Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Others

While I am here bonding with Fort, I am also inadvertently bonding with the other children here at Kaja Nafasi.  There are only 12 children here, and usually 3 house mothers on duty. There is also a guard, a volunteer from Holland, Chris & Jurjanne who come and go, and me.  The house mothers hold them, feed them and sometimes play with them, but they also clean (washing clothes, mopping the red dust off the floors, hand washing dishes) and cook (lots of starch here- always a potato, or potato-like "matooke" , or a grits- potato mash up called "posho"- plus beans beans beans and some veggies). They do the diapers, make the bottles on the stove, set out and clean up activities. In other words, there are many of them, but they are busy. And I am just here to play. 

There are the big kids, whom I met first. The ones who play with Fort and that he gets jealous of because they ask for my attention. And oh my, are these kids heartbreakers. 
Of course the twin girls speak directly to my heart. Emily and Maria. They are about 2.5 years and crack me up.  They are amazingly well adapted - no emotional issues like Fort that scream out. It is easier that they are younger. Emily is a vivacious, no-holds barred, ball of fire - she speaks great English and is super smart. oh, and she has the mark of Saruman (are you familiar w the Lord of the Rings?? - she is very dark and was walking around all day with a white, sandy handprint smack over her eye, just like the big Orc in the movie. We laughed ALL DAY).  Maria is a sweet, beautiful little thing.  She looks around and lets Emily be the loud one while she quietly slides into my lap.  She has decided she loves me and oh my god do I adore this sweet thing. "Nange" means "me too!" and all day, they follow me around saying "Auntie, Nange!".   They are strong willed, and maybe more grounded because they've always had each other. I don't think they would fare well in this country, where girls are supposed to be still somewhat submissive. These girls have been rejected 5 times.

Then there is big John. Big John is probably not yet 2 but he thinks he is a man. He trucks around all day, loading things onto a wheelbarrow, dragging a rake around the house. Things like that. He eats with such gusto that he often will have juice & saliva just spewing down onto his shirt. He is solid, and happy, and independent.  I wasn't sure if he could talk for a while - he can, but he's a doer not a talker. Big man John can get any job done.  I cannot imagine it, but they say John was in a terrible malnourished state when he was brought to the home. Now he is Big Man John. 

If you want to go young, there's silent Peter. When Peter cries, you can barely hear it. He was so malnourished when he was brought in, his hair was grey. Now he is got new dark hair. He has big dark eyes and a solemn, wise expression. He recently learned how to crawl and is fearless. All the kids will be inside and we'll say "where's Peter?" and he has crawled outside, up several steps and into the sandbox. He's probably one and a half -they think he at one time could stand and maybe walk, but then became severely malnourished and lost the strength.  He is now standing on his own and walking with assistance- I won't be surprised if he walks before I leave. 
He has only recently started to laugh. It surprises me every time- that old man face breaking into giddy toddler laughing. 

Winnie is the only other girl. She held me at an arms length the first week, then started flirting with me the second week, and this week she is my new Velcro child. She and Maria vie for the place on my lap closest to my body. They both cry when Fort comes over to claim his spot. But when he is happily playing with the boys, zooming around on their toy boda bodas, or walking around on some of the wooden planks left behind by the building guys (they are repairing the boundary wall), then you will see either girl locked onto my waist, with an arm tightly encircling mine. 

Jose is the one who hurts my heart the most. He is the oldest - probably 5-6 (he has lost his bottom two teeth). He knows exactly what is happening with me and Fort. He knows a Mama has arrived for Fort and not for him. Sometimes he just looks at Fort snuggling with me and begins to cry. Other times he is mad, clawing at me or pulling on me - even my disapproval is some sort of attention. If I were not Fort's mom, he is the one I would hug the most. But I feel like it would only confuse him more- to have solace from the one who personifies his largest want, that thing he cannot have. And has Jose crossed an invisible line?  Is he so aware of his abandonment that he won't be able to be accepting of a real family when one appears for him?  He needs a family, but one who can painstakingly love him. 

