I went to Uganda last week to visit a small NGO I am involved in. In my last post, I described some travel impressions and some of the projects we do there. But when you put all these projects together, what do they add up to? They change lives. For example, for Rita: She is 18 years old and works at the soap workshop. Rita lives in a slum in Kampala with her three kids (two boys, 4 and 5, and a foster daughter, age 9). We visited her and asked her to share her story with us. Here is what we found:
Before the Interview: The Walk to Rita’s House
The walk to her house was is a statement in itself: 20min into the slum of Kibati. Just like other side streets in Uganda, the roads are dirt paths. But unlike other places, there is even more trash, and you can occasionally smell human waste. The houses are made of whatever is around: bricks, crude concrete, metal sheets or crooked wood. On a sunny day like today, the makeshift construction feels like a big adventure camp. But at camp, it’s a game for a few days and then you go home. For the people of Kibati, there is no place to go back to. This is “home”.
We cross through narrow alleys and over shabby wood bridges. We see and hear chickens and goats, sometimes even cows. People keep them for extra food and income. The people themselves wear faded, torn clothes, some even walk barefoot. Some kids point at me and said “Muzungu”, other kids cover their eyes. Clearly, everyone is surprised that a “Muzungu” (“white person”) is in their neighborhood. We take in the scene at daylight, but Rita still tells us to watch out for pickpockets. She seems to know a lot of the neighbors well. That makes us feel safe. But as a white person, I know I could never walk through here by myself. And at night, no one should be out here, not even locals: Crime and prostitution are big problems, many people experience abuse.
Finally, at the end of the road, Rita reaches her place, a concrete box with a metal door. She invites us inside. The entire house is no bigger than 7m² (about 21ft²). There is no electricity and no running water, not even a window. It’s supposed to be a storage space. She tells us it is more sturdy than where she used to live: It is off the ground and doesn’t flood. In the house are an extremely worn-out set of 2 chairs and a couch, some essential documents, a mattress, an ABC-poster, and a plastic bowl with some old rags in it – a nest for a single pet hen. But among this bleak scene, there is also a bright, new item: A photograph of the new sponsor of their youngest boy. It sits at the most prominent place atop one of the chairs.
Rita sits down on her couch and thanks us for coming. After some introduction, she tells us her story: As a kid, she never had the chance to go to school. In her early teens, she was kept as a slave. Her owners raped and almost killed her. She sobs even as she describes it. She calms down to tell us of the father of her kids. She had escaped slavery. He had promised to help her find a job. But he only used her and left her with their two boys. And one day, Rita took in yet a third child of his – though this girl was from another woman: abandoned at her door. She didn’t really have any place for the girl. There was nothing to support her with. But she picked her up and brought her inside. She raises her as one of her own.
Rita says she would wash clothes door to door. All-day, every day. Just to earn one to two dollars, enough for food and rent. But even with all that work, she says that her kids often went to sleep hungry. There was never enough food. Let alone any thought of a good future.
Up to this point, Rita had spoken with her eyes faced down, and often very quiet. But now, she smiles: One day, one of the women at the soap workshop had seen her washing clothes and invited her to the ministry. So, Rita and her kids came to the group feast. The kids got to eat all they wanted. It was their first time to taste meat or drink soda. The leaders invited her to work for the soap workshop. She learned how to make soap and became really good at it. And now, all her kids have permanent sponsors to go to school. The older boy is the best in his class, and the other two work hard, as well. So, somewhere in that dirty slum, Rita found new hope: In time, she will earn enough money to afford a better home. And someday, her kids will have more opportunities than she ever had. So, even now, on a battered old couch, Rita ends her story with joy.