Triadventure 2017

I’ve blogged here a lot about the project in Uganda I’ve been working on (with a small group of other incredible people) for ten years.  Last weekend we had our annual fundraiser.  I blogged about it on Fit is a Feminist Issue, where I also write regularly. Read it here if you haven’t seen it.

I think the best part was having my sweet baby nephew (and his parents, of course ;-)) with me.







I posted this this morning on Fit is a feminist issue as I leave for Uganda for the 10th time. Reposting here in full because it fits here too. Pics are embedded in the other post -/can’t reproduce on my phone.

Embracing the role of Auntie

As  this posts, I will be in the air, on my 10th trip to Uganda since 2008. A decade ago, I accidentally ended up one of the volunteer directors of a learning and development program called Nikibasika, for kids and youth with no family support. Now, I’m part of a tiny group that raises all the funds and supports this group of kids as they transition through post-secondary school and into adulthood and community leadership. This picture is of me, with Smith, one of my favourite people in the world. He’s studying to be a public health officer and he’s curious, kind, warm, caring and so smart and committed to changing his world. I love him.

Nikibasika is a long and involved story of its own — a book, really — but what I want to focus on here is the identity that’s emerged for me doing this work over the past 10 years — Auntie.

I never really had much of an identity related to the fact that I don’t have kids. I never really yearned to be a mom, but I didn’t deliberately “choose” not to be one either. I’ve noticed the emergence over the past couple of decades of women who actively identify as “childfree,” a “movement” of women redefining femaleness without the expectation of kids. That’s all great and interesting — but I can’t relate to it. I assumed I would have some kids, I happened to be with someone who didn’t want kids during prime kid-having years, that was okay. It didn’t have a big impact on my sense of self.

Then Nikibasika found me, in a culture where women who are mom-age in any nurturing role are called Auntie. Around the same time, my sister had her first daughter. So as I entered my 40s, the role of Auntie found me. At first, it was just an affectionate title. But as I’ve gone through my 40s and into my 50s, it’s actually become a central element of my sense of who I am.

It’s pretty well understood that being an Auntie can be a special role, the one who gets to do fun things with the kids, “hand them back when they’re crying,” be the safe space for the conversations adolescents can’t have with their parents. Community and family advocate Mia Birdsong has said that aunties “expand children’s internal and external boundaries,” and I like to hope that that’s what I do with the people I’m auntie to — at least some of the time.

I took my 12 year niece to London for a few days over Easter, and the time inhabiting each other’s space had a unique intimacy to it. She sent me a handwritten thank you letter that said “London is awesome and I’m so glad I got to share my first time going with you.” I’m grateful for what I got from her in those five days too.
I have an Auntie role with some of my friends’ kids too, especially my friend Jessica’s. I was there at the beginning of her precipitous and early labour, I drove her and her partner back and forth to the NICU while the twins baked into humanness, I drove their tiny selves home from the hospital for the first time. In February, I got to spend a few days with Ivan and Felix (and their parents) in Barbados, introducing them to the sea.
Why am I writing about this in a fitness blog? Like many of the regulars on this blog, I have written a few times about how community and family are an important part of self-care, and important part of balanced health. The extension of that for me, particularly as I’ve gotten older, is a really explicit need to live with a sense of meaning.

A few years ago, I was in a hotel room in Rwanda reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and serendipitously came across her musing on the need for aunties: “It’s as though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways.” Right that moment, I understood that even though I hadn’t set out to “be Auntie” to the kids of Nikibasika, it isn’t just “a thing I do,” but one of the ways I get to live into the person I most aspire to be.

For me, Auntie is one of the ways that I’m living this stage of my life in a generative way, to use Erik Erikson’s phrasing for the 7th psychosocial stage of development. Erikson’s theory was that mid-life can either be a time of stagnation and self-absorption, or it can be a time of “generativity” — i.e., working to creating a better world. “Auntie” captures that perfectly.

I didn’t set out to make a 15 year commitment to a group of kids and young adults in a country I had no ties in. Running an NGO in another country as volunteer isn’t for the faint of heart, and the fundraising and operations can get extremely wearying. But like everything that makes me more of who I am — whether it’s riding my bike really far, my work that challenges me, or improvising my way through this project, the day to day discomfort, pain and difficult moments fade into the background. What rises up is the purpose — the moments of profound connection, seeing the young adults who had no family support graduate from university, start businesses, get married, start volunteer projects in their own communities.

Me, kagame, Andrew and baby Nana 5 years ago Me and Innocent 6 years ago Me, my sister, my sister-friend Tina, and Tina’s daughter Nana
Over the next 10 days, I’ll be continuing to improv my way through this project. I’ll be hot, and a little sick, and jet-lagged — and I’ll be fully in my grateful Auntie glory.


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.


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.