Ghost relatives in the Middle East.

Long story short, it was December 2015 when Bridget finally flew to Oman…

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Bridget was her name, she was about 18 going to 19, a child according to the Ugandan law. We had met a few times because she was a cousin to John, a former workmate who she visited every now and then at work. Bridget was orphaned when she was little and her mother struggled to raise her and her siblings single-handedly. Consequently like many Ugandan girls, she had to drop out of school because of poverty. Neither literacy nor numeracy was her strong points, at least that’s the deduction I made from the conversations we had on those few occasions. English comprehension wasn’t her forte but as I tried to talk her out of going to Oman, I really hoped she’d understand.

Hitherto that she’d told of this exciting opportunity John had found for her on the Internet. Everything she explained was too good to be true; a good paying job as a domestic servant, no travel or visa costs and then expeditious handling of her travel plans. Of course, being as cautious as they come, I conducted due diligence on this God sent agency. A website with insufficient information, a fictitious address and to top it, shared the name and branding of a renowned human resource agency overseas.  It then dawned on me that the agency was a possible trafficking scheme.

In a lengthy conversation later that day I explained my fears to both John and Bridget.  I explained to John specifically about the role he’d played in selling this child and the consequences on the Prevention of Trafficking Person act because together with her mother, they’d bought into the juicy idea and could take no advice to cancel plans as the adults. For Bridget, I tried to explain the plight of many Ugandan domestic workers abroad in the middle east especially. But that did not faze her, no amount of video or newspaper reports changed her mind.

John took my advice but his aunt and cousin, not so much and now John appeared like one sabotaging a good future for the teenager now that it was seemingly real. He had become the enemy of progress. Bridget would be a maid, take care of rich old people and send her mum the killing she’d made, or so they thought. I cautioned her, told her of how traffickers confiscate passports and phones and that she should be careful and survive at whatever cost and look for a way to contact home while planning an escape from whoever had enslaved her in case the need arose.

Long story short, it was December 2015 when Bridget finally flew to Oman with the encouragement from her mother without informing anyone. It is a year and 4 months now and nobody, not even her mother, has heard from her. Our fears are yet to be confirmed but we only hope she’ll live to come back home someday. This is probably a story you’ve heard a thousand-fold. But yes, we now join the many other families that are waiting for their children, husbands and wives, if not rich like they’d hoped, but at least alive.

Just a couple of weeks ago, news broke out of 4 young women from Kampala who were rescued in Tororo after the Police were tipped off by hotel management; they would soon be crossing the Malaba border to Kenya to catch their flight to Oman. None of that made me sleep better, because more girls had probably crossed over a few days ago, and more still did a few days later. It doesn’t stop. I am now pretty sure that’s what happened to Bridget. Kenya now provides a quick and more insidious manner for trafficking.

I do not know if it is our ignorance or something worse; because these recruitment companies are obviously trafficking. Even I could tell that this company was shady. What of the police who undergo vigorous training, aren’t they able to discern and pick out these wrong characters? I sometimes wonder to myself, am sure other citizens have carried the same thoughts; “if I were the police, I would just go over right that moment, arrest them, lock them up and close these life-threatening agencies.  I mean, these unlicensed agencies are right here under our noses; they’re not even hiding!

It keeps getting worse, I say. These adverts not only (boldly) run on our national television stations, but also on the streets printed on A4 sheets complete with contacts. It is easy to think that security would call these numbers undercover and close more agencies the next day but well… what do we know?

I am just saddened that at that time with all my suspicions, I did not tip off the police; maybe the agency could have been closed, and a lot of girls saved. (I am however told that these unlicensed agencies have mastered their art of survival, and that is why they boldly advertise on TV without coming to any harm. I do not want to think about how they do it.)

What is not being done right? From recent stories, a number of women and men have been assisted by the police to come back home; but is that the primary place we should be looking? Should we not focus on who is taking them away while they’re still strong, healthy but naïve young people instead of how to rescue them from the Middle East after they’re battered and weak from ALL kinds of enslavement?

In a Ministry of Internal Affairs’ 2013 annual report on the trend of trafficking in persons in Uganda that was published in February 2014, among the national interventions to combat trafficking was to form working groups in stakeholder ministries, departments and agencies on trafficking in persons, which by the end of the year were formed but lacked institutional support. I guess in simple English it just means that not enough work is being done. On top of that, “…a total of 8 capacity building workshops were held with a total of 350 stakeholder members trained…” all in regards to practical investigation techniques among others.

