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What I Learned Spending Time with Orphans in Rural Uganda

08/01/2014 12:45 EDT | Updated 10/01/2014 05:59 EDT

I spent May and June of 2014 in rural Uganda, volunteering as a blogger, videographer and teacher with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, an organization that supports children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, their guardians, and their community. This happened on one of my last days there.

On Friday, I join some Nyaka staff on a trip out to the field, where they will test grandmothers and orphaned grandchildren for HIV.

We leave at 8 am, i.e. 9:30 Uganda time. Ben, who drives the Nyaka school bus, picks me up, and we trundle along the rocky, craggy, water-damaged "roads." He slows down often to wave or greet people, and at one point, gives a particularly warm hello to an older man carrying a basket and walking stick.

"That's my brother," he tells me.

This being Uganda, Ben could mean this is his actual birth brother, his half-brother from a different mother (polygamy is still widely practiced here,) a cousin he's really close to, or just a dear friend. Either way, after a moment, I pull out my phone.

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"That's my brother," I say.

Ben is delighted. How many siblings do I have, he wants to know. When I answer "one," he's astounded. The average birth rate in Uganda is six children per woman. The first time I asked someone here that question, the reply was, "27."

*

We stop at the local hospital to pick up the doctor, nurses and some counselors who will join us for the day. I've been to the women's ward here before -- a large room filled with metal beds, plastic basins underneath them, ragged foam mattresses on top. That's it. No privacy curtains, no indoor toilets, no pretty pictures on the walls. It wouldn't be out of place in a Victorian novel.

We wait in the van, and as usual, I become the local tourist attraction. Children squeal and wave at muzungu (white person,) and adults stare. I'm only ignored by the women with giant pregnant bellies, who arrive alone, on foot, and hang out outside on blankets, presumably until their babies crown. One has a contraction, casually, leaning against a stair railing.

Soon, though, my muzungu nature takes over. We've been waiting 45 minutes. It's hot, and getting hotter. I wasn't supposed to come today; I'm only here for another week, I have work to finish, things to do, the usual. I put on some sunscreen, which, as always, causes more staring and tittering. ("If she didn't put that stuff on, maybe she wouldn't be so damn white!") Finally, the van fills up and we hit the road.

Three minutes later, we stop for breakfast.

Today, this means roasted corn on the cob, made by some women cooking over a fire pit on the side of the road. I politely decline, but when Ben returns to his seat and cheerfully hands me a cob, of course I have to eat it. As the van bumps and bounces, I chew and pray that it will all stay down. I don't get carsick, but I do in Uganda. The roads here make ours in Montreal seem as smooth as an NHL hockey rink.

We arrive at the testing site. As soon as the group of grandmothers and children see the van, this is what they do:

These people are about to learn whether they have a disease that will affect and shorten the rest of their lives - a disease which has killed their loved ones and their friends in brutal ways. Humphrey, the head of the granny program, explains that this song means they are grateful we've arrived safely.

I'm so overwhelmed I'm barely able to see, much less shoot. When they finish, I gaze at them, mutely, wishing I had the vocabulary to tell them how much they kick ass. Finally, I put my hands together in prayer and give an awkward half bow.

"She says they are so happy to have you here," John, my motorbike driver from other granny expeditions, tells me, as he chats with one of the brightly clothed ladies. "She says you are beautiful."

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"Tell her she's beautiful," I reply, glowing.

They speak a bit more, and John turns back to me.

"Since you're wearing trousers," he adds, "she wanted to know if you were a man."

And with that, we get on with the day.

*

The group begins with a discussion about prevention, ARVs and stigma. It is explained, to them and to me, that HIV can be transmitted through not just sexual contact and sharp objects, but by untrained "dentists" and midwives, who often find work in the poorer communities.

Then, the grannies and children form long lines, first to get registered, then to get blood taken in the half-finished mud house that will serve as our clinic. They'll get the results 15 minutes later, which is crucial out here, where organized files and medical records just don't exist. After that, there will be counseling for everyone, not just those who are positive. Most of these grandmothers are not part of the granny groups Nyaka supports, and none of them have grandchildren at the school. But this is an important part of Nyaka's work, and they do it with thousands of people in the area.

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Some of the smaller kids cry when their fingers are pricked. Most people just bite their lip and flinch, heroically dry-eyed. But in general, you'd think they were getting tested for the flu. The heat is stifling. There are hundreds waiting in line. But no one complains. One granny gives us some more roasted corn, in case we get hungry. Some have set out picnics in the grass.

I ask John about the children who will find out today that they're HIV positive. If they start taking ARVs immediately, how long might they live?

"Maybe almost 30 years!" he says, brightly.

