xmlns:og>='http://ogp.me/ns#'> Pedals & Pencils: August 2013

August 27, 2013

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: A Gift From Oregon, Part 2

Denis at his new school
While in Uganda I got to spend a lot of time with Denis riding on the back of his boda and visiting his village, Bungatira.  He became my closest Ugandan friend which meant I got to see him when he was happy, when he was annoyed with me (which was hilarious), when he was grateful, when he was inspired and when he was sad, but I'd never seen his nervous side.

That is, I'd never seen his nervous side until the day we went to his new school.

I'd heard about his plans to return to school for weeks on end, heard all the questions he was going to ask the admissions counselor, heard him vacillate back and forth between studying to become a doctor or a teacher.  School was all he could talk about since the day he picked up his new pigs courtesy of my friends, Julie and Clark.  This talk was kicked into high gear when Jenna and her posse of Oregon Vigilantes, bequeathed Denis enough money to return to school that very term while his pigs matured enough to breed and sell for the next term's fees.

All his talk of returning to school was endearing.  There aren't free public schools in Uganda.  Only the well off get to send their children to school.  That sentence catches like rocks in my throat each time I write or speak it.  Denis' parents had done their best to raise and sell crops so he could attend school, but the money ran out before the third term of his Senior Three year, the equivalent of the third term of his sophomore year in high school.

Denis is 27.

And he was on his face desperate to return to school.

Can you imagine returning to your high school courses at the age of 27?  Neither can I.  Friends, that takes moxie I simply don't have.

Denis completed the form and we left the school under a drizzling sky that couldn't begin to dampen my mood.  I snapped a final photo of Denis standing outside the doorway, his school name emblazoned above the door.

So Denis had every right to be nervous and as he pulled the boda onto the school compound, he was quiet.  I had my camera at the ready, knowing that he might be too nervous to remember the details of the day, but that it was a day so worthy of remembering.  We entered the modest handmade brick building that serves as the office.  The administrator was working inside and she welcomed us as we entered.  We sat in front of her desk and to my surprise, Denis asked her none of the questions he'd mentioned to me on the boda.  He sat quietly in the chair and twisted his hands, fidgeting and barely making eye contact.  I began to ask questions on his behalf, voicing all the things he'd wondered aloud on our daily rides.  The administrator gave Denis the registration form and he fumbled with it, his hands visibly shaking.

"Denis, relax.  This is a good thing.  You get to go back to school," I covered his hands with my own.  "Just relax.  Why don't you fill out the form while we're here and if you want me to look it over, I'm happy to do that."

"Yes.  I'll fill it out right now," Denis removed a pen from his pocket.  I watched as he wrote every word and letter with precise care.  I talked to the administrator while Denis filled the form out and I was delighted to find out that the administrator was once a primary teacher.  I shared with her that I'm a primary teacher in the U.S. and we had a lovely chat.

"Alicia, will you take a look?"  Denis passed me his registration form.  I scanned the facts of his life.  His age.  His family name.  His tribe.  His birthdate.  The name of his last school.  So much information about my friend and at the same time so very little.

"Looks good, Denis, but you have to fill out the back as well," I said quietly turning the paper over and passing it back to him.

"The back?"  If it were physically possible, I think Denis would've blushed.  He took the paper and read the backside, carefully filling in more spaces.

"Are you his sponsor?" the administrator asked me.

"No, I'm his friend."

"His friend?"

"Yes, he's my boda driver and we've become friends."  I smiled at Denis and snapped his photo as he filled out the registration paper.

"Can I put your name here?"  Denis pointed to a place on the form for names of people likely to visit him at school.  He'd listed his mother and one of his brothers.  There was one more line.

"Definitely.  I'd love to visit you at school when I return."  Denis wrote my name.  The form also asked for the relationship.  Denis penned the words 'best friend'.  I smiled knowing I was in good company with his best friend J.B. and his other best friend, my oldest son, William.

A couple of days later he returned to school with the requisite passport sized photo and his enrollment fee, courtesy of my beloved Oregon Vigilantes.

In one of our many conversations, Denis asked if I would return to Uganda for his graduation.  "You will sit next to my mom and wear a Gomesi."

"I'd like that."

"To wear a Gomesi?"

"To see you graduate."

On my last evening in Uganda, I sat in a hotel room near the airport and all the way across the country from my loved ones in Gulu.  My phone rang and on the other end was Denis calling to tell me he'd used some of the money from the Oregon Vigilantes to sign up for additional tutoring before the term started and also to buy books and a school uniform, the requisite attire for all schools in Uganda.

The new term begins in a matter of days and after years of waiting and working and praying and hoping for a second chance to go to school, my dear friend Denis is a student once again.  And it's all because some recklessly kind Oregon Vigilantes saw Denis' potential from halfway around the world and decided to do something about it.

August 26, 2013

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: A Gift From Oregon, Part 1

"They came back to Bungatira after I took you home," Denis sits across the cafe table from me with his hands folded.

"They did?"  Nerves bounce in my stomach and I think a familiar mantra. Walk into the conflict.  "Denis, I really didn't mean to offend anyone.  In my spirit, I couldn't agree with your original Constitution.  I just couldn't."

"I know and I'm sorry for causing you pain," Denis apologizes for what is the fourth or fifth time and he is so sincere that I have to look away before my tears spill over.  "But they came back to assure me that they really will change, that we will accept people with mental sicknesses.  We will change.  I promise."

"They really walked back to Bungatira in the dark to tell you that?" I'm incredulous.

"Yes.  And I promise we will change," Denis holds my gaze.

"I believe you.  It's actually why I wanted to meet with you today.  I have good news for you and for Bungatira."

"I already have pigs.  What other good news could there be?" he laughs.

"You know how my friends and family have been sending money for me to do kind things here?"

"Yes," Denis nods.  He knows better than anyone because he's helped me haul pigs and shoes and mattresses and medicine and a wild assortment of other things.

"This is my friend Jenna," I show Denis a photo of her on my iPad.  "Jenna and her friends in Oregon sent over a large sum of money, so large that Jenna and I weren't exactly sure what to do with it.  So we've been praying about how to best use this money.  You know that some of my loved ones have mental illnesses, but what you don't know is that Jenna's son, who was a soldier in Afghanistan, has returned home from war and has also been struggling with post traumatic stress.  Here he is with his newborn son," I flick to a new photo on the iPad.

"I'm sorry," Denis' forehead is creased with worry.

"Jenna tells me that fatherhood is helping him return to himself, helping him remember who he's called to be.  Denis, I wrote about my difficult day in Bungatira and when Jenna read that you'd changed your Constitution to include people with mental illnesses, she immediately messaged me to give the money to you and to Bungatira.  Jenna and her friends are giving you this money so that you don't have to wait for your pigs to mature in order to return to school."

I open my travel notebook to the page where I've scrawled 250,000 shillings, the equivalent of $100.  It's enough to pay for schooling for the upcoming trimester as well as part of the next trimester.  On a good day driving his boda Denis makes approximately $6, not enough to live off, let alone pay for school.  I take the shillings out of my purse and slide them across the table to him.  He counts them in disbelief.

"Thank you, Alicia.  This is all because of you."  Denis comes around to my side of the table to hug me.

"Denis, I need you to hear me when I say this.  It's not because of me.  It's because of the changes you and the group in Bungatira are making.  You've inspired Jenna to support what you're doing here.  It's because of you, not me.  I'm just the one who gets to deliver the message."

"Now you listen to me, Alicia," Denis jokingly wags his finger at me.  "You're delivering the message and your message is hope." By this time, tears are welling in Denis' eyes and flat out dripping down my own cheeks.  He continues.  "My family told me to go to a trade school to become a boda mechanic, but I kept telling them that I wanted to go back to school and get my degree, that I want to me more than a mechanic."

"And now you can.  Denis, you get to go back to school."  We're both smiling and blinking back tears.  "You get to be a student again."

"Will you go with me to register for school?" Denis grins from ear to ear and I do, too.  He's 27 and he'll be returning to what is the equivalent of third trimester of his sophomore year in high school.

"It will be my pleasure." I use a napkin to wipe my eyes.

"I might become a doctor instead of a teacher," Denis dreams out loud.

