I have embarked upon my third journey to East Africa. Stepping off the plane this morning in Uganda I looked out over Lake Victoria and it felt wonderful to be back in this region. I feel more at home in East Africa than anywhere else outside of my home country in the United States.
The story of why I am here starts about six years ago when I co-founded a project called Mission Focus. Our intent was to provide creative communication services, such as web, video, photography and writing, for those engaged with critical causes around the globe. We have since changed the name to Bridge Cause because we build a bridge between causes and the creatives who can help them reach supporters.
The other co-founder, Brian Denton, runs Incendia Creative, a creative agency in Monterey, California. A local group approached him over the summer to help them build a web-presence for their project to support the Cornerstone Orphanage in Nimule, Southern Sudan.
Joyce and her unforgettable smile at the El-Shaddai Hope Centre for Orphans.
Strolling through the gate camera in hand, I was delighted to finally be back at the orphanage I have long hoped to revisit. Pausing for a moment to take a picture in the middle of the courtyard, a little boy suddenly came running with arms outstretched and wrapped himself around my legs. Reaching down I picked him up and took him into my arms. Here a little boy who has no idea who I am yet feels the confidence that if I am there, allowed into his space, I must be safe and welcome. This is what happens when children who have lost everything are welcomed into a community of hope.
Meet little John. He is two years old but when you first look at his tiny little body you would think him younger than a year. Yet when he stands on his own power and wobbles toward you, your heart melts and you realize that he is older than he looks.
There is a reason why John is so little. When his parents died of AIDS leaving their HIV positive baby behind, the rest of John’s family rejected him. Not knowing what else to do, his grandfather brought him to El-Shaddai Hope Center for Orphans. Although John’s medical record is quite important, the family has not provided the promised information. Though malnourished and tiny, the orphanage took him in and through loving care has nursed him back to health.
I met President Barak Obama’s grandmother in a village in Kenya. She is a gracious 86 year-old woman who says that she loves receiving the visitors that her grandson’s fame brings her way. My Kenyan friends met her several years ago and wanted to take me to meet her. Realizing how unique this opportunity was I readily agreed.
While pulling up to the front gate of her home, I did not know what to expect. On the one hand it seemed that she should have a better situation than most for this area of Kenya but on the other maybe it was fitting that her humble home and life fit so naturally into her local context.
They say that home is where the heart is but my heart is in many places. I guess this means that my home is where I reside among the hospitable. I have now been adopted by two Kenyan families. Meet my lovely Luo family as you accompany me into life in the Kenyan village of Manuanda.
Sad to leave Uganda amidst violent riots, I took heart by anticipating what the final leg of my trip would bring. During my last trip to East Africa I spent the largest portion of my time in Kenya so I have friends and organizations there that I’ve long hoped to revisit. It was a wonderful feeling to get off the bus in Kisumu and to know that the rest of the trip I would be with Kenyan friends.
I met my African queen and her name is Elizabeth. Seriously, I don’t think I have seen a cuter little girl since my little sister entered the world. I met Elizabeth at my last dinner in Uganda with Dickens, a good friend that I made on this trip, and his family at their home. Dickens recently planted a church in one of the neediest areas of Kampala. They began meeting as a small group under a tree and it has grown to the point where the people requested that he start a church.
Smoke rises from Kampala during the riots of September, 2009.
Everyone has heard the stories of problems in Africa. Sometimes I think it is all we think of when we hear about this continent. One of the questions that makes me internally roll my eyes is, “Africa, isn’t it dangerous over there?”
What we fail to consider is that Africa is a continent, not a country. It is very large, more than three times the size of the USA, and very diverse. There are politically unstable areas and peaceful areas, as there are in most parts of the world. There are certain themes, however, that emerge when one analyzes troubled areas and situations around this vast continent. The riots that just broke out in Kampala highlight one of the primary issues that continues to cause problems in Africa.
Sitting in a bus on the ride from Kigali, Rwanda to Kampala, Uganda.
After this experience I think I’m one step closer to being a true African. I took an eleven hour bus trip from Kigali to Kampala, all while riding on the floor. To be more specific, I was sitting on the engine cover, slowly cooking along the way.
I’ve never had trouble finding a seat on a bus here in East Africa but today when I showed up for the last buses to Kampala they were all full. Then a confident man strolled up asking if I was heading to Kampala and then motioning for me to follow him. Along the way he said something about Kampala Coach being the best bus and having air conditioning. For a few seconds I almost believed this sales pitch aimed at naive muzungus. I think what he meant by air conditioning was that the windows opened.
A survivor of the Rwandan genocide singing his story of survival and healing.
Can you imagine losing every member of your extended family in a matter of weeks? To be the only survivor among the people you loved the most? This is exactly what the young man in this picture experienced and I sat there listening to him sing about it. Through the help of a translator I learned that the lyrics went something like this;
When I remember my past
My heart is filled with praise
Because God did the impossible for me
I remember the people who died all around me
But after they tried to kill me several times I survived
And that is impossible
Informed by a mere paragraph in Lonely Planet and a quick glimpse at their website, I set out to find the Solace Ministries Guesthouse in Kigali, Rwanda. The vague map in my travel guide pointed in the right direction without actually pinpointing the location. Passing through multiple neighborhoods, making several phone calls, and asking anyone he could find, my moto-taxi gradually narrowed down the spot until we had found the place.
Introducing myself to Denise, the manager of the guesthouse, I mentioned that I sometimes photograph and write about vital causes that I find in East Africa. She then took me to the office of the founder and director of the ministry, John Gakwandi. Listening to what must have sounded like a bizarre story of how I found my way to his organization, John welcomed me and introduced me to their work.