Stories 4 Your Heart
The Banana Forest Children
by Marsha Hunt
February 2006, Evening - I was in my house. I could hear one of my two favorite
tranquil sounds that always makes me feel peaceful – the sounds of the church
bells ringing. After a little melody, the bells started chiming off seven times.
My phone rang, it was my good friend Hamlet Kabushanga from Uganda.
At that time, Hamlet was a Member of Parliament in Uganda. He asked me if I
could come to Uganda – next week.
I thought he was going to say within the next three months – but Next Week?
There was going to be a meeting of Members of Parliament, the Governor of Kinkizzi,
and other government officials. They we going to discuss giving some government
land for an air strip in the Kinkizzi District, the only flat area was around the
town of Kihihi.
A little back ground is in order. First, Kinkizzii District is in a very mountainous area
near the Eastern tip of the Bwindi Forest. Second, when I had been there in 2004,
I brought up that they needed an air strip in the area. Well, here was my chance to
help get Kinkizzii an air strip.
Naturally I was thinking, “I can’t do this, I have places to go, people to see, things
to do..I have a busy life” As Hamlet talked I was banging my head against the wall
and said “I’ll be there.” Although at that moment in time, if the truth be known,
I was less than thrilled about it.
Well, they say God works in mysterious ways…I got there, spoke at Parliament and
other government offices about the need for an air strip. I got accused of being an
“Admitted Episcopalian” by a government official. To this day, I am not sure what
that was all about. But Hamlet and the Governor of Kinkizzi went to my defense
immediately in the Luganda language. I have no clue what was said, but everyone
My presence got the attention of The Minister of Defense, at that time, Minister
Mbabazi, who wanted to meet with me also, because he thought an air strip
that close to the Congo was a good idea. I concurred with him, by nodding
my head Yes. I let him talk, with out saying a word, and agreed with everything he said. He thought I was quite intelligent. The truth be known ,while he spoke , what was actually running though my mind was…”WHY IN THE WORLD AM I SITTING HERE WITH THE MINISTER OF DEFENSE OF UGANDA?????” It was beyond me! I produce Promos for Fox Sports. I have ZERO political background… As I look back, maybe I was just supposed to be in Uganda at that point in time.
After my brief political career, we went out to Kinkizzi. My church at the time, Prince of Peace in Woodland Hills, CA, had raised the money to buy land for a tea farm to help the college be self sustaining. ( More on the college in another installment.) I wanted to take pictures and report back on how everything was going with the tea farm. It was a hike out there. Hike down the main dirt road, turn right at a smaller dirt road that turns into a trail – follow the trail up and then down. My good friend Kelen, Hamlet’s wife was with me, Otherwise, I might have never been seen or heard of again. We came over a hill and saw this beautiful farm being laid out with neat rows of new young tea plants. The workers were in their colorful African outfits. I was amazed at how beautiful the scene was. As Kelen and I walked along the tea farm, I noticed that a man was pulling a home made plow. They did not even have horses to pull a plow. A tractor was out of the question. It was such hard work to clear the land by hand and plow the fields, but here was this beautiful , perfect tea farm. I took lots of pictures to take home. I talked to some of the workers, who were mostly women. Traditionally, women had always been the farmers because the men had been hunters and warriors. But, at this farm, Hamlet and Kelen had set up a day care center for the small children. It was basically a few blankets under a shady tree, were some older women were taking care of the babies and toddlers. Some college students would come help out and read stories. But the concept of On Site Day Care was a new philosophy. I wish it was more popular in the USA.
Kellen said we could go another way back to her house, through a banana forest. I was walking and almost tripped over a tiny little boy sleeping. He was just a skinny little wisp of a toddler. He was wearing rags. Then a young girl came up and looked at me and Kellen. She was also in rags, she was about 10 I thought. Kelen spoke to her, and the little girl said they were orphans. Then two more little children in rags came up, a boy and a girl, about five years old. The oldest girl told Kelen that they were all orphans and that she took care of the younger ones. The littlest boy, I almost tripped over, he did not have a name, no one knew when he was born. He was just handed to the older girl when he was tiny, and the girl was about 7 or 8. She has taken care of him since then, in addition to the other two. She did a pretty good job with nothing, after all, they were all still alive.
We talked with them, or rather Kelen talked with them. The oldest girl who took care of the other three was named Joanne. She was 11 years old at the time. The little boy was named Owen, he was five years old, the little girl was Mercy, she was five also…and the tiny little boy, we would have to guess about him. I told Kelen ‘now that we know they are here, we can’t just leave them here’. We have to do something. She agreed, but first she had to check out the situation and make sure they were orphans. Kelen said when we get back to the house, she will send someone back with some food for them. She would also send out someone to talk to the people in the area to find out more about them.
Kelen told Joanne that we would be back tomorrow with other people to help her little family.
When we got home, Hamlet was there. I was beside myself with wanting to find out about these children. “What could we do?” “ How could we do it” “ 11 year old Joanne had never been to school” Hamlet asked me if I thought I could find sponsors for them. I said “yes, I have already found them a sponsor. Don’t be concerned about a sponsor.” Hamlet called the Head Master of Kirima Primary School down the street. Kellen had her ‘people’ check out the situation and they were indeed, orphans, being taken care of by Joanne. No one else knew anything else about the youngest little boy.
