When you travel alone

When you travel alone and you didn’t sleep at all on the sardine can overnight flight, you ask the man at your hotel for a fish restaurant close by. You may need to close out the new city and sleep after lunch.

It’s up three sets of stairs, a perfect terrace in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, blue water you vaguely (incorrectly) think of as the Bosphorus to the right. You are the only one there. You watch a woman tending to her pots of red flowers on the rooftop across.


You talk to the waiter, a sad eyed Syrian man. “Our home is gone, my family is gone.” He explains the history but you can’t quite follow. He looks for any wisp of connection. “Why are you traveling alone?” He knows a woman from Uganda, she visited Istanbul and came to the restaurant every day. He talks to her on the WhatsApp. Surely you must work for the same organization. 

“I cannot learn another language… I have four now. I need to go to an English country.” He had a shop at home. Perhaps you can hire him. He hovers wistfully when you gently say it’s not that kind of organization. He brings you eggplant, a special dorado with arugula and tomato. Perfect. Shockingly expensive when the bill arrives, double any other meal you have in Istanbul.


You thank him, promise to come back, knowing you won’t. His need more than you can bear right now, full after being Auntie for ten days in Uganda.

You shake the owner’s hand, give Mohammed’s a tighter moment. He clasps your shoulder close as you descend the stairs.

A day.

We woke, bleary, mosquito nets pushed aside but sleep still draped around us. I tapped ground coffee from starbux into my triadventure mug, and added milk I brought in a tetra pack from home. On my 8th visit, I know what I need.

Steph and I spent an hour in the office of the Probation Officer, the man in charge of children’s welfare in the district. I barely noticed the cartoon like poster admonishing people against child sacrifice behind Mr. Sowati. The first time I saw it, I gawped. Now it weaves in.

“The Rwenzoris feel like home, don’t they?” Steph and I looked quietly at the green hills, the red roads.

We went in with worry, knowing that now that we are an official NGO in Uganda, we have a whole new maze to walk through. The Ministry of Gender doesn’t approve of orphanages, wants to push children to their villages, force parents to take up their responsibilities. We understand that, and have never called ourselves an orphanage. They need to protect children, want us to send away the older kids, take in more local children.

“Do people abandon their children in pit latrines in Canada?” asked Mr Sowati, forcefully. Making the point that some people in Uganda are terrible, that something has to change.

“Sometimes in firehalls,” offered steph.

“But PIT latrines?” he asked.

We were quiet.

Getting through the conversation was like watching the weaver birds on the hotel grounds carefully build the fragile nests that dangle from the trees, like Christmas ornaments. One thread at a time, carefully, contrary to nature.

In the end, he understood that the Niki kids have always had connection to their home villages, that they each belong somewhere, know what it means to dig and slash and plant. They know who they are and spend six weeks at Christmas with their families. We are not merely housing them, we have active programming when they are at the house between school terms. “You should help them plan for being donors themselves when they are adults,” he said. “We agree.” Success.

Then to the vet, to help the poor skinny mama dog, some prolapsed pink oozy flesh coming out of her vagina. Kicking her puppies away because she’s starving. Steph slid in the fresh black mud. “It’s okay, I did too,” laughed the vet.

Like Ugandans, we assumed the vet would wait patiently while we did errands on the way back. Two thwarted ATM visits, six shops to find minutes for my phone, a bag of milk for the puppies.

Innocent held the dog while the vet injected her with “anti-puppy” (depo provera for dogs?), prescribed de-wormer, anti-bacterial spray for her wound, tick wash. We persuaded Good to feed her twice a day.

Then writing job descriptions and letters of appointment (2 of the 18 tasks we have to do to satisfy the Ministry of Gender), more coffee, then a feat of engineering to hang the triad banner. Photos of the kids.

kiisa triad

Meeting with two of the community project groups, updates, planning, suggestions, inspiration. Moments of immense gratitude for what’s being created before our eyes.

team 1 triad banner

Lunch, plain spaghetti with tomato soup, basically. Avocado. Sleepy haze, broken fan in the hotel.


Boys’ meeting. Career planning, something each of them is proud of over the past year. Expectations, hope. Pringles and soda.

boy meeting 3

Meetings with three of the boys one on one, who need specific guidance. Bargaining. “”You’re far too bright to have this trouble. You have two terms left. We’ll send you to the better school. But you have to promise you’ll focus.” “I will… but really, I want to play football. I am so talented.” An hour with Kagame, talking about songwriting. Not posting barechested photos on facebook.

Staggering toward the house, sleepy, it’s dark. The girls waylay me. Auntie, come dance! I dance two songs, slide into the house, talk to Tina and Gabriel about job descriptions.

Filthy, sticky, I turn on the tap at the hotel. No water. A mystery. The dinner of every night: tilapia, rice, vegetables, avocado.

Bed, filthy.


beth dancing 2

Beth, dancing.