One tall, slender grandmother carries a tiny bundle. John explains that the woman's daughter-in-law has just died, and this baby is only 2 weeks old and has to be fed cow's milk. As if one cue, the bundle starts to wail. I hold him while the grandmother gets her bloodtest, and as I gaze into his rheumy eyes, he pops a finger in his mouth and stops crying. This sets off all the surrounding women, who have already asked, naturally, how many children I have. Clearly, they laugh, this baby wants a muzungu mother! I hand him back to his grandmother, but John wants to take a photo, so the grandmother joins me and we pose.

And that's all it takes. Everyone wants a photo with the muzungu. One woman tells me she found the boy she's with abandoned in the forest as a baby, so she took him home and called him Moses. Another granny's son is an alcoholic and has no contact with her since his wife died. She named her grandson to mean "he who is meant to be cared for by me." Death is mentioned so often that no one even blinks. They just ask for more photos, then gather excitedly around the tiny screen, gazing at their miniature selves.

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*

After lunch, the heavens open. It rains dramatically, forebodingly, until early evening. As the sun sets, the clinic set-up moves outside for light. The doctor, who's been at this for 6 hours, continues to cheerfully greet and joke with each patient. At one point, he stops, takes off a glove, and sticks a label on one of the testing strips. I lean in to get a closer look. The label says, "HIV." He hands the strip to a counselor, who takes it to another spot on the grass. A name is called.

I shoot until it's dark, desperately trying to capture what I know I can't.

Soon, the doctor is taking blood by the light of his cell phone, and the counselors sit with people in the pitch black. I try to help, holding phones for light and hovering around, but soon I'm just getting in the way. I go back to the van and say goodbye to departing grannies and kids, which puts a smile on most of their faces, although some don't meet my eyes - I can only imagine why. One grandmother approaches the window and hands me a basket. I know she's woven it herself: many of them do this for their livelihood, and Nyaka sells the handicrafts back in the States to support the granny programs. I also know it probably took her several days to make.

"She wants to give it to you as a gift," Humphrey translates. "To thank you for being here."

Once again, I'm at a loss for words. I want to tell her that she and all the people here have more compassion, and more courage, than I thought existed in this world. Instead, I gabble one of the few phrases I've learned to say in the local language: "thank you very, very much." I point out that Nyaka's colour, purple, is woven into the basket, and when Humphrey translates this, and the grandmother's smile widens. Then she walks off into the night, her long dress and shawl fluttering, followed by two small children.

*

The United States, and several other western countries, have recently halted or re-directed about $118 million in aid to Uganda, because of the bill the president recently passed condemning homosexuality. I understand why they did this. I also understand, now, that the bill is a purely political move: the president wants to show the world that Uganda isn't going to buckle to international pressure.

And yet, almost 90% of Ugandans can't read or write.

About 85% of the population live in rural areas. The vast majority of these people are severely affected by drought. They lack access to education, basic healthcare and medicine. They also have to deal the afore-mentioned road conditions, which result in a lot of deaths, particularly of women with difficult pregnancies who don't make it to the hospital in Kampala in time.

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These people don't care who's gay or straight.

If we're fighting for equal opportunity and acceptance, shouldn't they get their basic needs met before we punish them for a decision they didn't make?

International aid to Uganda is not a simple thing - many of the funds sent through government to this country will never get seen by the people who need it. But these cuts will affect hospital staff. They affect the availability of AVRs to people with HIV. They affect international funding bodies, some of whom are withdrawing their support to NGOs in Uganda.

I wonder: if the politicians making these decisions - Museveni included - joined us today, in the mud house clinic in the field, would they stand firm?

If they stuck around for a week and saw what an enormous difference just one organization is making, what might they choose to do with that money?

Would they feel they'd changed in ways they don't yet understand?

Would they notice themselves falling in love with people they barely know - a love they can't really understand, but is pure and real and without question?

Like me, would they find themselves promising to come back as soon as possible?

Like me, would they suspect that the people of this country, with everything they have to deal with, have enough joy and kindness inside them to share with the whole planet?

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*

We close up the clinic, say goodbye to the last few patients heading for home, and pile back into the van. The roads have mostly dried, but after the rain, there are even more craters, boulders and miniature dirt mountains to snake around, over and through. And it's begun to thunder, loudly. I'm pretty sure that if it starts to rain again, we're stuck out here for the night.

Without warning, Ben turns the van off the main drag and down a hill, onto a barely worn path we at home might loosely call a hiking trail. I hold on for dear life as tree branches slap against the windows and roof, and rocks scrape the underneath of the van and shoot off in all directions. No one explains what's going on, but I eventually piece together that he's driving one of the nurses home, so she doesn't have to walk in the dark.

There is a deafening crack of thunder. I clutch my basket like a safety blanket, look up at the stars, and imagine the dance the grandmothers and grandkids did for us this morning. The van creaks and groans, and, against any law of gravity I know about, we make it back uphill and onto the road.

Soon, the muzungu is in her warm, dry guesthouse, where plates of food and a jerry can of hot bathwater are waiting.

Outside, the winds pick up, and the storm begins.

For more stories about Nyaka, Uganda and other travels, please visit www.wherethehellisnat.com.