We’re a rag-tag group of people vigilantly pursuing self-sustaining educational & employment opportunities with and for students and their families living in rural communities in developing countries. We believe in asking hard questions like, “What do you need and how can we help?” We believe that communities know their needs better than we do and that it’s our job to listen. We’re big on being kind for the sake of kindness and we believe that even the smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference. We believe in keeping vigil over one another and watching for opportunities to help, no matter how far off the beaten path those opportunities take us. We’re vigilant in our belief that God has given each person unique gifts and that one of the highest forms of worship is using those gifts to serve others. We believe God has a purpose for each life and Vigilante Kindness is our purpose. Join us as we live out wild adventures in service of God and others. Join us in committing acts of Vigilante Kindness.
Vigilantes, this story is one especially for those of you who have been around awhile, for those of you who were with me before I ever dreamed of creating an organization, for those of you who sent money to me for shoes for little kids and medicine for students and pigs for hardworking boda drivers and mattresses for bigger kids. This story is all for you.
At Pawel School after church on Sunday and after enjoying a meal of beans, posho, and cabbage with about 15 others, I saw a young man named Denis who used to be a kid at the first school I taught at in Uganda. He was never one of my students, but I knew that I knew him somehow.
“I know you!” I exclaimed. I explained how I thought I knew him from another school. “My Acoli name is Lanyero, but my American name is Alicia. You’re grown now, but I think I know you.”
Denis looked at me carefully and then his face broke into a wide smile. “Alicia!!! You look different! You’ve reduced yourself!!!”
“Yes, I’ve been working on getting healthier,” I said, always smiling at the Acoli version of, ‘You’ve lost weight.’
“You look all new.”
“Well thank you very much. I feel all new. I don’t remember how, but I really do think I know you, Denis. I know your face.” I looked closely at him.
“Yes, you do,” he grinned. “And I’ll always remember what you did for me, how you bought me a mattress when I didn’t have one in Senior 2. Thank you.”
That’s when it all flooded back to me. I remembered this kid! He was a sophomore in high school. He was shorter and a bit scrawny back then, but his sweet smile was the same.
I’d bought him and another student mattresses because they didn’t have them and the thought of these two boys having to sleep on hard bunk bed frames with no mattresses and then get up to work hard each day in school only to return to beds without mattresses and then do it all over again seemed terrible, and it sounded like something I could easily fix.
Vigilantes, Denis was one of the very students we ever helped. To see him at Pawel, which is some distance from that first school, where we were again buying some small things to help the students of New Hope was surreal.
Denis is grown now. He’s in college and is doing well in school.
He will always remember the mattress we bought him and I’ll always remember the delight of seeing one of our kids now fully grown and doing well.
You just never know how large the reach of even a small act of kindness. From mattresses and shoes to larger projects like paper beads and potteries, thank you for choosing to do this work with us.
New Hope Home in Pawel only had the money to feed, house, clothe and care for 21 Sudanese refugee kids from the IDP camp. It was a fact that broke the heart of Pastor Amos because there was one more kid in the camp in desperate need of rescue.
Her name was Skovia.
The other pastors at the IDP camp begged Amos to take Skovia. They said she was the one out of all of the children in the camp who most needed to be taken to New Hope.
Skovia is without parents. She was being taken care of by a relative in the camp who forced her to be a slave and delivered a beating to her every night. The scars and bruises covering her little arms gave just a hint to the hell she was living through each day.
When the other orphan children, her only friends in the camp, were taken to New Hope and she was left behind, Skovia was bereft with tears, wondering why she alone was left there to suffer.
Her name is Skovia and Pastor Amos had to leave her behind.
I truly cannot fathom impossible choices like these. How do you choose between feeding the refugee kids you’ve already taken responsibility for and taking on another mouth that stretches the already scant beans and posho too thin? How do you commit to raising another child into adulthood when you already don’t have anywhere near enough money to raise the other 21? But how do you knowingly leave a child in the mouth of a shark?
Her name is Skovia and Pastor Amos went back and removed her from the IDP camp and from the hands of her abuser.
You go ahead and stand up and cheer a minute, I’ll wait right here. I’ll be cheering, too, because I can’t stop smiling and crying and clapping when I think of Skovia and Pastor Amos and his wife Sarah and of Mr. and Mrs. Ekanya and of all of the kids at New Hope.
Her name is Skovia and last Saturday evening she was brought to New Hope to live permanently.