James is the new kid on the block. He was only here a week before I was here. He has the darkest skin, and when I came it was still ashy grey in color. Now it is gleaming bright, and I am starting to see a little light in his eyes. He has most likely spent some time out on the street ( he is 4-5). He has a toughness and a sense of survival to him. But he is still a kid. I see it in the few moments he allows himself to relax into me, to let himself be hugged or sung to or carried. 

I've only begun to get to know the sweet babies(more on them soon). All of these "big kids" have been through so much. I want them to find wonderful stable homes, either in Uganda or abroad. Wherever they will flourish. I want to tell their families that if they come back for them-  oh my god PLEASE take care of these stellar children!!! (I have a few other choice words for them as well, but we'll leave that for now). It will break my heart to see them taken in by a grandmother or aunt only to be abused, neglected or abandoned again.  If that happens, I fear we will be back in 6 months to get them ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

"Whose woods these are I think I know"

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."

This has been running through my mind today. I am in the midst of the great woods that is Uganda. The children here are lovely, yes, but the situations horrible. I have promised to take this one little boy out of the woods. And getting him home is just the beginning of our long journey. 

This is not easy. Have I said that yet?  This is not easy. I appreciate all of the kind remarks of awe or admiration, but I also feel the need to express the difficulties, not just of Fort's journey, but mine.  I have hope that with a secure home, Fort will settle down into a trusting and loving boy. But the flip side of that coin is fear. I am so afraid that he has accumulated deep scars, which I could never fully heal. That he will struggle every day of his life with these fears of abandonment and rejection and feelings of jealousy and confusion. That he will throw our happy home into one where no one feels like they are seen enough, cared for enough, loved enough. That I have bitten off more than I can chew. That I suffer from delusions of "saving" this child from himself. What if this is it?  This is who he is and will always be?  Sometimes happy, silly and charming - sometimes disconnected, in pain and incapable of communicating. How will I manage this needy child and not hurt the three beautiful well adjusted children back home?
These are not new fears. These are the questions we asked ourselves when we were making the decisions to adopt, to adopt internationally, and to adopt an older child. What impact will this unknown body make in our family?  Any child brings that unknown element- whether the child enters the family by birth or adoption.  But he carries influences that I did not control. Scars inflicted by people I've never met. Promises broken of which I will never know the nature.  

Today I am missing my children back home. It has been 16 days since I have seen them, 8 days longer than I have ever been away before. And I know they are sad and miss me. I also know they are incredibly well loved and taken care of in my absence, and as soon as I am back, they won't miss me anymore. Sounds logical right?  It is that unconditional love that they KNOW- that Fort does not- that allows me to be here with Fort. Our 3 children in Ohio know without a doubt that Mommy will come home.  And in Fort's case, it is much more reasonable for him to imagine I will disappear from his life forever. 

I had to make the decision to stay here. To be away from home for an entire month. Because if I leave him here, even if I come back - I will be creating more scars that we will have to erase. I need to be the one who doesn't break promises. 

"And I have promises to keep...".

Monday, 27 August 2012

A story of a man named Daniel

Everywhere I go on Uganda,  I meet people whose lives graze at the border of my comprehension.  

Let me tell you about Daniel. He is a beautiful man, with skin the color of espresso, who is probably in his mid 20s.  He picked me up at the airport on my arrival in Entebbe 2 weeks ago (could it be 2 weeks already? Yes, yes it could). On the bumpy, congestion filled two hour ride to the house where I was staying, he talked with ease and was quite candid with me.  His story floors me. This is a brief, and probably not quite accurate, recollection. 
He grew up in a government orphanage, after bombings in Kampala in the 80s separated him from his family.  He learned to rely on himself, and was able to get a sponsorship to attend school. He did well in school, and went on to college, where he learned that his family was still alive by finding his brother on Facebook. His sponsors were Chris and Jurjanne, who have since opened and are running Kaja Nafasi, the orphanage where Fort is. Daniel is engaged to a Dutch woman, Jiska, who has moved here to be with him and help with the orphan crisis in some way. They have taken 5 street kids into their home.  They want to have their own children's home, and have the children live in their home with them.  Daniel has a car, and does some driving errands for Kaja Nafasi to earn extra money.  The fact that he has a car makes him upper class. Yet he lost his cell phone last week and doesn't have the 40,000 shillings (about $25) to get another right now. He is wanting to get his Masters in business, so that he can have a steady income to support their children's project. He needs sponsors for the nearly $4000 cost. 