"I think that would be great.  Doctors are teachers, too, you know."  We sit for a moment with that dream between us on the table.  "But wait, Denis, I have more good news.  Jenna and her friends sent money for Bungatira so your group could start up the savings and loan program you've been talking about.  People in Bungatira will be able to take out loans to send their kids to school.  Here's how much Jenna and her friends want to give your community group.  I slide the notebook over again and point at the number I've written.  640,000 shillings, approximately $250 dollars.

Denis is out of his chair again and we're hugging and laughing and crying and making a complete scene in the cafe.

"I know my last visit to Bungatira wasn't easy for, well, anyone, but I'd like to return and tell the group about Jenna and her son and tell them that the changes they're making are inspiring people halfway across the world.  The other thing I'd like to do is return next year and see all the good Bungatira is doing with the money.  Is that okay?"  I'm hesitant about asking to return.

"Of couse, it's okay.  You're ever welcome in Bungatira," Denis smiles and then pauses.  "Alicia, where are you from?"

"Denis, you know I'm from California," I laugh because this is a fact he's known for over a year.

"No, I mean where did you come from?"

"Sorry, I don't understand the question."  I'm lost in translation a LOT in Uganda.

"I mean, I don't think you were born.  I think you were sent."

"What?  Denis, trust me, I was born.  I weighed nine pounds, one ounce.  I was definitely born.  Just ask my mom."

"Alicia, trust me, your mom would say you were sent."

"Denis, you give me too much credit.  This is because of you, not because of me."

"And you don't give yourself enough credit, Hero Lanyero."

I blush at my name, one I'll forever try to live up to.  I quickly change the subject.  "You'll talk with the group in Bungatira and let me know when I can return and present the money to them?"

"Yes, we'll go on Sunday.  I'll ask the local dance group to come and perform traditional dances as well."

"I'd like that.  I haven't seen any traditional dances yet."

"And tomorrow we'll go to my school so I can register."

"I'd like that even more."  My cheeks ache from smiling, but I can't help smiling at my friend who gets to go back to school. I can't help but smile for my sweet friend, Jenna, and her fellow Vigilantes of Kindness who have made this possible.

Denis leaves me alone in the cafe and I sit thinking about how blessed I am to return to this land and to this people I love so dearly.  My mom can verify that all nine pounds, one ounce of me was born in California, but sitting in my favorite cafe in Gulu, I know with every beat of my heart that this-this beautiful work of being kind for the sake of kindness-this is why I was born.

August 16, 2013

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Ivan's Paintings

"Alicia, will you buy one of my paintings?" Ivan chuckles. He laughs like the cartoon character Goofy and I giggle each time I hear his laugh. "I need to earn some money to buy school supplies and some more art supplies."

I love this kid for wanting to earn money instead of asking for a handout.

Ivan is one of my favorite kids from this year. A few years ago Ivan and his younger sister were taken in by an American couple. Ivan didn't have a father in his life and after a tragic accident his mother was left mentally disabled and unable to care for her children. She now lives in a care facility in another part of Uganda. Ivan calls the American couple his parents. When his parents had to return to the U.S., they left Ivan and his sister with a house to live in. His parents send money for the house, for bills, for food and for schooling. Ivan keeps a detailed account of the expenses and he reports it back to his parents every month. Any extra things Ivan needs, he pays for himself by selling paintings out of the art studio at his house. When Ivan and his sister finish school here, they will join their parents in the U.S., where Ivan hopes to attend a university and major in art.

"I'd love to buy a painting, Ivan. Do you have them here?" It matters little to me if his paintings are any good.

"No, but I'll get them from town and show them to you. I've got four finished paintings, but I want to give one to the Vice President of our school when he visits."

He brings the paintings to school and we go behind one of the classrooms where he lays them out on the ground. They're good.  I immediately know exactly which one I'm going to buy for myself. It's a small painting of the word LOVE with Africa in place of the O.

LOVE by Leku Ivan
What Ivan doesn't know is that I'm using Vigilante money to buy the other two remaining paintings.

I pick up the LOVE painting and the two other paintings. "I'll buy these three, Ivan."

"Three? Really?" His Goofy chuckle rolls up from his belly.

"Yes, three. How much do I pay?"

"Anything is fine."

"Ivan, I want to support the work you're doing as an artist. So think of a price that's fair for both of us and that's what I'll pay."

Ivan takes a few minutes to think. "Is 200,000 shillings okay?" I do some quick converting in my head. He's asking for roughly eighty American dollars. I pull shillings out of my wallet for the smaller painting and use Vigilante shillings for the other two paintings. We shake hands and both of us leave feeling like we got the better deal.

In even more exciting news, after seeing my LOVE painting another friend in Africa is commissioning Ivan to paint a similar one for her. My sister is also going to help Ivan make and sell prints of his paintings. Again, one small act of Vigilante Kindness snowballed into something even greater.

When I bought Ivan's other two paintings I honestly didn't know what I was going to do with them. I just knew that I wanted to support Ivan and his budding art career. Later in my hotel room as I spread the paintings out on my bed, an idea came to me: I'd give them away to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness. The only problem-and it's an incredibly good problem-is that I only have two paintings and I've got way more than two Vigilante donors.

The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting.  One is a vertical tree painting.  The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I'll take better photos when I get home.
Ivan's impromptu gallery
The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting. One is a vertical tree painting. The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I'll take better photos when I get home.

So here's how it's going to work, for every dollar you donated, you'll get a ticket in the drawing. So if you donated $20, you'll have 20 tickets in the drawing. If you donated $200, then your name will be on 200 tickets and so forth. I'll do the drawing on September 30th. That will give me time to take photos for making prints.

This is also good news for those of you who wanted to be Vigilantes of Kindness, but weren't able to because you offered to donate when I was already making my way back home. You can make a donation and be entered in the drawing as well. (Message me for details on how to donate.) Any new donations will go toward my return trip next year and the Vigilante Acts of Kindness that are yet to come.

I'm absolutely giddy at the mere thought of returning to the land I love and exacting more kindness for the sake of being kind. I look at Ivan's LOVE painting and wonder just what's going to happen next in my love story-our love story-for Uganda.

August 14, 2013

Magnificently Ordinary Vigilante Acts of Kindness

Sometimes committing Vigilante Acts of Kindness in Gulu involved really glamorous things, the kinds of things that look good in photos, like buying shiny new shoes for 30 kids or wrestling a manure filled sack of piglets on the back of a boda. Like I said, really glamorous stuff.

Other times, the Vigilante Acts of Kindness were magnificently ordinary. Basic needs that were met because I didn't have my own agenda and instead took time to ask, "What do you need and how can I help?"

I spent an entire day in Gulu town with the head teacher JB and my trusty sidekick, Denis, making sure some of those basic needs were met.

The first item on our list was to buy fencing materials. The boys dorm on campus backs up to a road and JB had been losing sleep at night because the road provided the perfect opening for trespassers, of both the animal and human type, to enter campus.

"So let's go buy a fence, JB," I shrugged.

"It will be expensive and we will have to rent a truck to transport the materials."

"I think I've got enough donations, but write down your estimate and let me make sure."

After a few quick calculations, JB shows me a number. It's sizable, roughly one hundred fifty American dollars, a small fortune here in Uganda.

"That's no problem."

"I didn't include the truck," he scrawls another number and shows it to me. A truck rental will be 40,000 shillings, or roughly sixteen American dollars.

Buying a fence with JB
"That's fine, JB. What else does the school need?"

"I still have many textbooks that we need for the library."

"Let's get those while we're in town and you can throw them in the truck, too."

"Are you sure you've got the money?"

We purchased over 50 textbooks.
We purchased a total of over 50 textbooks.
"Yes, and I'm running out of time to spend it. What else does the school need?"

"Well, the primary kids need readers and some workbooks. And teachers need pencils, pencil sharpeners, markers and chart paper." JB waits for me to say no, but with a wad of Vigilante shillings stuffed in my purse, my mouth is full of yes.

School supply shopping is so much more fun on a motorcycle.
School supply shopping is so much more fun on a boda.
"Good. Let's get that stuff while we're in town and toss it in the truck, too. I know the students need ringworm cream, so I'm going to go talk to Mama (the dorm mom) and see what other medicines she's short on."

Mama is all smiles when I ask her to make me a list. She doesn't hold back and I love her for being so candid about the needs of the students.

