My stomach was a ball of nerves, like one of those giant office supply rubberband balls snapping and bouncing between my ribcage. The ride to Bungatira took me way outside of Gulu, past several villages each boasting a small roadside store or two. Boda drivers waiting to carry fares sat parked along the road and clustered on the corners. Mothers and children sat selling the riches of their gardens and the children called out, “Munu! Munu!” I waved and smiled at their innocence, but the rubberband ball in my gut continued to ping-pong off my insides.
Denis was his usual chatty self, but I couldn’t help but remember my last visit to Bungatira.
The pain of seeing discrimination against people with mental illnesses inked so clearly on their community Constitution.
The anguish of sitting beside my son during talk of child soldiers returning from war changed for the worse.
The feeling of wanting to run away.
The burning sensation in the very core of my being that made me stay and speak up for my loved ones.
The community members who walked out of the meeting.
The tears that fell in the red dirt when I spoke about my loved ones struggling with mental illness and the searing pain that they wouldn’t be welcomed in this group.
The heartfelt apologies for causing me pain.
And finally the blissful relief of seeing those discriminatory words removed from the community Constitution.
This time I returned with a purse full of shillings for the Bungatira community group. 640,000 shillings from my friend Jenna who had been so moved by their willingness to change that she bequeathed $250 raised by her Oregon Vigilantes of Kindness to the group in Bungatira.
The money would go towards helping them start a savings and loan program, wherein group members could borrow reasonable amounts and pay them back with interest. The people of Bungatira would now be able to take out loans to pay their child’s school fees.
Inside my purse beside my fat stack of shillings was my iPad. On it I had pictures of my loved ones who struggle with mental illness and pictures of Jenna and her loved ones as well. I’d go and share our stories, share that we too are mothers and wives battling on our knees alongside our loved ones.
Donald M. Murray, one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, once said, “The more personal I am, the more universal I become.” As Denis steered us closer to Bungatira, I prayed that would be true. I prayed that in sharing the stories of my life and explaining what compelled Jenna to choose Bungatira to receive the money from Oregon, the people of Bungatira would see the very personal side of the universal issue of living with and loving people living with mental illnesses. I didn’t want to be another white person advising them on what I think is best for their community. I wanted to be Lanyero Alicia, a woman and a friend who has walked some of the same paths they’re walking and has come out scarred, but stronger for having chosen to love when it was painful and to fight for my loved ones when they couldn’t fight for themselves.
But, Lord have mercy, that was a tall order and the closer we got to Bungatira, the more it felt like I wasn’t up to size. The sky turned from blue to pallid gray, the perfect match to my unease.
We first stopped at Denis’ brother’s store in Bungatira where a local women’s dance troupe were preparing to perform underneath a mango tree behind the store. Denis had asked them there in my honor and these women were stunning, absolutely stunning. They were dressed in every color of the rainbow with bells tied around their ankles. Two men brought out drums and these beautiful women sang and danced with such strength that my heartbeat began to keep time with their songs. I’m told they didn’t sing a prayer for rain, but the rain came nonetheless and the women kept on dancing. I couldn’t snap photos quickly enough. I marveled at their feet, so tough from everyday life, so exquisite as they danced in time together.
The rain came down in sheets and we moved underneath the overhang in front of the store. The women kept dancing and singing, their voices rising over the rain, which drowned out the thumping ball of nerves in my belly. After the dancing, we ate cookies and drank soda with the women.
When the rain let up, it was time to complete the journey to Bungatira. On the back of Denis’ motorcycle, I took deep breaths and listened to the greenery thwapping against my skirt as the road grew narrower. Upon reaching Denis’ compound, the community group gathered and I sat in a plastic chair with the officers of the group. Denis’ brother, Michael, sat beside me ready to translate.
They opened the meeting with a prayer and after a few short words, I had the floor. Gulp. I looked into their eyes and they into mine. With a final deep breath, I began to speak, first thanking them for inviting me back and then the time came to share my story of loving people with mental illnesses. I willed the lump in my throat back down as I spoke and barely contained tears as I spoke of a particular loved one living a happy and healthy life with bi-polar disorder. Michael translated that my loved one is now happy and healthy and the group gathered on papyrus mats at my feet broke into applause. I smiled and showed photos and then told Jenna’s story of loving someone through post traumatic stress disorder. They clapped and cheered when I told them that fatherhood is helping this particular person heal from PTSD. They clapped and cheered like our loved ones were their loved ones. The ball of rubberbands in my stomach settled as my heart filled.
I explained that because they’d changed their constitution to include people struggling with mental illness, Jenna and the Oregon Vigilantes had sent me with money for their savings and loan program. I presented all 640, 000 shillings to the Treasurer and again, the people of Bungatira broke into applause. Denis spoke kind words over me and I deflected them, insisting that the money was because of the changes they’d made not because of anything I’d done.
Denis introduced me to a man and his daughter. The man is a single father and his daughter had epilepsy and autism. Denis explained to me that when the father heard the group was accepting people with mental illnesses, he and his daughter had joined immediately.
Denis’ words were like a punch in the gut. For them, the term “mental illness” also encompasses mental disabilities. Oh God.
I found myself struggling for breath. I thought of all the kids with special needs who I’ve fought to include in my classroom, all the meetings where I’ve gone toe to toe to fight for their rights. To find the fight here in the African bush had knocked me off kilter.
I looked at the man and his daughter sitting so proudly as official dues paying members. Equals with equal buy-in and equal power.
“I’m so glad you’re both here. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I met the father’s eyes.
Michael leaned in and explained to me that since the man and his daughter had joined the group, the people of Bungatira had met to see how they can help him raise his daughter and keep her safe. The women are teaching the girl to cook and the men of the community are acting as her extremely protective big brothers. They have surrounded the man and his daughter and enfolded them into their own families.
After a day of holding back tears, I let them fall freely. I cried for the beauty of it all and for the fact that I got to play a small part in this story.
I stayed in Bungatira until nightfall when Denis’ family sits nightly around the bonfire and roasts maize. The bonfire is where they gather as a family and address any concerns. It’s a sacred time and as one of the children crawled into my lap, I knew how fortunate I was to be included. I sat in their inner circle and listened, gazing up at the sky which had cleared and given way to millions of blinking stars.
On the boda ride back to town, I felt a particular sadness leaving Bungatira and her people. I held their faces in my mind and closed my eyes to the wind on my face. Denis told me several times during my trip that I was changing the world, but leaving Bungatira for the last time, I knew that I was the one who was forever changed.