By Karl Mikkelsen
A bit about myself:
I am currently volunteering in Reach Out’s communications department in Mbuya. I am from Denmark, but I have lived in Uganda for 5 ½ years from 2000-2005. My mother worked with Reach Out, in the Roses of Mbuya during a part of our time here. I decided to volunteer for Reach Out because my mother had told me about the great work that Reach Out is doing in the local communities. I also have a plan of studying journalism at university next year, so I thought that Reach Out’s Communications Department would be a great place to gain experience. I am enjoying every moment of being back in Uganda, and it is so cool to see the development that Reach Out has been through since my mother worked here.
With big smiles on their faces, the students from Madison University of Wisconsin entered the Reach Out Mbuya training room – ready to begin an eventful day with some of the Reach Out staff. They were not the only ones who were excited.
I greeted the students with a formal “welcome to Reach Out”, and I could see that some of them were a bit confused, as to why there was a Muzungu representing Reach Out.
In the dimly lit and humid room the students, a couple of my Reach Out colleagues and I sat, watching a Reach Out documentary with great concentration. I particularly recognized one woman from the documentary: Esther Tibasima. In 2004, a book about Esther Tibasima and her life with HIV/AIDS came out in Danish bookstores as well as on several websites. I had been reading the book, before coming to volunteer with Reach Out, so it was very nice to see her in the documentary.
After the documentary, the students got to ask Rebecca Nantondo from the Medical Department and Doviccah Navubya from the Community Department some questions.
The students were then given a tour of the Reach Out premises, and after lunch we all left for Acholi Quarters – finally!
The bus-ride took about ten minutes, and within those ten minutes the view from the window of the bus had changed completely. The tall(ish) buildings and the tarmac roads in Mbuya had been replaced with small shacks built with wood and iron sheets and roads that were impossible to drive on.
We parked on the outskirts of Acholi Quarters, and we were greeted by one of the fantastic women working with Reach Out: Christine Abalo. She is a CATT a Community ARV and TB treatment Supporter in Acholi Quarters, and a part of a group called “Friends for life”, who make and sell beads and bowls from recycled paper. The first thing that struck me was that she looked a lot like my old house-keeper, and I immediately felt a strong sense of admiration for her. She smiled a lot, and she seemed very cheerful despite her background.
We were led into a large shack built of clay, wooden poles and iron sheets.
There were about ten other women inside the shack, who told us to have a seat on either a plastic chair or a wooden bench. They stood behind woven mats, with a lot of colorful beads on them. The beads were made of recycled newspapers and magazines, and they were threaded onto necklaces and armbands. The beads made the shack floor the most colorful floor in Acholi Quarters.
The women began to sing a song about how they were thankful that Reach Out was helping them, and how HIV affected their lives. Christine Abalo and Beatrice Angeno then gave a powerful speech about life in the Ugandan slum, and how they used to crush rocks in the nearby quarry along with the other women in the quarters. At that time, most of the residents didn’t even know their HIV status and some were really weak and frail in addition to the hard labor.
Beatrice shared about how many of the people died due to rocks falling on and crushing them and talked of the scattered graves within Acholi Quarters to show.
We all applauded loudly when she had finished, and I felt a deep compassion for her and her fellow residents in Acholi Quarters. The students must have felt the same way, because they all rushed over to browse the colorful beads. By buying the beads, they would be supporting the Acholi Quarter’s residents financially, so they could send their children to school, put food on the table, etc.
Not a single student left the shack without beads of some sort – whether it was on a necklace or on a bracelet. I had bought a necklace for my sister, as well as a beautiful small bowl. Some of the students were posing for pictures with their beaded accessories, and they seemed very satisfied with their purchases.
Christine Abalo then led the large group of students including me through the bustling and noisy Acholi Quarters. This was my first time in a real Ugandan slum. She told us that she wanted to show us the quarry where they used to crush rocks.
The smoke from small fires next to the shacks mixing with the smoke coming out of the Boda Bodas passing by on the narrow and torn up road was hanging in the air. It was impossible to take a fresh gulp of air while walking, but the smell of smoke covered up the smell of the open sewer drains by the roadside. There were small children shouting “Muzungu Muzungu”, by every shack we passed and when I asked them “how are you?” they laughed and waved.
There was loud music coming from several shacks – a lot of it with an upbeat beat and I closed my eyes for a second. When I closed my eyes, I was no longer in Acholi Quarters. I was in a club – a very smoky and smelly club. The music made Acholi Quarters seem cheerful, but when I looked at the little children shouting “Muzungu”, with ragged clothes on and dirty feet and the men sitting on benches drinking alcohol, even though it was only 2pm, the cheerful atmosphere disappeared. The music no longer seemed cheerful. It seemed more like people were playing it, to forget what kind of life they were living. With the music and the alcohol, the men of Acholi Quarters could disappear into a world of no concerns or problems, while the women were busy taking care of the children and trying to make money. Just like Christine Abalo had been doing before joining Reach Out.
As we continued our walk towards the quarry, more and more children joined in. A few of the girls from Madison University took the children’s hands and asked them to join us on the walk. We soon reached the quarry, and the girls who had asked the children to join us posed for pictures with their new friends.
As I stared into the the deep gulf of the quarry, I imagined how it must be for the people of Acholi Quarters to work here. The slope was almost vertical, and the quarry must have been at least 15 meters deep. If someone was to fall in, they would be killed instantly at impact with the rocky bottom. Christine Abalo had told us that quite a few people had died working here, and I gasped just by the thought of it. On the opposite side of the quarry, a little girl was standing on the slope, crying. She was halfway down, but the slope was too steep for her to continue. A man in the bottom of the quarry came rushing up to help her, as her family watched from the top. A few of the students watched nervously, as the girl was brought back up to her family. This incident made Christine Abalo’s story even more nerve-wracking.
After observing the people in the quarry for a bit, it was time to go back to the bus. As we walked back to the bus, several of the students were discussing the incident with the little girl. It seemed like it had made a deep impact on them, just like it had on me.
We reached the bus, and the students posed for a group picture. Next to them stood half a dozen local children, laughing and posing. The students thanked Christine Abalo, as well as the rest of the Reach Out staff and then boarded their bus. We waved goodbye to them, as they rolled down the dusty road, full of knowledge and experience about Reach Out and its work in Acholi Quarters.
It is a joy to see that Reach Out has been a great contributor to the good life of the people living in Acholi Quarters, a move from total despair to good health, economic empowerment and jolly smiles on their faces.