Vigilante Kindness: A New Dress

We walk through the dark streets of Gulu, letting the sounds of town fill in the silent spaces of our conversation.  There aren’t many spaces to be filled and the lack of electricity means there are also fewer sounds of the town, only the hum of a handful of generators and throbbing dance music coming from a club a few streets away.

Our stomachs are full of pork and cassava from my mom’s going away dinner at a local pork joint called Alulululu.  My mom called it Alulululululululululululululu and everyone at the table giggled because, as she said several times, all of her syllables are in the wrong places.   There were six of us at dinner and in order to be heard over the din of the rain on the tin roof, we shouted most of the night.

Everyone else peeled off after dinner, riding bikes or bodas back home.  This, this distilled quiet time, walking back to the hotel with Ivan is precious.

We recount the dinner conversations and pretend to speed skate home through the streets of town.  In our minds we’re fantastic speedskaters.  Power is scarce, so light is also scarce and nobody can see well enough to laugh at us.   Ivan rarely gets to be a kid, so fake speedskating through town, laughing until our cheeks hurt and doing other goofy things is a necessary component in each piece of our time together.

He paints, well and constantly, to ensure that he and his sister get to go to school.  He pays the rent for his studio and collects the rent from other artists sharing his space.  Most nights he sleeps in the studio because he can’t afford the boda boda fare from his house to the studio.  He keeps a rolled up mattress under the table and pulls it out each night to sleep amongst his paintings.

As we walk, he tells me the story of painting at the TAKS (Through Art Keep Smiling) Center.  His face is all lit up as he fills in the details of getting to paint in public and getting to talk about what painting means to him.  He painted a LOVE Africa piece and at the end of his time, he was offered a position helping teach Art Therapy.

He’s over the moon and I’m somewhere beyond that because he deserves to be a successful, working artist.  He deserves to make a living.  He deserves to have a bed, not a rolled up mattress under a table.  He deserves an education.  He deserves not to worry about his sister.

“I bought my sister a new dress with some of the money I got from the paintings you sold,” he smiles, his big toothy grin brilliantly visible in the inky night.

“From the fashion store you were telling me about?”

“Yes.  Do you know why I bought her a dress?”

“Um, because you love her?”  It’s obvious in everything Ivan does just how much he loves his sister.

“Because I love her and I want her to know she’s special.  Just because we don’t have parents, I still want her to feel cared for.  I don’t want her to think she has to go looking for that from guys and then get into trouble.”

Just when I think I can’t love this kid another drop more, he goes and buys a new dress for his sister and my heart shifts into overflow mode.

“You’re a great big brother, you know that?”

“Thanks,” he swallows hard.  Compliments are difficult for him to accept and I make a note to speak them more often.

Ivan’s learning to skateboard and as our conversation ebbs and flows we fake skateboard down the last street.  We practice all of our best fake tricks and in our minds we’re fantastic.

Saint Vickie

“Denis, how come you never talk about your wife and kids?”

It comes out harsh and more accusatory than I intend, but I don’t know how to say it any other way.  Friendship is so darn hard to navigate sometimes, especially when I’m all kinds of blunt and don’t know how to be otherwise.  Add to the mix friendship between two such different cultures and things really get messy.

“What do you mean?” he shouts over the wind whipping in my ears.

“I mean, we’re friends, right?”

I soften because this is the real root of my question and being vulnerable enough to ask it dissolves any toughness I purport to have.

Are we friends or aren’t we?

The lush green of Uganda passes in blurred shapes as we fly down the road.  This is how most of our conversations take place, me side saddle on the back of the boda boda as he threads through traffic and pedestrians and cows and pot holes a cacophony of other road hazards.

This is what we’re doing now, threading through pot holes and trying to remain on the path of our unlikely friendship.  It’s not the first difficult conversation we’ve had and odds are it won’t be the last.

“Yes, we’re friends.” Denis is perplexed by my question.

“But I didn’t know you have a wife and children until this week.  We’ve been friends for a long time now.  It feels weird that I’m just now knowing your family.  You know my family-my three boys and Terry.  You’ve even talked to Terry on the phone.”

