Vigilante Kindness: Tomatoes, Hippos and String

“Is there anything you need for the classroom, Mr. Martin?” I looked around the room and immediately thought of half a dozen things off the top of my head. Chalk, chalkboard erasers, pencils, paint, books, bookshelves, crayons. And then there were the bigger things like electricity and running water.

“Thread,” he replied with his constant smile.

“Thread?”

“Or string.”

My puzzled look gave me away.

“I’ve made posters, but have no way to hang them from the bricks and the room is bare. If I had thread or string, I could string it along the walls and hang the posters.”

That afternoon I set off with my trusty boda driver, Denis, in search of thread or twine or string. At our third store we found string for $4,000 shillings, roughly $2.50.

That night as I laid in bed, I couldn’t help but think that if someone had asked me the same question about my classroom, I would’ve rattled off a lengthy list of items I “need”, but all Mr. Martin wanted was string.

A few nights ago, I was listening to a TED podcast featuring Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian missionary. The talk is titled, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen.” In the talk, Mr. Sirolli tells the story of a mission trip he once took to Africa to teach a village how to grow Italian tomatoes. They brought the seeds and planted the tomatoes and the tomatoes grew to be the size of softballs, but the villagers seemed unimpressed and uninterested in growing tomatoes. The Italian missionaries couldn’t understand the complacency of the villagers when the tomatoes grew so beautifully lush. The night before they were to harvest the tomatoes, a pod of hippos lumbered out of a nearby body of water and ate the tomatoes and tomato plants. Every. Single. One.

The Italians were shocked. The Africans were not. They knew the hippos would come.

Ernesto Sirolli’s point was this, when we assume we know the needs of others and don’t bother asking, we will likely miss entirely an opportunity to truly help. Mr. Sirolli is still a missionary, but he no longer travels with his own agenda. He picks a place and then talks to the locals in bars, restaurants, churches, etc. and asks them how he can help. Then he does something revolutionary: he listens and makes a plan from there.

This TED talk continues to strike a chord with me because I returned to Uganda with a plan and when that plan fell to pieces at my feet, I was left wondering why I’d returned at all. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked, “God, what exactly am I doing here? What am I going to do for almost five weeks?”

Because I’ve been relieved of my own plan, I find myself thinking about tomatoes and hippos and asking people questions like, “What does the school need?” and “Is there a specific student in need and how can I help them?” and “Do you need anything for your classroom?” and “How can I best help you?”

And then I’m doing the exquisitely hard thing: I’m shutting up and straining to listen.

The beautiful thing is that, you-you vigilantes of kindness, are also listening and watching for opportunities to genuinely help.

So far you and I have:

  • purchased school uniforms for two students who don’t have functioning families to pay for such extravagances
  • purchased 4 piglets to help Denis raise pigs and earn money to return to school
  • purchased a set of school textbooks to be kept in the school library for students who can’t afford books
  • purchased 2 rolls of string for Mr. Martin to hang his teaching posters
  • purchased a mattress and mosquito net for a student without a bed

And that’s just the beginning. I can’t wait to tell you about the other projects in the works.

The stripping away of my original plan is still painfully raw. I’d like to say that I’m over the disappointment and that I’m done being hurt, but the truth is I’m not. Thankfully the truth is also that there is blessing in this stripping away, blessing in the terrifying willingness to be vulnerable and ask God, “What am I doing here?”

Though I’m the one giving, or giving on your behalf, I’m really the one on the receiving end because the lessons I’m learning are priceless.

Mr. Martin has been working tirelessly to string posters in his classroom and it looks great. Now he teaches from all sides of the room, using each wall and each poster to educate his young learners. I’m so glad I didn’t barge in with armloads of ideas on what I thought he needed when what he really needed most was simply string.

I’m terrified that I’ll return home and when I touch down on familiar ground I’ll forget what I’m learning here. So if you see me with a bit of string wrapped around my finger, it’s because I’m remembering Mr. Martin and Ernesto Sirolli. I’m trying to remember to ask first and then act. I’m trying to remember to shut up and listen. I’m trying to remember that God’s plans are so much better than mine. I’m trying to remember not to plant tomatoes for hippos.

