There are quiet moments. This is one of them. I sit in silence in the office at Atin. The sounds of the world outside are muted to a low hum because the fan beside me is running at turbo speed, evidence of my own vain attempt to survive the intense heat of northern Uganda. The hot air that whips around me is somehow a reprieve from the sweltering heat.
I am tired. It has been a two year struggle to get Atin off the ground. Two years of choosing this life over any other. Two years of thinking maybe next month something magical will happen to take away the worries, the stress, the fears of failing these children.
Yesterday it happened. It wasn’t a miracle or a million dollar cheque but it was magical and precious, a shy little boy in a pair of converse sneakers.
Morris and I walked to Atin, slowly dragging ourselves there in the mid-afternoon heat too tired to even pretend to make small talk with each other. There had been some discipline problems with the boys and the house needed simple things like water tablets, cough syrup and toothpaste.
Wrapped up in our thoughts we literally almost knocked over Solomon and and his little sister Lydia.
Solomon came to Atin in 2012 and was resettled last summer with his family. His parents, both peasant farmers, could not afford school fees from their children and Solomon had come to town to the street with a get rich quick scheme on his mind determined to get school fees like so many others before him. What he found was glue to get high, garbage to keep warm and cold nights full of empty, hollow dreams.
The Solomon that we first met has disappeared. This Solomon is a beacon of light and hope. For the 2 terms that he studied in his P2 class he remained in the top 10%. He knows what it means to get a second chance and he is determined to succeed.
Seeing Solomon once wasn’t enough. Today we went to the village to check on him at school. My heart burst with joy. In his yellow shirt he truly looked like a ray of hope in the classroom. A quietly confident boy with a future ahead of him.
Today the exhaustion is gone. The stress is gone. The uncertainty is gone. All that remains is a smile and thoughts of Solomon. Mother Teresa was right, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
I am a book worm. I always have been. Books have always been my ticket to traveling the world as seeing different people and places. When I was a kid I used to hide in the closet with a flashlight so that I could read late into the night. I also ate extra carrots to protect my eyesight. Which of course failed but did create a lifelong love affair with carrots!
Seeing the kids at Atin look at the colorful pages of a book makes me heart sing. I watch the way they carefully turn the pages and look in wonder at the pictures. I know that regardless of whether or not they can read they are still reading the pictures and creating beautiful stories.
Felix is my book worm soul mate. I have seen him reach out and stroke the cover of a book. He can read materials in Leblango and the few books we have he reads over and over again. The pages are dog-eared, the covers are tearing but he doesn’t mind because the words jump out of the pages and he can bring them to life. The smile that lights up his face is priceless. It tells a tale of joy. It tells a tale of wonder. It tells a tale of pride.
Dear Morris and Hudson, thank you for finding this incredible boy and bringing him home to Atin. His future is bright. He is going to take this second chance and run with it. He is going to BE the change I wish to see in this world.
~Atin Afrika Foundation: Restoring Hope to Children
Standing in the middle of a massive pile of garbage surrounded by street kids, I am in awe. Chelsea and I are at the “corridor,” one part of Lira town where you are guaranteed to find street kids. The pile consists mostly of plastic bags, corn husks, and used liquor bottles, a great place to scavenge if you are a street kid. I watch as Chelsea simultaneously diagnoses injuries, tells kids that if they know what is good for them they will stop sniffing glue while we are there, congratulates the kids that are telling her about new endeavors at school, and informs the group that her or Uncle Morris would be back tomorrow to ensure the sick children got treatment. All the kids know Auntie Chelsea, some are new, some are old, and some have returned after finding other lives too difficult. As the sun began to set, these kids gathered around us with no place to sleep. Atin Afrika attempts to address this gap in the social system. This gap makes it very difficult for street kids to reintegrate back into society and reach their full potential.
