(First, a disclaimer: The internet and electricity here are very spotty. The power has gone out four times since my arrival. This means that this blog will not be nearly as clever or insightful as I might have hoped. I plan to write a lot more when I return to the US. But due to time constraints and the unpredictability of electricity, I really cannot devote much time to writing.)
After 27 or 28 hours of travel, I finally arrived to NACMU last night. It was dark when we got off the plane, but I can describe the scene a little bit for you. It was surprisingly quiet for an airport. It smelled like a mix of Kentucky summer evenings, dry ice, and diesel fuel. A lot of people clamored into a disorderly line for visas, and many of them (mostly Americans) cut in front of me. After clearing immigration, finding my bags, changing my money and finding my way out of the airport I found Jimmy, the NACMU driver. We got into a well-used cab and drove about one hour to Mukono. We passed so many people - people walking in the streets, selling a variety of wares, cooking outside, washing clothes, carrying babies, piling into taxi vans. It was a terrifying ride and I'm really thankful it was dark. Otherwise I might have had to cover my eyes. We were speeding on a dirt road with lots of bumps and ditches, no seat belts, and previously fractured windshield. Perhaps I should have suspected such a ride when we thanked Jimmy for picking us up before he started the car and he suggested that we thank him upon arrival at Noah's Ark.
We finally did arrive, and were met by a volunteer who showed us to our "containers." I am not sure if these guest rooms were built or are recycled box cars, but that is what they look and feel like to me. There are three bunk beds in my room, although no one sleeps on the top bunks. The showers are in another container, and have only cold water. I woke up this morning around 10 am and unpacked, and went to the children's home. There I was eveloped in chaos and felt like the pied piper because everywhere I went I was followed by at least 3 or 4 small children who stuffed things into my pockets, pulled on my shirt, and scaled my back. Later I helped with the babies, feeding, changing, playing.
I will start my project on Monday, so for now I am just helping out with the children. It distracts me from my intense homesickness which I never in a million years expected. I mean I have traveled to 10 other countries, 8 of which were not English-speaking countries. So I thought okay, I can do this. How hard could it be? Wow. It's not the lack of luxury (although I think I would pay 20 dollars for a decent cup of coffee) it's the adjustment to Ugandan culture, Dutch culture, NACMU culture and the constant sound of languages I don't understand. I have never traveled alone, but I did not anticipate it being so problematic. I am trying to stay positive, and focus on the children.
I have a favorite already. His name is Abraham. He looks like a little old man, which is probably why he is my favorite. Everyone calls him “Father Abraham” because of his old man face. I am not sure how old he is. It is very hard to tell with these children because all of them are small for their age, at least to my American eyes. They have very thin limbs and large bellies and small faces. Most are developmentally delayed as well. They are quite friendly and love to just latch on and say “auntie, auntie.” All the adult staff and volunteers are called Auntie or Uncle. And like most little children, they love a new face so my attention has been quite the hot commodity.
I am trying to understand the routines here as it is obvious that there is one, but I do not yet comprehend it. With 75 children to bathe and feed and change and medicate, it takes a very orderly system to care for all their needs, especially given the lack of supplies to which Americans are accustomed. For example, there are no baby wipes or tissues. When the children have a runny nose, we just have to let it run or wipe it on their clothes. We use cloth diapers and cover them in these plastic wrappers, but they inevitably leak and there is always a huge mess in the morning to clean up.
The children are changed and bathed each morning, and we have a sort of assembly line for the bathing of the youngest children. I get a child out of his bed, take off his poopy clothes (no gloves, except in the very worst cases – I’ll spare you the details), wash him with a soapy rag, then transfer him to a plastic tub of water. There I rinse the soap off of him and he is allowed to splash around for a few minutes (which means I am soaked in water) and then I pass him to Renske (another volunteer) who then puts on his clean diaper and clean clothes. Then he goes back to bed until time to eat. So, in about 2 hours a team of 8 aunties has done this for about 35 children under two years of age.
It is very difficult to hear the children crying all the time. With 75 children, someone is always crying, pooping, screaming, stealing a toy from another child, or yelling “auntie! Auntie!” I know that these children are only alive because they are here, and they certainly get good care, but I don’t think we can give them all the attention they need. That is the difficult thing. But in talking with Mariska (volunteer coordinator) they say they have trouble turning down a child because they know that if they don’t take the child, he or she will certainly die.
Many of these children were found abandoned and left for dead. Moses, for example, was found in a river. Someone heard him screaming and rescued him. Now he screams quite loudly all the time, which the staff chalks up to a survival skill. Christy, one of the newest additions, was found wasted and dehydrated next to her dead mother. The people of the village put Christy in the coffin with her mother, because they thought she had no chance of surviving. A doctor who came to declare the mother deceased thought the child deserved a chance and removed her from the coffin. Now she is thriving and fat.
Apparently the Ugandan government will not allow NACMU to operate with just a small number of children. So, now they are building smaller family units, and they hope to hire widows or older women who need employment and have experience with children, to work as house mothers in a small unit with only 8 children.
I have been to Mukono town already, riding in an overcrowded bus taxi that kept stopping to accept more passengers. We bought some groceries and ate fries before riding a boda boda (old motor bike with driver for hire) back to NACMU. It was sort of exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Exhilarating because I was able to see the countryside and feel the warm air. Terrifying because I knew if we were in an accident we would die (no helmets, bumpy roads, crazy drivers). Oh, and annoying because the driver kept asking me to be his wife (when I said I was married he said, “oh, well what can I do to get your friend?” – referring to the person behind me). He was also kind enough to ask after President Bush.
So this is most certainly an adventure, though a difficult one. I never realized how much I need other people, Rachel in particular. I realize now how much I rely on her to be my strength in difficult or stressful times. I never realized how important it is to have fellowship with other people, and to understand the language and customs of the people around me. It is very isolating to not understand anything.
Well, more later. The power is back on so I better post this.