Vigilante Kindness: Piglets for the Piggery

I sat on the back of a boda wrestling a sackful of squealing, wiggling pigs as Denis carefully threaded through the trafficked streets of Pece back to his village. My skirt was slicked with mud and manure and as I grinned from ear to ear and hugged the squirming sack, I thought about the sequence of events that had led me to this exact moment in my life.

This story of Vigilante Kindness begins with my dear friend, Julie, and her husband, Clark. Upon reading the story of Denis, my boda driver, and his quest to have a piggery to earn money to return to school, Julie sent me a message asking how much it would be to buy Denis four more pigs. The amount was sizable in American dollars and an absolute impossibility for Denis to earn in Ugandan shillings. What I love about Julie is that when I told her the amount, she responded with a simple, “Done.”

On the day we were to pick up the pigs, Denis first took me to his village Bungatira, meaning ‘of the forest’. It was a beautiful ride with several stops along the way because Denis had to pick up cakes for me to eat, milk for me to drink and other special things that were quite costly. I watched him shell out his hard-earned boda money in my honor and was humbled to be considered worthy of such sacrifice.

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Once off the main road, the trail to the village became more like a single track mountain bike trail and as we bumped along, I smiled at the scenery of the land I’ve come to love-the red dirt that stains my hands and face and washes down the drain in mahogany from my hair, the piercing blue sky like the feathers of millions of bluebirds and the bright green grasses growing up along either side of the trail, flicking against my billowing skirt.

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When we arrived at Denis’ compound, I was tickled to see signs posted all over welcoming me to their home. I met his family and toured their farm, which included sugar cane, beans, millet, groundnuts, maize and sweet potatoes. It’s humid in Uganda and I worked up quite a sweat. We reached a creek that runs along the back of their village.

“Do you want to bathe?” Denis felt badly that I was sweating so much.

“I’ll bathe back at the hotel. Really, I’m fine.”

“You fear the water?”

“No, I just don’t bathe in public. I only bathe in private.”

“We bathe here. You can bathe here, too. It’s okay.”

“Coo apwoyo, Denis.” (Thank you, but I cannot accept, Denis.)

“Then let us go back to the house and rest.”

Back in Denis’ thatch roof house, Denis, his older brother Michael and I were served posho, beans, bread made from millet and chicken that was slaughtered and cooked that very afternoon. I drank the milk Denis had purchased along with glass bottles of Mountain Dew that were purchased just for the day.

After the meal Denis’ immediate family all joined us inside the house. Although I’d already met them, I was reintroduced to the family formally and I knew then that I was in sacred territory, in the presence of a family meeting. Around the room they went showering accolades about this amazing gift Denis was to receive. I proudly showed photos of Julie and Clark and their family. Denis’ mother, who had earlier in the day welcomed me with traditional songs and dances, pressed her hands in mine and declared me her daughter. She made me miss my own mother and sent pangs of sorrow through me for Julie who misses her mother every day.

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They continued to speak of this great thing I was doing and though I insisted it wasn’t me-that it was all because of Julie and Clark-they kept saying that it was only possible because of me. Michael, Denis’ older brother, translated their words of kindness to me and told me it was no use deflecting them because I was the vehicle for Julie and Clark’s great generosity. Over and over again, they clapped their hands in appreciation and I sat quietly and took it all in.

I fell in love with this sweet family who had gathered together to celebrate this second chance for their son. I especially fell in love with the eighty something year old parents who still tend to the crops. When Michael bragged about how bright Denis was when he was in school, I thought of Clark who, on the other side of the world, was at that very moment preparing for his own brother Michael’s funeral. The thought of these two sets of brothers honoring each other in such different, yet loving ways brought me to tears and when I told Denis’ family about Clark’s loss they sat in sorrow with me for Clark.

The family sent me off with their sincerest sympathies mixed with their profound thanks and then Denis and I hopped on his boda to go purchase the pigs. The ride to the farm was a long one that wound away from the villages, back through Gulu and into Pece, the home of the famous Pece soccer stadium. At the farm Denis climbed into the pig stall and selected his four new pigs, three females and one male. He placed them in a sack and then tied the top of the sack making sure there were breathing holes. The woman selling the pigs stepped inside the house to get her receipt book and I slipped the money into Denis’ hand so that he could be the official purchaser of the pigs.

