In Search of Orphans …in Africa

We arrived in the dark. The headlights gave us a glimpse of the fields and mud huts as we turned the corners down the red dirt road. Pedestrians and cattle appeared and disappeared in and out of the light. Now you see them, now you don’t.  If you were to ask us on that moonless night where we were headed, we would have told you we were going to meet the orphans. The one’s whose parents were burned in the fire or killed by a bullet that first passed through their own hand. But we didn’t know that yet. We had our mission statement, and not much else. “Going to help the orphans” had an idyllic tone to it and we were on our way. We squished together in the seats as the tires crawled in-and-out of large holes and rivets, swaying the van off center.

We were late; the drive from Entebbe airport took longer than expected. But this was Africa and in Africa, you’re always on time no matter when you show up.  As we rounded the property line, a row of 58 children and a handful of adults showed up in the light and were gone again as the lights of the van made the final turn down the straight path to our destination. Shouts and screams and whoops came out of their mouths in great excitement as they chased the van waving palm fronds in the air and brushing the dirt in front of the van as we inched further. We were surrounded with high pitched “loo-loo-loo”s coming through the windows on all sides. The 15 of us were wide-eyed, trying to see in the dark with more than our eyes. The van stopped, the side door swung open, and one by one they pulled us into their arms with celebration, some being picked up and carried with celebration, like a mosh pit.

We danced in battery powered light in the courtyard of the dorms. The kids tried to teach us African steps, the traditional dance, and I tried to keep up. I was there, but I wasn’t there. I studied their dark faces: beautiful, glowing, and smiling bright, as they bounced up and down and tried not to make fun of the way we—I—fumbled awkwardly through the steps but were outwardly happy we had arrived and were dancing with them. The music was loud. We were sticky. I held tight to my water bottle. My shoe was uneven on the grass and dirt, pitching me in directions opposite of where I wanted. I smiled…on the outside.

We were in search of orphans. The destitute kind. The in-need-of-saving kind. The I can be a hero by helping them kind. But we were in the dark. That moonless night on the other side of the world was the beginning of the search for a kind of orphan we didn’t yet understand or want to face.  The kind we might only find by traveling to Africa. The kind that is recognized and catches in your throat during a parting embrace with Helen or Eunice or Olivia…and I swallow and push it back down into the dark pit of my gut. I don’t want to see.

–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble



T.I.A. This is Africa

The pee circle was the rite of passage. We stopped the van on the left side of the road and headed in to the bush in a single file line. Whatever preconceptions or inhibitions we may have brought with us were gone now. It was down to the basics: my bladder is full and needs to be emptied. There were no bathrooms on this road; just women walking for miles with bright yellow five gallon water containers on their heads or kids walking for miles to get to school or men biking with bags of cassava or chickens dangling from the frame.  There were other vehicles, transporting wares and people between the two cities or to remote villages, but we paid no attention as our skirts colored the way to “privacy” between the high stalks of green. Our most basic human function called us to ignore all pretense and get on with it. As if being guided by an unknown desire for community, we followed the leader into a circle, faced each other, laughed, squatted, and peed…our skirts acting as curtains around us but not doing as good a job as we would have liked. The men stood along the road on the other side without bothering to conceal anything, and I think they were smiling. This was our new reality. This was the road between Kampala and Lira. This was Africa.

I’m not sure what causes a person to be a missionary; excitement, danger, curiosity, or maybe to carry around a badge of honor to flash in front of your friends. The underlying reason should be to serve those less fortunate, to help those who cannot help themselves. This is my first trip out of the United States and I am in Uganda.  I left Los Angeles with acrylic fingernails and painted toes and now I am in a third world country peeing in the bushes on the side of the road. To say I do not know what I’m doing here might be understated. How will I help someone who seemingly has more strength and tenacity than me? I don’t understand carrying five gallons of water on my head. For three miles. I don’t understand smiles on the faces of children walking barefoot on hot pavement and gravel for miles and miles. I don’t understand what I’m seeing out the windshield during our nine hour drive. The people are busy, here. The villages we pass through are full of vendors, like Venice Beach, selling fruit, maze, clothes or chicken, either cooked or still flapping their wings. The driver pulls over to make a purchase. Immediately a flurry of nationals clamor at the windows pedaling their goods. We learn a new word: Moono. It means white person. They are hesitant, wanting us to buy but wary of how we will treat them. Not too many white people stop at their village.

We smile and say no thank you and they smile back. The young children call “Moono, Moono,” to get our attention and wave furiously with huge smiles. We wave back with equally huge smiles and this brings a smile to the adult women, who giggle and look down and look back up again. The driver gets back in the car, we wait for the cows to move out of the way, and we are back on the road headed to the children’s’ village in Lira. I am searching for something familiar. ‘Round and round we go, where we stop, nobody knows.’

Since landing in Entebbe, every sight and sound is a curiosity. The road we are traveling is not just a paved road flanked with red dirt and lush green landscape.  It is a journey to the unknown place of “…taking care of the least of these…”; to understand if the word missionary is something we want attached to us from now on or if it is a word we will borrow for two weeks to define what we think we are doing here. My western ideals will not fit on this road: a road where there are no lane lines, no traffic signals, and seemingly no sense of order. I am not sure what I can possibly bring to the table, what I have to offer, how I can help. For now, I am just grateful for the skirt, instead of pants, as we make another stop and head yet again into the bush.

–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble