Uganda Part Two: Amani Baby Cottage

If you missed the first blog, you can find part one of my trip to Uganda here.

Lake Victoria / Nile River

On our free day (Saturday), we went shopping for souvenirs in downtown Jinja.  Then we went out to an Indian restaurant for lunch, followed by a boat ride.

The boat ride started out on Lake Victoria.  We saw some prisons that have land that leads right into the water, but there were no fences.  Our guide told us that 96% of Ugandans are unable to swim, so they know that the prisoners will not escape.

We also saw fish farms in the middle of the lake where tilapia are harvested.

We stopped at a fishing village where we walked around and saw all of these little silver fish that they were drying out in the sun.

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All of the children in the village were excited to see us, and they cried out, “mzungu!” (“white person!”)  They all wanted to hold our hands, but what was interesting is that many of them were also smelling our hands.  I have no idea why they did that.  I’m not sure if previous white people maybe had a lot of perfume or scented lotion on.  Or maybe our skin just smells different than theirs.  I’m not too sure.

After leaving the fishing village, we headed to the source of the Nile.  The Nile River is the world’s longest river and it flows north, from Uganda to Egypt.  The water started moving more quickly once we got closer to the area where the lake and the river meet.  The guide told us that it was because of the huge difference between the depth of the lake and the depth of the river.

Rachel and I stuck our feet into the water:

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Then we took a group photo there.

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After volunteering with Sixty Feet and Sole Hope, we spent our last three days at Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja.

Initially, when reading about the trip to Uganda back in December when I registered, we were going to split all of our time between Sixty Feet and Sole Hope.  It was only more recently that the three days at Amani were added.

To be completely honest, I was disappointed at the addition of Amani to our itinerary.  I’m not a huge baby person.  I teach high school students because I prefer the older kids.  I was excited for the other two volunteer opportunities because I knew that there would be children of many ages.  Hearing the words “baby cottage” did not excite me at all.

Fortunately, I found out that Amani housed children from ages 0 to 5, so I was hoping to get to spend most of my time with the older kids.  Five year olds I could deal with (or at least I thought so); it was the babies I was not ready for.

Amani Baby Cottage

According to its website, Amani Baby Cottage (ABC), “was established in 2003 to provide care for orphaned and abandoned children…Many are orphaned when their parents die due to AIDS, birth complications or other factors. Some are abandoned in the hospital after birth. Others are found abandoned at taxi stops, in latrines, or on the street…To date, a total of 328 children have been cared for in our home. 107 of these have been reunited with their parents or extended family members, 135 have been fostered into new families, and 26 have been transferred to other ministry placements. We do not refuse children in fragile health, thus 23 children have died while in our care.”

Everyone on my team had different tasks during our time at Amani.  There were 43 children there, ages 0 to 5.  Different team members helped with the infants, the toddlers, the preschool, cleaning, changing diapers, rocking babies, you name it.

There are Ugandan women working there who are referred to as “Mamas.”  It’s really cute hearing the children call the women “Mama.”  Any time the mamas hand out a snack or help a child with something, the kids say, “thank you, Mama.”

When volunteers come, they calls us “aunties” and “uncles.”  It was nice having that routine set before we arrived because even if they didn’t know our first name, they could still address us.

The first day at Amani, Rachel, Cortnie, and I were helping out with the preschool.  The students met as a group at first to do their morning routine, learning about the weather and the calendar.  Then they separated into three groups for different activities.  There were the zebras, giraffes, and lions, according to their ages.  They would rotate through different activities so that the groupings would be smaller.

It was amazing to see how well organized everything was.  The mamas had the schedule down to the minute and the kids were very well-behaved and polite.

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The preschool children in their school uniforms

I was with the zebras and our first activity was to go outside to play.  They ran around, played on the swings and monkey bars, and the mamas led them in some fun exercises like frog jumps and songs that had body movements incorporated.

After that, all of the kids regrouped, said a prayer, had porridge and a snack, before separating into their animal groups again. Each of the kids in my group were given a card with a letter on it.  They had to replicate that letter by building it with blocks.  I was really impressed by their language skills.  The other children we met in Uganda knew some English, but here their English sounded perfect and they were completely fluent.

Their schedule shifted a bit after that because the Auntie Rebecca, who had been their preschool teacher for the past month as a volunteer, was flying back home, so she gave out lollipops and they spent some time taking goodbye pictures.

