Lanyero Mama

“Mum, ask me a question.”  Martin doodles on his notebook.  We are seated side by side, so close that our hips touch.

“Let me think of one.”

“You always ask me challenging questions that make me think.”  He smiles at me, pausing in his drawing.

“I’m sorry, son, I can’t think of one today.  My brain is too sad to think of a question.”

“My brain is sad, too, Mum.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“Me, too, but African men don’t cry.  When we’re sad we just feel out of place.”

“That makes sense to me.  I feel out of place, but I’ll probably cry a little tomorrow.”

“Don’t cry, Mum.”

“I might.  But I did think of a question.”

“What is it?”

“My question is ‘What have you been thinking about today?’.”

“What have you been thinking about today?”  Martin bats the question back to me with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

“I asked you first.  So you have to answer first.”  I nudge him with my elbow.

“Give me another question.”

“Okay, how about this.  My boda driver asked me if any of the students had given me an Acholi name yet.  I told him no.  He said I should be named Aber Alicia because ‘aber’ means good and he says I’m good to everyone.  Do you think that’s a good name for me?”

“No, it’s no good.  Your name is Lanyero.  Lanyero Alicia is what you should be called.”

“What does it mean?”

“Lanyero means laughter, joyous, happy.  It also means comforter.”  He meets my eyes and mine well up with tears.  He looks down at his sketches.

“I love it.  Did you know that Alicia means ‘truthful one’?”

“No, I didn’t know it.”

“So Lanyero Alicia means ‘one who takes joy in telling the truth’.”

“Mum, I’m really going to miss you.”

“Me, too.  I feel like my heart is in my throat.”

Martin shoots me a puzzled look.

“That means I’m really sad.  I’m having a hard time swallowing my sadness back down.”

“You’ve taught me something new, Mum.  My heart is on my throat, too.”

I feel a smile slip through my lips as I picture his heart on his throat.

“You can cry if you want to, Mum.  African women cry very loudly.”

“I’m not African, Martin.”

“Yes, you are.  I just named you so.  Lanyero Alicia.  But I won’t call you that.”

“You won’t? Why not?”

“I’ll call you Lanyero Mama.”

“That’s my favorite name.”  I put my arm around him and squeeze this boy who named me, this son who has claimed me as his unlikely mother.

Martin & I

A Different Drum

“The reward of our work is not what we get, but what we become.” Paulo Coelho

I’m becoming someone different, different and yet the same. I’m the same person who loves my husband with abandon. I’m the same person who squirrels away pockets of time just to write. I’m the same person who loves teaching kids.

But I’m also becoming this other person. I have a different idea of who God is. I have a different definition of what a mother is. My heart beats to a different drum. I’m becoming someone else and I think she’s the woman I was always meant to be.

This woman packs her bravery into a suitcase and ventures out to help kids write their stories. This woman has a looser definition of clean. This woman walks the world with curls blazing out of her head in a mad frenzy. This woman swims in the coal black eyes of orphans.

I worry that when I return home, I won’t belong. I’ll always belong in the arms of my beloved. And in the arms of my mother. But everything feels different.  Even my own skin is shades darker, like my Ugandan children have laid their hands on my arms and claimed me as their own.

I think of money differently, like how can I make more in order to do more good? I think of time differently. One of my Ugandan boys chides me for “walking too fast to think”. I think of food differently, watching my children dig and sow in the rich earth.

I feel like my heart is split in two. No, not even that, more like I now have two hearts beating in syncopation. One is the steady pulse of the life I’ve always loved-the life I love still-and the other is the patter of midnight hands tapping out life on drumskins. The rewards of this work are many and surely one of the richest rewards is who I’m becoming.

Still I wonder who I will become when my feet return home.

Geoffrey’s Ear

“He’s the one who cut my ear.”  Geoffrey looks at the ground and twists a piece of grass between his fingers.  It surprises me how in this moment, nineteen year-old Geoffrey reminds me of a little boy.

“Do you want to tell me more about that?”  Up until that point my questions about his story for our book were benign.  How old are you?  How long did you live with your grandmother?

I’d known Geoffrey for going on 2 weeks, and I’d come to love this orphaned boy.  He is sweet in unexpected moments, mischievous in others and I love both sides of him.

I’d noticed his ear on my first day at the academy, when he saw me with a camera and asked if I’d show him how to use it.  I didn’t ask him about his ear, figuring he’d tell me if and when he was ready.

Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee

What I didn’t know is that when he was ready, he’d tell me a story for which I’d never be ready.