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Denis sat on the boda and I straddled the back of it, leaving a space in between for the sack of piglets. The woman hefted the sack into my lap and the squealing pigs wiggled and grunted as they tried to get comfortable for the ride. The sack was covered in mud and manure which as we rode back through Pece ground itself into my skirt and covered my hands as I held onto the precious cargo.

“Are you okay? Do you want me to call someone else to help me take the pigs home?” Denis asked me for the millionth time.

“I’m fine. When else am I going to have a chance to carry a sackful of piglets on the back of a motorcycle? Never.”

“Sure?” Denis grinned at me in the rearview mirror.

“Sure. Let’s get your new pigs home.”

We bounced along the road and I spoke sweetly to the squealing pigs trying in vain to calm them down. Several times I felt pig hooves and snouts poking out of the air holes and smiled at the Ugandans laughing at what must have been a comical sight, a muzungu woman wrestling a bag of pigs!

Back at Denis’ village the family greeted us again and helped unload the new pigs into Denis’ piggery, which he’d renamed the ‘Hellisha Project’. (On a side note, Hellisha is the most fantastic misspelling of my name ever. Hellisha will now be the name of my alter ego.)

The women in Denis’ family tsked over my dirty skirt and Denis looked at it in alarm.

“You must take it off and let me wash it.” Denis insisted.

“It’s fine, Denis. I’ll wash it when I get back to the hotel.”

“No, you must let me wash it.” Denis insisted.

“Coo apwoyo.” I replied.

“You must.”

“Denis, it would not be appropriate in my culture for me to sit in my underpants while you washed my skirt. Thank you, but I truly cannot take my skirt off.”

“You cannot move around town like that.”

“I will wash these clothes and put on another pair before I move around town.”

“You’re sure I cannot wash your skirt?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then I’ll take you back.” We said our goodbyes to the family and again rode back into town.

That night as I sat in my hotel room bathroom scrubbing my skirt clean, I couldn’t help but smile at all the cultural differences I’d encountered that day. I hung my skirt to dry and showered off the sweat and dirt from the day. Rivulets of red mud dripped down my legs and swirled down the drain and I thought of how at the end of the day we are so much more the same than we are different.

We are friends who laugh together. We are loud families who gather for a meal. We are brothers who love each other through life and beyond. We are mothers and fathers who work hard to provide for our children. We persevere in the pursuit of education. And on our best days we see the need of a stranger and place it above our own needs. On our best days we are Julie and Clark.

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Vigilante Kindness: More than a Mattress

This trip hasn’t been at all what I’ve expected, and not in a “happy wow amazing” way.  Frankly, it’s been full of deceit, painful conversations, disappointments and a host of other things that I’m choosing not to go into.

My time with the students has been great, but there are some things on this trip that have both threatened to and successfully robbed me of the joy of being here.

It is the hardest trip I’ve ever taken and I’m fighting constant homesickness.

With the help of some of some of my friends back home, I’ve started looking for opportunities for what I’m calling Vigilante Kindness, acts of kindness not born out of an organization or a specific mission, just kindness for the sake of being kind, one person keeping vigil over another.

I think these acts of Vigilante Kindness are going to be my saving grace and if I’m laying all my cards down, I could use little grace right now and I’m betting you could, too.

I bought a mattress today which might not seem like a big deal, but as is always the case here, there is so much more to the story and a mattress isn’t just a mattress.

There are two brothers who attend the school I’m working at.  They were both accepted to the school this year and when a student is accepted into the school, their family must provide them with a mattress.

The father, a peasant farmer, was only able to purchase one mattress and promised to purchase a second when he was able to earn the money.  The two teenage boys have been sharing a bed since they were admitted.  Education is a gift only some here receive, so sharing a bed is a small price to pay.

Two weeks ago their father was involved in a land dispute.  Land equals food.  Land equals income.  Land equals life.  The dispute became quite heated and the father was murdered.

