Poor, rich, love

What is the scale to define poor, rich, and love! These thoughts all started last night when I was chatting with Sohnia, having a laugh at our life and I said “we are poor now, and we have a great life! hahaha”

As I said this sentence, a loud noise started in my head “we are poor! Are we actually poor right now? Well it has been a very long time since either one of us has made a dime. Our money is running out very fast. We are living on budget…” These thoughts and noise got stuck with me until today evening on the way back from our project, when it just hit me.

While I was sitting in the metro on the way to home, after a hot, tiring day, dazed off and lost in the noises in my head, I noticed the children on the seats in front of me. Their beautiful, innocent faces reminded me of the 4 children that joined us today to volunteer. They joined us because they wanted that the students of this school, also get to play like they can in their school’s playground. That reminded me of Deepak, the 8 years old that has been staying after school everyday to help us with what he can, and feed us the Shahtoots that he picks up from the tree. That brought a flash back of those orphan children in South Sudan refugee camps that shovelled and worked tirelessly to have their playgrounds…

These little souls are always up for sharing and loving. Sohnia and I have been so lucky to be in their service and learn from them. They are the purest state of love! Age, colour, language, and gender don’t mean anything to them but love, play, and share! I can not have done anything more valuable with my life. Monetary gains has not made me rich. Accumulation of things never made me feel rich. However, now I am the richest I have ever been.

24-3-17-4607

We recently visited the Taj Mahal – a worldwide symbol of love and devotion. I spent the evening watching Taj Mahal glowing gold in sunrise and couldn’t help but wonder about the authenticity of its story… Building a structure that costed millions of rupees 400 years ago to show your love for another person after her death (to put the value into perspective, it was estimated in 2015 the construction cost was around US$827 million). Was this done more for a display of wealth and power, and to be remembered in history as the man who did such a great act for his true love? Or was it truly done for love? Can we really show “love” with things? This beautifully placed pile of bricks, marble, and other materials which is now the grave to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, sits just as intact as it was at the time of its completion in 1653. Does Taj Mahal matter to either of them now? My guess: no, probably not.

Was there anything that Shah Jahan could have done or just said to his lover before her death at the cost of zero dollars, which would be even more invaluable and expressive to her than building her the nicest grave?

How ironic, the most money ever spent to express love, is now the grave to the lovers.

Rang Maidan

Rang Maidan

Rang Maidan is the Hindi name for our project.It means “Colourful Spaces”. As some of you know, we are currently in India, where we are partnered with an Australian NGO called Playground Ideas, and an Indian design studio called Gudgudee to build 50 playgrounds across the country over the next year. This project is focusing on building playgrounds made mostly from used tires, in low income government schools. Our team is great – from Australia, America, and India, we are a well-rounded and diverse bunch. Currently, 2 of the 50 playgrounds have been completed. At the last school in Sehore, Maharashtra we found that discipline is a huge part of the schooling here. After hearing about this, we both felt how much these children would benefit from having a space where they can just be kids. They definitely need to play!

mini maze for mini humans
Tire Playground
India itself is, well, India! It’s the place that travelers around the world seek out on their journey – whether it be to find inner peace, enjoy amazing food, learn yoga, or just see some really (really) unbelievable things. Broaden your horizons! If you’ve never traveled before, or perhaps even if you have, India will not fail to surprise you. There is an undeniable magic in the air here. Sacred cows roam the streets freely, knowing they cannot be harmed. Tuktuk drivers race about, narrowly missing one another without even blinking an eye. The occasional Sadhu walks barefoot – often covered in ash with a painted face. This is India! And we are so happy to be here. 
Indian Slums
Train Rides

The state where we are currently residing, Uttar Pradesh, is the most populous province in all of India. It currently boasts a population of a whopping 223,897,418 people. Uttar Pradesh’s population is over 6x that of Canada, while its land mass is 41x smaller. It’s a bit crowded, to say the least.