On the day we hit town to pick up all these things, I love Mama even more for adding yeast infection kits to her list. Watching Denis turn thirty shades of red while he translated that one to the pharmacist was worth ever shilling!

How do you say 'yeast infection' in Acholi?
How do you say 'yeast infection' in Acholi?
On my last day at the school, Mama found me and invited me into her living quarters at the far end of one of the girls dorms.

"Hi, Mama. Itye maber? (How are you?)" I sit in the plastic chair she's brought out for me.

"I'm fine. Thank you for buying medicine for the students. Five girls have already made use of the feminine medicines." She sits down across from me.

"Mama, you already thanked me. Three times. I'm glad the medicine is helping." I pat her hand.

"You're different, Alicia."

I don't really know how to take that one. Different like the kid who eats paste kind of different? Sometimes compliments here are hard to swallow, like how being called fat is a good thing because it symbolizes wealth.

"You're different than other muzungus who come here. You asked what we need and then you took action."

"Thanks, Mama. It's a lesson I'm still learning with lots of help from the people at home." I look down at my hands.

Mama's right, I am different. I'm different than the person I was when I arrived. I've tried to heed Ernesto Sirolli's wonderful, if not eloquent, advice to ask what people need and then shut up and do it. No more planting tomatoes for hippos.

"Greet the people at home and tell them thank you for me," Mama hugs me tight. She's soft and I see why the kids have such deep love for her.

"I will, Mama."

I leave campus that day knowing that I'm leaving my kids in good hands. I'm leaving them in Mama's hands, hands that daily commit magnificently ordinary acts of kindness without fanfare, fuss or recognition.

Beautiful, soft Mama

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: The Secrets We Keep

"I found out a secret about you today," I smile and tease.

The boy's face drains of color. I've forgotten that I'm in a land where secrets are buried deep in the blood stained soil, where secrets are nightmarish memories to be escaped in the waking hours.

I feel my face redden at my thoughtless blunder. "It's a good secret. I found out that your friend is a waiter at my favorite cafe in Gulu town. See?" I hold up my iPad. "He sent you a video." I press play and the friend's face comes to life.

He finds me again later that same day. "Alicia, I need to talk with you privately."

"Okay." I search his face, but I don't recognize this expression. Fear? Shame? Worry? I can't break the code. "Do you want to talk now?"


"Tomorrow then."

Tomorrow arrives and admittedly, I've forgotten about the private conversation we need to have. I speak with him every day, mostly in relative privacy, so his request hasn't taken root in my memory. I see him and wave, greeting him in my laughable Acholi.

He does not greet me in return. "Can we talk now?" He doesn't wait for my response. Instead he guides me by the elbow into an empty room where we sit side by side.

"I have to tell you a sad story about myself. I want you to be prepared." He is serious.

I've heard lines like this my entire trip. The stories here are all sad and the stories always end with a request for money. The stories are often elaborations of the truth, hungry attempts to escape poverty via pity. I take a deep breath and formulate how exactly I'm going to say no this time. It is a jaded side of myself, one I need here and one I simultaneously loathe.

"When I was younger, there came a day when I was playing with a certain friend near a mango tree. That friend climbed the mango tree and fell out of it, breaking both of his arms."


"There was blood everywhere and so I picked him up and carried him to get help."

"That sounds like you."

"I lost track of this certain friend until he called me sometime ago to tell me he is HIV positive and that I'd better get tested as well."

"Did you?"


"Are you HIV positive?"

His eyes are downcast and when he raises them, I know the answer before he says it. He swallows hard. "Yes. And I'm starting to have many pains and sicknesses."

"I'm so sorry," I put my hand on his back.

"I've known for some time now. I wanted you to know because I've not been doing well and you're leaving soon and if I'm not," he pauses, "if I'm not here when you return, I wanted you to know why."

I don't know what to say. Or do. Sorrow rises in a wave of heat from my stomach and it's all I can do not to vomit. "You're sure? I mean, you had a second test to confirm?"

He nods. "And a third."

"What does your family think? Are they helping you get treatment?"

"They don't know."

"Why not?"

"If I tell them, I'll be excommunicated from my clan and won't be able to go to school."

I find myself wishing to God that he's lying about the HIV and about his family. He's not. "What are you going to do?"

"Live out the rest of my life." He looks at his hands.

"Are you afraid?"

"Afraid of HIV? No, I already have it so fearing is of no use. I fear dying before I get to fulfill my dreams. Do you fear HIV?"

"Yes," the word catches in my throat and I choke on the painful truth of it.

"Do you fear me?" He looks out a window.

"No." It's an easy answer. "No, I don't, but I, too, fear you dying before you fulfill your dreams. I really want you to consider treatment."

"Treatment is expensive and my test records were lost in a storm that took the roof off the hospital."

"You need to get tested again."

"I can't pay for the test."

"I've got that covered."

"Will you go with me?" His voice is small, scared.


"And then what?" He clears his throat and blinks. I pretend not to notice the sheen in his eyes. He hopes I have a plan. I don't.

"After we get the results, we'll have to figure something out. I don't really know what." The truth feels paltry here, but I can't make empty promises. We make arrangements to meet at the hospital Friday morning.

That day on the ride home, I cry and cry on the back of Denis' boda. Denis is quiet and just lets me cry. I think of the boy and all the things I love about him. He is honest to a fault and loyal down through the marrow of his bones. The other day I watched him raise the flag and back away in reverence. I love this boy and the thought of HIV running rampant inside him is more than I can take. I catch a glimpse of myself in Denis' rearview mirror. My tears have left trails through the dirt that bronzes my face.

I toss and turn Thursday night and can't stomach breakfast Friday morning. I call Denis to come and get me and on the ride to the hospital I'm quiet. Denis knows the reason for my trip to the hospital and he tries to cure my sadness with lighthearted conversation. My responses are brief as I tamp down the urge to vomit. It is the feeling I get each time I grieve, and I am grieving with such weight for this nineteen year old boy.

My phone rings as the wind whips through my hair on the back of the boda. It's the boy. He's reached the hospital early and is waiting by the gate. He couldn't sleep either. At the gate I shove a fistful of shillings in Denis' hand and I meet this sweet kid at the gate.

We enter and I follow him up a flight of stairs. He's wearing one fluorescent green sock and one fluorescent pink sock. With his black slacks and pressed blue button up school shirt, the socks are ridiculous and I stifle a giggle. The socks peek out over the tops of his shoes and I am reminded that he's just a kid. He later explains that he got dressed in the dark before the sun was up and couldn't see what socks he was putting on.

The hospital grounds are covered with patients who have laid out papyrus mats and their wash bins. They are a patchwork quilt across the grass, along every sidewalk and under every overhang. Their clothes hang from lines stretched across the grass, brightly colored garments snapping like prayer flags in the wind. There are no empty rooms for these patients.

I've never seen so much need before and as I follow the boy, I say a prayer for the people in this hospital and also a prayer of thanksgiving for my own health.

We wait for the doctor who has not yet arrived. We wait for hours. After the doctor arrives and performs an examination, we walk to a different part of the hospital for the HIV test. We wait again for hours. The waiting is excruciating.

The hospital walls are crumbling and rusted. The building itself looks as if it's dying, succumbing to mold creeping up the sides and covered by the film of acrid red dirt that blocks light from entering the windows.

Everywhere there are babies, hundreds of babies, tied on the backs of their mothers. ALL of the babies are wailing. Ugandan babies never cry so the sound is unbearably upsetting.

We sit by the door of a room with a solitary word painted above the door frame. "Counseling". I steel myself for counseling on treatment options for this boy to extend his life as long and as fully as possible.

The doctor arrives and we enter. After a brief conversation, the doctor pricks the boy's finger and squeezes a drop of blood onto a test strip. We remain in the room, waiting to see the pink line that indicates HIV appear. We wait only minutes, but it feels like centuries. I don't realize I'm holding my breath until the doctor says to the boy,"You're HIV negative."

The boy and I exhale, but neither of us speak.

"Are you sure?" My voice barely surpasses the lump bobbing in my throat. "I mean how sure are you?"

The doctor digs in the waste can and pulls out a test from yesterday. "See how this one has a pink line running through it? This person is unfortunately HIV positive. See how your test doesn't have any lines running through it?" The doctor holds up both and the boy and I rise out of our seats to get a closer look.

