As the minibus drove over to Doreen’s home I tried to prepare myself for what we were to see. How would I feel, finally finding out how Doreen actually lived? It doesn’t matter what you think you know about a person or their situation, until you are faced with the reality of it, you cannot begin to comprehend a world with which you have no knowledge of at all.
The minibus parked up on the corner of Doreen’s ‘street’ although, as with slums in general, there is no distinction between road or pavement. Children were everywhere and we were aware that our presence was being observed all around us by kids and adults alike.
We walked the short way up to Doreen’s home carrying with us a box of basic groceries and a rucksack packed with gifts to give on our arrival. I wondered whether Doreen’s grandmother might have returned home by now. Her absence and unknown whereabouts was starting to concern me a little.
Fatumah hurried out of the house to greet us as we arrived.
We went into Doreen’s home and all tried to find a place to sit in the small area, perhaps only 8 feet by 6 feet if that. A curtain hung behind us and over to one side, each sectioning off Doreen’s and her grandmother’s ‘bedrooms’. We had brought one of the new mattresses along from the project with us for Doreen. Today was definitely a big day for her!
A young girl came out from behind the curtain. She was tall and thin, and barely speaking at all. She settled on a stool at the side of the room. Her face was sad, but as strange as this may sound, not with any kind of sadness that I have ever been familiar with. Doreen explained that this was her cousin, Viola. Viola had come to live with Doreen’s grandmother recently but was sad because she was unable to go to school. Fatumah sat on the ground beside Viola and Viola leant away slightly. Only 12-years-old, Viola seemed far older than her age, not only because of her physical stature which made her look far older than her years, but within her demeanor as a whole. I tried to describe Viola to Mike later that evening and struggled. There wasn’t any kind of adjective to fit. The only way I could describe her was as ‘breathing but not living’. It was as though all hope had left her, and without hope, she had nothing left.
We were all surprised to see Viola. Nobody was aware of her. Nobody knew that Doreen’s grandmother was trying to look after her as well as Doreen. Nobody knew how long she had been with Doreen and Jajja (grandmother). Nobody knew why she had come to live with them.
Thank goodness for a landlady like Fatumah, at least. Fatumah went on to explain that the rent was in arrears by three months, but she was okay about them staying until Doreen’s grandmother – her Jajja – could pay. How much was the rent per month, we asked? 50,000 Ugandan shillings a month (approximately £10) , Fatumah replied.
The girls said nothing at all.
Jajja had still not returned. No contact had been made with her as yet. I thought about her grandmother, wondering what business could have taken her away from Doreen during what certainly was such an important moment in Doreen’s life. Relatively few children get the opportunity to meet their sponsors. Her business in Arua must have been extremely important indeed.
As we learnt about Viola’s presence and of Fatumah’s help towards Jajja and the two girls for whom she was responsible, our eyes adjusted to the lack of light within the room. The door was left open to allow the daylight in but, despite the sunlight beaming down outside, it was difficult to see anything within the walls clearly at all. There were no windows and I looked up to see holes in the tin roof above.
There was no electricity. There was no water. Just a cold, hard, concrete ground, a tin roof with holes in it, windowless walls… and darkness.
I couldn’t imagine being plunged into complete darkness even during the height of day. I couldn’t imagine having to cook outdoors – when we had something to cook, that is, or not having a toilet, or nowhere to wash. I couldn’t imagine trying to dodge the rain as it fell in whilst we slept. I couldn’t imagine my children living like this.
But I don’t have to live like this.
My children don’t have to live like this.
But Doreen and Viola and thousands of children like them do.
Curious children from the neighbourhood crowded the door to see the muzungu that had arrived, wanting to know what was going on, wanting just a glimpse of Doreen’s big day. At one point Fatumah became a little angry, shouting the children away. ‘Calm down, Aunty,’ coaxed Lillian, our guide from Compassion’s Uganda office.
Doreen went behind one of the curtains and brought out some brooms. This is Jajja’s business. This is what her Jajja, her grandmother, makes to earn the money to raise Doreen and Viola and pay the rent with. Her grandmother wakes early in the morning to leave the house and collect enough reeds to make a broom or two – as many reeds as she can find, collect and carry. She brings the reeds back to the house and prepares them, cutting them to size and tying them up tightly and neatly, making the brooms to sell for food, clothes and rent. Once she has made them, she needs to carry the brooms out to the streets and wander them long enough to find buyers for them.
Jajja sells each broom for either 300 or 500 Ugandan Shillings, depending on the size. That’s between six and ten pence each.
Jajja needs to make and sell between 100 and 167 brooms a month just to pay the rent.
Jajja is 72-years-old and has heart problems.
Jajja is all the family Doreen and Viola have left.
‘You can take one with you if you want,’ Doreen whispered softly.
My goodness, how could I? Knowing the work, the time, the effort and yet Doreen really wanted us to take a broom with us. I told her it wouldn’t fit in my bag on the plane and thanked her, but still her kindness overwhelmed me. Doreen was willing to give what little they had to us.
How truly humbled was I? I cannot even begin to describe it.
It was time to give Doreen her gifts instead. A box of groceries was greatly appreciated indeed and then it was time to hand over the gifts that Cait and I had bought, wondering what you could give to someone who had little that wouldn’t be impractical, or ill thought out, or simply not useful.
The wind-up torch proved to be an immensely useful gift, given the stark darkness of the room. Toiletry bags packed with toothbrushes, toothpastes and sanitary towels, as well as socks, blankets, notebooks and pens were all met with broad smiles and deep gratitude.
There was laughter as Cait demonstrated a windmill gift, given for no other practical purpose but just because we thought it would be fun. Bags of nuts and sweets, rare treats, were also squeezed in. The rucksack itself was also a gift, perfect for school and again gratefully and joyfully received.
But what seemed to be the most treasured gift of all was a simple photo album.
Of all the gifts we brought with us, just a few photos of our family in a book had completely made Doreen’s day.
‘Eddie?’ she asked. Doreen had been talking about Eddie all day and he was one of the first things she mentioned when we first met only hours before. He had written to her the year before and I had completely forgotten about it. But Doreen didn’t. ‘Eddie is my friend,’ she told me.
That’s how much impact a letter has on these children. How did I never realise this until now?
And so, finding Eddie’s photograph, putting a face to the name, was visibly a delight to Doreen.
We went to the front of the house for some photographs. The gift of a shirt and a toiletry bag to Viola from Compassion had brought a smile to her otherwise weary face.
‘Always have hope,’ I told her as I hugged her. ‘Never let anyone or anything take away your hope.’
Soon it was time for us to leave, but it wouldn’t be the end of our time with Doreen. The following day we would meet again, taking her away from her neighbourhood and the project so that she could see the River Nile for the first time ever.
For tonight though, it was time to say goodbye.
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Photo Credit: Ella Dickinson/Compassion UK