I got to meet Skovia last Sunday morning, when Laura and I attended church in Pawel. We saw the refugee kids sporting their new shoes and showing off their suitcases, already stacked neatly on their beds and packed with their special things inside.
We got to hear the stories of how they gleefully threw away the plastic bags the second the suitcases were handed out. We got to see photos of the ceremony held to pass out the shoes and suitcases.
Her name is Skovia and she was the only kid without a suitcase.
The other little girls, many of whom were Skovia’s friends in the IDP camp, were downright emphatic when telling Laura that Skovia didn’t have a suitcase. Laura assured them that we wouldn’t leave her out, but that we just didn’t know she’d started living there.
We immediately gave Mr. Ekanya enough shillings for shoes and a suitcase for Skovia. New Hope has beds for up to 24 students so we also gave him enough shillings for two more refugee children because if we can provide more expensive items like shoes and suitcases, we know that will make the beans and posho stretch just a little bit further.
New Hope insisted on feeding us because hospitality is truly the heartbeat of Uganda. While we were eating beans, posho, and cabbage, Mr. Ekanya gave me one of the greatest compliments of my life.
He said, “The next time you visit church, you can’t just introduce yourself, ‘Nyinga Lanyero,’ (My name is Lanyero.)
I asked, “Really? How will I introduce myself then?”
Mr. Ekanya smiled and said, you’ll say, ‘Nyinga Lanyero. An latin anyera Pawel.’ (My name is Lanyero. I am a daughter of Pawel.)
Indeed that is how I will introduce myself when I return. What I love most about being proclaimed a daughter of Pawel is that because of the work of New Hope, I’m in the good company of 22 Sudanese refugee children who have also been claimed by the community of Pawel. They, too, can say they‘re the sons and daughters of Pawel.
Her name is Skovia. Welcome home, Skovia. In latin anyera Pawel. (You are a daughter of Pawel.)
As we prepare to leave Uganda, I can’t help but think of the day we spent at Fort Patiko.
One slower day when Laura and I were waiting to hear from villages with decisions about some of our projects, I suggested that Ivan drive us to visit Fort Patiko. Ivan fueled up his van and we set off on the bumpy dirt roads that lead to this somewhat hidden monument. I wish I could adequately describe to you in words the funny looks we got, two mzungu women rolling strong with dreadlocked Ivan in the Rasta Mobile. They were priceless.
Fort Patiko, also known as Baker’s Fort, is 30 kilometers beyond Gulu on the same road that leads to Pawel. Fort Patiko isn’t an easy place to visit, both because it’s off the beaten path and because it tells the grisly history of East African slave trade.
Alicia, Ivan, and Laura at Fort Patiko
It is place you won’t forget and a place you’ll wish had never existed. It’s a stunningly beautiful natural rock formation that Trip Advisor shamefully calls “a romantic picnic destination.” I assure you, there is nothing romantic about what happened at Fort Patiko.
For nineteen years East Africans were abducted and taken to Fort Patiko where they were kept in caves, stacked upon one another day and night, until they were “sorted.”
Men were sorted into two groups: healthy and strong and healthy and weak. The healthy and strong men were shackled around their necks and marched for weeks until they reached Egypt where they were sold as slaves.
Those deemed unhealthy or weak were sent to Execution Rock where they were laid down and beheaded with machetes. The places where the machetes struck the rocks can still be seen today. Execution Rock slopes down into a ravine so that the dead bodies and heads were easily rolled into the ravine where lions were kept expressly for the purpose of devouring the bodies.
If you were a captured woman, you’d be sorted into two categories: beautiful, healthy, and strong or ugly and/or weak. If you were beautiful, healthy, and strong you’d be shackled around the neck and march for weeks until you reached Egypt where you’d then be sold into slavery. Both the men and the women were only shackled around the necks, not the ankles, so that if you fell sick or weak along the journey or if you tried to escape, one slice of the machete would behead you, instantly separating and then releasing your body and your head from the chains so that the rest of the line could keep marching.
If you were deemed a weak, ugly, or unhealthy woman, you’d be taken to Execution Rock, beheaded, and then fed to the lions.
Anyone who tried to escape from Fort Patiko faced a firing squad on the edge of the ravine so that when you were shot, your body fell to the lions and was devoured likely before you were even dead.