The boy sputters, "But three times I was tested and they said I was positive. How can this be?"

"Did you remain in the room while they were getting the results or did you wait outside?" the doctor asks.

"They made me wait outside. Twice over there in that room," the boy points to another building in the hospital, "And once at the hospital in my district."

"I'm guessing they made a mistake."

"Three times?" the boy and I speak in stereo.

"Usually we only administer a second test if the first is positive, but I'll administer another one right here so you can see for yourself. This one is a little more expensive though."

"I don't care." I grab the boy's hand and shove it toward the doctor so he can sample another drop of blood. He pricks a different finger and squeezes a drop of blood onto the test.

We wait triple the recommended minutes, just in case. We don't take our eyes off the test strip. We don't even blink.

The test is negative.

The doctor shows us a positive test and the results are black and white.

The boy does not have HIV.

The boy and I spring out of our chairs and hug each other. We jump up and down and laugh and hug and tears of joy squirt from our eyes. We carry on like this for a lengthy period of time. The doctor smiles at us.

"Alicia, did you bring your camera? Take my snap with the doctor." The boy stands and straightens the tie of his school uniform. He puts his arm around the doctor. They are both grinning from ear to ear in my camera lens.

"Doctor, I'm sorry to be so ignorant, but do you have a medical explanation as to why he'd test positive so many times and test clearly negative today?" I want to believe, but I don't. I want to put my finger in nail holes. I hear myself thinking a familiar prayer. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

"My guess is that it was human error mixing up the test results. That's why we now do this test right in front of the patient." The doctor pauses, "Then again, miracles do happen."

"I don't care which it is! This is the greatest day in my life!" The boy hugs me and hugs the doctor again.

We still have to visit two other places in the hospital, one for a Hepatitis test (which turns out negative as well) and lastly to return to the first doctor for a final consultation and for some antibiotics for a couple of smaller issues. We leave the HIV counseling office and practically skip to the next building. I watch the pink and green socks flash from underneath his pant cuffs. I am smiling so hard that my face aches.

At the end of a very long day, the boy leaves the hospital with antibiotics. I leave with approximately forty-five fewer Vigilante of Kindness dollars and we both leave with the knowledge that the boy gets a shot at living a long and healthy life to pursue his dreams.

"This is because of you. You should hang onto this," the boy shoves his HIV results paper into my hand.

"You need to keep it. I hand it back. You need to keep your medical records as proof of the tests they did today."

"As proof that I am healthy," he smiles.

"You should share this good news with your family."

"I can't," he hangs his head.

It pains me that he couldn't share the heavy burden of being infected with HIV, but it breaks my heart in a new way that he can't share the lifting of that burden.

I pause for a moment, thinking about the secrets we keep, thinking about how when the boy returns to school, he won't share this news with another soul.

We part ways at the hospital gate. He takes a boda back to school and I ride with Denis back to town. I stare back at the hospital sign, "La Cor Hospital". I'm reminded that 'cor' means heart and my heart overflows.

A few days later, I'm saying my goodbyes at the school. I can't find the boy anywhere. As I'm walking toward Denis to ride back to town, I see the boy running toward me. I run, too. We hug and I fight back tears.

"I was at home today. I've just returned and I thought I'd missed you," he says catching his breath.

"I thought I was going to miss you, too. Why were you at home?"

"I told my parents."


"They were happy for me," he grins. "I don't have the words to thank you. I just don't have the words."

"It's okay. You can thank me by pursuing your dreams all through your long and healthy life." I squeeze him tight.

"I will." He hugs me one last time. "I promise," he smiles and I know that the boy with the mismatched socks, the boy who is honest to a fault, the boy who revels in the majesty of the flag is going to spend the rest of his life doing just what he promised me.

August 7, 2013

The Littlest Bird

This year I was present for Election Day at school. There was a page worth of candidates on the ballot running for different student offices. Each candidate had a couple of minutes to deliver their campaign speech to the 300 members of the student body. Before the speeches began, one of the English teachers stood and spoke about the procedures. He encouraged the students to listen carefully and then to vote with their hearts.

The speeches began and during the speeches the students were asked to submit their questions to the student Parliament running the proceedings. There were many coveted offices like Head Boy and Head Girl, each in charge of overseeing their assigned gender and assisting with any problems they're having which they may not feel comfortable immediately bringing to the adults. One of the most coveted offices is that of Time Keeper. Time Keeper rings the bell to indicate that class sessions are over, that lunch is over, that the school day is concluding, that church is beginning. It is a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly.

There were several candidates for Time Keeper and each gave an excellent speech, but there was one who stood out to me above the rest. Crispus is an S1 (8th grade), student. He's a tiny kid, about as big as an American third or fourth grader. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in personality.

Timekeeper Crispus
When Crispus began his speech, I actually jumped at the sound of his voice, so loud and full of enthusiasm. He proclaimed that he is responsible and owns a good watch which would allow him to ensure that classes ended and lunch began on time. The crowd, which had been boisterous throughout the whole assembly now became more vocal than ever.

"He's too young!"

"This is too much responsibility."

"He's only an S1."

Tiny Crispus stood, shoulders back, taking it all and never responding in turn, waiting for the student Parliament to gather questions from the audience and read them to him to answer.

The heckling continued until suddenly the audience began to turn in his favor. Those who had opposed Crispus could be heard no longer over the din that arose. First there was clapping, followed by stomping of feet and then a roar erupted from the crowd. They shouted his name and cheered for him.

So loud was their cheering that the student Parliament couldn't contain them and Crispus couldn't contain his grin, which had spread from one side of his face to the other. After returning to his seat, Crispus continued to smile for the rest of the proceedings. I imagine he went to bed smiling.

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Doing It Wrong

"Peter Paul Opok Road. That's where the gallery moved to."

"I do not know that road."

"A road you don't know? I never thought that would happen." I poke Denis in the back as we ride through town.

"I will find out. We will go." Denis speaks to some men building bed frames by the just moved sign hanging by the old studio/gallery. He returns a minute later. "Okay, I know."

We speed to the back side of town, curling in between traffic and pedestrians along the muddy road. I'm going to miss riding on the back of motorcycles. I tip my face to the sky and let the sprinkling rain hit my cheeks.

My favorite artist, Omuny, is in residence and she has new pieces hanging all over the walls. She's been busy since last summer. Behind the counter is a stack of paintings leaning against the wall.

"Are those for sale?"

"Yes. I just haven't put them out yet." Omuny motions me behind the counter and I flip thorough the stack.

Omuny's Angel
The moment I see it, I know it's the one for my artist sister. Supporting a local artist is the perfect way to spend the rest of her Vigilante donation.

"I'll take this one, please." I hand it to Omuny who removes it from the frame and rolls it for me.

I carefully count out bills and I squeeze them tight in my hand. She hands me the painting and I shove the wad of bills in her hand, practically running out the door. I grab Denis' sleeve and pull him out with me. "Quickly, quickly let's go!" I can barely control my giggles.

We speed away and from the back of the boda I see Omuny hurrying out the door toward us.

"How much did you pay for that?" Denis calls back to me.


"Did you barter with her?" Denis wrinkles his brow.


"How much did you pay?  Did you pay the asking price?"

"It's so much worse than you think." I turn and wave at Omuny, who has run out of the gallery after me. She waves back and smiles.

"Lanyero, how much did you pay?  Tell me." Denis is stern now.

"I paid her double!"

"You're doing it wrong." He shakes his head at me, like he so often does.

"I know." I can't suppress my grin.

Back in my hotel room I unroll the painting. I take a snap and giggle at the thought of Omuny counting out the money and finding I'd paid double the asking price. I AM doing things all wrong this trip and my heart feels so completely right.

August 6, 2013

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Shiny New Shoes, Part 2

Denis hoisted the sack of shoes onto the front of the boda. Monday morning had arrived and that meant it was time to pass out shiny new shoes to the P1 students and to the children living on campus. Although the road was clear and Denis zipped along, the ride to school seemed interminably long.

Finally we reached the campus and Denis hefted the sack off the boda. I enlisted the help of my son, Geoffrey, and two of my young writers from last year, Richard and Johnson. Together we lined the shoes up on the step outside of the classroom, each pair with a child's name carefully penned of the tag. 27 pairs in all.
Shiny new shoes all in a row.
Half an hour before school was finished Mr. Martin brought the class outside and I called out the name of each and handed them their shoes, Mr. Martin and my three older student helpers stood ready to help tie all those shoes.

