Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Meet Opiyo Chris

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites.  I love all of my students, no really I do.  I love my kids, both the ones here and in the ones in Uganda, but the truth of the matter is that there are certain students who wrap themselves around my heart and I’ll feel them in my pulse for the rest of my life.  
It’s the beauty of teaching.  I carry my students with me and I like to think that they carry a bit of me with them as well.
Opiyo Chris is one of those kids, one of my favorites.  
Opiyo Chris (Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee)
I met Chris two years ago during my first trip to Uganda.  In a writing workshop, he wrote about his memories of his mom who died of breast cancer when he was seven.  I could tell you all about Chris’ piece, but instead I think I’ll let his writing speak for him.
My Great Memories of Mum
Opiyo Christopher, age 16
            My mum was sick with breast cancer for a long time.  When I was seven years old and my sister was five years old I walked home from school one day to find my mother laying on her bed.  My sister was laying with her and some people sat around her.  I knew nothing about what was happening, but I began to understand when an ambulance came and took her to the hospital.
            I was called to go and be there at the hospital.  It was a dilemma for me, not an easy decision.  I made up my mind to go.  I was called inside where my mother was laying.  I tried to call to her, but she did not respond.  
           I touched her forehead with my hand and it was completely cold.
            “Mum, I know you are gone…” I stammered, “but, Mum, why did you have to go?”  I looked into her face.  Later I asked my mum to forgive me for not listening to her when she corrected me and I asked the Lord God to forgive her, too.  “May your soul rest in eternal life, Mum.”
            After my mum passed away, I felt so lonely, like I had nowhere to go and take shade.  My father was dead and I was left alone with my younger sister and we were too young to take care of each other. 
            In her free time my mum used to teach me how to count and write.  Now I can write, count and read well because of my mother’s lessons.  She corrected me when I was wrong and told me to behave well.  She molded me with good character and I learned to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness.
            When she died, I did not realize the benefits of her lessons.  I didn’t know to thank her.  Although she is not here, I thank her for the great job she did, for the great lessons she taught me, for the great mother she was.
Darn that kid.  The thought of seven-year old Chris touching his mother’s cold forehead gets me every time.  Hang on, I have to get a tissue.  Talk amongst yourselves.  I’ll give you a topic.  Rainbows or puppies or bubbles or anything happy that will make the lump in my throat shrink to a tolerable size.
Opiyo Chris graduated from Senior Four last November.  (That’s the equivalent of junior year here.)  Kids in secondary school in Uganda who want to go on to college or university must also attend Senior Five and Senior Six.  Sadly Chris has not yet begun his Senior Five year because he wasn’t able to scrape together money for his tuition or to find a school.
It breaks my heart that money is the deciding factor in who gets to go to school and who doesn’t in Uganda.  It’s wrong on so many levels.
This term while Chris was trying to find a school and trying to figure out a way to pay for school, he did a lovely thing.  He began volunteering his time with my friends Kristine and Laura at Educate for Change and helping their Primary Seven (sixth grade) students.
I wasn’t sure I could love this kid any more than I already do, but I was wrong.  It’s so like him in the midst of his own struggle for education to go and help educate younger kids.  It is the epitome of who Chris is.
Indeed his mama taught him well.
Imagine my delight when I received a message Thursday morning from Laura saying she has a spot for Opiyo Chris in school.  In my bathroom with a towel around my head, I did an absurd little happy dance and made ridiculous squealing sounds.
Opiyo Chris gets to go back to school.  My Vigilante heart was overwhelmed with joy.
Here’s the thing though, I’m not big on giving handouts.  I’m also not big on dropping in and imposing myself as some sort of haughty, all-knowing, superior person who knows what’s best for other people.  I believe in facilitating sustainable, meaningful ways for people to achieve their own goals, in a way that they see best.
Then an idea popped into my tiny brain.  What if I used Vigilante Kindness dollars to start a work-study type program wherein hardworking, kindhearted, service-oriented kids like Chris have an opportunity to work and pay for their own education?  I admit I did a second happy dance that was so enthusiastic that the towel previously wrapped around my head came undone and may or may not have landed in the toilet.  Oops.
I love that Chris didn’t start tutoring in order to be paid.  I love that he did it because he loves helping others.  And I love that I get to take his passion and help him turn it into a real way for him to obtain an education.  The mere thought of it makes me prickle with all kinds of goosebumps.

I had the pleasure of writing with Chris both summers that I was in Uganda.  Last summer he participated in our This I Believe writing workshop.  Here’s one of my favorite shots of Chris.  It’s incredible to see where his belief taking him.  
I, too, believe we ought to love one another.  Opiyo Chris makes it easy.

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