Apwoyo to Namaste

 

Now that we are in Nepal, the thing we miss the most about Uganda is the people, and the children especially. In addition to being one of the best experiences, we also learned a lot. Spending time with the people made us realize a few things that we are now working on ourselves.

Be happy with what you have 

Pursue what you want in this life; you are a creator. But always remember to be grateful for all that you have right now. If you’re reading this, chances are you have more than most. Running water, electricity, a bed, food! Focus on the abundance in your life and you will see the beauty in it.

Go with the flow

Nothing ever happens on time in Uganda. But I eventually learned that this lack of punctuality is because people are in the rhythm of life.. and that rhythm doesn’t always follow a schedule. I realized that they’re just going with it, flowing with life. And they’re the happiest people I’ve ever seen.

Dance, a lot. It’s good for your soul.

This one explains itself 🙂

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We saw and experienced many unforgettable things in Uganda, and the one that has never really been touched on in any of our blogs is the women. The weight of the entire country rests on the shoulders of the Ugandan woman; she does it all with such grace and, of course, a beautiful smile. It is such a common thing for women to be doing the majority of the work, that a few times we had people ask why Reza was carrying any of the grocery bags. I did successfully carry a giant bundle of grass on my head once (see below – I’m the brown one).

1 down, 50 to go

 It took long and we loved every second of it. We finished building our first playground: “TuKu” (PLAY in Acholi language) and it was a more rewarding experience than either one of us could have imagined. Of course there were some challenges, such as accessing the refugee settlement areas, acquiring permits from the Office of Prime Minister, cutting trees for lumber, to transporting tires on our rental motorcycle. Once we shipped the elements and pieces to the site we thought the rest would be a breeze, until we found out the site is sitting on 5 inches of soil and the rest is solid rock! Our weapons to go through the rocks were heavy metal rods and pick axes. Overall, there has been so much love, laughter, sweat and blisters. We truly wish it could go on forever.

We could have not find any place more suitable than this for our first project. We were able to bring laughter, play, and love to the orphan children, many of whom lost their parents right in front of their innocent eyes, and had to flee to their neighbouring countries, living with less than bare minimum. We miss them already! They were our greatest teachers! After all they have been through they are all still just sources of love and peace. The moment we arrived to their home with the playgrounds materials, they all joined us in digging with their shovels. The first time we visited them they were just hiding in the shade from the scalding sun, and we didn’t hear laughter, we didn’t see play. Now, the kids run to the playground at dawn and fill the space with laughter and play right until dusk. Even one of the residents of the villages close by told us how her son runs to playground before she wakes up and doesn’t come back home until it’s dark. She was more than happy for this, to see her son enjoying playtime.

My new beastly sweet brother Olara, Mr. Uganda that I have been coaching here came along on the last day to give us a (super powerful) hand.

The total cost of this playground was $2420 CAD, which is less than what we were expecting.

100% of all funds raised through our non-profit go directly toward building playgrounds. We were able to fund this playground from our birthday pledge and gofundme. We cannot thank all our friends enough for supporting us and helping us making this happen. Love you all. Thank you for giving us so much love and support – we really mean it when we say that the love we receive from our friends and family around the world is being shared here. It keeps us going and motivates us everyday.

Basically one playground per week. We are building these playgrounds in low-income public schools where there is no space for kids to play.

It was only few months ago when Sohnia and I decided to sell everything we own, leave Canada and build playgrounds for children, and now we are embarking on a journey to take on the largest multi-playground project ever.

Since we couldn’t get our Indian visa for more than 30 days from Uganda, now we are heading to Nepal to get our visa there and then, we are off to India.

Stay put for more updates!

Let us work together

 

On Friday we set out before sunrise to pick up all the playground elements and supplies and head to Adjumani. The road was so bumpy, both of us were worried about the stuff falling to pieces in the back of the truck. Luckily it all remained intact! When the kids saw us coming, they were so excited. They all helped us to unload the equipment and supplies. I’ve never seen anyone so happy to unload a truck full of stuff. The children are so eager to help – as soon as we began digging, they ran and got their shovels and joined us. The past few days have been incredible. We all worked hard and every little bit of progress was so rewarding. The playground is nearing completion and everyone is very excited!

