Kuhindo Rogers

IMG_0036Rogers passed away on Wednesday.

I met Rogers the first time I went to Uganda, in 2008.  He was in his young teens then, but he seemed like a little boy.  He was partially paralysed on one side, from birth, and socially awkward, and he always navigated the outside of the group.  He was gentle and dogged, always finding his way to the side of one of the Canadians.  When he was hugged, he beamed from the inside out, like he was warm for the first time.

He was in the project because he came from a very poor family, and a child who can’t dig is no good in a village that survives on subsistence farming.

Rogers didn’t do well in school, and didn’t carry on “normal” conversations. For a while, when he was young, he fantasized about becoming a traffic policeman when he was older.  He loved the idea of the uniform.

One of the other kids bullied him sometimes, and I still harbour low key animosity toward that kid.

As Rogers got older, we realized he wasn’t going to be able to follow a vocational pathway like the other kids.  He couldn’t focus on learning anything, but he had a strange persistence, would get fixated on wanting things.  “Auntie, please buy for me an ipod.”  He was a constant source of worry for us — how could he look after himself?  How could he even navigate life?

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A few years ago, I spent a few days in Kampala as a side trip after I did some work in Kenya, and I sort of impulsively asked Gabriel and Tina to bring a few of the boys to hang out in the city.  Rogers was one of the four.  They got to stay in a hotel for the first time, watch a soccer game on TV, eat in a restaurant.  I asked Gabriel to go buy them bathing suits so they could swim in the pool at my fancy hotel.  Gabriel thought bathing suits needed to have tops and bottoms, so he got them “girls” and boys bathing suits.  The boys looked like sparkly gymnasts and — even though they were teenagers — splashed with absolute delight in the pool.

I tried to teach Rogers how to swim, holding his dense and heavy little body so he could move his arms and legs as well as they could.  He could manage a stroke or two, but then if he leaned onto his troubled side, he tipped into the water.  I caught before he sank and we did it again and again.  It was the only time I ever heard him laugh.

A few months later, he disappeared from his school.  Gabriel and Tina found him in his family’s village, seeing demons and terrified, being “smoked” by the local healer.  There were stories of him trying to throw himself into a river.  Our hearts were raw.

When we got to the project for our annual visit, he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was heavily medicated.  He moved slowly, talked through fog.  I traveled with him and Gabriel two hours to Mbarara to talk to a psychiatrist who had trained in England.  She was kind, but there were few resources except monthly visits to her to adjust his meds.  The mental health hospital was nice and clean, but the rooms where people stayed were empty cells, a bed and nothing else.  It was not an answer.

We spent hours that week trying to find social services or somewhere to place him where he could live in community as he got older.  Everyone focused on trying to sensitize his family, the people around him on how to look after him.

He didn’t really have a family.

The meds made him in turn catatonic and volatile.  His fixations grew — he demanded a necklace, sunglasses, a watch, a passport.  We joked that he was trying to turn himself into a spy, trying to put together a disguise.  He did, clearly, want to climb out of his skin, his body, into another life.

He focused on wanting to become a tailor.  We found another student to live with him and be his companion, and he trained as a tailor.  He was extremely proud of learning to sew, but his arms and hands worked better with the knitting machine.  We rented him one, and when we went to Uganda in May 2017, he proudly gifted us sweaters he’d knitted for us.

On that trip, Rogers walked with me up the hill to the hotel in Kasese where we were staying.  We talked about what it means to have schizophrenia in Canada, what it means to take medicine forever.  Like so many people, he couldn’t hold onto the fact that he only felt better because he was taking his meds — he thought he was cured.  I tried to help him understand that the medication made his brain better. “Auntie, can I meet other people like me?”  I asked Gabriel to help, knowing it likely wouldn’t happen.

He had a skill, but the shape around his life was still full of gaps and holes.  Our project isn’t designed for people to live there long-term — we don’t even have permanent space for the kids anymore.  Our purpose is to get the kids to a self-sufficient place where they can launch themselves.  But what to do about a young man who can’t look after himself?

