“They came back to Bungatira after I took you home,” Denis sits across the cafe table from me with his hands folded.
“They did?” Nerves bounce in my stomach and I think a familiar mantra. Walk into the conflict. “Denis, I really didn’t mean to offend anyone. In my spirit, I couldn’t agree with your original Constitution. I just couldn’t.”
“I know and I’m sorry for causing you pain,” Denis apologizes for what is the fourth or fifth time and he is so sincere that I have to look away before my tears spill over. “But they came back to assure me that they really will change, that we will accept people with mental sicknesses. We will change. I promise.”
“They really walked back to Bungatira in the dark to tell you that?” I’m incredulous.
“Yes. And I promise we will change,” Denis holds my gaze.
“I believe you. It’s actually why I wanted to meet with you today. I have good news for you and for Bungatira.”
“I already have pigs. What other good news could there be?” he laughs.
“You know how my friends and family have been sending money for me to do kind things here?”
“Yes,” Denis nods. He knows better than anyone because he’s helped me haul pigs and shoes and mattresses and medicine and a wild assortment of other things.
“This is my friend Jenna,” I show Denis a photo of her on my iPad. “Jenna and her friends in Oregon sent over a large sum of money, so large that Jenna and I weren’t exactly sure what to do with it. So we’ve been praying about how to best use this money. You know that some of my loved ones have mental illnesses, but what you don’t know is that Jenna’s son, who was a soldier in Afghanistan, has returned home from war and has also been struggling with post traumatic stress. Here he is with his newborn son,” I flick to a new photo on the iPad.
“I’m sorry,” Denis’ forehead is creased with worry.
“Jenna tells me that fatherhood is helping him return to himself, helping him remember who he’s called to be. Denis, I wrote about my difficult day in Bungatira and when Jenna read that you’d changed your Constitution to include people with mental illnesses, she immediately messaged me to give the money to you and to Bungatira. Jenna and her friends are giving you this money so that you don’t have to wait for your pigs to mature in order to return to school.”
I open my travel notebook to the page where I’ve scrawled 250,000 shillings, the equivalent of $100. It’s enough to pay for schooling for the upcoming trimester as well as part of the next trimester. On a good day driving his boda Denis makes approximately $6, not enough to live off, let alone pay for school. I take the shillings out of my purse and slide them across the table to him. He counts them in disbelief.
“Thank you, Alicia. This is all because of you.” Denis comes around to my side of the table to hug me.
“Denis, I need you to hear me when I say this. It’s not because of me. It’s because of the changes you and the group in Bungatira are making. You’ve inspired Jenna to support what you’re doing here. It’s because of you, not me. I’m just the one who gets to deliver the message.”
“Now you listen to me, Alicia,” Denis jokingly wags his finger at me. “You’re delivering the message and your message is hope.” By this time, tears are welling in Denis’ eyes and flat out dripping down my own cheeks. He continues. “My family told me to go to a trade school to become a boda mechanic, but I kept telling them that I wanted to go back to school and get my degree, that I want to me more than a mechanic.”
“And now you can. Denis, you get to go back to school.” We’re both smiling and blinking back tears. “You get to be a student again.”
“Will you go with me to register for school?” Denis grins from ear to ear and I do, too. He’s 27 and he’ll be returning to what is the equivalent of third trimester of his sophomore year in high school.
“It will be my pleasure.” I use a napkin to wipe my eyes.
“I might become a doctor instead of a teacher,” Denis dreams out loud.
“I think that would be great. Doctors are teachers, too, you know.” We sit for a moment with that dream between us on the table. “But wait, Denis, I have more good news. Jenna and her friends sent money for Bungatira so your group could start up the savings and loan program you’ve been talking about. People in Bungatira will be able to take out loans to send their kids to school. Here’s how much Jenna and her friends want to give your community group. I slide the notebook over again and point at the number I’ve written. 640,000 shillings, approximately $250 dollars.
Denis is out of his chair again and we’re hugging and laughing and crying and making a complete scene in the cafe.
“I know my last visit to Bungatira wasn’t easy for, well, anyone, but I’d like to return and tell the group about Jenna and her son and tell them that the changes they’re making are inspiring people halfway across the world. The other thing I’d like to do is return next year and see all the good Bungatira is doing with the money. Is that okay?” I’m hesitant about asking to return.
“Of course, it’s okay. You’re ever welcome in Bungatira,” Denis smiles and then pauses. “Alicia, where are you from?”
“Denis, you know I’m from California,” I laugh because this is a fact he’s known for over a year.
“No, I mean where did you come from?”
“Sorry, I don’t understand the question.” I’m lost in translation a LOT in Uganda.
“I mean, I don’t think you were born. I think you were sent.”
“What? Denis, trust me, I was born. I weighed nine pounds, one ounce. I was definitely born. Just ask my mom.”
“Alicia, trust me, your mom would say you were sent.”
“Denis, you give me too much credit. This is because of you, not because of me.”
“And you don’t give yourself enough credit, Hero Lanyero.”
I blush at my name, one I’ll forever try to live up to. I quickly change the subject. “You’ll talk with the group in Bungatira and let me know when I can return and present the money to them?”
“Yes, we’ll go on Sunday. I’ll ask the local dance group to come and perform traditional dances as well.”
“I’d like that. I haven’t seen any traditional dances yet.”
“And tomorrow we’ll go to my school so I can register.”
“I’d like that even more.” My cheeks ache from smiling, but I can’t help smiling at my friend who gets to go back to school. I can’t help but smile for my sweet friend, Jenna, and her fellow Vigilantes of Kindness who have made this possible.
Denis leaves me alone in the cafe and I sit thinking about how blessed I am to return to this land and to this people I love so dearly. My mom can verify that all nine pounds, one ounce of me was born in California, but sitting in my favorite cafe in Gulu, I know with every beat of my heart that this-this beautiful work of being kind for the sake of kindness-this is why I was born.