All the above are great initiatives. But if only we could start with the simple exercise of just visiting these offices that don’t care to stand out in the city and closing all that are unlicensed, we would have fewer victims to rescue with time. Most of the victims are young men and women who are only comfortable expressing themselves in local dialects, I, therefore, think that an advert should run on every local TV station depicting a brief Trafficking experience to create awareness of the vice and ways to avert it.

Featured Image: http://www.ungift.org/images/ungift/about_ungift/africa4.jpg

When I See You Again.

Here’s a fortnight’s journey in one story…

Once upon a time – I’ve only started a story in that manner once, don’t be frowning – in the evening of 2015, I got an opportunity to be part of the team of adults to supervise a group of young people in a youth club; but really to share with them a few of my new ideas and activities, to widen their understanding of the world around them and to foster an intercultural learning. Sounds like a lot of clever stuff right? I thought so as well, haha.

In Denmark, (I later learnt that it is locally written as Danmark) the local authorities are obligated to offer leisure activities to children over 10 years old after their usual school program, and with that, they set up youth clubs in every community where kids will go to immediately after school at 2pm.

The youth club is a building set up like a home for the comfort of the kids. It will look like a typical house with couches for lounging, a kitchen to make snack and drinks, play areas all over the place for all kinds of indoor games that the particular youth club could afford. The youth clubs prioritise social activities like music, art and performing arts, sports, films, and various outdoor activities; they’re supervised by adults who are paid by the local authorities. I think it is an awesome government initiative.

The younger kids in what we’d call primary level will get off school and come in at 2pm until 5pm. While the older kids in high school will come in from 5pm until 10pm. These clubs serve as an alternative for otherwise reckless activities children might want to stealthily get into after school, but also as places where they can get extracurricular learning. The parents sign them up, and roll calls are done for accountability to parents.

Despite the freedom the youth have in there, it is a smoking and alcohol free zone. On a normal day, they’ll come in and play their favourite games, hang out with their friends from different schools while they have the best time of their lives and all that is going on in your mind is the memory of your childhood when you had to be back home immediately after school to go do the dishes, mop the house and do your homework with hardly any games to play until you reported back the next day and had that game of “bladder” (jumping the rubber rope) at break time that made you no more clever than you were in your school work. But cultures differ, right? A lot of us turned out alright after all.

for blog. btwn
Out on a camp site. This was my favorite, most hilarious game. And yep, i was far out with the rest on the ground already laughing so hard.

So here I was, trying to make this intercultural thing work, but boy was it hard! The children mostly, were so shy. They’re not very familiar with their English, as all their lessons in school are taken in Danish except for the English class. On inquiring from the other facilitators, they said that the children were not confident enough to express themselves in the little English that they were just learning in class. But hey, work had to be done, right? I told my other colleague, Raphael that we had to mix it up with signs to help us get it done. So we did.

You’d find us trying to get into their space and get them to do stuff with us while waving our hands all over the place, hoping that we were making some sort of communication with signs that made sense. It worked most of the time, even though it was really exhausting. The high school kids that showed up in the evenings knew English alright, save for the fact that they were seeing strange African faces and they weren’t sure they had so much to let us in on. They eased into it a little later but honestly, English is not their cup of tea. It seemed like an exam you gave them if you were holding a conversation with them. I almost felt sorry for them and wished I could speak Danish to relieve them of the discomfort.

It was nice to know them. I made more friends with the younger children who came earlier in the day though. This particular boy was one heck of a rebel, he basically ran the whole place crazy and could not make friends with us until he realised we were going to be in his face all fortnight long, then he caved. He’d pronounce Raphael’s name as “Raphi-Lion.” We tried to help, but that’s the best he could come up with, and Raphael decided it was a cool twist to his name after all. My name, Karen, was pronounced Kayuhn, “Care-un” like you’d say the word care and un in one go. It sounds strange…but I found out it is an actual Danish name and is pronounced that way. How cool, right?

IMH096
Raphael with the boys after a game of football. Good trick for an easy way to get along!

Then came this little girl one bright but yet chilly afternoon that warmed my heart and left me bewildered at the same time… you know how other continents still think we live in caves and trees? (True story) Yes. Even the children, somehow they either get it from the discovery channel, or they get to hear it from a friend who heard it from a friend whose mother watched the news about donating to a naked African child somewhere in the Sahara. Well, the children that need help really do exist, but even apart from that, Africa has made major steps of growth in civilization and economics and to know that is just a click away on Google. But that’s a story for another day.