Why is it that his story floors me?  Because I am watching these children at Nafasi -I see the damage that these 4, 5 & 6 year old kids have incurred by being abandoned, abused and malnourished.  Although they are desperately in need of families, they still have so much. Beds of their own, mosquito nets, clean clothes, 3 meals a day, fresh fruit, toys and activities like coloring and playdoh.  Right now there are 2 or 3 care givers and 12 children, plus often times there is a volunteer or friend around. And I know that the government homes don't have these things. They are overcrowded with not enough beds, not enough food, not enough care takers. Little children are mixed with big children. Vulnerable children are mixed with hardened children. Children are sometimes beaten - sometimes by other kids, sometimes by the caretakers. 
And here comes Daniel, who lived in one of those places.  Not only that but he made it through the traumatic loss of his family. And he didn't live in the home for a few years, no- he stayed until he was 18. And his family didn't welcome him back with open arms, no- they remain distant. He took care of himself because nobody else would. And yet....And yet. Here he is with an open heart. With love for his country Uganda. With compassion for those street kids, who he thinks have it worse than he did. Here he is feeling like he's been given a break by meeting this Dutch couple and is determined to turn it into something bigger. To give back to the world that gave him so little. 
And that is what floors me. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012


The rain is so loud I can't hear anything else. Partly because it is streaming down from the sky and partly because it bounces off the corrugated tin roof I am under. Steve is sleeping off the stomach bug he got sometime yesterday afternoon. I am trying to process today and feeling like the sky is doing my crying for me. 

Mostly I feel empty.  Hollow. That's not good, I know. I wonder if it is because we are just on pause here - not having the court finalized. The judge dismissed us for today.  I should be able to go back to court tomorrow and maybe everything will go as it should have today. 

I didn't think it was possible for the rain to be louder but it is raging above me now.  The ground is supersaturated and puddles of mud are appearing between the blades of grass. The thunder sounds like 18 wheelers driving overhead.  There is a chill in the air, and I know the Ugandans are huddled under sweaters and scarves while I feel mildly cool in my Capri pants and tank top.  There are no sheets draped across the bushes to dry in the sun today. I imagine the mouth of the Nile swelling rapidly in Jinja, where the dam has replaced the beautiful waterfalls. The dam is one of the reasons we haven't had power outages in recent months. Just an occasional 24 hour period in the dark, which is no big deal compared to the 24 hours on- 24 hours off rotation people were furious about. 

The mile from the guesthouse to the orphanage is a steep continual hill that we walk. Sitting in the shelter here, I wonder about all the people who are walking now. Do they carry umbrellas?  Do people go about their lives and their business wet?  How do they travel by boda boda?  Sloshing through the streams of red muddy water that must be sliding from the street to the ditches on the sides of the roads?  It is not the easy house-to-garage-to-car-to-parking- lot existence that I know.  Our ride back from the courthouse was a taxi bus - more like a minivan- that carried 3 people to a bench seat for 5 rows. 700 shillings each - about 30 cents. Then a boda boda ride, with Fort sitting behind the driver as comfortably as you can imagine. He held onto the driver, and I slid behind him, with our court file and my bag slung across my chest. I think of the American reaction to 3 people on a tiny moped, zipping through traffic. One who a child, no one in helmets.  This cost us 2000 shillings- about 80 cents. The boda bodas used to scare me- Steve was not up for the adventure until we had no choice, following the lead of the social worker back to the orphanage. But it feels surprisingly secure. Slow enough through the pot holed streets that there is no danger of falling off, and maybe with the mzungus, they drive a little slower anyway. After the 20 person taxi barely moving through the streets, the boda boda feels easy, breezy (although not so much CoverGirl).   Fort's little body rests so easily in front of mine. He now trusts me completely and I cannot swallow if I contemplate for a moment that the judge will disagree. No. I cannot breathe. It is easier to feel empty than to think of the what ifs. Let me be empty. Just for today. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Ragged Edges

