Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 1

“Did you make a list of the things your family needs?”

It’s eight in the morning and I stuff the remaining half of a banana in my mouth as I slide onto the back of the boda.  It’s the boda Denis’ older brother Michael rents and drives.  I’ve paid Michael 30,000 shillings, roughly $11.50, to use it for the day, marveling at the fact that $11.50 is a good day’s wage.

“I have the list here.”

Denis produces a school notebook and shows me the list.  Tarps for keeping the moisture from the ground out of their huts, food starts like beans, millet and dried cassava for grinding into a kind of bread, mats for sleeping on, a bicycle or boda boda for riding to the nearest town to fetch water, a plowing machine and textbooks for Denis’ next school term.

I add a phone and airtime minutes to his list.

“So I never have to wonder if you’re alive or not again.”

I shake my finger at Denis and he smiles.  I snap my helmet on and off we go.

For $20 we purchase a phone and enough airtime minutes to last him quite a while.  Next we look at plowing machines.  They shine and glint in the Gulu sun, but the price is double the money we have and so Denis edits his list and changes plowing machine to ox plow.  Animals are cheaper than machines apparently.  We pick up some tarps, rolling and tying them on the back of the boda.  We spend quite some time pricing boda bodas, but they too are out of our price range.

The morning is getting away from us and if I’m to meet with the chief and elders of Te Okot, then we have to get going.  We leave town and while I believed Denis when he told me that Te Okot is very far away, riding side saddle on the boda for 120 kilometers brings a whole new meaning to what ‘very far away’ feels like.

By the time we reach Te Okot, my face is red with the dust and everything aches.  My backpack, which carries the 8 charging lights and few other items, feels like it weighs a hundred pounds.  I think of Denis walking all that way to get to me the night before and it’s unfathomable.

At Te Okot, I’m greeted by Denis’ father, his brothers and their wives, and their children who have grown so much in a year.  Babies who were crawling are now running around the compound.  The little girls who were chubby faced three-year olds are longer and leaner four-year olds.

I hug them all and fight back tears when, Musee, Denis’ dad hugs me long and hard telling me things in Acholi that don’t need translation because the heart knows what love sounds like.

After greeting everyone, Denis brings me to the hut of Agnes, a clan member who has been living on the land for four years.  Her father is the brother to the chief and the second eldest Musee on the land behind the chief.  The Musee tells me that the chief has gone for a burial today and sends his greetings to me.

Denis leaves me in the company of Agnes and her three children while he and the other clan members attend a community meeting to discuss equitable land division and other issues.

Agnes sits cutting the tops and bottoms off of okra she’s picked from her garden and is preparing to cook that night for supper.  I sit on the floor across from her wanting to help, but there is only one knife so instead, we chat away and I swoon over her baby girl Aber who is sleeping peacefully on the mattress next to me.

Her two sons come in and out and the oldest son, eleven year old Olarra, helps clear away the okra tops and bottoms.  The boys are old enough to attend school, but there isn’t a school anywhere nearby and even if there was a school nearby, Agnes has no foreseeable way of earning an income to pay school fees.

“Alicia, please take Olarra with you so that he can go to school,” Agnes begs with eyes set on mine.  “I want him to attend school.  Please take my son.”

My heart breaks for her, so desperate to give her son an education that she would beg a stranger to take him.  Olarra sits in the doorway waiting for my response.

“Coo apwoyo,” I’m sorry, but I can’t.

Even if I’d wanted to take Olarra, the U.S. is in disagreement with Uganda regarding some recent laws that have been passed and the U.S. isn’t granting Visas from Uganda.  There is no way I can take him and my helplessness crushes me.

After an hour or so visiting with Agnes, I’m asked to join the community meeting.  I sit in the place of honor at the right hand of the Musee.  I feel embarrassed by my whiteness and swallow the guilt I still feel over having had a part in the displacement of so many of the people before me from their home in Bungatira.

Denis, who in his short time in Te Okot, has already been appointed Secretary, addresses me and tells me they’ve been discussing the needs of the community and have come up with three things that they’re hoping I’ll be able to help with.  In no particular order, the group tells me that they’re lacking a medical facility and medical supplies, they have no school and they don’t have access to clean and healthy water.

“Denis, what have you told them? Who do they think I am?”  I turn to him, feeling so far in over my head.

“I’ve told them you’re a woman who accomplishes great things.”

I turn back to the group.  “I don’t know what you know about me, but I only have one talent, one gift to offer up in service of your needs.  I write.  I’m a writer and I write stories about people.  And then if people at home are compelled to help, they do.  I don’t know anything about starting a medical clinic or a school and I certainly don’t know anything about digging wells.”

I pause for a moment, hating that I’m about to ask them to choose between water, medical care and education.  No human should have to choose between those basic rights.  And yet, here I am asking them to prioritize the three.

“Perhaps if you can decide which of the three is most important, I can write about that one first and see what I can do.”

Before I have a chance to continue, they all begin shouting, “Pii!  Pii!  Pii!”  Water!  Water!  Water!

One man speaks up, “Without clean water, we will keep dying.”

Keep dying.  Not begin dying.  Keep dying.  “Without clean water, we will keep dying.”  I know as soon as he’s said it, it’s a phrase that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I take a deep breath and the tiniest seed of a plan begins to germinate in my mind.

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