Dangles
Tire collection

As we built, I remembered how a few weeks ago, we met someone who shared something very encouraging with us. We were at a restaurant in Senior Quarters, which is kind of like the quiet, dusty, Muzungo area of Gulu. We were greeted by a man whom we had met a while back when we were trying to find a place to stay. He began asking us more about what we had told him the first time we met, that we are here to build playgrounds. So, we told him how our first project is in Adjumani District, near the refugee settlements. Reza asked Jesse if he had ever been to the refugee camps. Jesse said that he used to live in a camp himself, here in Northern Uganda. Reza asked if it was when Adi Amin was in power and Jesse replied “No.. Not then. And Adi Amin.. He wasn’t too harsh anyway”. He said it was the lords resistance army, also known as rebels, in the civil conflict with the government of Uganda from 2000-2005. He told us how when he lived in the camp, there were lots of people that came. Some of these people built playgrounds, and they brought things for the children to play with. They brought soccer balls, kids toys, games. He told us how much of a difference this made for the children in the camp. He said that the soccer games, the playgrounds, the playing, kept the children occupied, happy with their friends instead of being idle, or in the streets putting their lives at risk. It was really incredible to hear a firsthand account of the impact that play had on children in hard times. It was a special moment and we thanked him for sharing, and off he went.

Always making friends
Digging

We used these heavy poles to break through rock…

Before we left Canada I came across a quote by Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”. To me, this hits on the deepest truth that remains hidden to us underneath the illusion of separateness: We are all connected. We only appear as separate on the surface but if one person in this world suffers, we all suffer. It’s not about us and them. Its about Us, We, as a whole, the human race in its entirety. So, let us work together. And, let us play together too!

Safari on 2 wheels

We didn’t plan to hang with wild elephants. We have been going deep into bush at least once a week for some Mother Nature time, and this week we decided to get to Nile river, about 100km south of where we live. We left home on Boda before sunset, such a chilly ride. 3 hours and 20 stops for warming up later we got to the river, but we were stopped by the army from accessing river because of security reasons! We were told if we road a bit farther, there is a park that we might be able to access from there, so we did.

We had to negotiate a bit at the gate until the park ranger let us in without pervious arrangement, no guide, and no truck. He said we should ride straight to the safari lodge which was 20km into the national park. As we enter and looked at the name of the park on the sign, we recognize the name! This is the park that we were told has the most variety and abundance of wild life. Sohnia asked me, do you think it’s ok we ride our 100cc crappy motorcycle into a national park in Africa that is full of lions, elephants, hippos, and other crazy animals? I said yeah! As we start riding through the rough road we saw many trees that were recently broken down by elephants, saw a few antelopes and other animals and birds, and a few kilometres later, we got a flat tire!

I was trying to keep it together while I was pushing the bike in mid day heat in middle of the safari zone, and Sohnia was in a battle with all those tse-tse flies that were biting us left and right. After couple of kilometres of that fun we got lucky to see a truck passing by. We left the Boda and got a ride out of the park. I bought a tire and tube from the closest village, and asked the guy to come with me to help me change the tire. After we got the bike ready for road again we pinned it to the lodge.

What a beautiful lodge, with a swimming pool just above Nile river. From there we didn’t had to go far to see tons of animals. We chilled less than 100 feet away of huge herd hippopotamus, right beside them we saw bunch of elephants. There was about 12 of them and Sohnia start just walking to them! To her spirit animal! A bit too close! Elephants kill the most people in Africa just after hippos.

Pumba
Hippos herd
Wild elephants

From there we saw bunch of monkeys, baboons, more antelopes, boars, exotic birds…

on the way back we decided to choose longer road to see more animals. Right away we saw ourselves surrounded by a herd of giraffes. Sohnia said, I saw a video that a giraffes attacking a car! I said don’t worry we have a bike not a car 😉 As i started riding closer to them, they start looking a bit pissy! So I did a quick U/-turn and pinned it. What a day!Now plan is to go back there once a week, and hope to not get flat again.