Denis doesn’t respond.

“If you don’t want to tell me about your family, that’s really okay-I won’t make you, but I want you to know that you can tell me things, trust me with things.  I’m safe.  And I’d like to be friends with your wife.”

“Like I’m friends with Mr. Terry?”

“Yes, like you and Terry are friends and you and I are friends.  I’d like to be Vickie’s friend, that’s all.”

I leave it there, like an offering, meager as it might be and then I back off.

“My mind has been divided.  Last year I was focused on going to school and this year I’m focused on shifting to Te Okot,” Denis explains.

“Your mind was so divided that you forgot about your family?”

So much for backing off.  I’m not letting him get away with that one. No way.  If Terry’s mind was so divided that he forgot he’s married to me, well, let’s just say that wouldn’t end well.

I’m quiet, pressing my lips together to keep from spouting off my indignance on Vickie’s behalf. Denis catches my eye in the mirror on the handlebar and I wait, unblinking.

I once heard that when you ask a question, you should wait seven slow seconds to give the other person time to think, time to compose their response.

Seven seconds feels like an awkward eternity.  Go ahead and count them out.  I’ll wait.

You couldn’t make it past two, could you?

On the back of the boda boda I waited, counting the seconds.  I waited, maybe for a response.  Maybe for an explanation.  Maybe for nothing.  Because sometimes nothing is the only response. But I waited nonetheless, giving breathing space and thinking space and the space of time where there wasn’t the luxury of physical space.

Denis doesn’t offer up an explanation of why he safeguarded his family from me.  Instead he extends an olive branch.

“Would you like me to tell you the story of how I met Vickie?”  I hear a small smile creep into his voice.

“Very much.”

Denis unfolds the story of how he met Vickie when he was still staying in an Internally Displaced Persons Camp.  He tells about his sweet, kind father, who was legitimately bitter and angry, ravaged by war and loss.  I nod because if my child had been abducted I’d be beyond furious and seven shades beyond bitter.  Denis took his mother and moved out of the camp with Vickie, who was kind and soft when he needed it most.  Denis continues and tells me about his reconciliation with his father.

“I can’t imagine Musee being that way.” I say over the wind.

“War breaks a lot of things.”

It’s the truest sentence I’ve heard in a long time and I let the words sit between us before asking my next question.

“What does Vickie like to do?”

“She stays at home.”

“I know, but what does she like to do?  Does she like to sing or build things or sew or cook or dance?  What does she like to do?”

“She likes business.  She makes paper beads.  I learned how to make paper beads in the IDP camp and I taught Vickie and my sister, Conci.  Vickie wants to make jewelry and earn her own money.”

“Can I bring her a gift of bead making supplies when we visit Te Okot?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good.”  I feel the embarrassment of not knowing about Vickie start to fade.

“From seeing her, how old do you think she is?”  Denis grins in the mirror.

I tilt my head to the side and conjure up her face.  She served me beans and posho the last time  I was in Te Okot and had the grace not to laugh at my feeble attempt at thanking her in Acholi.  She had a shy smile and smooth skin.

“I think she’s twenty-three.”

“She told you!”  Denis chides.

“No, she didn’t tell me.  She just looks twenty-three.”  I imagine being twenty-three, raising four small children in the bush, where daily living is so very hard.  Vickie is remarkably unhaggard.  “What are your children like?”

Denis tells me about Mercy, a first grader who loves to write.

“You’re just saying that because you know I love to write.”

“No, you will see in Te Okot.  Writing is her best subject.”

“And what about Lucky Maurice?  What’s he like?”

Denis shakes his head and tells me about his second child, Lucky (who incidentally is my favorite kid in the whole family because he’s always laughing and making mischief).  Denis tells me that Lucky used to pick on all the other kids in Bungatira and that trouble was Lucky’s shadow, but now he’s mostly grown out of that.

“And the twins?”

“Opiyo is sweet and Ochin is stubborn, so stubborn.”

