August 1, 2010

Visiting the Community Pictures

These pictures were taken on Kime by Asha Tanna, the BBC journalist. Please don't republish them anywhere.

Visiting the Community

Ngamba Island is part of an island chain that is home to numerous fishing villages and small towns. As part of their conservation work, CSWCT funds community outreach projects like school construction, conservation education, inter-island football tournaments, and women’s collectives that make crafts to be sold in the island shop, to name a few. And whenever the want to or have to have to travel to another island, they call it “visiting the Community.”

I have been to other islands three times now and each time has been an eye-opening, shocking, totally worthwhile experience. Living on Ngamba is a very sheltered existence. Living on the other islands is not.

Most of the inhabitants of these islands are fishermen, supporting themselves by fishing for silverfish, Nile perch, and tilapia (although there is also a thriving criminal community that is hiding out from the mainland police here, with all the accompaniments you would imagine of such a group). Some of the islands host around 2,000 people while others only a hundred or so.

The first island I visited was Kime (pronounced CHI-meh), the closest and, I believe, largest island. I went with some of the caregivers as my guides. This was my first time wandering around in what I would consider an African slum.

At first, all I could see was poverty, overwhelming poverty. Malnourished children with enormous bellies were running around, some with younger siblings on their backs. Most lacked shoes and I can’t remember any that were wearing untorn clothing. The houses were tiny, maybe 10 feet across, and placed directly next to each other. Some had doors but many simply had a piece of cloth strung in front of the entrance. Chickens, ducks, and goats wandered around the alleys. Everything was dirty.

As soon as I stopped feeling shocked and started actually looking at Kime, my opinion changed. Yes, the children were malnourished and not clothed properly, but they were smiling. The women sitting outside their homes preparing food were gossiping and laughing like women do everywhere. The men were sitting around working on nets, eating, or playing dice games just like they would in any city. And the houses that were so appalling small and ramshackle… on closer examination they had small decorations covering them- bottle caps underneath the nails, drawings and designs around the doors, and those cloths covering the doors were colorful and even lacy at times. I am very embarrassed to admit it took me about 10 minutes to realize that people could be happy here, and that a place that has nothing can still contain lives that mean something.

Around this time I began to collect a hoard of children. I had gotten pretty used to being called Mzungu (foreigner/whitie) as a name, but I had never experienced the degree of celebrity one can achieve as a Mzungu. The kids, around 4-8 years old, crowded around me, chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and fighting for a chance to hold my hand. They followed me wherever my guides and I went. One boy held onto my hand for about 5 minutes and seemed ecstatic- he was smiling from ear to ear and kept touching his forehead to our joined hands as he proudly showed off to the other children. One young girl, Rihema, who was probably about 8-years-old was quite shy but still wanted to walk around with the group. She carried her younger sister (around 2 or 3) on her back the entire time, even though her sister must have been nearly half her size. When we went back to the shore, the children followed us and gathered round to help push our canoe into the water. I’m not sure how much help we needed from 15 tiny children, but the send-off was quite touching.

The second island I visited was Mweya (pronounced (m)WAY-uh). I was prepared for a similar experience as Kime, but instead of a big, city-like town, I found a small fishing village of about 300 people. Here, there was more space between the houses, which were made of mud and wood rather than metal and wood as on Kime. Stanny (the head caregiver), Joseph (the Ugandan intern), Phillip (a caregiver), Zarin, and I were going to the school there to drop off a football and check on the progress of the school’s garden, planted by CSWCT to provide food for lunch. The students really appreciated the new football (or soccer ball, in American parlance) and the teachers really appreciated our visit- they had us sign their guestbook. While the younger children from the town had followed us up the hill to the school, the students were more restrained and didn’t crowd around, although we had lots of girls craning their necks to see out the door. Before leaving, we had a mini-hike to the other side of the island. I wish I had brought my camera because it was a stunning landscape and had flora that I had never seen before; it almost reminded me of the area on Mt. Kinabalu above the tree-line. We stared across Lake Victoria and strained to make out Tanzania on the other side, but it was far too far away.

Finally, the third time I went off-island to the Community I traveled with Joseph (the Ugandan intern), Hosea (our maintenance guy), Asha (the BBC reporter), and Carly (a Canadian volunteer on her way up to Hoima to teach for a month). We visited Kime again, but started out on the opposite side of the island, which resembled Mweya rather than the first city. There, we saw the burial ground (it was combined with a traditional medicine station, but no pictures or shoes were allowed), were invited to join in an amarura circle (where people all drink a beer-like alcohol out of the same pot- we declined) and watched fish being smoked in pits. Cue the Mzungu chants and hoards of children again. After a brief stay on that side of the island, we went back to the first city. This time, Hosea wanted to show us the churches, so we trekked up hill to visit the 5 or so small churches they have there. We narrowly escaped having to listen to a sermon (Hosea was disappointed) because the preacher didn’t speak any English or like to preach on that day.

So those have been a brief(ish) recap of my experiences in the Community.