As for playground process, we were able to sort all the material, even timbers for post. It’s not like back home that we can put an order and delivery through Home Depot. We had to go through bunch of people until we got connect to a person that knew of the old man in a forest. We rode to the forest and found couple of eucalyptus that looked good for fort’s post. Next step from there was to find the old man to get the permission and negotiate price for the trees.

Now we are waiting for the metal elements of the playground to be welded and once that’s done we will ship to the the camp and start fabricating, installing, and painting.

Home Depot
baby giraffe
Monkey bar almost ready

New Year’s Day camping with Boda Tony

Aside from the fact that it’s hotter than the hottest Vancouver summer, the Christmas holidays here are something very different. People really get into the spirit, 110%. We had our best New Year’s yet, spent with kids and Mother Nature. We decided that we would spend some time outdoors, so we asked around and got put in touch with a man named Tony. Tony is quite the character and our camping trip was at least 10 times more exciting, and 5 times more dangerous because of him. We like to adventure but Tony takes it to the next level. He had Reza riding up a steep, smooth rock face (see picture) on a gutless 100cc boda. Right before Reza started to head up, Tony shouted “YEA!!! I love crazy!!!”. Oh no. *gulp*. For a brief moment I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into, heading into the Ugandan bush with this man. Tony climbed trees with branches the size of my finger and scaled rocks that I wouldn’t attempt even with climbing shoes on. He has a heart of gold though, and we had so much fun with him. Some children from the village down below joined us to the camping spot, and we all hiked up to the top of a rock to watch the sunset together. The hike involved climbing to the top of a tree to jump onto the rocky summit, and the children all did it barefoot, as they had done dozens of times before. They are amazing little humans – so agile and capable, so peaceful and calm. The sunset from the top of the mountain was pure magic. There was a foggy haze on the horizon, which made the sun appear bright red. We all sat together and watched it sink closer down to the horizon. The wind gusted past, carrying with it little soaring birds. Monkeys were jumping in the treetops just below us. It was a special moment that I will never forget. Even the mysteriously huge piles of goat poop had their place up there.

collecting firewood
..
Later that night we had a bonfire near our camp with the children. They love to dance, so we played music and turned the camping spot into a dance floor. Tony had a headlamp and he was flashing it around to create that night-club feel. Totally worked. Man, he is funny. After dancing our hearts out, we made dinner on the coals of the fire and ate pasta as the stars showed up, along with the crescent moon. In the distance, in all directions, we could see fires. Some close, some far. Tony told us that these massive grass fires are started either by accident, for farming, or just because. It’s normal to see dozens of fires every day in the grasslands, especially in the dry season.
say cheese!
dinner

Playground update(!!): The swing set, merry-go-round, and seesaw are all being fabricated now by a local welder. We just ordered the timber for the main fort, and we know it’s going to be really, really awesome. Seeing as I never really grew up, coming up with ideas for the playground has been so easy, and so much fun. I think I might be more excited than anyone else to play on it once it’s finished

Christmas in Africa

For first time I experienced the real Christmas’ spirit of giving! and that was through some of the least fortunate people in the world. We decided to spend our Christmas with the children at the orphanage, and the journey turned out to be a lot more eventful and meaningful than we anticipated.

We took the only way of transport to Adjumani refugee camps, mini van. Very same old 7 seater mini vans we see at home, but here there was 12 of us got crammed in one. We couldn’t wait for the 40 plus degree ride with no AC, on a bumpy dusty road to end until we got stopped by the police. There are 2 main group of people travel through this road, locals who work for NGOs like UN, and the Ugandan’s army. So Sohnia and I, being the only muzungos (white people) and not part of a big organization, makes us a target for these police to make some money from. We got away this time, but it was getting scary when they tried to put us into their car and take us away. Once we arrived in Adjumani we met with someone from the orphanage and he took us the rest of the way in a little car through bush.