“I know. The last time I was in Te Okot he was using the panga outside and Vickie asked him to bring it inside and from inside the house all we heard was a groan and his footsteps stomping away.”

“That’s Ochin.  Stubborn, stubborn boy.”

“I wonder where he gets it,” I elbow Denis in the back.  “You know she’s a saint for putting up with you,right?”

“Who?”

“Vickie.  Sweet Vickie.  Saint Vickie.”  I fold my hands piously.

He laughs and a few minutes later we reach our destination.  I pull out my notebook and scrawl a reminder.

“What are you writing?”

“Bead materials for Saint Vickie.  I love that she wants to be a businesswoman.  Who knows, maybe I’ll be her first customer.”

 

Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 3

If you’re just joining the story of Te Okot, read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

I swore to myself I’d never ride a boda boda out to Te Okot or anywhere else that far away again.

And yet yesterday morning I found myself on the back of Bitek’s sport bike.  The knobby tires made quick work of the slick mud that is half of the road to Te Okot.  All hope I had of arriving to the village in any sort of tidy condition was quickly taken care of by the skunk stripe of mud up my back and the mud splattering my face.  The road was so rough that every tooth nearly rattled out of my head.  My shoes were slick with mud and my feet were full of pins and needles from sitting in the same position for such a long time.  My feet kept slipping from the foot pegs, so that I burned a nice commemorative quarter-sized exhaust pipe tattoo above my right ankle. And we’ll just not even go into the condition of my hind quarters, which are still not speaking to me for the atrocities I committed against them by taking a boda out to Te Okot and back, not once, but twice in a single week.

Mud stripes, exhaust pipe burns, rattled teeth and a tush that will probably be on permanent strike-all of those minor inconveniences pale, pale, pale in comparison to hardship of living without drinkable water.  And for me, those minor pains couldn’t hold a candle to the hope I held that when Bitek surveyed the land, he’d find a viable place to drill for water.

Water.  Beautiful, clean, healthy water.

We reached Bungatira and I laughed when Denis greeted me by shouting,

“Acureque!”  (I have no idea how to spell that word.) In Acholi, it means something like, “You’ve kept me waiting!”

It’s our joke because each time Denis would pick me up, I’d put my hands on my hips, furrow my brow and shout, “Acureque!”  Then as we pulled away, we’d break into peals of laughter at the shocked faces of the surrounding Acholis who were stunned to hear a Muzungu shouting in Acholi.

So when Denis shouted it at me, I broke into a wide grin and hopped off Bitek’s bike, almost falling on my face because my feet, legs and rear had all conspired revenge upon me.  I regained my balance and hugged Denis hard, trying not to wince at how thin he’s grown, trying not to think of how little food he and his family have had access to lately.

After introductions, Denis led us inside his hut, which he’d worked hard to expand this week just so we could come inside and have a place to sit.

We sat inside drinking lukewarm bottled soda that Denis had purchased for just this occasion. Men and women and children entered the hut and greeted us, some staying and sitting with us, others shaking hands and returning to the hard work of life.

After a sufficient amount of rest in the hut, we tromped through the compound and through the bush to the water source.  Everyone followed us, except some of the women who were tending to the littlest children and the people who were too old to make the trek.  Men, women, children all trailed the Musee, Bitek and I.  We were quite the parade of people.

Bitek and I snapped photos, he for documentation of the project and me for the joy of it, for the sheer delight I took in this community expedition in search of the best place to mine water.  Bitek stopped several times examining the rocks and dirt, fingering the soil for moisture content, peering into the roasting pit at the stratospheric layers of the ground.We spent quite a bit of time at the current water source and snapped a handful of photos of Agnes filling her jerrican full of the dank water.

I shuddered thinking of sweet Aber drinking that water and felt a pang of sadness stab at my heart because just minutes earlier as we’d walked down the path, Agnes had leaned into me and whispered, “If you can’t take Olarra, take Aber.”  The desperation in her voice to give her children a chance at a healthier, educated life gripped me and I blinked back tears and told her I can’t take her children.