What we thought was far, was near

vicky behind

When we came to Nikibasika this year, we found a new girl playing volleyball with the others. “This is the street girl.”

Last year, we set up the kids in community project teams, asking them to go into the local communities to be helpful. We gave them basic project planning training, and each team appointed a leader. They came up with ideas themselves, and in the breaks between school terms when they came back to the house, they went out into the community.

One team found three girls on the street. They were 13, and they were sex workers. “They put on the attire to attract men and stand and wait for them.”

The Niki team talked to the street girls, and asked for guidance from Tina and Gabriel. The Niki kids talked to them about different options from being on the street. “We try to talk about having hope,” said one of our girls. “It’s good peer pressure for them,” said Tina. ”

Now this girl is part of the Niki community. She stays with her mother — she was running away before — who pays something small to her school fees. All of the Niki kids pay the rest of her school fees from their pocket money. It was their idea. She’s 13 and in the equivalent of grade three, but now she’s going to school steadily. And playing volleyball.

The other groups have had the same kind of impact. Phionah’s group supports a poor family of three small kids to go to school, giving them clothes, soap, shoes and notebooks. Again, from their pocket money.

blair team 1

Britah’s Community Project Team, the “Save Lives Group,” decided that their project would be to help out in the local hospital. Rural Ugandan hospitals are a place to receive medical care, but nothing else — you bring your own bedsheets, food, soap, wash your own bedding. People in hospital are described as being “admitted” and need a person with them at all times.

“We went to the hospital four times. The first time was to seek permission from the doctor to do our project. He became our friend. We were eventually no longer strangers, we are now part of them.”

Britah’s team went to the local hospital to wash clothes and bedding for people, to “slash the compound” (cut the grass) and do washing up for the nurses. They imagined and planned the project themselves, and went by themselves to the hospital to arrange it.

team 2 triad banner

“It was a bit weird at first,” said Britah. “We talked to the patients and they thought we were doing a punishment. Then they found we were very kind and they appreciated.”

After their first time, they thought they it would be more interesting if they switched roles, and the second time the girls slashed the compound and the boys did the washing. They also had the younger, shy team members do the talking with the nurses and doctor.”This small experience is helping us get big ideas.”

The third time, they noticed that the hospital wasn’t very clean. There was dried blood on the floor, and there were not gloves to scrub with. “We didn’t want to, but we had to hustle hard and just do it.” They pooled their pocket money and bought liquid soap, detergent and gloves and scrubbed the hospital floors and equipment.

We asked them how it felt to give up their pocket money, pointing out that this is what all of our donors have to do to support them. “It made me feel you’re a big girl now, it’s a responsibility.”

“It’s a bit of a challenge, giving our pocket money,” said Phionah. “It squeezes us.” “We know,” we said. “Us too!”

Next term, everyone agreed, they will support the projects not just from their own pocket money, but from doing fundraisers themselves.

“We are the Canadian community team,” we said. “You’re now doing what we do.” They will keep doing this kind of work after they’re done with Niki, they agreed. “When you have any money, you have to help others.”

Six of the Niki youth finished secondary school in December and did the three month Kibo leadership program early this year. “It taught me so much,” said Brenda. “What I thought was far, is near.”

Our vision for this work was to develop community leaders. That vision isn’t the future anymore. Yesterday, I had wave after wave of realizing that for us, what was far, is here.


See this woman?

cate finishing race

See sunscreen?

Not enough.

I changed my FB profile picture yesterday to Beaker from the Muppets. It was a comment on what my nose looks like right now. I had microsurgery yesterday to remove a basal cell carcinoma from the end of my nose.


It’s a significant wound — I have a photo of the wide deep hole but won’t inflict it on the world — and I have about 10 stitches in the rest of my nose from the long line all the way up the side where they took skin to graft the hole in the end of my nose.

Basal cells are the “non-cancer cancer,” and almost never a long term problem. Except that it’s a much bigger deal than just “burning off a little something,” and an indicator that those 20+ years of running and riding without adequate sunscreen catches up with you. There is a correlated risk to higher incidences of non-skin cancers. And to avoid having a really gross scar, I have to keep my nose completely covered up for the next six months. “Wear a bandaid on it any time you’re outside,” said the surgeon. “If you don’t, the scar will be dark and gross forever.” Nice look for someone who jokes about “Everest nose” after most of my outdoor adventures.

I had the surgery as a bit of a surprise, on a cancellation. I was scheduled for the summer but asked if it was possible to move it up. I went to a 7 am spin class yesterday and was back at my desk drinking coffee and eating a muffin when they called and asked if I could come in right away.

Basically they burn off the lump, take it to the lab, and keep removing layers until there are no more cancer cells. Then they do reconstruction where they take skin from another part of your nose (or your ear) to graft the wound. It’s a multi-stage but incredibly efficient procedure called MOHS. They were great and my health will be fine. But I’ll have a scar, and I needed to scrounge up some serious painkillers last night. And it’s a demonstration that my shameless reveling in the sun has an impact.