We got 70 ice cream cups for the children from the gas station, the only place that had ice cream. When we called the kids to come and get their ice cream, we didn’t see as much excitement as we were anticipating! That was because most of them never had ice cream… but it only took them the first bite 🙂

People here live in such spirit of giving specially for Christmas. We have never received such hospitality, generosity, and love. And that was from the people that had to flee from their country due to genocide and leave everything behind. They left everything and ran, but the one thing that they always keep is their enormous and beautiful hearts. Since people working in the orphanage knew we are coming, they hunted an antelope with spear, and offered us to eat for breakfast, never ate such a lean meat. Children were preparing food from the day before for people that are coming to visit them from the villages around. They wore the clothes that were donated to them for christmas and had the ceremony in their sacred spot, under the Tree! That tree!

Once they fled to Uganda’s border they were sent to this location. There was a big barbed wire area with only one tree and nothing else in it. That tree became their home, their church, their hope. Now they build some structures around the tree for kids to sleep and school.

Preparing food
Ceremony

The ceremony under the tree was the experience of the lifetime for us. Hundreds of people and children from villages around came there. Children had few performances for visitors. The beauty, love, and sharing there was unreal! It reminded me of Burning Man’s principals, radical inclusion and gifting. We prayed, sang, laughed and cried together. Only if I knew Christmas could be like this sooner!

After prayer we found a Boda and went back to Adjumani and bought cookies for the children that lived in the villages around and couldn not make it to the ceremony. They knew all about cookies and didn’t take us long to hand them all out.

Our only way back to Gulu was the roach bus! Once we found the bus we were stunned to see hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches running out of the bus door as if they just got to their destination! When they ticket guy saw Sohnia’s paled face, he said its ok, they are running away because we sprayed some chemical! Moo Moo sat the whole way keeping her feet off the ground, still every now and then roaches were climbing her to say whatzup!

The Power of Tuku

 

​The past few weeks really feel more like a few months, and looking back, I can’t believe all that has happened in such a short period of time. We adopted a puppy, swam in River Nile (well, Reza did..), taught the sweetest, brightest children numbers and writing, sent 1000 emails, ate 1000 chapatis, spent way too much time in internet cafés trying to arrange our next steps, saved a cow from being hit by a car (moo), danced in the street with locals, climbed, jumped, walked, walked more, tried, and tried harder. It’s been a roller coaster ride and I wouldn’t change one second of it. We’re just getting started! This is an interesting place and there is a lot to learn. We were told about the culture and traditions of the Dinka and Nuer people, and I was amazed by what I learned. For example, in Dinka culture, when a boy wants to be consider a man in his community, he can receive 3 cuts on his forehead. It is said that if the boy can withstand the pain of the wound, he is ready to be considered as a man, and can now speak up and be taken seriously. It was upsetting though, that we had to see the Dinka people in the refugee settlements in Adjumani District – a people with so much rich culture, having been displaced from their homeland in South Sudan. This is the case for many people in South Sudan. The conflict between the government and the rebels has led to tens of thousands of lost lives and displaced persons having to seek refuge in the bordering countries, mainly Uganda. Pagirinya refugee settlement is currently home to 45,000 people from South Sudan.

Pumba, the adopted puppy
water lineup in the settlement
children at Cornerstone Orphanage singing us a welcome song

While in the settlement, we were told graphic truths about what is happening just 10 km north across the border. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the day we went to the settlements. It was intense and heartbreaking, but also just so unbelievable. The government in South Sudan, armed by the United Nations, is killing innocent people. We were told that there is nothing anyone can do, and no one to turn to when their family members are killed. When the government, the military, and everyone else is corrupt, who do you turn to? No one. You just run. You get out of there.. This is what a group of 69 orphaned children had to do when the fighting in South Sudan escalated. Now, they are refugees as well. All of them lost their parents in the civil conflict. It is at this newly relocated orphanage in Adjumani District that we will be building the first playground. When we first arrived at the orphanage, the children greeted us with a welcome song! Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long, so it was just a brief meeting. But they are beautiful souls and we can’t wait to spend time with them, get to know them, and share our love with them. Finally, I feel like things are aligning just how they should. I can’t think of a better place for our first project. We are designing the playground and sourcing the materials locally from Gulu, and everyone (especially us) is very excited. Stay tuned. Oh, and “Tuku” is Acholi for PLAY!

