As I prepare to go out to Uganda again on 5th December, I'm just remembering a night I spent over in Kihiihi in May this year. It's in Kanungu district, a 3 hour drive on awful rocky roads from Rukungiri. Electricity arrived in the district only last year! And then it's only along the 'main' roads. There's a wonderful bridge when you cross over to 'Kanungu side' as it's called. You have to wind around the side of these huge hills covered in very steep terraced farm plots mostly covered with banana plantations which show signs of erosion. This whole area used to be protected forest until Idi Amin's days when laws of all kinds were forgotten. In those days some of the towns on 'Kanungu side' prospered quite well from increased trading along it's western boarder which meets Congo on the banks of another river. The river that separates Rukungiri and Kanungu, as I was saying is reached by delving down into the valley and as I used to get to the bridge (I think I went that way at least 5 times during my 2009 visit) I always had a sense of Vietnam. The bridge is one of those army style constructions - a flat panelled iron floor with flip up sides - and as you look down on the gushing brown river below it's surrounded by the green leaves of yet more banana plants.
Another two hours of bumpy roads back up the valley into the Kinkizi hills, and not that far from the edge of the Western Rift Valley, you get to Kihiihi. The town has grown since the days our team was first going there to register orphaned and disabled children. There's now a bigger choice of guest houses. I stayed in one of the bigger guest houses with over 10 rooms run by a very kind Muslim man who I talked to with great mutual appreciation. I was there in May and not more than 2 months previously the guest house had been very busy with the daily comings and goings of Medicine sans Frontiers who, along with several other agencies, had used Kihiihi as their base camp whilst working at Matanda Refugee Camp close by. The camp is closed at the moment by between November 2008 and February 2009 was home to some 4,000 Congolese who had fled not just from their homes but also from the refugee camps in Congo due to the ransacking and raping in camps over there.
Earlier that day, before arriving at the hostel we were surveying children at Kihiihi Church of Uganda (Anglican) church. This was one day in a month of survey in which the Project team went all round Kanungu district even deep into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where the gorillas live and all round Rukungiri district. Radio annoucements would tell of their coming and if David, Zaire or Warren had petrol enough then they would also round up support from local health centres and Local Councillors (LCs) to make sure of a good attendence on arrival. The purpose of surveys is to review children who are already registered with us and to find new cases of disabilities or injuries. Those who are operable are given a date of a surgical camp. Those who could receive our club foot treatment (without surgery) are given clinic dates and those who are brain damaged have an explanation of what brain damage means and are given Life Skills clinic dates. It's always difficult to explain brain damage to people in a language where people don't traditionally talk about neural pathways. Some mums get upset and demand for an operation like the child with the deformed foot is getting. 'There's no operation', Evas tries to explain in Runyankore, 'your child cannot just be fixed over night but there is some really effective exercises that can really help your child to develop.'
So we are registering and one of the team introduces me to a lady who has a baby on her back. The baby has cerebal palsy and will need to learn exercises from Evas. She looks at me as they all do and hope that I'm a doctor who can cure their baby. How do I explain that in one way I am a doctor because I have a PhD in Maths but I'm not a doctor anything that can usefully help her daughter? I don't bother to try to explain it's pointless and pathetic. I'm here to help with fundraising, telling stories, management support. But I can give encouragement. That connection between one person and another. I try not to be the patronising westerner but I must tell her that her child is beautiful and her work is difficult but so important. I try to remember her name so I can pray for her. Then I find out the child isn't even hers. The baby is orphaned. I don't know if anyone knows how the child came to be orphaned or if may be she just been abandoned. There was a time when the team would go out and investigate these things and potentially help the situation. But there's not always time. What's important is making sure this woman will come back, give up her day in the field and bring the baby for exercises at Evas' Life Skills clinic.
As we're packing up and putting the files back in the ambulance, I'm totally exhausted after 3 registration clinics in one day all I can think of is having a shower, a cup of tea, and some food. A little girl comes running over to me clutching a crochetted doily bulging with mangoes. I look up and see the woman with the orpaned cerebal palsy baby on her back smiling. The mangoes are for me! She's thanking me?! I pop the mangoes into a plastic bag and not knowing how else to thank the little girl I put the doily on her head and she runs off laughing.
Back at the hostel I've been given a nicer room away from Jones, Warren and Nelson who are in the cheaper bit. There's two gates between me and the road, I'm in a mini courtyard with 3 other empty rooms. I try the shower and realise I don't have any soap with me. At least I have water. Using the penknife on my torch I sit on the step to devour one of the juicy mangoes, looking up at the blue sky above I'm really content.
Within 30 minutes, the sun sets like a light switch and the sky is black. I can't get hold of any of the team, their mobile phones have probably all run out of batteries or they're also washing. Power goes down so there's no light - luckily I brought my torch. But I'm hungry so I decide to brave the dark town streets on my own. I vaguely know where I'm going as I wonder towards the centre passed shops open late with kerosene lamps burning inside. A bar with music and some drunks outside (home from home). A few goats wondering around, some erant drivers and the delapidated bus filling up for the late night drive to Kampala some 10 hours away. I find the cafe where we had lunch and the woman owner greets me and brings me a soda. None of the team are there but I sit and talk to the owner's son. What appears to be a young boy joins us but he has some medical condition and is actually 32. He insisted he is older than me - I'm confused - is this Kihiihi humour? Warren arrives and a feel of security and warmth surrounds me. We sit my candlelight, eat dinner and he tells me the beautiful story about how he fell in love with his wife Adrene and they lived in a mud hut together always dreaming of building the house they now live in. He's so happy. So am I.