One Happy Gift

B’windy. That’s how it felt upon my wakeup at Bakiga Lodge, with crows gnawing at the outside of my tent and the strong breeze of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest making it feel like I was high in the clouds. Today the team planned to visit two local NGOs to determine how next year’s students could make an impact if they would be working in Bwindi.

In the afternoon, we headed off on a mini-hike deeper into the rural area, walking past terraces, spectacular views of the hills and friendly locals greeting us on our walk. I was taken aback by the serenity of the area, considering it is a major tourist draw for visitors planning to spend time to track the famed mountain gorillas of the nearby Rwanda/Uganda/DRC forest intersection.

The team arrived, after climbing down a few more hills than we thought, at the local health clinic. Known as “Kabale Health Centre 2”, the centre was the go-to treatment facility for patients who weren’t able to be admitted to the government-run Kabale Health Centre 3. As per a very pleasant Doctor who was very eager to share the challenges of the clinic, he emphasized the Privatized Not for Profit-Making aspect of the centre, emphasizing the difference of a payment system that was heavily subsidized however still required a small percentage of treatment fees paid by each patient.

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Right away you could tell the passion yet frustration of the Doctor, who was head of both medical care and management at the facility. He spoke of the sheer fact that the overwhelming poverty of his patients, a majority of which are subsistence-based small holder farmers, held them back from affording even the meager treatment fees. The immediate consequence would be unpaid fees from patients, or sacrificing expansion of his toolset, leaving the clinic either underfunded or undermanned. One silver lining was his enthusiasm behind Solar Suitcase, a Canadian solar panel NGO, which supplied them with crucial power to allow the use of electronic tools.

Thinking of a future Graduate student placed at his clinic, the potential impact was obvious. With most patients treated for malaria and pneumonia, the ability to work with some of the region’s most prominent ailments with few resources, one would empathize and improvise to improve a centre which touches on so many of the region’s people. Whether through microfinance to fund treatment devices or helping build a stronger transportation system for patients, the problems are apparent and the solutions can span the imagination.

After our informative visit, we backtracked to Bakiga Lodge, and stopped at the local orphanage/school, one partly owned and run by the community at large. We were greeted by music, dance, and smiling faces welcoming us to their home. I had the opportunity to have had a tour by Happy, the orphanage administrator, who spoke on the operations of the centre. The orphans are aged between 3 and 16 years old, with 127 children in total, 55 of which live in dorms shared by 3 in each bed. Asked what she would do if she had more funds, Happy said that beds were the priority, as there were still many more children than what the beds could hold, even if shared.

The school’s situation spoke to their lack of funds quite apparently; it was a closet sized room with benches lined up to fill room for more than 30 students studying from Primary 1 to Primary 3. Within a day the resourcefulness of the community was immediately visible and the tour left me an impression of hope rather than of dire need. With the little they had, both the clinic and the orphanage were providing value that couldn’t be quantified to their entire community, and what little extra investment or donations they could receive would be put directly to the most immediate needs rather than any single individual’s pockets.

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How powerful is a smile? With the hour we had to interact, dance and talk with the children, what we saw was that simply our presence, our laughter, our smiles, these were what brought joy to the children. For many of the children, they live through a stigma of shame and rejection; losing your parents is akin to losing your identity, especially when the killer was HIV/AIDS which carries an unfounded belief that the children would fall ill to it as well.

One small girl in particular, Gift, held on to Dr. Creed, and you could see that the simple notion of human touch and warmth was more than enough to give her something she has lacked during such a crucial point in her life.

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As we said goodbye to our new friends, who ended the festivities with a Gorilla dance, costumes and all, I can safely say that I hope that there will be students who can come back and contribute much more than our short visit. The local community’s sharing of their land and donations of food keep the orphanage afloat, but creating a sustainable way to pay their own way is the best case scenario to address the needs of the many children whose childhoods were taken from them. The child is the building block of the future, and it is up to those with the power to make their futures just a little better to do just that.

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