Geoffrey’s parents died when he was a young child.  His father died at the hands of a LRA soldier and his mother died shortly thereafter of an illness.  After their deaths Geoffrey lived with his grandmother, but unfortunately her hut was located in an area that was soon infested with LRA soldiers set on kidnapping children to turn into child soldiers.  To protect fourteen year-old Geoffrey, his grandmother sent him to live with his uncle.

Geoffrey’s father was a rough man; prone to acts of abuse inflicted on his children and even his younger brother, the uncle Geoffrey came to live with.

“Why would he cut your ear?  I don’t understand.”  I stammer.

“He was taking revenge on my late father.”  Geoffrey meets my eyes and I blink back tears.

“I still don’t understand.  Why would he cut your ear?  How is that revenge on your father?”  I probe further.

“I went to church in Gulu to pray and my uncle, who didn’t believe in God told me not to pray.  When he found out I’d gone to church to pray, he told me ‘You never listen!’ and then he flashed a knife and cut off part of my ear.”

I will the hot vomit rising in my throat back down into my stomach where it gurgles and boils.

“Did you go to the hospital?”  I gulp for air, trying to give him the space to continue if he so chooses.

“I walked to the clinic.”

“Did you continue living with your uncle after that?”

“No.”  He shook his head.

“Where did you live?”

“On the streets.”

“For how long?”

“Two years.  Then my cousin’s sister found me and I lived with her for a little while and then more on the streets.  Now I live here.”  He looks around at the academy.  “I have my own place in town.”

“How do you pay for your own place?”

“During holidays I work here at the academy doing construction and I save that money so I can have a place to live.”

He keeps talking and I look at his ear until white-hot fury blinds me and I have to blink it away.

It is enough to be orphaned.

It is enough to leave your home to avoid becoming a child guerilla.

It is too much to suffer violence inflicted by the very family meant to protect you.

It’s too much.

On the inside I am choking on my anger, willing myself to remain calm while he unpacks the rest of his story.

Geoffrey continues, telling me about school and about the American family-his family– who helps pay for his school fees.  He tells me about his future plans to open up an orphanage to care for lost children and my heart swells with pride for this boy.  My fingers can barely keep up with him as I take down his words.

The day I showed Geoffrey how to use my camera, he took off with it for a couple of hours, snapping photos all around the school.  That night back in town, I looked at the images he’d captured.  I was taken aback by some of his shots.  He has a natural way of seeing people and capturing light.  I suspect this comes from watching people from the outside.

I suspect that as he grows into a man, Geoffrey will always have an eye for seeing people.  I also have a feeling that throughout his life he will hear the voice of God speaking clearly, whispering into his severed ear that he is loved, he belongs and that he is in fact a valued part of a big family.

“We need to work on your title a little bit, Geoffrey, to make it match your story.”  We toss ideas back and forth for a few minutes and then Geoffrey smiles.

“I know what to call it.”  Geoffrey grins from ear to ear.

“Tell me.”  My fingers hover over my keyboard.

“I want to call it ‘Finding Family’.”

My First Ugandan Son

Before leaving home for Uganda, I promised Terry I wouldn’t return with an orphaned baby.  Frankly, the motherhood gene skipped me completely so it was an easy promise to make.

Until I met Opiyo Martin.  I call him Martin for short, but nine times out of ten, I call him son.

He’s a smart boy, loving and warm.  Oh, and he’s 19 years old-way past the drooling baby stage.  Thank God.

photo courtesy of Colin Higbee

One day I was hen-pecking Martin about something, like taking time to eat or straightening his tie, and in his best teenage boy voice he replied, “Okay, Mum.”  “You’re a good son, Martin.” I smiled.  And that was it, I was a goner.

As so many unexpectedly sweet things do, it felt natural and right, like I’d been calling him son all his life, like this child was born out of my heart, if not my womb.

He greets me every morning with a “Hi, Mum.” and a hug.  He finds me during lunch time to make sure I have food, often times offering me his food if I have yet to get mine.  This act may not sound like a big deal, but if Martin gave me his food, it would mean he wouldn’t eat lunch that day.  And yet he offers, knowing full well that his offer comes with sacrifice.  At the end of the day if Martin knows I’m leaving, I get another hug and an escort to the gate.

Martin devours literature.  He sings all of the time and I can’t help but giggle when he sings the wrong words, kind of like someone else I know.  Ahem.  He writes songs, raps, poetry and anything else he can think to scrawl on a piece of paper.  He wants to be a writer or a pastor when he grows up.

He is so obviously my son.

Martin has his own family here in Uganda.  Two of his younger cousins attend the academy with him.  His uncle teaches literature.  He has an older sister who is already married and a nine-year old brother still in primary school.  As with so many students here, he is impoverished of his parents, but rich in non-traditional family members and I’m blessed to be folded into his family.