Things are bumpy with Fort. He is like a 2 year old in a 4 year old body. He screams and melts down when you say no to something. His biggest problem is his inability to communicate his feelings.  And he has lots of them. It is hard to say what triggers these meltdowns- it is usually a small disappointment - he can't have a carrot, or a walk, or maybe doesn't know how to say what he wants. He just stands there and starts to shut down. I can see it coming in his face. There are 2 very distinct moods- the happy silly one that he is usually in, and the shut down mode. Which is so difficult to manage.  It can last 10 minutes or HOURS- and will continue until it passes, or until you can distract him with something- a fun toy, or often food. What makes it so tricky is we could probably avoid most of these meltdowns by giving him what he wants when he is home (really?  You want a carrot?  Wonderful!) .  But in the long run, that isn't teaching him anything. It isn't teaching him how to cope with no, how to express what he wants, and how he feels.  

I think I am actually well equipped to help him. Fort reminds me so much of Ben. I think this is why it hurts my heart so much. He is a sweet & sensitive boy. It seems like he tried to put up walls after he was abandoned, but he wasn't very good at it. And he got hurt. And now he has an intense fear of being rejected or abandoned again.  He is so ragged on the outside.  He clearly needs security- a mama and a family who will not leave him. I think with that knowledge, his ragged edges will begin to smooth out, and his freak outs will happen less and less. But it is not just stability he needs. He needs to have different coping mechanisms - to learn how to live in this world, which is full of no, even for the most secure child. 

And teaching him these things will be much easier for me in our own home, when I have full autonomy. He can't have a carrot when he wants one here because it is an orphanage with 12 children and food comes on a schedule. He can't get special treatment from the house mothers because there is just 3 of them and they are cooking, cleaning, changing diapers and trying to give everyone the same attention. Boys who cry are not well tolerated and he is told things like - "be a man, you are not a woman" and " you better stop crying or your mama will pick someone else". While the house mothers are quite wonderful and caring, they don't realize that these are not regular children , but abandoned children who have been broken at their very core. 

When I think of Fort as a young not quite 2 year old, left alone - I see Ben, my own son at that age. I see the bewilderment, the fear, the loss. And it is what I need to sit with Fort while he is struggling - while he pushes and pulls me at the same time. To love is to risk.  I want him to risk it.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Painful patience

I feel like I am watching Fort's heart melt. Painfully so. I hear if you have frostbite it is quite painful to thaw out. Who knows when the time came that he had more emotions than he could bear. And so he just put it on ice. And now, with his skin drinking in kisses and his fuzzy head nestling under mine, he is beginning to feel again. 

It is so hard to watch him. Struggle with feeling. I take comfort from the fact that he lets me be his comfort. He rejects the arms of the house mothers when he goes into one of his crying jags. Even though he often goes limp in my arms, he does not push me off. And it rolls off him in waves, first slow, even moans growing into sobs and sometimes the anger just overcomes him. His little body twists and kicks against mine, but not against me. What is he fighting?  Who?  Does it have a face?

There is fear that this will linger, that it will be disruptive to our family, and that I will not be filled with this painful patience at home because I will have more than just him to balance.  Under that fear lies a calm pool, and in it I see Fort's real self.   He is a sweet affectionate boy who was not lucky. Please don't call him lucky. He will not feel that, even when he is happy and safe. He will always have a hole from these years which were robbed from him.  But after he goes through the painful process of connecting again, he will find that boy again.  

