In East Africa, when they don’t have a football (which they usually don’t), children make traditional balls out of balled up discarded plastic bags and vines or rope. Everywhere you see boys playing football in a field or schoolyard, this is usually what they are kicking. You don’t realize it until you look closely, or you ask.
I’ve been involved with the Nikibasika project for nearly 10 years now, 8 years since I first visited Uganda. Since then I’ve been here 9 times, to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Congo as well as Uganda. And I’ve come to realize that the football made of nothing embodies the spareness, the complexity of this place, the possibilities.
The kids in our program are privileged, now. It is stunning — of the 52 originally in the project, 11 have graduated from post-secondary programs and three are about to. Of the rest, 23 are now in post-secondary programs. Brendah and Jennifer are studying electrical installation, and Brendah will work at a full time job this year while she finishes her program. Two of the other girls are learning to be plumbers. University and college students are studying food science, social work, development, mass communications, IT. Two boys want to be chefs. Nicholas is about to set up a business as a welder, and Angela loves her program in catering and hotel management. Immaculate is a hairdresser in Kigali, Big Benson is a driver and runs a small business, Sylver works for the Rwanda revenue organization. Ronnie is a mechanic. Elinah works for an NGO. Rebecca, who was born in a refugee camp during the genocide, just got a job as a social worker doing fieldwork for a national NGO. Joel has a degree in IT and has several independent contracts doing software development for schools and NGOs.
It’s a miracle, this program. I understand this more and more the more time I spend in villages and traveling. From the outside, the youth in this program look like that soccer game — oh yes, they have a ball, they are playing. But up close, you realize that they have made themselves into what they are from so little.
I visited the villages of four of the older kids on this trip, and it was a joyful thing — grandmothers and aunties embraced me and fed me, and relatives came streaming in. And it was also a very stark reminder of what would have been for the Niki kids without the program. Carrying water from a borehole up a hill a kilometre away. Children in rags. (Seven in one family, and the mother is pregnant. “We produce so much because it is cold here at night,” laughs Innocent). A woman sick with cancer lying on a pallet outside being tended to by a strong 95 year old woman. Subsistence agriculture, and a lifetime spent digging and dragging reluctant goats to a new spot to graze. Lumpy, grey bedclothes are must be rarely washed, since every drop of water must be carried uphill. Men who look as though warigi — local gin — is their only solace for an uncomfortable struggle of a life.
The family of Odette is delighted to have me there for the second time. There are five in this family in our project, the original five. Three are done and two have marriages planned for next year. I have to do some paperwork to officially notify the locals that these adults are no longer in the care of the project. The mother must sign her name with a thumbprint. All four of her sons will have university degrees.
We had an formal presentation on our last day at Nikibasika, with a number of local officials. The Niki students presented about three of their community projects. Phionah talked about supporting ten local street kids. She said “we have to call them “sweet kids,” because they are just… Us. We are no different.” She started to cry. The little boys weren’t sure why they were there, but had nothing else to. Do, were glad to be given soap and positive attention.
When I was visiting the villages, I also stopped to see my beloved Smith, who is in medical school. He showed me where he stays. I realized that even in his incredibly full studies and practicum in hospital, he still has to boil water for any drinking he does on a tiny charcoal stove. His grin is like the sun breaking through the clouds, and he ran down the blazing hot road once he spotted me with his arms outstretched. After our visit, he sent me a text: “I feel joyful and hopeful for my future. I feel an extent of my visions expanded and i feel inspired and commited because of you Auntie. I appreciate you for every support. Thanks for a great visit, i will keep missing it. Safe flight.”
The “Auntie” here is a whole village of Canadians who have taken on this unlikely project, this transformation of a community of 52 children who literally had nothing, and who are learning to be leaders, to make change in their communities, to straddle the complexities of village and global life, and to do the jobs that drive development. They are remarkable.
(I have many more photos but it has taken me two hours to post these on the shaky wife… More from the privilege wifi zone of Canada ;-))