Just Giving

It’s Christmas 1997, I’m hitching a lift in the back of a truck, up the steep sides of Mt Elgon. My first day in Uganda and I’m wrapped like a mummy up to the eyeballs, the thin red dust filters through every pore- I imagine as I blink, tiny pockets of it are storing themselves behind my eye sockets and soon I will have developed the bulged eye look of the black bodies compressed against me. Ah, Uganda.

I’m feeling like a pioneer, like I’m the only one ever to do this and when the other boggle eyed mummies gesture me to jump out, I’m pretty sure I am. Just standing there in the scrub, as the dust settles around me like fading mist, having flashbacks of the Aussie Outback, when the softest face I’ve ever seen appears, a silhouette hardening into form in the beauty.
The dust settles.

Quietly spoken, he introduces himself as Moses, he has a campsite by the falls, if I’d like to see it. I follow him a few kilometres to the crescent shaped escarpment edge, stretching away forever. The 170metre falls to my right and the plateau below, stretched til it fell off the edge of the world.

In my thatch hut, I unwrap the layers to reveal a girl with red mask of zorro, and red hair, this morning I was blonde! Moses is cooking rice for me.

The sun is sinking, I can hear English sounding voices and think it’s amazing the tricks the mind can play I’ve been alone a while now, in that desperate peace I must be pulling voices from my past. They are getting stronger, closer, growing. Am I going nuts?

When I emerge, the voices are attached to moving shadows, there are too many for it to be schizophrenia, and they’re separate from me, so no multiple personality disorder. They are real, there are 18 of them, teenage gap year students, moving and chattering as I approach. My ‘pioneer of solitude feeling’ folds itself up and puts itself back on the bookshelf.

They are as surprised to see me as I am to see them and we share our ‘how we got here’ stories. At first it’s travel talk in the last light, but as their faces fade, the story grows.

They are AVs Africa Ventures, gap year students who have saved their pennies in part time jobs to devote themselves to 3 months teaching in Uganda. Each weekend they get together on an adventure and I was lucky enough to meet them on this one. They stay in pairs in each school, around the country. At 23 years old, I find these kids the most intelligent, motivated and ambitious carers the earth has ever seen. After 5 hours with them I decide to look forward to the future if these guys are running it, because the everything will be alright.

I’ve just been given the greatest gift of all, friendship. What a Christmas! And Moses tops it off with some dinner and allows us to be guests at the Circumcision Ceremony as the 8-12 year olds become men.

We watch the spectacle with a cringe for their pain, a wonder at their strength, with the healthy respect of travellers. We have no opinion, only awe. This is what we’re here for. The differences.

The night winds around my heart to take a strong place and never leave me.

I spent the rest of my months in Uganda, before the long rains came, visiting each school that they taught at, staying up to a week, forging deep friendships and respect.

Three years later I took a work visa in England to turn up at their 21st birthdays as a surprise, and my presence brought as many tears and moments back for them as it did for me. What loyalty, what friendships our Christmas of ’97 brought to us.

They have all gone on in their chosen fields to change the world, Lou works with gorillas as the new Jane Goodall for those jungle kings. As we had only missed the Bwindi disaster by a day, I find her the bravest.

Shelley and her husband run a counselling service and hostel in Swansea, Wales, for troubled youth. Mel is the leading female genetic scientist for Auto Immune disorders.

Alice and Hannah work for Charities. The others who have lost touch, are still touching their dreams.

But then there is Dave, David Cornthwaite was the most vibrant, energetic and beautiful motivator, the one that stands out as one in a billion, and he rolls toward us now.

He has conquered the Emerald Isle on his longboard, and from Perth to Melbourne (including being hit by a car on the Nullarbor Plain.) Dave is raising thousands for charities as he heads towards us, so this Christmas, 9 years after our first meeting on the Holy Mountain- one of the AV’s heads toward me on his long board, still just giving.

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