Then we watched some Australian learning videos that were absolutely hilarious to Rachel and me.  They were super corny and the main actor was really strange, but the kids loved them, marching and dancing along to the songs.  There were songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and then others that I hadn’t heard of.

We helped get the kids ready for lunch and then their nap, and then we left for lunch.

After lunch, we came back to play outside with the kids.  I mainly pushed kids on the swings.  Other people on our team were running around, playing with balls, or doing face paint.

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The next day, we expected to return to Amani to similar tasks.  However, upon arriving, we learned that the Mamas had professional development scheduled that day.  They had tried to reschedule it, but there were people who traveled from Kampala to go there.

Due to the change in schedule, preschool was cancelled.  Mission trips always require flexibility and this is the best example of that.  There was no time to complain or ask questions; we just needed to get to work.

Kimi, Joe and I went to the one of the male cottages, which housed ten boys: Edmond, Solomon, Jimmy, Silas, Babu, Michael, Dominic, David, Jonah, and Jonathan.  Jonathan was the only baby and Jonah was around two years old.  The rest were toddlers.

I cannot even begin to describe the chaos that ensued.  There were a few times when I looked over at Kimi and asked, “Am I being pranked right now?  Is this Candid Camera?”  During those moments, all we could do was shoot terrified glances over at one another and then simply laugh at the ridiculousness that we were experiencing.

The boys had acted like little angels when their mamas were around, sitting in a perfect formation, saying thank you, and using good manners, but it was like a switch flipped the moment the mamas walked out the door.

They were stealing toys from each other, running around, and trying to climb the shelves.  We put on a movie, but they wouldn’t stop talking so they couldn’t hear the movie.  I found two books, so I tried reading to them.  They listened to the first book, but by the second, their attention span was gone.

Every now and then, though, one of the mamas would come in to check on something or to make sure that things were going alright.  The minute they entered the room, the boys returned to their perfect angel state.  All a mama had to say was, “boys, stop talking,” and there was silence.  Kimi and I just looked at each other in amazement any time this happened.

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Watching a movie

Then it was time for their snack (porridge and a banana).  Mama Georgina told us to stir the porridge with a cup before serving them because it was too hot.  The boys were watching something on the TV while we stirred.  Then, one of the boys started the prayer before meals: “Hand together,” he said.  And they all repeated, “hands together” while putting their hands into prayer position.  “Eyes closed,” he continued, and they all shut their eyes.  They went through all of the prayer.  I couldn’t understand all of the words but it was something like: “Hands together, eyes closed.  Bless our porridge, bless our mamas, bless our aunties, bless our uncles, in Jesus’ name, amen.”  They would all clap while they said “Amen.”

Kimi and I thought that it was really cute that they just said their prayers on their own while watching the movie.  Then, a few minutes later, another boy started the prayer.  When he finished he said, “auntie, we would like our porridge.”  The problem was that it was still extremely hot.

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Prayers before snack

The same thing happened a few minutes later, with another boy starting the prayer.  This time we decide to give them the porridge because we knew they wouldn’t stop praying and asking.  I have no idea how they drank it since it seemed to be burning hot, but they loved it.  One boy in the room has special needs and he doesn’t have full control of his arms or legs.  He spilled the porridge all over himself, so we had to find him a new change of clothes.  I hope that he didn’t burn his chest.

After snack, we were excited that we could bring the boys outside.  We expected it to be less crazy than being cooped up in the cottage all day.  Boy were we wrong!

There were people working on the grounds of Amani, doing various tasks like gardening.  The boys ran out of the cottage and made a beeline for the yard tools.  The workers weren’t there at the moment, but their shovels, hoes, and rakes were.

I found myself running toward the edge of the property, wrestling these garden tools out of the hands of the toddlers.  Initially, I told the kids not to touch them and to put them down and they listened, but the moment I walked away, I saw kids chasing each other with the tools.

So back I went, running around in an attempt to avoid witnessing a child being impaled by a gardening tool.  Rachel came outside of her cottage with the girls and she was somehow able to grab a rake out of one of the children’s hands, despite holding two babies on either hip.

Katie told us later that the whole scene was hilarious.  Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at the chaos, but in the moment, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.

At different points during the day, I paused to say a prayer asking God for help.  It sounds so funny now, but gosh, we were all feeling completely overwhelmed and unprepared.  I couldn’t have gotten through that whole day if I wasn’t confident that God had placed me there for a reason and that He was going to help me to continue.

