Following is the (almost) daily journal of my time spent at the Welcome Home Orphanage, Uganda, Africa, where I spent 3 weeks volunteering.
The entries are in reverse order so please start from the bottom of the page...
October 21st, 2011…
The Happiest Moment of my Life?
I sit here typing this afternoon with a feeling of sheer joy; today I experienced something that left me in tears.
Currently I'm sitting in the outdoor area of the orphanage. Chaos surrounds me; children run around me with decorative face-paint chanting 'Ice-Cream-Ice Cream' in hope of getting one of the many treats that is currently being dished out by Mandy. As I look around it seems that the staff have also started to follow her cheekily with hungry eyes. Laughter fills the air and the echo of African drums fills my ears. This is the aftermath of today's orphanage party; it was the best party I've ever been to.
Mama Mandy leaves Africa tomorrow en-route for America where she lives. This will mark the end of her third extended visit to her orphanage this year. She's already planning her next visit. This was the perfect excuse to have a party. Yesterday we prepared cakes, inflated balloons and helped the children learn songs. Today we face-painted over 50 kids excited faces before watching the party unfold.
The party was never a surprise, we knew it was happening a week in advance but what has completely blown me out the water is the atmosphere that has been created in the last hour.
For those used to a party involving all the trimmings of an upmarket red-carpet event, this party may have initially made you scratch your head. Other than face-paint, there wasn't much to entertain the crowd, but this was not important. In these parts all it takes to cause absolute party-fuelled pandemonium are balloons.
After a beautiful and courageous song and dance performed by the older orphanage children, we released about 100 balloons. Now where I come from in Sydney it can sometimes take the latest gaming system or the brand-name item of clothing to get a positive reaction from a kid (I remember one kid at school getting a car for their 18th birthday) but to see how thankful these children were today after being given just one balloon each was just so special.
With the addition of a drum that the staff passed between themselves, creating an awesome rhythm to what was a court yard full of screaming, yelling and dancing, the culmination of joy and excitement became something that you could just about reach out and touch! To see such pride in the staff members eyes, both of themselves and of the children, was just so touching.
After about 30 minutes of bedlam, things began to calm down but any thoughts of the party ending were quickly thwarted by the staff who after being inspired by the kid's excitement began an impromptu song and dance performance of their own. Circling the African drum and singing in perfect unison, this was the real-deal and instantly brought the party back to a level of fun that I'd previously never felt. Occasional tribal chants caused the crowd to scream with delight and the kids ran around in the background, giggling and yelling obliviously.
Amongst so much joy, I must admit that I felt quite stupid as the first tear rolled down my cheek. I had no inkling that it would; I rarely cry. The second tear I tried to hide but the third and fourth came so quickly that I just sat there unable to contain my emotion. It wasn't the fact that there were balloons everywhere and that everyone had face-paint on, instead it was the realisation that I was stood in an orphanage surrounded by parentless kids somewhere in the depths of Africa, yet I'd never felt more joy or happiness in my life. My senses were peaking. This is the happiest place on earth. I'm convinced of this. I can truly admit that I've never had a bigger smile in my life (which made my tears seem so strange). This I could have never foreseen before arriving here just three weeks ago.
For the kids, it's the care that they are offered that make them so lucky. Over my time here I've seen the babies and children here at Welcome Home Orphanage cared for with a love and affection second to none. The balloons that surround me are their way of gauging this. For the staff who give there all within the walls of the orphanage, their song and dance signified a release and appreciation for the situation that they're in. Like the kids, they are human too and after so much giving, their shrill cries and clapping exposed their true selves. As for Mandy, well she stood in amongst the colorful chaos, simply smiling. Catching eyes briefly she gave me that "I told you they knew how to have fun" kind of look. She couldn't have been more right!
In a way they all her children. Staff and kids alike. It's her passion and love that has not only created the Welcome Home Orphanage, but has set a standard of care that makes this the place what it is today; the happiest place on earth.
Little Oscar who over the week we have managed to source a baby-walker for, sat quietly towards the back of the party. Due to the size of his enlarged head, he had only until now been able to lay down on the floor, but now propped up and able to be part of the delirium that had swept over us all, even he had a beaming smile. This made me cry even more- I really was bringing the mood down!
The only sad part of this whole day is that in three days our time here at the orphanage ends. We head off to Kenya for another adventure that I'll talk about at a later stage. This breaks my heart. Our three weeks here have been some of the most enriching and important in my life. Today's party was the culmination and acknowledgement of this. Sometimes in life we get into a 'zone' where our senses are heightened as our purpose is met. These moments are priceless. This is what I feel right now; life is unbelievable.
