A shrill screaming song flowing with delight greeted us as we exited our minibus. A swarm of delighted Habitat homeowners awaited, hearts filled with stories of lives changed. Part of a journey with Habitat leaders from the US and Great Britain, we’d landed in a small village outside of Kumi, Uganda reachable only by a 30 minute journey from town on a rutted red dirt road. They were widows and grandparents raising orphans in a land whose soil is rich, and whose culture is built on depending on one another.
Habitat has been building in Kumi for 8 years, constructing nearly 550 homes in that time. The homes are basic by US standards, a homemade brick structure with metal roofing consisting of 3 basic rooms and a pit toilet. No plumbing, water comes from a tap 20 minutes’ walk down the road. When Habitat began building in this region, only 6% of the population had access to a toilet; they used the bush and were plagued by diarrhea, and infected sores on their feet from walking barefoot on contaminated land. Now, 96% of the population here has access to a toilet. For a population dependent on growing their own food, with hopes for a little extra to sell, every day sick is a day a little closer to starvation, and certainly, more so than here, time is money.
These simple homes make a dramatic difference to a people whose average wage is $50/month and is dependent on their ability to farm and sell at the market. With 85% of the Ugandan population either unemployed or seriously underemployed, there is little hope for increasing income in ways other than simply growing and selling more. A decent home makes a significant dent in their ability to do so. You see, these people have been living in grass-roofed mud huts their entire lives. Every year after the rains, families living in these huts have to go harvest and compact more cow dung for the floors and walls in order to keep the elements out. Termites come to dine on their roofs. Food you’ve dried and stored each season has no security from raiding tribes, nor the seeds you’ve saved for the next planting season. When I asked them how life had changed since they’d moved into their homes there was a seemingly unending list of improvements:
“the rats are gone, they can no longer get in to bite us and steal our food,”
“I’m able to look at my children now. Before, I had no time to sit with them, and no hope in looking at them. Now I can save money to send them to school again.”
“I’m disabled and didn’t have the energy or ability to go out to look for materials for a house. Now I have a safe home.”
“I don’t have a house yet, but I thank you deeply, because the houses around us allow us to improve our lives. They share their toilets with us and that makes a big difference. No one here uses the bush any longer. We are healthy.”
The music of their voices together responding to questions, squealing praises, and closing in melodic song convinced each of us on our team that this was some of the most important work we could possibly do. As our Ugandan colleague so aptly put it, “Every day I go to work I say thanks be to God. He receives the glory, we just do His work.”
When I look into the eyes of the orphans and their caregivers, I know there is no more important work that we can do in this world. When I see the joy in their eyes at seeing their picture on my phone’s screen, probably the first time in their lives they’ve seen an image of themselves, I know: we were meant to come here to meet them. It is no longer enough for us to send money and hope for the best. In order to be true partners, we have to be just that— a person who will know your struggles, one who will meet you where you are and love you.
As I walk the streets of Kumi en route to the market, they call out “Mzungu, Mzungu!” The word means traveler in Swahili, but as far as I can tell it’s what they call those with my pigmentation. There are names for us the world over, I imagine, as I’ve become accustomed to hearing my Latin American name: Gringa from friends and strangers alike. This is a friendly greeting more than a derogatory name. I hope to learn many more of the world’s pet names for white people in years to come, through my work with habitat, and to return to this fine country several times as well.
Grace is what they call “living positive,” she has HIV, and what a way to describe that— but indeed she is living positive. She wears a smile as wide as her face as she takes us on a tour of her property. An AIDS widow also living with the disease, she is raising 5 children on her own. She’s been in her Habitat home 18 months, one of more than 50 built in this region each year. Grace is much more than a number though. She wakes long before dawn each morning, getting children ready for school. With her average wage around $600 each year from selling produce from her modest garden, she was determined to send them to school, ensuring a better future for them when she is gone— to send all 5 it takes her entire annual earnings. They wake with her, dividing chores before they depart. One starts the fire for the day’s cooking, another washes dishes, others walk to the pump for the day’s water— a two hour task for a single person. The children then set out on their 90 minute walk to school.
Once they’re gone, Grace starts her day of production— the fields need to be plowed this time of year, chickens need tending, goats as well, and those are just the chores to maintain her household. She recently started harvesting dirt from fire ant mounds which sometimes stand 6 feet tall here in the bush. Their dirt, she tells us, is better because the ants work it in their mouths, it makes the strongest most refined bricks. She made all of the bricks for her house, 9,000 in total, and has continued the effort, selling them to contractors to build others’ homes as well. This, and raising the goats, send the children to school. By my math, her industrious nature has doubled her income. All while living with AIDS. The home has already made a radical difference in her life by her account, and provided security for her children even after she passes, which she will someday.
As I am saying goodbye to Grace, she asks me to keep her in my prayers. My heart swells for the fourth time in her presence, and I can no longer keep the tears back. I assure her I will, hug her, and she catches my hands for one last squeeze. “Carry me with you when you go,” she begged, “Be sure you see me when you are home. God bless you.”
Bless you, Grace. I imagine I will continue to see you for the rest of my days, and carry you with me forever. Anything less would be a disservice to the incredible love-force you are. You welcomed me as a Mzungu, and now we are family.