When he walked into 1,000 Cups Coffee House in Kampala, Uganda, he was wearing a canvas hat with the bill folded up in the front. It was a hot day and we were going to be out in the sun. We greeted each other. I introduced him to my friend and colleague, Sacha Haworth, and bragged to her about his success in the public speaking and story telling workshop that Julian Mocine McQueen and I had held the weekend before as part of the Million Person Project.
During the workshop Muhammed Kisirisa told the group that he came from Uganda's most notorious slum, Bwaise, but I could have never imagined what it was like until he gave us a tour of where he now runs a community empowerment organization called Action For Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD). His organization fights against HIV/AIDS and poverty in the vulnerable populations of Bwaise. Its programs range from a free primary school, a condom distribution program, HIV education workshops to a small micro loan program.
I liked Muhammed from the minute I met him. He walked into our workshop and was immediately outgoing and friendly. By the end he had a stack of business cards and a meeting scheduled with the waiter who served lunch to the group who had also grew up near Bwaise. I asked him if he had recruited the waiter as a volunteer. He smiled and said, "There is just nothing I love more than seeing another young person who wants to make change. So we are meeting next week to talk about how he can get involved with the community."
Muhammed knows all the short cuts in Bwaise. On the day of the tour, he weaved Sacha and I through alleys and past homes, greeting each person as we made our way to his office. We stopped in an open area and he asked us to looked around. The trash around us looked like the kind you find on beach after a storm. He said, "Every time it rains here, it floods. People have to wade or even swim sometimes." Bwaise is known for its severe and routine flooding. The slum is built on a swamp and there aren't sufficient trenches for drainage. The roads are dirt and the homes are made of mud, wood or sheet metal.
Muhammed took us into his office. I thumbed through the AFFCAD visitor book. AFFCAN has hosted volunteers from England, Denmark, United States, Uganda, Kenya, the list went on and on. Some volunteer for a day or two, some people come back year after year, and others stay for months on end. He and his staff are all volunteers, including those that run the school. "We are just volunteers but we have to do this work because we want the children in our community to have the opportunity for education even if they cannot afford the school fees," Muhammed said.
We toured the school. The classrooms had a coat of fresh paint and many of the staff had paint on their fingers. School was about to start, so they were preparing the grounds. The school office was filled with colorful papers outlining the founding principles, photos of the 20+ volunteer teachers, and stacks of drums and skirts for their music and dancing program.
We made our way to the other area of Bwaise AFFCAD works in, a twenty-minute walk from the school. The area is known for drug deals and sex work. This is where AFFCAD does HIV education workshops and condom distribution for sex workers, and where they also help to support an orphanage of abandoned children.
Muhammed introduced me to a grandmother who was sitting in front of her home holding a baby. I sat down next to her. The baby cried when he saw me. I tried to talk to the grandmother. She did not speak much English, but when I asked about her grandchildren, she smiled and pointed to the girl that was hanging on Muhammed's arm. He was tickling her and they were laughing. "Deaf and mute," the grandmother said. I patted the grandma on the arm, l looked over at her granddaughter laughing and said slightly desperately, "She's having fun though." I was worried though; the girl had no shoes on and the kids' clothes were ripped. The smell emanating from the small house was rotten. I figured it was moldy because of the floods. I felt overwhelmed, and my head was light, but I tried not to make judgements. I took a deep breath and tried to see it for what it was. People walked by nodded to the grandmother, little kids ran up to play with her grand kids, there was a tiny church on the other side of the fence and there were beautiful Ugandan hymns floating over the fence, the sun was setting and it was warm out.
I wandered to look over at the church. Muhammed said to me, "We work with her a lot," motioning toward the grandmother. "She is a pimp and rents her house out to sex workers." What? That didn't make any sense. Where does she go when she rents her house? What about her grandkids? Muhammed continued, "There is a curtain inside so her family can sleep on one side and she can rent out the other. She is helpful to us because she distributes condoms to sex workers. She is able to talk to them and they trust her. Instead of us."
I didn't know if it was because I was hungry or if I hadn't drunk enough water, but I was lightheaded. I looked at Muhammed. How could this be? I tried to hide the tears filling up my eyes. I just focused on the choir.
Muhammed led us down a small alleyway where there were two women sitting in the dirt; one was breastfeeding a baby, one was joining two bags of charcoal into one. The kids shouted, "Mzungu!" which means "white person". I picked up two kids and others ran around my legs and held on. I wanted to tell them everything would be okay. Muhammed told me that these are the babies found in the gutter, the ones left on the doorstep of the AFFCAD office, or who have lost their family. The three women and these kids have made their own little family in this corner of Bwaise. One boy was doing dishes; he was all business, scrubbing each cup with vigor. Others were doing laundry. I held the kids tight, fighting the growing lump in my throat. I didn't want them to see me crying for them. This is just their life and no one wants a stranger bawling for them.
I started to feel like Muhammed's words were assaulting me. He just kept saying the truth; explaining the situation to me bit by bit. He talked about domestic violence, the lucky families who made $60/month and how school fees were too expensive for most so children could not go to school. I couldn't listen anymore. I'd hit a wall. I couldn't handle one more fact about this place unless it was positive. How about news that the government was breaking ground on trenches in 2012, or that someone was donating $10,000/year for the next twenty years to the school, or that a 24-hour health clinic was opening in the community? It had to be a story like that if I was going to be able to talk myself into listening anymore. I turned to him and said quietly, "It's too much. It's just too much." He put his hand on my shoulder, and we stood there, my tears flooding down my face and dozens of curious eyes looking up at us. It was too much for me, but through his hand I could feel his commitment, his devotion and his steadfast determination to do what he could do to lift up his community, even if it was step by step for his whole life.
On the walk back to his office we stopped at a large garbage pile. "Sex work," he said and pointed to the hundreds of condoms strewn throughout the pile. That's a good sign, I thought. It wasn't a celebratory sight, but it indicated that the work of Muhammed, the grandmother, and AFFCAD is effective. It was an indicator that people are responding to their leadership.
As I rode out of Bwaise, I thought back to the workshop when Muhammed shared his story before a group of forty Ugandans, Julian, and me. As he wrapped up his speech, he looked out at the crowd, and with spirit and conviction, he shouted: "I want people of the world to know that people like me come from Bwaise. I know you know about the floods, about the poverty, about the sex work. But I want you to know that there are also inspired, committed young people who are working together every day to transform our community!" The applause was spontaneous and enormous, some people sprang out of their chairs, and Julian couldn't help but run to the front of the room and embrace him.
I am committed to telling that story and supporting his leadership. I hope you will join me. Please check out AFFCAD's facebook page, email Muhammed (email@example.com) to let him know you stand in solidarity with his work or join a tour if you are in Kampala.
Follow Heather Box on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hbox