A couple of days ago my wife came home with a little package for me. She told me that a couple we know, Tom and Cheryl Martin had stopped into her shop and gave her this small bag to pass on to me.
Ellena gave me the bag trying to look all serious, but I could see a little grin that she was unable to contain. I thought it was a little odd that they would leave something for me, but as soon as I looked into the bag I began laughing at what was inside. I didn't even have to pull it out to know why they gave me this little gift.
Instantly, I was transported to a very hot day in March of 2017.
March in Canada is anything but hot. We may get a day or two when it's 'not so cold', but hot is not a word we use at that time of year. Well, not yet anyhow. On that particular day, March the 8th to be exact, it was brutally hot! That's because I was in a small town called Mityana about 70 km from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I never imagined myself ever going to the heart of Africa before.
I ended up going after being invited by Tom and Cheryl to go and visit them while they were there. They run a non-profit, non-partisan voluntary Christian outreach organization called Helping COPE Through HOPE. The mission of their organization is built right into the name, Helping C.O.P.E. (Children Orphans Poor & Prisoners, Exploited) Through H.O.P.E. (Healing Orphanages Provisions Education).
Tom and Cheryl spend at least 6 months of the year travelling to Peru, Zambia, and Uganda tirelessly and personally, distributing the contributions of their sponsors. Very personally actually. They take $0 from the contributions, paying for every one of their expenses themselves. And they know exactly where and what the money is spent on, because they are the ones there handing it out!
When they travel, they also welcome guests to come along. Often, sponsors will travel there to get the chance to meet a child they happen to sponsor in person. Being able to talk to and visit a sponsored child in their own home, with their family, and see the hardships first hand is quite powerful to witness. It's really impossible to describe actually. What I wanted to do while I was there, was to document that work through photographs, and let the images speak for themselves.
So I saved up some money, bought my airfare, got a few inoculations and a whole bunch of malaria pills, and some 'just in case' antibiotics, and departed Toronto on a flight to Ethiopia, then on to Uganda.
Uganda is on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, and straddles the equator. To the east is Kenya, the west is Democratic Republic of Congo. To the north is South Sudan, and the south of Uganda is bordered by Tanzania and Rwanda.
I remember having some apprehension on going when I first looked at a map of the area. For me, and many Canadians, Rwanda in particular conjures up memories of the genocide and our country's peacekeeping force there, with little ability to help. The DRC always seemed to have something going on, and all I really knew about Uganda itself were the stories of the brutal regime of Idi Amin, and the Air France flight hijacked and stormed into at the airport. The same airport I was headed to, actually.
But, after talking with Tom and Cheryl and the knowledge that they have from traveling there countless times, I felt there was no need to be concerned. If these two retirees can do it, I can certainly do it too.
The first flight was non-stop from Toronto to Ethiopia, a 13 hour red-eye flight. I had a 2 hour layover, then another 2 hour flight to Uganda. I did not sleep at all on the flights and had been up for over 24 hours, so I was pretty tired when I finally got there.
After making my way through customs, and getting my visa I was met by Tom, Joram and Dan. Dan was another person like me, tagging along with his wife Nancy. They had been there several weeks before me, and were even there with Tom in Zambia. Joram is Tom's local Uganda guy. The one that keeps an eye on things over the year, and knows the language and the lay of the land so to speak.
As always, Tom had things to do so after they picked me up, we were on our way to a little shop of sorts. Here we met up with Dan's wife Nancy, and Cheryl. We were meeting Agnes, one of Dan and Nancy's sponsored kids. Well she was a kid when they started helping her, but she was now a young woman running a little photography shop.
While they visited, I decided to roam around outside and look around. I was so tired, that I knew if I sat too long, I'd fall asleep. So I pulled out my camera and strolled about. The area was built up fairly densely, with many little shops and buildings all around. The road was a dirt and was bustling with people, and dozens of boda bodas.
A boda boda is a small motorcycle, maybe 150cc, that is used extensively as a form of public transportation. These young men hang out on corners in small groups of a half dozen or so waiting for fares. You flag one over, tell the driver where you want to go, negotiate a price, then hang on for dear life! These guys are skilled drivers and can maneuver just about anywhere with those bikes. You could typically get a ride to most anywhere in the town for about 2000 to 3000 Ugandan Shillings. That's about 65-90 cents or so.
While snooping around I noticed a group of young kids were playing, running in and out between the storefronts and had noticed I had a camera and wanted to pose. The picture ended up being my favourite of the trip actually. When I see the smiles on their faces and the goofy shoes and boots they all had on, I remember every little detail. I can still hear them yelling out 'mzungu, mzungu!' at me while they laughed and ran. Mzungu is what the kids there would call out when they encountered me. It's what they call a white man, and several kids I met had never seen a white person at all. They were very curious and would touch me looking at their hand against my arm. One poor kid was petrified at the sight of me and began crying. I have that effect on kids here actually.
Now back to that hot day. We are now a few days into the trip, and I had been writing home each evening. The previous evening, I wrote that in the morning we were going to go out and buy a goat for one of the families, and that I was going to pay for it. Ellena had been reading my letters to the girls at the shop, and they all said they would also pay for a goat.
So the next morning we go to the 'goat guy', (there is a guy for everything there) and Tom skillfully negotiated a price for two goats. Money changed hands, Tom pulls out his little book and records the transaction and we now own a couple of goats.
Now I mentioned how skilled these boda boda drivers were earlier. It was nothing to see them driving down the road with 3 other people, a bunch of wood studs, a bed, a couch, a door, giant bags of charcoal, just about anything. Even a big mzungu like me with a screaming goat in his lap!
My goat had attitude and as we rode to deliver it, it was bucking and baaaaahing at the top of is lungs. It must have thought it was being goat napped! I swear every single person we drove past saw the crazy scene and yelled out at me..
Before the trip was done, I carried bundles of groceries and bags of feed, rode with 3 on the bike, and even carried a bag full of chickens. I mean, a burlap bag, with a half dozen, live chickens in it. I discovered that frightened chickens tend to pee from the excitement.
My trip ended with a two day safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I got to have one foot in each hemisphere as I straddled the equator. We also saw lots wildlife like hippos, and water buffalo, tons of birds and monkeys, and plenty of elephants just walking by across the road or up a hill!
It was a nice way to decompress from what I had just seen in the towns and villages we went to. I've seen poverty before in developing places like Belize and parts of Mexico, but this was a whole other level. But I've also seen how much good can be done, with so little. I've seen that by helping one child in a family of four you also help the whole family. That child will be less of a strain on them. Education is one of the keystones to helping there.
As I suspected would happen, we ended up sponsoring a young girl while I was there. I got to meet her in person, and we went right to her school, paid her tuition for the year and bought her a couple of new uniforms too. Her name is Sharimah, but apparently she's also going by Ellena now too!
The bag Tom and Cheryl gave me contained a craft type trinket, made of wire and bits of scrap cloth and paper. The wire was skilfully bent into the shape of bike. On the bike there was the driver and a rear seat passenger, but the first thing I saw when I peeked into the bag, was the goat on the passengers lap! It might be a cow actually, but it was a perfect gift to remember one of the more memorable moments from the trip!