Here We Go Again

**This is straight from the field, so please forgive any grammar or spelling mistakes.**

On my Emirates flight to Africa, it was breathtaking to fly over the North Pole and see the world from that point of reference.  I so often look at a map and view America as the center, since that’s where I’m from. It’s so interesting to see a more neutral globe. It’s like flipping the world upside down… but what side is right-side-up anyway? Perspective really is everything.

I arrive in Kampala, Uganda and meet with the team to discuss our strategy for the next six weeks. The original plan was to go to South Sudan first to check on some Drop in the Bucket projects in Kajo Keji County before the heavy rains make the roads impassable. But we were too late.  According to the drilling team, they were barely able to get out themselves after drilling. The schools are now unreachable until the fall. At least we completed the drilling before the rains. That’s what matters most.

We have several meetings before we get started in the field. First we meet with the ladies who run Katosi Women Development Trust (KWDT).  This is a wonderful local organization aimed at improving living standards of poor, disadvantaged, rural communities.  KWDT has been recognized by the Ministry of Water for their great work in their community.  I’ve been talking to them about a potential collaboration for a while. We discuss partnering on five projects where they will help mobilize the communities and participate in the hygiene training, in a region where we have not worked before.

Next up is a meeting with my friend Cathy, who is the editor of the New Vision newspaper. Conversations with her are always fascinating and I love getting the latest scoop over tea. Afterward, I pick up drilling reports from two of our teams and meet with a New Zealander named Neil about the new solar pumps we’re going to be installing in Lira.

While I’m doing all this, the rest of the team completes their final preparations for the field.  They service the truck; buy satellite and cell phone airtime and pick up our engraved tiles, etc. As usual, the inscription on at least one of the tiles is incorrect, so we have to send it back to be redone.

Since we postponed our trip to South Sudan, we reworked our schedule and decided it’s best to see the projects in western Uganda first because that area is the most out of our way.

We have eleven projects in the Mubende and Mityana districts of western Uganda, so we head there first.  Our goal is to visit all eleven schools in two days.  It’s a two-hour drive from Kampala to Mubende and we hope to see five of these schools our first day.

This area of western Uganda is very mountainous and beautiful. Even though it wasn’t impacted by war, it’s still an incredibly needy region.

Our partnering team there assists in the selection of schools and, although I often visit the sites myself before drilling, the first school we reach is one I’ve not seen before. I have the school information with me and it doesn’t seem to match up. It is supposed to be a very large school but when I arrive I only see a few hundred kids. When it’s time to take a photo of the entire school, the teachers ring a bell and kids come running from structures spread out in all directions. As a herd of kids come dashing across a busy road, I realize that this is indeed a huge school. Apparently, the government built three structures for the school, but that’s not nearly enough to accommodate the large enrollment, so half the school is studying in old run-down buildings across the road.

We take the photos; visit the well and things seem to be off to a great start. But on the way to the next site we notice a big black cloud in the distance. Before we reach the school, a heavy rainstorm blows up and we are delayed until it passes. That’s just the beginning of our setbacks for the day. We also have battery trouble and a glitch in our GPS device.

Since school lets out at 4:00, and it’s getting close to that time, we decide to call it a day. Instead of seeing five schools, we actually only get to two. Unfortunately, this is not a good start to a very full, ambitious trip.

Next we check into our hotel. As the name suggests, Town View Hotel has a wonderful view from atop a mountain. But there is nothing much else to brag about. There is no running water, no food, and my internet modem doesn’t work here.

Before it gets dark we travel down the hill to try to find some dinner but the only thing available is goat’s meat or French fries. George and I end up eating fries and a box of chocolate chip cookies for dinner. After that, we head back up the hill and I take a cold basin bath before going to bed. We have a lot to accomplish tomorrow and I’m beginning to feel some serious jet lag.

The next morning, on day two, we start early.  We have a long day ahead, as we set out to visit eight schools.  I’m dying for a strong cup of coffee but settle for two cups of tea and plain bread before we set out.

Since we switched the schedule around and came to western Uganda first, my boots were five hours away in our Gulu office in northern Uganda, closer to South Sudan. I learn very quickly that I’m not wearing the right shoes for these hills. All day long we are trudging up and down the muddy mountains, either leading or being followed by a sea of adorable children, who are incredibly eager to have their photo taken.

Because of the terrain, locating water in some of these areas can be a challenge, so some wells are a bit of a distance from the school. It works fine, since the schools share with community but it does make for a long day.

The kids are very playful and curious, which makes the work very enjoyable. They run around in their tattered uniforms, with their dirty bare feet, trying their best to get in every photo with their huge smiles.

There is no overlooking the serious job of these teachers. Wrangling these kids all day is no easy task and their patience is admirable. Some teachers have over 100 kids in a class, as there is often only one teacher per grade. They cajole the kids into orderly groups for the photos, politely ignoring the fact that we’ve completely disrupted their lessons, tests, or whatever else they happened to be doing when we arrived.

At one school, when we arrive, we see that the bishop is already there, conducting mass under the tree. We wait patiently for the service to be finished, a little embarrassed that the children are so distracted by our presence they can’t even keep their eyes closed during the prayers. Afterward, the head teacher politely hints to the bishop and us that it is time for us to go. He does so in a way that is careful enough to make everyone feel important and respected. This does not usually happen as communities always seem to want us to stay longer and we generally have to try and stick to our tight schedule. We realize why when another truck pulls up with a team that’s come to de-worm the children. It looks like we’re not the only people with a full day today.

The last school on the list is Makonzi Boarding School. Although we arrive after class has been dismissed, it’s not a problem since it’s a boarding school. We immediately notice that the students are busy at the well. They’re filling their jerry cans with water that they will use for doing their laundry, bathing, etc. The whole time we are at the site taking photos, students are filing up and down the hill to fill their jerry cans with water for the evening. Next to the new water source is the old dirty one they had been using before. It’s a muddy, unprotected hole in the ground. According to the head teacher, they had a bad outbreak of typhoid several months ago from drinking from this water, which they were sharing with animals. We spoke to a 6th grade girl named Nambi Masitulah, who tells us about being incredibly sick for two weeks with typhoid. Typhoid is a real problem in these areas. Right now, our driver Wilson’s brother-in-law is in the hospital with it.

Although students at the schools like to make Thank You signs for the donors, they usually do not have even basic supplies such as paper and pencils. They definitely don’t have anything like crayons and colored pencils. Because of that, we often bring along some art supplies and poster boards so they can make the signs. The donors love this but the process takes a lot of time. Somehow, through it all, we seem to stay on schedule and still get Thank You signs from every school.   It is well worth the time and effort.  But I’m seriously dragging toward the end of the long day.

 On the way back to town we pass another school that we had recently surveyed. They seriously need clean water and were on our list to drill. But the survey indicated there was no underground water since they are in the Dry Belt, as it’s called. This is a very poor school, where several classes are studying under trees. I make a note to check into rainwater harvesting tanks for this school. There is always some option, even if the first choice isn’t appropriate.

Wow, what an exhausting day! We did it though – eight schools in one day!! I feel a huge sense of relief as we head back to Kampala to spend the night and eat a meal that consists of something other than fries.

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Author: Stacey Travis

Founder and Executive Director of Drop in the Bucket a water charity building water wells and sanitation systems at schools in Africa.

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