Mazungu, Byee!!

These last two days have been busy! On Saturday morning, I spent time washing my bike, doing laundry and trying to organize the chaos that erupted in our room once we got back. John went to clear his head on a bike ride, but the continued over-attention and dust make it hard to want to travel very far.

Yesterday, after making a lunch of chipati and avocado with mango bought from locals around the area, we went with Vincent and Jacob to see the Steven Baker Farm, a seven-acre plot of land purchased for them by a woman in the US in memory of her son. Here they grow bananas, sweet potatoes, coffee, groundnuts, pineapple, carrots, jackfruit, cassava, squash, eggplants, and various greens. Kasanda Children’s Aid then uses the produce to provide for people in the region who cannot feed themselves, selling any leftovers to put back into the farm, which they admit is very little once they care for immediate needs. We walked to every corner of the property, the boundary being marked with little (one-foot tall) planted trees.

On the property, they had built a house for a young mom who is HIV positive whose husband died of AIDS. She is the mother of two of our Get Schooled students who live there with her: Prossey (in the picture with me below) and Fabian. Kasanda Children’s Aid has been able to build three houses in the last five months or so through various donations from the US and Canada and local grants. It costs $2500 to build a two-room house with a solar light, a safe steel door with a lock (as opposed to a cloth sheet which is the typical door), a solid rainproof roof and an outhouse pit toilet. Our friend Jacob is a jack of all trades and he voluntarily builds these structures with a helper in a matter of two weeks. They are solidly constructed out of bricks and, compared to the thatched ‘bathroom’ (which was really just a small three-walled enclosure made of sticks and grass) and the deteriorating structure that was falling down around them in which they lived before, it was the Ritz. They also bought her a popcorn machine so she could make a little money for her family (see picture below). Another one they had built had a little shop in the window, showing the honest effort of the woman who lived there and her desire to try and provide what little she could for her family (also pictured below).

While driving to these houses, we came by a woman who was sitting on the side of the road in a field of corn who goes to Vincent’s church and sings in the choir. She invited us to come to her house to see her grandchildren. She had inherited a small plot of land through someone’s death and had four of her grandchildren living with her. Her own grown children had left their kids with her and she never heard from her children again. She tries to find where they are just so she knows how their lives are going, but hasn’t been able to find them and they have not checked in on her or the children they left behind in her care. Her traditional gomesi dress was fraying at the bottom and her sweet face was etched with sorrow and hard work, caring for toddlers and young children as a woman in her late 50’s. The kids looked happy, but sick. One had an eye that looked infected and their noses were running as they sat on a tattered blanket together in threadbare clothes. She invited me to look into her house and not only was it pitch black in the middle of the afternoon, but also dirty and tattered, pitiful and in shambles. I have not seen such poverty before. The pit toilet (that she had to dig on her own) consisted of two large rectangular holes, too big for the small children to use without spreading their hands and feet in the human waste and filth to keep from falling in (pictures below). My heart broke. I could see that John’s had too. I wanted Vincent to tell her how proud I felt of her – how thankful I was that she was taking care of these children the best way she could. I choked on my words and couldn’t speak. John leaned over to Vincent and quietly said through tears, “Please don’t tell her until we’re gone, but we will pay for her house if Jacob will build it.” I am so honoured to be married to a man who can’t help his compassion and is moved to action for strangers, but with great humility.

Church had already been going for two hours when someone was sent to fetch us. John and I both got onto the back of a small motorcycle with the driver and drove through town. I was wearing a skirt so had to sit side saddle and hung on for dear life even though it was only a kilometre or two. I have been to this church before on a previous trip with Martial Arts for Justice when we met with local ladies to do a little self-defence training and trauma counselling. Nothing had changed. The walls were still sawn logs that hung crookedly with huge gaps between them. The colourful fabric still hung in big sheets around the one-room building and the pineapple party favours made in China still hung crazily from the ceiling. The uneven stage still sagged with each movement of the dancing choir. The children sang and danced in the front rows while women breastfed their babies and the men danced and clapped with sweaty faces. And of course, we were sitting right up front with all eyes on us and awkwardly trying to keep up. They honoured us greatly with their words of thanks and the choir sang a song for us. Although it was uncomfortable to say the least to be the centre of such attention and the topic of the sermon, their hearts were on full display and all we could do was take it all in with humility and gratitude for their prayers and acceptance. I talked a little after the sermon about the ride and the children, but mostly thanked them for their prayers and encouraged them that hundreds of people in the US and Canada care about them enough to give resources to the children of Uganda whom they will most likely never meet in person. The magnitude of that kind of love was not lost on them. After the service most of those in attendance came up to shake our hands or share a hug. One sweet older women placed two eggs in my hand as a thank you…one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.

