We are walking up the hill to the hotel that’s still called Kepp, even the owner who named it that has been dead for several years, murdered mysteriously, possibly by a political rival. A prostitute was charged and served a few months. We are walking up this hill in a blaze of heat, on the way to the pool, the annual visit. Time is different in Uganda. The pool is what we do when we come, sometimes; the kids in the project know the precise number of times we have come, as though December 2008 when I taught Alex to swim was as recent as the time in Kampala in December 2013 when I taught Moses. ‘Look Aunt, I am swimming!’ As though no time had passed since I saw him. We are woven together, these moments.
But time has passed, and the baby that was wrapped in a far too warm and synthetic quilt for my tastes when I first held her is holding my hand, marching up stoically and with determination up the hill. She’s a clotheshorse, this Nana, the daughter of the project Associate Director and Social Worker, and the sparkly sunglasses I’ve brought her and cheerful sundress mark her as so different from the kids in rags we pass as we walk. But she can also carry a 5 litre jerry can of water that weighs double what she does, like all Ugandan kids. She is uncomplaining, and she is strong.
On my other side is the girl who just came to the community last year. She’s 13 now and our Director found her on a street corner with two other girls, “hair crazy and skirts like THIS.” Sex workers at 12. This girl is the only one of the three who is still here. The kids and youth in Nikibasika took her in as part of their community work and are paying her school fees out of their pocket money. She stays at the project house because it’s safer, goes to school, has learned English and how to read in the last year. She’s Health Prefect at school and captain of the girls football team. She’s the only girl in this group who’s ever played football. She’s old for her grade, but so determined. In term time, she’s the only one at the house with the matron and the Askari, the guard. I ask her if she feels lonely being the only one in the big house. “No. I know what I want.” She wants to be a nurse.
Later today, when we do presentations of the year’s accomplishments, another student will present this girl as one of their “community projects.” She means well, but I see that this girl feels shame having her story told in front of the community and the officials. She tries to speak and say thank you and breaks down crying. Soon all of the kids are crying and most of the officials. We are quiet for a while, just weeping. I say, “her story is everyone’s story, isn’t it? Everyone here has struggled.”
As I walk up the hill to the pool, on my other side is the young man who has a congenital problem with mobility in one side of his body, possibly a mild cerebral palsy. That’s why his village handed him over to the project founder. He couldn’t dig or carry water. We discovered 3 years ago that he also has schizophrenia. That was a hard time. He had delusions, voices. His family tried to “smoke him” with witchcraft, which didn’t go well with his visions of demons. He now has a psychiatrist, medication, but he’s merely almost stable. He has a terrible, irritating persistence that is a kind of compulsion that makes him hard to be around. He can’t manage his own movements, gets lost going between the project and town. He asked to learn tailoring and spent a year in a program but his limited arm mobility meant he enjoyed the experience, liked feeling useful, but didn’t learn anything. He is a dilemma from our point of view — how do we help him find some stability as an adult in a country that doesn’t tolerate incapability very well? We keep looking for something he will be able to do, some place that will hold him safe.
We walk together and I call on my patience. He is telling me about the side effects of his medication, and that the doctors are deceiving him. I realize on this hot trudge up the hill, Nana’s sticky hand still in mine, that he doesn’t understand that he needs to take his medication forever. Ugandans mostly don’t understand the concept of a medication you take to keep your illness stable — they understand medication that cures. Or nothing. Our director also frequently lets his diabetes medication run out and then complains of being unwell. I try to explain to this young man pleading with me that thinking his doctors are deceiving him is a symptom of his disease, and that he will always always need to take his medicine — that it’s continually taking it that keeps his mind safe, that the failure to be cured isn’t a “lie.” “Are there others like me?” he asks. “Could I meet some people in my situation?”
It’s an excellent question and a reasonable request. And I just don’t know. I promise him I’ll try. He then asks me to buy him an iPod.
At the long broken stairs to the pool, Samson takes pity on Nana’s tiny legs and carries her the rest of the way. I wriggle her into her red polka dotted bathing suit and take her into the pool for the first time. She squeals and giggles her hoarse little laugh. We dip and dance in the pool. I feast on a buffet with everyone. Kagame’s dance troupe entertains us and then we all dance, even Daddy Gabriel, even Auntie Tina, even Lillian the matron. We dance with complete embodied love and communal joy.