The little girl about the age of 10 or so was burning with concerns and questions and because she couldn’t properly communicate in English, technology came to her rescue. Armed with her iPad, she came over to the kitchen where I was trying to help with their afternoon snack, and she was determined to use Google translate. She would type her questions in Danish on the translator and then I’d read the translations and respond accordingly.

“Do you have iPhones in Africa?”

“Of course we do!” I’d say with a broad smile. “We also use technology back home; smart phones, tablets like the one you have now. Here. I also use a smartphone that I bought” I took out my shiny slim phone and showed it to her. She nodded. (But really I didn’t buy it, I borrowed it because I messed mine up and yet I had to take pictures and stay online and in touch with my people while in nchi za nje, Hahaha. But you get the point. We buy smartphones here too)

With a poor communication system with the children, I almost felt uninspired for what to do some days until one of the facilitators (who rarely ever spoke with us for the same reason), suggested through a translator that I should involve the kids in a new hands-on skill. I immediately thought about making paper beads. What’s funny is that the only way I knew about making paper beads was because I watched someone explaining the procedure about 3 or so years ago on Television. Television, people. How convenient. It was an easy process and so it stuck in my mind somehow but I trusted my memory, even as I explained and listed the materials we needed, all the while thinking that if I mess this up and can’t come up with a proper paper bead in at least two attempts so I can teach the kids, I am screwed.

You can’t blame me. I used to be an artist, but not very crafty with my hands. It is the girls that showed up obviously to make jewellery the next day. I had to quickly try out a couple of samples to make sure I knew what I was doing! Otherwise, I’d be a laughing stock. I desperately needed to get closer to these kids to find a point of interaction and if it meant forging a supposed skill, I had to do it. Ha! That was crazy, right? I know… but what is so hard about paper beads; I cracked the trick, and suddenly I was a pro. The satisfaction that filled my insides, even I could not contain. When the children would finally ease up to me (still with signs and a few English words) because they had no choice but to ask me for clarity, I felt that my job was as good as done. It was a major accomplishment.

While in our awesome paper bead making class, another set of questions came up;

“How come you know how to make these beads? Do you guys have papers like this in Africa?” – This was the kind of paper used to print magazines, brochures, flyers, you know that kind? Yes. Art paper.

For two seconds I wondered what to say. Bambi the children also imagine we have no kind of education, paper, pens or pencils that we use over here. But my job was to get them talking and eventually change those perceptions.

I smiled. “Sure. We have all kinds of paper and also old magazines, which we use to make these beads. We find all the other materials we are using in the supermarket as well.”

Another added, “I don’t want you to go back because you may not have food to eat.”

Now, it was our last week and we were just about to leave for home in a few days, and they knew it.

“We do have food at home, and we buy it in the market and at groceries just like you.” I assured her.

In this business, you can’t just be laughing fwaaa even as much as you are dying to. You have to remain as objective as possible and understand that these stories and perceptions are real and we have the opportunity to change the narrative.

The biggest memory for me is another one of the little girls. She was very slim, blonde, and quite taller than the others and reserved in big measure. I had never really had an interaction with her because she preferred her peace and quiet and hanging around her friends. So much so that on our last day, when all the girls, including her friends, came in to make paper beads with my final supervision, she had no choice but to come in as well only to watch them while she remained her usual silent self.

She knew how to play the guitar. She must have thought to herself prior that she needed it there for the distraction, and she plucked the strings now and then as everybody else was busy with glue, paper, toothpicks and all. I didn’t know what was running through her mind. What I would learn later would melt my heart. Somewhere towards the end of our exercise, she started to play a real song and eventually sing along to it. She was singing a song in English.

American hip-hop artiste, Wiz Khalifa’s “See you again” ft. Charlie Puth.

She kept going with the lines “It’s been a long day, without you my friend. And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.” She kept going and going, singing the whole song apart from the rap. I even caught myself singing along. She was very calm and almost sombre while she sung; I can remember the sadness in her voice as she sung the sorrowful tune like it was yesterday. I remember telling her that she had a beautiful voice, and she managed a smile. When she was done singing, she left the room.

