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.


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.

A Room With A View

I left CSI: Bathroom on the second day in Gulu, moving up two floors into the only other vacant room in the hotel.

This room isn’t perfect either, but I no longer fear that my shower is going to come alive at night or that the toilet is going to inflict a disease on me.

My sink doesn’t work, but at least the faucet is attached to the wall so that I hold out hope that it will work one of these days.  It makes a great bathroom storage area for flowery headbands and other bathroomly things.

There’s no electricity in my bathroom which is actually okay, because even the thought of makeup vanishes in the sweat that begins each morning and only ceases when I lay down on top of the cool sheet at night.

The other benefit of no electricity in the bathroom is that I can’t be bothered to even attempt to tame my curls, which have taken on a life, and perhaps a solar system, of their own.  From what I can see out of my peripheral vision, the force grows stronger with my hair every day.  Only time will tell if it remains fairly well-behaved or if it turns to the dark side.  I think it’s going to be the dark side because anytime one clearly sees their hair from the periphery, that hair is clearly up to no good.

But cold water, and on rare occasions even hot water, flows freely from the shower head and the toilet no longer causes me nightmares.

And check out my dresser/closet/pantry/medicine cabinet/table complete with chair.

Perhaps my favorite thing about my new room is the view.  I look out on Gulu now, out onto buildings under construction.  The rhythm of hammers is the heartbeat of a town rebuilding herself, one nail at a time.

From my window I see houses and huts side by side, the new and the old married here.

Gulu is up to become a city this year.  She would be the second official city in Uganda.  Gulu residents are excited at the prospect of more industry and municipalities that reach the outskirts of town.  They hope Gulu will become like Kampala, a polluted, crowded, noisy racket of a city.  I want what’s best for Gulu and I’m just not sure bigger is always better.  So for now, I’ll relish the clink of hammers and enjoy my view of small, kindhearted Gulu.

Finding Beauty. Ahem.

This was my hotel room in Entebbe where I spent my first night in Africa.  It was a lovely room with a bed I sank into before falling asleep to the sounds of Africa outside my window and the hum of the fan cutting through the humid air.  It’s fitting that I was in Suite 16.  It just sounds right, doesn’t it?  After two days of traveling, I took great delight in this oasis.  In the morning I had a hot shower and enjoyed a breakfast cooked just for me.  It was a shame I’d only be spending the one night there and another night upon my return to the airport at the end of the month.

In Gulu, I expected my room to be the same caliber.  Here’s a shot of my toilet in Gulu.


I’m sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you.  Quick, try to think of pretty flowers or cute bunnies or something.  Try not to think about how my toilet looks like a crime scene.

While staying here, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ryan and his lotus tattoo.  Part of the adventure is finding beauty in unexpected places, right?  Right???

So the beauty of this toilet is that it flushes and because I’m a girl I don’t actually face the horror of the back of the toilet when I squat to do my business.

You looked at the toilet picture again, didn’t you?  Sorry.

Let me replace it with a different image.  Here’s my “shower”.  I say shower because the shower nozzle doesn’t work, meaning I get to stand in the bucket and splash water on my dirty bits while dunking my head under the faucet.  The beauty in this is that the hot water tap is a ruse and there is only cold water here, so really I wouldn’t have wanted to actually stand under a freezing cold shower anyway, right?  Since the sink doesn’t work, the shower is technically my sink, too, meaning I can save time by taking care of all of my showering, sink and toilet needs at the same time.  And who doesn’t like to save a little time now and then?

What you can’t tell from the picture is that several times a night the shower faucet spontaneously fires massive amounts of water into the tub below with such force that the first night it woke me from a dead sleep.  The beauty in that situation is that the first time it happened, I’d just recently used my CSI toilet so I didn’t pee my sheets.

This is the sleeping part of  my room.  Note the pristine mosquito net.  It was part of an end of the year gift from one of my students.  The net that previously covered my bed was riddled with holes which is actually counter productive when it comes to mosquito nets because it only serves to trap them inside the net instead of keeping them out.  So the beauty in this is that I now get to tell my former student just how much I appreciated her thoughtful gift.

But wait, the beauty of this room doesn’t end there.  Check out my view.  Breathtaking in a sort of gasping for air kind of way, no?  Note the lack of screen on the window, meaning that when I can’t possibly take the humid air a second longer and have to open the window, I get to study a variety of insects from inside the safety of my mosquito net.  I do love a good entomology lesson.  I don’t even want to think about what the bars are for.  No, I don’t know what that stain on the window is and, yes, people walk by my window and say hello.  Hang on a sec, I’m going to go look at my toilet to make myself feel better about my window.

Okay, where was I?  Ah yes, my window.  What you can’t tell from the picture is that there’s a club right down the road that plays loud American music until the wee hours of the morning.  So when I wake up and feel homesick, I get an earful of Kelly Clarkson or Usher.  The beautiful thing about that is that I brought lots and lots of earplugs.

From my quick peek into Colin’s room, it appears that my room is the anomaly, the neglected step child of the hotel.  So that’s good.  Except for the ‘my room’ part.

I still think Lotus Ryan is right about the importance of finding beauty in unexpected places.  For the next few weeks, I’m just going to have to look hard to find it in this particular room.

An addendum to the finding beauty in unexpected places thing is that I’m also going to do a better job of appreciating beauty, even when it’s expected.  When I again cross through the doorway of beautiful Suite 16 back in Entebbe, my appreciation for the bed, the heated shower, the screened windows and the toilet will have increased tenfold.

An addendum to the addendum, the next day I was able to move to a different room and found all sorts of beauty.  Behold my toilet. I almost kissed it.  Until I saw a cockroach crawl out of it.  The beauty in that is that the cockroach didn’t crawl out of it whilst I was using my brand new throne.

The Lotus

On my flight from Brussels to Entebbe, Uganda I had Santa sitting behind me and across the aisle from me was a college-aged kid with ‘Hello, Sailor’ tattooed on his leg.  The kid with the tat is Ryan.  Ryan has a mother who worries and is going to use up of all 50 of the monthly international texts he purchased in the span of a few days.

In the Fall Ryan’s entering med school to study pediatrics, oncology or global health issues.  He’s not sure if he’s got the chops to be a global heath doctor and so he’s doing a little bit of a test run this summer working in Southern Uganda to help establish better malaria protocols and treatment options.

As it turns out that his cheeky ‘Hello, Sailor’ tattoo is a tribute to his family’s long lineage in the Navy and that tattoo is for his sister who is currently deployed.

Ryan has another tattoo on the underside of his wrist.  It’s a small lotus, the symbol of finding beauty in unexpected places.

I wish I could text Ryan’s mom and tell her not to worry.  She can worry about his time in Uganda all she wants because that’s definitely a legitimate worry, but I wish I could tell her not to worry about Ryan in general because she has a son who wants to make the world a better place.  She has a son who looks for beauty in unexpected places like malaria-infested Uganda.

I think Ryan’s right, beauty often lies in unexpected places.  For me that unexpected place was across the plane aisle in the eyes of a kid eager to see the world and to find a way to make it better.