Samuel Baker, or Sir Samuel Baker as he later became known, was an unlikely abolitionist. He was a mapmaker, a writer, a big game hunter, and an explorer. His goal in Central Africa was to discover and map the source of the Nile. He discovered Lake Albert and discovered that the source of the Nile had ALREADY been discovered. His wife, Lady Florence Baker, travelled with him and in their explorations, they happened upon Fort Patiko and the bloody East African Slave Trade.
Upon discovering the human holding tank and execution ground that was Fort Patiko, the Bakers returned home to England to ask for ships and army personnel to overtake the fort. This was no easy request because Samuel Baker wasn’t looked upon well. He was a widower at the age of 34 and his second wife, Florence, had once been a slave. Samuel Baker had fallen in love with Florence and then escaped with her from a Hungarian slave market. Florence travelled with him everywhere as his wife, but because they’d not had an officially recognized wedding ceremony in England, Queen Victoria refused to even meet Sir Samuel Baker or the woman who would later be given the title Lady.
Sir Samuel Baker
Lady Florence Baker
Sir Samuel Baker was eventually granted ships and man power to return to Uganda and overtake Fort Patiko,with Florence at his side every step of the way. I imagine this was a personal cause for her, having experienced the inhumanity of being bought and sold herself.
It took 2-3 years to defeat the Arabs, set the captive East Africans free, and claim Fort Patiko as a military base for England. The overtaking of Fort Patiko was one of the key factors in ending the East African Slave Trade.
Sir Samuel Baker and Lady Florence Baker continued to live at Fort Patiko for some time after its liberation. Florence was loved by the Luo tribe living in Patiko and was given the Luo name Anyadwe, meaning daughter of the moon for her pale skin and blonde hair. Though she was looked down upon by British royalty, she was known for her charm. She spoke three languages. She rode horses, mules, and camels, and she was handy with a pistol. She was the fierce counterpart to her explorer husband.
Sir Samuel Baker continued his work as a mapmaker, explorer, hunter, writer, and abolitionist. He would go on to be knighted and awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
I’ve visited Fort Patiko twice in my travels to Uganda. Both times have left me horrified and inspired. Horrified by the brutal treatment of humans and inspired by the explorer and his wife, who, when faced with the inhumanity of it all, decided to do something about it.
When you visit Fort Patiko, you can see the marks made by the machetes in Execution Rock, but if you climb high onto a different rock, you can see another mark, a cross, painstakingly carved in stone by Lady Florence Baker.
There are so many lessons to be taken to heart from Fort Patiko and from the Bakers, but it always leaves me thinking about how I want to live my life. I know which kind of mark I hope to leave in the world.
I wish I could say that the whole of our time in Uganda has been positive, and for the most part it truly has been, but I’d feel untruthful if I omitted the parts where it hasn’t been.
But how do I tell you about the things that regurgitate themselves in my nightmares? How do I talk about what it’s like seeing people beaten in front of my very eyes? How do I talk about feeling like I have rocks in my stomach for the country I so dearly love? How do I talk about the ugly underbelly?
I guess I just swallow the lump in my throat and begin.
Violence against women was brutally thrust in our faces multiple times on this trip. The first, and most horrifying, instance we witnessed involved a young, homeless, seemingly mentally ill girl standing too close to our outdoor table at our hotel restaurant. She wasn’t harming us, bothering us, or even speaking to us when she was chased off and then repeatedly beaten with a metal rod in the hands of the security guard of our hotel. She ran into the street where the security guard chased after her and kept beating her.
It was shocking and brutal and horrible and the scene is one that haunts my nightmares every night, partially because of the brutality of it all, and partially because I’m ashamed to say that I was too stunned to move. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.
I don’t know if shock is why nobody else in the square moved either, but I fear it’s a regular enough occurrence that to the residents of Gulu, it wasn’t shocking at all.
That girl is someone’s daughter. Maybe someone’s sister. Maybe someone’s mother. She is a human.
When the security guard went after her a second time, I asked one of my adult Uganda sons to go and make him stop. The security guard stopped and said he would “just scare her” from now on.
As if that is somehow less terrorizing.
I had heated words with that security guard and then spoke to the hotel manager later that night. The manager assured me it wouldn’t happen again because it was “unprofessional.”
Try inhumane. Or unconscionable. Or barbaric. Or all of the above.
The girl was not beaten again while we were there, at least not in our presence, but the boulder in my stomach tells me that her reprieve ended when we checked out.
The second instance of violence against a woman came while we were in the main market. We were on the third floor and down on the first floor, the food floor, a woman walking with a bag of potatoes was beaten by a man who was yelling words I didn’t understand. I think she was mentally ill as well or perhaps she’d stolen the potatoes. I really don’t know. The whole of the market stopped and to our horror they all laughed and pointed as she was beaten. Even people we know and love in the market stopped to laugh and point.
