There is a Uganda-shaped hole in my heart, and this is the tale about where I left it….
If you’ve been following Polkadot Passport for a while you will know that Nicola is a complete risk-taker. She jumps off buildings, kayaks through white-waters and truly lives life to the fullest. Her sister, on the other hand, received none of these risk-taking genes. That sister just so happened to be holding a plane ticket to Uganda, and she also happened to be me.
I remember researching Uganda in preparation for my trip and being scared out of my mind. There were so many risks to consider, so many travel warnings and such a long distance to travel away from my family. The more I read, the more scared I became. Yet, somehow, I still got on that plane. Sheer determination to live out my dream and go to East Africa moved my feet through customs and onto a plane. Whatever it took, this happy-at-home, slipper-wearing Mumma was going to Uganda!
Taking in a new world
Arriving in Uganda was amazing. Tears slipped down my face as my feet kissed the ground my great grandparents had once ventured too. I was greeted by my Visit Watoto host at the door of the airport, it was the first of the many friendly welcomes that filled my heart with warmth and peace. As we drove to Kampala my mind soaked up my new surroundings. Red dirt roads were lined with small businesses, shanties and market stalls. People of all ages gathered at different meeting places, trading, talking and doing daily life. One of the things that surprised me most was how easy it was to communicate with each person I met. English is the national language in Uganda, and is used everywhere. It is also the common language used for communication between Ugandans from different tribal and cultural backgrounds.
The great thing about travelling with Watoto was that everything was organised for our trip. I instantly felt safe knowing I was with people who had grown up in Uganda and understood where to go and what to do. That night my host drove me to our guesthouse where I was met by Grace, probably the most kind-hearted, smiling person I have ever met. Adonai Guesthouse was a complete haven amidst the new chaos of African life I had just been introduced to. It was simple, comfortable and had a sweet African charm to it. My bedroom was a world away from the reality of what most Ugandan’s would be sleeping in that night… a reality I was about to meet.
Experiencing the local neighbourhood in Kampala
Our host took us to visit some of the local communities where we would meet some the women who were part of Watoto’s Living Hope project. We arrived at a maze of huts and houses made from mud brick and corrugated iron. Most of the homes we passed were no more than a metre or two wide. There was no running water, electricity, glass windows or sewerage.
The outbreak of HIV has left many children orphaned and women widowed in Uganda. These women and children are some of the most vulnerable people in the country and perhaps even in the world. It is no easy task for a woman to provide for herself when she is taking care of four children by herself. In many situations, her husband’s family (in-laws) have taken away everything he owned when he died, leaving her with nothing.
Monica was one of the women who shared her story with us. Monica had lost her husband to HIV, and struggled to raise five children by herself. She told me ““I thought no one loved me and I was going to die. Thanks to Watoto I have a future and a hope.” Living Hope has given Monica and her family a future. She has been empowered to care for her family by learning to make jewellery at our Living Hope workshop in Kampala. It was both remarkable and incredibly humbling to see the transformation that had happened in her life. Not all of the women I met in that community had the hope that Monica had. When they spoke to me, I could see that there was a distinct brokenness in their eyes. It highlighted to me just how much need there was to expand programs like Living Hope to give more women a hand-up in these communities.
The Watoto Villages
Visiting Watoto’s villages was a life-long dream for me. Watoto has three villages where they care for orphaned and abandoned children: one in Suubi, one in Bbira and one in the far north of Uganda in a place called Gulu. What I love about these villages is that unlike a traditional orphanage, the children become part of a family, in their own home with a mother and seven brothers and sisters. The homes are built in traditional circles, with nine homes in each circle. The villages are equipped with schools, medical facilities, churches and plenty of space for over 3000 children to play. Each of these children have sponsors who provide funds for them to receive the holistic care that Watoto provides and to give them a bright future.
In Bbira Village we had a traditional Ugandan afternoon tea with Mama Sandra and her children. We ate little nuts, biscuits and sweet African tea, a blend of spices, tea and lots and lots of sugar!
