Amarowu Bene

Every morning, Laura and I start the day with Luo lessons just after breakfast. Our tutor is Opiyo Chris, one of my most skilled writing students from the first year I taught in Uganda. You may remember his face from my second year when I taught a writing workshop about what my students and I believe.

I love everything about this kid. He’s funny. He’s kind. He’s hardworking. And he’s ever so patient with us as we, his faithful students, struggle to learn basic things like the alphabet, numbers, months of the year, days of the week, and the basic things every good kindergartener in Uganda already knows.

Opiyo Chris is 22 now and has completed all six years of high school. He works at a restaurant and earns enough to buy food and keep the electricity on, most of the time.

Opiyo Chris.jpgChris shows up every morning dressed sharply and on time, just like a real teacher. His language skills are excellent, something I knew from the very first essay he wrote with me, but beyond that he is an natural teacher, always striking the right balance between challenging us and encouraging us. He reminds me of the kind of teacher I want to be when I get my new batch of first graders next month.

We pay him out of our Work Study Scholarship Project, which allows students and families to use their gifts to earn school fees. Leku Ivan and Babu Ojok paint. The Bungatira Beaders and the Art Factory Gulu Girls make paper bead jewelry. Opiyo Chris patiently instructs us on things like how to make our very American mouths say the troublesome Luo ng sound.

Our lessons are $5 per person for an hour long intensive lesson. At the end of our first lesson, I reached into my wallet to pay him and Chris stopped me. “Mom, can you pay me at the end? It’s a lot of money and I don’t want to waste it. Can you hold it for me so I can have it all at the end for my school fees?” I agreed immediately, so proud that he didn’t want the temptation to squander a single shilling.

One of my favorite phrases in Luo is, “Amarowu bene.” It means, “I love you all so much.” Vigilantes, your generous donations to our Work Study Project allow students and families access to education. You are changing lives and for that I say to you amarowu bene.

Meet Babu Ojok

In one corner of Art Factory Gulu there are bold, beautiful paintings, brighter than all of the others in the shop. They’re made with bright colors mixed with the bold prints of traditional African fabrics. When I asked Leku Ivan who the painter was, Ivan replied, “He’s one of my students.”

Yesterday while I was in Art Shop Gulu visiting and working out the details of purchasing paintings and paper bead jewelry, a quiet young man in a baseball cap approached me.

“My name is Babu Ojok.” He looked at his feet and spoke so softly that he had to repeat himself three times and even then I couldn’t hear him. I made him write his name in my notebook and I introduced myself.

“I want to show you my paintings.” He spoke a little louder this time and lifted his eyes to meet mine.

“I’d love to see your paintings. Show me.” I followed him to the corner of the Art Shop where all of his brilliantly colored paintings stood.

“You made these? I’ve been wanting to meet you!” I squealed, momentarily forgetting my manners. “You have a great eye for using color and pattern.”

“Thank you,” he smiled and looked at his shoes again.

“Are you in school?” I asked, the wheels in my head turning, hoping this kid would qualify for Work Study Scholarship money.

He shook his head. “No, I completed my Senior 6 year, but I failed to earn school fees for university. I live with my uncle and he is struggling to pay my school fees. I want to go back to school, but the money isn’t there.”

“I think we can help with that. Tell me about your paintings.” I smiled.

Then Babu Ojok’s face absolutely lit up as he talked about each of his paintings, their names, what they mean to him, and how he made them.

I collected all of the information including prices for each piece so Laura could crunch the numbers and see if there was any possibility to include Babu as one of our Work Study Scholarship recipients this year.

As I was preparing to leave, Babu Ojok handed me a painting. “This is a gift for you, to thank you for all of the good work you’re doing.”

“Thank you so much. I’ll accept it on one condition. Will you let me sell it so that the money can go back into our scholarship fund to send more students in Uganda to school?”

He smiled. “Yes, that would be good.”

Back at the hotel, Laura crunched the numbers. Buying all of Babu Ojok’s paintings will take our Work Study Scholarship down to nothing and I can’t think of a better way to spend our last penny.

