“This is a land of many stories,” I say, hesitantly. “And very few are correct,” Gabriel finishes, without missing a beat. As we finish breakfast on our last day, the sister and mother of a child we thought had no family shows up, our child’s features exaggerated on the sister’s face. They didn’t want anything, just to be known.
Every year another layer in our children’s histories, another, competing story. The grapevine that says the muzungu are there brings them like spring warblers, the links to the cloudy past. The child abandoned at the police station whose grandmother shows up 18 months later, once she’s sure he’s fully part of the project. The neighbor who takes coffee with us on our overheated veranda and tells us simply about the first wife who killed the second in front of her three children – ours – because she was afraid they’d inherit the land, and then the father ran mad.
This is a land of witchcraft, I was told earlier. Most of the marriages in this country are because of witchcraft. The wives put tabs in their husbands’ food to keep them faithful, they think they are being faithful but they are really blinded to other women. I ended it firmly, the woman says. I don’t want that illiterate my husband has put in his house to know me. I don’t want my child to have problems like bewitchment and so forth.
We talk with one of the older girls about witchcraft. It is real. She explains the logistics to us, how we might go about bewitching each other, having a curse removed. It’s always about a man, it seems.
We ask about child sacrifice.
“Does it really happen?”
Oh yes, it is real. Many people, when they are perhaps building a house, or a dam, or a factory, they want to sacrifice a child to ensure they have good luck. A child or an albino. They steal a child, or sometimes, even a parent will sacrifice his own child. There was a man, he was building a factory, and even he killed his own son. And he was haunted by the child’s ghost, and he could not sleep ever since. The ghost wakes him up and says You wanted to work, you wanted to be successful, work, work, do not sleep.
My fifth visit, and I know, and I know that I can’t know. I bring perspectives, and opinions, and I can talk to the big boys and the big girls in the meetings we hold with them about opportunity, about stigma, about making choices, about the importance of knowing and accepting people who are different, about being in a complicated generation between the village and its fear of the new and technology that they will invent, a garbled complex world coming into their hands. But I can’t know, I can’t feel it.
“What do you think of the president,” we ask Walter, our driver.
He is an asshole.
“What about his wife?”
She is worse.
In Kampala, we find dissatisfaction, and we find ways of thinking we recognize more readily. We tentatively talk about tolerance, and sexual identity, and atheism. We meet with two women who are activists and advocates for women living with HIV, and marvel that their membership has the courage to have lesbians on staff, a transgendered person on the board. We bridge between this world and the world of fear of the unknown the children live in, where the administration of the school some of our children attend asked us to remove one of our girls from the school because she is HIV positive and she seemed to be forming a relationship with a boy. She wrote a piece about discrimination for the school magazine.
With the kids, we talk about stigma, and I struggle. We want our kids not just to be accepting of people who are positive but to help fight stigma. It’s hard to find a way in.
I think of Angel, the young HIV+ woman we met at Kibo, who spoke about giving voice to people with HIV, but then veered into raw homophobia. My friend says she feels about girls the way I feel about boys, but a demon is in her. She just wants to be like that celebrity. Angel haunts me throughout our time.
We talk about stigma with our director and social worker, and I hesitantly try to bridge into the forbidden topic.
“It’s really important to us that if you hear that kind of hate speech here, you help the kids understand that it’s not acceptable to us.”
“To most of the world,” pipes in Blair.
“It’s important that we teach them to accept everyone as they are…. This trend of demonizing a group of people… this isn’t going to serve Uganda well.” My voice is raw.
We’re on rocky ground, but they try to meet me in this area of supreme discomfort, a near taboo. Some people refuse to come to Uganda because of that one MP who drafted that law. And even Obama, he says it’s okay for men to marry men, our director offers. Obama is revered here.
If we found such a one among the children, says the social worker, we would of course discourage it. But if that did not work, we would try to help them.
“Why discourage it?”
Because if we did not, they would shut the project down. Their expressions are absolute.
We plan to hand give the leftover t-shirts from the past several years of our major fundraiser the kids. We realize that one of our sponsors’ logos has a website that could get us into trouble in rural Uganda, could endanger the project, the kids. Lisa uses fabric paint and a sharpie to smear the logo on all 56 shirts.
I want to appreciate you, says Fred, in the big boys’ meeting. Our parents would never take the time to talk to us, to advise us like this.
It’s one week a year we have. Shoving the most intense of conversations, conversations that search for the spark that matters most into every possible slot.
One of the young boys tucks letters into our hands as we leave. “I love you mummy, mummy, I am so grateful for everything you do, mum. You are my parent.” We give them the tiniest fraction of the love and nurturing they need. Vitamins of faith we hope strengthen their immune systems for the world they live in.
I cry more than I usually do when I leave, sobbing in unison with one of the older girls.
I know, and I can’t know. We straddle worlds too.