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.


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.








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.


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.”


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.

Up the Chelele pass road

I had a quest in mind for my last day in Bhutan. I wanted to go back to the nunnery I visited with Chador a week ago, the place I found the most intense calm in a trip full of calm.

I’ve been inside at least a dozen temples, and most of the others were more elaborate or ornate. I was very moved by stumbling across a group of monks in Haa performing different rituals, with trumpets and tonal prayers, the youngest boys alternately bored and fervent.

But this place — the oldest nunnery in Bhutan, home to 50 or so women who study together — this was the place that made me actually sink to the ground and find my own breath in a way no other place ever has. The temple was tiny but the energy was profound.

I sat for an hour the other day, part of the time meditating and part of the time simply watching the spinning of a paper prayer wheel moved by the heat of the butter lamp below it. Complete peace.

So I wanted to go back, but it is most of the way up a mountain, and I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to ride. Chador very kindly agreed to let me keep my bike an extra day, even though it meant he would have to ride it the 60 km back to Thimphu.

No one could agree how far it was — the pass is 36 km from the junction, and I thought it was about 2/3 of the way up. Chador agreed. 24 or 25 km, he said. We rode 18 km up a pass the other day, and I thought I could do another 7 or 8 km. Just.

I woke up feeling a bit ill, after feeling quite nasty while hiking to the tigers nest the day before. So I spent the morning strolling around Paro buying souvenirs, trying to catch enough wifi to post a couple of blogs, and trying to get my bank card to work. Then suddenly I felt restored, ate a quick lunch of vegetable thukpa (Bhutan’s answer to pho) and set off.

It was late in the day to embark on this kind of ride, but I thought I would just see how it unfolded.

The road was unrelentingly up, and so many curves. For the first 10 km, I was jumpy on every curve, a bit quivery at the narrowness of the roads, the sheer unprotected drops. At first I would stop when I heard a car or bus approach, and then I found a flow. It was hot, and there was just me and the bike and the road and the valley further and further below me.

My only companions on the road were a group of a dozen or so Indian men on motorbikes. At about the 10km point I had to slow down because two of them were taking photos of each other in the road. I stopped and one asked for a photo. I thought he wanted me to take a pic of the two of them, or of me on my bike. But no — he wanted me to get off my bike so he could sit on it for a photo. Then his friend did it. So I am in the photos of two random Indian men who commandeered my bike. (This is, weirdly, the third time this has happened this trip — only one time an old Indian man rode my bike around the parking lot at the phallus temple while I removed my long pants that I had to put on to go inside).

I rode up and up, steady in a middle gear, the road a little steeper as I got higher. Two shantytown camps of the Indian road workers and their families, washing their clothing and blankets in the spring. Sunday, so no school or work. Hopeful little plants on the tin roofs.

More potholes and almost no stretches of flat. Trees on both sides, messages of wisdom from the road building project, the one whose motto is “we cut mountains and connect hearts.” (Not the worst mission statement I’ve ever heard),

After what felt like forever — about two and a half hours — I started to expect to see the nunnery. I remembered seeing it high above the road long before we made the turnoff to drive up to it. I began to make gentle plans through my flow up and up and up, around the potholes. If I couldn’t see it by 22 km of climbing, I would rethink it.

At 26 km of up, I was feeling like I was close to done with the up, and beginning to remember that it’s on the way down mountains that things go awry. I knew I wouldn’t have time to climb up and spend any time in the temple — I had started too late in the day — but I was trying to at least see it from the road.

I haven’t been using any distance trackers this whole trip, but I was using the GPS on my running watch to gauge how far I’d gone, remembering that i still had to go down. At the 31 km mark from the hotel, I realized I was at my limit, and I stopped. Three hours.

I stopped and looked. The valley was far gone below me. I’d ascended at least 2300 metres. Absolute peace. Layers of mountains you can’t see in a photo, the furthest ones snow capped in the fog. Silence except for this sound that could be chanting, could be wind, could be wheels, could be ghosts — it most likely was. The most likely was chanting, probably from the nunnery — but the voices seemed deeper than women, so maybe a hidden monastery, maybe just the echoes of centuries of prayers living in the mountains.

I tried to take a selfie where I stopped, ate something, shrugged on my jacket — but it was into the sun and my arms seemed to have gotten shorter.

I was completely happy. My gloves were filthy and I was cold and light headed, 11 km from the highest road point in Bhutan, 3810 m.

I rode down, braking almost the entire way, thumbs ups thrown at me from my Indian motorbiker friends on their way down. My hands tingled and my right foot hurt because I took it out of the clips in case I needed to stop abruptly.

At 4 km above the junction, I stopped and savoured the valley. Rice fields and pure Bhutan.