Happy Birthday To Me
Ugandans know how to throw a party. Our friends stayed up until 4 am to set up the tents and chairs in a garden venue we had rented and it looked truly amazing. The weather even cooperated!
When we arrived, most of the guests were already there. I scanned the crowd (of over 400) for the sweet faces that were my motivation these past two months and there were about forty of the Get Schooled students there, their teachers and caregivers, people from the church, local dignitaries, the mayor, and locals of all ages who just heard there was a party and were curious. The program was well-planned with singing, dancing, speeches, traditional music using ankole horns, cake, a huge lunch and an hour-long ‘skit’ about family life to wrap things up.
The theme throughout the entire day was gratefulness. The people of Kassanda wanted me to tell you all how very grateful they are for what you have done for them and the children. It was expressed over and over and over again. It was so hard for them to believe that so many North Americans have heard their stories and actually listened and done something to help. The idea that people from abroad would leave their lives for two months to come over and bike around their country just because they cared about the people of this nation humbled them so much that they had a hard time expressing it in words. But they sure could express it through song and dance. Their songs all had words of gratitude and told of how they are “fresh and clean” and “want to win.” A few of the school groups had prepared a number of songs in advance, choreographed perfectly, of course. It was the freestyle dancing that I really loved. People in the crowd would dance up and give tips to the dancers who they appreciated the most and some kids left with a small wad of cold hard cash in their pockets. Had we known about this tradition, we would have tipped every single one of them, including a tiny but talented toddler and a woman who must have been in her 70’s who weren’t even part of the program. She was dancing in her chair the whole time and then she would slowly dance up to the group waving a bill worth 1000 shillings (25 cents) and wait to see who was dancing with the most vigour, skill and heart. I want to be like that when I’m old. Even the babies where dancing and each group, including the moms, the dignitaries, and the teachers all had songs that they got up and danced to together. I was even pulled up at one point and danced with the District Commissioner while the crowd cheered and laughed. It’s time like these when I have to just forget about my comfort zone all together and embrace the moments I know will not happen again.
My speech went really well, according to John. They had the Get Schooled students grouped together so it was easy for me to talk directly to them about resilience and how much they motivated me on the trip. I was sure to relay how all of you have read their stories and been moved to give because you believe in them and care about their futures. Vincent spoke as well as a few other local leaders and head masters. I was really proud of Vincent and happy that he could share a report of all the things KCA is doing in the community in such a public way. He believes it will go a long way to influencing other public investment. The district leaders explained that they chose not to spend money on education last year in their region. But today the leaders promised that the money would stay in this district for vocational schools because they see that there is something now on which they can build and they trust the local efforts on the Get Schooled project. Our project helped them see the desire for education in the district and the governor challenged the crowd to also make sacrifices as, he acknowledged, all of our donors have done. So this party was critical to connect those who have political power to the issues on the ground and demonstrate to them that the money will be spent properly. It went a little sideways when the mayor started using me as an example to the women to stay in shape. And that men need to avoid “dirty ugly” women ….Not sure where he was going with all that because of the language barrier. But he did promise us specifically and the audience that his office would ensure that the money you donated will not go to waste and he would add to the efforts. He was deeply moved and extremely thankful for your sacrifice.
The huge birthday cake that even had my name on it, compliments of Lisa Dengel (thank you again), was amazing. They chopped it into small pieces and I got to serve it around to make sure everyone got a bite. The governor presented us with certificates of thanks from Kassanda Children’s Aid and some African art as a gift that I hope makes it home in one piece.
They had big pots of food, but only certain people were served hot chicken served in banana leaves and given utensils. Most guests, including the parents of the Get Schooled students and all of the children, were given only rice and beans and ate with their hands, some of them needing to use a cafeteria tray instead of a plate. The mayor was served first and then other distinguished guests. Later, Vincent, despite our protests, brought us up and skipped the line to make sure we got our plates of beans, potatoes, rice, squash, g-nut (peanut) sauce, greens, and chicken. Everyone lined up and just patiently waited, including all the children. It felt very uncomfortable eating a huge plate of food while those behind us had not been served yet, but when we tried to go last, they were hearing none of that so we didn’t argue. We ate the meal in humility and shared our chicken with a young girl that was not expecting to get anything to eat. She immediately shared with others around her and had a special but shy smile.
After lunch, I was visiting with Vincent’s children that had come from Kampala for the day. I really enjoy them a lot and feel like I’m really getting to know them better each visit. I had seen a few of them before we started biking but hadn’t seen his sons yet, Stephen and Eric, so it was a fun reunion. I was kneeling as we chatted and a young man nearby (who had just come in to see what was going on) asked what I was doing. “Talking with my friends,” I replied.
“But why are you on your knees like that?”
“It’s a sign of respect, isn’t it?” I asked.
“But you’re older than them!” He argued with a confused smile.
“Oh, yes, but these are my heroes right here. I can still learn from those who are younger than me.” He didn’t really have an answer to that but he stuck around the entire day and seemed to really enjoy himself.
And I wasn’t lying. These kids really have become little heroes to me for all they have been through and still endure. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday celebration and the people of Uganda continue to impress me with their humility, sense of humour, giant hearts and generosity. The last year and a half of training, fundraising, praying, giving, planning, John’s recovery, and all 2200 kilometres came together today in one massive, crazy, loud, sweaty, crowded and deeply meaningful party and it is more than I could have ever asked for or imagined.