As I drifted off to sleep last night I smiled thinking of Babu Ojok, about how glad I was that this quiet artist tucked under a baseball cap was bold enough to introduce himself, bold enough to ask for the chance to go back to school.

Vigilantes, meet Babu Ojok. Write his name in your notebooks. He’s a kid you won’t want to forget.

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Feel at Home in Bungatira

Laura and I rode boda bodas into the bush of Bungatira yesterday. I never tire of the feeling of wind in my face and the contrast of the red dirt against the lush, green landscape. There is a saying in Uganda when you visit someone’s home. They will say, “Feel at home,” which means you should feel free to be yourself there. Of all the places I love in Uganda, Bungatira, the home of my boda driver Denis and his family, is where I feel most at home.

My African Mama, Maria, greeted us, ever with a song in her heart and light in her eyes. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She is the embodiment of joy and love and generosity and strength.

Mama doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak enough Luo to carry on a conversation well, but there’s a simple and divine beauty in being able to sit hand in hand with another human when the only words you know are, “How are you?” “Thank you.” “Me, too.” and “I love you very much.”

I think it’s that same kind of simplicity that made me love this visit to Bungatira. It was just a day of regular life in Bungatira. Many times when I visit, I have community business to attend to, elders to meet with, groups to speak with, projects to discuss. Many times I’m seated with or in front of a group of fifty or more and while I appreciate each and every one of those times it makes the times when I can just sit on the papyrus mat with the mamas and their babies that much more precious. I truly feel like one of the family then.

Days like those are rare so I soaked up every detail. The banana tree leaves rustled in the. The roosters strutted about the compound calling out to the hens. A gloriously fat pig napped in the sun. A mother goat gave birth to her kid. Maize dried in the sun and we walked through the farms, our dresses and skirts prickled with black jerk.

Mamas strung paper beads into bracelets and necklaces while babies nursed, and cooed, and toddled nearby on the mat. The squeals and laughter of children, who are much taller than when I last saw them, playing after school was the soundtrack to our visit. Babies found swaths of sunshine for reading books. And beautiful Mama Maria tossed and sifted the corn in such a way that it made a rhythmic shushing sound almost like the sound of distant waves.

When it came time for lunch, Denis’ wife, Vickie, served us traditional Acoli food in the cool dark of their hut. It was delicious and when the meal was over we attended to our small business of buying paper bead jewelry, giving them another supply of magazines, and handing over half of the solar lights, which will be useful when the ladies are making paper bead jewelry inside at night.

When it was time to return to Gulu, we all hugged each other a million times and then Laura and I climbed back onto our boda bodies and rode back to Gulu, feeling the complete peace and ease of spirit that comes with feeling completely at home.

Thank you for supporting our Paper Bead Project so that the children of Bungatira can go to school. It means a lot to me that you love my loved ones in Uganda so well. If you’re lucky enough to buy some of the beautiful jewelry created by these artisans, it’s my hope that when you wear it you’ll smile and feel just a little more at home.

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A Welcome Party and a Sneak Peek

The welcome party thrown by Ivan and his colleagues at Art Shop Gulu was really just so sweet. Each time I walk up the stairs into Art Shop Gulu, it gives me chills, thinking of where Ivan came from and how hard he and his fellow artists have worked to create this space.

There was singing.

There was cake.

And of course there was art and paper bead jewelry galore! Here’s a sneak peek at a small selection of the pieces that will be available at our September 8th Paper Bead Jewelry and Painting Sale in Redding, CA. Any remaining pieces will be for sale online after that.

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Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Meet Sharon, Sharon, and Good Lynn

It is still a fact of life that in many areas near Gulu, women are considered property. It’s hard to reconcile that this still occurs in 2018, but it does.

When they are not thought of as property, they are still often looked at as second class citizens. If a family has to choose between sending their son or daughter to school because they can only afford to send one child to school, they will often choose to send the boy because he has a better chance of getting a job and earning a living.

To even have a CHANCE at an education, girls have to work doubly hard.