Although yes, I guess there is a part of me that feels like though he may never feel it, he is one of the lucky ones.   So many stories swirling in my heart, each a painful reminder of how cruel people can be.  All of these children who will never get a chance to make it.  And then smacking up against these stories like a tsunami are these remarkable people who are changing the lives of those they can. And the currents of generosity are enough for me to make peace with humanity. 

For the orphanage where I have found Fort is a remarkable place, like a halfway house for the bereft to re-enter the world. The children have gone through the shock of a bed to sleep in, food at dependable intervals, toys on every shelf, and clothes that are just theirs. When I bring him home, it will seem like gross injustice to have such luxury for just one family, but perhaps his little brain will be more accepting,   And be able to move from one painful world to a softer place. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Thoughts in a dark night

It is 4:30 am in Uganda.  A rooster is crowing. Several dogs are barking. Is there another animal outside?  A strange screech.  I hear footsteps. They said it would be the guard making his rounds of the perimeter. I am inside my mosquito netted bed. A small headache. I dreamed of breaking my teeth. 

I just talked to Steve and the kids as they were going to bed. Ben scored a goal at soccer tonight. They went to a children's museum. They seem to live on another plane, one where mothers don't leave their children on a bus because they were born with a small birth defect. One where people don't have sex on average 50 times a month. One where the government doesn't sweep up street children because Hilary Clinton is coming to visit - where they are put into prison until they are 18. Even the little 1 1/2  and 2 year olds. Even the girl whose scalp looks like it was burned by boiling water or oil. One where the director of a childrens village of 200 kids - built an developed by well meaning Mzungus (outsiders) -isnt found to be sexually abusing the kids. And when he is found out- the place is shut down and the children are released to the street.   With nothing. 

I have been here one day and I have already heard so many stories. Every person holds so much tragedy in their hearts. The 2 1/2 year old twins who just came to the orphanage. Their parents are alive but their mother is dying or dead.  They have been from their father's care, to  a foster family that decided they didn't like them, back to their father - who one day didn't pick them up from daycare. He has moved out & they can't find him.  Then they'd went to an overcrowded government home before finally making it to the Home with Fort. I met them today. The 2 girls, Emily and Maria, are as sweet as you could wish. How have they made it this far?  And every day so many stories. 

Sad little stories inside these resilient kids. Who somehow still smile. 

It is tough to be here. We are more lucky than we know.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Mama Adrienne

Well the trip was an extra 11 hours or so, but I'm here!  For a few days I'm staying with Jurjanne- she & her husband Chris started the home, Kaja Nafasi. And she has wifi- Sweet!  It feels decadent to sit on the bed in her guest house, emailing & facebooking and with the lights on too!  I appreciate Jurjanne- she and Chris have opened their home to me, and are totally dedicated to doing right by these orphans. But Corin, who left in June, was the one I connected with more. Jurjanne is a little on the brisk side. Both of them are from the Netherlands, and Dutch is their primary language. So the English and culture barriers are there too. Plus Jurjanne is the one who first said no to me possibly adopting bc I was not with their US agency. But I'm getting past that today. She told me about her 2 Ugandan boys she adopted- one left at 8 months home alone daily--malnourished and abandoned. And the other left on a bus just days old, probably due to a medical condition he has. The stories here are tough. 

But Fort's story is improving. I finally got to see him today!