I *love* running in the sun. I love the feel of heating up from the inside and the outside at the same time, moving my body in the sun, the other-worldly feel of floating and heat and pure elemental presence. Inverse water in the thirst of Canadian winter. Joked about my leathering skin, felt invincible. Noticed my aging chest a couple of years ago — started calling it Aunt Shirley, flippantly saying “this is what women’s chests looked like when I was a kid.” Not invincible after all.

20 years of running means that I entered this decade fit, connected to my body. This was a reminder that my body needs tenderness and care. Run. Ride. Hike. Walk. Swim. Wear sunscreen. Wear a hat. This hurts and it isn’t pretty. #wearsunscreen


“We are frightened mostly students coz in kenya it happened in a university.”

I was FB chatting with Siima Smith, one of the young adults in the Nikibasika program in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. Al Shabaab has threatened attacks on Uganda, and last week, the Chief Prosecutor in the trial against the perpetrators of the 2010 terrorist bombings in Kampala was shot dead in front of her children as she bought fruit on her way home from work.

“It’s so upsetting as it’s easter time and everyone is celebrating but trying to avoid crowded places where many people are gathered because they are mostly targeted by terrorists.Security has been made more tight because there is checking everywhere.”


The kids in the Niki program aren’t kids anymore. When I was in Kampala in December, I had dinner with the group who are now in post-secondary school in Kampala and Jinja. Baptiste, Maureen, Moreen, Abdu, Joel, Saphra, Manoti, Brendah. Another six are now in Kampala about to join university and college: Nelly, Mary, Brenda, Siima, Fred, Beth. Two have already graduated from university: Elinah and Sylver.

Brenda N talking

Every one of these kids has a story that makes their being in post-secondary school a miracle. Manoti was born by the side of the road during the Rwandan genocide while her mother tried to cross the border into Uganda. Nelly was born in a refugee camp a month later. One of the families in our program saw their mother murdered in front of them as tiny children. Another saw their father and oldest sister murdered. One was abandoned in a plastic bag as an infant. Everyone’s story has some version of poverty, loss, death, HIV, violence, abandonment, fear behind it.

Each of them has had to develop the resilience, focus, desire for a different world that brings them to university or college. Last year, Manoti and Baptiste worked in a refugee camp in northern Uganda for a month. They’re all doing community projects. And they all go to schools that have been named as targets by Al Shabaab.

Rebecca X

Every one of the 148 murdered students in Garissa university had a story like this behind them. It’s hard to get a place in university in Kenya, and it’s a struggle for everyone to pay fees. Universities represent a different kind of future for Kenya and Uganda, a future of peace, global connection, economic strength, development.

Brenda Masika X

I’m not going to post the images of what the inside of the classrooms at Garissa looked like after the attack, pools of blood and overturned chairs and bodies. More trauma in a country where trauma is already deep-rooted. Vicarious trauma for the young people in the Niki program, who are moving through their easter celebration in a thick coat of fear.

There has been a bit of an outcry on twitter about the lack of outcry about Garissa, compared to the Charlie Hebdo attack. #Africanlivesmatter. We’ve talked about the disparity in relation to the ongoing Boko Harem attacks in Nigeria. I think very few people would be able to articulate it out loud or really even know what’s at work, but there is a mostly undercurrented sense that “this is africa, this is what happens there.” A detachment, a bit of a shrug. A sense that “the politics there are a mess,” hard to understand, just a kind of primitive fighting.

I first went to Uganda in 2008, and I’m planning to go for the 8th time in May. Someone once said to me “you know, you’ll always just be a white woman in Africa,” and it’s true. I will always be a muzungu, and know that the longer I work on this project, the less I “know.” I had a lot of certainty when I first started this work, and I have very little now. But I do have relationships with each of these people as individuals, as humans, and I have their stories in my heart. We all do. They are brave and wise and selfish and smart and confused and sweet and hurt and curious and lazy and creative and vain and dull and bull-headed and selfless and and and. They are individuals. And every student at Garissa, the ones who died and the ones who will have to take this terror and fear and make a life around it forever, is an individual.

My heart breaks for Kenya, and my heart breaks for each of the kids in our program, living with and charged with adulthood in a world with so much fear.

We always feel happy in such frightening time when we hear from u.Thanks for your love auntie.we love you too.

Garissa is why we need the Nikibasika program and many others like it. Garissa is young adults trying to build a different world. #IamGarissa

I dreamed

that I was in a bike race and I missed the start, because I was fussing with my earrings and putting one of them in my tongue. My friend Heather kept whizzing by on a vintage coaster bike with her legs up and out to the side yelling Wheee. Then I started on the road race, by myself, in the dark, and there were no markings and I didn’t have a map. And I felt fully confident that it would be a safe, strong adventure.