After Bitek surveyed the water hole we marched back up the hill. Bitek took several small side excursions off of the trail to examine all of the possibilities and then to cross some of them off because they were in the direct path of the elephants, who had trampled the tall grasses so flatly that it looked like large trucks had motored through.We paused under a large tree and Bitek declared that this would be the first drilling site.  If the well construction team reachedundrillable rock, they’d move further down the hill and drill at a second site.We finished tromping up the hill to where the rest of the community had gathered on mats in the shade of a large tree.  There were four chairs set in the front: one for Musee, one for me, one for Bitek and one for Denis.  As I went to sit in the chair beside Musee, Bitek pointed to the mats, “Women sit on the ground.”  He was half joking and half informing me of the culture.  I replied that I’d sit wherever the Musee asked me to.  Musee was quick to respond to Bitek, “Alicia sits in the chair beside me.”

 

Denis spoke briefly, followed by the Musee.  Then it was my turn to speak.  I told the group how I’d done what I’d promised, I’d written their story and indeed people had responded.  I told them about how my little brother was spearheading money collection at home and they broke into applause and asked me to pass along their joyful thanks.  I told them how I’d placed a call to Bitek, the only person I know who knows how to build wells.Then I turned it over to Bitek who told them all the details of their coming well.  He told them about the well site and why he’d chosen it and about how the construction team trains the community members to repair and upkeep the well.  He told them about their responsibility to feed and house the construction team while the well was being built.  They had many questions and he answered each one with care.When would construction begin?

In one week after the construction team finishes building a well in the town of Sorotti.

How long would it take?

Two weeks.

How many community members would they train to keep the well in working order?

As many as want to be trained.

Would they leave them the appropriate tools to maintain the well?

Repair of well only requires the use of one wrench.  I nodded emphatically when Bitek asked if I was including the purchase of the wrench with the well.

Would there be a possibility for the men they train to go out and build wells for them?

Yes, they take workers from each past well construction site to build wells at the new sites.

If there’s any money left over from the building of the well, could it go into their community microloan treasury?

My heart did a happy flip-flop at that and I answered, “Yes, definitely yes.”

When the questions had all been answered, we moved on to discussing the solar lights. One of the community members thanked me for the lights because he no longer has to buy and burn paraffin in his hut.  Denis told me that for the past two nights the wild elephants had come through the compound and when the people put their lights out, the elephants moved away.  Another member timidly asked if there were any lights still left because some of them had been sowing seeds for crops during the last meeting and didn’t receive a light.  Again I answered, definitely yes.

As the meeting drew to a close, one of the members spoke to Bitek in Acholi.  Bitek laughed and turned to me, “You’re building them a medical clinic next?”

“No, I don’t know anything about building a medical clinics, Bitek.”

Patrick, one of teenagers of Te Okot, spoke up, “Yes, Alicia, but you don’t know anything about building wells either.”  He smiled at me with a glint of mischief in his eyes.

“Good point, Patrick.”

Then it was time to say goodbye and get back on the dreaded boda boda.  My lower half protested as soon as I sat down.  After an hour on the motorcycle, Bitek and I stopped for a late lunch in the town of Annaka.  He ate goat.  I had beans and potatoes.

We talked about the other wells Bitek has built and then the conversation turned back to Te Okot.  “It’s going to be hard for them to get enough food to feed us.  Maybe you could buy the food and their contribution could be preparing it for us?”  Bitek suggested between bites of goat.

“Of course.  Just tell me what and how much to buy and where to buy it.”

After lunch, I told Bitek that I simply could not, could not, could not get back on the boda.  I was in too much pain so I would either walk the 52 kilometers back to Gulu, find a car to take me or, if necessary, take up residence in Annaka.

To my delight, Bitek found a taxi taking four other well-dressed women to Gulu.  It was leaving right then and for 10,000 shillings (roughly $4) I bought a seat in the taxi, a banged up Honda Accord.  Dear ones, let me tell you that may be the best four bucks I’ve ever spent.

