(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 15, 2017)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ I will miss the light of Africa as much as I will miss anything. I will miss the water too.
This, even as I’ll miss Africa itself, the birthplace of our youngest daughter, the place where the light shines so beautifully on her skin.
Ugandans have beautiful skin, anyway. But put my daughter in water, and the light shimmers especially dramatically, like raindrops in sunshine. It’s a rare occurrence in nature, but maybe more common here where, even in rainy season, the sun’s never far away.
You might remember Hannah from this space. My wife and I had once prayed in our Hamilton kitchen for an African girl to adopt. We’d name her Hannah Laura, to honour my late mother.
Later, at a Ugandan orphanage, a little girl, with a face as sad as this world has ever seen, walked up to us. She looked up and tapped me on the leg. I asked, “So who might this be?”
“This girl,” an orphanage worker said, “is Hannah.”
It was something. Hannah was three. After three years of fostering her in our Ugandan home, two years of uncertainty followed. Ugandan court files were “lost.” Hearings were cancelled. Judges, absent. Travelling across borders, a nerve-wracking nightmare.
Finally, court approval came on, of all days, Hannah’s 8th birthday. What are the odds? (One in 365, I suppose.)
These are the two bookends in Hannah’s story, a good news story from a place with enough hardship. Uganda has two million orphans. Precious few will ever be adopted.
We know little of Hannah’s origins, why her mother left her in hospital at birth. One Christmas we took her some hours to that birthplace to learn more. What we know with greater certainty is that Hannah loves water. In Canada (she’s now a Canadian citizen), she’s skilled at skating on it. And in Uganda, she loves swimming in it.
Ugandans rarely swim. They do, however, readily get baptized. You might arrive at some pool on any day and find an entire gaggle of Ugandan men and women, fully gowned, one-at-a-time, dunked and dripping, leave the water before breaking into some song otherwise reserved for the most striking of African birds.
In some places, such a public display would seem extravagant, if not courageous. Here it’s an interruption. I just wanted to swim my lanes.
Another day I was swimming lanes when a Ugandan girl about Hannah’s age said, “Okay, you swim. I’ll climb on your back. You carry me and I’ll learn.” I knew she was hopelessly mad. There’s a deep end! We’ll drown! But we didn’t. Not any more than any soul carried through the mysterious waters of Easter will drown.
I’m a very average swimmer. I swim because I have a bad back, a certain pain. But swimming, I’ve discovered, clears the head as much as anything. Lucky to live near a pool even when overseas , I calculate that over the years I’ve swam more than 3,000 km. That’s Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake 28 times. And 28 times back.
We’re early risers. It takes an hour to drive the kids to school. When not driving, after running the dog, I’ve often sat on the porch and watched the sunrise and thought about all this: Africa’s light and water, Hannah’s future, what she’ll learn while living in Canada permanently.
This Easter Monday, the plane flies. Our family will fly over the water and through the light towards Canada.
The three children say good-bye to, among other things, their long-time international school. Call it the UN. It’s an exceptional mix of more than 50 nationalities. Bonds of world friendships have been dear. This is what Hannah from Uganda is leaving behind. She’s shed tears. Who wouldn’t?
But we try not to worry because tomorrow, you know, always brings enough worries of its own. The water always seems most threatening before you jump in.
Of course, we’re bringing a few things to our Canadian home. Some keepsakes. Furnishings. Some African art. But our finest treasure is the ebony girl who once had the world’s saddest face. She’s our forever reminder of the gentle people who shimmer in the water.
She’ll go beside us and with us. And we’ll be better for it.