The village kids of Ddegeya and Kotolo come from different backgrounds, yet share a common humanity and youthfulness. Light skinned people are rare in Uganda, and even rarer in small villages, so we’re greeted with a mix of curiosity and caution. “Muzungu!” they often yell, pointing with an outstretched finger. I’ve experimented with different replies, from “Oli Otya!” (Hi! How are you?) to “Ggwe!” (You!). Mostly I try to teach the kids my name, “Brian!” I say, as I point to myself. It’s a joyful thing to hear a chorus of kids enunciate “Bry-ann.”
By kids I mean the children who are not in school. They’re easily distinguished from students by the clothes they’re wearing. Students wear uniforms (all the same color); kids do not. In general, kids who are or in school are younger than 6 years. There are some exceptions, like those who cannot afford school fees, or whose parents have taken them out of school for one reason or another. Some of the kids help with babies, mostly in the form of carrying them and watching them while their parents are in the fields farming (what is called ‘digging’ here). It’s amazing to see a small child taking such care with a baby, and watching the babies cling to their siblings without much support. I think I had previously viewed babies and toddlers as helpless, dependent creatures that cannot support themselves much at all. Clearly a bad assumption.
Whenever we get past the kids’ initial shock and awe over seeing a white person, we also have to get past some initial shyness. Most kids tended to keep their distance at first, preferring to observe. In fact, I commonly experienced a group of kids retreating if I walked towards them. Eventually one or two brave souls would venture out toward us, perhaps spurred on by a soccer ball or frisbee. Once that happens, all walls are torn down.
The kids are very kind and very exuberant. They often say “Hi! How are you?” in English, as they wave and run toward you. If you ask them how they are, “Fine” is the ubiquitous response. They like to have their hand held or to be twirled in the air or to be carried, not unlike kids anywhere else in the world. I was amused by their fist bumps, which here are call “Bonga”. It’s one way to connect with a kid; hold out your fist and say “Bonga!”. They’ll likely bump your fist with theirs, in some cases quite forcefully.
I believe that the kids I met in Ddegeya and Kotolo truly see us as friends. They laugh and run and play soccer or frisbee. They learn our names and goad us on with questions and requests for sweets.
We repay their kindness with kindness and take time from our work to play. It’s fun, but also exhausting. My friend Kevin remarked that:
Little kids are exhausting, no matter what country you have to play with them in.
I got a good laugh out of his comment, which expresses a truism about youth and aging. Nevertheless, I find that the kids here bring out some vitality in me that is generally locked away in reserve. I appreciate that, and won’t soon forget the effect it has on my happiness and well being.