How helpful could we have been in my short time here? Well I'll be honest, I wish we could have done more but what settles my mind is that in some small way we have continued the path of volunteering in a part of the world that desperately needs it. The improvement with Oscar in our time here has been significant, this I know will now continue without us (to all the staff who noticed our amazing connection and suggested we take him back to Australia; sorry, we just can't him home right now!).
To the girl who we found in a village with a terrible skin disease covering her entire back; well we only this morning returned from hospital with her where we now hope to engage the best medical practitioners to research and relieve her of this rare condition. This is ongoing and I will update you as I hear more.
I could write so much more but right now all I want to do is get back amongst the kids. Our time here is limited and so I hope you don't mind this sudden ending.
Before I go though, I feel I can now say this;
Number 43- Volunteer at an Orphanage- TICK!
100 Things… What's on your list?
October 20th, 2011…
Girl in Need & The Legacy of 'Detho'
A few weeks ago I wrote about a girl who we found in a remote village. You may remember a photo I posted on the blog that showed her back covered in some aggressive form of skin disease?
Anyway since posting the story (and picture) I've been inundated with emails from people wanting to help her. As the story goes, Mama Mandy, who runs the orphanage here, has taken it upon herself to seek treatment for this poor girl. Even though she is not part of the orphanage, Mandy insists that she can't just let her suffer. You'd say the same thing if you met her. The process of helping in this instance will come via research and ultimately appropriate hospital treatment. The problem though, as always in these situations, is finance.
Stage 1- Research:
The update thus far is this; the girl (whose name remains unknown at this point) is showing early signs of having a rare form of skin disease known as Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis (try finding that on spell check!). In Layman's terms; the disease appears on the skin like a severe wart-like covering that if not treated, spreads and becomes highly dangerous. Resembling bark from a tree, the most notable case of the disease arose in Indonesia. Making news across the world, "Treeman", as he was quickly labelled, is a man suffering this disease in it's later stages.
It is heartbreaking.
Treatment for the disease, much like it's symptoms, is aggressive and includes skin grafts, and chemotherapy. The treatment is on-going and without a doubt very confronting for a girl of about 12 years old.
Tomorrow we have organized to meet the girl again where we'll then be taking her to see a doctor in town. This we hope will lead to a clearer path to solve the issue. This though will be costly.
Stage 2- Finance
Like I mentioned, since writing about our meeting with the girl a few weeks ago, many people have got in touch asking to help. Until now I was not sure how to direct their offers but it seems clear now that the best thing to do is to donate money. Having arranged with Mandy to start a collection pot for treatment, I'd like to share this on-line donation point for anyone to use who wishes to help out.
After a brief talk with Mandy over lunch today, I'm led to believe that treatment (including transport and accommodation) could be anything up to $10,000. This is something that she is about to start promoting. Being touched by this story myself, I promised that I would do what I can to help promote this cause.
So far through 100 Things we've managed to raise $400 through 2 lovely donations from Lauren and Jaime.
If you do decide to help out, please let me know via email@example.com so that I can keep count of where we're at! Of course if you'd like to ask any questions or even speak to Mandy directly, please just write.
The Legacy of Chris
As many of you would know, this whole trip of 100 Things came about after the passing of a mate of mine called Chris, or Detho to most. A true legend, five years ago today Chris passed away at the age of 24 years. A bloke who truly lived life with a smile, the tragic event surrounding his death affected many people in and around Avalon (where we grew up in Sydney).
On what is a hot day in Jinja, Africa, I just wanted to pay tribute and say a big G'day to 'Detho' who left a legacy to many and was one of the biggest factors in what 100 Things is today.
Detho; you're a legend!
100 Things... What's on your list?
October 16th, 2011…
Shortly before flying out to Africa, a stranger contacted me simply to share his thoughts that any effort of mine to offer help to an orphanage in Africa would be pointless. His point as he went on to explain was that in the period of a month, no amount of care would result in a positive change for any of the orphaned children; simply picking up a child for a brief hug would offer no lasting change in his life. His news, although a little surprising, I took on. At the end of the day everybody has an opinion. But armed with the knowledge that there may indeed be a negative effect of my desire to help at an orphanage, I took on this challenge with an open mind and a cautiousness that I act in the most ethical way possible.
Two weeks into what has now been one of the steepest learning curves that I've ever encountered, I can safely say that my work here has not only been something that I will never forget, but more importantly something that has yielded an extremely positive response.
Tahnee, with whom I travelled here to Uganda, today delivered a speech to staff of the orphanage that left me smiling. Thinking laterally, she dealt with the topic of child trauma- more specifically; how to care for children affected by trauma. Of course this relates in some way to all of the 78 orphanages living at the Welcome Home Orphanage.