Whenever we gave something to Rogers — whether it was a hat or a knitting machine — he would lose it or give it away.  For someone more stable, we would have bought him some equipment to set up a small stall in a market.  But he needed a supportive group of people around him.

We set him up on a rented machine in someone else’s shop in a place near his family’s village.  But — things happened.  He stopped taking his meds, or stopped coming, or got distracted.  In the murky way of Ugandan stories, we learned he wasn’t there anymore, but didn’t know where he was.

Then last week, Gabriel got a call from his uncle that he had died.

He was in his village, and he got sick, and the family spirits took hold of him, and he developed paralysis on his other side, and he died.  No one had called Gabriel to tell him Rogers was sick.

Gabriel traveled to his village, but missed the burial.  He was buried with no coffin, just a pile of soil.  Gabriel paid for someone to dig a proper grave, and bought Rogers’ grandmother some food, as the mourners had eaten all that she had.

Life is hard enough for young men with mobility issues and schizophrenia in Canada.  In Uganda, Rogers’ survival into his 20s was only because he was surrounded by the Nikibasika community, by the support of the Canadians.

All Rogers wanted from this world was to feel like he belonged, to feel loved.  We held him tightly in our hearts.  I hope he felt that.

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From CBD Melbourne to Phillips Island (87 km + a ferry)

So I was in yoga class at the beginning of November feeling a yearning to do … something. “What do I want to be doing right now more than anything?… Riding my bike somewhere warm.”

My defining image of perfect riding was my trip across Latvia and Estonia last year — carrying everything I need and nothing more, by myself, with a clear, ambitious and doable route through land I’d never seen before. The perfect balance of serendipity and enough planning that I’m not anxious about where I’m going to sleep that night. I pondered possibilities and landed on Australia — and me being me, I had the bike and the flight booked within 3 days.

Yesterday was the first riding day, from the centre of Melbourne to this little seaside town on Phillips Island. I rode 87 km in total, the first part entirely along the sea, me and my ponderous load mixed in with the whip-fast pelotons of Sunday morning riders from Melbourne. The whole ride was absolute joy — and a fiddly pain in the ass in three ways.

First, I overpacked. I had packed up everything I didn’t need and dropped it off at the hotel I’m staying at when I get back the day before. But as I crammed everything into my panniers at 7 am, I realized I had taken a lot of “nice to haves.” I ended up unpacking every little case and removing one thing from each packing cube and putting it in a plastic bag and leaving it at my hotel. I still took the yoga mat, which was an emblem of reassuring myself I would keep bending my body as I pushed it hard. I regretted that when it took two guys and me to life my bike up the steps at the ferry later on.

The second difficult was — predictably — that I haven’t ridden more than 20 km since August. I haven’t even spun that much, and I have had this respiratory thing for weeks. A few hours into my ride my asthma was very flared up, and I was tired. So tired. But less than I expected, and a few bursts from my inhaler and a good sleep took care of that.

The biggest pain was trying to figure out where I was going. I have this app from the people I hired the bike from that gives all of these routes that aim to keep you on bike paths as much as possible. In theory, it’s fantastic — but in reality, it’s kind of a fiddly pain in the ass. It doesn’t give verbal directions, and I found the turn by turn instructions impenetrable — and the little plastic thing on top of my front pannier didn’t let me poke my phone through it, so there was a lot of stopping and consulting and calculating directions.

I got a bit lost trying to find the seaway path in Melbourne to begin with, then stopped dozens of times to determine if I was on the right track, and dozens more to contend with stile-like blocks to the path to slow you down at train tracks, to keep motorbikes off, and as the bike paths crossed busy roads. I was aiming to get to the little ferry to Phillips Island by the 315 sailing, and in the last hour before that, found myself in a melange of bike path, parking lots and what appeared to be a dog and person tiny path winding along the bay. At that point I said fuck it, closed the cycling app and google mapped my way to the ferry, most of which was on bike lanes on a busy road anyway. And got to the ferry in time — except I’d read it wrong and had missed the sailing by 15 minutes. Time for crisps and a cheese sandwich and a conversation with a man who appeared to have dementia who had lived in Alberta and who — with egg sandwich on his face — kept literally saluting me as a glorious Canadian.

