It’s overcast and hot and the air is thick with the acrid smell of the charcoal used for cooking fires. I’m running down a rutted red dirt road, with far more pedestrians than vehicles. Women with bundles of baby on their backs and goods on their heads, men standing idle in clusters with heavy bicycles and rattling motorbikes, children walking to school, many people walking with machetes or pangas, off to hard labour for the day.
The few vehicles that pass are crammed with people, four to a small motorbike, a dozen in the back of a small truck. An agricultural population on its way to work. I’m a bit ashamed of my thick body and the privilege of running for pleasure, because my life is too easy.
The Rwenzori mountains are thick green and stunning. The foothills I’m running through slow me down, along with jet lag, a week of tropical heat, gut rot, intense work.
I’m in rural Uganda, working on a volunteer project I am the director of. Nikibasika. Meaning “It is possible” in the local language. It’s my 9th annual visit here, and our team has spent the week working with the students in the learning and development project. Most are not children anymore — they are young adults, and much of our work this week has been about one-on-one career and education planning, and serious talks about relationships. One of the girls who recently graduated from the project has had a baby. She is 20 but without a husband and no stable work yet. We talk about her and the older girls come up with a formula for success: School + Job + Money + Marriage + Two years and THEN babies. They turn it into a mantra and repeat it back to us.
Being in this community makes me more of the self I want to be, all the time. I love these kids as my own, and know their fears and hopes and faults, who is creative and who is practical, who teaches the younger kids. And when I’m with them, I’m all spirit and heart and head, working constantly to manage and parent and be a friend in 1/50th of a year.
And now the other three Canadians are gone, and I have an hour to myself. I finally run, and I am in the heart of the real community the kids in the project are enmeshed in. Ours are lucky — we support them through three years of post-secondary school and a three month leadership/career program, and learning how to do community service. They were street kids — or “sweet kids” as Phionah calls the ones that they are now helping. They are glowing. And I can run and make meaning of this work, of this week.
I greet the local people on the road with Obikire, good morning in their language. Every one of them smiles. One man holding a live chicken under his arm grins broadly. A man standing idle with his bicycle sings out Reduce your Speed! The ladies giggle. One old man with a machete resists my attempts to charm and scowls at me and demands “give me 5 shillings.” It’s less than a penny he’s asking for.
I run up the rutted hill that has defeated me before, so slowly. I feel all of the people who walk so far to work for $30 a month, who are still hacking at maize or long grasses with machetes when they are old. Who are thrilled to have their one chicken to sell. I appreciate how hard the young people in our project work, how open their hearts are, how they let me in. I run and sweat and find my body again, grateful.
[The major source of funds for Nikibasika is the Triadventure (tri, a 3 day run or swim, paddle and cycling event in August. This is an all volunteer effort with amazing outcomes and all of the money goes to the project in Uganda. Canadians get a charitable donation receipt if you sponsor me at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/nikibasika-development-program-66/. Thanks :-))