Throughout our time in Kasese, we get letters. Carefully folded, adoring letters, Victorian in their language. My Dear Sweetie Auntie Cate, my heart is so glad that you are here with us. At the end of the week, gifts start appearing. Usually necklaces and bracelets (or “armlesses” as Kagame phonetically coined last year) strung from the beads we bring, sometimes from the beads the kids have carefully made out of rolling strips of paper. We have an Arts and Crafts program in the break time now, so the beads are fancier, the paper shellacked.
As the kids get older, the gifts get more nuanced. Kagame and Derrick wanted to go with us to the market yesterday to pick out gifts for their penpals in Canada, the sons of my friend Dyani. Kagame had saved up his pocket money and headed straight for what he wanted — a “gold” chain. He gets 20,000 UGX per half term — about $8.25 — and he had saved enough to buy a gift for Hyland. This connection is so important to these boys.
I was surprised when Derrick asked me for money for his gift for his friend, since he’s usually a better planner than that, the type of kid whose exercise books are strictly divided, his handwriting precise, a request for a few songs he likes resulting in a list of more than 50. He showed me letters he’d written to my family and friends, Lisa’s people, and my heart lurched when I realized he’d tailored them to the recipients — after seeing a picture of Lisa’s sister in snow, he said he liked skiing. He asked me for my nieces’ hobbies. He fused wanting to do something with liking to do it — writing that he likes to play the guitar and play the piano.
He tucked the cap and some other things for his friend into an envelope, and suggested I look at the pictures. I didn’t have time until I got back to our hotel last night. I was dumbstruck. He’d taken the photo sent by his penpal, along with a photo of himself, to town, and got someone to scan them together and print it out. Proportions just a little off so the blonde white kid in a tshirt with a labeled picture of a guitar on it is looming over the serious African kid wearing… a pinstriped suit. Meticulously fit into a thin metal frame.
It was a feat to make this happen — and explained why he had no pocket money. Unbelievable creativity and ingenuity. And so… thick with yearning,
The whole package was a little disconcerting as I tried to imagine a Canadian boy receiving heartfelt messages of devotion, all of the snaps of himself that Derrick has, including one of him posing in front of his school, wearing a white Michael Jackson glove. Knowing the mother of these boys, I imagine she’ll help them understand, as much as a Canadian kid can. The longing to connect, to know, to be known, to write a story of self more anchored than being one of 52 unmoored children. Of relationship that starts in hope, not from being brought together through devastation and deprivation.
I asked him what was in his head when he went off to town to create the photo. “I thought it would make Declan happy,” he said.
I hope it does too.