He giggled as I traced his foot with my pen. Sweet little Denis, who still has all of his baby teeth, was the last P1 (first grade) student I needed to measure for new shoes and his giggle was absolutely infectious. I giggled right along with him at the thought of putting brand new school shoes and clean socks on his feet.
And on the feet of his 21 classmates.
And on the feet of the five children who live on campus, but aren’t yet in school.
For some the shoes would be a much-needed replacement pair of shoes. For others it would be their first pair of shoes that hadn’t been handed down through a long line of older cousins and siblings. And for many it would be their very first pair of shoes at all.
It all began with my friend, Tracy, who upon seeing photos of the many precious children here without shoes, sent me this message:
“I can’t put into words what all your pictures do to me. Some give me hope, but honestly many make me sad. We have so much here and they have so little. I want to do something. How can I go about providing the school supplies they need? Can I send money to buy each one of those firsties shoes? What do they need and how can I help? I seriously feel like God wants me to do something.”
I know, I know, now you love Tracy, too. I don’t blame you. I flat-out love this woman because when she’s called to do something, she does it with her whole heart and moves with immediacy. She’s an inspiration to me in listening to the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit and then acting on it. I calculated the amount of money it would take to outfit 22 students with new shoes and socks and I sent it off. Almost immediately Tracy sent the money, all of the money.
I am apparently bad at math because I’d given her the wrong dollar amount, leaving me significantly short of the amount I’d need to purchase the shoes. Ugh. Converting shillings to dollars is not my strong suit. Math makes my brain die, I’m sure of it.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked at the remaining money I’d brought along and tried calculating how many meals I could skip to try to cover the shoe balance. No matter how I calculated, I couldn’t make a way to both survive and buy the shoes. I didn’t want to ask Tracy for more because she had already given so generously.
I did the only other thing I knew to do. I waited and prayed. Prayed for wisdom. Prayed for the tiny feet that are so injured from walking to school each day without shoes.
That’s when a beautiful thing happened. My sister asked how she could be a part of Vigilante Kindness.
My parents asked how they could help as well.
Friends of my parents sent money.
Many of my own friends sent money.
Then friends of my friends sent money.
Complete strangers sent money.
As I sat in my favorite cafe reading messages and emails from these spontaneous Vigilantes of Kindness, I couldn’t help but cry. Actually crying doesn’t really describe it. I was weeping. Tears slipped down my cheeks and splattered on the table. The workers at the cafe asked me if I was okay and I explained that these were tears of joy.
Not only would I have enough money to buy shoes and socks for the P1 students, but now I had enough money to buy shoes and socks for the little kids who live on campus and don’t go to school yet. Denis, my faithful friend and boda driver, promised to accompany me to the market so that I would get a fair price.
All the donations were sent to Western Union and on the day I was to pick up the money, the power went out in the whole city. The worst rainstorm of the season hit accompanied by thunder and lightning that incapacitated the Western Union generator for two days. Not only that but, another boda collided with Denis and left both him and his motorcycle a little banged up.
Days passed and finally on Friday, electricity was restored to most of the town and there was a blessed break in the deluge. Denis was back on his feet and his boda was up and running, and so we set off for Western Union before school.
“I need nine transfer slips, please,” I said through the hole in the glass to the teller.
“Why did you do it that way? Why not just one?”
“The people sending money are from different places.”
“Why didn’t they send it all together?”
“Most of them don’t know each other.”
“It will take a long time.”
“I can wait,” I said, filling out the first transfer slip.
Forty five minutes later I walked out of Western Union with a fat stack of shillings.
Vigilante Act of Kindness money.
I left school earlier than usual that day so that Denis and I could go to the market and buy the shoes.
“I spoke to a shoe vendor at the market and because you’re buying so many shoes, I got her to agree to a good price,” Denis made eye contact with me in the mirror on his handlebar.
“Really? How much?” I raised my voice over the wind that was picking up. When Denis gave me a number that was less than half of what I’d expected, my jaw fell open.
“And these are new shoes? Good shoes? The nice black ones required for school? Ones that will last a long time?” I hammered Denis with questions.
“Yes,” Denis called back to me over the rain that was now falling in big drops. I could hear the smile in his voice and I, too, smiled even when the rain came down on us in sheets.
Denis pulled over and we waited under a nearby overhang along with about twenty other people who had been caught off guard by this sudden storm. I stood next to two women with babies tied to their backs. One baby slept soundly and the other stared at me with big, brown eyes.
When lightning struck an electric pole about ten feet away from us, thunder came simultaneously and the sound was like nothing I’ve ever heard. I instinctively covered my ears as lightning sizzled down the electric lines. I felt my heart thud in my chest. Denis and I looked at each other with wide saucer eyes and simultaneously said, “We’ve gotta get out of here!” When the deluge became regular rain, we got back on the boda, driving slowly through the slick red mud that was the road. We drove away from the storm, but unbeknownst to us the storm had changed directions and washed over us again. We found another overhang as far away from power lines as possible and again we waited for the rain to pass. When it slowed to a drizzle, we took the boda into the market on the outskirts of town.
It had barely sprinkled in town and the market was its usual cacophony of colors and sounds. Denis wove his boda through the aisles and stopped at the shoe stall where the vendor was eager to help us. Two by two, I placed the tracings of the children’s feet on the counter and the vendor matched up a new, shiny black pair of school shoes to each tracing. I penned each child’s name on the tag of the shoes, making sure to keep straight which shoes would go to which child.
Twenty-seven pairs of shoes later our work was done and it was time to shell out the shillings that had travelled so far for these shoes. I overheard the vendor suggest in Acholi to Denis that he tell me that the shoes were an additional 3,000 shillings for each pair. She told him he could pocket the extra cash. When Denis replied that he couldn’t do that to me because I’m his Mama, I couldn’t help but well up with pride.
We added 27 pairs of socks to the pile and using three calculators we each checked and double checked the total cost. I laughed when Denis sweet talked the vendor into throwing in a new pair of sandals for him for free. He tried to get a new pair for me as well, but looking at my sack stuffed with little socks and shoes, I told him I already had all the shoes I needed.
Denis hoisted the sack onto the handlebars of the boda and the two of us rode to the hotel.
“Thanks, Denis,” I said sliding off the back of the seat.
“Welcome,” he smiled and held out his hand.
“No, I mean thanks for not overcharging me when you had the chance,” I shook his hand.
“You understood that?”
“Your Acoli is improving.”
“I have a good teacher.” I winked as he handed me the sack of shoes.
“I have a good friend, Hero Lanyero.”
“Apwoyo matek.” (Thank you very much.)
We said goodbye and I lugged the sack of shoes up the two flights of stairs to my room. I flung it on my bed and as the rain pelted the tin roof overhead, I was overcome with gratitude. For Tracy who put this project in motion. For my other faithful friends and family who asked to be a part of it. For Denis who chooses integrity over deceit. For God who has the power to tear the sky with lightning, but cares about the smallest and neediest children right down to the tips of their toes.