The black mascara I had applied hours before ran down my face as I stared out the window at the mud huts we passed.
It had been a rough day.
There it is. No grand intro to this post. Just a face covered in smeared makeup, sticky mango juice and a heaviness I could not shake off.
After buying a boda (which I’ve since learned is more accurately called a piki-piki, since our bikes are privately owned and not used as motorcycle taxies), I was determined to ride myself wherever I needed to go. The boda drivers in Jinja-town are unnerving enough to ride with. And the further you go into the villages, the more frightening they become.
Some real-life experiences from recent weeks in the village include:
- Drivers as young as 14 years of age, with no boda license.
- Teenaged boys racing each other while transporting passengers.
- Inexperienced drivers unsure of how to navigate rougher terrains, resulting in bodas falling over or sliding backwards down mountains.
- Distracted drivers checking their phones (which requires they move a hand out of reach from either the clutch, or the front brake).
But I caved and hired one anyways because I didn’t know where we were going in the village. More importantly, I couldn’t get satisfactory directions. Ugandans don’t use road names or addresses, particularly in the villages where dirt walking paths are predominately used to move from here to there. The locals use landmarks, and I wasn’t ready to test my dendrological knowledge of African trees, or my petrological knowledge of Ugandan rocks, as I navigated new territory.
The purpose of going out to the villages was to meet our students’ families before the new school term started. Because the students will be living in our home, we want their guardian(s) to know they still play a vital role in their children’s education — whether that guardian is a biological parent, a grandparent, an aunt/uncle, neighbor or older sibling. We’re not here to take over their responsibilities as caregivers. We’re here to partner with them as the children transition from primary school to secondary school, where in Uganda, they traditionally board.
I was excited to meet the families and to start a relationship with them. The first family of the day was welcoming, kind, soft-spoken and humble. Just like our previous visit to the village, we were given stools to sit on outside — seats of honor for traveling to their home.
Instead of taking bodas from home to home, we journeyed on foot through the maze of dirt walking paths, gradually weaving our way back to Amazima’s compound. Occasionally, we stopped to say hello to other families as they worked in their gardens or prepared posho for dinner.
I learned that Marta’s favorite subject is science and that she is excited to start the new school year. Jo is strong-willed, but can use her determination for good if guided properly. Susanna’s biggest desire is to get an education. Vivian is full of joy and has a contagious laugh.
Some of the students were excited to start school. Some were nervous. Some didn’t want to talk to us much, while others did. Some of the girls cared to know more about their school uniform and the dress code than their class schedule. Some wanted to know if the school would offer competitive sports? They acted like typical teenagers.
The last home we visited sat on the top of the mountain, with 360º views of the valleys and villages below. It was breathtaking, 1) because of the vista’s beauty, and 2) because we could see a very large storm heading our way.
We said our goodbyes as quickly as etiquette would allow, then we started down a steep walking path that led to the main dirt road. The downpour ensued shortly after and we started to run, hopping from one banana tree to the next, attempting to stay dry. We spent the first few minutes squealing under the weight of the surprise downpour. As we ran, we passed children dancing in puddles and joy-filled mothers. All had smiles on their faces — visible relief that the precipitation brought respite from the current drought.
Our own smiles were not quite so big, but we eventually embraced the rain and accepted that we would be thoroughly drenched by the time we arrived back at Amazima’s compound, a few miles away from the first home we visited. We slowed our pace to a brisk walk to avoid falling in the thick mud that was rapidly forming on the road.
Makeup running down my cheeks, we reached our other teammates (who somehow managed to escape the storm unscathed). After finding shelter, I pulled out a mango gifted from one of the families in the village. I was planning to wash it when I arrived home before eating, but I figured it had been adequatelywashed in the downpour. It was a small mango, no larger than a lemon, and I was told I could eat the peel. Ravenous, I finished it off in a few bites, leaving sticky juice all over my face but having no energy left to care.
As we started a muddy drive back to campus, I watched the rain continue to slide down the vehicle’s windows. A heaviness set in as I reflected on our students’ struggles — or at least the struggles they felt comfortable enough to share that afternoon. I tried to shake it but found I couldn’t.
I was feeling powerless to help the girls.
I was exhausted from our walk.
I was chilled from the rain.
I was hungry.
All I wanted to do was escape to the sanctuary of our home and take a hot shower and make dinner and sleep.
But when I returned home, the power was out (again). The heavy precipitation and overcast afternoon had diluted the water in our rain-catching-solar-heated-tank so that it was only a degree or two above frigid. And although we have solar-powered lanterns to illuminate our apartment during the outages, they do not provide ample light for safely slicing and dicing food for dinner.
I prayed out of exhaustion for the energy and strength and positive attitude to make it through the rest of the week, as it was just beginning. Amazima was hosting a youth conference in Buziika for nearly 300 children in its programs, and we were helping with it. God gave me just enough to make it through.
On the night before the conference ended, several teammates (who were equally as exhausted as I was) suggested we treat ourselves to take-out pizza. As the day drew to an end, a few teammates ran into Jinja-town to pick up the pies and bring them over to our place to hang out as we scarfed down dinner at 9 pm.
Naturally, we all started complaining about how tired we were. I made a comment to Jackie (my Ugandan partner who helps me navigate through culture and language barriers) that I wasn’t sure how the kids had so much energy each day?
She said she didn’t know either, because their days were much longer than ours.
Because, in addition to dancing and singing with more enthusiasm than the mzungus, the children woke up much earlier than we did, and went to bed much later.
Because, in addition to running faster and harder during games, they walked for miles and miles each morning to get to Amazima. Then they walked for miles and miles to return home in the evening.
Because, in addition to joking with each other unceasingly and goofing around and laughing and being lighthearted, the children were still expected to carry the weight of household responsibilities. Since they were unable to complete their chores during the day while attending the youth conference, they worked in gardens and cleaned and fetched water and looked after younger siblings when they returned home each evening.
I was at a loss for words as I reflected on the sacrifices they made to come to the conference. They wanted to be there so badly that they were willing to make life even harder than it already was, just to be present.
What sacrifices are we willing to make here?
Unfortunately, it’s easy to think that making personal sacrifices and selling everything we own to move abroad is the hard part of living overseas. The reality is, the sacrifices didn’t end once we got here. We will have to continue making sacrifices daily.
I might not get that hot shower after being chilled by the rain.
I might not be able to cook that special dinner so carefully pre-planned in my head.
I might not have Internet for that Skype date with friends and family.
I might not have electricity to see at night.
It's only when I stop focusing on the “I” — all of the sacrifices I am making here, all of the good things I am doing, how helpful I am being — and start focusing on why we’re here that I can answer the question, is it worth the rough days?
* * * * *
A note from Sarah:
To protect the privacy of Amazima's families, we will not be using their legal names in blog posts. Unless we have permission to publish their story, aliases will be used.