Day 1: Tuesday March 10, Nakivale Refugee Camp, Uganda
A child dies every thirty seconds from Malaria. That’s a gut-punch stat – the showstopper. It has the rare effect, elusive to statistics, to draw you up cold, made altogether worse because it’s true.
And where is it true? Well, one place is where we are today, at the Nakivale Refugee Camp, slotted into the far reaches of southwest Uganda, 87 square miles of land, much of it the proud-plained beauty of equatorial Africa. And here come the children, laughing, curious; rushing you because you look funny, you talk funny, you’re tall and funny colored with a funny camera that takes funny pictures. These are your stats – here in the flesh – scrambling and giggling; engaged; hope-filled.
And then here they are, too, at the hospital ward. One in a bed. Two in a bed. Silent now, staring. And beside them, their mothers. Also silent. Waiting.
The doctor I spoke with admitted that over 70 percent of their work at the hospital being malaria-related. Did this depress him? Well, David had lived through war as a child. One of nine siblings, he had slept outside in the bush every night for six years because it was too dangerous to sleep in a hut because a hut was a target and a hut could be torched. And now this boy was a doctor. So no, he was not depressed. He was grateful – grateful for his position, grateful for the malaria nets we brought, grateful to have his malaria work lessened.
And when I told him we hoped to have that malaria work reduced altogether by the year 2015, he just smiled: “Good, good. For there are other things to work on”.
We’re a small group of people doing a small thing, driving down a junked up, dusty road to hand one family a malaria net. But the more nets we’re able to buy, the more families we’re able to save, and the more children get to grow up and tell us their stories. And pretty soon we’ve done something large.
Day 2: Wednesday March 11, Oruchinga Refugee Camp, Uganda
It is hard for an outsider – especially a first-world outsider – to immediately grasp the sources of hope within the refugee camps. But spend a little time, and the forward-thinking makes itself clear. In the Somali zone of the Nakivale Camp, we encounter a large group of bright-eyed young men; a self-appointed task force, as they describe themselves. They number around 25 and their spokesman unfolds a worn sheet of lined paper, upon which are hand-written 25 of the group’s mandates. Heading the list, I am pleased to say: drama club. I blurt out “Ah, this is what I do!” The leader looks up from the paper “Yes, I’ve seen you”, he lies. This man will run a country some day.
And the duties go on and on: sanitation, community events, women’s rights, policing, malaria and disease education, outreaching to the other communities; 25 lines in all on one piece of paper and the men crowd around and explain each one to me. They are good-looking, strong, they laugh easily. Their mission, it seems, has galvanized a community and given them reason to hope. A group member, Ahmed Aden Hussein, tells me later: “You may have heard that some of our young men have gone over”. He looks me in the eye. “Terrorists. And it’s true. But this is no way to act. This is no way to live”.
Later on, I help a Rwandese woman named Bonyanga Nuriati erect a malaria net. We are inside her home, a mud hut consisting of two rooms, perhaps 8 by 10 feet each. The lady has eight children and we hang the net over reed mats on the floor, because there are no beds. And time and time again, as we go about our work, the woman clasps her hands together and tells me how grateful she is.
Day 3: Wednesday March 12, Nakivale Refugee Camp, Uganda
It’s a ringing sound, the sound of children singing, the sound of children clapping. Today we drove out to the newest settlement, Juru, at the Nakivale Refugee Camp, down a new, as yet un-rutted red dirt road to a temporary school for the newest displaced, a group of over 10,000 Congolese refugees. We emerged from our trucks to the sounds of singing and rhythmic clapping, echoing off the plastic and wood structures that serve as classrooms.
One of the things that strikes you first is how ready these children are. They are not slacking in the back of class. They are attentive, and they are participating, loudly and eagerly. They catch your eye, and when encouraged, they beam. The songs they sing have a rat-a-tat rhythm, some familiar, others not, and all are maddeningly on-key. The faces proud. The faces expectant.
The second thing that grabs you is the teachers. They roam the classroom, engaging their charges, encouraging them. Things move swiftly along and you realize there is usefulness in action in the most difficult of situations. This is what the people can arm themselves with – they come bearing education.
A play about malaria is presented to the students and the visitors. Prior to the performance I chat with the actors. To myself, I think about throwing in a little of Hamlet’s advice to the players, but at the end of our chat I settle for “break a leg”. As the phrase leaves my lips, I wonder if it will be construed as the dumbest thing ever uttered in a refugee camp, but instead it is greeted with smiles of recognition. A familiar phrase.
The day concludes with a performance by American musician Gavin DeGraw. His stuff is popular back home and it plays huge over here. The kids crowd around and when he starts to play, they go all wide-eyed. When Gavin throws in a little high-pitched yodeling, they go crazy, laughing and clapping; the music is good.
And they should know.