When Duke rower Caroline Kiritsy finally left Uganda last summer as part of the DukeEngage program, the village of Kaihura didn't look much different. She didn't help construct a medical center, plant crops or dig a well. She came armed with little more than markers and paper, but during a two-month span made a lasting impact on the lives of nearly 80 orphans who have seen more hardships in their short lifespans than most people can imagine.
"We didn't really have a tangible goal," Kiritsy said. "We weren't building a bridge or constructing a well or anything like that, which at first I found a little challenging because I'm also an engineer and I'm very results-oriented. I like to see the effects of what I'm doing, so that was challenging at first because I didn't feel like I was having a huge impact."
Even now, months removed from her time in Uganda, Kiritsy still can't quantify the impact that she and 14 other Duke students made in the HIV-stricken community of Kaihura, which is about 45 minutes from the city of Fort Portal but worlds away from the electricity and running water that those in the city enjoy. But even though Kiritsy has no numbers to back it up, she has no doubt that she made an impact on the residents of that small village in Kaihura, Uganda.
"I was working with about 30 orphans, many of which have HIV," Kiritsy said. "They don't have a lot to smile about or to be happy about. Just to play with them and see them smile, that was very rewarding in the end."
coxswain that directed Duke's top varsity eight to wins at the Dale England Cup and the Dad Vail Regatta, as well as a third-place finish at the ACC Championships last season, Kiritsy volunteered in an orphanage that is one of three major components of the community-based, faith-driven "Bringing Hope to the Family" program. The outreach program, which began in 2000 and with which DukeEngage partnered last summer, runs an orphanage, primary school and a medical clinic for the residents of Kaihura, in Western Uganda. Since its inception, Bringing Hope to the Family has provided for over 1,500 orphans and other vulnerable children (OVCs). While members of Kiritsy's DukeEngage troop split up to work in the medical clinic, the village's agricultural fields or on the construction of a new building, Kiritsy volunteered at the orphanage where she worked with children who suffered from a list of ailments including broken bones, malaria and severe malnourishment.
Kiritsy is a coxswain for the Duke rowing team, meaning she doesn't use an oar but plays the crucial role of steering the boat and keeping the other eight rowers in sync and motivated. In Uganda, however, her leader mentality took a back seat. Instead, she became a follower of the veteran house mothers at HomeAgain - Eva and Juliet - following their lead in washing laundry by hand, general housework and playing with the children. During her two-month stay, she became fully immersed in the back-breaking labor that the women of Kaihura undertake every day to ensure that the orphans of HomeAgain have a safe, clean environment to grow in and flourish.
"We washed floors, made beds, just tried to lighten the load of the house mothers that work there and take care of kids for those two months," she said. "It was lots of playing, entertaining and house work."
The HomeAgain Orphanage currently houses over 70 children, some of which have been HIV positive their entire lives. A number were malnourished and on the brink of starvation when they arrived at the home. Some were carried distances of up to 25 kilometers to reach HomeAgain. It's up to the two main house mothers at the orphanage to take care of the children and the facility. Kiritsy couldn't keep track of how many dishes she washed and re-washed, how many hours she stood at the laundry basin or how many times she scrubbed the floor despite a sore back and aching wrists and fingers, but it was all she could do to just keep up with the other women of the village who carry out the same tasks daily.
Complicating matters was a significant language barrier. The residents of Kaihura speak a localized dialect called Rutooro. Before the trip, Kiritsy learned to say a few phrases such as "please" (chalie) and "thank you" (webale), but was otherwise unable to speak to the non-English speaking residents. Thankfully, some of the educated villagers knew basic English and helped Kiritsy and her fellow Duke travelers in understanding the other adults and children. Additionally, prior to their departure for Uganda, Kiritsy and her fellow DukeEngage participants learned a card game called Barnga which prohibits verbal communication and instead relies on hand gestures and other methods of interaction.
"A lot of the educated adults in Kaihura speak English pretty well, so we learned a little bit [of Rutooro], but just enough to get by," she said. "Hello, how are you, and that's about it, but the children don't speak any English. It was just about finding games and finding ways to entertain them. A lot of times they'd look at us and speak in Rutooro, and we would just kind of have to smile and nod. I would speak back to them in English, and they'd have no idea what I was saying."
One English word that the orphans picked up on was "tomorrow," as in, "Will you be back tomorrow?" Kiritsy wrote a blog during her trip and mentioned in a post that her "favorite part of the day is saying, 'yes, see you tomorrow!' So many people have come in and out of these children's lives, and while I know that my stay here is not permanent, seeing their smiles every day for 2 months is going to be the best part of being here."
For as much of an impact that Kiritsy made on the residents and orphans of Kaihura, the villagers had just as big of an effect on her. She and her fellow Duke students worked and lived by what they came to call "Africa Time," which is essentially no time at all. They had no classes to attend, no meetings to show up for and no marathon training sessions on Duke rowing's home water at Lake Michie; only the children to take care of and people to meet.
"The value that they put on relationships and the time they spend with people...they don't have distractions like internet and things like that," she said. "Their time is not important to them in the sense that they just want to spend it with other people. If that means spending two hours with someone when you say you're only going to spend one hour with them, that's fine.
"It's hard at Duke because our time is not our own here, and you're constantly on a schedule and every second of your day is planned, but I'm trying my hardest here to value the time I spend with others and make the most of my relationships. I think that's my biggest takeaway, for sure."
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