When Leku Ivan threw us a welcome party at his shop one of the things that most excited me was getting to meet his three female colleagues who take care of the books, do the inventory, promote the shop, and create their own items to sell. In other words, who run the world? Girls!

Ivan believes that men and women are equal and within his shop he and his partner, Mike, have established a culture of respect and fairness. That in itself is remarkable.

Meet Sharon, Sharon, and Lynn. Sharon and Sharon are cousins, both named after their grandmother, Sharon. One Sharon is 21 years old and the other is 19, so they call themselves Old Sharon and Young Sharon, naturally. Lynn is just 17 and is Aber Lynn, which means Good Lynn. Sharon and Sharon call Lynn their sister.

During the war when Joseph Kony and the LRA rebels were slaughtering villages of people and abducting women from their homes, Old Sharon’s mother was abducted. She was one of a group of five women who attempted to escape. Three were killed. Two escaped. Old Sharon’s mother was one of the lucky two.

After her escape and the end of the war, Old Sharon’s mother was taught how to make paper beads in order to have a skill to earn a living. Her mother passed this skill down to both Sharons who are now making and selling paper bead jewelry to earn school fees.

Aber Lynn is a war orphan and was living on the streets when Old Sharon found her, and determined that she wasn’t going to let Lynn become a prostitute like so many other young girls on the street. Old Sharon took Lynn to live with her and taught her how to make paper beads, too.

Aber Lynn asked Ivan for a job at Art Factory Gulu and he hired her. It’s always been part of his dream to use art to help homeless kids earn a living and get kids off of the street. Now his dream is coming to fruition and Aber Lynn is safe, employed, and working hard.

After the singing and cake cutting and festivities of the party, I was taking photos of Ivan’s paintings when Old Sharon mustered up her bravery and told me their story. She asked, “Would it be possible for you to buy some of our paper bead jewelry to support us in going to school?” I told her that we already have a Paper Bead Project in Bungatira. She looked crestfallen until I told her, “No, what I mean is that we already know how well the paper bead jewelry sells and we always run out of jewelry and we’d love to partner with you.” She hugged me and asked, “Do you need to consult with your organization?” I said, “We are a board of women who believe in education is for everyone. Believe me, our answer is YES! We have a Work Study Scholarship fund for students like you who have a gift and are willing to put that gift to work to earn school fees. We will buy all of your jewelry, so make as much of it as you can before we return home.” Then Old Sharon replied, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! We will be #teamnosleep because we will just be up all night making jewelry.”

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Vigilantes, I honestly don’t know how we are going to do it, but we are determined to buy every necklace, bracelet, and earring from the Art Shop Gulu Girl Beaders because we believe that when you educate a girl, you educate the world. And for us that starts with a pair of Sharons and a seventeen year old named Good Lynn.

Want to support the Art Factory Gulu Girls Work Study Project? Visit our Current Projects page to make a donation to the Work Study Project. 

Leku Ivan’s Dream Come True

Leku Ivan pulled up in a van he painted himself. A lion greeted me on the hood and Bob Marley grinned at me from the door. I ran to him forgetting to push in my chair or even to zip my backpack and we hugged for a long time in the streets of Gulu.

I couldn’t stop hugging him, this young man with a beard and a lone long dreadlock, who used to be a goofy, orphaned teenager in a school uniform with tightly cropped hair.

After the hugging stopped and I blinked back a tear or two, Ivan sat with Laura and I for dinner and told us all about his life. His sister Lillian is a stay at home mom now in Kampala on the other side of the country. Ivan has relocated his shop, Art Factory Gulu, into the main market. He now has a business partner, Mike, and three female colleagues who help run the shop, balance the books, keep inventory, and do all the other little things so that Ivan can spend his time doing what he does best: painting.

His shop has a gallery packed with paintings. At least once a month he teaches art workshops in the shop or travels in his van teaching art classes to groups that hire him.