These kids at the corridor are tough, Atin Afrika is not. Two days there and I was hooked. A very astute colleague of mine often points out when he sees people who know how to love. He says, “they are lucky, they have so much love to spread around.” That is what I see at Atin. In Morris and Chelsea and their wonderful helpers, Grace and Dennis, I see a team of people that is willing to continue to love all the children they can. When a child goes home to be resettled they look towards the door for the next fragile spirit they can hopefully help rekindle. The dedication to the kids at Atin is all encompassing. It is not a job, it is a life. And it is not always easy. Running Atin includes new children often running away, pushing back against either the structure and rules, or a lack of drugs they have used in the past to numb themselves. It includes seeing kids you worked so hard to rehabilitate back on the street, because their families cannot afford a book, pen, or three dollars in exam fees to send their child to school. It includes watching a kid, pulled back to the street by addiction, showing up at the gate high on glue and in tears, knowing it is wrong, knowing he can’t help himself, and knowing the only place he can turn is Atin.
It is not always tough, and there are certainly great rewards. But Northern Uganda is a tough place, and sometimes it is difficult to convey the challenges people face here to other people around the world. The children that we met on the garbage pile have few places to turn in Lira, and no one offers a place to stay overnight. If you can’t make it at home living in abject poverty, or are chased away by your community for one reason or another, there is nowhere to go. You look to the support of the other children in the same position as you and turn to theft and addiction in order to survive.
It is through the generous support of many people around the world that Atin is able to offer a reprieve for kids that are just as deserving as any other. The children show up hardened and defensive, and return home filled with empathy and a sense of responsibility. If you support Atin Afrika, it is one of the best ways you could be allocating any type of contribution. If you don’t, start, it is one of the best investments you will ever make.
Through all of these challenges the team at Atin faces, they do not flinch. A lot of people become involved in their communities; few grab their communities by the scruff of the neck and jostle them back to life. Atin is jostling. Lira is similar to many other Ugandan communities in that there is too much need and not enough adequate services. Chelsea and Morris have answered this by becoming Auntie and Uncle, and have given the kids who have nowhere else to turn a home full of laughter and learning.
They say a picture says a thousand words. I say two pictures say a single word hope.
Proof: This was Janol when he arrived at Atin in March with badly beaten with both arms in casts.
Now take a peak above and see Janol now. Note the cheeky grin! The biggest gift you can give a child is hope. And of course love.
Janol was resettled in May and now he and his brother Gerald are back with their family in Amolotar. Amolotar is one of the poorest districts in Uganda and in a recent UWESO study it ranked 316 out of 320 districts in East Africa for literacy and numeracy among lower primary school pupils.
We want these boys to be the exception to that…not the rule.
Janol is rocking grade 3 and is at the top of his class. Gerald is struggling to succeed in primary 4. (the language of instruction in P4 shifts from Lango to English)
It costs us $20Cdn to pay for a term of public school. What to make a difference? Consider making a donation towards Janol’s education, $20 would pay for school for term 3 and $40 would ensure that both he and his brother Gerald finish the year. $60 would pay for both of them to complete term 3 and ensure that they get a meal at school every day.
That’s worth more than a new t-shirt…right?
If you are interested in sponsoring one or both of these boys for term 3 email firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on facebook.
Peace & love from Atin Afrika
Moses is amazing. He is half ninja and can fly through the air and contort his body in a way that would make Jet Li jealous. His pulls at your heart strings and his hugs almost break your body in two.
Moses loves to dance. The music plays and he sees the other kids get their wiggle on and he starts to grove too. The difference is that Moses is deaf. All he hears are muffled sounds if anything at all.
We found Moses on the street with Jimmy, Walter and Dennis and brought them all home. His parents are alive, but live in extreme poverty and didn’t know what to do with their deaf child. They had no means to provide or educate him. He was ostracized and ignored and turned to the streets as a means of escaping his home life.
We gave him a safe home. We fed him. We taught him to trust us and believe in himself. That wasn’t enough for us. We love Moses and we know that a hearing impairment should not define anyone.