The boys are left without a father.  The family is left without an income earner.

By purchasing a mattress for this boy, his family is now free to use what little money they earn to focus on things like feeding the family.  The boys will be able to sleep better, focus better in classes and hopefully succeed in school so that the tragic loss of their father doesn’t spiral into the loss of their future.

A mattress is so much more than a mattress.

When I gave the kid the mattress and mosquito net, he was so overcome with gratitude.  He kept thanking me over and over and I received his hearty thanks on behalf of my friends Becca and Gerald who prior to my departure shoved bills in my hand with simple instructions to find a kid in need and help them out.

I did and tonight he will be sleeping soundly in his own bed.

Vigilante Kindness: A Pig Named Alicia

“I’ve started a new project,” my boda driver, Denis, tells me as we’re whipping down Juba Road on the way to the school.  Denis is one of my favorite boda drivers from last year and he’s forgone our usual language lesson, wherein he teaches me Acholi words and shakes his head at my terrible pronunciation.

“What’s your new project?” I yell over the wind in our faces.

He answers, but between our differing accents and the wind, I’m sure I heard him incorrectly.

“Say it again, Denis, I can’t hear you.”

He repeats the word.

“Did you say ‘piggery’?” I call to him.

“Yes, piggery,” he nods.

“I’m not familiar with what piggery means.”

“You know the animal pig?  P-I-G.”

“Yes, I know what pigs are, but what is piggery?”

“Keeping pigs.”

“For eating?”

“For selling.”

“So people buy them and then eat them?”

“Yes.”

It’s interesting to me, this new vocation Denis is beginning, but I wonder why he’s telling me this when he’d usually be reviewing Acholi phrases with me and making me repeat them over and over until my pronunciation is almost passable.  Or he’d be giving me a geography lesson, making me tell him the names of the areas we pass through and making me name the countries surrounding Uganda.

“I used the money you paid me last year and bought two pigs.  Then those pigs had eight pigs.”

“That’s a good litter.  Ten pigs is a lot of pigs.”

“It’s not enough.  I need at least 50.”

“What would you do with 50 pigs?  Do you have a pen for them?”

“A what?”

“A pen.  Like chickens have a hutch.” Denis is quiet.  I’m not explaining myself well. “Do you have a house for your pigs?”

“Yes, in the village by my thatch roof house.  You can’t let pigs run wild.  People will get mad because the pigs will destroy everything and eat the crops.”

“I imagine so.”

“If I sell 30 pigs, I can buy my own boda instead of renting this one.”

Ah, there it is.  Pigs equal independence and his own income instead of doling out a portion of every fare to his boss.

“That would be really amazing, Denis.”

“Yes, so if you have time, I will take you to see my pigs.  I’ll give you one. You can pick it out.”

I don’t know what to say, but I’m pretty sure declining a pig without a very good reason would be a horrible offense.  “That’s lovely of you, Denis, but I don’t think they allow pigs on the plane back home.”

“You will eat it before you go.”

I laugh.  “I’m a terrible cook, Denis, just ask my husband.  I wouldn’t even know how to begin to prepare a pig.”

“You slaughter it and I will cook it for you.”

I laugh again.  “I have NO idea how to slaughter a pig.”

“I will have it slaughtered and then cook it for you.  You come and pick it out.”

“Um, okay.  Apwoyo.”  I thank him, tucking my head to my chest as a truck passes and covers us in a cloud of red dust from the road.  Meat is a rarity at the school and I wonder how many kids could be fed off of one pig.

“Apwoyo matek, (Thank you very much).  We’ll go pick out your pig tomorrow afternoon.”

“Okay.”

I don’t tell Denis that in addition to not knowing how to slaughter or cook a pig, I haven’t a clue on how to pick a pig.

The next morning, Denis drives me to the school again, my skirt flapping in the breeze and my rear end bouncing on the seat as I ride side saddle on the back.

“How are your pigs?”  I ask as we pass a group of schoolchildren walking down the road in brightly colored uniforms.

“Very well.”

“Do your pigs have names?”

“Only the big female, Mama.  I will name the female piglet after you.”