Best of all, Ivan, who once reluctantly told me he was stopping school after graduating from his fourth year of high school (there are 6 years in Uganda), sat across the table from me and told me that he’s back in school. He’s taking art classes in Kampala to get his degree in art and then he wants to get his certificate to become an art teacher.

This kid.

That evening we strolled to the market to see his shop. We walked upstairs and I had to swallow back a lump in my throat and there was absolutely no use in trying to blink back the tears.

The stairwell was filled with art and as it opened up into the shop, there were paintings hung everywhere. Ivan’s paintings and the paintings of his students and colleagues filled the space with color, beauty, and life.

I was immediately drowned in memories. I remembered Ivan, the timid student asking if I’d like to look at some of his paintings and maybe purchase one to help him with school fees.

I remembered him painting out on the street from a closet sized shop to have enough money for food.

I remembered Ivan being so excited when he sold a painting so that he could buy his sister a brand new dress.

I remembered it all and as I walked up the staircase of his new shop I was undone with love for this kid who worked tirelessly to make his dream of being an artist come true.

Ivan told us some of the stories behind his paintings and I was once again moved at how he expressed his desire to encourage peace and love in his city through art.

Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he said he was throwing us a welcoming party in the art shop the following day. There would be cake and singing and celebrating.

I’ve never even seen cake in Uganda so the fact that Ivan spent his money on having a cake made told me that this was going to be something special.

I had no idea just how truly special it would be or that the next act of Vigilante Kindness was waiting there for me next to the cake.

Stop Telling Me, “Be Safe.”

After a 2 hour taxi ride and a six and a half hour bus ride, Laura and I arrived in Gulu on Tuesday, exhausted and happy to be to my Ugandan home at last. Gulu is more joyful and peaceful than I’ve ever seen before. It’s such a delight to be back and to see a new lightness where the darkness of war once prevailed.

Vigilantes, we need to have a chat. I love sharing stories from this part of my life with you, but in order for me to continue doing that we have to agree on something, okay? I need you to stop telling me, “Be safe,” or “Stay safe,” or “Be careful.”

You can rest assured that I take my safety very seriously and I take all of the necessary precautions to protect my one precious and wild life.

I notified the Embassy of my travel plans. I wear my seatbelt at all times on the plane. I wear a helmet when I ride boda bodas. I am supremely cautious with my water intake. I am fastidious with my mosquito net. I keep my doors locked at all times. I am militant in taking my anti malarial pills. My only perfume is a combination of sunscreen and mosquito repellant. I am acutely aware of what’s happening around me on the streets at all times. Safety is ever present in the back of my mind.

I know your wishes, prayers, and pleadings for my safety come from a place of love, but since Tuesday evening, I’ve received 41 comments or messages imploring me to be safe. 41. In a single day. Make that 42 because as I was typing that sentence, another message to, “Be safe,” popped up on my screen. Make it 43 because as I was getting ready to post this, I received a well-intentioned, “Stay safe.”

We don’t tell men this same message. We tell men to have fun or to have a great time. We tell women to stay safe.

Do you know what repeatedly being told, “Stay safe,” does?

For me it does two things.

It makes me more UNSAFE and puts me MORE at risk because it insinuates I’m in danger and plants seeds of fear. Guys, I cannot, I will not, waste a second here walking around keeping company with fear.

Secondly, it makes me feel smaller. Being a woman traveling in a developing country and being in danger shouldn’t be an automatic correlation. That is a wrong thought pattern on our part that also has roots in fear. It’s one that has to change.

Please don’t make me smaller. Don’t be afraid for me. Nothing worthwhile in my life has ever been accomplished by playing it safe. I bet the same could be said of your life, too.

Do I want your well wishes and prayers? Absolutely, 100 times over. Here are some things you can say to me instead.

Tell me to be bold.

Tell me to be fearless in pursuing what God has in store for me.

Tell me you’re praying for God’s voice to be clear in my ears.

Tell me to be bottomless with hope and generous with compassion and open armed with love.

Tell me to stand tall in my calling.

Then go find another woman or girl in your life, in fact go find ALL of the women and girls in your life, and tell them those very same things.