This post is about one of my favorite days, and favorite memories, out of all my trips to Uganda. I wrote it after my second trip, and the column was originally published in the Chanhassen Villager on 9/27/12.
Although it was close to midnight when we got home the night before, we were on the road again at 6:30 in the morning, traveling from Kampala to Iganga for my 9:00 program. I would be speaking to teachers at Buckley High School, which is actually a highly acclaimed Girls’ Primary Boarding School, with students aged 6-15.
My camera was in my lap as we traveled along. Every so often I’d snap a photo of the people and livestock walking along the side of the road, or the stunning scenery and landscape. None of my photos ever did them justice, but I kept trying.
I had my camera at the ready when I saw that we were nearing Jinja. I knew from my last trip to Uganda what was just ahead, and within a few minutes we were crossing the bridge where you can look in one direction and see the Nile River, and look in the other direction to see Lake Victoria, which is the source of the Nile.
Although I took pictures from this same spot last year, I took some more now. Then we stopped at a café for tea and a bite to eat, and continued on to Iganga from there.
My program at the school went well, and after it was over we were invited to view a performance by students who would be leaving at 1:00 that afternoon to compete in the National Music Festival in Kampala. The festival is a prestigious annual event, and it’s a very big deal to qualify for the national competition.
From the moment the music started, we were mesmerized by the girls – by their clear, strong voices, their powerful and energetic dance moves, and the bright, engaging smiles that seemed wider than their faces. We cheered and applauded after each number, and could easily see what champions these girls already were.
After the performance, we were stunned to find out that one of the girls was deaf. The dance moves were all quick and precise, yet she never missed a beat. “How does she do that?” we wondered, and a teacher gave us the answer. “She watches the other girls, and she feels the vibrations,” he said. “She hears with her heart.”
We hated to leave Buckley, but after wishing the girls well in the music competition, we left to continue on with the full day we had planned. We visited a mango orchard that may provide income-producing opportunities for young women in Ki-Mombasa who are now trapped in a life of prostitution. We visited my friend Tabitha’s father, and some other relatives of hers whom I had met during my last trip to Uganda. We also touched base by phone with a woman who attended one of my programs last year and with whom I’ve stayed in touch. We had hoped to be able to see each other, but she is very ill right now and unable to travel. The hospital she is in was too far away for us to get to, but we were able to meet with her husband and give him hugs to take to his wife from us, along with our prayers and good wishes.
Heading back to Kampala that evening, I was half-dozing as we passed a bus that was parked on the side of the road, until Tabitha cried out, “Those are our girls!”
The bus, which had a flat tire, was carrying some of the girls from Buckley who were on their way to Kampala for the Music Festival.
We stopped to see if we could help, but the bus driver and teachers had already fixed the tire and were about to get back on the road. I asked one of the teachers if it would be okay for me to take a photo of the bus, and he invited me to go on into the bus. The girls started cheering and smiling and giving me “thumbs up” when I asked if I could take their picture. Then, when I got off the bus, they called and waved to me from the windows. I went up and down the entire length of the bus, taking photos of each new set of waving arms and smiling faces.
As I got back into our car, I was thinking about how cheerful they were for a busload of kids that have been traveling all afternoon and have spent the last hour or so stranded along the side of the road. I chalked it up to their excitement about the music festival, their cheerful-by-nature personalities, and the positive attitude and upbringing they learned at school. And I laughed when it finally occurred to me a few minutes later that I might have been part of the reason they were so cheerful. Since I was probably the first white person they had seen in a while, and certainly the only one who was at their school that morning, smiling and applauding as they practiced and prepared for the music competition, the odds were pretty good that they recognized and remembered me when I showed up on their bus.
“When I’m in Uganda,” I told Tabitha later on, “I sometimes forget that I’m white.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “When we’re together, I sometimes forget that I’m black.”
The rest of our drive back to Kampala was uneventful. I was tired, but more fulfilled and content than I could ever have imagined I’d be. I took some more pictures, but not many. Before long, it was too dark for photos anyway.
It had been an exciting and memorable day. And I knew there’d be another one tomorrow.
©Betty Liedtke, 2012, 2018
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