The man I have met with a couple times who has the vision for the child care center is the founder and director of a CBO ( community based organization ) called ‘Aids Concern Integrated Org’ or ACIO for short. He arranged to meet me on Tuesday in downtown Mbale where he said he would have a car and driver ready to take us out to his community. It would take about 45 minutes to get there, we’d be heading in the direction of Mt. Elgon. Our plan as I understood it was to visit the orphanage he is currently running that is housing and caring for 14 children.
Driving on a pretty great dirt road through many villages and communities eventually we pulled up in front of a small building and were greeted immediately by a few smiling adults bowing, helping me out of the car, taking my hand, saying over and over ‘You are most welcome, thank you, you are most welcome’. I was guided into the building. The 2 small office rooms, ‘ old hospital turquoise’ in color, had posters about HIV/AIDS, the structure of ACIO, its members and their responsibilities as well photos of the orphans covering the walls at eye level all around the room. As we sat and I started to learn from these people about their org I was immediately understanding that they are all volunteers who have been together since 2004 working to address head on the issues surrounding the huge number of children without parents in their communities. After some minutes I could see that a line of children had formed at the door leading to outside. At someone’s subtle direction one by one each child entered the room, came forward, knelt and extended their hand to me. Many could barely manage a whisper when I asked them their name….some were very brave! These darlings I was meeting are the children currently living at the orphanage.
( In general, it requires focus to understand what people are saying when they introduce themselves, especially people living in villages as opposed to the city. There is the custom of saying ones last name first, first name last and running them both together, as well as pronouncing every vowel and consonant quite distinctly resulting in a few extra sounds and syllables where not expected, and of course, people speak quickly…)
At present 10 boys and 4 girls are cared for full time by ACIO. The org has rented 3 buildings for the past couple years now, paid for by donations from community members. 2 buildings are adjoining and provide space for the office, cooking area and girls bedroom, the 3’rd, some distance down a path out back of the office, is where the boys and 2 patrons sleep. After meeting all of the children, I was asked to come on a tour of their facilities. First we visited the girl’s room. With big smiles and looking very proud to welcome me, the girls all in their early teens, showed me into their unadorned 10 x 10 room that has 2 single size foamies on top of woven reed mats on the floor along with a couple metal boxes that I understand are for their personal belongings…( no sheets, no blankets, no mosquito nets, 2 foamies…).
We moved on down the path to the boys building. Several hundred meters away the mud and stick building has 4 rooms: a central room around 6 x 10 that has 3 other rooms off of it. One room, approx 8 x 8, is the bedroom where 6 of the boys sleep 2 to a foamie, the 2’nd room is for the patrons and 2 of the older orphan boys and the 3’rd room, about 4 x 6 is where the 2 youngest boys share a foamie. Again, the boys, very ‘well turned out’ for me in their fresh, clean shirts welcomed me warmly into their space…( on hand…a couple sheets, a couple blankets, a couple nets, too few foamies …)
We returned back to the office building where preparations for us to ‘take tea’ had been completed. ‘African tea’, often served from a thermos, is black tea with lots of heated cow’s milk ( usually fresh and un-pasteurized if you’re in a village ) in it. Most African’s add a couple tsp of cane sugar to a small cup of it. Alongside the tea, there were hard boiled chicken eggs, roasted, salted ‘ground nuts’ ( like peanuts ) and bananas.
While enjoying tea I asked for confirmation about the most immediate needs I felt I had seen that the orphanage could use help with in order to provide for the children’s care and safety…how many foamies, mosquito nets, cover sheets and blankets were needed?…I came up with a shopping list for myself of 8 nets, 8 foamies, 8 sheets and 14 blankets.
Following tea, I was guided outside to where some chairs had been assembled. After I was seated front and center I looked up to see a group of 7 children ready to perform. They immediately burst into unaccompanied song, at times singing in beautiful 3 part harmony, complete with gentle feet shuffling and lots of body, arm and hand movements. ‘Blessings shall come upon you…’ ‘You are welcome our visitor, my name is Susan my friend is Ursala, another one is our visitor, you are welcome, our visitor, you are welcome…’ ‘ Thank you for the time you spend for us to make this occasion powerful and wonderful, you are very welcome and a high welcome…’
I have seen a few such performances by now and I tell you they are incredible! There is nothing quite like being a ‘guest of honor’ and having a group of very brave and talented little ones sing to you, expressing from their hearts up close and personal ( maybe 2 – 3 feet away from you ) their gratitude and appreciation that you have come by to say hello and share a little time…amazing!
After a fond farewell, 7 of us squeezed into a car that usually would take 5 ( think thin..! ) and we headed for another community where some people had apparently assembled to meet with us. On the way, we stopped at a field and ‘there by the tree’ I was shown the land upon which the orphanage will be built one day.
When we arrived at our destination, we entered a small, dark building and once inside I realized there were around 100 people quietly sitting on benches, many children, perhaps a dozen adults. They clapped as we entered and were shown up to the front. I was directed to take a seat at a head table, and a meeting began. There were prayers and introductions, the children performed 3 songs, it was explained to me that on this side of the room there were many orphan children, while on the other side, there were a few dozen more children and a handful of caregivers. As I understood it, everyone present in the room was a ’stakeholder’ and waiting on the reality of an orphanage to be built for one reason or another.
I was asked to speak … wow, not my comfort zone… ok … words came from somewhere and just kinda rolled out …‘My name is Catherine’… my friend translated into the local dialect … ‘ I am honored to be here with you, thank you for welcoming me so warmly. I am from Canada and I bring Love and happy wishes to you from my family and friends. I have come here to tell you that you are not alone. Regardless of country, color, custom, we are all the same, we are all one and together we will find the way for all the children to be Loved and cared for. I Love you. We Love you. Thank you.’
Everyone clapped and cheered. Through my own mist I’m pretty sure I saw a few tears in the eyes of some. It was very real and right in the heart center … sort of difficult to put into words you can probably imagine.
We ‘took tea’ once again and I met and talked with a couple of the caregivers. One young woman, a widower and typical of many is raising 10 children, 2 of whom are ‘her own’.
Maybe needless to say, I was in the presence of some amazing people.
Incredible, beautiful, amazing people, the children and adults alike,
all remarkable examples of strength, courage, commitment and Love…
My cup is very full,
Ps…AND…WOW! Was it ever great to speak to 2 family members in Canada today…nothing like the sound of a loved ones voice…more music to my ears!