Category Archives: Uganda


Kigali is the cleanest city I’ve ever been in. It’s part of the complexities of the culture and government, where there are a lot of rules for the “common good.”

The fourth Saturday of every month is designated Umuganda, which means “coming together for a common purpose.” Shops are closed and no traffic is allowed on the roads in the morning; people, theoretically, clean up the city or work together on communal projects. 

Theoretically it’s a great idea. The wizened little Swiss guy who owns my hotel called it “sleeping in day.” And as someone trying to do a few last minute errands before getting on a plane, it’s a bit disconcerting to find no one on the streets but the occasional sweeper and a lot of security guards and police enforcing the traffic ban.  

Like everything in Rwanda there are so many layers. Amazing concept, complicated experience. 



In the melange of 52 people who have been students of Nikibasika, Dorcus is kind of like the middle child — I’ve always noticed her as smiling, sweet, not talkative, very happy to participate in everything we do.  One of my most indelible images of her is with a huge grin, singing loudly, face turned up to sing as fully as possible, stuffed into a minivan on the way back from an outing.  When she was younger, she liked to sit by me, quietly.

Like every youth in Nikibasika, though, inside there’s a hard story, a history I know I can only begin to catch the shape of, only if I listen hard.

Dorcus finished her O levels last year with okay results, but not the kind that would indicate an academic path.  After some career guidance, she chose plumbing.  She stood up in our first meeting on this visit to Nikibasika, again with her enormous smile, and said “I am going to be a plumber because I want a job that keeps me healthy and strong.  There are not many ladies in plumbing, but you can do any job with love and confidence.”

Her fellow plumbing student, the equally quiet and sweet Angella Brown, nodded.

I made a swirl of a “decision” to go on a little road tour after our annual visit to Niki.  I wanted to see Smith, who is in medical school, and I wanted to visit the village of two of the boys who’ve been asking me to do that for years, and I wanted to go to Rwanda to the village of another family.  Somehow in the planning, we realized Dorcus’ grandmother lived right near the other two boys’, and she wanted to see her.  So we got a bigger van and set out, three women — me, Dorcus and the associate director Tina, and four boys.  And two drivers (the second is to look out the side window to tell the first it’s okay to pass.  Way more necessary when you’re stuck being a crawling fume-belching truck on a narrow dirt road than you’d think).


Ten long hot hours in the sweating van, the bumpiest of roads, dust flying everywhere.  I fretted about the integrity of the dental work that would have paid for five kids to go to university, wished I’d worn a sports bra, kept dropping my little airplane pillow into the filthiest wheel well.  Produced an endless supply of puzzling snacks for everyone, dried dates and energy bars. Dorcus smiling behind me the whole way while the boys cocooned themselves in their phones.  A little chat about her happiness with her course, her joy at seeing her grandmother, but mostly just quiet, some giggling about the magnetic Frida Kahlo finger puppet that is my travel companion, which driver #2 took a shining to.

When we finally reached the point that marks the triangular border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, Dorcus announced for everyone.  “We shall go to home tonight, no point in spending money on a hotel.”  The grandmothers lived a 10 minute boda ride from the town (motorcycle taxi).  The other two boys with the nearby grandmother erupted in flurry of angry Kinyarwanda.  I didn’t understand the words but knew they were protesting staying in the village instead of in a hotel with a tv.  Dorcus stared them down.  Minutes later, they were climbing out of the car and onto the backs of bodas, holding the soap, bread and sugar we’d purchased for the grandmothers.

In the morning (yes, the hotel had a TV and there was apparently the final of the FA cup on, and one of the Rwandan boys didn’t even eat dinner he was so engrossed in the game), we drove up to the grandmothers’ houses.  We passed the bore hole where they fetch water, which has to be carried at least a kilometre up a hill.

Dorcus’ grandmother’s place was set back from the road, dusty, hot and exposed.  There was an aunt, a couple of small children, an ailing woman lying on a pallet out by the small building two ducks were trying to get into.


Her grandmother had splurged on sodas. A huge gesture of welcome. We drank the warm sodas quietly in the small sitting room papered with newspaper.  I taught everyone how to clink and say “Sante”. After, I asked Dorcus to show me around.


She was a bit hesitant, and I put my arm around her.  “Just show me what you want to show me.”  I realized she was worried I would judge, was hesitant to reveal the shabbiness, the need.  “This is the kitchen where I cook – it is not cleaned up because I just got here.”  Kitchens are generally separate buildings with a fire, a few large pots, wood.  This one was filled with rubbish, looked like there had been no recent fire, maybe no porridge for breakfast.  Dorcus stood, worried.  “I’m sure your grandmother is glad you’re here.”  She nodded and held my hand.