Putting myself alone on a bike in Australia is like a signal for people to be nice to me. A lovely couple who took my photo at my first coffee stop. The Sunday riders when I stopped at one of their coffee haunts to eat my first lunch and use the toilet. The lady in the snack kiosk at the ferry pier. The ferry guy who let me get on the ferry too early for my sailing (an unnecessary round trip before mine) and didn’t charge me for the second ride so I could lie down on deck and semi-nap. The overworked woman at my hotel who kept saying “good on ya!” and put my bike into the linen room to keep it safe. All of the people who helped me lift my bike up and down the steps to the ferry. The woman who gave me my glass of wine at the bar and cheered me on. By the end of the day, I was completely knackered but completely happy, hair flying out as I gained on the ferry.

I went to sleep at 830 and slept for 10 hours, grateful to be across from the sea, grateful for a short ride today, grateful to be among people who are so happy at the beginning of their summer holidays, grateful for my body doing what I want it to do.

Cholpon-Ata (Kyrgyzstan)

The world nomad games people made us a helpful vocabulary brochure.

Rather than the usual “how much does this cost” or “where is the toilet?”, this implies one might encounter a lot of police.

There are actually police or soldiers every 50m but they seem to mostly be standing in the sun dehydrating and keeping people off the roads when dignitaries speed by.

Last night we had to stand in a throng waiting patiently to get into the stadium for the opening ceremonies while Erdogan arrived to claim pride of position as Turkey was announced as the next host of the nomad games.

The opening ceremonies were moving and sweet, telling the story of Kyrgyzstan and the fusing of the power of people, horses, eagles over time. Storytelling and resilience.

I still can’t place Kyrgyzstan in my internal categories. I don’t have a way to interpret Central Asia except Not-Europe, Not-SE Asia, Not-China, Not-India. Post-soviet infrastructure, arid valleys, mountains everywhere, yurts, horses, women in babushkas and small hijabs, bargaining over cheap taxi fares, fat smiling babies, kindness. People try to practice their English and are kind.

None of the apparent menace the vocabulary implies. Even with the president’s yacht in the background of this sunset.

Running on the road to Kilembe

On my last morning in kasese I go for a short walk with smith to talk about what he will put in his proposal for a loan for the clinic he has an opportunity to partner on, and then I go for a run.

There is a charity run for cancer going on, but I head away from town, down the road to kilembe, one of the most beautiful places in the world.

As I plod up the slight but long hill out of town, three children join me. We run in unison, smiling and giggling at each other. We throw our arms up in joy when we hop over the humps in the road.

Sometimes children run with me when I travel, but usually only for a minute or so. These ones stay with me until we can stop and look at the rwenzori mountains.

I pause and drink, ask their names. Zavier, Juliet, Kenneth. We all laugh and smile at each other.

They think I’m done and start to walk back and a young man asks if he can talk to me. “It is so rare to meet a whites person here.” His name is Augustus and he tells me he is trying to start a small business, has a degree from makere, apologizes for not being dressed smart to meet me. He tells me his dream is to marry a white woman because he likes the way we think. I wonder how many white women he knows.

I wish him well with his dream and head back to town, downhill this time. My three companions join me again, then two older girls. I unplug my earphones and play music for us all, African drum inspired Zumba music and then the Nunavut band the Jerry Cans. We grin at each other and sing the chorus.

At kepp, they peel off, still running, shouting bye! I jog into town, ready for my long journey.

The introduction

Today, about 25 members of Tina’s family — and a whole lot of chickens, and one random bunny — were scattered around the Nikibasika house, taking selfies of their wedding hair-dos, sitting on the steps, sleeping in tents.

 

Tomorrow is the wedding, here in Kasese.  All I know is that it starts at the church at 10 am, and will go for at least 7 hours, and I need to make a speech.  And Tina has two dresses, which she hired.  I know this because I sat next to them in the van for 11 hours yesterday.

