What I Learned Spending Time with Orphans in Rural Uganda
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.
“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.