I confirmed a bit of history about how she’d gotten into the project. The first wife of the man who selected the initial group for the project lived nearby. Her  father is dead, her mother is around but unable to care for her. She prefers her grandmother.  Her grandmother is 95, runs this little farm with no male help, looks after the woman with cancer. Dorcus’ worry about her radiated off her.

Dorcus showed me where she sleeps.  Again, I could see that she felt a bit embarrassed.  I felt the conflict of language, of class, of privilege.  How to explain that I like to see this because it helps me understand her, understand myself and what I am doing here, not because it makes me pity her.  “Do not cry aunt,” she said.  “Be strong.”  I wasn’t crying, but I understood what she meant.  She was showing more of herself to me than she ever had.  A lot was held in this moment.

“I’m really glad you will be able to work and earn money to help your grandmother,” I said.  “She is a strong woman.”  She nodded.  “Like you,” I said.

We took a few photos, me and her and her beautiful grandmother, and a small cousin who boldly crept in.  “She likes to sleep with me,” laughed Dorcus.  “I’m not surprised,” I said.


She walked us back to the van at the boys’ grandmother’s house, hugged me fiercely, walked back alone up the dirt road, to spend two weeks making the little farm work before going back to continue her training as a plumber.  Doing everything with love and confidence.



I wrote about running in Uganda for Fit is a Feminist issue,

Obikire (Guest Post)

A football made out of plastic bags and vines

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.image
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 ;-))


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.




beth dancing 2

Beth, dancing.

What we thought was far, was near

vicky behind

When we came to Nikibasika this year, we found a new girl playing volleyball with the others. “This is the street girl.”

Last year, we set up the kids in community project teams, asking them to go into the local communities to be helpful. We gave them basic project planning training, and each team appointed a leader. They came up with ideas themselves, and in the breaks between school terms when they came back to the house, they went out into the community.

One team found three girls on the street. They were 13, and they were sex workers. “They put on the attire to attract men and stand and wait for them.”

The Niki team talked to the street girls, and asked for guidance from Tina and Gabriel. The Niki kids talked to them about different options from being on the street. “We try to talk about having hope,” said one of our girls. “It’s good peer pressure for them,” said Tina. ”

Now this girl is part of the Niki community. She stays with her mother — she was running away before — who pays something small to her school fees. All of the Niki kids pay the rest of her school fees from their pocket money. It was their idea. She’s 13 and in the equivalent of grade three, but now she’s going to school steadily. And playing volleyball.

The other groups have had the same kind of impact. Phionah’s group supports a poor family of three small kids to go to school, giving them clothes, soap, shoes and notebooks. Again, from their pocket money.

blair team 1

Britah’s Community Project Team, the “Save Lives Group,” decided that their project would be to help out in the local hospital. Rural Ugandan hospitals are a place to receive medical care, but nothing else — you bring your own bedsheets, food, soap, wash your own bedding. People in hospital are described as being “admitted” and need a person with them at all times.

“We went to the hospital four times. The first time was to seek permission from the doctor to do our project. He became our friend. We were eventually no longer strangers, we are now part of them.”

Britah’s team went to the local hospital to wash clothes and bedding for people, to “slash the compound” (cut the grass) and do washing up for the nurses. They imagined and planned the project themselves, and went by themselves to the hospital to arrange it.

team 2 triad banner

“It was a bit weird at first,” said Britah. “We talked to the patients and they thought we were doing a punishment. Then they found we were very kind and they appreciated.”

After their first time, they thought they it would be more interesting if they switched roles, and the second time the girls slashed the compound and the boys did the washing. They also had the younger, shy team members do the talking with the nurses and doctor.”This small experience is helping us get big ideas.”

The third time, they noticed that the hospital wasn’t very clean. There was dried blood on the floor, and there were not gloves to scrub with. “We didn’t want to, but we had to hustle hard and just do it.” They pooled their pocket money and bought liquid soap, detergent and gloves and scrubbed the hospital floors and equipment.

We asked them how it felt to give up their pocket money, pointing out that this is what all of our donors have to do to support them. “It made me feel you’re a big girl now, it’s a responsibility.”

“It’s a bit of a challenge, giving our pocket money,” said Phionah. “It squeezes us.” “We know,” we said. “Us too!”

Next term, everyone agreed, they will support the projects not just from their own pocket money, but from doing fundraisers themselves.

“We are the Canadian community team,” we said. “You’re now doing what we do.” They will keep doing this kind of work after they’re done with Niki, they agreed. “When you have any money, you have to help others.”

Six of the Niki youth finished secondary school in December and did the three month Kibo leadership program early this year. “It taught me so much,” said Brenda. “What I thought was far, is near.”

Our vision for this work was to develop community leaders. That vision isn’t the future anymore. Yesterday, I had wave after wave of realizing that for us, what was far, is here.