Let me start by saying I am quite happy here. I know already that I will enjoy the work I will do here. I love the children I will be working with. I am living in a very nice (by Ugandan standards) apartment. It is next door to the headmaster of the primary school and his family. He and his wife are wonderful. I have been unable to use the internet until today...and I may not be able to again until next Friday. I have something I just absolutely need to get off my chest, and in an effort to therapeutically release it from my mind, I am going to share it (well, the condensed version anyway) on this blog.
If your children read this blog, you might not want them to read this next part. It is not something I would want a child to be exposed to.
Let me start by saying that I am okay. Seriously. I'm fine.
This Tuesday, I went on a field trip with the 44 older students of Mustard Seed Academy (the primary school I am at). We were also accompanied by two teachers, a social worker, the headmaster, and five of the volunteers. I was driving in the bus with the teachers, headmaster, and all the children. The day was amazing. I got to know a lot of the students' personalities while we admired the animals of Lake Mburo. We shared the day with laughing, sharing, and learning together. Honestly, I cannot emphasize enough how perfect the day was.
Unfortunately, we had to leave the park later than we planned. It is about an 90 minute drive from the park entrance to the village. By the time we were twenty minutes into our drive back, the sun went down and we were left to drive the remaining kilometers in total darkness. This probably seems like it isn't a very big deal to my American and European friends. I have spent enough time in Uganda to know that this was a VERY big deal. Night time brings many dangers. Without the protection of daylight, cars and people alike are at risk of getting hit by vehicles as they speed along the highway. There are of course many other dangers to nighttime, (some not unlike the dangers in America or other Western societies...they just seem worse here) but my main concern was with the increased likelihood of a car accident.
Since we are right on the Equator here, when the sun goes down there is hardly a sunset. It will be light one minute and then POW it is night. The moment it went black, I instantly had this feeling in me that I should take a moment to pray. This is a part of Ugandan culture--to pray before long journeys for safe travels. I thanked God for the wonderful day with the children. Then I remember praying that we would all return home safely.
About 45 minutes from the village, my prayers were answered in the most peculiar way. I remember I had just received two texts. One from Elaine, the director of the agency I work for. She was in the van with the other volunteers pretty far ahead of us. She wanted to check that we were safe. I replied right away saying that the children were singing, and we were all safe. The next text was from my cousin asking if I could call yet. I responded that I was still driving, too noisy to talk. Then WHAM.
I was looking down at my phone waiting for my phone to say the message was sent. When I heard something very big hit the window of the bus, children screaming and crying, the driver slamming on his breaks. I looked up--I was sitting in the front seat (without a seat belt since there wasn't one) and right at my eye level, there was a massive indent of the window the size of a watermelon. The headmaster's arm was across me and my right hand was gripping his arm very tightly. He and I looked at each other and without saying anything he jumped up and got out of the bus. The driver had already left, I don't remember him even leaving.(I later learned this was because he got out, hid, then rejoined a nearby crowd of onlookers because if he had been found they would have killed him.) I didn't really understand what had happened, I just knew I was covered in glass and everyone was making a lot of noise. I stood up and looked down to find a boda boda (motorcycle transportation) mangled just under the front of the bus. I could not see the driver, but it was immediately obvious that his head was the source of the indent in the window.
I turned around and saw the children standing on seats, crying, screaming, some laughing (probably from shock) and I remember shouting to sit down and stay calm. They listened and we were able to see that the teachers were ushering them off the bus. As I got off the bus I heard shouting and screaming from the locals. I later learned that many of them were screaming that they wanted to find the driver to kill him. This is village law--and eye for an eye exists in this part of the world. Other locals were opposing this idea because the now dead boda boda driver had just pulled away from the bar--where he had spent the entire day getting drunk and was told not to drive away on his bike. He didn't listen and the decision cost him his life. (Side-note: DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE!)
Thankfully, none of the children were hurt. Nor were any of the adults; myself included. However, the next hour was very scary as we stood on the side of the obviously dangerous highway waiting for the volunteer van to double back, and also for another ride to become available for the children. We could not take the bus because it was leaking fluids and the window shield was completely damaged. Also, the locals were threatening to burn it and may have put up a fight to take it away. As I was unable to talk to anyone in Luganda to help with the coordinating...I took on the role of helping keep the children safe. I remember many of them huddled around me, holding my hands, hugging on to my front and back, and I just tried to reach out and touch as many of them as possible.
Eventually, the shock wore off and my body stopped shaking. I then realized that my hands, face, and chest were covered in little tiny slivers of glass. Thank goodness I was in the front and not the children. Thank goodness I was texting my cousin and not looking up. That glass would have been in my eyes instead of my skin. Thank goodness only the drunken boda boda man was hurt. I later found out that the bus driver (who had to spend a night in jail for his "crime") had seen the accident coming. He knew there was a steep hill on the left, and another lane of speeding traffic on the right. He knowingly decided to hit the boda boda and risk his life rather than veer to one side or the other and risk dozens more. Tough decision, quick thinking, but in that instant he saved many more lives.
We were able to get an empty truck to stop and we packed the children into it. I was able to ride with the volunteers in their van. They also let me stay with them at their hotel in a nearby village so I didn't have to be alone that night. They told me over dinner that when they pulled up to the scene, they saw me standing there with what they knew to be every single child forming a complete circle around me. I hadn't realized in the darkness that they had surrounded me from all angles and were tightly packed in. They said it looked like 20, not 40 children were around me because each wanted to be as close as possible.
Despite how incredibly traumatic the incident was, I take great comfort in knowing that I played a role in the events. My role was to pray for our safety. My role was to sit in the front and shield the kids from the impact. My role was to help keep them safe. My role was to simply be with them; and provide as much comfort as possible. In a weird way, I could not have asked for a better way to get to know the children on my first day with them.
I also got to see how responsible and honorable the headmaster and other teachers acted in the time of a crisis. This brings me a great deal of comfort in knowing that my life will be in very capable hands for the next six months. The next day I spoke to the headmaster and told him he was the reason I didn't go through the window, he laughed and said it was his instinct to help me. He was also very concerned with the glass in my skin--when I asked if he had the glass in his he said "yes, but that doesn't matter...how are you??" I'm confident I am surrounded by a wonderful group of people here.
I will absolutely be praying before every journey in the future--just in case that was the reason I walked away in okay condition. Why tempt things, right?
Thank you for reading to the end of this. I really needed to talk about it! I promise that despite this incident...I really am having a great time here! I will be going to Queen Elizabeth National Park on Saturday. The teachers and staff and volunteers are having a party on Friday. I look forward to the rest and happy times to distract my thoughts from that night!
Will write again when I have internet next weekend.