I’m glad I’m sitting behind Denis where he can’t see my face because I can’t help but smile and stifle a giggle at this most unusual compliment. “My American name or my Acholi name?”

“You have an Acholi name?”  Denis is surprised.  “What is it?”

“Lanyero.”

“That’s a nice name.  Do you know what it means?”

“I’m told it means ‘laughter, joyful comforter or happy’.  Is that right?”

“Yes, it also means a person who is always smiling.  What does your American name mean?”

“Truthful one.”

“Hmmm, joyful or truthful,” Denis repeats the names several times, weighing them back and forth.  “I will have to think of which one is more suitable for a pig, but I think Alicia.  We will go see her this afternoon and know for sure.”

That afternoon at lunch, I tell the kids at school about being offered a pig.  They confirm that a pig is a gift I cannot decline.  They tell me that only the very wealthy buy pigs and that pigs are often given as a dowry.

I’m late leaving the school that day and Denis tells me it’s too late to see the pigs.  I sigh in relief, grateful to give Alicia the pig an extra stay of execution and wondering if I’ve done the same for myself.

Love Has Come

I ugly cried in church last Sunday.

I’m not a big crier.  Crying in front of someone or worse yet, lots of someones, is my #1 Top Most Embarrassing Thing Ever.

And yet there I was absolutely weeping.  Mascara dripping, nose running, shoulder shaking, flat-out sobbing.  I blame Jeremy Riddle and his song God of the Redeemed.  Go ahead, take a listen.

I didn’t even make it through the first verse.  “Love has come.  We’re orphans no longer.”  At that point it was all over.  I didn’t have time to swallow the lump rising in my throat before the tears started streaming.

By the time it got to, “Hallelujah, to You, the God of the redeemed,” I was a complete wreck.  All I could do was stand there, lift my face and cry.  The tears dripped down my cheeks and into my ears, so many tears that my ears filled up and overflowed down my neck.

I cried in joy because I’ll see my boys and all my other Ugandan kids in a few short days.

I cried for my boys who were orphans.

I cried because I’m overcome that they’ve chosen me as their mother.

I cried for my son who used to think he was nothing.

I cried out of gratitude for a school that in tangible ways shows my boys they’re worthy of redemption.

I cried the tears of a thousand hallelujahs.

And when I ran out of tears, I stood in silence doing nothing, not singing a word, barely uttering even a breath.  And in my quiet, in my stark nothingness, I stood and didn’t care how many people saw me cry.  In that moment everything else ceased to matter.

I’d been looking for a gift to give my boys, something to remind them that they’re not orphans anymore, that we have claimed each other as mother and sons.  I looked and looked, but nothing was right.  And then I saw them.

love rings

Simple rings, one for me and three for them, reminders that love has come and that the best love often comes in unexpected ways.  Meeting the love of my life when I was fifteen and filthy dirty from helping build a church in Mexico.  Finding my sons 9,049 miles away.  The baby in a manger who redeemed us all.

Love has come and it leaves me in such awe that it’s all I can do to whisper hallelujah.

Great Uncle Bill’s Bible

I borrowed a travel Bible from my mom.  I’d given mine away and was in need of a small one for my trip to Uganda.  She gave me this tiny one which is smaller than a deck of cards.

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It was one of several small Bibles she offered up and I picked it from the stack because it would easily slip into my pocket.  I added it to my pile of things to pack and yesterday before I slipped it into my carry on, I opened the cover and saw an inscription.

Courtland Lieberg

The Bible originally belonged to my Great Uncle, Courtland William Lieberg, Bill for short.  He was probably seven or eight when he received this Bible in September of 1928.

I feel like I’m carrying my family with me as I travel to Uganda.  I’ve got photos of The Hubs.  Tucked away in my bags are special letters and gifts from my mother and sister to the kids they sponsor at the school.  My mom even wrote a letter to one of my Ugandan sons.  Best of all I’m carrying a Bible with pages fingerprinted by generations of my family.

I smile each time I add another item to my backpack and the Bible peeks out at me from its assigned pocket.  I just love that this tiny Bible came through all that space and time to travel with me to Uganda.