The next morning, we had a small parade go back out to the banana forest. Hamlet & Kellen, the Head Master of Kirima, Sarah, a teacher at Kirima, Agatha, the Nurse Practitioner of our schools, and a wonderful, wonderful woman named Annette, who was the Matron of the girls dormitory, and me. Hiking through the hills, the men were in suits and the women in dresses. We got to the bottom of a hill to go up to the banana forest and Joanne came running out of the forest. She saw our little parade and jumped up and down, smiling and, I’m told, yelling in Rugiga…”they’re here, they’re here!” She laughed and just came running down that hill to greet us.
Well, I just about lost it, I had chills going down my spine and my eyes were absolutely squirting out tears. There are moments in our lives that change us forever. For me, that was the moment I knew I would be involved in this little corner of the world for the rest of my life. We all got back up to the banana forest and the two smaller ones were there in their rags, but smiling at us. The tiny little boy was grinding millet with a stone on another stone. Hamlet spoke to Joanne and asked her if she would like for all of them to go to school and live at Kirima School. Owen and Mercy understood what going on and smiled and looked so excited. The youngest little boy still had not smiled; he did not understand what was happening. He seemed a little scared, especially of me. I was the first white person he had ever seen. Our little parade had grown larger as we all walked out of the banana forest together. We went back to Hamlet and Kelen’s where the first order of business was to give them baths in the back yard. Water was heated on the stove so the baths would be warm. There was still no electricity or plumbing at that time. In Kinkizzi. Their clothes were thrown away. Annette, Agatha and Sarah said this first bath was going to take a while to scrub off years of dirt and neglect to hygiene. So Kelen and I went into to Kanungu town to buy them some new clothes to wear. We needed their feet to buy them shoes but we could not bring them into town like they were. When we got back to the house, the washing, scrubbing and head lice cleaning were still continuing. We gave the teachers the clothes. The teachers had to explain to them about underwear – and that from now on they should always wear underwear. When they were all clean and dressed they were all looking at each other and laughing. They looked Beautiful.
Next was a delicious lunch of bread with honey and peanut butter and sliced pineapple, with warm milk to drink. They were in Heaven. The next stop was directly to the barber shop to have their heads shaved and their heads washed again with a local herb mixture.
Then we went to get shoes. Well, they had never worn shoes at all. Their feet were very skinned up. It looked like the little one had an infected toe. But they tried on the shoes and socks. They were picking up their feet very high to walk, they did not quite know what to think of the shoes and socks. This shoe business was going to take a while to get used to. We went back into Kanungu town to get 4 mattresses, 4 sets of sheets, 4 blankets, 4 mosquito nets, 4 tooth brushes….4 of this and four of that, more underwear, more socks, Etc… I have shopped at Bloomingdales, Harrod’s, trendy shops all over the world….But I have never had as much fun as I did shopping with Kellen and Annett and the four children from the banana forest in Kanungu Town.
We took them to Kirima School, and Annett got them set up with their beds and nets and blankets in the dorms. They had never slept in a bed before. The youngest boy was too little for the boys dorm, so he went in with Annett in her room and stayed with her for the first year or so.
Have you ever had to have your cat or dog de-wormed? Well the next day, Agatha and Annett had to give them some sort of mixture in juice to de-worm the children. It takes a day or two for the medication to work. Annett latter told me that she had never in her life seen so many worms come out of children. They should start putting on weight and their tummies should stop having that ‘blotted’ look very soon.
The next day, we were looking at the little boys infected toe and also Mercy had what looked like an infected bug bite on her head, so we all piled into a car and the driver, Nicholas took us to the Bwindi Hospital, about two hours away. The Hospital was started by a Rotarian Doctor named Dr. Scott Kellerman from Santa Barbara, CA. The youngest little boy sat on my lap. He still had not smiled or laughed toward me. I told Nicholas to tell him he had to decide on a name. I started rattling off every boy’s name I could think of. Dwight, Clark, Bill, William, Robert, James, Jim, Daniel, David, Patrick, Colin. I must of said a hundred names. He did not seem to be impressed with any of them. Then I said the name Joseph. He got a big smile on his face and said ‘Joseph’. I said “ Is that who you are, are you Joseph???” And he said it again, ‘Joseph’. Mark was a close second, so he is Joseph Mark. During the next couple of days while I was there, he started talking and smiling and laughing. And he loved to be called by his name.
It is now 2013, the Joseph Mark, Mercy and Owen are still at Kirima. Joanne is at the high school. They had a lot of catching up to do. But they love school and are learning English. Joanne is quite a student leader at the high school, and she is still always watching over the younger three. When I stay at Kelen’s house in Kanungu, the Kirima School is not far away. In the mornings when they call the children to morning singing to start the day, before class, they are called with drums that can be heard all around the area. I have two favorite sounds now that bring me a peaceful feeling, The Bells of Westwood and the Drums of Kinkizzi.
Things happen for a reason. Now I know why I got called to go on an unexpected trip to Uganda at that point in time. I had to take a walk through a banana forest.
PS: There is an air strip near Kahihi now,with two flights a day from Entebbe. And that Minister of Defense and I have had several more meetings since our first. He is now the Prime Minister of Uganda you see in the picture at the College Graduation.