Bitek insisted on following the taxi back to Gulu to make sure I made it there safely.  As I drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of the happy chatter of the women in the car with me, my rear end gave thanks for small things like taxis to Gulu and my heart gave thanks for larger things like glorious, clean water.

Got Apwoyo?

I set a meeting with Bitek, my Acholi friend who digs wells, for nine in the morning.  So at ten o’clock Bitek arrives.

We sit out on the patio in front of the hotel, sipping hot tea.  He tells me a little about his trip from Sorotti.  It took him all of last night and all of the morning to reach here.  We talk a bit about his younger brother, whom we both adore, and then I show him the photos of the water source of Te Okot.

“They’re drinking this, Bitek.”

“It’s no good,” he agrees.

“What would it take to get them a well?”  I brace myself to hear the improbable, if not the impossible.  My thread of faith is thin, but it’s a thread nonetheless and I can’t sleep at night knowing that a lack of clean water is killing the people of Te Okot.

“I’d need to go out and survey the land first, but once we found a water source, then we’d start drilling.”

“How long would that take?  And how much would it cost?”  I gulp hot tea too quickly and it steams down my throat.

“It takes two weeks and costs one thousand five hundred dollars.”

“What???  One thousand five hundred dollars?”

Relief floods my face and I feel flushed with the possibility of clean, drinkable water. For Denis and his family.  For Mama & Musee.  For Michael and Onen and Patrick and their wives and children.  For Agnes and Olarra and sweet, baby Aber.

Water.

The word overwhelms me, becomes the thump of my heart hidden deep inside my chest.

Wa-ter, wa-ter, wa-ter.

I think of the people of Te Okot and how when I asked them to prioritize among a school, a medical clinic and water, they shouted, “Pii!  Pii!  Pii!”  Water!  Water!  Water!

Bitek continues.  “The community is responsible for feeding the workers while we are there.  Then we train 2-3 men on how to maintain the well so that when parts need replacement, they can do it themselves instead of relying on us.”

I love this plan so much that I narrowly resist the urge to tackle Bitek, to drown him in gangly hugs that are far too tight and far too long.

“What’s your schedule like?  I mean, when could you start?”  I can barely remain in my seat.

“We could go survey the site tomorrow and then we just have to finish the well in Sorotti.  After that we have no wells to dig.  Our timeline is empty.”

“Really???”  It comes out as a squeal.

I place a quick call to Denis to make sure tomorrow is okay.  He confirms that it is and thanks me more times than I can count.

Bitek asks about my mom and I take the stairs two at a time until I reach her door.  I’m breathless and don’t even wait for her to open the door.  I shout the good news about the possibility of water through her door.

The word pulses through my veins now.

Waterwaterwwaterwaterwaterwwaterwaterwater.

After a few minutes of visiting with my mom, Bitek leaves us with the promise to pick me up at eight the next morning.  I’ll be ready at eight.  He will likely arrive at nine and then we’ll ride his boda boda three hours to Te Okot to survey the land, to look for signs of water hidden deep within the heart of the land.

There’s a road sign on the way to Te Okot that says Got Apwoyo.  The literal translation of Apwoyo is ‘rabbit’, but it’s also the word for ‘hello’ and most importantly it’s the word for ‘thanks’.  Got means ‘mountain’.  So while the sign is really a marker for Mt. Rabbit, I can’t help but think that the sign is asking me, “Got thanks?”

Power has gone out again and in the darkening night I pray for the heart of the land of Te Okot to run deep with water.  And then I think of that road sign and pray that my heart will run deep with gratitude.  Got Apwoyo, indeed.

PIGLETS!!!!!

I don’t know about you, but yesterday was one of those days when I needed a bit of good news.

Yesterday Denis’ brother, Michael, was my boda driver.  We took a trip out to Fort Patiko, a former slave trading fort.  If I can stomach writing about that, I will, but right now it’s too fresh and the horrors humans committed against each other at that place are raw on my heart.

On the way back from Fort Patiko, we passed Bungatira.  Michael asked if I’d like to go and visit Mama.  I’d been wanting to see her, but in the small places of myself where I don’t have to be brave, I was afraid-afraid to run into the clan who’d poisoned the pigs, but mostly afraid that if Michael took me there again, he’d incur the same punishments Denis had.

