The chances we have in life are, for the best part, dictated to us by the lottery of where we are born. The result of my birthplace, and subsequently that of my children, means that we have an extremely fortunate life. Moving away from the superficial wants of newer phones, more up-to-date gadgets, flashier cars, we need to acknowledge that those of us in the western world have much of the basic necessities needed to survive and thrive as healthy, successful adults. The lottery of birth means that things for any of us could have been very different indeed.
The differences between raising a child in the western world compared to the challenges of raising a child in a developing country are clear, or so I believed. I have fresh running water on tap, domestic appliances, no concerns about getting medical help if any of us are sick or and I don’t need to worry about an education for my children, having the option of entering them into the school system if we ever decided to opt out of home educating them. How can a mother from the UK possibly identify with a mother in a developing country? There was no point in kidding myself. The truth was, I couldn’t identify at all.
We headed to the Mutesasira Zone which lies 7 kilometres south of Uganda’s capital Kampala. We were led behind a row of shops to a little cement-walled building with a tin roof. This is home for Maria, her softly spoken husband and their children.
With a local population of approximately 15,500 residents and a high level of unemployment, Maria’s husband is fortunate enough to be employed as a mechanic. Maria also works in order to support her family, finding employment where she can. Sometimes as a day labourer or wherever work is, seeking any opportunity to earn an income from washing laundry to digging the hard clay ground, even whilst heavily pregnant. And this is something she has done many times, as she and her husband are also parents to 13 children.
Maria’s home is, in comparison, more spacious than many. The cement walls and a tin roof form the home to the family of 15 in two rooms, each measuring approximately 10 foot square. A metal door stays open during the day in order to allow light and air into the front room. A curtain hangs from in front of it allowing the family some privacy. The room at the front is divided into two thanks to a white curtain draped along the centre. To one half of the room is a battered three piece suite and, in the corner, are a few belongings including an unfinished green and pink reed mat that Maria is working on, yet another skill she has developed with the purpose of creating an income, that is almost complete and ready for selling. A sleeping area created with bunk beds, each bunk sleeping two children, sits behind the dividing fabric. More bunk beds are in the rear room. Those not fortunate enough to have a bed to sleep on will pull a mattress out onto the floor come bed time.
As is the norm for families like Maria’s, there is no running water, no electricity and no heating. Their home still remains as scrupulously clean as she can maintain it – a task in itself with 13 children as I know all too well! The tin roof often allows rain in, there is no toilet or bathroom and the kitchen is comprised of a separate external structure made of wooden boards and slats which stands at the front of the house. The cooking area is a small coal-powered stove positioned underneath the narrow shelter of the overhanging tin roof. A large steel pan of beans is already simmering away for the family’s evening meal. Tonight they will eat, but with Maria’s income dependant on availability and her husband’s trade reliant on people needing a mechanic, there is no such thing as a regular income.
On this day, two of Maria’s children were attending the Compassion-run project where they are fortunate enough to have sponsors. This has changed the family’s lives immensely. The project provides the children with the opportunity to gain an education, medical care, social and spiritual guidance and income-generating skills, but the welfare of the entire family is overseen.
Several of the children were present during our visit, although many of the older and middle ones were out at school or at work. More than 12 of us squeezed into the family’s living room, and we soon forgot the darkness and the lack of space as the room soon exploded with laughter, stories and gentle, loving teasing. Maria sat quietly surrounded by several of her children as we talked through a translator about our families. The age range of the children in both families spanned 21 years; ours between 24 and 3-years-old and Maria’s between 23 and 2. We both had one set of twins – girls. We both had children named Eddie and Joseph.
We joked about the days the kids drive us mad and how we feel like running away… but we don’t, even though we really, really want to. The more we compared, the more we found in common and the more we laughed and identified with each other.
Of course there were differences. Unlike Maria, I had never had to give birth alone on a cold stone floor. I had never had to worry about not being able to pay a medical bill when I was pregnant or when any of my children were ill. I had never had to dig into hard, clay ground while heavily pregnant. My life was easier in so many ways but Maria sat uncomplaining. Yet, for all of these challenges, it wasn’t these things that pressed on the family as much as something we did have in common: the criticism of others.