With in-depth information and strategic plans to better the already solid platform of care offered at the orphanage, she has gone further than a simple hug to a child in need by educating the ones who have the most influence over the young ones in the long run; the carers. The action plans agreed upon and further more the brainstorming session that followed has meant that once she leaves there will be a care system that can be used, developed and perfected within the orphanage. The outcome of this is simple; a better upbringing for the young orphans.
This is priceless.
I have been lucky enough to have been designated a specific role here at the orphanage, that of spending most of my time with a baby called Oscar. Oscar in a sense is my main focus. I will be talking about Oscar a lot more later this week. Before I do though I'd just like to share my most recent thought; each time I pick up a child in this orphanage, I'm met with a smile that not only fills me with warmth but more importunely shows me that a baby who has gone through so much still has the ability to love. Perhaps in one person's eyes this is not seen as offering a positive change in the long run but I would confidently oppose that opinion by saying that every time that a baby smiles, he or she feels a connection with someone that without would leave a baby lonely and sad. I concede that in one sense my limited time here alone will not change the life of a young orphan but in addition to all previous and all ongoing love shown by those who have and will visit this place, a positive influence is certainly being cast.
The touch of a caring person is invaluable, so much so that without it I believe that life can seem dark and futile. The same goes for us as adults. I'm only glad that with one week left here at the Welcome Home Orphanage, I'll have many more opportunties to pick up a child, sing to a child, and pinch the nose of a child many more times and that every time I do, they remember how to love.
What could be more important?
100Things… What's on your list?
October 12th, 2011…
In the way that life works, each one of us has undergone a change of some sort in our time. Whether that change comes by way of profession, lifestyle or opinion to name but a few, we all know that this change takes a period of time to adapt to.
Today though, with the arrival of a lovely international couple, I sit here contemplating whether I've ever experienced a change as extreme as what is about to unfold for two beautiful babies from the orphanage- they are about to meet their new Mummy and Daddy. Not only this, but after a month of bonding here in Uganda, they will be flown to Holland to start a new life with them.
What an incredible prospect!
As with all orphanages, Welcome Home Africa seek to care for and then relocate their babies into responsible and loving families. The first option as I've previously mentioned is that the babies be relocated within their original family and by doing so keeping a child in his or her original environment. But if this is not deemed appropriate/possible, the idea of allowing international adoption is a good second option.
On paper there are many positives to this; the babies are offered a life with a family who are caring, responsible, financially secure and able but even more importantly than this, they are located with a family who genuinely want to bring up a child in a way that offers opportunity, love and stability.
Alarmingly though, for all these positives there are occasionally negative outcomes from placing a child with international families. Not only do some families lack any of the above mentioned qualities, but their desire to adopt a child is based on an alterior motive, such as wanting to mend a failing relationship.
Feeling confused as to why and how this type of adoption is allowed to occur, Mandy explained to me that for some orphanages the desire to make money from international adoptions far outweighs their moral obligations of acting as a responsible guardian for the kids. Sadly, this is a genuine issue globally.
In what should come as no surprise though (certainly if you've been reading the past blogs from this experience), the Welcome Home Orphanages puts the welfare of it's children first & foremost and over the 7 years that Mandy has been running it, she has put in place a thorough system that comprehensively checks and ensures that any approaching families wanting to adopt a child have the right means and intentions.
Where as some orphanages take a money amount on the spot in exchange for a child, Mandy insists that any potential parents come and live in Uganda for a month before any decision is made. A full background check including a full essay detailing why it is that the parents are hoping to adopt is just a small part of the process! Of course a final court hearing is the final part to this jigsaw. Needless to say that she has turned down many advances with her stirling commitment to her kids. As such each and every child that comes under the care of Mandy is given the best opportunity to be placed with a great family.
So in regards to the two Ugandan babies who soon after being born were left parentless and in dire need of help; I can't help but smile at the notion that very soon they will be joining their new parents on a plane overseas to start a new life full of opportunity, care and love.
I'm having trouble comprehending how significant this is. Amazing!
100Things… What's on your list?
October 9th, 2011…
Breakfast with the President of Uganda
Not leaving much to the imagination, the title above kind of gives away what I did yesterday morning- I had breakfast with President Museveni of Uganda.
Having now glamorized the event I should probably go on to tell you that I wasn't alone, I was among 1,500 other people all of whom, like me, were invited to the 13th official 'Prayer Breakfast" at which "M7" (as he is affectionately known) speaks in an informal manor to the nation.
President Museveni (M7) - yes; he wore the hat to breakfast..
Uganda is a nation of patriotic people, all digging their heels in to the ground in a time of hardship. Money is hard to come by, prices of pretty much everything are doubling if not tripling, and political harmony is a distant dream. In such times the people need something to hang on to and in Uganda, this thing is religion. It's everywhere you go.