I told him that I feared going to Bungatira and he assured me that I’d be safe and that Mama would be delighted to see me.  I tamped down the fear and willed myself to enjoy the sweeping, lush valley views on what will likely be one of my final trips to Bungatira.

Mama greeted me with warm hugs as did the remaining members of Denis’ family who are preparing to leave Bungatira for Te Okot.  The women and the children welcomed me and prepared my favorite dish-roasted maize.

I sat in Mama’s hut, just listening to her.  Mama has a voice that bathes me in tender warmth and even though I only picked up words of Acholi here and there, the love in her eyes needed no translation.

As I was sitting with Mama, Michael popped in and asked, “Do you want to see the surviving pigs?”

“WHAT???”  I jumped off the papyrus mat so quickly that I almost slipped and landed keister over kettle on the mud floor.  “There are surviving pigs?  Where?  How many?  How?”

I followed Michael out of the hut and he led me to where two small piglets were munching away on something delicious in the bush.  I didn’t know whether to dance or cry or both.  Instead I sprayed more questions at Michael.

“Denis said that all of the pigs had been poisoned and died.  How did these two survive?  Can I take snaps to show the people at home?”

Michael nodded and I snapped pictures of the pair of piglets like it was their first day of kindergarten.  One is a male piglet and the other is his sister.  Michael explained that at the time the pigs were poisoned, the boy pig had been grazing elsewhere and that most likely when the boy piglet heard the pigs screaming from the poison, he ran farther away, but later returned.

As Michael recounted that part of the story, I swallowed hard.  My stomach knotted itself at the thought of the pigs screaming because they unknowingly ingested poison.

“And the girl pig?” I stammered.

Michael explained that she ingested the poison, too, but they gave all the pigs medicine from the vet.  They were sure they were too late, but somehow when all the other pigs and piglets died, this strong piglet girl rallied.

I watched the girl piglet push her snout, rooting through the earth, busy with the important work of growing fatter.  She and her brother wore ropes tied like dog leashes so that the family could keep the two pigs on the compound, where they could be kept safe.

I continued to click photos, but stopped snapping when I reached the piggery.  It was empty and I felt a hollow pit in my stomach.  The piggery was full of noisy pigs the last time I saw it and now it feels too big, unsettling in its quiet.

It was time to move the two pigs into the shade near the piggery.  Michael led the boy and I led the girl.  The boy squealed and grunted and dug his heels into the ground.  The girl walked beside me, snuffling around my feet. Her curly tails flicked and wiggled and thwapped against my leg.  Michael said the curl in her tail is a sign that she’s regained her health.

Good news often comes from the most unexpected places and today it came in the form of a fat piglet and her spring of a tail.

Vigilante Kindness: Art Supplies for Ivan

Getting water for the people of Te Okot is heavy on my mind every single second of every day and I’m excited to see how that progresses, but you should also know that the other Vigilante Kindness projects are gaining momentum.  Today here’s a story of how I used Vigilante Kindness Work Study money to support Ivan, my young student artist who paints to pay for his school fees and for the fees of his sister.

“What is it?”  Ivan looks over the long, black bag I’ve just handed him.

“Open it and see.  It’s a gift from my Aunt Nancy, the artist.”

He opens the black bag and pulls out the metal pieces.  Carefully he unfolds the tripod and stands the easel up, adjusting the legs so that it stands tall next to him.

“Thank you so much!  It’s so nice!”

“And these are for you, too.”  I hoist my shoulder bag, heavy with art supplies onto the table in his studio.

Ivan unpacks the brushes and charcoals and pastels and paper and blending tools and a host of other art supplies my aunt has sent me with.  I don’t even know what half of them are or do, but Ivan does.<

His eyes well with tears.  “Thank you for supporting me, Alicia.  I don’t know how to repay you.”

“It wasn’t me.  I’m just the messenger.”

“I don’t know how to repay your aunt.  Maybe I’ll make her a painting?”

