March/April 2009 Trip
As I travel back to Uganda, my mind is on little Gerard. I’ve been hearing mixed reports on his condition and am eager to see him again. His photo hangs on my refrigerator as a constant reminder of his plight – the plight of thousands of nameless children like him. Back in January, he was thrust onto my radar because his condition was critical. He was so severely malnourished that I truly wasn’t sure if he could recover. Yes, Gerard is all I think about as I stare out the window crossing two continents to return to what feels like my second home, Uganda.
Thursday morning I arrived in the Quarter and greeted friends as I walked towards Esther’s home. Although I was anxious to see Gerard, I knew I’d have to wait til the afternoon when he returned from school. I got to Esther’s (Mama Oyet’s) and was welcomed by her wide, generous smile.
Hours quickly passed as we talked. Soon, engaged thoroughly in conversation, I barely noticed little Gerard enter the house. The sun to his back as he came through the doorway, silhouetted him, but his tiny frame easily revealed his identity. I jumped up to give him a hug. His body, still bony thin, but his smile, electric! Under Esther’s care he has started to thrive. His hair is still mostly bleached my malnutrition but rich black hair is starting to grow. Yes, Grace had been right, I had worried too much – Gerard will be just fine.
I opened up a duffel bag, loaded with gifts just for him – an assortment of different sized clothing and shoes, a backpack for school, a pillow, and some toys, including a bright orange plastic dinosaur. I pushed one of the buttons on the dinosaur’s back and it roared into life. Gerard’s eyes wide, he cuddled closer to the wall, creating more distance between him and the battery-operated curiosity. I pushed another button on the scaly back and the dinosaur extended its massive wing-like arms and then, step by step it moved forward closer to Gerard. Gerard squeezed his tiny body closer to the wall, his eyes wide with a mixture of fear and amazement. Soon, I coaxed Gerard from the security of the wall and he was pushing the buttons himself, watching the plastic creature abrupt into life. This toy was certainly a splurge and I know I could have better spent $20, but sometimes, something trivial can offer a pleasant distraction and reprieve from the grind of life in the Quarter.
Friday March 27th
Ducks and hens and the human condition – how can they possibly be related. But disturbingly, I learned today that they are.
I took my time walking around and stopping to hear the news of the people that are the Acholi Quarter. I made my way to Akello Jennifer’s and found her outside preparing corn kernels for her popcorn business. L Jennifer was there too. They will both be hosts to the volunteers who will soon arrive. I told them each a bit about the woman they will host.
Then L Jennifer spoke quiet, serious words to me. She was worried that she could not host a volunteer. Her husband, like too many men in the Quarter, is a drunk and often takes his anger and desperation out on his wife.
Domestic violence is a very real problem in the Quarter, and over the last 24 hours, three very drastic situations have been brought to my attention. Here, L Jennifer sat lamenting that she might not be able to invite the volunteer to her home because of her abusive husband. Horrified, I explained to her that the volunteer being able to visit her home was not at all important, we could easily find another host, but what was important was her safety and well-being. A volunteer is here for only a week, but she must deal with this situation indefinitely.
We talked in depth about the difficulties of separating and divorce in the Acholi culture. It is not in the Acholi custom to separate from your husband, even an abusive one. You are his wife, his property, and you are culturally obligated to remain so. L Jennifer followed the Acholi way, and gathered their parents together to discuss the problem. For about a month, the husband kept his behavior in check. But after a month, it was the same. Drunk, abusive, threatening.
She sat there, trying so hard to keep the floodgate of tears closed that I thought I’d just start crying on her behalf. She continued to explain the cultural rules that would make it impossible to separate. After all, he gave her parents some money, a duck and a hen for her. If they separated, her parents would have to repay the money, the duck and then hen. They could not afford to do so.
Farm animals. Human dignity. How can those words possibly come together in the same thought? Here in the Acholi Quarter, there’s no way out … except perhaps death. There’s no such thing as a safe house. There’s no one to offer protection. And there’s no one to repay the ducks and hens that could free a woman.
As I quietly walked away, I realized there’s a whole new situation that desperately needs to be addressed. One day … maybe.
