Non-Goodbyes

Posing as a traveler

Daniel posing as a traveler

Avoiding my non-goodbye with Deborah by focusing on unborn Jasmine

Avoiding my non-goodbye with Deborah by focusing on unborn Jasmine


My phone buzzed with concern about terrorist threats in Uganda. My mother texted, my father emailed, my friends called. I feel like no danger can come to me in Uganda. Actually, I feel like that in most places. But Somalian terrorists were targeting Entebbe airport along with other public spaces in Kampala, so we took caution when traveling from Rakai to the airport.
We left Sabina yesterday at 11 am. I tried my best not to cry, but failed miserably. Christine came up to me and tried to say goodbye, I shoed her away as I did so many others, insisting that it wasn’t goodbye. “To-coum-ah-woah”, I will see you soon, I claimed. The night before we left, about 8 of the close friends among the students we had been with, came to our banda. They were all from the band and they were all people I least wanted to say goodbye to. They helped us pack and helped us decide what we were leaving behind. Again, the things these kids utilize is incredible. I gave Jackie the beads from my hair, knowing that she would make some beautiful necklace with them. I gave Sophia my empty cereal box, knowing that she would put her prized possessions in it. I gave Vivian and Teddy plastic ziplock bags, knowing that they would be used for a year. I also left most of my clothes and a lot of the medicine, knowing that I’d much rather have them use it 100 times than me use it once or twice.
Vivian and Teddy stuck around after their curfew to sing us a goodbye song. I tried to film it; I tried to look through the lens of my camera and see it at a distance, in hopes of not letting my heart hear their words and melody. When I glanced up to meet Vivian’s eyes in person, I saw her tears and they invited my own. From that point on, my eyes were foggy with loss. I couldn’t stop grieving for what I hadn’t yet lost. The following morning I procrastinated on our departure, claiming that I had just one more interview to get, one more hug to give. I spent time with our cow, who they named “Madrine”. She is small and thin and very shy, but I expect her to be loving, chubby, and huge when I get back. I made the staff of Sabina promise that they wouldn’t eat her until she dies of natural causes in old age. I know they can’t keep that promise, and I won’t blame them when that promise breaks.
As I sat with Madrine on the field, auntie Stella came up to me and told me she didn’t want to say goodbye. I involuntarily fell into her motherly embrace and sobbed. It’s not like Auntie Stella and I have some strong connection, not like Auntie Deborah and I do. It’s not like we can speak more than 50 words in a common language, but I love knowing that she is there. I love hearing her voice ring with melody when she calls my name, I love when she plays with my hair, I love when she dances while eating something delicious. I love her for being there, I love her for taking care of all those children, and I love knowing that she won’t change because she wholeheartedly knows who she is. After hugging Auntie Stella, I ran to the car. I was done torturing myself with these goodbyes I said I wouldn’t give, and I needed to just tare the bandaid right off. We drove by all the aunties who were gathered under a shady tree. They waved and I saw Auntie Stella wipe her tears as she wiggled her hand loosely above her head. This made me laugh through the tears, because I had the feeling that Auntie Stella wasn’t crying. I was sure that she was doing that to make me feel less alone in my tears. She wiped her dry face of the tears that weren’t there and I loved her even more for this.
Auntie Deborah rode with us along with her two children, Jemima and Jeremiah. We dropped them off at Jemima’s school and said another “to-coum-ah-woah”. I kissed and hugged her children, then went straight to Auntie Deborah’s belly where her unborn child swims. Then I gave Auntie Deborah a quick hug, hopped in the car, and didn’t look back. I wish this place wasn’t so far away. I wish I knew when I’d see her and the children again. I wish that each time I come back, I will find the children at the same age as I left them. When I am in NYC, I will think about Uganda. While I am getting 16 Handles, I will think of Madrine being milked in the barn, then Auntie Agnes boiling that milk and putting it in the children’s porridge. While I am hailing a taxi, I will think about Daniel piling 12 Ugandan men and women into his small car and transporting them to Masaka. While I am shopping in Union Square, I will think of Auntie Deborah sewing up holes in the children’s worn uniforms. While I am reading an ebook, I will think of the children holding the pages of their library books together as they try to get the full story. While I am microwaving a cup of soup, I will think of Auntie Stella spending 4 hours steaming bananas. When I am recycling my bottles and boxes, I will think of what sort of use the children could have made out of them. While I am growing, I will think of how the children are growing. While I am singing, I will wonder if the kids are singing. While I am full, I will wonder if they are hungry. While I am rested, I will wonder if they are tired. While I am dreaming, I will wonder what they are dreaming of.

