Having been back in the states for over a month now, I am feeling the pull to go back to Uganda, and back to Malayaka House. My family and I recently returned from a two-month stay; it’s difficult to put into words how formative an experience these extended stays in Uganda are for my children. The best I can do is to tell of our experiences through the eyes of my eight-year old son.
This was Jesse’s second long-term stay in Uganda. I can sum up his experience best by sharing with you his question to me as we were preparing to leave. “Am I Ugandan now?” My first reaction was to laugh, but he was very serious; apparently he had been asking his friends at Malayaka House the same question. “Some of them say I am Ugandan, and some say I am not.” As I looked at my little blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-white child, I could see that he desperately wanted me to say something that made sense to him. Then he said to me, “Last night I had a dream; people weren’t just black and white, there were blue people, too. Are there blue people, mom?”
Malayaka House is home to several boys Jesse’s age. For two months, I would send him off to Malayaka House in the morning on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi), and he would return the same way at night, when he was too tired to play anymore. He’d be covered in bug bites and bruises. Most times, he had forgotten to wear his shoes home. His clothes, fingernails and toenails would be stained red from Uganda’s signature copper-colored dirt. His hair would be sticky with jackfruit juice after hours of climbing trees to knock the giant, sugary-sweet fruit to the ground. In the months following the release of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe,” the true story of a Ugandan chess champion, the kids were obsessed with chess. Jesse and his friends would play the game of skill for hours a day.
Growing up in progressive – but ultra-white – Vermont, the question of race doesn’t come up very often. The last time Jesse was in Uganda for an extended stay he was only four-years old, and not yet noticing a difference in skin color. This time was another story. He could see that he was different from his friends at Malayaka House, but he could also see that he was exactly the same…and this confused the hell out of him.
But I was thrilled! It’s as though I could mark the day, the exact moment even, that this new pathway formed in his brain patterns. He was realizing that differences and similarities can co-exist in perfect harmony. My son will grow into an adult who views differences as unique traits, practices and beliefs that make life interesting and exciting, not as divisive categories that serve only to separate us and instill fear and hatred.
To Jesse, the children at Malayaka House are his “family in Africa“. His time in Uganda is always filled with such rich, colorful, vibrant experiences; something that is lacking for kids here in the US. There is no Xbox, Minecraft, or binge watching Netflix. The kids at Malayaka House play from dawn to dusk, outside, in the dirt, making cars out of old boxes and skateboards, the way kids are supposed to play.
The day we left was tearful, indeed. Especially for Jesse. He made a pact with his two closest buddies, Jimmy and Che Che, that he would be back. But I think that even in his eight-year old mind, he knows it will likely be years before they can reunite. In the moment, it broke my heart. But since we’ve been home, I’ve seen something beautiful emerge from this sad experience as well. There is something powerful about having friends and family in far-flung places around this tiny planet we all share. These experiences make the world seem small, connected. Jesse will see Jimmy and Che Che again, there is no doubt in my mind about that. I can see the three of them traveling around Africa together as adults. Maybe they’ll even visit Jesse in Vermont one day.
I’m grateful for the role Malayaka House has played in my life, and in the lives of my children. Our lives are fuller and richer because of it.