"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

slumber parties with my ugandan girlfriends

I've been lying in bed trying to fall asleep without any luck at all tonight. For some reason, I've been recalling what it's like to sleep in the girl's dormitory at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage Motherhood.

Thoughts of the Ugandan paths I've walked, memories of foods I've eaten, smiles I've exchanged and songs I've heard find their way into my head when I least expect them: when I'm folding laundry, working on a new photograph, slicing pears for an afternoon snack or sitting in traffic. Suddenly I find myself wondering if it's raining there or if Willy has been working on a new painting or if Tonny's leg is feeling better. Does Brian still have malaria, is Rosette excited about starting her internship? 

Late at night, though, when I lie here staring up at the ceiling and Eddie's fast asleep and the silence gets really loud, my thoughts sometimes turn to the kids in their dormitories, lying on bunk beds beneath their mosquito nets in the dark. Of course, no one has tucked them in, and no one has read them a bedtime story.

One day on the very first team trip, Melissa surprised us all by announcing she would not be going back to the hotel with us, but that she was going to spend the night in the girl's dorm. The girls had invited her, and she didn't want to let them down. They had made up a bunk just for her, had even decorated it with drawings and flowers. They were giddy with excitement; after all, they were expecting quite the esteemed guest of honor. Melissa ended up staying in the dorm several nights during that trip. The rest of the team was impressed that she could trade the creature comforts of her very nice Kampala hotel room for something as questionable as a run down dormitory that slept 40 - 50 girls.

Thanks to Melissa's encouragement, I finally did spend a night in the dorm that year. With each subsequent trip, I have tried to spend at least one night - sometimes two - in the girl's dorm. I feel like "queen for a day" when I stay over. The girls choose a lower bunk in the center of the large open room (so I can be near everyone) and make the bed up so beautifully. Sometimes they even hang hand-written love notes all around the metal frame.

The first time a visitor steps inside one of these dorms, he/she is usually in for quite a shock. The beds are crammed very close together, the paint on the wall is peeling, the floor is dirty and has pits and holes in it, the child's entire belongings are in a metal case that sits at the foot of the bed (leaving not much room for stretching out) and there is usually a stench from the urine soaked mattresses of several young bed wetters. It is dark and dank.

I recall taking a team on a tour of the orphanage their first day. While we were walking through one of the dorms, I turned to see a team member looking pale and ghostly and signaling that she had an upset stomach. It wasn't long before she was throwing up, feeling quite woozy and weird and in a hurry suddenly to head back to the hotel. Seeing where the children had to sleep was very upsetting to her. It is for most people.

I'm glad Melissa inspired me to honor the girl's invitation to stay with them for a short while whenever I'm there.

A night in the dorm can be a long one for someone who is not accustomed to the rhythms of the ink black Ugandan night. There are animals that cry out periodically. Mosquitoes buzz by. The children create a long, droning chorus with their incessant coughing. They get up to pee in a can in the corner (too dark and scary to walk outside to the pit toilet). Roosters start crowing just as you are finally able to drift off to sleep.

My favorite part of the experience is staying up late, a gaggle of girls on my bed and the surrounding ones, playing cards, singing, reading books, painting fingernails, braiding hair, making friendship bracelets and telling stories. There is always a lot of giggling. When we're too tired to go any longer, everyone crawls into their beds, underneath their mosquito netting and lays down their heads. I'll hear some girls praying. Then one by one they call out into the quiet of the dark night: "Goodnight Mama G." That part, which brings tears to my eyes, always reminds me of the Waltons telling each other goodnight at the end of their television show.

In the slightly chilled morning, the girls awake slowly, dreamily. I hear a round of "Good morning, Mama G" and then I watch the girls make their way to bathe and begin their day.

These are experiences/memories I shall treasure for a lifetime.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Brought tear to my eyes.
- Susan

Unknown said...

You've inspired me to do the same!