I've always thought that everyone needs to have a faith in something, whether it be religion, spirituality or even people, and whatever your particular flavor; it's this strength of mind that offers us a foundation to live upon, specially in tough times. What is also crucial to the mix is that we balance this faith within the reality of life and our circumstance.
Now this is just my opinion of course but every now and then I've come across those who put such a focus on their faith that at times their actions seem somewhat less effective than hoped. However, after listening to President M7 today I'm so glad to say that that this country seems to be under the control of a man who has a good balance of faith, logic and self belief.
Using his faith as a vehicle to relay important messages to Ugandans over the breakfast, he voiced a combination of constructive principles and well thought strategies in the fight to better the plight of his country. Over what was in fact a 6 hour experience, various speakers got up and shared their thoughts on the country, each one using religion as a main focus and although most of it flew over my head, the sense of unity and motivation within the 1,500 people present was something that I'm sure spreads across the nation.
What a day (I wish they served lunch as well!) but that's the weekend in a nutshell and now it's back to the Welcome Home Orphanage for the second week of help!
100Things… What's on your list?
October 8th, 2011...
Let There be Light…
Babies at the Welcome Home Orphanage are sourced in many different ways. Where some kids are found alone after being handed into the police station or left at a hospital, others are found on the streets or places far worse. Often after receiving leads of babies in need, the orphanage staff occasionally find themselves at remote villages picking up babies in need of foster care.
In these situations, after taking the child in and caring for them for a certain amount of time, the main goal of the orphanage to put the baby back into their village, typically with a different family member such as a grandparent or auntie who is more capable of offering care.
In keeping with the amazing variation that we've experienced in our short time here so far, today we were taken to one such village where we got to meet a village elder who had been involved with such a process. The smile on her face when we arrived told the story that the relationship and respect with the orphanage staff is huge but what's even more impressive is the extension of the relationship to the village as a whole.
A consistent theme of these villages is that they lack power. Water is taken from nearby rivers, cattle is kept on the land for food, and the sunlight dictates activity within the village. This though is why we went to the village today; to in someway add light- if that makes sense.
Now seeing as most mud-huts in a village don't have any windows, it's near to pitch-black inside the huts throughout even the brightest of days! This of course is very limiting to the hut-owners who are forced to be outside for the entirely of the day if they wish to accomplish anything BUT thanks to the Welcome Home Orphanage, this light issue is now being addressed. How I hear you ask? The answer; water bottles.
The Water Bottle Light
It's been said that the best ideas are the simplest and in this case it could't be more true. Now if you've ever stared at a full water bottle that's been left in the sun, you may have noticed that the sunlight is conducted through the water and reflects onto the surface around the bottle. This is how the 'Water Bottle Light' works; it absorbs the sun's rays and shoots them out into a dark room effectively creating a light source in an otherwise black room. Now of course you're probably wondering how does the bottle absorb light from the outdoors and conduct it all the way into a room; the answer again is simple, put a hole in the roof and wedge a full water bottle into it.
I'm still blown away from the effectiveness of this little contraption but let me tell you that after installing 10 of these lights into various huts around the village today, I have a strong feeling that they're going to catch on quickly.
The same grandma who greeted us with a big smile as we arrived this morning was in fact the first to receive one of the lights and her reaction was simply priceless!
Just another day of volunteering in the Welcome Home Africa Orphanage.
100 Things… What's on your list?
October 5th, 2011…
The Village People
Today we met Josephine. Josephine is one of the Mummas employed at the Welcome Home Orphanage, but on top of her normal duties she also spends a lot of her time in the near by villages. Now when I say villages, I should clarify that I don't mean some kind of small town that has a neighborhood watch, a local pub and post office; a village out this way means a cluster of mud-huts located miles from the town where a group of possibly 50 people live off the land.
It goes without saying that out in these parts the living is very basic but this is part of the reason why Josephine comes out here; she is here to help. There are of course many reasons why these village communities are so underdeveloped but one of the fundamental reasons is through lack of eduction. For example, on the way out to the village Josephine explained that many of the locals living within the villages will not take their babies to the hospital when sick because they believe that if they do, they will be injected with an 'HIV needle'! This is just one example of course of rumor that is completely false, but with this belief of such strange rumours comes a built-up resistance to such institutions that in effect hold an important key to their development.
In this particular village, there happens to be only one building made with brick and this is where Josephine holds her education program. Alongside dispelling such myths as the 'HIV needle', Josephine has created a program empowering the locals through educating them about things like money, small business, health, rights and faith.
In what was an experience that I will never forget, we were invited to listen to her class today, in a room packed with intrigued villagers. Scribbled posters on the wall showing the alphabet hung among sketched pictures of animals such as goats and dogs and when at the end of the talk we were asked to introduce ourselves to the room, the attention suddenly focused onto us. It was quite surreal.
