With no testing this week, I asked Patrick, head of Raising Up Hope for Uganda if I could go with him today when he visited the street kids in the Kampala slum. We agreed to meet at 9:30am so following the rule of Ugandan time, we headed out around 10:15 into Kampala. The minute we arrived, I realized I was about to witness a new level of poverty and sadness I had not yet experienced.
Walking into the first muddy and dirty street lined with huts and and stands made from anything found on the street (pieces of aluminum, wood, corrugated metal, etc) we were greeted by several kids calling out to “Uncle Patrick.” I immediately found my arm was now the resting spot for three little children’s hands and my own hand was now in control of an older boy who began to walk in front of me and lead me down the street. I had brought my purse carrying my camera, water, and money to get home and became extremely contienscious remembering all the advice I have received throughout my life regarding street kids and theft. Concentrating on my purse, I allowed the kids to lead me forward closely following Uncle Patrick.
Stopping at the first “house” Patrick stepped into the entrance and talked to a few of the boys inside. Some peered out and stared at me and it was easy to see that they were clearly using drugs. Less than a minute later, Patrick told me we could head onto the next house as this one was not appropriate to stay in due to the fumes and drug-use inside. I wasn’t surprised to hear this and can’t imagine many of the older children coping without some form of mind altering chemicals to help them escape the reality that is their life.
The second house was about the same size meaning the size of a nice walk-in closet. These rooms were specifically rented by Patrick to keep kids off the street at night. Unlike many big cities in the U.S, it is illegal to sleep on the street here and the police tend to enforce that by beating anyone found out at night. Therefore, these two small rooms usually hold around 80-90 kids every night.
Walking into the second house I heard Patrick visibly upset talking to two women in the doorframe. Apparently and without any shame, they had kicked out many of the kids the night before and slept in it themselves. However frustrating it may be, it’s hard to demonize these women as anyone who fought to sleep in that room clearly was also suffering. However, these rooms were specifically rented for the street children and that room was for the younger ones which is why they were able to kick so many out.
After they left, I walked in and took in my surroundings; The room, if this makes sense, is depressingly hopeful. It’s two-toned walls are dirty with some graffiti. Paint is chipping everywhere and bugs are visible crawling up the walls. The dirt and grime on the walls can be ignored if only for a minute when your eyes zero in on two things-the chalkboard where in the top left corner a previous bible lesson has not been fully erased and the handprints. On two of the walls Patrick and the other Raising Up Hope workers have put their handprints along with their name around the top half of the room. Near the middle the words “Trust in God” are written.
There is one bench where I can see the feet of a boy sleeping underneath. Patrick and I go sit on top of the bench and while the kids come in and sit-down, he begins to take out the supplies he brought in his backpack; gauze, cotton, scissors, ointment, and wrapping tape. Last time he came he ran out of the hydrogen peroxide he uses to treat the wounds so telling me to talk to the kids so they can practice their English, he leaves. I am in a room with 7 kids between the ages of about 4 and 15 and I have no idea what to do. Only one speaks enough English to communicate with so I immediately look at him as my new friend. “Hello what is your name?” is my first question. He tells me his name is Joseph (he really gave me a Ugandan name that I interpreted as Joseph and he let me roll with it) and then asked me mine. Meanwhile, there is a boy behind him looking at me and pointing at his chest, head, and finally writing something in the ground. I decide to ignore it for the moment and focus on my translator. He asks me if I have a father. “Yes,” I tell him. He tells me he doesn’t and then points to the sky wanting me to understand he is in heaven. I have no idea what to say so I just tell him, “Yes, but he is watching you” and he smiles. Another kid sits down next to me and looks like he is in pain. He pulls down his shirt to show me his should and Joseph tells me he was burned in the fire on the street. They cook and burn garbage everywhere and apparently when this child was walking by, one of the fires burst and burned him on his shoulder and legs. He is clearly uncomfortable and keeps touching the supplies Patrick brought. Now, I notice the boy who earlier was in the room is outside on the ground and still looking at me. He is again, pointing at his chest, head, then pretending to write something on the ground. “What is he doing?” I asked Joseph. Joseph tells me, “he is telling you he wants to go to school.”
I’m so uncomfortable with this situation that I start to almost feel a little panicky. I can’t communicate with these kids and I just want Patrick to come back and start helping as clearly I feel I can’t do anything that will improve their situation. Minutes later, Patrick is back and following him is a boy with a small tub of clean water he places on the floor. The first kid sits down and Patrick gets to work. He cleans the wound and put ointment on it. In my lack of medical knowledge and little to work with, my task is to rip the cotton to form cotton balls which he uses to clean the wounds. One little boy starts to carefully “organize” them on the floor so I start to hand them to him first and he seems to like the responsibility.
The 4th boy that sits down is older and immediately I notice his knee. Apparently he had been sleeping on the street one night when the police came and rounded all the boys up to take to jail. He tried to fight to avoid getting in the car and was shot by one of the policemen in the knew. He knee is literally flapping and looks pretty disgusting. Patrick tells me how they took him to the clinic after it happened and the bullet is out. And, disgusting as it looks, it is much improved and getting better. Wow. I am surprised at myself for how calm I remain and how I voluntarily watch him clean it.
When all the kids are treated, we leave and walk down the street to where two women are filling up plastic bags with beans and posho. Patrick tells me I am going to help them and I sit down to put in the rice. Its steaming hot and I scoop it out of a giant metal pot with a plastic bowl and plop it in the bag. It looks like a stew with the juice from the beans mixing up the rice and posho. The two- seconds I have to look up, I see we are right outside of a barber shop where business is going on as usual. It’s insane. Here we are sitting on stools with enough food for 50 kids being shoveled into bags while about 15 kids watch and right behind us is a man getting his head shaved and listening to the radio. It seems so bizarre that chaos surrounds the calm pockets of the slum where sights like these are a part of life and life continues…
We get back to the home (I keep fighting what to call it, a home, room, shack?) and I ask Patrick if I can take some pictures while he passes out the food and two of his helpers pass out the containers of juice. He encourages it and so I just kind of watch as all the kids get in a line. I help pass out the food to the kids who are inside of the room but Patrick stops me-5 of them live at home and although this might be the best meal they have seen in a few days, the food is for the street kids.
Insane, sad, overwhelming, hopeful. There is no way any one word can sum up an experience like this. I am inspired by Patrick and hopeful for the kids but at the same time overwhelmed with the situation and discouraged by their odds at getting a better life. I came in protecting my bag like I did every day on the metro of Madrid and leave feeling a little ashamed that not once did a child try to look inside or take anything. They all gave me hugs and thanked my like I had done something for them when all I had done is smile at them, give them a hug, and take their pictures.
As this was only morning/early afternoon, I had more to write about but for now, this is enough.