After the four-hour service, we went to Vincent’s house where he had lunch prepared: fried chicken, rice, greens, noodles, squash, potatoes, and beans in sauce. It is meaningful in every culture, I believe, to share a meal together and as we all sat around and ate, joking and laughing but also talking about the suffering these people have seen, it further bound us together. They appreciate John so much and use him as an example of what a supportive husband looks like. I agree. They recognize the sacrifice it took for us to leave our jobs and our friends and family behind to complete this project. And although we appreciated their kind words, it was very humbling when we consider the North American wealth and safety that we get to return to. Soon, we have to say goodbye to our Ugandan friends, knowing of their continuous struggle, having seen the poverty in which even the pastors live and knowing our big friend Jacob (the former heavyweight champion of Uganda) sleeps under a tattered blanket in a top bunk with two children in the bunks below him.

You know, the ‘greeting’ that I heard coming from the mouths of children more often than any other across the entire country was, “Muzungu, byee! Muzungu, byee!” I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because we foreigners come…but we always get to leave.

Busy Heartbreaking Day

Hello everyone. Thank you again for sticking with us through this journey. We keep asking each other, “Do you think anyone is still reading these?” And then we get an encouraging email or text that confirms there are at least a few of you out there. 🙂

We are going to post a longer blog tomorrow because we are tired today, both physically and emotionally. It was heartbreaking and humbling. For these two introverts who find it easier to be pedalling, lost in our own thoughts, than being the centre of attention, these next few days might be the hardest. We are delving deep into Kasanda, expressing thanks at church tomorrow, packing, partying with the kids, giving speeches, shaking hands, navigating the language barrier, all the while feeling fatigued and homesick.

Have a great day, everyone. We are looking forward to home and more grateful than usual for all of you and the way that we are blessed to live.

Sandblasted Thoughts

Our last day of riding. Wow. I can hardly believe I’m saying that. It was for Namaganda Scovia and it was a short one – only 35 kilometres.

John woke up with a sore stomach but he was able ride it out. I even thought to myself, “He’ll be fine once he starts riding. He’s always good when he’s riding.” And he was. Vincent and Luke met us on a motorcycle and leapfrogged us all the way from Mityana to Kasanda. He took photos and video of us riding during various parts of the ride. It was so good to see Vincent again and he just kept shaking his head in disbelief that we had travelled 2200 kilometres around the country on bicycles in 30 days of riding. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face, except when he tried to lift John’s bike. “It’s so heavy!” he kept repeating. John told him it was because of all my beauty products. In truth, my beauty products consist of a tiny tube of deodorant lotion, a few hair bands, and a razor. I haven’t washed my hair once (don’t judge – I try to rinse it well on most days), and I caved and bought toenail polish today because mine is so bad and I have to wear sandals. They didn’t have my choice of colour so I let the teenage worker at the shop choose a colour for me. So now I will have purple toenails, a first for me.

I have embraced the abnormal and you can see the toll it’s taken on my body: biking in Uganda is a great weight-loss program. One tends to edit her approach to life while on a long ride like this. It’s like sandblasting your thoughts. I hope that life becomes simpler after this ride, not more complicated.