These people are so warm and gentle and to be not only accepted into their small community but then being welcomed into their tiny huts afterwards was very touching.
Just as we were leaving, Josephine pulled me aside and asked me to take a photo of a beautiful young girl who was standing unassumingly towards the back of the crowd. Josephine mentioned that she had a skin condition and when the young girl exposed her shoulder and neck to me, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. I have no idea what the disease was, but it doesn't take any medical knowledge to tell that it's a severe condition. After taking a photo of the girl as requested, I then asked Josephine why she wanted a picture, to which she responded;
"Mandy needs to see the photo so she knows which specialist to send her to."
Mandy it turns out looks after those less fortunate living in these villages by covering all serious medical costs. Honestly, this lady is amazing!
Once back at the orphanage, it was time to take Oscar for his promised walk and with a big smile to greet me as I crouched down next to him, I could tell he remembered who I was.
Oscar for those who didn't read yesterday's blog, is a great little baby who sadly suffers from a condition that has made his head swell (see below for more details). As such most of his time is spent in the baby-room of the orphanage receiving attention from a physio. Seeking more male attention for Oscar, Mandy yesterday asked that I work with Oscar to see how he responded to me. The results seemed promising and so today after I picked him from the ground and gave him a big hug, I put him in a spare walking stroller and took him for a walk in and around town. This was the first time that he'd ever been taken outside of the orphanage and it was an hour that put a big smile on his face. New people, sounds and smells consumed our time and I even found out that he loves having a blade of grass traced from the centre of his forehead all the way down to his chin.
Oscar and I are getting on like a house on fire and I can only hope that our time together is engaging and stimulating him in way that helps him develop. What a legend!
Aside to bible class for all the kids in the orphanage, they also have a daily English lesson and so when Mandy asked if Tahnee and I would be interested in taking it, we jumped at the opportunity.
WIth no teaching background to speak of, we thought it best to start slowly and so Tahnee began the class by drawing various shapes on the small blackboard located at the front of the squashed classroom. Not knowing how the local Ugandan kids would react, we couldn't help but be amazed as they yelled out in unison 'TRIANGLE' as Tahnee pointed to the first shape. 'SQUARE' came the chorus of enthusiasm as she continued and so continued the pattern that the kids were finding this class to easy.
As a kid (somewhere in a math class I think) I remember being shown by a friend how to draw an elephant and so now with chalk in hand I though I'd channel this distant skill and see how familiar the kids were with animals. By the time that I'd sketched a trunk, big ears and a huge backside, every one of the kids had left their seats and had run to the front of the class to point at my drawing and again in unison yelled 'ELEPHANT! These guys were good!
Having now exhausted the one and only animal that I knew how to draw, I then attempted to sketch several other animals just so the kids could continue to impress us. My giraffe was terrible and my bird even worse, but sure enough before I could finish either drawing, the kids had began slapping the board and yelling at me the correct name of my 'not to scale' animals.
They were brilliant and it was only later that we realized that they had been answering the questions in English; their second language. Wow!
Shortly after drawing my last animal, the kids decided to all run out the room in hot pursuit of an actual bird that had landed in the playground. This act left Tahnee and me to look quite stupid standing at the front of a now empty classroom, but how we could be angry at such amazing little kids.
100 Things… What's on your list?
October 4th, 2011…
Oscar the Grouch
The Welcome Home Africa Orphanage does not market itself as an 'AIDS orphanage', nor does it claim to be an expert in the field of mental and physical disabilities BUT in a climate where the incidence of all of the above is prevalent, there are always at least a few children under Mandy's care that suffer in these ways.
Oscar is a special little boy. At 15 months old, Oscars days are limited to laying down and receiving physio treatment from his one-on-one Mumma. Babies in the orphanage don't usually have a one-on-one Mummy but in Oscar's case it's crucial. Early in his life Oscar was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, a condition where water sits on the brain. I'm not going to claim that I know too much about this condition but as a result of this additional water in the skull, the head simply swells. I should say that Oscar has had the necessary surgery to try and counter the swelling, but this so far has only yielded minimal results.
As a byproduct to the condition, Oscar also has a semi paralyzed right arm and leg. This is what the physio does from 8am in the morning to 5pm at night; stretch his limbs. This treatment is also focused on his neck which needs specific strength exercises so that it can support the additional weight of his head.
With mostly only female attention thus far at the orphanage, Mandy has long been trying to incorporate at least some male help for Oscar and so this morning Mandy introduced me to this incredible little boy, telling me that by the end of the day she expected him to be walking and talking fluent English. She was of course joking about that (she has a great sense of humor!), but she certainly wasn't joking about me trying to interact and play with him. And so, just like that, I was left with his Mummy to meet and greet the little man.