“I think that’s the perfect way to repay her.  Let’s record a video message for her as well.”  I smile at him.  “Hey, Ivan, I was at school on Friday.  Why weren’t you there?  Were you sick?”

“No, I couldn’t pay my school fees, so they sent me home.”

“How much do you owe in school fees?”  It’s a candid question and I feel glad that our relationship has earned me the right to ask and also given him the freedom to answer without shame.

“130,000 shillings.”  $50.

I think of the Vigilante Kindness Work Study shillings in my wallet for kids who want to work to pay their school fees.

“I can help with that.  Which of your paintings are for sale?”

He shows me and I pick out two for a total of 150,000 shillings.  I don’t care to barter here, not with Ivan who paints to pay his school fees and the school fees of his sister, Lillian.

I stick around the art studio watching Ivan and his partner Calvin paint.  I snap photos of their paintings and of the two of them at work.

Ivan shows me the set of paintings the hospital has commissioned him to paint to hang in the patient rooms.  He tells me about how they hope to have an exhibition soon so that they can rent the back room of the art studio and begin using it as a gallery.  Right now the door to the back room is locked.

Later that night, I post the photos on Facebook so that Ivan and Calvin can have some clear shots of their work.  It’s hard to find a camera here, even harder to find a camera that takes clear shots.  I post the photos with a note that the paintings are for sale.  Within minutes of posting, the paintings begin selling to my friends and family at home.  I go to bed dreaming of the locked door at the back of their studio and of the gallery room that waits behind it.

Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 2

If you’re just joining the story of Te Okot you can read Part 1 here.

The people of Te Okot waited to hear my plan.  I didn’t really have one, except to write about the need for clean and consumable water and then wait.  Oh, and pray.  A lot.

Can that even be called a plan?  Surely not, but maybe a thin thread of faith would be enough to string something together.  It would have to be enough because I was still tamping down doubt, still reeling from the sting of Bungatira.

I was once slapped by a classmate in junior high school.  I deserved it.  Frankly, I deserved more than one slap, but that’s a story for another time.  What I recall so vividly is the sting left on my cheek, the red shame fingerprinted across my face.

I felt the same way about Bungatira, like the forced relocation of Denis’ clan had delivered a full body slap and my skin still radiated with the sting of it.

Doubt bubbled up.  What if the same thing happened in Te Okot?  What if injustice opened its wide mouth and swallowed everything up again?

It was the thought of innocent Aber, daughter of Agnes who compelled me to continue.  Even if the hearts of the people in Te Okot eventually did turn, could I really walk away from children in need of safe water?

No.  Absolutely no.

“Ok, here’s what I can do,” I took a breath.  “I’ll write about your need for water, but I’ll need to take your pictures and pictures of your water source to help tell the story. So if there’s anyone who disagrees, speak now, please.”

Nobody disagreed.  In fact they arranged themselves for a photo.  I snapped a few shots, my finger shaking on the button.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne LaMott and what she calls two of the most holy prayers skittered into my thoughts. “Help!” and “Thanks.”  I’ve talked about the lack of polish of my prayer life before and I’m okay with it, okay with knowing that my feeble pleas and pittances of thanks are enough.  At that moment I prayed and felt the “Help!” prayer down through every part of me.  The “Thanks” prayer was insincere at that point, but I said it anyway hoping the uttering of the prayer would bring about the thanks.  Because sometimes it’s that way for me, the action begets the feeling and there in the severe bush I clung ferociously to that notion.

Denis told the community group about the solar lights I’d brought on behalf of my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness.  Each family in attendance at the meeting received a light.  (I was nineteen lights short, so the following day I stuffed nineteen more lights in Denis’ messenger bag.  The eight charging lights I carried in my backpack will now be used as a charging station, free to all members of the clan to come and charge their phones.)

Then the Musee and many others in the group led me down the path to see their water.  I was wet with humidity before even a minute passed.  The walk to the water was about a mile through grasses as tall as I am.

I whispered to Agnes, “I fear snakes.”