When I handed each student their shoes and a bright white pair of socks, they were too surprised to speak. The took the shoes and then in a bit of a daze, they got help putting them on. I've seen this dazed look before on my own first grade students when we went on field trips that were so amazing that all they could do was stand there and take it in.

One little one said, "Thank you" as I handed her a pair of shoes and the rest of the children remembered their manners and followed suit, thanking me in their best English.

Thank you.
When everyone had been given their new shoes, it was time for pictures. Some of the kids grinned so widely that I was sure I could see every single tooth. Others were still dazed. They sang their goodbye song and I recorded a bit of it to show the donors and then clapped to show their appreciation.


When Mr. Martin dismissed them to go inside and stack their chairs and go home, they stomped up the stairs, giggling at the sound of their new shoes on the pavement. I laughed as they stomped up a storm and when they came back outside, every single child stopped to shake my hand and say thank you.

As they walked off campus, I watched them carefully avoiding mud puddles to keep their shoes shiny and clean. One little girl stopped every few feet to dust off any specks of dirt that got on her shoes. I can only imagine how long it took her to walk home that day!

Walking Home
Another little girl could not wear her new shoes that day. In all my days on campus, I'd never seen her wear shoes. She had a wound on her foot from walking everywhere without shoes. She is the reason this Vigilante Act of Kindness was so needed. She's the reason why I'm so appreciative of all the Vigilantes who made this shoe project possible. I watched this little girl walk home, cradling her new shoes carefully in her arms. I saw her again two days later wearing her new shoes, protecting her precious feet, and couldn't help but smile in gratitude for my friends and family who had offered of themselves to provide her with shiny new shoes.

There is a musee (an elder) who stands guard at the front of the school. His English is as good as my Acholi, a fact that we laugh about daily. When Denis picked me up from school that day, the musee stopped me. He shook my hand and in words I think he'd been practicing all day, he said, "Well done, Madame. Well done." So to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness, I pass along his words and with a full heart I say to you, "Well done, friends. Well done."

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Visitation Day

My tiny hotel room smelled like bananas. The two clusters of bananas I'd bought were fresh from the tree and their smell permeated my living space.

The morning of Visitation Day at the school had arrived. Parents would arrive to visit their children and to talk with the teachers about their child's progress. For most it would be a happy day.

For the orphaned students it would be one of the most difficult days of the year.

The school had been buzzing about Visitation Day for weeks, but underneath the excitement I heard quieter voices, one in particular belonging to Ivy.

"Ivy, are you excited for Visitation Day?" I asked.

"Sure," she shrugged the word out of her mouth.

"Is your family coming to visit you?"

"No, my parents died when I was a baby and my aunt is paralyzed and lives too far away to travel."

"I'm coming to Visitation Day to visit my sons. Maybe I could visit you, too?" I suggested.

"I'd like that," she smiled and looked down. "Alicia, lots of kids here call you Mum. I know you have three sons. Could I call myself your daughter?" Ivy avoided eye contact.

I was taken aback by her request, but when I saw her downcast face, the only appropriate response was, "I'd like that, Ivy."

"Good. Then when the other kids ask who is coming to visit me on VD, I can say my Mum is coming to visit," she smiled at me from behind her glasses.

I picked my heart up off the ground and wondered how many other orphaned kids were wanting to, but couldn't say their mom was coming to visit.

Word spread around the school that I'd be visiting kids that day and soon the list of kids claiming me as their visitor grew quite long. I asked around about exactly what it is parents do on Visitation Day. In addition to visiting their children, and speaking with the teachers, parents bring them special foods from home.

I had the visiting thing under control, but I didn't have the skills or the kitchen to prepare any special foods from home. So I called in help. The day before Visitation Day, I had a meeting with Joseph, the fledgling chef who works at the hotel where I'm staying. Joseph is twenty-one years old and is trying desperately to earn enough money to finish his final year of culinary school.

"Joseph, tomorrow is Visitation Day at my school and I'm going to have a big picnic. Where could I get a ton of chipatti and a fresh order of bananas, too?" I sat across the table from him, drinking mango juice he'd squeezed that morning.

"Give me the contract and I'll have everything perfect for you tomorrow morning," Joseph replied.

We agreed on an amount and I gave him some Vigilante shillings. We shook hands and the evening before Visitation Day, two clusters of fresh bananas were placed in my room and the morning of Visitation Day, the chipatti was perfect, just as Joseph promised. I already had a jar of fresh groundnut paste (like peanut butter, only better) that would round out the meal.

I'd planned on looking my best for Visitation Day, wearing my cleanest hand-washed clothes, shaving the layers of dirt off my legs and washing my hair, no matter how frigid the water was. I woke up that morning and didn't hear the familiar rumbling sound of the back up generator. Oh, good, there's electricity today. I flipped the light switch. Nothing happened. Oh well, no electricity today. In the bathroom I turned the hot and cold water knobs. Again nothing happened. I guess I don't have to worry about cold water or any water for that matter. I put my relatively clean clothes on my relatively dirty body, brushed my teeth with my one remaining bottle of water and clamped a headband on top of my out of control curls. I looked in the mirror. It would have to do for the day.

It rained the entire morning and I sat by the window in my room willing the rain to stop. Instead it poured harder. The streets were devoid of sputtering bodas. When the rain slowed to a drizzle, I packed the bananas, chipatti and groundnut paste into my backpack and called my faithful boda driver, Denis. Juba Road was a slick mess of red mud. Mud flicked off the back wheel and splattered my skirt, but I was sure a little water would take care of the mud splatters. That thought was still hanging in the air like a bubble over my head when a truck came barreling down the road from the opposite direction. It raced through a puddle and splashed muddy water all over Denis and I. I was soaked to the bone and at that point all I could do was laugh at the muddy mess I had become.

The drizzle continued all the way to the school and kept parents at bay. The school was quiet and subdued, the gray skies matching the mood. The parents would have to come on foot or by bicycle, so rain was a legitimate, but still disappointing reason for their absence.

When I arrived at school, I pumped water to wash my face and skirt, but the mud was so caked to my skirt that adding water became a recipe for an even bigger mess. So I planted my mud caked self under the covering of the open classroom and waited to visit with students. A few scuttled here and there in the rain, bundled up in layers of jackets in the 70 degree weather. As the students hurried by, I called out, "Happy visitation day! Come and visit with me!" Almost every student I invited took me up on my offer and pretty soon I had a cluster of kids around me, some who were on my list to visit and other new additions. My two youngest sons were at the center of it all and they were in fine form hamming it up.

One of my favorite boys, a sweet orphaned boy, said, "I didn't think you would come because of the rain."

"I promised you I'd come. It's my first Visitation Day. I'd planned to look a little more presentable, but that didn't work out so well for me." We both laughed at my mud stained clothes.

"It's okay, Mum. I'm glad you showed up."

We were having a great time and before we knew it, it was lunch time and so we retreated into a classroom where anyone and everyone was welcome to the feast I'd carried in my backpack. When I unpacked it, one of the boys remarked, "You brought us food just like the mothers do on VD!" They devoured the food like a band of locusts. I must admit my eyes welled up when every single child made sure to thank me afterward.
Visitation Day
While we were inside eating, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Mothers and fathers began to arrive. The mothers were dressed in beautiful clothes and carried baskets of handmade and homegrown food. Not a single one had a splatter of mud on their skirt. They were a parade of beauty and poise and I was a stark contrast.

I continued visiting with students all day, making sure to carve out special one on one time for my sons. It was a beautiful day.

As evening approached, or as they say here, as the sun married the moon, I returned to my hotel where I washed the slicks of mud off my skirt and scrubbed my skin clean with mercifully hot water. Under the tent of my mosquito net, I thought about how it didn't matter at all that I arrived wet and muddy. What mattered was that I showed up.

Though I searched and searched for her, I never did see Ivy that day. She later told me that she was feeling ill and had slept all day in the dorm. I wonder if the words felt as untrue in her mouth as they sounded in my ears. Many of the orphans feign illness and sleep the day away until it passes. When I told Ivy that I'd missed visiting her, she peered up at me through her glasses and said quietly, "You came for me?" I nodded and she said, "I didn't think you would. Thanks, Mum."