I'm not going to lie to you here; my background with interacting with babies in general is very limited! In most cases when meeting babies they've given me one look and cried. Today was no different, Oscar cried- a lot- but after a mid-morning sleep, we tried again and miraculously as if forgetting that only an hour earlier that he'd cried at the mere sight of me, he seemed to bond with me a little more. This was the beginning of what was my best experience so far in Africa. Over the period of a few hours, Oscar got more and more familiar with me to the point where not only was he contently resting and receiving hugs from me, but within the hour he seemed interested in leaving his usual confines of the baby room and allowed me to pick him up and take him for a walk around the orphanage grounds. At one point he giggled for minutes on end as I showed him his reflection in a car mirror and then again laughed out loud when I gently bounced him up and down on the trampoline which sits to the side of the building.
By the time that we returned to the baby room, Oscar was exhausted from our big trip and moments after placing back on his physic mat, his eyes began to shut. This meant that I could now go and attend to the large toddler group that Tahnee had been playing with all morning, but let me tell you right now that at 9am tomorrow morning I'll be knocking on Oscar's door for some play time!
Mandy ended the day by telling me how pleased she was with the progress and tomorrow she's even suggested that we could place him in his stroller and take him for his first visit into town! Who knows; perhaps by the end of the week he will be speaking fluently?!
100Things… What's on your list?
October 4th, 2011...
Much like Fiji-Time, African-Time is the quirky name given to the habitual nature of things in Africa taking roughly 10 times longer than normal to occur. Watches it seems are not highly regarded in these parts and so after waiting for roughly an hour and a half for lunch to be served after ordering at a local restaurant today, I've decided to eat earlier tomorrow!
Back at Welcome Home Orphanage for our first official day today, and it was a pleasure to walk into the gates to see the Mummas already playing with the kids in the yard. These Mummas are beautiful people and the dedication and care that they offer is second to none. In fact it's clear to see, even after only a few days at the orphanage, that everything is done to the 'nth' degree. Meals are nutritious, play equipment is plentiful, clothes are changed twice daily, and love is in the air. Considering that each child has come from a background of neglect, loss, illness or abject poverty (sometimes a combination of all four!), the smiles on their faces tell a story of complete change. These kids are happy!
Lunch time snack for the toddlers!
Mandy (or Mamma Mandy as she is known to the children) is mother hen in these parts and whether she's educating new staff, playing with a child or helping someone in the community such as the lady who today she not only found a job for but also donated a bed to her in her new home (!), the excellence of the Welcome Home Orphanage is just that; a true home. So impressed by the standard of care that's offered here, I mentioned to Mandy today that the care must come close to that given to children living with their parents- to this she replied,
"It's even better here!"
This didn't surprise me.
"The best thing is that even if I died today, the orphanage would be able to continue in exactly the same fashion because we've started a culture of care where the locals know how to run the shop."
In a place where 'Westernization' can be a problem, Mandy is fully aware that her role is one of facilitator. She really is an inspiration.
Today was a day where we simply took in all of the different activities and areas within the orphanage as a way of familiarizing ourselves. From a bible-study class that took place to the beat of bongo and the beautiful sound of African hymn (yes, the kids can sing in both English and Lugandan), to the raucous activity of wrestling a rogue bunch of toddlers in the red earth surrounding the building, today was insightful, entertaining and dirty!
Towards the end of the day, Mandy approached me and told me that the kids were enjoying the influence and presence of a male volunteer. Amongst plenty of Mummas, I am one of just two Uncles and to hear little babys call out 'Uncle' as they reach out for me to pick them up and hug them is something that I'm still getting used to.
With some great progress today and a much better understanding of how the orphanage works, tomorrow Mandy will be introducing me to a special little 14 month old boy by the name of Oscar. Oscar is my project and with the condition of hydrocephalus (a swollen head due to water on the brain), we're hoping to introduce a man into his therapy routine.
Watch this space.
100 Things… What's on your list?
October 2nd, 2011...
Welcome Home Africa!
It's only been one day since we arrived here in Africa but it's already been a baptism of fire! I apologize in advance for this long winded blog but a lot has happened in the short time since we've arrived!)
In what has been a whirlwind few days since leaving Australia, it seems surreal that we're actually sitting here at the Welcome Home Africa Orphanage, a place that until a few days ago was just a far-off destination that we told people we were heading to, somewhere in the heart of Africa.
Before we could get here though, we had to stop off in Singapore. You see, as a matter of chance I was invited to speak to a conference of 800 people in a lavish auditorium located within the exquisite Marina Bay Sands Hotel. A 5-star establishment with a roof-top infinity pool spanning over 100 metre
s (why not really?), the stark difference between it and our present location couldn't be more beautiful.