After the garden tool fiasco, we just played outside and then we left for lunch.

We usually went over our highs and lows each day at dinner.  Every team member would discuss their day and it was a nice way to debrief.  This day, we decided to do highs and lows at lunch since we were all exhausted and less than enthused about the thought of returning to Amani.  Many of our teammates were peed on, pooped on, or spit up on.

Kimi and I had been thinking that we had it the worst with ten boys between us, but we came to find out during lunch that Cortnie and Rachel had it even worse in the girls’ cottage.  There were 13 girls and it sounded like they were behaved even more badly than the boys.

Serving at Amani that day definitely gave us a quick dose of humility.  It also increased our respect and appreciation of the mamas exponentially.  The mamas do such an amazing job caring for and loving those children and I’m sure that they have their fair share of difficulties.

The children at Amani come from a variety of backgrounds so although everything looked like it was down to a science on our first day there, I know that doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.  Establishing the routines, rules, and procedures takes a lot of work and those mamas are simply amazing.  It is also clear how much they truly love those children.  If I ever considered adopting, I would have no hesitation to adopt a child from a place like Amani because it is obvious that they are extremely well cared for.

After lunch, we were all hesitant about returning, but it was much calmer.  We played with the kids outside.  We played on the swing set and we also brought bubbles.

Something that was really interesting to me was that the swing set was dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.  It had a plaque on it that included the names and ages of everyone who had died in Connecticut that day, along with the names of companies and churches that had either donated the supplied for the swing set, donated money, or helped to build it.

There were stores from Bethel and Danbury, Connecticut listed on the plaque, which is where I used to live before moving to New Jersey.  What a small world that I was playing with kids in Uganda on a playground that was made with supplies from my former town!

Sarah and Mary brought their Polaroid camera, so the kids LOVED having their pictures taken.

We found out that afternoon that the professional development was a two-day course. Upon leaving, we knew that we would probably have another chaotic day in store for us the following day.  I was thankful for a calmer afternoon, but nervous what the next day would entail.

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Yep, I’m holding a baby!

Some of us switched roles the next day.  I stayed in the same room as the previous day because I figured that it would be helpful that I knew all of the names of the boys in that cottage.  Rachel, Cortnie, and Joe were in that cottage with me.

This was our last day volunteering in Uganda, so I think that most of us hoped that it would be a better experience than the prior day.  Fortunately, it was definitely better.  There were definitely still crazy, chaotic moments, but not nearly as many.

The woman who is the current director of Amani bought new movies, hoping that the kids would behave better if they were interested in a new movie that they hadn’t seen before.  That worked really well; the boys were engrossed in The Lion King.

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The only slight problem was that every kid wanted to sit in our laps, but there were only three of us.

They watched all of The Lion King, so we followed that with The Good Dinosaur.  They were less excited about that movie, so they got a little antsy.

We had snack time with more prayers, porridge, and bananas, and this time it was much better because the porridge wasn’t too hot when I got it from the kitchen.

We turned on Cars instead of The Good Dinosaur since they really didn’t like that one.  We could hear noises coming from the girls’ cottage and some of the girls ran into our cottage to show the boys some crafts they were making.  Cortnie, Rachel, and I were nervous that would cause the boys to become rambunctious as well.  We shut both of the doors so that the girls couldn’t distract them and then we brought out the crayons and coloring books.

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It went well, other than one kid who was eating his crayon:

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We left for lunch and when we returned, the mamas had a variety of hand-made items out on display.  It was great to be able to support the mamas by purchasing some souvenirs from them.

Then the kids had pineapple for a snack before going outside.  They wanted us to play “Let it Go” from Frozen on our phones.  Katie had that song on her phone, so she had played it for them before, but she wasn’t with us.  They didn’t understand how it was possible that we didn’t have the song.  We had a phone just like her, after all.  I tried to play them other songs on my phone, but they were unimpressed.

Then it was time to go outside for the rest of the afternoon.  Mama Georgina handed me a pair of nail clippers and said to trim the boys’ nails.  I wasn’t too sure how that was going to play out, but the boys were actually really good at staying still while I clipped their nails.  I’m not sure if I have ever clipped anyone’s nails before that.

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We had nail polish, so we painted their nails.  That was a bit of a mess since they kept moving too soon after and smudging the nail polish, but they liked it anyway.  We also had more bubbles.