I found Esther and she took me to visit one of our members who has been sick of TB. Although she’s been taking medication, she’s been too weak to work in the stone quarry, so she has had no money to buy food. Without food, the medicine is virtually ineffective. She is weak. She is hopeless.
I had hoped to initiate two new programs for the children during this trip, a football (soccer) league and traditional dance classes. These programs will have to wait.
Saturday March 28th
The last Saturday of each month, it’s ninga for Project Have Hope – a huge party funded by Project Have Hope in which two of the members are “brides” and receive gifts from family, and friends and from Project Have Hope. I’m rarely here the last Saturday of the month, so it’s fun to be here today and enjoy the festivities.
The women dressed in their finest, with their hair styled at the salon, looked beautiful. Electricity is wired in from the nearby LC’s house kicking in the generator. The music blared and the women danced. At 11pm, the party was only in its early stages, but my eyes were beginning to close. I tried to quietly depart so I wouldn’t disturb the party, but it’s nearly impossible to move without being noticed. Grace got up and offered to walk me down to the main road and wait for a boda boda. I declined and told her to enjoy the party. Besides, at the bottom of the hill, just beyond the Acholi Qarter, there is a boda-boda stand where the drivers all know me. I wasn’t too worried about getting a ride.
I walked down the hill with a sureness that comes from knowing every step, even in darkness. As I got to the road, a boda boda pulled up – not one of my guys. I sent him away and figured I’d walk on and find one of the guys I know. Although I’ve always felt safe here, there’s no need to be foolish – it’s late, the roads are nearly empty, and I’m wearing a fancy dress given to me by the ladies – spaghetti straps and a slit up the leg – no need to look for trouble. I keep walking. No boda bodas in sight. I keep walking. I’m reaching the curve in the road after which all activities usually quiet. I know it’ll be unlikely to find a ride once I reach that point. I consider turning back and waiting along a busier section of the road for a boda boda. I consider just walking to the Red Chili – my accommodations, about 2.5 miles ahead. Before I can make a decision, a boda boda pulls up. “Miss Karen, you are back!” I smile, greet my friend and hop on. I grin the entire way to the Red Chili. This is really home.
Monday March 30th
Today was an unexpectedly quiet day. Several planned appointments got changed, so I took my time checking in with some of my key contacts outside of the Quarter – the people who offer guidance on the “African way.” One such person is Alex, the director and founder of Creamland School – an amazing man.
We spoke for awhile about many things – life, his school, Project Have Hope. Like so many Ugandans, he offered advice on the work I try to do. After he advised me, he spoke seriously and from the heart. “Thank you for trying your level best to be a good human being.” The words stuck to me. What would the world be like if we all tried our level best to be good human beings?
Monday April 13th
Another eventful trip has ended. Like always, a fistful of new individual problems emerged – several severe cases of domestic violence, debilitating sicknesses, the need for critical surgeries – the usual, really. I spent every last penny budgeted and then threw in $600 of my own money.
It is easy, too easy, to level complaints, to feel that you deserve more. This is all too common everywhere – in Uganda, in the States, in life. It is easy to criticize. It’s not easy to dedicate yourself to helping raise up a community. It's not just a one day or a one week commitment. It is not easy to achieve the amazing success Project Have Hope has achieved in just a little more then three years, with a ridiculously small budget, and an even smaller crew of unpaid dedicated people making it all happen. It is not easy. And seldom are people thankful for the daily work that makes it all possible. Criticism is much easier.
But the smile on Gerard’s face, now well-fed, the handshake from George and thanks for enrolling his daughter in school, the midnight dance party with all the women who have grown dear to me, as sisters, as mothers, as friends - this is what will always keep me going. I may not be able to do enough to please everyone on either side of the ocean, but I’ll be able to sleep well knowing that there was no life threatening case that we did not try to remedy. There was no Rose that I walked away from. There are still many problems, too many problems and too many needs and illnesses that need to be attended to, but I take comfort in Alex’s words. I know that I’ve done my level best to be a good human being. I will sleep well tonight.