One day we got lucky. Through Mango Tree we were able to borrow a set of Deaf Child tools to teach Moses some Ugandan sign language. We got even luckier; the founder’s adopted Ugandan son Okola, who is also deaf, was here for a visit from the US and came with Aaron to interpret for him. Together they taught Moses. In fact, it was so much fun that all of the kids wanted to learn. Now they have a bigger vocabulary to communicate with Moses. But Okola left Lira and along with him Aaron and the Mango Tree tools.
We saw Moses shine and grow under the tutelage of Okola and Aaron and we knew that he was bright and deserved the same opportunities as any other child. We embarked on a quest to find a deaf school for Moses where he could continue to learn sign language and gain an education based on signing, a place where he could meet other people like him and learn how to communicate with them.
The Nancy School for the Deaf is a government school for deaf education located in Lira town. It is the only school for deaf children in the Lango sub-region and they have agreed to take Moses. He will begin in September and start in P1. He will go to boarding school there and we will be able to check on him every weekend. This is his chance. This is his opportunity to shine.
The cost of Moses’s education is:
- Maintenance Requirements 70,000/=
- 15kgs of beans, 25kg of maize and 3 kg of sugar
- Uniforms 60,000/=
- Scholastic Materials 32,000/=
- Bedding: a mattress, 2 bed sheets, 1 blanket, 1 mosquito net and other personal effects (100,000/=)
This adds up to approximately $140 Cdn which is substantially more than we pay for the rest of the children who have been resettled with their families and attend government schools in the village.
But this is Moses’s one shot and we are determined to give it to him but we need your help. Please consider sponsoring Moses, because he is without a doubt WORTH IT! If you are interested or have any questions please email me at: email@example.com
And if you believe in Moses the way we do and want to make a donation right now just click on the paypal link on our website http://www.atinafrika.org
With love always,
Chelsea & Morris & of course Moses
I have shown astounding delinquency in getting this post up. It’s a wonder that Chelsea is even talking to me anymore. But I’m going to push through the shame of it all and give you some of my journal entries from my time at ATIN AFRIKA. I was in Uganda for this past March, April, and May – mostly in Jinja but also in Lira. One thing I am sure of is that my memory of ATIN has not been dulled in the least. In fact, as I sit here writing in my living room at 103 Ramsay Ave. Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, photos of ATIN kids on my walls keep me company reminding me of a mesmerizing world that is 11672 km from where I sit. Incidentally, as I write I am also grooving
to the African reggae that Morris sent me home with. I wonder if this music has been part of the reason it has taken me so long to get things done these days…I mean…what’s the rush anyway?
If Jinja is the intro to east Africa then Lira is senior year advanced seminar. From what I hear if you hit Kitgum or Pader you’ve reached graduate school. Jinja squeezes the western comfort out of you a bit here and a bit there. It certainly shocks the sensibilities but you can stay kind of prune-like with it’s coffee shops, restaurants, the fountain of ngo’s, the odd hot shower, and the scenic adventure vibe of the lake and Nile. If things ever go sideways you can always scoot into Kampala to get yourself sorted out and worse comes to worse you board a plane. Lira, on the other hand, gives you the choice between posho, posho, or posho for dinner. It has insects the size of squirrels. The land, its rock and dirt, slaps you just for thinking of complaining. People are built tough as hammers. They could be dying in front of you and still ready to walk the 6 miles to town. Law and order has a wild west feel to it. Lira is like being on a fruit diet. The good news is that after the detoxification, which includes a healthy dose of hanging out with street kids, you can feel the softness leaving your psyche. I love comfort. Comfort in Lira is having a relatively calm intestinal tract. It doesn’t matter that the toilet in my room doesn’t have a toilet seat. It’s actually a luxury. Why do they even come with seats? The bowl feels unnervingly large at first but you don’t really need one. Try it.