Today I had the pleasure of working one on one with Martin on the story he’s penning for our book.  Earlier in the week, Martin mentioned that he wanted my help in writing, so when it came time for us to work, I didn’t hold back.  I asked question after question about details he’d left unanswered.  He answered each one, painting in gritty details that cut to the heart of who he is.

In the face of evil that threatened to end his life, Martin, my beautiful son, chose to forgive.  Typing that word ‘forgive’, it’s the only time I’ve ever felt the word doesn’t adequately describe the depth of forgiveness.  Martin didn’t just forgive, but he forgave with utter absolution that I can only begin to fathom.

I’m not writing his story here for many reasons, but the chief reason is that his story pierces such a raw place in my spirit that I physically cannot type it through my tears.  I’m profoundly proud of him, proud to know him, proud to be called Mum, proud to call him son.

In this surprising and wonderful mother-son relationship, I’m teaching my son to write with heart while he teaches me to live with heart.

There is Always Hope

Hopeful William

William stands in the hot Africa sun, squinting up at me.

“There is always hope.” he says flashing a smile.

“Yes, there is always hope.” I agree.  “William, may I take your picture?  I want to remember your story.”

“Yes.  And then I will write my story for you so you won’t forget.”  He smiles again and I feel my face mirror his.

This is William’s story.

When William was thirteen, he and his two older sisters were abducted from school by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They were enslaved for 4 months, forced to carry weapons and heavy loads of food and other supplies.  They marched all day and slept in the open at night, sometimes marching straight through the nights, never uttering a word of complaint.  Complaining meant death.  Marching meant life and maybe even a little food.

But William was smart, is smart.  He knew he could escape if they were ambushed by the government army.  During ambushes, everyone ran in all directions, firing in all directions, not paying attention to the children.  And so William and his sisters waited for an ambush.  When one came, William ran as fast as his legs could carry him.

William stares at the ground and stops telling his story.  William made it back home.  His sisters did not.  He tells me he is still waiting for word from them.  William is 19 now.  He meets my gaze and I press my lips together, folding them into my mouth, unwilling to say the words that he can’t.

Upon returning home, William found that his parents had divorced.  What marriage could survive the abduction of three children?  William’s father couldn’t stand by any longer and joined the government army in opposition to the LRA.

Shortly after their father joined the military, their mother passed away, leaving William and his older brother to care for each other.  When they would see their father, they’d beg him to stay home to raise them, to quit fighting and take care of them.  But their father could not, could not let the LRA continue to rape Uganda of her children.

William’s father was shot in the arm with a bullet filled with acid and didn’t recover from his injury.  He passed away leaving William and his brother orphaned in every sense of the word.

William pauses and I offer my condolences, weak words that can’t begin to match the loss of his father, mother and sisters.  William puts his hand on mine.

“All God’s servants pass through hard conditions.  Glory, glory be to God who lifts us up.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, trying to digest this proclamation of glory in the wake of devastation.  I wonder if I would be so quick to praise God after such hardship.  I know the answer and swallow the ugly truth back down.

William graduated from high school in November, 2011.  He works at that school now as an assistant in their science lab.  He will attend community college or university next year where he’ll earn a degree in business.  His brother, now a local pastor, is happily married with seven children.

William smiles talking about his nieces and nephews.  In their faces he sees the future of Uganda.

And it’s a good future.  Because of young men like William who know that in the harrowing shadow of loss, there is always hope.

Piercing the Sky

Lakot warms up.

Uganda is home to, a young woman named Lakot, the Ugandan young women’s javelin champion.  She’s seventeen years old and can throw the javelin 45 meters.

Yesterday I happened upon Lakot on her way to practice and I asked if I could tag along.  She welcomed me on one condition; I had to throw, too.

Which is AWESOME in my book.  I agreed in a heartbeat and Lakot and I set off for the field with a javelin, a pair of discs, three shot put balls, and two empty water bottles filled with sand.

“What are these for?”  I asked, turning the sand in the bottle.

“For practicing the javelin.  They’re heavy and good for throwing.”

“Okay.”  I merrily trailed behind, excited for my lesson.

Lakot threw first.  She took a breath, centering herself and clearing her mind of outside things.  Then she cocked her arm back, ran forward and pitched the javelin.  Her sinewy arms and strong legs worked in tandem, like they were born for this, born to run and throw, born to launch the javelin in a perfect arc, piercing the blue sky.  The javelin landed in the middle of the field spiking itself into the ground, an exclamation point to her statement that she is an athlete to be contended with.

