A little bit of kindness

With so many horrible things happening in the world right now, I find myself wondering why. What is the fundamental issue within some humans that allows them to behave in such ways? How can anyone possibly think that killing innocent people, innocent children is ok? Why do human beings do this to each other? My heart feels heavy and a familiar dull ache sets in. Back in August, I saw a photo of a Syrian man holding his baby who was just a few months old. They had just arrived by boat to a new country where they would be living in a refugee camp. This picture is the reason that I am here today. As I looked at the photograph, I wondered what kind of life this child would have. I wondered about the sadness and the anger that might grow in his little heart. I wondered if he would ever have a normal childhood full of love, laughter and of course play. Maybe he would. But it made me think of all the other millions of innocent children around the world that wouldn’t, because of war or poverty. Children are ours to take care of. They are our responsibility – the little seeds of our planet. How they are grown up will one day be reflected in how they shape our world.

The child in the main photo of this blog is Deepak. He was the greatest helper at the last playground, so eager to learn and get things done. He picked us chah toot (berries) and was always bringing us water. Deepak is a kind, sweet soul.

 

In a world that is currently so filled with violence and sadness, we can still choose love. We can all do something about this. We can choose to be kind to one another, and to ourselves. Be kind to strangers, be kind to your family. Be especially kind to those that cannot be kind in return, for they are the ones that need it the most. We see enough anger and hatred on the news. We don’t need anymore of it in our daily lives. Choose kindness and love, always.

We are currently working on the 6th playground of 50. So, nearly 12% done! The kids love to help with the painting especially. At the last school, once we had finished with painting the playground and it was time to clean up, they decided they weren’t done yet. They started painting their school – the brick wall and the concrete floor. I thought this was hilarious. Some people (the principal) didn’t. Building playgrounds here in India is much different than our experience in Uganda. The materials are a lot easier to come by here. Some days the workers don’t show up, and sometimes they do. The language barrier has proven to be the biggest challenge. But no matter what, the children are always so excited when the team first arrives and brings the materials in. That is something we can always count on. 

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.

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

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!

The moment we said what the heck are we doing here!

 

Here is the summary of our missionfrom start until the moment today when Sohnia and I looked at each other and asked each other, what the heck are we doing here?!

Just a few months ago Sohnia and I decided to follow our dream, which is traveling the world and bringing love and play to the kids who are in need of a safe space to play. From there we start The Power Of Play, and going to bring play to kids by building them playgrounds.

Once we got set on that we decided to start somewhere somewhat safe and work with a big organization so we could make a living and learn from them while working on our own charity. But soon we realized getting a job or even volunteering with big organization won’t happen that easy and quick since we wanted to start our mission right away. Randomly we got in touch with a friend of a friend that started an organization in Uganda. Once we heard from her how autistic and disabled kids are treated in some villages there, we packed our luggag to join her organization as volunteers and build playgrounds for those kids. That didn’t work out since she went away and we lost contact with her.

There we decided to join workaway and help a local orphanage here and find locations to build playgrounds in the meantime.

As soon as we got here and started working with that local orphanage we found out this is more of a business to them than caring for orphans.

That was when we decide to go somewhere that we are sure we find children that really could benefit from playgrounds, so we planned to move to northern Uganda close to refugee settlements. After hearing it is not safe and easy to travel there as a civilian we contacted all the NGOs in that area. Out of 12 NGOs we contacted only one got back to us mentioning that we need documents and permits from Kampala before we could even enter the area.

After a day of running around in Kampala and getting into two Boda Boda accidents, I found out it will be minimum 2 months before we can get any paper work!

Camp life
Locals daily commute in heat
Refugee camps

Next thing was this morning. We got picked up by the uncle of the father of a guy we got introduced to by a friend we met here. He drove us with his Mercedes through all the check points, don’t ask how…

Later today Sohnia and I were 30 minutes away from the South Sudan border, in one of the biggest refugee camps in the country, looking at each other and saying what the heck are we doing here! Less than three weeks ago we were in Squamish, and now we are in midday African heat inside a refugee camp. We are negotiating with the army and the only person we know around here is the guy who drove us, whom we just met the night before. And,we don’t even know his last name.

And about an hour later we found the location that now we are going to build our first playground. We could not find any place better than that. All of the sudden it all made sense – this is why we are here.

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?!
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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.

Mornings in Ugandan village

I can’t get over how much I love my mornings these days in this Ugandan village!

It starts with waking up to the neighbour’s rooster. He doesn’t crow just once, it goes on and on until the entire hood is up. First is hugging the children in the orphanage and brushing teeth all together in the yard. At first I was surprised to see that the kids love brushing their teeth, but after asking the owner of the orphanage, I found out why! They like toothpaste so much that they used to eat it as a candy. Once kids start eating, Moo and I walk to the only place in village that sells food to get the only thing they have one their menu, Rolex, eggs rolled in chapati (local bread) for 40 cents. Even if I had other options I would still eat that everyday. Then, we have a 30 minute walk to the road where we can get a bus or boda-boda (motorcycle) to town. In this half hour walk we get to see monkeys, goats, eagles, butterflies and some dinosaur-sized birds, but best of all, are all those people we get to see along the way. They all wave and say hello or laugh and call us Muzungu (white man) I never thought one day my hairy brown face would be considered a white man!

Kids in Orphanage
Rolex
Morning

Everyone is up from early morning here, thanks to the roosters! That includes kids; they are usually on water duty. Hauling 20L jugs of water with big SMILES on their faces. When they see us, they usually put their jugs down and wave. Sometimes when we give them candies, they curtsy! If they have a little friend close by that didn’t get candy, they will run, get him/her and run back with them to us, so they can get a candy too. Just like how we care about sharing in western countries!!

There is so much peace and harmony in their simplicity. Oh and safety is 3rd here, just the way I like it!

The love mission

 

This place is warm, inside and out.Time passes slowly.. Life moves slowly even during the the hectic rush-hour, with boda-bodas(motorcycles) and busses crammed full well above their maximum capacity racing by, honking – always honking. Amidst all of this, there is a slowness, a feeling that all is well. No one truly hurries in the same way we do ‘back home’. When we came here to Jinja, Uganda, we were happy with what we found.. Happy children. Playful children. Well-fed and watered children. We came to Jinja to work with an existing organization, so that we could learn valuable skills before we begin our own projects. So, now we plan to go north to the refugee camps housing thousands of people from bordering countries. Even though it has only been five days, I know that I will leave with a heavy heart. The children we are staying with are beautiful. One girl truly stands out for the both of us. Her name is Ruth and she is 11 years old. Ruth is currently the oldest of all eight children in the home, and she does a lot for the others, all of whom she really loves. She works hard to take care of them and because of this, she doesn’t always get to be the young girl that she is. But, yesterday something beautiful happened when we left the home with all of the children to go play. For the first time, I saw Ruth as the eleven year-old girl that she is. She was running and laughing and playing just like the other kids. I really can’t explain the feeling in my heart as I watched her. I was finally seeing her, free of responsibilities. She even came at me with ‘the claw’ and tickled me! Ruth is a beautiful, wise soul with the kindest of hearts.

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Jinja has been warm and sweet. We found love in friends, children, goats and puppies. We found love in the mountains and the red soil. We found love in the lightning storms and the rainfall. We learned many things, the most important being that this beautiful life is truly a love mission after all.

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