We arrived at Emmanuel’s house at around 4:30. I called Jane and Robert and they said they would come over at 7 after work. We were meant to go clubbing that night (something I hate to do in NY, but am willing to try in Uganda), but because of the threats, we decided to play it safe and stay indoors. Adam and I ordered food from Emmanuel’s staff and it was ready at 7. Jane and Bob arrived at 10; right on time on Uganda time, but three hours late regular time. They ate their cold food and we watched Cape Fear. They left at around midnight and I fell fast asleep, exhausted by non-goodbyes.
We drove from Entebbe the following morning with Daniel. It took us an hour to get from Emmanuel’s house to the airport. Then the security to get into the airport took about 2 hours. While we sat in airport security traffic, Adam and I ended up singing “Daniel” by Elton John while Daniel sat there smiling, saying “please” and “thank you” in between lyrics. I sang the melody and Adam somehow ended up harmonizing in his falsetto. When we sang the lyric, “Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane” I felt a sadness come over me. Daniel yearns to travel, but he may never, at least not by flight. At the airport he helped me with my bags. He held my water bottle in his right hand, and my backpack on his back. He got excited by the idea of others mistaking him for a traveler and asked Adam to take a picture of him. In the photo, he held my bottle up to his mouth and proudly carried the weight of my backpack. I think for a moment, he let himself believe that he would soon be airborne. But we left him at the airport cafe and continued on this luxurious journey. Next stop, Ethiopia.

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Our Last Song

I’m not big on goodbyes. I’m not big on saying them or writing about them. But I did manage to write a goodbye song for the children and the staff here at Sabina, which I played in our final concert today. The children were amazing in the concert. The only person who choked was me when I tried singing my goodbye song. As I said, I’m not big on goodbyes.

A few things to know if you listen, “welaba” means “goodbye” and “njagala” means “I love you”. It’s been an emotional night.

I recorded this with my phone and my ukulele. I have chosen to share it with you because the way I feel about these children, Sabina, and the people in this country, is too powerful to simply put into words. A little melody goes a long way.

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The monster that surfaces after 3 weeks of braided hair

The monster that surfaces after 3 weeks of braided hair

I'm smiling, but screaming on the inside.

I’m smiling, but screaming on the inside.

Getting my hair braided is sort of a tradition I have when I visit Uganda. I do it partially for the aesthetic look, partially to keep it off my neck and out of my face in this heat, and mostly so I have an excuse not to wash it. See, washing all of my thick long hair can take over an hour when I’m doing it with a basin and a jerry cane. Most days, I don’t have that kind of time to spend.
I was braided when I first arrived two weeks ago. Every night, I wrap my head with a scarf like Auntie Deborah taught to me so that it won’t get frizzy when I toss and turn in bed. Inevitably, my muzungu braided hair gets frizzy sooner or later and after two weeks, it was time to undue my braids, go through the long process of washing my hair, and put the braids in all over again.
The hair braider from Sanjai comes tomorrow to do my hair for the equivalent of $7 as I teach 4 music classes. I went out to the court yard tonight and summoned some kids to untwist the 50 braids on my head. When the aunties saw what was going on, they each brought out their combs and joined in on the action. There were about 10 people tugging at my sore head as we took on the task at hand. An hour and a half later and I was a ball of fabulous, dirty frizz.
All of the kids here are shaved bald. This is mostly for hygiene and practicality. It would be impossible to tend to several hundred kids hair and it would be unwise to expect them to do it themselves. Shaving them bald cancels out the possibility of head lice and is the easiest form of maintenance when it comes to hair. That being said, I get the feeling that some of them long for hair. This was made uncomfortably clear to me when the little ones started wearing the clumps of hair that had fallen from my head as mini wigs. I helplessly watched them fight over the hairballs that had fallen to the floor while the aunties untangled each corn row. One little girl clumped a few balls of my hair together, placed it on the top of her head, and pranced around like a super model. Everyone laughed while I cringed in horror.
The children here play with the darndest things. Auntie Deborah’s 3 year old son, Jeromiah, likes to collect already eaten corn cobs off the ground and use them to build structures. Ronah likes to chew on pieces of bark from the trees. I blew up some balloons and the kids played with them for a week even after they were completely deflated. I often find Rose wandering around with a bottle cap in her hand. The girls with pierced ears like to put pieces of grass in their ear holes to replace the earrings they don’t have. And now, I was watching them play with my clumps of dirty hair. My DNA.
After music rehearsal tonight, I spent that dreadful hour washing my hair. Tomorrow, I have 6 hours of braiding while teaching music. It’s all a very painful and time consuming process but hey, beauty hurts.