The new school year is fast approaching and I know I'm going to have students who are used to being let down by parents who don't show up. On mornings when I feel caked in frustration with administration, when I feel like I've been splattered with parent complaints, when I feel soaked to the bone with exhaustion, I'm going to remember Visitation Day and I'm going to show up. I'm going to show up and have faith that the clouds will part and make way for something beautiful. I'm going to show up and show up and show up, especially for my kids who are hiding out and tucking their hearts safely away. I'm going to show up hoping that when I do, it will give them the courage to do the same.

August 5, 2013

Walking into the Conflict

A friend once advised me that when I find myself in opposition with another, I should "walk into the conflict," meaning move in closer so that resolution or at least common ground can be found.

It's a difficult task for me because, well, because I'm a giant chicken and my natural inclination is to retreat. It's even more difficult for me walk into the conflict when I don't see it coming and then suddenly find myself face to face with it.

Sunday was one of those days.

Bungatira, a village outside of Gulu, is home to Denis, his family and some mighty cute piglets. I was delighted to be invited back along with my son William, and my two new Swedish teacher friends, Annika and Jessica. It was a beautiful day and with a view of the lush green valley that seems to stretch for miles, the ride there didn't disappoint.

When we arrived in Bungatira we were greeted with a welcome song and dance from Denis' mother and the ladies of the community. It was lovely.

Bungatira has a local community group, of which Denis is the chairperson. The group is working together to make their community a better place. They're doing it independently of NGO's that seem to have set up camp on every corner in Uganda. They're doing it without government aid. It's a grass roots group focused on improving their future.

This group is doing so many great things and I love that all of their ideas are purposes are from within. They're beginning a savings and loan program for members. They're looking for ways to fundraise to pay school fees for their children. They're seeking education on issues like health and cleanliness and domestic violence. They have an eleven article constitution that details the rights and duties of membership. They have democratic elections each year. Membership is open to both male and female residents who are at least twelve years of age. The group in Bungatira is doing so many progressive things, especially when compared with surrounding villages. So when Denis asked if I'd sit in on their meeting and offer them advice if I had any, I was honored. In the back of my mind, I hoped to find another place to exercise some Vigilante Kindness.

After taking a tour of their village and having lunch in Denis' thatch roof house, Annika, Jessica, William and I joined the meeting in progress outside. I sat down on a mat next to Denis' mother. The group was discussing the savings and loan idea. I listened in and strained to translate Acholi into English. William joined the meeting as well and sat a few yards away from me, translating when I requested clarification. Annika was feeling ill and so Denis took Jessica and Annika back to their hotel on his boda. The meeting continued in his absence and moved on to elections. Denis was nominated for re-election and I was pleased to see that the nominations for other offices were split between men and women.

The Vice-Chairperson turned his attention to me and asked that I speak well of their group when I returned home. I asked to first read their constitution, which was written in English. The constitution was meticulously written in ink on lined paper, something that is quite costly and not easy to find.

They'd obviously put a lot of thought into it and I agreed with all of it-except their policy for dismissal from the group. Reasons for dismissal from the group were:
-voluntarily leaving the group
-failure to pay membership dues without reasonable cause
-mental illness

Wait, what? Mental illness was an automatic reason for dismissal?

I felt like I was having one of those moments in the movies when the people are happy and there's upbeat music playing and then everything halts as the music comes to an abrupt needle-scratching-across-the-record-stop.

After I read the Constitution, the Vice-Chairperson asked if I'd speak well of their group and be a bridge to anyone in the U.S. who might be able to offer help.

"Your group is doing so many things well, but I'm afraid I'm not the right person to speak on your behalf because I don't agree with all of the articles in your Constitution."

"We're not asking you to support our group financially, just to be a bridge to anyone in the U.S. who might be able to help us. Perhaps you have friends who might be interested in helping,

"I'm sorry, but I cannot speak for your group when I disagree with parts of your Constitution and I don't want to give you false hope and tell you I'll be speaking on your behalf when I know in my spirit, I won't be. I know my friends at home would also disagree with parts of your Constitution."

"Which parts do you disagree with?"

"I disagree with the two places it says members will be dismissed because they have a mental illness. Maybe I'm not understanding what you mean by mental illness. Perhaps you can explain more." Walk into the conflict, I reminded myself. I hoped that this was going to be an easily fixable thing that was simply lost in translation.

"It means depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses."

I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. In the expansive outdoors, suddenly there wasn't enough air. William moved from his chair and sat down next to me on the mat and I was grateful for his presence in the sea of strangers.

"I'm sorry, but I cannot agree with you. You're treating those conditions as if the person can choose to have them or choose not to have them. To me it's like saying a person will be dismissed from your group for contracting malaria." I thought of my family and friends who have fiercely battled mental illnesses and I felt a lump knot in my throat. I willed myself not to cry. In the bravest voice I could muster I said, "I'm sorry, I simply can't advocate for a group that discriminates against people with mental illnesses."

There was a pregnant silence.

Denis' mother spoke.

"William, what did she say?" I whispered.

"She said that maybe you'd like to see the children sing and dance."

"Um, sure," I recognized that retreat tactic and I almost took the welcome escape. Instead I took a deep breath and said, "But I'm not sure how that's going to help us reach a resolution. Seeing the children sing and dance isn't going to change my mind on this issue. Perhaps I can see them dance later."

Another silence followed.

"Lanyero," the Vice-Chairperson addressed me by my Acholi name. "I'm sorry, but I must go. The discussion will resume when the Chairperson returns. I wish you friendship and a safe journey back home."

"Apwowo. Wot maber." (Thank you and safe journey.) I replied as he and another member climbed on their boda and sped away.

I wished I could have sped away as well, but I was in the middle of the bush, miles away from where I could catch a boda back to town. And so I sat on the mat and willed my tired brain to listen as the group addressed other issues.

I heard Denis' boda approach from the road behind. He parked his motorcycle and hurried back to the group. After reassuring me that Annika was okay, he turned to the group, which all at once began speaking to him, their thirty some odd voices becoming a complete mash of words to my untrained ears.

"William, what are they saying?" I whispered.

"They're filling Denis in on everything that was discussed while he was gone." William leaned in and translated.

After the group spoke, Denis turned to William. "Would you like to say something?"

"I have already spoken," William replied. It was true that William had spoken freely throughout the meeting, voicing his opinions and ideas about several issues.

"Alicia, would you like to speak?"

"I think I've said quite enough already."

"Alicia, you are welcome in my home and in Bungatira. Please feel at home here. We know-I know-how much you've done for Uganda. We're not asking you to contribute financially to our group, only to speak on our behalf in the U.S. if you see it fitting."

"Denis, you know how much I love and respect you and how much I want to help," I met his eyes with my own. Mine were red from fighting back tears and he cocked his head to the side, silently asking for an explanation.

I continued, "I think your group is doing many great things like pursuing education for your children and seeking to end domestic violence in your village, but I'm really struggling because I cannot advocate for your group because I don't agree with all of the articles in your Constitution. I can't support something I don't agree with in my spirit. I respect you too much to tell you I'm going to support your group when I know in my heart I can't."

"Please, Alicia, tell me which parts you disagree with." Denis' face was full of concern. "I've invited you here to advise us. Please."

"Twice in your Constitution, it states that a member with mental illness will be dismissed for having that mental illness. I don't agree with that. I can't agree with that."

"Let me explain to you the origin of that part of the article."

"Please do." Walk into the conflict. Walk into the conflict. Walk into the conflict. I willed myself to remain calm. I stretched out my legs in front of me and leaned back on my hands. If I could make my body relax, maybe the rest of me would follow suit. William matched his posture to mine.

"Mental illness is rampant here. When the L.R.A. was in power, they abducted many people and most of those people returned different, returned damaged, returned prone to acts of violence."

Oh, God, it was getting so much worse.

I felt William's fingers inch to over to mine and I held the hand of my son who was abducted and forced to be a child soldier for the L.R.A. My son who escaped with the help of a stranger and was welcomed back home. My son went to a rehabilitation center to be retrained to be kind instead of to kill. My son who loves animals and children and biology. My son who is college bound this month.
William and the children of Bungatira
I wondered if William would speak, but he sat quietly clenching my hand.

These are dangerous things you don't speak of.

These are things you try to forget.