She retrieved the javelin and threw again.  This time it landed prostrate on the ground.  She ran and picked it up.

“This javelin is no good.”  She shook her head.

“No good?  Why not?”  I laughed, thinking that’s something I’d say after a throw that didn’t land.

“Look at the middle.  It’s broken.  They pieced it back together.”  She held the javelin out to me.  Sure enough the javelin was broken in half and had been pushed back together.

Javelins are WAY heavier than they look!

“Now you.”  She handed the javelin to me and I held it in my hand, measuring the balance and weight of it, while Lakot coached me.

“Hold it in your right hand.  Bring your arm back straight and when you’re ready, open up.  Open up your hand and release it.”

I practiced moving my arm and hand and then I exhaled like Lakot had done, trying to clear away outside things.

Throwing a javelin is hard in a dress! Ready…set…

I hiked up my dress and I threw.

GO!!!

My throw landed significantly short of Lakot’s and it flopped on the ground.

“Good job!  You did it!” Lakot cheered like I’d just set the world record.

I threw a few more times, each javelin landing limp on the field, each attempt celebrated by Lakot, the ever-patient coach.  She also showed me how to throw shotput and discus, and though I was equally terrible at both, Lakot had nothing but encouraging words and suggestions for how to improve my next throw.

The current women’s world record for the javelin is 72.28 meters.  Lakot has to throw 49 meters to qualify for the Junior Olympics.  She has her eyes set on the Olympics, on wearing the gold around her neck and standing on the podium for Uganda.

It’s a lofty goal for a girl who practices with a broken javelin and water bottles filled with sand, but Lakot is strong in ways that leave me stunned.  In a single breath, she closes out her past and in the moment she throws, she is a woman moving through this world with agility, strength of mind and depth of heart.

Lakot throws and shows the beauty of clarity and strength.

Legend has it that Hercules was the first to throw the javelin, using his superior strength pierce the hearts of his enemies with the javelin.

Hercules has nothing on Lakot.  She is a woman who aims for the sky and hits her target.  When the 2016 Olympics come around, I’m confident that Lakot will make her mark on history and indeed pierce the hearts of men and women all over the world.

A Mile in Their Shoes

After church on Sunday, Colin and I stayed at the school for the afternoon and hung out with the kids.  Sunday is their only full day off from school and it was great to spend a little time getting to know them.

These kids are so funny.  Laughter is like breathing here, bubbling out of the easy smiles of the students.  It’s the white noise of the campus.

It never ceases to amaze me what kids will share if you just spend time with them sans agenda.  Colin and I were sitting in the shade of one of the outdoor classrooms shooting the breeze with the kids, talking about things like rap music and soccer.

Then the conversation took a turn and the kids started talking about their experiences as night travelers during the terror-filled years when Kony rampaged through the north.

Each night they’d travel the dark road from their houses and huts and into Gulu.  You can’t imagine the pitch darkness of this road.  No glow of electricity.  No flashlights.  Only stars pin pricking the sky and the white face of the moon to watch over them.  The boys walked for miles with their cousins and siblings, an ant trail of children hurrying along the edges of the roads in search of shelter and the hope of safety in town.  One particular boy was ten years old at the time.  I think about my nieces and nephews who are around that age and I imagine them walking that dark road together and my heart fills with agony that spills out of my eyes.

The boys talked about family members who were taken; uncles whisked away, fathers snatched out of the potato garden in the early morning hours.  They talked about family members who are still missing and about others who were mercifully released.

They also told stories of children forced into servitude for the LRA, walking for days with heavy loads balanced on their heads.  A single utterance hinting at hunger or fatigue meant a sure and swift death.

The boys told horrific stories that I can’t even bring myself to type because the malevolent inhumanity of it burns in my stomach and causes hot vomit to sizzle in my throat.

It’s fitting to me that the new campus is built in what was once one of the most violent and unstable areas in Northern Uganda.  The heart of the school is their dedication to love and justice and I can’t think of a more fitting place to make such a declaration.

On our way home Sunday, Colin and I walked part of the road used by the night traveling children.  Two of the boys escorted us and I couldn’t help but sneak peeks at their faces, imagining younger versions of them making this walk in the dead of night.  We walked about a mile before flagging down bodas that took us the remaining nine miles back into Gulu.

Sunday night my heart was heavy, weighing me down in my sleep as the boys’ stories came to life in my nightmares.

Every good teacher learns from his or her students.  Here in Uganda, I’m eager to learn how these children walked the darkest road and arrived at this destination, to a time and place where laughing is like breathing.