The atmosphere in Bbira village is magical. At dusk, beneath a forest of tall trees, children play in the circles created by their octangle of homes. The sound of children’s laughter and freedom fills the air. They have education, they have a ‘Mama’, family and community around them, they have school and church, but most importantly of all, they have a future before them in which they can pursue their dreams.
Before I left for Uganda I had thought about sponsoring a vulnerable mother or child. I wasn’t sure just yet which was pulling the most on my heartstrings. Everyone told me that I’d know when I got there, that my sponsor child would choose me. And it happened, oh it happened. It was a beautiful sunny morning when we arrived at Baby Watoto. The facility sits upon a hilltop and looks out upon beautiful mountains covered in Uganda’s most stunning greenery. Little yellow birds tweeted in their ball-shaped nests as we made our way down to meet with the team leader of Baby Watoto in Suubi. As she told us about the babies they rescue and the care they provide for them, there was not a dry eye in sight. We were all a mess, as our hearts broke for the abandoned and orphaned babies in Uganda, some found buried alive, abandoned in hospitals, buses and toilet pits before they were rescued and referred to Baby Watoto. As a mother, it broke me. The tears did not last long however, as we were greeted with some of the happiest little faces and the chubbiest cheeks you have ever seen! Giggles and “Row, row, row your boat” prevailed and we spent time with the babies and toddlers.
And then He found me.
With big eyes, he stared at mine, reached out his arms and said: “Mumma up?” It took everything I had within me to keep my composure, for every tear that I had not already cried was on the verge of pouring out. Little three-year-old Jeremiah made his way into my arms and wouldn’t leave until morning tea time. Just like my little girl at home, he was quite content just being in my arms. He happily rested his head on my shoulder and pointed out all his friends to me. His nanny informed me that soon he would be moving in with his new family in the village, and in that moment I knew exactly who I was going to sponsor. It was sometime around then that a chicken escaped the next door farm and came for a visit, and every toddler in the place made their way to the windows to say hello. It was such a joyful morning, and I saw how well cared for each of these little people were by their nannies who played a mothering role in their life. My heart sang praises to God.
Everywhere I visited in Uganda, I was greeted with love. Long handshakes, hugs and offers of hospitality followed us everywhere. I’ll never forget one of the women we met in the community called Allen. When she met us, she greeted us with hugs like long lost family. She went over and above to offer our (rather large) group fruit and sugar cane, whilst we visited her in her home. She had never met me, yet she loved me like her own. It was overwhelming.
Not only that, but did I mention that the food was awesome? One of the highlights for me was eating at Watoto’s catering school. We were served by Uganda’s future leaders in the catering business, and it was delicious. We also ate a variety of different cuisines at some of Kampala’s best restaurants (in my opinion) and it was super affordable in comparison to Australia. It was definitely one of the advantages of travelling with Watoto, as they knew exactly where to eat. So much good food and so many beautiful people.
On the van ride to the airport, my host Eddie turned around to ask me why I had wanted to come to Uganda and see Watoto. The story I’d tucked close to my heart unfolded. 80 years ago my great-grandparents arrived as missionaries in a very different Africa, just over the border from where I was, in the Congo. Both of them lost their lives in the plight to bring the gospel to this part of Africa. As if the end of the beautiful book was being written Eddie said to me: “When we were children we learnt about what the great missionaries like your grandparents did to bring the gospel to Africa. It’s an honour to meet one of their descendants. I’m so thankful for what they chose to do, it’s because of people like them that we have the hope we have today.” And with those words echoing in my heart, my journey came to an end as I boarded my flight back home to Australia.
I encourage you to follow the trail my heart left in Uganda, take the opportunity to go and visit Watoto. Going to Uganda was one of the best risks I’ve taken in my life, now it’s time to take yours!
If you’re interested in going on a trip like this one you can send an email to [email protected]. You can also help make a difference in Uganda without even leaving your computer by sponsoring a child, a baby or a mother through the Watoto website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Emily is a mum, a wife and a storyteller. She is passionate about rescuing and empowering vulnerable women and children and advocating for others to get involved. She works for Watoto as their Marketing and Communications Director in Australia. She also happens to be the sister of Nicola, the traveller, photographer and founder of all things Polkadot Passport.