Beauty Hurts

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Not a Single Note for Granted

I wish we could teach all the children here at Sabina to play the instruments we brought. Sadly, there is just not enough time for that so we chose 9 promising students to focus on. We have 3 on ukulele (Joanne, Winnie, and Jackie), 4 on guitar (Isa, Derrek, Christine, and Esther), and 2 on keyboard (Vivian and Teddy). We also got a new drum set that Kariem is playing at our rehearsals. Our hope is to give these 9 quick and hardworking students enough tools to be able to continue learning when we leave next week and be able to teach their peers. I felt great relief when a guitar string broke and Isa was able to fix it without my being there. Every day I have the guitar players tune their own guitars and even though it takes about a half an hour, it is well worth the wait.
I know that these instruments will be taken care of and put to great use every day.
During the school week, we have our “band” practice from 4-6. Adam gives private lessons to the 2 keyboard students while I go in between the guitar and ukulele groups, giving them different things to work on. Joanne is an amazing ukulele player and I can tell that she really loves it. She is patient and loving with the uke and with her fingers.

I gave her something challenging to work on. She is learning to play my sister’s song Fly and should be ready to play it for our singers on Friday at the concert.
Oh yea, did I mention there is a concert? Every night when the kids get out of preps at 9, a group of about 40-50 kids meet us in the library to rehearse the set for our concert. It was meant to be a cute little recital, but Auntie Deborah gave it so much hype, telling all the staff and half of the village about the “big concert” so we had to step it up.
For the opening, theyvwill all be singing Lean on Me with harmonies, our 4 guitar players, and Teddy on the keyboard. We then have some Ugandan songs that Adam has arranged, a few solos, Let It Go (yes, Frozen reached all the way over to Uganda. I love the irony when the kids sing “the cold never bothered me anyway”), some quick ukulele and guitar solos on songs like Twinkle Twinkle and You Are My Sunshine, and we close with We Are The World. This concert is going to be epic.
Adam and I have also been giving lessons to 3 different teachers. Dan (the math teacher) is learning keyboard and music theory, David (the English teacher) is learning Guitar, and Anita (the music teacher) is learning ukulele. David really hasn’t been practicing so I scared him today with the idea of him playing in the concert and not being as good as the student guitar players. He said, “ok, I’ll practice” and stayed an extra hour after his lesson to work on C, G, and D.
His version of Amazing Grace better be much improved by tomorrow.
Teaching music here has been a really rewarding experience. I’ve been soaking in the kids’ enthusiasm to learn and gratitude to play and it’s made me feel pretty lucky to have instruments at home that I can mess around on whenever I so choose. Music isn’t a chore, it’s a luxury. And these kids don’t take a single note for granted.