The introduction — on Wednesday, in Kampala — was also a completely new experience.  I knew that an introduction precedes a wedding, and that it’s the formal time that the two families officially meet each other.  I knew I should wear a traditional Ugandan dress — a gomesi, because that’s what Tina’s Iteso tribe wears – and that’s it.

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The flow is highly ritualized, with the woman’s family gathering early, seated under a tent on one side of the grounds, eating a buffet and gathering all of the “maids” in their different dresses.  Tina told me to arrive at 1.  Gabriel told me 2 was fine.  I arrived at 2 and Calvin’s family didn’t come until 4.

The arrival is carefully choreographed, with the groom’s family walking slowly toward the grounds, greeted by the maids who pin ribbons on them.  There is an MC, and music, and a spokesperson for each side.  Gabriel spoke for the groom’s side, and a man I don’t know for the bride’s.  The bride’s spokesperson tells the groom’s that they have interrupted a clan meeting, and to go away.  The groom’s side protests that they have come to find the rose that the groom has plucked.  Finally they are allowed to proceed through the arch of flowers and take their seats.

 

The call and response looking for the bride goes on for several phases, with different groups of maids coming out dancing each time.  First our girls, then Tina’s friends, then her sisters.  Each time, the groom’s family rejects these girls as the wrong flowers.  There is much music, and hooting, and ululating.

IMG_2729 2Finally, all of the young women come out together, with Tina in the middle, dancing fiercely and bravely and with the loudest possible smiles.  She moves back and forth, her face upturned in a beaming smile.  She takes a seat on the stage with the maids, and the ritual begins.

Over the next hour and a half, Tina has four dresses, one for each phase, dancing woven throughout.  Tina’s auntie tells me I dance like an Iteso.  I cannot ululate though.

After Tina is found, they both dance and formally ask permission from her family for her to join his, kneeling before her parents.  There are many gifts to the bride’s family, and then Calvin officially proposes to her and they are engaged.  Then there is cake, and feeding each other, and I am presented with a cake but I miss it because I’m in the toilet, trying to keep the too-long sash of my gomesi out of the latrine.

Finally, along with her mother, uncle, brother and sister, an honorary Iteso, I officially hand Tina over to Calvin’s family.

We conclude with a prayer from a man who has been Tina’s guardian and paid her school fees, one of the many people she considers parents.  He prays for our safe journeys with the best road safety invocation I’ve ever heard:  “Every spirit that is hungry for blood, I rebuke you!”

IMG_2866I give my cake to the kids to take back to their house, and shed my gomesi for the Joe Fresh dress I came in.  Ronnie drives me the hour back to my hotel and starving, I gobble a grilled fish with chips and a gin and tonic.  I’ve never seen anyone as happy as Tina was today.  I cried, happy, grateful, joyful. I think I feel the way parents must feel when their children marry someone they like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunshine

Today I went for a long walk in the heavy sun, with seven kids-who-aren’t-kids-anymore.  Good is the youngest, just finishing primary school – but Moses, Dan, Prossy, Kiisa — they’re teenagers, and Smith and Nicholas are young men, graduates, with so many connections.  Nicholas is trading goods to save enough money to open his welding business, Smith is waiting for his results from his public health diploma and trying to start up a clinic with his friend.

We walked further than any of us had ever walked before up one of the hills behind the king’s palace.  We walked and told jokes and looked at the bullet holes in front of the empty palace where the king started an insurgency last year, and talked about school and friends and families and sports and dreams and goats.  Moses’ school won the national volleyball champions; Dan was on the team that lost to them.

IMG_6390When we got to the antenna near the top of the hill, we had to take a photo to prove we’d gone that far.

At the top, we sat down for a moment and shared some nut bars I had in my bag, and looked delighted.  Smith arranged for a jumping photo with arms in the air, everyone just incredibly pleased with themselves.

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While we walked, Prossy told me how happy she is to know her father.  She’s always had an incredible smile, but this was new, deep.  Their mother was killed when the three of them were tiny, and their father had disappeared. Seven years ago, we met their uncle, who had no idea where the dad was. Back in 2011, I wrote about it here.  Last year, we did a huge resettlement project to find as many relatives as possible, and Gabriel was relentless — and he found this father.  The four of them are united every holiday, and they found two sisters.  Kiiza loves to graze cattle when he goes home, Dan and Prossy are just so happy to feel loved by a parent.