I’ll never forget the sight of her bag of potatoes breaking open and the sound as each one thudded to the floor, rolling in all different directions.
Nor will I ever forget the sound of hundreds of people laughing as she was beaten. It also comes cackling through in the quiet of night when my subconscious is still trying to process that it actually happened.
There was nothing Laura and I could do from so far away and again my heart broke because she is someone’s daughter. Maybe someone’s sister. Maybe someone’s mother. She is a human.
The third time I became aware of how pervasive violence against women was in a letter/report from the Bungatira beaders, thanking VK for our support. In the letter the Bungatira beaders listed their top five reasons why this paper bead project is of such great importance to them.
Their top 5 reasons were:
1. It allows them to pay for food starts and not starve during famine.
2. It allows them to pay for medical care.
3. It allows them to pay their children’s school fees.
4. It’s a sustainable income source based on something they’re proud to create themselves.
5. It helps prohibit the gender based domestic violence that is a corollary in poverty stricken households.
It’s one thing to see random acts of violence committed to strangers in the city. It’s a completely new set of rocks in my stomach to know it’s a problem for the village women I know and love, who sit on papyrus mats with suckling babies in their laps while they wrap paper bead jewelry because they know having enough money for the basics means they won’t be beaten.
It’s another reason why the Bungatira Beaders and their paper bead jewelry are so important to us.
It’s why we took on a second set of young women beaders, so they can go to school and hopefully not ever experience such violence.
It’s why we love supporting Ivan the painter. He’s changing his community by hiring women, believing in equality, and painting countless images of strong Ugandan women.
It’s why we love Pastor Amos and Mr. Ekanya at New Hope School in Pawel. They rescue refugee children from the hands of violence and show them that there’s another way.
All of these girls and women are someone’s daughters. Some of them are mothers. Some of them are sisters. All of them are human.
Every penny that we invest in them and into their projects esteems them as all of those things and demonstrates that we, too, are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers.
On Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of joining Mr. Ekanya and one of my former students, Oceing Richard, on a trip to the main market to buy suitcases and shoes for the students and refugees of New Hope school in Pawel, Uganda. Mr. Ekanya and Oceing Richard are both from Pawel and their families were once refugees in the IDP camps during the insurgency of Joseph Kony, so caring for the Sudanese refugee children in Pawel is less of project and more of a calling on their hears that they let us be a part of.
The original plan was to purchase lockers for the refugee children, but further thought revealed that suitcases for their clothing would be better. They’re softer and made of fabric, instead of hard metal that children can easily be hurt on. They have wheels and can be easily moved when cleaning. The suitcases have programmable locks which will help keep their items safe without the extra task of keeping track of a lock and key.
At the market, the suitcases were easy to find and even easier to purchase. They came in different colors and designs, but were all uniform in size and perfect for stowing under the bunk beds of New Hope.
No more refugee children living out of plastic grocery bags. Now they’d each have a place of their own to store their clothes and the few precious possessions they have.
Shopping for shoes in Uganda is, um, a bit different than shoe shopping in the U.S. Shoes are purchased from big racks or piles from stalls in the main market and second hand shoes are preferred because they’re made from rubber and leather, unlike the newer shoes mostly made of synthetics. Common practice is that second hand shoes are polished with black shoe polish and re-sold.
Oceing Richard had already traced the feet of all of the children and he brought those tracings with him to the market. I remember tracing the ticklish feet of some very excited Ugandan children when I bought shoes for a whole first grade class a few years ago. Tracing the feet of the 61 children of New Hope was no small task!
Mr. Ekanya and Oceing, with the help of three eager shoe saleswomen and one shoe salesman, set about the painstaking business of matching each shoe to each traced foot of each child. It was no easy task and after several hours on Thursday afternoon and several more hours on Friday morning, they found 61 pairs of shoes for 61 pairs of little feet.
For some of the children of New Hope, these shoes will be their first pair of shoes.
New Hope School doubles as a church and on our last Sunday in Uganda Laura and I will attend church at New Hope School in Pawel. I’m eager to see the children in their new shoes and to see their things stored in suitcases in their homes.
Vigilantes, I can’t thank you enough for providing for these children with such generosity and care. You’ve shod the feet of the future of Uganda and I can’t wait to see where these kids go.