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GoGirl

On my way to use the GoGirl, right before getting busted

On my way to use the GoGirl, right before getting busted

My mother gave me a GoGirl as a sort of going away present before I left the states. For those of you who don’t know what a GoGirl is, it’s a sort of funnel contraption that women can use to pee standing up. To put it simply, it’s a surrogate penis used for bathroom purposes only.
I hadn’t used it yet for fear of making a total mess, but this morning I was feeling adventurous. Normally, when it’s daylight out, I pee in a bucket and then dump it outside and wash the bucket out. I didn’t want to overestimate my peeing-standing-up-abilities so I took my surrogate penis outside to see what I was working with. It was broad daylight, but people rarely pass behind my Banda and the kids were all at school, so I saw this moment as my chance. I crept behind the Banda, stood on the ledge, and carefully got into position. Just as I began to take aim, one of the gardeners walked by and I let out a startled “oh!” while fumbling to cover myself and hide the purple funnel. The man glanced at me, then did a double take while he said “sorry” and then an awkward and rhetorical, “how are you?” as he walked in the other direction as quickly as possible.
I was shaking with embarrassment as I ran back inside. So many thoughts were running through my head. Did he see my purple penis? Did he see my crotch? Does he now think that all white women actually have penises? Will he tell all of his gardening buddies about what he saw?
I tried to brush it off, walk out of the Banda with my head held high.
We traveled to Masaka soon after where we could use the Internet cafe and buy a mattress and bed sheets for Rose. Daniel drove and Auntie Deborah came along. On the ride back, the thought of returning to Sabina where I might run into that gardener filled me with humiliation once again. I had to tell someone, so I told Auntie Deborah. To Deborah, the story got funnier and funnier. By the end, the woman was literally crying with laughter. She choked comments out like, “I need to see this GoGirl” and asked, “why did your mother give that to you?” as her eyes filled with tears of amusement.
We got back to Sabina and when I saw her an hour later for dinner, she was still laughing, sometimes shrieking. Deborah’s laugh made it all worth it in the end. I’m glad I am now known as the hermaphrodite muzungu among the gardeners here at Sabina.

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Rose’s new Sponsor

I saw this image in a dream during my first week in Uganda. When I woke up, I emailed Adam asking him to bring white balloons. It was pretty cool seeing that image come to life.

I saw this image in a dream during my first week in Uganda. When I woke up, I emailed Adam asking him to bring white balloons. It was pretty cool seeing that image come to life.

Adam is sick. He was up all of last night, tossing and turning. It is common for people to get sick at the beginning of their stay here. The new food can upset the body, but Adam was sure that he had some serious disease and was quickly dying. Luckily, my mother made me bring some pretty strong medications which we decided it was best for Adam to take. He has been in bed all day but at this point, he is pretty sure that he will make it through to see tomorrow.
I have written about Rose, the young girl who was orphaned when she was 3 weeks old, and taken in by the house mothers at Sabina. If you haven’t read my summary of her story, please do. After hearing her history, I knew that she needed a sponsor, desperately. She begins school in a year and if she has a sponsor, she has the possibility of being under the care and protection of Children of Uganda. Pamela, I know we have not spoken about this yet, but I thought I’d try finding her support before getting in contact with you.

Yesterday morning at a meeting with Auntie Deborah and Uncle Jude (the headmaster), Adam announced that he officially wanted to be Rose’s sponsor. The entire staff celebrated and Auntie Agnes, Rose’s surrogate mother, was close to tears when she hugged him. Adam wanted to sponsor a girl because he sees the lack of female power in this country. He hopes to send Rose all the way through University, paying her school fees and keeping in contact with her through out her journey. I am so proud of him and happy for Rose.
All the while, there are still 15 children from Children of Uganda that we are in the process of putting on tape. They are all in need of sponsors and co-sponsors and I hope to show their tapes to you when I return home. Sponsoring a child through Children of Uganda is an easy and rewarding process. A little bit of money each month gives a child a future brighter than they could have ever hoped for. Staying in contact through letters and eventually, emails and even phone conversations is optional, but so fulfilling. Getting to know your child on a personal level makes things very real. This is an actual child who knows your name and is grateful to you every day. They are all so anxious to learn and happily thriving in life here in Uganda. Fifteen children that I am putting on tape are all in need of support so if you, or if you know someone, who might be interested in giving the gift of knowledge to a child here, please let me know. You will be seeing many beautiful children on camera upon my return!