Speaking in hushed tones and with not much to say at first, Maria watched on as her 23-year-old daughter Teopisa shared her experience of being the oldest child within the family.
Teopisa was a tiny young lady, her infectious, vivicious personality making her greater in stature than her height indicated. Teopisa told us about the time only a few years ago when Maria was pregnant with her 12th child, Augustine.
A woman in the community had stopped Teopisa and demanded to know when her mother was going to stop having children. After listening to this woman openly and loudly criticising her parents and her siblings, Teopisa returned home upset and angry at her mother. Why did she have so many children when everyone was criticising and mocking them so much, she wanted to know.
This experience was not isolated they told us. Criticism and ridicule was often directed at the family from the local community. Feeling they were the only ones to face this, this experience in particular put a strain on her relationship with her mother. Teopisa wanted to know whether we too had received any negativity through simply being a large family.
I so very much wanted to reassure her that comments like that are few and far between. I so wanted to state firmly that criticism is voiced by the few, and that ridicule was meted out by the minority. Sadly, I was unable to do any of it. As we sat and listened, Cait and I found ourselves identifying with this family thousands of miles away, in circumstances far, far different than our own, much better than we had ever imagined. It felt painful to hear of the challenges this beautiful, intelligent, loving family faced from the mouths of others, even though they were the same attitudes we too were faced with.
I held Maria’s hand as I felt her sadness merge with mine. I knew full well that regardless of anything else she was ready, willing or able to do for her children, protecting them from such wounding comments was the one thing she could not do. We continued to sit for three hours, as we shared photos of our families.
Through a translator, we continued to share our feelings and our stories. We did not share a common language, we lived such different lives yet, here we were, our hands in each other’s, feeling one another’s pain as mothers wanting to protect our children.
That afternoon we were bonded not because of our differences, but because of the similarities between us.
We went outside for photographs and as we did so, more of the family joined us as they finished school and work. Teopisa told us how she was learning to make clothes, and she ran back inside the house quickly.
She came back out holding onto a skirt she had just completed. She wanted to give it to Cait as a gift.
This beautiful family, with smiles as wide as the Nile and with such love and openness extending to us, strangers they had only just met, left me truly humbled.
This was a happy home, a home bursting with love and respect for one another. This was a family that should hold their heads high in achieving all they had in the toughest of circumstances, yet the hardest challenge they faced was their treatment by others.
Of all the goodbyes on my journey, I found saying goodby to Maria and her children to be the toughest. I felt I had found my maternal soulmate, a sister who actually understood me and my own challenges more than anyone else, because she too was walking the same road, despite the difference in circumstances. She ‘got’ me. She understood me when nobody, anywhere else has before. Her heart was my heart and I found it difficult to say goodbye, not knowing if I will ever see Maria or her precious family again. Here was family who had ignited in me such a love for them, and whilst I would dearly love to think I would, the reality that we probably will not cross paths again saddens me deeply. Writing this post and adding the photographs has made me smile and cry. I hope I will never forget that day.
Is it possible to raise so many children without the privileges the western world affords – or even with them, as our own family’s critics loudly ask? Is it possible to keep going, to keep giving, to keep sacrificing, determinedly in the face of all that pushes against you, so that the children will have a better future than their present?
But of course. How? Because of love. Love turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Love empowers you. Love enables you to keep going. Love draws on your reserves when you think you have nothing left to give. The good times, the bad times, the worrying times, the fun times – they all are what they are because of love. Love is not finite. It has no end. There is no limit to how much of it you can give or how much you can receive. Love compounds; the more you give, the more you get. And love empowers you to do the impossible, the difficult and sometimes the dangerous.
And that is what Maria does every single day.
I left for Uganda aware of the differences.How would I, in my privileged world, be able to identify with their problems in this stunning yet poverty-stricken country 3000 miles away? In focusing on the differences, I had not prepared myself for the similarities. The similarities brought by the power of love.
Oh, and the unfinished mat in Maria’s home? She completed it and gifted it to me.
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Photo Credits: Ella Dickinson/Compassion UK and Tania Sullivan