“It’s the elephants who do the most damage.”  She pointed to a place where the grass had been trampled by elephants.

Ah, yes, wild elephants, how silly of me to have been afraid of the snakes.

To say that the water source was abhorrent is an understatement.  I’ve seen quite a few different kinds of water sources in my time here and this, this one is the worst.  See for yourself.

Thirsty?  Me either.  Want to wash dishes in that?  Want to wash yourself in that?  Want to cook for your family with that?  No, no and no.Plus again, there are the elephants.  This is where the elephants get their water.  If you and an elephant reach the water at the same time, guess who’s getting the water?Not you.

So not you.

The rain began just as we started back toward the village and even though we ran, we were soaked through and took refuge in Agnes’ hut.  Aber, the warm baby in my lap, was all coos and giggles and wags of her tongue.

How could I get her clean water?  It played over and over in my mind.God, help and thanks, help and thanks, help and thanks.  That was all I could pray under the pelting rain.When the rain let up, I gave sweet Aber back to her mom and Denis and I continued via boda to Pakwach, the town nearest to Te Okot.  Here I forked out Vigilante Kindness shillings for food starts like beans and dried cassava root for Denis’ family.

He’d spent the past few weeks chopping down trees, burning the logs into charcoal and selling the five feet tall sacks of charcoal for $8 a bag.  He did this because it was the only resource he had to buy food for his family.Imagine that kind of hard labor, that kind of hungry desperation to try to provide food for your family.  I thank God that I’ve never had to know that hunger.  I’ve never had to wonder if and when I’d get to eat again.It crushed me to think of Denis the eager student, Denis the pig farmer, Denis the leader of his community group sitting by the roadside peddling charcoal.

We dropped the beans and dried cassava off at Te Okot and stopped to eat a meal they’d prepared for us, beans and millet bread.  I bit my lip to keep the tears from coming.  This simple meal was perhaps the most generous gift I’ve ever received and as I ate, I savored every spoonful.

This is what sacrifice tastes like.  This is the flavor of generosity.  Beans and gritty millet bread prepared for me by my loved ones in the bush who have little more than nothing and give to me with abandon.  Anything I give in return to my loved ones in Te Okot will pale in comparison to this meal.  I give from abundance.  They fed me out of their need and just like that the order of my prayer changed.  Thanks and help.  Thanks and help.  Thanks and help.

Denis and I finished our meal and as the sun set over the River Nile, we began our long journey home.  We rode in darkness and said very few words.  We’d spent them all today and my mouth felt bankrupt of words that would suffice anyway.  Our bodies were heavy with fatigue and the full face of the moon watched over us as we rode through the scarred, dark land two and a half hours back to Gulu.

The next morning everything still ached, like down in my bones ached, from the long trip the day before.  I say a prayer of thanks that I didn’t do it on foot or on a bicycle.  Denis runs me around town on errands and after a few errands, he bounced up and down to tell me that he’d found a second-hand boda boda for sale and it’s in our price range.  After a quick test drive, I couldn’t pay for it fast enough with the Vigilante Kindness shillings.

A boda means Denis can go to school.A boda means Te Okot can pile their jerricans high on boda and fetch clean water from another town until we figure out how to get a sustainable clean water source.A boda means they can ride to the nearest medical center when needed.

A boda means Denis can transport his elderly parents safely to Te Okot.

It’s not clean water.

Not yet.

But for the day it was enough and as I put my head on my pillow, I got a call from Denis telling me that the people of Te Okot put their solar lights outside that night to keep the elephants, who fear light, from trampling into their village. It’s the first time they haven’t had to sit up all night stoking a fire to keep safe.

Ah, yes, those wild elephants, how silly of me to have only thought of the lights lighting up the inside of the huts.

I closed my eyes and before I fell to sleep I prayed again.  Thanks and help, but mostly thanks.

P.S-I’m meeting with my well guy tomorrow morning.  I know some of you are chomping at the bit to help me get a well to Te Okot and I love your urgent Vigilante hearts.  You’ll be the first to know as soon as I know more about exactly how to make it happen.