It was way later after that episode that reality remembered to visit. It hit me. The little girl was singing for me, seated right in front of me while I bent all over the table trying to make sure the kids were getting their beads right and while I sung along to her serenade. She sung for me; that somehow, while she avoided me the whole time, it was because she was only a shy little girl who secretly loved my presence every day and was sad that I had to leave eventually. I must have developed a lump in my throat from that realization, because I hardly paid so much attention to her in that moment.

Moments such as those defined my stay, and every time I think about it, a smile plays on my lips.

Luka the Italian.

#Fact1: The biggest part of the year… Scratch that. I have spent the last 7 months living in guest houses.

#Fact1: The biggest part of the year… I have spent the last 7 months living in guest houses.

That right there was a thought I harboured in my mind but had no idea how to put it into words (a blog post). So I just went right ahead and tweeted it; after all, they call it micro-blogging, no? I am not sure I’m good at crafting stories out of simple experiences otherwise this blog should have had a whole years’ series on guesthouse-type-of-living. Clearly. I suck at this and I’m often disappointed in myself because I don’t wanna forget a thing! Believe me there’s so much I see out here and some of it almost made me cry amidst some children but I can’t find words to describe the depth on here! So this might be my longest blog post yet. Stay with me to the end.

Location: Hoima District, Somewhere in a certain guest house.

Anyhow, that worry came to an end just a few minutes after my hopeless tweet. I had got myself 500 ml of mountain dew during dinner, but by the time I got home and got texting, it was almost 10pm and the soda was warm. The room is THAT hot. In fact, every time we get back from a long, hectic, muscle-straining day, we open our rooms and there’s this strong wave of heat that hits you in the face in a welcome. The room has a ceiling, but is not properly ventilated! My soda became really warm.

It was getting late, so I thought quick for a solution because I was thirsty…and then I decided I will take it to the guesthouse bar so that they can refrigerate it for me as I take my shower and then I’d pick it up as soon as I was finished since they were about closing shop. That, I did. As I made my way back to my room tip-toeing bare-footed, I heard the familiar “hello!” somewhere in the dark behind me. Earlier I’d got new neighbours next door, a group of young men and they’d said that “hellooo” stuff again to me but I ignored them. The ladies are familiar with that hello-sound; the bi men say it so irritatingly, so you know what their intentions are and then you don’t have to respond, you just keep walking because mother earth does not, ever revolve around their needs.

That other hello though, I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard it well. So I continued to open my door and then came the voice again, this time, “hi!” I turned around, and sure enough, there he was in the dark. Luka. It was dark as his veranda did not have any light naye I did not have to look so hard to recognise him, as you will know why. But, first, rewind to Monday evening…

Easter Monday is when my team travelled back to Hoima after the Easter break to resume from where we left off before the long holiday. We got there at about 18:20 which was good enough, so we could have a much deserved rest until commencement of work the day next. While we sat there waiting to find rooms, there was this guy hanging outside his room bare-chested but I didn’t care much, until he seemed to have noticed some “new kids on the block”. He went back to get dressed up in a t-shirt and shorts then he came over, stood around, looked around, stepped back a bit to the side when he didn’t seem noticed by anyone, then the thought hit me that maybe he thought he’d finally seen some people he could try and chat up with but we were so engrossed in our own discussion about current affairs.

At one point I looked up in his direction, to find him staring at me with a smirk. That was weird, and alarms immediately went off in my head (the stay-away-from-that-man-as-long-as-he’s-still-here alarms). But after a few minutes, he walked around the small compound, and I thought, well, maybe if I were alone, I’d chat up the poor guy…I guessed he was trying to find new friends…and then he made his way out. His name is Luka, and he is Italian. (But I didn’t know that until later.)

Fast forward to Tuesday evening (yesterday) after work, I’d gone to a shop and on my way back he was seated at a carpenter’s probably enjoying the craft or the nice shade under the craft man’s tree and I thought, oh no…there’s the white guy with the mischievous stare. I was wishing that I’d been a jogger at that point so I could just jog past him while saying “Jambo!” to the kids playing with tyres, but wapi. In fact, as I got closer, he actually stood up probably to stop me for a conversation but I was having no small talk from a stranger with the questionable expressions; I’d seen him chat up some strange ladies at his door, and I was having none of that. I focussed on a child on the other side, but then he still called my attention with “hi!” I responded, exchanged pleasantries and quickly continued on my way. He was still smiling and looking, when I left. More alarms.