Yes, I saw our son today.  Jurjanne asked me if I wanted to take a nap after finally getting here. I said, "I'd like to see Fort". She had some errands to do, so we changed some money for me, got a Ugandan cell phone, and had lunch. Then we drove over the bumpy & busy roads to Kaja Nafasi - the babies' home. When we got out, Fort was right in front- riding one of the little "boda boda" bikes another volunteer bought for the house. He looked up & zoomed away with his little pack of boys. When Jurjanne & I got out of the car, he came over to us but was so shy. He wouldn't look at either of us. Jurjanne said "do you know who I've brought to you?". And he looked down and said "Mama Adrienne". She asked if he could give a hand to me. And he did. And I held his little hand and said "Hello Fort. I'm going to be your mama, ok?". And still looking down, he smiled & nodded and zoomed off again. I sat and waited for him to come over. Slowly he sat by me. Later he took my hand and showed me around. He was clearly filled with mixed emotions all day-shy, friendly, silly, cuddly, clingy & sad.  When he is silly, he has the brightest smile full of straight white teeth and these beautiful big brown eyes. His hair is fuzzy and he smells of dirt, baby oil, and sweetness. He was certainly jealous and territorial with me - he would cry when I would let another kid on my lap, even alongside him. 

I took him into the bathroom to go "susu". After he washed his hands I picked him up and we looked in the mirror. I said "hello Fort". And he said "Hello Mama Adrienne". I told him "I am happy". He said, ""I happy too". 

He understands English fairly well & speaks some too, but I don't think he could articulate what he was feeling- maybe not in any language. It'll be a process. He has times where he just inconsolably cries. He cried for an hour in my lap, and cried himself to sleep. He took a nap for about 45 minutes laying on me.  I rested too.   But when he woke up, he started with the crying again. A plaintive low cry, slow sobs.  Like he wasn't even checked in anymore. But he let me cuddle him and hold him while he cried.  Tough little Man. Who knows what he is feeling, or what he is allowing himself to feel. 
I am feeling good about our first day. He was not happy when I left. The house mothers say that is wonderful- he is bonding with me from day 1. But it is very hard to see him begin to work through this, and have to learn that I will be back tomorrow. 

I have come a long way into world the dusty, loud, sweet smelling, heart breaking world of Uganda. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A new normal?

I am in the Amsterdam airport and I have a huge headache.   I'm probably dehydrated and definitely sleep- deprived, but it's probably mostly due to the ball of anxiety I have been carrying around. I got to the Columbus airport (was it yesterday?) and suddenly was so overwhelmed.  Like maybe I had been doing so much planning that I hadn't fully comprehended the magnitude of this next step. 
I'm flying to Uganda for a second time. When I meet Fort again- (hopefully tomorrow!)- I will be able to introduce myself to him as his mom!  And Steve comes in a week to meet him for the very first time. I cannot imagine how we will all feel. I am so anxious for Fort - I want him to be happy and excited but I don't want to deny him any opportunity to mourn. He is losing the life he knows, whether it is perfect or not. He has been in many rough spots, but now he is in a delightful orphanage. He doesn't know our family- our warmth, our joy, our love- but he knows what he is saying goodbye to. That cannot be easy. I'm sure his goodbye will not be one swift cut. You cannot separate yourself from your past quickly, like ripping off a bandaid. Plus I don't want him to let it go. I want him to bring it with us. So we can have that as a part of who he is, where he is from, and take a step forward to heal. 
I want to go to the first orphanage he was brought to - the one that isn't so delightful. I wasn't sure if I should take pictures or document it. A girlfriend of mine was adopted when she was a baby. The culture of adoption has changed- being aware that adoption is a moving river is a big part of the education classes Steve and I took. But one thing that she said sticks with me- that it is all a part of him and his story, and someday just having information to fill up the blank holes will be reassuring, even if the pictures aren't pretty. There is going to be so much that we can't find out, empty pieces of his story we may never learn- she is right to encourage us to actively search out any information we can find. 
He will have a new life with us. And hopefully he will get used to it quickly. A new normal. Us too. It is hard to fathom how I will feel caring for another child, and potentially one that will require so much of me. I have tried to be realistics about the needs he will have and the time it will take to integrate ourselves into each others' lives. But you never know. There' is a big - what if?  I hope Fort and I learn to be patient with each other. Although it will affect all of us, I know it will mostly be me down in the trenches with Fort. That's what I signed up for. But can you ever truly know?  I suppose it's the same basic fear the first time you have kids- certainly when I was pregnant with twins!  Somehow, we'll make it through and figure our our new way to be.