A few weeks ago I got a message that I had achieved a new level of steps on my Fitbit — the distance of a monarch butterfly migration! More than 4000 km, or 5.5 million steps in 15 months.
I do like to walk. But all of this is abstract — until I think about what went into each of those steps. Many are mundane — putting away laundry, walking to the streetcar, trying to find my way around the hospitals and universities I work in. Some are pragmatic and deliberate — workouts and the kinds of non-sublime runs I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. Some are privileged and rarefied — hiking in the mountains of Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan, walking around Paris with my 14 year old niece, around Lisbon at the end of a work conference.
But the 30,000 steps I’ve taken over the past two days? These are the ones that matter.
I’m in a town in western Uganda I’ve been to many times. I’ve been part of running a project here since 2007, when a small group of Canadians wrapped our arms around 52 kids with no parents or no parental support and committed to supporting them until they are educated, grown, self-sufficient, strong members of their communities. Our project is called Nikibasika, which means “it is possible” in the local language.
We are almost there. Our commitment is to support each kid with vocational or skilled trade certification or a university degree. By May next year, only 17 of the “kids” will be remaining in the program.
It’s an all volunteer, all donation commitment from Canada, with two stalwart leaders on the ground in Uganda. And because we are hitting the tipping point of more kids being done than in the program this year, we made this our last “official” visit, choosing to channel our travel money to the more practical.
Half of the kids are in the capital Kampala, and we saw them early in the week. The other half came from all of their schools around Uganda to gather in our project house. Four of the alumni came too, sleeping in tents (a novelty!).
Many of the kids asked me for one-on-one time, and I asked them to walk with me. “I like to walk,” said Siima, a primary care health officer with his own clinic now. “You talk and hear stories.”
It was oppressively hot, the sun blazing between the rains of April. The mountains are green, the roads are red, dust is everywhere. Now, I notice the smell of charcoal cooking fires when I first arrive and step into the tarmac, but it quickly fades.
I walk with Siima, talking about his upcoming visit to Canada and what it will be like for him to experience diversity and queerness for the first time, as an African man in a homogenous and homophobic country. He tells me he has already encountered discrimination as a western Ugandan in a school or easterners. “We must be adaptable and respectful. I must adapt.”
I walk and talk with Dorcus who breaks down when she tells me she worries about disappointing me if she fails one of her plumbing exams, the intense pressure she feels to support her extended family. She’s 20, and can’t sleep. We talk about boundaries and self-care and my unconditional love.
I walk and talk with one young man who is so quiet as he confesses his dream to be a songwriter and an artist, to connect his quiet voice to other people’s yearning. I walk and talk with a young woman who cries hard and tells me that our care feels deeper than her family’s, like we want her to know herself, be strong and independent. I walk and talk with four of the older girls, three of them complete, one married and so happy, who brought gifts to the kids still here. We talk about why we all want to stay deeply connected, support each other.
I walk with Brian, who was a lost tiny boy when we started coming, who learned so much from the love of my colleague Blair. Brian is now a man, doing his exams for a skilled trade. He finally found his father last year thanks to our director’s incredible persistence, and is so happy to belong to a family. He earns money at small jobs to pay his younger sisters’ school fees.
“When I was young I often shed tears,” he laughs. “But in Uganda men are not used to doing so. But even now, sometimes I have shed tears over a grade — and it is crazy to shed tears over a number.” We talk about how that means he cares, and how that is a good thing.
This project wasn’t intentional, and I often feel I have made far far more mistakes than anything else. Earlier, I was often impatient, resentful, so worried about fitting everything into our short weeks I tried to do everything and didn’t leave space for everyone’s voice on our team to grow. This project has been my crucible to really reflect on and reshape who I want to be on the world.
In these steps this week, I saw reflected back at me what I did right. These kids began in literal rags with no English, one meal of porridge a day. Today they are vibrant, eloquent, self-sufficient, reflective. Kagame talks about how he meditates every morning, learned when my colleague Bonnie began teaching yoga in the mornings. The youngest boy — at 15 — tells us the path he has planned for himself.
Because I have come back every year since 2008, these young people feel seen, feel cared for, feel heard. Phionah and I were talking on Monday and she suddenly stopped in response to something I said and said “why do you understand how it feels and no one else does?”
I listen. This is what I have done right. I share my own vulnerabilities. I have mobilized people. And I am persistent. So annoyingly, doggedly persevering.
This project is a miracle, taking abandoned children and the orphaned children and the children of parents who were too overcome by their own ills and sorrows and trauma to be able to parent — and gave them a family, a space to become themselves in a whole new world of independent women, men who can shed tears, who can look for their artistic voices.
It is a miracle, and it’s not done. We have one big final fundraiser this summer where we are trying to shore up enough funds to see the remaining 17 through finding their own lives. Please join us.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto when she’s not wandering the world.
Donate to Nikibasika here: