before we walked back up the footpath and caught bodas to Amazima’s office in Buziika.
It can be difficult, seeing the poverty here. But it is also wonderful to know these families have hope of a better future, as their children go off to receive a good education at The Amazima School.
It is also wonderful knowing I successfully rode a boda in a skirt. We will return to the village next week, and I can rest easy knowing it is doable. We also get to meet some of our students this week! School is still a month away from starting, and there is much for us to learn and do until then.
* * * * *
A note from Sarah:
To further protect the privacy of Amazima's families, we will not be using their actual names in blog posts. Unless we have permission to share their story, aliases will be used.