Later that night, after dropping my soda in the fridge, there he was in the dark, on his veranda. Luka. And since he’s white, I saw him clearly; he was smiling. Smiling man + darkness + guesthouse = dangerous. No matter where you’re from. So I just wanted to respond to the hello, smile, and then get into my room and shut the door. But it didn’t seem fair because he came forward a little bit, as if to suggest, “phew! Maybe we can talk?” I thought it’d then be rude to go away because he asked the next question so quickly as if he knew I was running.

To be polite, I stepped back out and responded. He knew he’d finally landed my attention, so he sped off into various questions, sounding soft and stuff, all through so I decided I’ll keep his head straight by using a serious yet engaging tone so that he won’t get any creepy ideas in the dark of the night, and then I’d pick up a story from him at the end. As soon as I discovered who he really was, I ended up being an interviewer of sorts. That I’d get as much of his story as I could and come and tell you guys, then get liberated from my blogging silence as well.

My colleague at the end of the block came out her door to find me talking and listening. She must have thought…woah, did she finally land herself “connections” with the white man across the block? Even the manager came around at one point and then went off about her business. No wonder, later when she came over to inquire about something, I opened almost immediately as I was close to my door, and I noticed she looked inside just to see if Luka had somehow managed to get into my room. That perversion. But I can’t blame her. She sees that sort of thing every day all year. I then deliberately pushed wider my door as she spoke, so she could have a better look. Lol.

I was pleased at how well I handled the conversation with Luka and I almost felt sad when he said he was leaving the next day (today, which he did not). I thought I would gather more of his story, it was pretty impressive. We didn’t start off with introductions right away, as he was shooting questions trying to keep me from running. Haha. The many questions were about who I am and what I was doing, which I explained in the simplest detail, as he wasn’t fluent in English. It is at this point that I realised I could get a story out of him instead of freaking out, so I turned myself into an interviewer and off went the questions.

When I asked Luka what he was doing in Hoima, I expected to hear something else… but he said he was travelling. I asked if he was travelling to tour Uganda, but no, he was travelling around the world. Around the world!! Cool! So… anha…? How? Why? Of course I didn’t ask that way, I was trying to be careful not to sound too curious. Luka was travelling around the world ON A BIKE. Yes, bicycoloooo! Cycling from country to country. He said he started off with all through Europe, and now he had been cycling through Africa.

But Luka wasn’t just cycling. In Europe, yes. But in Africa, for every country that he went through, he stayed for a few days and he would single out a primary school in the villages in which he would build a swing for the kids to play. And he was on his way to Madagascar, which trip he said would take him a year to ride on a bicycle. A year to Madagascar from Uganda!

I asked why he took all this trouble, and he said he loved children, and also because growing up, he had every play stuff he needed. And going through these primary schools with a lot of free, empty space and nothing for the kids to play with other than run around the compound, he was moved to build a swing for one school in each country and he called his swing project “Sugarcane Smile”. He took out his iPhone and showed me quite a number of pictures.

Luka was building the swings all by himself all the way up, with no assistance whatsoever, whether physically or in monetary terms. In other words, he’s just a guy using up his savings to build swings in rural African schools. Impressed is an understatement, I was challenged! Not that I would build swings as well, but we can all do something for our little sisters and brothers out there. The swing he makes is simple, made with wood, a little metal somewhere, strong rope and tires for the swing seats. When he gets to the location, he finds the material, transports it himself, and gets to work. Alone. He paints numbers on the swing stands too, so that the children can keep their numbering in check.

I started to wonder that maybe he had planned this whole trip for a loooong time to also accommodate saving, but he said he didn’t have a plan whatsoever; he just started and went off on a trip. I asked what he’d be doing once he finished travelling around the world and he mentioned that he would probably write a book about his globe trot, and make a massive album out of the pictures he is taking. And that’s when I remembered that I have no idea where he comes from.

“Oh, so where do you come from?”
“Me? Italy.”
“Uhh I could tell from the accent… (as if I could. I just thought it was weird, he knew so little English) …and sorry I didn’t get your name the first time.”
“Luka!”
“Luka. It was nice meeting you, Luka.”

He is 30. He thought I was 18. He had a good laugh when I told him how old I was, like he was almost embarrassed but I told him it was okay, as no one ever tries to guess right. And we were saying our goodnights and heading our ways to sleep.

PS: If you ever read this Luka, it is all in good faith! Especially the beginning!