Don’t let my clever little title (okay, it’s not that clever) fool you, there are no ninjas in the town of Jinja. In fact, there is no connection to Japan there at all. Jinja, Uganda’s 2nd largest city, is probably most famous for being situated along Lake Victoria right at the source of the Nile River. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi had some of his ashes spread at the source where a monument stands to this day. However, I won’t continue to bore you with information you can find on Wikipedia.
After completing my first cross-country drive and settling down at the Kingfisher Resort in Jinja, it was time for week two of my journey in Uganda. The primary focus of this week was to put on somewhat of a VBS (vacation bible school) for the children living at Our Own Home. Now, Our Own Home, is a group children’s home specifically meant for orphans who are HIV positive. That means that not only do these kids have no parents, but they also must be given a cocktail of anti-viral medications everyday in order to survive. This regime is effective enough to make it so that most of the children living at the home do not exhibit much in the way of physical sickness. It’s important to bear in mind that in the third world, people live with a survivalist mentality. They will invest what little resources they have into whatever carries the best chance of survival. That means that if you line 10 children up, 5 with HIV and 5 without. The ones that do not carry the virus will receive care and attention first, because they have the better chance of survival. Our Own Home turns that dynamic completely upside down and seeks to take in the most marginalized kids in Ugandan society.
When I arrived in Jinja, I was told story after story of children taken in by the home, who came there in very bad shape. The most vivid story I remember is that of Jackson, a 17 year old, who arrived at the home as an 11 year old weighing a shocking 40 pounds (the average weight of an 11 year old is about 80 pounds). At the time of his arrival he had been abandoned by his relatives, was days away from death, and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, cancer that had spread to his lungs and liver, severe candidiasis (swelling of the mouth), and pneumonia. He regularly vomited blood and couldn’t keep medicine down. Today, he’s as athletic and muscular as any kid you’ll see, is captain of his school’s soccer team, is a talented musician, and is an absolute joy to interact with. Jackson is living proof that some of the best gifts in life don’t always come in the best packages.
So with all that in mind, let me tell you about the time I spent in Jinja. As I said before most of the week was spent at Our Own Home putting on a VBS. I found myself on game duty for most of the week having been tasked with putting together some recreational activities for the kids. It was funny to me how all of the games that I learned to play on the playground as a kid were completely foreign to Ugandan children. It makes sense why that would be the case, but it was still comical to have to explain games like “sharks and minnows” to kids who’ve don’t know what sharks are (Uganda is landlocked). I quickly realized that many of the nuances of these playground games that are second nature to me would have to be scraped for the sake of actually getting the kids active. Fortunately, laughter is universal and it became clear to me that the rules weren’t really all that important. In fact, when I really look back on it the sense of togetherness and camaraderie was more than enough to keep the kids engaged. You just don’t get that in the states. Kids here disengage when there isn’t a lot of structure, it’s pretty sad honestly.
Now aside from the games, I was blessed to have earned the affection of some of the younger boys living at the home. Each day around lunch time, this small group of boys (all about 5 or 6 years old) would take me on walks with them outside of the compound and into neighboring banana farms. As they proudly showed off the area that lived in, I was fascinated with the knowledge that these kids had of the local plants and animals. At the same time, I got to thinking about what in my own life would I proudly show off to an outsider. I mean how often do we get excited about what’s growing on a nearby farm or our neighbor’s pet dog. We act like so many aspects of our surroundings are just not that great. I know I have, so being with the boys and seeing how they viewed their surroundings really motivated me to appreciate mine a little more.
The local economy in Jinja is pretty well-developed such that the shopping district downtown had plenty of places to acquire the latest and greatest in Uganda trinkets. In this market, you could buy high quality original paintings for under $30, Nike and Adidas soccer jerseys for $8, and much, much more. One of the most popular items amongst Americans seemed to be these lightweight cotton pants with colorful patterns all over them. They were, of course, meant for women, but they seemed to fit much like parachute pants. I never found out why they were so popular, but it seemed like all the women in our group loved them. I, on the other hand, was content with a few soapstone carvings and a Chelsea Football Club jersey. If you’re looking for a way to fund a trip to Uganda, I’d highly recommend buying up as many jerseys as you can over there and reselling them in the states for 6-7 times what you bought them for.
When we weren’t hanging out with the kids of Our Own Home or shopping in downtown Jinja, the group and I hung out at the Kingfisher Resort. This hotel, which you can see dozens of pictures of on Instagram when you search #Jinja, provided us with a gorgeous garden environment with a spectacular view of Lake Victoria. Each morning, an incredible sunrise could be seen right from the hotel swimming pool. For those who might be wondering what a Uganda hotel is like, let me describe Kingfisher in a little more depth. The rooms were slightly smaller than what you might get at a Motel 6 or Super 8. This was mostly due to the lack of furniture and the size of the beds (twins). The entire room was constructed with natural materials (mud, stone, and wood) and the bathroom did have modern plumbing. Typically you sleep under a mosquito net for protection against malaria.
One unfortunate aspect of the room was that it was not sealed off from the outside. All of the bugs and lizards that hang out around the hotel can easily make their way through the cracks in the windows and doors. They usually aren’t a concern, but it’s not uncommon that you could find a giant stag beetle clinging to your mosquito net a foot away from your face like I did. The rooms all had wood fueled water heaters which were slow and unreliable. Given the fact that a hot shower is still pretty rare in the third world, the fact that the hotel had something was impressive. The hotel also had several amenities like a swimming pool, a bar, and wifi (broken at the time of my stay) that added a little more luxury to the stay. A continental breakfast of sorts was provided every morning as well.
On one of the final days during my stay in Jinja, I had a chance to take a boat ride around the source of the Nile River. It was really incredible to see all of the local wildlife that called the area home. There were dozens of bird species, some more beautiful than others, that added so much vibrance to the area. Lots of monkeys lived in the trees along the river banks and made no apologies about letting you know that you were creeping up to their “back porches.” I was surprised that there weren’t any crocodiles around. I was really hoping to see a few big ones, but in a boat the size of a midsized SUV, it’s just as well that I didn’t. One cool aspect of the boat ride was getting to see a spot near the source where Gandhi’s ashes had been spread. I’m sure his ashes have been spread in dozens of places around the world, but to visit a place where his legacy lives on was really cool for me.
Inevitably, my trip would come to an end as quickly as it got started. As the week in Jinja started to wrap up and we prepared to head back to Entebbe to catch our flight home, I reflected on a lot in my life. The people at home I deeply love and care about, the job I’d be heading back into, the work I’ve done so far with Skate Across Indiana, and all of the things I saw and experienced in Uganda. I felt truly blessed by the opportunity I had to spend time with people from another country and I knew that I would cherish it for a long time. I don’t have a whole lot else to say as it relates to how my African adventure came to a close. Obviously I got home safely and all of that, but in my life, the adventure never really ends. It’s on-going; there are stories to tell and memories to process. I hope that with my 3 part recap, people have enjoyed it and learned something that they can apply to a part of their own story. I’ll finish by saying that I’m grateful for all who supported me on this trip and for the experiences I had along the way. Thank you!