When I look back at my post from 2011, I am overwhelmed with a visceral, almost loud sensation of how intense everything was in those first few years.  It feels like a swirl of dancing in the thick darkness that falls at 630, uncertainty about everything, constant missteps, hospitals and stories layered on stories that felt heart-breaking or hopeless.  In the first two years, the only connection I had to home was dial-up internet on a computer that ran windows 95.

Now, everyone has a cellphone and whatsapp, the hotel we stay in is clean and can provide avocadoes or spaghetti when I ask for them, and the kids — and adults — are all on paths that match who they are.

Today, it’s sunshine.  The dancing at Tina’s wedding will be in the daytime, and Prossy and Dan and Kissa have a father, and Gabriel adopted Moses, and we have all made something remarkable together.

We talked today about our idea of creating a mentorship program with the Niki alumni and others who have learned in the same leadership program.  Nicholas wants to create a fund where all Niki graduates pool a little bit of money every month to help each other out.  Prossy wants to organize a party where everyone comes when the big group of university kids graduate next year.

Sometimes I feel like technology, and Uganda, and the project, and the kids — and I — have all grown up together.  I’m so different than I was when I first came here 10 years ago, in ways I can’t explain.  I’ve been at my absolute best and my absolute worst with this project, but I’ve found my core, authentic values.  I know what matters, and I know what’s possible.

At the end of 2019, most of the kids will have graduated — but this small group and about five more — Baba, Melon, Alex, Anald, Asward — will be around for five years after after that.   Today Prossy’s hand stroking my arm as she tells me how hard she’s working in school reminds me how important it is to keep those possibilities open for them.

 

 

Nikibasika, 2018

Gabriel gestures at all the shiny young adults sitting in a circle around the room.  “Cate, when anyone asks you what is your story — this is your story.  Right here.”

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It’s not my story — there’s a dedicated team, a huge supportive community that makes this project possible — but it also feels stirring at a profound, unknowable level.  I believe in these kids, and love them, and they know it.  And it matters.

Phionah says “I asked you once why you do this for other people, and I always remembered that you said seeing other people happy makes you happy.”  I see that these kids all care about their communities.

I’m in the “big brother” house, where 10 or 11 of them live in Kampala where they are studying.  They share all of the cooking and cleaning, boys and girls equally, Phionah underlines, and shared all of their pocket money to buy a small TV.  More than that, they pooled money to help Alex, another young guy from Kasese who had a place at university but didn’t now how to find a place to live.  They paid his share of the food for two months and now he has his own place, but he’s one of them.

They each share their accomplishments for the year.  Desire is studying to be a journalist, learning how to persist in asking strangers questions, has written a book, is very interested in politics and the free press.  She shines and bubbles. Brenda N finished her degree in business but chose to intern with amnesty international.  She glows as she says “I’m the first in my family to be a graduate!”  Baptiste has a small contract with a community development organization that works with refugees.  He’s so poised and passionate. Andrew finished training as a flight attendant and is waiting for the next recruitment phase from the local airlines, selling clothes in his village to make money.  Kagame is studying multi-media with the same drive he wrote music, and has sworn off social media as too time consuming.  Phionah is studying PR and communications, volunteering all over the place, and already has job offers.  Britah is committed student and volunteer, Daniel and Derrick are studying tourism, Jethro is studying industrial engineering and in his last internship learned how to run a huge machine better than the guy who trained him.  Beth and Anita love their sewing and design, and Beth made my beautiful gomesi for Tina’s introduction. Innocent is studying industrial chemistry and has his path written out, the fifth in his family to graduate from the program, from a family where his mother has to sign her name with a thumbprint.

They are shining, and loving, and hopeful.  We talk about the political chaos and why they are supporting Bobi Wine, the singer who is challenging Muscevani and who is currently under arrest.  “We can make this country better,” says Baptiste, passionately.

That’s all I ever hoped for.