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Uganda Update #9: White Keds, Matoke and a Little Compassion

"Have you tried matoke?" he asks me. Uncle James is hardly older than I am, but he was introduced as Uncle James, the donor relations manager for this Compassion project, so Uncle James he is. 

"I had it yesterday! It is very good. I've never heard of matoke before; we don't have it in Canada." Matoke is Uganda's staple food. Plantain-like, it is cooked as a mash and served with sim-sim, a groundnut sauce. I have no idea what groundnuts are, but I enjoyed their purple hue on the pale yellow matoke.

"What is your staple food in Canada?" he asks.

Staple food in Canada? We have none - my staple food is whatever I decide I want it to be. I rarely eat the same meal two days in a row, let alone every day of my life. "I'm not sure... Maybe potatoes or rice?"

Juliet sits quietly beside me, eating her tea-break bread.

A wave of irrelevancy hits hard. I am embarrassed at the thought of my local Loblaws, the abundance and excess in Toronto. Excess that extends from the kitchen to most areas of my life. My life is not only irrelevant to these people, this place, I realize, but totally incomprehensible. 

This thought stays with me as I step through the mud outside Juliet's home, and Uncle James points out where the Compassion project used to meet.

"We had to move up the hill," he explains, "in the rainy season there is too much flooding here."

"I can understand that..." I take wide zig-zagging strides as I look for something close to dry dirt.

Juliet's mother holds open the tarp that serves as their door.

My eyes adjust to the dim interior and the sound of rain bouncing off the tin roof. I kneel on the floor, unwilling to take the single armchair. There is also a bed, a bed-roll and two rickety shelves. One lightbulb, a radio. Two burners, a pot and a kettle.

The entire house is roughly the size of my bedroom. Minus my closet space.

Juliet's mom pulls out a package of photos. They are faded and water-stained. Uncle James translates as she points out multiple siblings, her mother, aunts and uncles. Toddler Juliet, looking as somber as she did when we met this morning.

A water stain spreads on the back of the armchair.

We pose for photos and I tickle Juliet, coaxing a smile from her. Uncle James urges her to try on the dress her sponsors sent so we can take a picture for them. She is beautiful and proud in her bright pink flip-flops.

 I ask where she will keep her gifts, and she places her bulging tote bag on top of the small shelf. I wonder if the roof leaks in that corner and will ruin her new coloring book. I hope not.

It is still raining as we leave, and Juliet's mother sets a pair of worn white Keds at the door. She gestures at my feet, speaking softly to Uncle James.

"She wants you to wear these, so your feet will not get dirty."

"Thank you. Very much - but they are too small... I'm so big!" I protest, knowing it will be easier for me to clean my feet later than it would be to restore whiteness to her shoes after I slide through the red mud.

Back at the Compassion project, I smile at Juliet and her mother over our lunch of matoke and rice. Juliet takes my digital camera and shows our morning to her mom. Uncle James tousles her head, and although I don't know what he is saying, it's clear that the staff here care for Juliet. And the hundred other children scattered across the yard.

I say my farewells, telling Juliet I will send some of the pictures we have taken. Her mother turns to me again, shyly.

"She is very very grateful," Uncle James interprets, "to you and to her sponsors."

I don't know how to respond. No problem. It's a pleasure. I'm happy to help. I'm sorry I don't do more. Each statement is true, yet sorely inadequate.

I drive away, waving at the kids grinning through the fence, and I think of Hetty, my own sponsor child in Indonesia. $40 a month and a few letters a year. It's hardly a sacrifice to my pocketbook or my calendar. But it's a gamechanger for her. A chance at life beyond subsistence.

She is loved. I think of both Juliet and Hetty. She is fed, she is learning. It's a triumph, really.


kat said…
This is beautifully written Beth.
Laura said…
We so often fail to be embarrassed by our abundance. It is embarrassing but that embarrassment should motivate us to be generous from the overflow of our pocketbooks and our hearts.
MLW said…
I agree with Kat - Beautifully written. Also, challenging and sad. Thanks for sharing.
Jackie said…
I was going to read this yesterday night when I was lying on my couch, tired and even a little feverish. But then stopped and decided I would read it in the morning when my brain is clear and heart is renewed. Glad I did.
Beth said…
Thanks, ladies.

Laura, totally agree - I read a post about someone else's recent Compassion visit...very compelling. I'm going to link to it in the next little while.

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