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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Uganda

The Orphanage
Aram Mclean

I smelled it in the air, a distant yet vaguely familiar scent that called to me as much as it repulsed me. The compound was full of children, dark skinned and beautiful, orphans every one yet happy to be in school - to be given any small chance in life.

In direct contrast the nearby village with its painted red-X’s across countless front doors, the family within no more, victim to the ongoing AIDS epidemic, did not inspire much hope. Most of the children were here because their parents had succumbed to the virus.
"Do you smell that?" I asked my girlfriend Kristi. She turned from where she danced beside one of the older boys. His smile faltered a bit at my interruption of his killer moves. He took a drink from his red cup while Kristi came over to me, and then turned to dance with his friends again.
"What?" Kristi leaned closer to hear me over the group of kids that drummed a funky rhythm for the dancing masses.
"Do you smell that, in the air, kind of like gasoline or something?"

Kristi looked around the gated compound at the many children scattered about it. Her former dancing partner waved to her from the gathered group of boys around him. They all held red cups.
"Um…well…I’m not sure but…maybe something…"

A six-year-old boy who weighed no more than 40 pounds spun past us and careened into the floor. He shakily gained his knees then puked all over his hands. Before we could even think about reacting one of the orphanages’ ‘mothers’ swung him up into her arms and carried him away to one of the ‘toilets’ – a wooden cubicle with a hole in the floor.
The music grew more manic and children spun wilder.

"Seriously Kristi," I watched the boys get bolder with the girls, grasping and tugging, pulling moves against the pounding percussion. "I know this is Uganda and all, and well, of course they do things differently here, but…"
"The kids are all completely smashed." Kristi finished my thought for me.
"That smell, ya, it’s like bloody moonshine." I slapped my head. "What is that you’re drinking?" I asked a nearby kid.
He smiled to be spoken to. "We make it," He grinned even larger, "From the potato. You try?"
I almost choked on the smallest sip. An eight-year-old hit the ground near my feet and was swiftly scooped up by another vigilant staff ‘mother’.
"Well," Kristi looked at me, "I guess you can’t really blame them for needing a little escape, every now and then."
"No doubt," I watched the ongoing shrieks of laughter mixed with wee bodies dropping, "Too much for me though."
"Ya," My girlfriend agreed. "I’m pretty tired."

We watched the children drink themselves into their temporary reprieve from a harsh life for a moment longer. Then we moved towards the gate, snuck through it quietly, and after securing the little ones again behind it, went to our separate cabin and an exhausted sleep.

The next day our first job as volunteers was to help clean up the mess. The children’s smiles remained large as they worked, the urge to sing and dance unabated, and they all managed to look more awake than me.

© Aram Mclean Feb 2009>

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