The ride today was the shortest of the trip, and it felt great. It flew by. Riding into Kasanda was surreal. There was a boda boda driver who was in front of us, honking his horn like we were in some kind of parade. We followed him to the hotel and there was about seventy-five school children (a few of our Get Schooled students scattered among them) and their teachers lined up on both sides of the gravel highway cheering us as we rode in. As soon as I saw them, my heart swelled and I burst into tears. We rode through them as they cheered and then turned around and rode through again to give high-fives all down the line. They were so kind and sweet and I felt like I was in an ocean of awesome when we all shared a group hug. All the pain, sweat and tears of the journey were entirely forgotten in a moment. And I am so proud of John and so very thankful for him. He sacrificed so much to get me here, keep me safe and make sure I was successful. And it was never lost on me how hard he had to fight to get back to the place where he could do this after his accident. I am blessed to have such a humble, courageous, forgiving, strong, wise and adventurous man in my life. I can’t even tell you.

The ride was too short to sort through all the emotions I’m feeling and I know that will take time. Stay tuned to our blog this week as we continue to sort through the emotional journey now that that the physical one is done and share our final celebration with you. I’ve told many friends that I fully expect to be a bit depressed when I come home. That feeling of emptiness from yesterday can’t be shaken off so easily. But today I felt as if I was being pushed from behind (which I literally was at one point when three schoolgirls pushed me up a small hill). I had flashbacks of training on my fatbike in the snow when I couldn’t feel my hands and feet and this day felt so far away. I reminisced about certain songs on my “Uganda 2019” playlist that fed my hope of completing this accomplishment and helped me embrace who I was made to be. I remembered getting the call about John’s accident as I watched him push the pedals up a hill in front of me, wondering about his grit and determination. I thought of my kids and the strength I get from watching them flourish as adults and rested in the knowledge that this mama has made them proud. I was reminded of an email I got from a dear friend right before we started that said when things feel difficult on this trip, it’s only because I am “carrying the weight of all the people who love me” and “the burden of 54 children whose lives might be changed.” I have thought about her words so often at various times of this journey and it has kept the pedals moving. And today? It felt like all the weight was dropped, the burden laid down and the dream accomplished. Thank you for doing your part to make that happen. I am so grateful for each of you, for the encouragement you’ve given and your belief in us.

It Takes a Village

What a night last night. We traded bedbugs for late-night revellers who partied just outside our window until 1 am. So we didn’t get much sleep for the second night in a row. They knocked on our door before we were up this morning to take our order for breakfast. We weren’t ready to eat yet, but when I did finally agree that some scrambled eggs and coffee would be really nice, she said it would be ready in thirty minutes. An hour and a half later, we gobbled down our cold eggs and scalded our throats to get down the overly hot coffee before Luke’s expected arrival just after 10. He arrived with our friend from Kasanda named Jakob who was the man who drove Vincent to pick us up from the airport way back in June. We hadn’t seen him for over a month so it was a happy reunion. He is hilarious, animated, loud, big and humble. He’s the kind of guy you like to have with you wherever you go because he exudes joy and laughs easily. He is the two-time Ugandan national heavy weight boxing champion and used to be a lorry driver. He can fix anything and I just feel safer when he’s around. It was strange to be in a car for the first time in two months. It seemed WAY too fast and as we drove along the rutted dirt roads, I found myself “picking my line,” watching for glass, and holding my breath when a truck went by to avoid breathing in the dust. It seems that being on these roads on a bike for nearly two months has formed some habits.

Luke (the reporter if you’ve missed previous blogs) had a few places he wanted us to visit and a few people he wanted us to meet. We first visited a school where his uncle is the director and visited a couple of classes. The class-sizes were HUGE with only one teacher and as an educator in Canada where the union fights for reasonable class-size, I was saddened and felt for the teacher. The learning strategy was very much rote memory as evidenced by their songs and reaction to seeing us when they say a greeting in unison that I’m not sure they even understand. The students were very well-behaved and Luke said it’s because it’s a private school where students pay even more than our Get Schooled kids. The teachers are better educated and the classrooms are more organized.

