02 November 2010


There's one statistic about Uganda's population that always stuck out to me. I don't remember the exact figure off the top of my head right now, but it's basically this: something insane like 50% of the population here is under 20 years old. In a country of roughly thirty-three million-plus, that's a lot of kids. And with an average fertility rate (number of children per woman of child-bearing age) of 6.7, there are only going to be more.

Which is good and bad. Good because the kids are totally fun and awesome. Bad for lots and lots more crucial reasons.

These last (first) few days at site, I've been going out into surrounding villages with my organization conducting a baseline survey on family planning knowledge and use, looking at things like birth control and spacing the births of the children, etc.

The villages are really remote, most at least an hour's drive down small, rutted dirt roads or, as often as not, down a small footpath (we drive out to the villages, and then walk from house to house), and are just small compounds of round mud huts with grass thatched roofs spread across grassy savannah and scrubby trees with the few taller trees and the leafy mango trees providing shade to meet in. All that goes to say that most of the kids in the villages, and, again, there are a lot of them, have probably never (and at the absolute most, maybe once or twice) seen a white person in, well, person.

So today we went out to one such small, remote village, this one probably the furthest out of town that we had been. My counterpart and I got out of the car at the furthest household, the one on the border between this and the next district. Within five minutes of us sitting down under the shade of the biggest tree in the compound, there was a crowd of (yes, I counted, because I was impressed and slightly taken aback) twenty-nine kids all standing within five feet of where we were sitting. Staring, some glaring, whispering to each other, craning their necks to get a better look, a few of the smaller ones were stark naked while most of the rest were dressed in dirty rags or clothes six sizes too big, swollen bellies and snot-crusted noses and dirty bodies making me fall in love with all of them, even as we asked their parents if they've ever used birth control or family planning or why they didn't.

So I smiled and greeted them in Ateso, "Yoga kere!" with a wave. One may have waved back, a couple may have quietly replied "Yoga noi" but most just kept staring. The man we were interviewing snapped at the kids and they all sat down immediately, plopping down in the dirt, without taking their eyes off of the weirdo with the pasty skin sitting in front of them. It went on like that for a while, as we interviewed several parents, ranging from early twenties to mid-forties with three to five to seven kids, some of the kids in the crowd getting bored of my inactivity and wandering off, others coming to take their place, others, noticing something new and crazy about me, whispering to their friends and pointing.

It was good to see that, when a completely unexpected (I turned and stared until it was out of sight too -- literally the second aircraft I've seen since being here, third if you count the plane we flew in on) low-flying helicopter soared overhead, they were more impressed and intrigued by that then by me.

But when the helicopter was gone (apparently, probably, carrying the president to a campaign speech in the run-up to the elections in February), the kids came back and, yes, I counted again, because I could have sworn they had multiplied again and now there were forty-six. Forty-six kids, just coming to look. That has to be a new personal record.

Slowly though, one word started going around, repeated first as a question, though I'm not sure who asked it first, then as an exclamation, then as a question again, and then, seemingly, as a statement of fact.


That's right. Wayne Rooney, superstar English striker for Manchester United, nursing an injured ankle, had finally arrived. Right here in their village. No wonder they were so excited. Fortunately there wasn't a football around, so I couldn't prove them wrong.

Most of them chased the car until it was out of sight.

Later this evening, I stopped in the market for some food for dinner. Two tomatoes, two onions, two bell peppers, all for less than fifty cents. Walking home from the market, three kids ran up to me from across the street. We exchanged excited greetings in Ateso: "Yoga!" "Yoga noi! Biai bo?" "Etamit!"

Then the little girl, maybe four or five, said something I couldn't quite understand: "Akoto eong something something" which translates as "I want something something." I shrugged, she repeated herself, I shrugged, she repeated herself. Then a woman shouted from a storefront: "Idwe!" -- "Children!" They stopped and stared at her, ready to be reprimanded. "No, it's ok," I explained to her. "I just did not know what she was saying." The woman explained that they were saying they wanted to come with me.

I laughed and looked at the kids. "Ilosi iso!" I shouted. "We go!" And I walked towards home with the sun setting in my eyes and the acrid smell of cooking fires stinging my in nose and an increasing number of kids skipping and running at my side.

Those were today's things-that-make-having-millions-of-kids-in-this-country-awesome.

Then there was tonight.

I had my headphones in while I sat on my concrete floor, washing and cutting up the tomatoes, onions and peppers, stir-frying them in garlic chili oil and mixing them with pasta for the first legitimate dinner I've made for myself since being here. I was texting other volunteer friends and hearing funny stories about their days (like the meeting of the Department of Health in Oyam district where one long-winded doctor drew a detailed diagram to explain the location of hemorrhoids, for some unknown reason). The music was good and the stories were good and my dinner was good. And I washed my dishes in the basin and took my headphones off and went to throw the food scraps and water in the pit outside the compound.

As I walked outside, I heard an intense commotion from a house nearby. Crying, no, not crying, wailing, and screaming, and raised voices. I quickly opened the compound door into the pitch black of the night outside, emptied the basin into the dark, shut and locked the door again, and turned to my neighbor Peter who was sitting under the light outside studying for his exams.

"A baby has just died, in the house of that mzee next door."
Did this happen just now? I ask.
"Yes, they took it for treatment two days ago, but it has just now died."
I'm very sorry to hear that, I say out loud, then think to myself that I'm sorry to hear that another baby has died and I'm sorry that I can hear the family weeping from inside my house and I'm sorry that I feel that way and I feel disrespectful wanting to put my headphones back in to drown out someone's grief over the loss of a child and I text another friend so I'm not listening to it alone and she says that life is hard here and I say I know that and she says she knows that I know that and she also knows that I know that sitting and listening to it and wallowing in it won't change anything and won't help anyone and she knows that I know, but advises me anyway and rightly so, that I should recognize that those things happen every day and recognize the tragedy of it and then put my headphones back in and she's right.

That was today's thing-that-shows-that-these-millions-of-kids-cannot-really-be-cared-for-properly.

Peter says they think it was malaria.

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