Freedom Falls

I’ve been home a little over a day now.  To get home I passed through five airports and flew on four different airplanes before my hubs drove me the last leg home.

I flashed my passport through countless screenings and talked with several new friends on the planes home.  Each time someone discovered that I’d spent the month in Uganda, they’d ask two questions.

“What were you doing there???”  I’d tell them about helping 50 or so kids write a book about pivotal moments in their lives.  We’d have a brief conversation about the kids and their writing and without fail they’d ask the second question.

“So how is Uganda doing?”  This question was often times paired with a gulp and a brow wrinkled with equal parts fear and worry.

I loved this question.  It’s one of the reasons I took this journey to begin with.  I wanted to see how Uganda and her people were doing.  I wanted to hear and help record firsthand stories from her children.

The best way I can answer the question of how Uganda is doing is to tell you a story about two waterfalls in Uganda.

Murchison Falls

This is Murchison Falls.  It’s a mere seven meters wide and at one point in time the whole of the Nile had to pass through this narrow gap.  It is staggeringly beautiful, but make no mistake, Murchison Falls is a crashing, thundering force to be reckoned with.  Living beings who have the misfortune of falling into the crevice of the falls do not resurface again until the water has suffocated all of the life and breath out of them.

In 1962 Uganda was granted freedom from Britain.  This may surprise you because even Uganda’s most recent history is marred by dictatorial leaders and bloodthirsty warlords, not to mention the corruption that has taken root and entwined itself around the hearts of most of Uganda’s politicians.  But indeed on January 15, 1962 Uganda was declared an independent country.

Another surprising thing happened in Uganda in 1962.

It rained.

Hear me out, during the wet season, it rains a lot in Uganda.  Almost daily rainstorms roll in with the evening and pelt the earth until the morning sunlight glistens in the pools of rain atop the sodden earth.

In 1962 the rains didn’t roll in and out.  They rolled in and stayed, pouring themselves into the mighty Nile who rose to the challenge.  Her waters ascended like never before, sending creatures to higher ground lest the Nile drink them in.  Day and night the rain fell until the unimaginable happened.

Instead of squeezing herself through the oppressive rocks of Murchison Falls, the Nile burst over the land and a completely new waterfall was born.  It was like the whole country, from breathing men to teeming rivers, rose up and claimed freedom.  The second waterfall was called Gulu Falls.  Gulu is a Bagandan name meaning ‘God of the sky’.  However most locals call it by another name: Freedom Falls.

Gulu Falls (left) and Murchison Falls (right)

Each time I answered the question ‘How is Uganda doing?’ I thought of Gulu Falls and I thought of the students I worked with in Uganda.  After living through a time of thundering, crashing oppression, there is a generation of young Ugandans rising up.  They’re dedicated to justice over corruption, love instead of vengeance and healing for their scarred land.

How is Uganda doing?

She’s headed for a bright future because when young people have hearts full of love, minds dedicated to justice and a yearning for freedom, well, that’s a force that simply can’t be contained.  And when it spills out over the land, Uganda is going to find herself completely sodden with the kind of freedom that once caused the Nile to entwine herself over the land and move in a completely new direction.

Freedom Falls

Sunday’s Promise

“Do you realize that not everyone writes like this? You’re a gifted writer, Sun. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Sunday, or Sun as he likes to be called, tucks his head into his chest and smiles. He is quiet, always sidling up to me without a word, never stealing the spotlight.

For a moment, I watch him, marveling at what a perfect name Sun is for a kid with a luminous face. His face is always lit up like this and as we sit side by side I look to the sky to see if the sun is shining down on him.  Afternoon thunderclouds have rolled in, blotting out the sun.

We work side by side on his story about his grandmother. I swallow the memories of my own grandmother that have knotted in my throat. I ask questions and Sun answers thoughtfully, pausing to be sure of his words.

He tells the story of how his grandmother saved his life by hiding him under a blanket when the L.R.A. penetrated his house. He paints in the details of the end of her life, looking out over the horizon, not meeting my eyes. I look toward the horizon as well giving him the smallest measure of privacy and holding off more questions until he turns his face toward mine.

We’ve finished talking about his story and I have a lingering question.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A peacemaker.”

I smile thinking of the many children there who have answered the question of what they want to be when they grow up with that same answer: a peacemaker.

“And I want to be brave and kind and keep hope like my grandmother.”

It’s all I can do to hold back tears at this beautiful boy.  I clear my throat and we finish up notes for his story.

A week or so later the time has come for me to say goodbye to my Ugandan sons and daughters, to begin my trip toward home. I’m hugging and snapping photos and saying goodbye. I feel him at my side before he speaks.

“Alicia, can I talk to you?”

“Of course. Let’s walk a bit.” We move away from the throng of kids.

“What’s on your mind, Sun?”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too.” I squeeze him and give him a Ugandan hug, first on one side and then on the other.

“If I write a story about you, will you come back to read it?” He stares at his feet.

“Sun, first of all I’m coming back no matter what.”

“People say that and then they don’t.”

“Then I look forward to the day when I prove to you that I mean it.” I smile at him, willing him to believe me, knowing that he is steeling himself against a litany of broken promises. “Secondly, yes, I would love to read one of your stories. But, Sun, I won’t be back for many months. Are you really only going to write one story for me to read?” I challenge him.

“I think I’ve got many stories.”

“I agree. You need to write them and when I return I’ll read them.”

“You’ll return?” Sunday questions me again.

I nod. “You’ll write?”

Sunday nods.  “I promise.”

I watch him walk away and can’t help but think that Uganda has a bright future.  A future as bright as Sun.