After visiting the school we went to the Ttanda Archeological site. The main tribe in the area is the Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda. They believe that suffering and death began at the exact spot we visited. It boasts of having the deepest holes in the world that they explain with legends and myths about two gods who were fighting each other and they dug the holes as a strategy to evade and sneak up on each other. I have no idea how those holes actually formed geologically and neither do they, but they were deep!! So the site is now a sacred shrine to various gods and people pay to go there to worship and pray to various gods including those of art, sports, music, thunder, electricity, etc. We even had to take off our shoes to enter, but when Luke argued that he didn’t want to get his socks dirty, they gave him a pair of “ancient” shoes to wear that looked strangely like every other pair of sandals we have seen people wearing. Because the two gods who dug the holes were warriors, people leave spears there as a sacrifice. They will also pray for healing and leave their crutches behind as proof they were healed. We had some good discussion with Luke and Jacob about how the Ugandans take their traditional beliefs and try to respect them while still holding true to their Christian or Catholic beliefs. They said it was very difficult for some and something that is a constant struggle.

After that, he took us to see a very large tree that is traditionally known for “swallowing up” two people that just got married. People used to go there to worship as well, but we weren’t clear who was being worshipped or why. But the Catholic church bought the land it’s on and wouldn’t allow the worshippers to come anymore. To make their point, they put up a picture of Mary encased in a wooden box. Once again, there is that never-ending contrast within Uganda. You have the old and new, the religious and the traditional, the rich and the poor, the pain and the beauty. There was also a box of condoms nailed to the backside of this ancient looking tree. But Luke said he wouldn’t trust them because they might have been in the sunshine or rain. He rolled his eyes at the idea of anyone actually using them, but not at the idea of a box of condoms being nailed to a sacred tree on a village corner.

We had an older man wearing a puffy coat climb into the van with us to direct us to the next site – a place to which a stone had mysteriously rolled from the tree we were currently at, about two kilometres away over night. It was and is still believed that whoever tries to take firewood from the forest where it now rests would fail. Their fires wouldn’t light, the food would burn, etc. So now the forest around the rock is left alone. There we found a group of people still worshipping who shave their heads and again, charge money to go in to see the rock. A woman named Gladys scrawled her phone number on a piece of cardboard, shoved it into my hand and asked me to take her baby to Canada. She actually handed me her baby. I declined, of course, with nervous laughter and said the baby needed its mom. Kinda awkward so we left without walking into their spiritual space, refusing to pay their admission.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a lovely lunch made by Luke’s wife, Jessica, of matoke, beans, rice, greens, spaghetti, beef and juice. He told us the story of Robert, the quiet teen who walked past the table a few times without stopping to eat. Luke had found him distressed by the side of the road a few months ago. A job that he was promised had fallen through and he didn’t have anywhere to go. His parents’ situation wouldn’t have been any better than staying in the street. So Luke allows Robert to stay with him and his family and found him a job in another district. Robert stays off and on with Luke when he has any time off. Luke seems very civic-minded, cares a lot about his community and is a living example of the African proverb (not Hillary Clinton) that “it takes a village to raise a child”. At one point, we saw some kids walking home from school gnawing on sugar cane. Luke told Jakob to stop the van and he hopped out, talking to the kids about how it’s very bad manners to be walking and eating in your school uniform. They all knelt down to show respect and they apologized. Everywhere we went, if he saw kids that should have been in school, he asked them why they were not. They always had an excuse, but Luke says their answers sounded less like truth and more like something they had been taught to say if anyone asked them about school.

We finished our day together taking various back roads to find a good spot to see Lake Wamala, a fresh water lake which was part of Lake Victoria but has receded into its own banks over the last 4000 years (according to Wikipedia). There were fishermen and lots of wooden boats scattered on the shoreline. Unfortunately, it’s too muddy to really be a tourist attraction where we were, but you could see they were trying to develop certain areas to make the lake more accessible to tourists and locals to enjoy the birds and the cool breezes. The map below shows our vantage point.

It’s hard to believe that our last day of riding is tomorrow. I have mixed emotions as you would expect: Pride. Sadness. Relief. Gratitude. Expectation. And a nagging sense of Emptiness. I’ll have about 50 kilometres during which to sort all that out and I plan to greet every person I can, take in every scene, feel every bump, relish every sip of water and I even found a Snickers in town today to devour at my discretion during the ride. It’s going to be a good day.

Running On Empty

Today’s 75-kilometre ride with 3000 feet of climbing was for Kyagulanyi David and Achan Miriam.