Denis continued. "Many of those people committed terrible acts of violence and do not have sound minds."

"I know that time was unspeakably horrible and I'm so sorry you had to endure it. I'm profoundly grateful that you survived and that you're safe now." I said the words to the group, but they were for William. "I understand that you need to keep your community safe and I agree with you that if, for any reason, a person is a danger to others or to themselves, they need to get medical help and counseling, but that is not what your Constitution says. It states twice that if a person has a mental illness, they will be dismissed from the group. Those who were abducted didn't have a choice and by not allowing them to be members of your group, you're punishing them for something that was not in their control. If I were made to do the things they were made to do, I'd be mentally unwell, too, but I hope to God my community would welcome me back and help me heal." I was losing the battle against the tears welling in my eyes.

Denis motioned for the Constitution to be passed to him so that he could read it.

I took a deep breath and continued in a shaky voice. "I have a loved one who battled depression and, thank God, is now happy and healthy. One of the things that helps him is being with friends, being a part of a group. It breaks my heart to think that if he lived here, you categorically wouldn't permit him to be in your group. Being part of a group focused on the betterment of the community is one of the things that helps people heal. When they have a way to contribute that is of service to others, it can give them added purpose." I wiped the tears from my cheeks. "I know your group is doing great things in the community, but as it stands, your group discriminates against the people I love most and I can't..." My voice broke. "I can't be even a small part of that." I felt thirty pairs of eyes on me and I looked down at my lap.

I wanted to run, to disappear into the ground, to be anywhere but there.

I didn't want to be the muzungu who came to their village for a day and told them how to live out their lives when my knowledge of their lives wasn't even a drop in the bucket.

"Alicia," Denis spoke my name quietly. When I looked up, I was surprised to see tears in his eyes as well. "I can see we have pained you and for that I'm sorry."

The word pained came out as "painted" and I thought about how true it was because I was thoroughly painted in sorrow at the memories of my loved one fighting so hard against depression. I was painted in sorrow for my son who tries so hard to forget his past and move toward the future.

"We are not trying to discriminate. We have a member who is deaf and a member who cannot speak." Denis informed me.

"I'm glad to hear you welcome people with physical disabilities, but it makes me all the more confused as to why you discriminate against people with mental illnesses."

"Let me discuss your advice and questions with the membership."

"Yes, please do, but please discuss it outside of my presence so that members can feel free to voice their opinions even if they differ with mine. I'm only part of this community for a short time and you've obviously put a lot of thought into your Constitution, so any changes to it need to be made by the group, not by a visitor."

"Please, Lanyero. We will discuss it now and William will translate so you will know our hearts." Denis began speaking to the membership in Acholi. William translated as needed. There was much discussion, but surprisingly no opposition.

William quietly cleared his throat, the signal for wanting to speak. The discussion halted. "Perhaps if the member suffers from mental illness and is unable to participate in the group, a close family member can be appointed to stand in their place until they're ready to rejoin."

"Yes, yes. How would that be?" Denis turned toward me.

"It depends on who decides when the member needs a stand in and when they get to return? Who picks the stand in advocate?"

"The group would decide and choose the advocate," said Denis.

"William, it's a good idea, but the member with the illness should have the right to make those final decisions, not the group. The same should be true for all members who have any sort of illness that prevents them from attending for a period of time." I looked at the membership.

"Let me discuss this with the group." Denis spoke to the membership and the dialogue went on loud and long, but it seemed now that they were discussing what should take place when a member dies.

I was just about to ask William to translate when Denis turned to me. "The group agrees with you. We also decided that when a member dies, a family member will be invited to join the group in their place so that the family can continue to benefit from the group and from all the dues the member contributed to the savings and loan."

"But what decision was made about dismissing a member on account of mental illness?" My brain was tired from trying to translate and I was fighting to understand what had just taken place. Did they move to another topic completely? Were they going to discuss it later?

"The group has decided to strike completely that reason for dismissal from our Constitution." Denis took a pen and crossed it out in both places, inking over it again and again so that none of the words were visible any longer. "I promise you, Alicia, that we will now include those with mental illnesses. When you return you'll see that we have changed. As chairman, I promise this will happen." Denis met my eyes and I could see that he meant what he said.

"I believe you will, Denis." I faced the group. "Apwowo matek." (Thank you so much.) Tears pricked my eyes again, but this time they were tears of joy.

The meeting concluded with a prayer and as the members left, they came and shook my hand and asked me to return again.

When the members had gone, Denis approached me. "Alicia, can we go inside for a moment?"

"Of course." We entered his thatch roof house and sat on the couch.

Denis took my hands in his, a gesture usually reserved for friends of the same gender or for family members. "I'm so sorry I pained you."

Again it came out as painted and I thought how over my sadness today, I received a second coating of joy.

Denis continued, "I didn't know that your loved ones have had mental illnesses. You never told me. I'm so sorry to have brought you here and caused you pain. Please forgive me."

"And I'm sorry if I have offended you or your members. I didn't live your history and can only begin to understand what happened here. Because of my own history, I tend to be passionate about the topic at hand today. Sometimes, it's hard for me to speak about it without becoming emotional."

"It's your heart that makes you Hero Lanyero," Denis said, using the name he and William had bestowed upon me a few weeks ago, a name I couldn't accept.

"I'm not a hero." I shook my head. William entered the house and sat with us. I met his eyes and he looked as exhausted as I felt. "Come sit with us," I motioned.  He took a seat across from me. "I'm so glad you were here with me today," I said, earnestly grateful I didn't face the day alone.

"I'm proud you're my Mum." William smiled at me.

"I'm proud to be your Mum." I squeezed his hand.

We had some bread before heading back to town on bodas. William rode with Michael, Denis' older brother, and I took my usual place seated side saddle behind Denis. I watched Bungatira fade into the distance and we rode back to town, both of us quieter than usual.

"Itye maber?" (How are you?) Denis asked.

"I'm okay." It wasn't my usual response, but it was all I could muster.

"Let me buy you some roasted maize," Denis offered, knowing it is one of my favorite roadside foods.

"Maybe tomorrow. I'm satisfied for now. I'm just tired." I smiled into his rearview mirror assuring Denis that I was indeed okay, that our friendship was also okay. At the hotel we shook hands and wished each other well.

In bed that night, my whole body was heavy with exhaustion. I looked at my toes poking out of the end of my bed sheet. The African sun has darkened my feet, save for the pale stripes of skin left from the straps of my sandals. My feet look very different than the feet that first brought me to Gulu. They are browned from the sun and dyed with the red dirt of the land I love.

When these feet walk me back into my life at home, I hope they will serve as a reminder to me of the beautifully painful and joyful changes that can come from choosing to walk into the conflict.

M's Forgiveness

"I can't make you any promises except one-I promise to do my level best." This speech during student government elections was a refreshing change of pace from most of the other speeches, litanies of promises the students couldn't possibly fulfill.

I didn't know her well, but I loved M from that very moment, this small girl with a perpetual smile, this girl who has learned early in life to only makes promises she can keep.

It's no secret that many of the students at the school have difficult lives, but the joy that pushes through heartache and even terror never ceases to amaze me.

On Sunday morning my son, Martin, was preaching at the school church service. His message was on forgiveness, even forgiveness for your worst enemies. It was here that both of those words 'enemy' and 'forgiveness' took on a whole new shape for me. Martin asked those in attendance who were harboring unforgiveness to publicly stand up and say who they were forgiving.

The principal of the school stood. "I'd like to go first. I've been struggling to forgive the men who murdered my brother a few months ago."

Whoa, talk about leading by example.

The students came in droves and started to talk about who they were forgiving. M walked to the front of the classroom that was functioning as a makeshift church. She stood in the back of the group, the top of her head barely gracing the shoulders of her peers.

One by one the students came forward, but M waited. She waited with a smile on her face for over an hour until finally she was the last one standing. She took a deep breath.

"Today I forgive my uncle for what he's doing to me. He doesn't want me to go to school, doesn't think girls should go to school," she paused here and tears streamed down her cheeks. She took a deep breath and continued. "He doesn't want me to go to school and every time I go home he tries to kill me, or sends other men to kill me. Today I forgive him."

I was frozen with horror, the lump in my throat blocking the hot anger rising in my stomach.

