Since COVID I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my past travels. While laughing and remembering the feeling of being on an airplane, I came across my notebook from a Kony Aid volunteer trip I did to Uganda in 2012. Originally booked to teach, until I came across pro domestic violence children’s books that were to be read aloud to class, then I switched to construction. While I was there I branched off and helped out smaller, local charities in need of aid on the weekends to maximize my help potential. Here is an excerpt from a trip to teach at a children’s school in one of the largest slums in the world.
July 1, 2012
Today I went to the largest slum in Kampala, Kisenyi. We were going to scout out where our building was we would be teaching in the next day. I was not expecting, nor could I have ever been properly prepared for where I was about to go. It was by far the most horrible and terrifying experience in my life. It had to have been hell on earth. I witnessed 5-12 year olds huffing jet fuel soaked rags they put inside plastic bottles to get high, strung out babies, and dead people. While there I saw a woman get raped and was told if I tried to help her that I would be killed. The air had the stench of hopelessness and death. I couldn’t help but feel this heavy anger and thick raunchiness. Only there for a few moments and already the energy was seeping into me. Given the choice to live there or die, I choose death.
After our recon mission my team went back to our orphanage for the evening. Sitting next to a jackfruit tree alone with my thoughts I noticed I was harboring these negative feelings and that I was terrified of Kisenyi and never wanted to return. That I wanted to forget that place and forget I ever went. But I couldn’t. I was there to help after all. With my chin on my knees and hugging my arms around my legs I told myself I had to go back. If I fear it, then I feel that returning there was what I had to do. The next day I be there, afraid or not
When we return I am more mentally prepared. Making sure I wore my rubber rain boots to protect myself from the sludge, knew better what to expect, and was going to be teaching for the day. I assumed this was going to be fine. Boy I was wrong. Myself and the 4 other teachers who were no more than 23 years old tops, were then given a set of 3 rules we must follow in order for things to run smoothly. The rules are as follows
The student must remain in the classroom the entire length of the class in order to get their after class bag of porridge.
Ok, not too crazy. Seems easy enough.
No student shall engage in sex or drug use at any time during class.
Um, also, seems easy enough, I think? After all we were going to be teaching CHILDREN.
Do not let the students touch you. No matter what.
Now my concern is growing. And judging by the look on the other teachers faces, so is theirs.
Next we are given our assigned topics and we are ready to start. My lesson wasn’t until second to last so I was to be hands to help the others when needed. Seconds after the doors opened the room was packed full and children were getting shoved away. The energy was through the roof. There were 2 mean old nuns there to assist that spoke Lugandan and were able to get all the butts to seats. First lesson, I sit back and keep an eye on the children. Looking around I am unable to find words for what I am seeing. These poor tattered souls were no longer children. They were long dead inside, nothing more than drug fueled emaciated shells.
Quickly I started to see children leave the room after the nuns wrestled their jet fuel huffing bottles from them. This was the drug of choice in Kisenyi. It was readily available because this slum doubled as an industrial landfill, strewn with chemicals and poison. A girl no older than 13 was trying to have sex with 4 different guys for a huff. I had to walk over and ask her to close her legs and stop trying to ‘sex the boys’.She looked up at me with such a hollow, empty look I shuttered. She didn’t last for 5 more minutes before she was at it again and the nuns came and dragged her out.
Ready for it to be my turn so I didn’t have to play keep away any longer, I went up to the front of the room. The chalkboard was a paint coat on what should have been a white wall. At this vantage point I had an entirely different view of the class. I felt like I was about to give a speech to a room full of zombies, and nobody was listening. For my art lesson I decided we will draw something nice, pleasant, and easy. A Flower. Walking the kids through the lesson, “This is your stem” and “that is your flower” I think, this isn’t so bad.
I start to walk around to assist any kids that may need help and give words of encouragement. A wide variety of flowers were present on the childrens papers, but I noticed one in particular. I can see from across the row of chairs that there is one child drawing an exceptionally detailed image. What a little Picasso I think. Going over to have a better look I ask him if I may have a look. He handed me the picture, I widened my eyes. Once close enough, I could start to make out what his masterpiece was. It was a 6 armed devil with a baby being born and out of a very vivid vagina. Not only was the devil birthing the baby, she was also eating it. With tentacle pubes. The child was at most 9. I gulped and asked why he didn’t want to draw happy things. His response haunts me still.
“Because the devil is going to kill us”
He let me keep the drawing, only for me to lose it post trip.
After leaving the slums I had a horrible feeling. Almost as if the devil himself was sitting on my shoulders. I thought that when people have gone down that far in life there is NO turning back. No chance for rehabilitation. A place like that should not exist and to wipe it off the world would be the only answer. I felt there was no good in the world if a place like that could be on the planet we all live on.
After school was finished I wanted to go back immediately, but a man we met with the nuns told us that he started his own orphanage up the way for teens that wanted to get sober and out of the slums and he wanted us to go see. I was already so emotionally taxed that I was hesitant. I just wanted to go away from it all. It was already late and the orphanage I was working at was 2 hours outside of Kampala. Thankfully we obliged the man and the team and I went with him. Skeptical of what we were to see, I was ready to implement the 3 main rules again if I need be.
When we got to the orphanage it was nothing like what I expected. The 20 occupants were now in their mid to later teens, and thriving. I learned that for them, music and dance were the medication for drugs and on to a better future. They showed us around and told us their stories. In honor of having company they then performed a truly amazing act of talent, agility, physical and mental strength. You could not match this moment in time with any professional dancers and have it be half as amazing. The man we went with, Paul, was single handedly responsible for their second chance at life (which I thought was impossible) and their complete rehabilitation from crime and drugs. Sitting and watching them perform traditional dance with contemporary flair and acrobatic stunts with the backdrop of the beautiful countryside was one of the most amazing and incredible things I could have never fathomed. What I thought was simply impossible, was possible. When I thought that there could be no good in this life, I was shown that it can prevail. I was filled with doubt and fear and in the course of an evening I had the fear eradicated from my heart by 20 wayward teens and their mentor. The impact of this to this day 8 years later is still in the front of my mind. With courage, strength, and a little help from others a person can overcome the worst of conditions in the whole wide world.
Fear can be over come. Obstacles can be over come. Don’t let yourself be. If in the darkest pits of the world hope and self love are budding, it can grow anywhere.
** At the time this was written Kesinyi was in far worse conditions than it is now. Since my visit they have erected buildings, have a merchant market, and have spent countless hours repairing this wound on the Pearl of Africa.