Only one more kiddo to ride for on a 30-mile day on Friday. We are staying in Mityana again tomorrow because it’s the reporter’s hometown and he wants to show us around and ask more questions.

We had about as much sleep last night as you would expect based on yesterday’s blog. We crawled into our tent that we had set up in the room around 7 PM and they came knocking on the door at 7:30 to make sure we had power because all of our lights were off and they had just turned on the generator. (side-note: there was still only one bulb in the whole unit). They were also hoping to sell us dinner but having seen their facilities, we simply said we were too tired and going to bed early. In truth, we had the lights off because we didn’t want to attract the mosquitoes and we didn’t really want to see what else might be crawling around. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Then they came back and knocked at the door at 9:30 pm to see if we were going to the campfire. I reminded them that we were going to bed early and we would see them in the morning. When we both got up to use the bathroom one last time, we were jokingly screaming about the bugs as we hurled ourselves back into the tent and zipped it up as quickly as possible. Joel (the tour guide-handyman-cook-security guard-cleaner-crocodile feeder) was immediately outside the door calling, “Don’t worry, Mr. John! I’m right here!!”

Actually, now I am worried – is he spending the whole night sitting right outside our door? It almost seemed like it as he knocked on the door again this morning just before 7, asking for “Mr. John.” I told him he was still asleep and he said, “OK just leave him.” John wasn’t asleep and had only dozed off occasionally throughout the whole night. I have no idea why Joel so urgently wanted to see him, but we packed up everything inside the room and left as soon as we could. We didn’t even want to stay long enough to make our own oatmeal or coffee. Unfortunately, our quick exit was delayed because I had misplaced the Garmin InReach, our most expensive piece of gear – a satellite device that tracks our progress and has SOS potential. It has been my responsibility this entire time and I kinda freaked out a little (a lot) thinking I had lost it. Joel, of course, offered to help look. I retraced my steps to the lake while John looked through our bags. Joel dishonestly told John that I told him I would give him money if he found it. I had said nothing of the sort and was annoyed that he had lied about that. I still gave him a small tip because I felt bad that he obviously had a hard life and had made such an effort to connect.

In actuality, the poor service at the croc farm is rare and demonstrates again the value of education. We stopped for breakfast after twelve kilometres and ordered some “fluffy pancakes.” The first batch was undercooked and still raw in the middle but they looked so good. I eventually told the waitress after trying to eat one and when I showed her, she felt bad and I tried to tell her it was no big deal. But she took the pancakes back and they made us two new plates of pancakes and then didn’t charge us for the meal. The manager even came out and apologized for our experience, but I assured him that my pancakes turn out that way almost every time. Throughout Uganda we have found that those people that are able to attend hotel management classes in high school or college really focus on the quality of their service and take their employment very seriously. You can quickly tell who has had an education and been taught how to work with people.

It ended up being a rather hard day of riding for some reason. The miles weren’t crazy but the climbing, no dinner last night, the heat, poor sleep, being back on rutted gravel and navigation challenges made the day feel extra long and hard. It’s like my body knew exactly how much it needed in the tank to complete this journey and now I’m running on fumes and hoping I don’t run outta gas on the last day. John did a great job getting us here to Mityana and is as strong as ever, frequently having to wait for me today.

Our room tonight is the only one in the hotel that has hot water. We had to choose between hot water and having a TV. No contest. We had a wasp nest in our room but once I told them about it, they quickly gathered the troops and figured out how to get rid of them – which amounted to getting us out of the room while the boy staff made the girl staff squish the nest with a holey rag. I’ve been afraid of “African killer bees” since I was little and learned about them in some kind of summer nature camp. So I’m happy that they got rid of them. I stuffed a towel under the door to the outside because that is how they were coming in. Mission accomplished. When John saw the kitchen where meals were prepared (see picture below) he was a little hesitant, but it does tend to be the industry standard, so we ordered chicken with rice and fries and it really hit the spot.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I have no idea what’s around that Luke wants to show us or the ‘local favourite’ food that he wants to share with us. Remember, Luke, that we are delicate. He gave us some questions to think about so we’ll take some notes so it’s not so awkward this time. That is, unless he pulls out the video camera.