Hope is the Spark that Changes Lives

She walks alone for a long time, for a very long time.  Finally, she arrives, exhausted, at the clinic, where her real work begins. Hours later, the babe arrives. Twin screams are heard – one leaving this world and one entering it. 

No father is known and no one visits the clinic, asking for his wife or baby. Staff are left with this little one and they agree to raise her as their own, to love her, to care for her, and to give her a home.

I have been given a new name. 

We start the day early, heading out of Kampala towards the east of the country.  We pass by the town of Jinja, where the Nile starts. We drive through gorgeous views, boasting 100 colors of green.  Plantain trees, tea farms, corn fields, newly planted potato plants, cassava, rice paddies, and all sorts of vegetation fly by as we make good time towards a hospital called Holy Innocents.  When we think we are close, we find out we are not.  We turn off the main road onto a road made of red. Red dirt is everywhere, breaking up the green and I enter into that feeling of nodding off but not being asleep, feeling the breeze coming through the open window.

It’s hard to believe that the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t pay for third line anti-retroviral medicine here in Uganda.  They are the CDC, for crying out loud!  They have quite a bit of money at their disposal and while I understand that third line is super expensive, THEY ARE THE CDC!

Kibito Hospital is the exact opposite of when I saw it last. 

Betsy, Fred, Karina, and I visited the hospital two years ago and it was a thing of beauty.  Brand new construction, gorgeous floors, nice sized hallways, a large surgery room, etc.  Problem?  It was empty.  All this room and all these dreams stood empty.

“Ma’am, I must tell you that you missed your connecting flight to Entebbe, so make sure you make arrangements to spend the night in Addis Ababa when you arrive, ok? Don’t worry, your bag will go straight to Entebbe.”, says the beautiful stewardess when asked if she thought my bag would make it all the way to Entebbe, even though I have a short connection time. Ugh. I must arrive in Uganda tonight because I have a 5-hour drive tomorrow to a city called Fortportal, from where we’ll visit a couple hospitals AFCA supports.

She pushes up the sleeve of her shirt and I take in a deep, but silent sharp breath. She shows us what looks to be a specialized cancer that HIV+ people sometimes get and my heart breaks. Her baby needs to nurse, so she rolls her sleeve down and puts the baby to her breast, where the little one feeds hungrily.  My head can’t stop the thoughts – is the baby ok?  Is mom taking her medicine to keep her viral load low, hopefully suppressing the passage of the virus to her baby?  As I try to think as positively as I can, I know I am fooling myself and that really, adherence to the medicine has been poor.  Otherwise, why is this cancer ravishing her body?  I can tell she has a fever and offer Tylenol I have in my bag, which she readily takes. I look at the nurse and she shakes her head sadly.  She later tells me, “you’ve seen the dead walking.  She won’t live long.”

Mombasa. Just the word brings such memories to mind, as I’ve been coming to this city for 11 years now. Mombasa, Kenya – a city of contrasts: dust, dirt, poverty, wealth, loud music, the historic old town, horrible and smelly slums, malls, and humidity. Mombasa, I am sure, has great hotels, but right now, I am in one of the not-so-great ones. It is safe and clean, so I am not complaining. I am merely explaining the situation here: loud music fills my ears as well as the call to prayer from some nearby mosque. The fan above my head moves slowly, unable to penetrate the mosquito net above my bed which means tonight is going to be a hot, humid sleep. Unfortunately, that same mosquito net is also thick enough to stop light, so I am reading sitting straight up on an unforgivingly hard chair. The bathroom is attached to the room and one glance confirms that when I shower in the morning, the entire room will be wet, as the shower head is practically above the toilet (not quite, but just off) and the sink, with no curtain to stop water from soaking everything. It takes three flushes of the toilet to make paper go down, but since there is no garbage can in sight, I can’t do anything else with the paper.

13 security checks. Thirteen!! The Nigerians take their security seriously for people boarding planes, but not so seriously that a single person actually goes through my bags. Thirteen different people confirm that I am who my passport says I am. They actually say, “Weaver Tanya – is that you?” and I refrain from laughing as I confirm that indeed, I am Weaver Tanya. If I had a fake passport, I sure wouldn’t take this moment to reveal it!

I face a crowd of 250+ K-5th grade children at the American International School of Abuja and explain how they, through a run/walk they take a part of, have helped children by giving them livestock, school supplies, and medicine.  I can’t help but smile when I see their little faces showing excitement and wonder and I can almost see them planning how they’d do more during their next walk/run.  To finish the celebration, the children’s choir dances and sings “Living Your Dream”, inciting clapping and dancing from the crowd as we watch on. Super cool!

10 hours is a long time to kill, especially when you killed 9 hours only 1.5 hours ago.  But that is exactly what I am doing – reading, walking, reading, walking, stretching, eating, reading, walking. I knew Heathrow Airport rather well from my visits to Africa and now, I know it EXTREMELY well.  I know where every bathroom is located and I know which food I prefer.  I know which areas are always crowded and which have extra seats for nomads like myself.  I park my body and backpack in a quiet area and finish another book.  I watch people and am amazed by the variety, the colors, the textures, the expressions, the joys, the sorrows, the angst, the happiness, the hugs, the pushes, the smiles, and the excitements.

Bazillion hours later, as 9:30pm approaches, my gate is on the board and I start making my way to another terminal in search of my flight to Abuja.  Abuja…a city I’ve never visited, but which has ties to AFCA for 5 years now. Abuja is where the American International School of Abuja is located and it is where I am headed, to say thank you to the children of that school for supporting AFCA’s work. 

The train ride to Philadelphia is uneventful. I read and think and think some more.  I let my mind go blank and I breathe deeply.  Before the ride, we ate breakfast with my parents and celebrated Juju’s birthday a little early.  It was beautiful to see her light up when she received all the books she’d been wanting and I as I sit on the train, I imagine her reading to Aiden about the Land of Fang.  I can see his eyes gleaming, listening and asking questions from time to time, absorbing all she reads to him.

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