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“Jesus”

Today is Corpus Cristi. I would never have known, had I not been in Uganda. Church started at 7:00 AM (midnight in NYC). It is 11:30 now and they are still singing songs of praise. When I entered the church with Deborah’s children at 10, a woman in a beautiful dress quickly insisted that I have her seat. I saw Sister Angel, the kooky Kenyan nun, enter the church holding something gold up in the air with her head bowed. She wears pale stockings that make her dark legs a pinkish color. She wears a long blue nun outfit with a matching head piece (I don’t know the technical terms when it comes to the wardrobe of a nun.) A small pair of spectacles sits delicately on her nose and it seems odd when she isn’t smiling. Sister Angel is a holy bunch of fun. She loves being photographed. When I bring my camera out, she leans on walls and props her hand on her waste, insisting that I take a dozen pictures. Then she lays on the floor with her head resting on her hand and smiles saying, “take anothah pictah.” After she delivered the gold object to the front of the church, which I later found out was meant to symbolize Jesus, she came and squeezed in next to me on the already crowded bench. She gave me another one of those handshakes which led to her dragging me outside to gossip about all the things that went down in the past few days. She wanted to know what I had been up to, why I hadn’t visited her in the last few days, and whether or not I wanted to help with preparations for the ceremony. Before I could answer, she dragged me into the church house where we filled a bucket with flour. She said the flour was meant to feed the poor children in the village, but assured me that Jesus would be happy with our use of the flour for decorations and would reward her later. I don’t understand Sister Angel’s logic behind blessings from God. She says that God blessed her with a tiled bathroom floor and a flushing toilet (a rarity around here), but then she asks me for money that I don’t have so she could buy a stove to cook for herself and for the children. There is a framed photograph of a white, German man that donated a lot of money to the church framed on the kitchen wall. Are rich foreigners blessing her with a luxurious house, or is God?
We went outside and used the flour to write the word “Jesus” all over the roads. Sister Angel kept misspelling the name, writing “Jusus” over and over again in huge, floury letters. Other people trailed behind her, using a branch to discretely brush the unnecessary “U” away and replace it with its rightful “E”. I obnoxiously pointed out her mistake each time and enjoyed rolling the word, “Jew-sus” around in my mouth. Sister Angel and I decided that God was speaking to her, telling her the true spelling of his son’s name.
Once the poor children’s food was dropped onto the roads in the name of God, the entire community in Sanjai followed the gold Jesus around the property, singing songs and saying prayers. I snuck away to pack for my trip to Kampala. On the way back to Sabina, a girl stopped me on the path. Her name is Claire and she is at the secondary school (High School) just down the road. She said that she had wanted to talk to me for a while now, but was too shy to say hello. Claire walked me down the path, into Sabina, and up to my banda. Along the way she stared at me, examining my every move. She asked me questions about myself and I responded, then asking questions about her. It felt like a first date. I told her that Adam was coming and she said with great excitement, “Oh! Is he…like you?” I asked her to clarify, “you mean, white?” She nodded her head. “Yes, he’s white.” She gleamed at the idea of making two white friends in the same week.
A few days later, Claire came to visit me. Adam had arrived by then and Auntie Deborah and I were busy sorting through the donations he had brought over in his second checked luggage piece. There were a LOT of clothes (thank you Susanne Windland.) Claire helped us sort through the clothes; I could tell she was waiting for something. When I ran back to my room to put on some chapstick (still highly addicted to that stuff) Claire followed me in and said she had to talk to me. She asked if I had gotten her letter. I had not. She said that she is going home to Masaka tomorrow to visit her mother and that she would really love for me to go with her. I apologized, telling her that I had music lessons to teach at Sabina all day every day, but that I send her mother my love. This destroyed Claire, at least she acted as if it did. She said that she had already told her mother that I was coming and that her mother was so looking forward to it. She continued to express her disappointment as I put on my chapstick and waited anxiously for the moment to end. I gave Claire a picture of me, upon her request, before she left to get back to school. Encounters like this happen at least once each time I come to Uganda. People are so friendly and present with each other here, but I think this exchange with Claire was a little more than her just wanting to get to know me as a person. She wanted to get to know me as a white person. I do not judge her for this, because I understand how rare it is for many people out in Rakai, Uganda, to get to know someone of my complexion. Sabina is so welcoming, so warm, and so homey. So it still comes as a shock when someone outside of the Sabina community sees me as an object, full of mystery and possibility. Being a white American from a privileged home in a colorfully diverse city such as NYC, I am grateful to have some minor experience with what it is to be the minority.

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