Innocent

 The quietest boy I have ever met

taught me how to wash my clothes. He told me (after some gentle poking and prying on my part) that he wants to study medicine when he finishes high school. He will be a doctor, and he has had malaria 12 times, that he can remember. I’ve learned that to the locals, malaria is not much more than a bad flu. Many people will self-treat and only seek medical attention if it is a severe case of cerebral malaria (in the brain). Anyhow, we scrubbed our clothing in a bucket in the backyard of his home, in mostly comfortable silence. He re-washed the socks after me, insisting that I needed to “use force” while scrubbing them. I guess it all may seem trivial but in that moment, I was totally present and it was a beautiful reminder, a little tap on the shoulder to say that life is NOW. This moment.. this immeasurable speck in time that we refer to as ‘now’, is all there is. Being present is key. Anyway, the boy’s name is Innocent, but sometimes just Inno for short. Every evening when we return home, he is sitting in the same spot on the lawn. He really is the quietest boy I’ve ever met.

We took the children for a walk up Kyabazinga Hill to the palace, where the King resides once in a blue moon. The palace is a big, red soil-coloured residence surrounded by an even bigger wall, topped with curly barbed wire. The large gates at the front are manned by an armed guard. It all seemed intimidating at first but once we approached the soldier to see if we could, perhaps, enter the Kingdom, he was very warm and welcoming, even though he didn’t let us in. The man told us that to enter, we needed to get permission from the office in the village below, which wasn’t going to happen because it had taken us almost an hour hiking uphill in the scalding sun to reach this mighty destination. The soldier began telling us of all the different kings all across the land, and why they are great (or not so great). He told us why he loves Uganda, and how it is better than all the countries that border it. He spoke with passion, and I was quite into the conversation until from the corner of my eye, I saw Angel, the 3 year old girl in our crew, taking a pee right in front of the gate to the palace. Reza also noticed, so he began engaging the guard in more conversation to distract him. Luckily the guard didn’t notice.. Or at least if he did, he didn’t mention it.

Coconut.. Is that you?!
FullSizeRender-2
Making me pretty

We spend quite a lot of time with these children and it has really got me thinking about the orphanages here, and elsewhere in the world. Since arriving in Uganda, Reza and I have learned that some of these so-called “orphanages” are more like businesses. People will take in children (orphans, or children from family members and neighbours) to bring in funding and volunteers. It is not an honest practice. I have also been thinking about the impact of people coming and going in and out of these children’s lives, especially for the real orphans. For the really young ones like Judith and Angel who are both 3 years old, I know the impact is greater. They have people coming into their lives, staying for a few days or weeks, showing them unconditional love, and then disappearing, never to be seen again. While there is always the next person to come along and fill that gap, I still wonder about the impact this is having on their young, developing minds. Reza and I planned on staying here with this organization for some time, and maybe even starting our first playground project here, but we have since decided to move along. The children here are being taken care of, many volunteers come (and go), they all have food to eat and a bed to sleep in. They are receiving money from sponsors all around the world. We are happy that they are being taken care of. So, this past week we have spent a lot of time in the internet cafe, trying to organize our next move to Northern Uganda. We know that the displaced children in the refugee settlements are the ones for whom we want to create a safe space to play.  It hasn’t been easy trying to arrange this, and we have contacted many people and received very few responses. But, we are not disheartened. We are going to make this happen. Our vision remains clear and we are as determined as ever to bring it to life.

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