Monday, May 14, 2007

Community work at it's greatest

The plan today was to take the Purdue group out into the field and work along side a group of the older Compassion kids. To see the things that tourists fly by in their chauffeured SUVs on their way to visit the gorillas or the lions or elephants. To see the homes of these poor children, to see where they sleep and the gardens where they grow their food. It was a day of working but also of being like a sponge and just soaking in the surroundings. As expected, and as I explained to the group the day before, we planned on leaving around 9am, but we didn’t actually get to where we were going for a variety of reasons including that we were leaving on ‘African Time’ until around 11am. The first stop was at one of the poorest families I’ve seen in Compassion. A family of 11 people, a father and mother and 9 children living in a very small 2 room home with only one twin mattress amongst them. They didn’t have much work for us to do there at their home, which was the plan. The father is a hard worker and capable of taking care of the place, not to mention the fact that we are untrained in the skill of African construction using only local materials to build with. So instead of doing work there, we brought gifts: plates and cups, sauce pans, 3 mattresses, 4 blankets, corrugated metal sheets to replace the banana leaves they had thatched together for their leaky roof, plus mosquito nets. We also left them with a small amount of money to use for food or medical purposes. While we were there, the mother, an already sickly lady, was coughing and her twins were burning up with fever, do likely to malaria. Like in the recent TV episode of American Idol, we went inside their home and asked them to show us how they sleep at night. They have 8 of them in one room and 3 in the other. It was surreal to see it and imagine them bedding down for the night, huddling together, crowding together on thin mats and pieces of foam used as bedding.

We then divided up into smaller groups. One group worked at a home, leveling ground for a new small structure to be constructed. We again delivered the necessary corregated metal sheets for the roof. The group labored on putting up the mud on a pit latrine that was in very poor condition. Working alongside the Compassion kids and staff they learned how to get muddy and to ‘throw’ the mud onto the structure. It almost looked like fun rather than work, like kids playing in the mud. While they were doing that a small group went down into the valley with machetes to cut some grass to be used for the roof. A pit latrine doesn’t necessarily need a nice roof, you’re only there for a few minutes a day. The kids they went with really opened up during that time and started asking the Purdue guys what the climate was like and what kind of food they ate in America. When they got to the grass to cut, the Compassion kids were doing all of the work, mostly because they were more skilled at cutting the grass than the Americans. One of the African kids was wearing a watch that had a picture of Osama Bin Laden and it had the words “I Love You” across it. Thinking this was odd, one of the members asked if he really did love Bin Laden and he exclaimed ‘Yes. Of course.’ When he was asked why, his response was, “Because he’s white,” meaning that if you’re white you’re intelligent, respected, rich, holy, etc.

The other group went down into the garden to do some digging. It was comical to watch the American girls using these hoes. Some of the girls are even ‘farm girls’ and they were learning this for what seemed like the first time. Needless to say there was a crowd of locals that gathered who were quite entertained by watching a half dozen white girls trying to dig, and the girls seemed to enjoy the friendly badgering. The Ugandans even took the hoes from them a time or two to show them how to use it. The Compassion girls were working along side and it was a neat bonding experience. Even some of the little, little kids, who gathered by the dozens to watch the foreigners who had magically appeared in their neighborhoods, grabbed a hoe and tried digging and did a pretty good job of it.

The last home we went to was of one of our Compassion kids who lived with her brother because both of their parents had died. What was neat was when we first got to the area she was fetching water from a protected spring, so we were able to walk the ¾ mile from the spring to her home, except we weren’t carrying a container of 5 L of water (around 50 lbs maybe) on our heads!! We dug weeds in their gardens while a small group worked on building a bathing area, which is a simple outdoor structure which provides privacy for someone to bathe in. They used only stuff that was on the property to build it. Some straight branches for the frame, banana fibers to tie the frame together and then dried banana leaves for privacy, in addition to some flat rocks for them to stand on while bathing.

Afterwards we talked as a group. About what we saw and felt and experienced. We talked about the first poor, poor family and how what we had given them was life changing for the entire family and how it cost us only around $200 or less than $15 per group member. We talked about the absolute gratitude of the family and the amazement of the neighbors that this group of collegiate Americans had traveled from so far and cared so much to give this generously to this far corner of remote Africa. We talked about all of the kids who followed us everywhere and loved just watching and carrying our hoes as we walked from one home to another. We talked about how grateful we were for the Compassion kids who went with us, not only to show us what to do, but for the opportunity to work alongside them and to get to know them a little better and to appreciate how hard they work and without complaining or being told to keep working. We talked about taking vehicles down footpaths, way up in the hills where possibly no 4 wheeled vehicles had gone before. We talked about the difference between seeing this poverty on TV or reading about it in a magazine and then actually seeing it and walking into the homes of the poorest of the poor. And I guess I was impressed that we didn’t talk about how grateful we should be because we are Americans and of what we have, but instead we talked about what more we can do to share and to help. Maybe that’s the idealistic and mind of a group of college students who want to change the world in very tangible ways. It’s a good way to think. I think I was most impressed by Francis. He is my neighbors son who tagged along with us today. He’s a college student in Uganda and like most college students on vacation from school, he was looking for something to do. He said that he had never experienced anything like what we did today. He had never gone to visit the poorest of the poor. He had never actually seen his own people this way and how they live way up in the hills and it left an impression on him, that he saw it and that we just did some simple things to help them. To have a Ugandan express those sentiments really put it into a greater perspective.


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