After what was a great talk (no one threw any fruit at me on stage), I took a barrage of question mirroring many of the normal queries which strike people when hearing of my journey: What happens when you reach 100? What does your Mum think of this? and What is next on your list?. This last question I answered with a great deal of excitement;
"Well at 2am in the morning I'll be hopping on a plane and flying to Africa where along with my partner, Tahnee, we'll be working in an orphanage"
Number 43- Volunteer at an Orphanage
A few months ago, after googling 'Orphanages in Africa' and contacting the first 10 or so that popped up on my computer screen, one lady by the name of Mandy responded immediately to me. Owner of the Welcome Home Africa Orphanage, she welcomed my interest and flooded me with information on what I could do if I was to come and volunteer. It didn't take long for me to make my mind up that this was a great opportunity and so within a week or so I sent an email confirming that I'd be coming over. Why not? As an added bonus, Mandy also took the liberty of organizing a driver to pick us up from the airport. Perfect! I truly think that all decisions in life should be this easy!
Once landed in Uganda after almost 28 hours of travel from Singapore, Deo, our driver, took us by night to the small town of Jinja, some 3 hours away. Being driven deep into a country that we knew nothing about , it was only the occasional strikes of lightning on a stormy night that allowed us any glimpses of our surrounds. We had officially started a journey that will last 7 weeks in Africa.
With comfortable beds awaiting us at the orphanage guesthouse, we thought that a good nights sleep would herald a slow day of acclimatization in a place that would take a lot of getting used to, but after a 9am wake-up call the next morning by the excited Mandy, we were taken directly to a Sunday Church Service. This was important, we were told. Now at the risk of stating the obvious; there are many difference between a place like Australia and Uganda, but no matter how hard I tried to imagine what it would be like before hand, nothing could have prepared me for my first impression. Under the a hot morning sun, we saw for the first time what surrounded us.
The church service was located close to our guest house and within the confines a make-shift church full to the brim of devoted Africans dressed in vividly colored outfits far more immaculate and presentable than anything I've ever owned, my mind was like a sponge as I took in the surrounds. Song had broken out amongst the throng of church-goers by the time we sat down and as people packed into the small space, most of whom had arrived by foot, the harmonic melody of hymn was getting louder and louder with every arrival. The pastor, as energetic and meditative as any orator I'd ever seen, was a crowd favorite and speaking in a deep yet soft voice, his humor and devotion wooed the crowd, even if the content of what he was saying seemed negative. Prices in Uganda are doubling if not tripling presently, neighboring countries are in famine, terrorism is a realistic threat in these parts, and theft is on the up. But for all of this badness, the people are keeping high hopes, all of these pinned on God. He has great influence here. This I could tell from the bibles that each and every one had sitting on their lap. Regardless of religion though, the fact that these people have faith in something that bonds them is incredibly refreshing and also crucial. What's more, these people looked happy. After a few hours of prayer, the service had ended and we were taken to our next stop; the orphanage.
On the way through town we got to learn more about Mandy and her establishment. This was priceless. You see, one risk for anyone wishing to aid an orphanage is that the set-up is not water-tight. Without even trying to in researching orphanages back in Sydney, I'd heard a million bad stories involving financial corruption and child neglect. As bad as this all sounds, it is a real issue but as Mandy spoke about her work and introduced us to the workers who opened the security gates that led to the orphanage driveway, I was struck with a sense of true passion for what she does. In 2003, before Mandy made the decision to leave America and focus entirely on the orphanage, a grim statistic told her that in-between 5-10 babies within the orphanage died each month! However after bringing in a number of simple changes, including a policy that demanded that the local Ugandan staff wash their hands as often as possible, there have only been 9 deaths since 2003!
Mandy only employs locals for the orphanage. This not only empowers the individual but also keeps the local economy ticking over. In this sense, Mandy is not just helping the kids, but the greater community as well. These ladies act as cooks, cleaners, and also 'Mummas'. There are heaps of Mummies and for good reason too; currently there are 78 little orphans staying with them. It's rare in my life that I'm taken back with a scene that leaves me speechless but as we walked into the building and Mandy opened the door to one of the smaller room towards the back of the building, it took me a minute to process what I saw. There were about 30 small toddlers all sitting on the ground, urinating into little potties! This, Mandy explained to us, is called Su Su Time. It wasn't the act of what they were doing that had taken my breath away though, it was the fact that this was my first glimpse of the people that we'd travelled so far to try and help and learn about.
Apparently they knew of our arrival too and as 30 sets of eyes stared up at us as one, a sense of reality hit us flush in the face. We were here! After finishing up their business, they stood up and swarmed us with immediate attention. Not too long after this, we were taken outside to be welcomed by the older kids with a song, sang in the local dialect; Lugandan! So much for easing our way into this lifestyle.