If you are in need of a boost to your sense of importance I would suggest visiting the kids at ATIN. They mob you every time you arrive even when you come and go several times in the same day. Each time I get to the gate I am flooded with hugs and ‘welcome back uncle’…’Uncle welcome back’. Yesterday I tooted the horn at the gate (to get someone to open it) but when they saw it was me suddenly I realized that they were ‘all’ pouring into my car. Every door was open and kids were jamming in everywhere. Little Joel was practically on my lap. I began telling them to ‘stop’, ‘wait’, ‘get out!’, but they weren’t accustomed to any sort of car etiquette. When it comes to the vehicle there was no sense of anything being off limits. Eventually, I succumbed to the idea that when I arrive at ATIN, 17 kids will attack and infiltrate the vehicle and then I would give them a ride around the neighbourhood. Actually, I never felt I had much of a choice in the matter. Whether it was safe or not is something else altogether. The fact that Immanuel stands on the back bumper and holds onto the spare tire suggests that I go slowly. On a similar note if I’ve got anything that I want to keep inside the vehicle there is a good chance that it will be gone once I get them all out. It’s not stealing they just came to believe that whatever was in my car was for them!
Sadly, one of the girls at ATIN tested positive to HIV today. She is about 13 years old. They have not told her yet because they want to do it in the most supportive way possible lest she return to the streets to try to forget her problems through reckless living. She most likely contracted the virus through sexual activity either by force or as a means to earn money, which in the end is not much of a choice when you’re a 13 year old street girl in Lira.
The kids hold on to you when you enter the gate at ATIN as if you’re a war hero, as if they never want to let you go. Greetings and farewells are big deals in Africa especially among street kids and orphans. The wounded attachments with caregivers that were truncated want to compensate by clinging and trying to avoid ‘goodbye’s’. Of course, all males who come to help and work with the kids are called, ‘Uncles’ and all females are called, ‘Aunties’. For the first while, since I arrived with a car, I was called ‘Uncle Car’ until they learned my name.
Morris and I are currently shepherding the procurement of shelves, filing cabinet, school desks, and two couches for ATIN. Finding the carpenters is easy. Getting their prices is easy. Settling on the guy you want to build your furniture – easy. The only tricky part is getting them done by the due date. This is where all bets are off and you get into the trenches and even start employing some less than puritan tactics to motivate the carpenter.
I have learned that he will tell you that he can have it completed when he knows deep down that he cannot. I am trying to work on this area of communication so that he can speak freely and tell me the truth but for any of you who’ve been in Africa this is where our cultures don’t understand each other in the least. His tendency is to tell me what I want to hear so that he keeps my business but I try to tell him that if it isn’t done on time then it actually hurts any chance of doing business with him again but he isn’t usually thinking that far ahead. I massage it a little by reassuring him that I would rather have him say a day later and it be the truth than tell me what I want to hear only to come on that day to find it is not done. If anyone out there has found a way through this dilemma you should write a book…quickly…
So, I figure I’ve got to push hard but then allow a back door for the guy’s honest truth to come out. Somewhere in there we have a deal. But it requires constant vigilance. Morris or I will drop by the carpenters tomorrow and the next day just to let him see our faces and have the reminder reverberate throughout his nervous system. Deep down I’m hoping it instills flickers of fear as stress can be a powerful motivator. I have also tried using a tapered payment system wherein he gets less money the longer it takes. Then, at other times, I might buy him a soda. Kind of like a peace offering, a salve to ease the pain of this rigorous muzungu timetable.
