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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.