It seemed like there were fewer kids that afternoon, so it was much calmer.  I was told that some of them were going to therapists or other appointments.

After playing for a while, it was getting close to our time to leave.  The mamas had the kids form a circle so that they could sing farewell songs to us.  That moment was really touching.

They sang some songs in English and some in Luganda; there were some that we were familiar with, such as “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and others that we had never heard.

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One girl started singing a Christian song and it was just precious.  Both her and her twin sister had one hand on their heart and one hand raised to the sky, praising God.

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The songs were really cute, but then it was time to leave.  One boy, Silas, had been sitting on my lap during all of the songs and he had been following me around a little bit that afternoon (he’s the one who ate the blue crayon).  He was holding onto my skirt as I got up to walk away.

I had to physically remove his arms from around my waist and then he started crying.  As we walked out of the compound, some of the kids (like Silas) were crying.  One boy, Edmond, ran up to the fence and waved goodbye.

I couldn’t stop a few tears from rolling down my cheeks.  I couldn’t help but consider how many people the children must say goodbye to.

It’s awesome that so many people go to Amani to volunteer, but there’s always a goodbye.  Some of these boys were abandoned by their parents, and I just felt like I was continuing the cycle of loss.

It was bittersweet, though, because at the same time, we were really needed there.  Although we did a lot of work with Sole Hope, I’m sure that they could have found anyone to help wash feet or pass out lollipops or stickers.

But when the mamas needed their professional development, I’m not sure what they would have done had we not been there.  Us being there helped take a lot off of their plate and I’m thankful that I was able to show my gratitude to them by removing some of their daily duties for a few days.

I know that God placed me and my team exactly where He needed us, so I know that I shouldn’t feel sad, but walking down the road and away from those children was really hard.


After leaving Amani, we went back to our guest house to pack our bags since we would be leaving early the following morning to take the long drive back to Entebbe for our flights home.

We left around 6:30 to drive about three hours to Entebbe.  We had our last lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lake Victoria.  It was nice to have one last team activity before heading out.

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We had a five and a half hour flight to Dubai, followed by a four hour layover.  When we landed in Dubai, we had to get off the plane and board a bus to take us to the airport, but Rachel was flying to Germany and Cortnie was flying to Dallas, so they had to get onto a different bus than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t expected that, so we didn’t really get to say goodbye.

The temperature was around 95 degrees even though it was 10pm in Dubai.  It was so hot and humid that my camera lens fogged up when I tried to take a picture.

Now this is completely random, but something weird about Dubai International Airport is that the toilets seemed to have hot water in them.  I’m not sure if it was hot simply because it was so hot outside.  (It was around 107 degrees on our trip in the opposite direction since it was day time in Dubai at that point.)  Or maybe they heat their toilet water, though I can’t imagine that.  It felt like sitting on a steamer or something when I sat on the toilet.  TMI?  Probably, but it was interesting to me.

After our layover, we flew about 14 hours to JFK and luckily, that was my last stop.  We went through immigration/customs, got our luggage, and I said goodbye to my team, most of whom had to wait for another flight later in the day.

So that was my experience in Uganda this summer.

To everyone who donated money to help me to go on this trip: thank you so much.  I would have been unable to do this work if it hadn’t been for your great generosity.  Although you were not able to be on the trip in the flesh, I brought you with me in my prayers.

To everyone who donated jeans or helped me to cut the jean patterns: thank you.  I was able to witness the entire shoemaking process, from jeans, to jean patterns, to sewing and creating shoes.  And then I was able to help out at the actual clinic and see the shoes on the feet of people who were now jigger-free.  Although you may have simply given me a pair of old jeans, they are now helping someone to avoid a jigger re-infestation.

To those of you who prayed for me and my team: I appreciate it so much.  There were a few teammates who experienced minor illnesses, but we were healthy for the most part.  We were safe, and we had an excellent, rewarding experience.

To my teammates, Kimi, Bart, Jacob, Katie, Cortnie, Rachel, Sara, Haley, Mary, Mia, and Joe: I am grateful for meeting you.  I know that God formed our team with each of you in mind.  We each brought along our own strengths and weaknesses and together, we were able to help spread love throughout Kampala and Jinja.  I will continue to pray for each of you and I expect to hear more amazing things that each of you are doing in your lives.  You are all inspiring.

Love,

Stephanie


Here is the video for part two of my trip:

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