My son, Martin, enveloped her in a hug and as a congregation we prayed for M's safety. As the students reached out their hands and prayed loudly, I prayed silently, a prayer of thanks for this school that keeps M safe and for the principal who actively seeks protection and justice on her behalf.

At the conclusion of the service many of my kids, both big and little, came to hug me. In the crowd, I didn't see M until she slipped under my arm. I hugged her tight, holding her at what the kids call "zero distance". Zero distance hugs are forbidden between students of the opposite gender. They're reserved for close friends of the same gender and for family. I was neither to M, but as I felt her tears wet my shirt, I kept holding her tight. Even though I wasn't her mama, in that moment I was a mama and I held this little shaking girl and kissed the top of her head while she cried. I felt my own tears fall and neither of us said a word. We didn't need to.

I don't know how long we stood like that. It was long enough for her tears on my shirt to spread in a ring the size of a large platter and long enough for most of the other students to leave the building. When we separated, she looked up at me and smiled and we both wiped tears from our eyes. I squeezed her one last time before she left.

M often comes to me in my dreams and I wake up marveling at the depth of forgiveness this tiny girl possesses. I think of her campaign promise to her fellow students to "do her level best" and as I untuck myself from the canopy of my mosquito net, I pray that I'll be able to do the same, specifically when my level best means forgiving my worst enemies.

August 3, 2013

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Shiny New Shoes, Part 1

He giggled as I traced his foot with my pen. Sweet little Denis, who still has all of his baby teeth, was the last P1 (first grade) student I needed to measure for new shoes and his giggle was absolutely infectious. I giggled right along with him at the thought of putting brand new school shoes and clean socks on his feet.
And on the feet of his 21 classmates.

And on the feet of the five children who live on campus, but aren't yet in school.

For some the shoes would be a much needed replacement pair of shoes. For others it would be their first pair of shoes that hadn't been handed down through a long line of older cousins and siblings. And for many it would be their very first pair of shoes at all.

It all began with my friend, Tracy, who upon seeing photos of the many precious children here without shoes, sent me this message:

"I can't put into words what all your pictures do to to me. Some give me hope, but honestly many make me sad. We have so much here and they have so little. I want to do something. How can I go about providing the school supplies they need? Can I send money to buy each one of those firsties shoes? What do they need and how can I help? I seriously feel like God wants me to do something."

I know, I know, now you love Tracy, too. I don't blame you. I flat out love this woman because when she's called to do something, she does it with her whole heart and moves with immediacy. She's an inspiration to me in listening to the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit and then acting on it. I calculated the amount of money it would take to outfit 22 students with new shoes and socks and I sent it off. Almost immediately Tracy sent the money, all of the money.

I am apparently bad at math because I'd given her the wrong dollar amount, leaving me significantly short of the amount I'd need to purchase the shoes. Ugh. Converting shillings to dollars is not my strong suit. Math makes my brain die, I'm sure of it.

I didn't know what to do. I looked at the remaining money I'd brought along and tried calculating how many meals I could skip to try and cover the shoe balance. No matter how I calculated, I couldn't make a way to both survive and buy the shoes. I didn't want to ask Tracy for more because she had already given so generously.

I did the only other thing I knew to do. I waited and prayed. Prayed for wisdom. Prayed for the tiny feet that are so injured from walking to school each day without shoes.

That's when a beautiful thing happened. My sister asked how she could be a part of these vigilante acts of kindness. My parents asked how they could help as well. Friends of my parents sent money. Many of my friends voluntarily sent money. Friends of friends sent money. Complete strangers sent money.

As I sat in my favorite cafe reading messages and emails from these spontaneous vigilantes of kindness, I couldn't help but cry. Actually crying doesn't really describe it. I was weeping. Tears slipped down my cheeks and splattered on the table. The workers at the cafe asked me if I was okay and I explained that these were tears of joy.

Not only would I have enough money to buy shoes and socks for the P1 students, but now I had enough money to buy shoes and socks for the little kids who live on campus and don't go to school yet. Denis, my faithful friend and boda driver, promised to accompany me to the market so that I would get a fair price.

All the donations were sent to Western Union and on the day I was to pick up the money, the power went out in the whole city. The worst rainstorm of the season hit accompanied by thunder and lightning that incapacitated the Western Union generator for two days. Not only that but, another boda collided with Denis and left both him and his motorcycle a little banged up.

Days passed and finally on Friday, electricity was restored to most of the town and there was a blessed break in the deluge. Denis was back on his feet and his boda was up and running, and so we set off for Western Union before school.

"I need nine transfer slips, please," I said through the hole in the glass to the teller.


"Yes, nine."

"Why did you do it that way? Why not just one?"

"The people sending money are from different places."

"Why didn't they send it all together?"

"Most of them don't know each other."

"It will take a long time."

"I can wait," I said, filling out the first transfer slip.

Forty five minutes later I walked out of Western Union with a fat stack of shillings. Shoe money. Sock money. Vigilante Act of Kindness money.

I left school earlier than usual that day so that Denis and I could go to the market and buy the shoes.

"I spoke to a shoe vendor at the market and because you're buying so many shoes, I got her to agree to a good price," Denis made eye contact with me in the mirror on his handlebar.

"Really? How much?" I raised my voice over the wind that was picking up. When Denis gave me a number that was less than half of what I'd expected, my jaw fell open.

"And these are new shoes? Good shoes? The nice black ones required for school? Ones that will last a long time?" I hammered Denis with questions.

"Yes," Denis called back to me over the rain that was now falling in big drops. I could hear the smile in his voice and I, too, smiled even when the rain came down on us in sheets. Denis pulled over and we waited under a nearby overhang along with about twenty other people who had been caught off guard by this sudden storm. I stood next to two women with babies tied to their backs. One baby slept soundly and the other stared at me with big, brown eyes.

When lightning struck an electric pole about ten feet away from us, thunder came simultaneously and the sound was like nothing I've ever heard. I instinctively covered my ears as lightning sizzled down the electric lines. I felt my heart thud in my chest. Denis and I looked at each other with wide saucer eyes and simultaneously said, "We've gotta get out of here!" When the deluge became regular rain, we got back on the boda, driving slowly through the slick red mud that was the road. We drove away from the storm, but unbeknownst to us the storm had changed directions and washed over us again. We found another overhang as far away from power lines as possible and again we waited for the rain to pass. When it slowed to a drizzle, we took the boda into the market on the outskirts of town.

It had barely sprinkled in town and the market was its usual cacophony of colors and sounds. Denis wove his boda through the aisles and stopped at the shoe stall where the vendor was eager to help us. Two by two, I placed the tracings of the children's feet on the counter and the vendor matched up a new, shiny black pair of school shoes to each tracing. I penned each child's name on the tag of the shoes, making sure to keep straight which shoes would go to which child.

Shoes at the Market
Twenty-seven pairs of shoes later our work was done and it was time to shell out the shillings that had travelled so far for these shoes. I overheard the vendor suggest in Acholi to Denis that he tell me that the shoes were an additional 3,000 shillings for each pair. She told him he could pocket the extra cash. When Denis replied that he couldn't do that to me because I'm his Mama, I couldn't help but well up with pride.

We added 27 pairs of socks to the pile and using three calculators we each checked and double checked the total cost. I laughed when Denis sweet talked the vendor into throwing in a new pair of sandals for him for free. He tried to get a new pair for me as well, but looking at my sack stuffed with little socks and shoes, I told him I already had all the shoes I needed.

A sack of shoes.
Denis hoisted the sack onto the handlebars of the boda and the two of us rode to the hotel.

"Thanks, Denis," I said sliding off the back of the seat.

"Welcome," he smiled and held out his hand.

"No, I mean thanks for not overcharging me when you had the chance," I shook his hand.

"You understood that?"

I nodded.

"Your Acholi is improving."

"I have a good teacher." I winked as he handed me the sack of shoes.

"I have a good Mama, Hero Lanyero."

"Apwowo matek." (Thank you very much.)

We said goodbye and I lugged the sack of shoes up the two flights of stairs to my room. I flung it on my bed and as the rain pelted the tin roof overhead, I was overcome with gratitude.

For Tracy who put this project in motion.

For my other faithful friends and family who asked to be a part of it.

For Denis who chooses integrity over deceit and calls me Mama.

For God who has the power to tear the sky with lightning, but cares about the smallest and neediest children right down to the tips of their toes.