My life felt like it made sense today. Driving down red dirt roads in a 4×4, across fields, through ditches, sun in the sky, deep into the land outside of Lira, passing smoke rising, babies and more babies chasing goats and playing with sticks, old weathered faces, mud home after mud home, I was with Morris as he went about the work of resettling street kids in their home villages. Assessing the home environment, trying to figure out why the child left, seeing if there is family who is willing to take care of the child if they got help with school fees. Today, we met Solomon’s aunt and uncle and his sister and learned that his mom was killed in an LRA attack just after his sister was born and his Dad is blind and lives somewhere in Kampala. His Aunt and Uncle were raising him but had no money for school fees. At 9 years old Solomon has been trying his hand at living on the streets and making his way in the world. Where we were today there was no connection to the outside world. This is a place where there is no phone network. People walk or ride bikes. They farm the land but it’s a harsh, low bush, hard soil with little water. There is no electricity, no medical care, no place to fix your vehicle, just land, endless African land.
Then back in town I hung out with the kids at ATIN AFRIKA. There are now 17 street kids living at ATIN. They discovered a football in my vehicle and it quickly became theirs. Late in the afternoon they all walked me back to my room at the Lira Hotel so I could get some water and I felt that rare feeling of having my insides and my outside in tune. It doesn’t hurt that they greet me like I’m world famous so I tend to feel quite good about myself here. The sun was beginning its final descent today, chickens pecking by the road, warm air cleansing me as I arrived on a boda bringing dried fish, g-nuts, and tomatoes to the home for a special supper. As dinner was being prepared the watchman Dennis shared part of his story with me. I listened as if sitting before royalty as he recounted the two years of violence he suffered during the conflict in northern Uganda. After every stomach was happy again we had singing and the learning of songs around the table. A good day in Africa is unbeatable.
All these kids off the street living together produces a remarkable energy in the compound. And they can eat. I was asking them what their favourite foods were and I discovered that there is no such thing as food they don’t like. The matron ‘Grace’ pointed it out to me that these are not like kids who grow up in homes where they have some choice in the matter. They eat what is there and they love it. Posho, rice, beans, matooke, cassava, sweet potato, Irish potato, fish, chicken, greens, that about completes their entire diet. The little one ‘Lamek’ eats like it’s his God given vocation, like he’s taken a solemn vow. He destroys his food tearing apart the toughest sinews of chicken with his bare hands. I had to wipe pieces of chicken off the top of his head the other day. By the way if matron wants chicken for supper the kids will make short work of the juiciest looking bird in the yard, feathers fly everywhere, and ‘wall la’, chicken ready to be cooked.
I was once again visiting ATIN in Lira where I went along with Morris as he did his ‘street visits’ talking to street kids and giving them the option of coming to live at the house. We went to pay for school fees for several of the kids who were resettled through ATIN. This visit helped me appreciate the frustrations that Morris lives with as he tries to resettle kids and keep them in school in their villages. After driving who knows how far outside of civilization we ended up not being able to pay the fees because the headmaster wasn’t there that day but meanwhile the child couldn’t go to school until the fees were paid. This is one of those moments where you lean your head back, take a deep breath, bite into a mango, and let it all go. At one point we had to walk to a boy’s home to find him as he wasn’t at the school when we arrived and the road to his house was impassable. I learned then and there that when a villager from northern Uganda says that a distance is ‘not far’ to walk it has next to no bearing on any definition of ‘far’ that I know.
While in Lira we also ended up interceding for two 16 year old girls from Moroto who were stranded in Lira after coming with a singing group three months ago. They didn’t get back home because their vehicle broke down and while the rest of the group had money to pay for transportation they ended up stuck in Lira and staying with a single man twice their age whose intentions were less than clear. We went to the police station to report their situation so that they could safely stay at ATIN for the night before putting them on a bus the next morning back to Moroto. While Morris and the other ATIN staff thought nothing of the police visit I was as nervous as the two girls thinking that at anytime we’d all be locked up for some fabricated charge and spend the rest of our days in a Ugandan jail digging ditches in the blazing heat. Morris and the girls would probably be fine…me on the other hand…I’m sure I wouldn’t make it past lunch before inquiring about an infirmary.
Thanks to Morris and Chelsea, Grace, Dennis, interns, and the beautiful children of ATIN AFRIKA! I won’t forget you.