Aged from 0-6 years old, there is basically one simple goal of Mandy's work; to love and develop the children before placing them back into an appropriate family or village group. The ideal situation is that they be relocated with their original family and failing this; their original village. The problem though is that often it's the death of a mother or inability of parents to care for their child that lands the babies in the arms of the orphanage in the first place. It goes without saying that the backstory of each and every kid is a dark and sad tale. Strong village and family ties however makes it common for a child to be taken in by relatives and this is something that works well for further caring and development. Secondary to this, the Welcome Home Orphanage also works with another orphanage that takes kids from 6 years and up and after further love and education here, the kids are given the best opportunity to study at college. International adoption is a third option, but one that Mandy only considers after in-depth research of the fostering family, but to date all of the adoption to families overseas have worked well.
By chance, Mandy tells us that our timing for the trip is perfect; in a few days, one of the smaller girls will be relocated into her original village after a few years of care and as such we have been invited out into the bush to meet the family with her. Not only this but we've both been earmarked to help with a few building and maintenance projects within the village that Mandy has instigated. This is just the beginning apparently of a few projects that Mandy has planned for us over the next few weeks. Her work is far reaching.
After being shown around the other rooms of the orphanage, we quickly meet all of the orphans and from babies being rocked in their cots, to kids running and jumping on our backs, hours fly by quickly as we play and learn with our new friends. I have been named 'Uncle Sebastian' and Tahnee has quickly become a Mumma.
It's hard not to immediately fall in love with these kids but Mandy is clear to point out that it's fine to give as much attention as we want, as long as we show each child the same attention. This I don't think will be a problem as ten or so young boys drag me onto a near by trampoline to play with them.
It's incredible how quickly you learn how to swim when thrown into the deep end of any pool and without doubt, after just one day in Jinja, I know this experience will be like no other I've ever encountered.
Like I said, nothing could have prepared us this and I guess it's the small things that constantly jump out and make you think. Cared for by only women for example, I couldn't help but laugh as some of the more inquisitive kids became fascinated in the hair on my forearm; this I guess is uncommon for them. The funny thing is that as they tug at it with great enthusiasm, all I can do is laugh to cover the intense pain of hair being ripped from my arm!
What a first day, tomorrow we'll be given our work rosters!
100 Things… What's on your list?
September 28th, 2011
What can I say on the eve of my flight to Africa? It's a peculiar situation to be in; knowing that there's so much ahead in the next 7 weeks yet having no idea quite what it is that awaits us.
On paper, it seems simple; we fly to Uganda where we'll be picked up by someone who has been sent to drive us straight to the Welcome Home Africa Orphange, roughly 3 hours away in the small town of Jinja. Here, we will immediately start to work in whatever way possible in an effort to aid the children within the orphanage. We will live on site, work on site, and do whatever is required of us to try and make a difference. This though is easier said than done. What 'difference' can two people possibly make in the effort to aid kids not only without parents, but also suffering from AIDS, Hepatitis B and Malaria to name a few diseases prevalent within the area? To be honest with you, I don't know. All we hope is that we can in some way positively contribute to a developing system that is currently being improved upon within the orphanage system in Uganda.
Of late, there has been a notable shift away from long-term baby-sitting, typically practiced throughout Africa. Instead, after being taken in by an orphanage, we've learnt that they're now focusing on fostering and reconnecting children with their birth families whilst providing comprehensive support. In theory, this acts as a far stronger stepping stone for the kids. This of course, we're yet to see and experience.
Although volunteering at an orphanage sits at Number 43 on the 100 Things list, this adventure is not about a 'tick' from a list, instead it's based on a genuine desire to try and help. We are just happy to be in a position to do so in whatever way we can and this is the journey ahead…. at least, in the first part.
There are of course a few other items from the list that i'll be ticking off whilst over in Africa, but these I'll be filling you in on as the weeks unfold. The beauty of this trip of course is that armed with an open mind and a positive attitude, anything could happen, and often it does. Life would be boring if it was limited to the capacity of our minds. It's both the unknown as well as the uncontrollable that excites, surprises and develops us. We are just one small part of a world that works in ways we're largely unsure of as a whole. I think in part that this journey is about trying to understand this, if only just a little.
With all of this in mind, it's been a funny evening here at home on my last night in Sydney. At 5pm I got a phone call from The Sunday Telegraph who within 30 minutes of calling had arranged a sun-set photo shoot and interview for this weekend's paper (can someone please keep a copy for me!?). Minutes after this finished, I got a delivery of 300 toothbrushes, sent to me by a friend keen for me to deliver her package to the orphanage. A family dinner capped off the evening with an emotional good bye to loved ones and with less than 12 hours before we jump on the plane, it's probably time to go and start packing! I have not done a thing yet!
All I know for certain is that my ukulele is coming!
What an experience!
100Things… What's on your list?