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.

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.

Finding Denis, Part 2

If you’re just joining the story of Finding Denis, you can read Part 1 here.

There isn’t power in Gulu today, but I’m at a place with a generator so as long as the generator holds out, I’ll write as much of the story about Denis as I can.

I waited outside my hotel for Denis to arrive.  A live band played and people danced around the plastic tables and chairs dotting the patio.  The mood was in stark contrast to my own.  I waited with rocks in my stomach for Denis to arrive safely from Te Okot.  Traveling such a long distance at night is still touch and go here, like the ghosts of war still linger in the haunted nights.

Denis arrived and I felt my whole body sigh with relief.  I hugged him too tightly and probably too long for what is appropriate here and I just didn’t care.

My friend was alive and safe and here.  And in that moment little else mattered.

We sat at a table and over bottles of soda, he unpacked his story. It begins in Bungatira, Denis’ village, the same village that welcomed me so warmly, the village that had a beautiful little democracy in place.  You’re undoubtedly noticing my use of past tense here.

Bungatira captured my heart and the hearts of so many of you that, to be truthful, my eyes are welling up and my fingers are shaking at what I have to tell you next because I know it will break your hearts as it did mine.

Bungatira is composed of ten different chiefdoms, all part of the same clan, all part of the same tribe.  To think of ten different chiefdoms living peacefully on the same land is a miraculous thing in my eyes.  Thirty-eight years ago, Denis’ grandfather, a member of the Aria chiefdom was given a piece of land in Bungatira from the Pawel chiefdom who owned the land.  When a piece of land is given or purchased, the rights of the land are supposed to transfer to the new owner.

The community group in Bungatira was composed of all ten chiefdoms and in the last few months the relationship between some of the Pawel chiefdom and some of the other chiefdoms, including the Aria, had begun to fray, to come undone.

Last summer when the community group made changes to their Constitution and in many ways moved forward, the specific members of the Pawel began to show their displeasure.  When Denis, the chairperson of the group, returned to school and the group began to do things like bring in counseling for members suffering from PTSD and to distribute microloans for farm equipment and school fees for their children, the power began to slip away from the Pawel, who were the largest in number and therefore the predominant chiefdom.

Here land is life.  Land is power.  Land is everything.

As Denis’ pigs grew and reproduced and as he excelled in school, others in the community group began to follow suit, returning to school, earning a living and sustainable income.

With the power trickling through their fingers, the Pawel told Denis’ family and some other Aria that they must leave.  Time and again Denis and his family tried to reconcile the differences,to thread things back together, even calling the Pawel and Aria chiefs together to come to a resolution.

 Another factor was that Denis had brought a mzungu (a white person) into their community and in their eyes, I’d  caused a tidal wave of unwelcome changes.

At that part of the story, my eyes spilled over.  I felt hot vomit sizzling in my stomach.  What had I done?  The band continued to play and people danced as my hot tears splattered in the dirt.

“Tima kica, Denis.  Tima kica.”  I’m so sorry.  Forgive me.  Forgive me.

“It’s not your fault, Alicia.  You did a great thing for me and for my family,” Denis held my gaze.

Specific members of the Pawel spit threats at Denis and his family, threatening to kill them if they didn’t leave.  To prove their point, one morning in early June, just after the boda driver killings had subsided, and Denis was at school, they poisoned his pigs.  He returned from school to find most of his pigs and piglets dead.

My heart was appalled.  How could they commit such a crime and not be punished?

It goes back to power.  The Pawel were the original land owners and becaus engle far outnumbers their Aria, the fact that Denis’ family has lived there for almost forty years holds no weight.

So Denis and his brothers and his father travelled to Te Okot, approximately 120 kilometers from Gulu to meet with the chief of the Aria to ask permission to return to the original land of the Aria.

The chief granted their request and for the last month Denis and his brothers and their family have been rebuilding their life.  They’ve built small thatch huts to live in, so small that to my eyes they look like haystacks.  They’ve planted their garden so that they will soon have food to eat.

Too far from Gulu to rent a boda and drive a boda for a living, Denis had been logging trees by hand and burning them into to charcoal, which he’s been selling by the road.  A medium-sized tree wields a sack and a half of charcoal, each sack about five feet tall.  Each sack sells for 20,000 shillings, or approximately eight dollars.

I can’t even fathom losing my home, my opportunity for education, my livelihood in one swoop.

“So I came from Te Okot tonight to tell you not to go to find me in Bungatira.  I’m not there and it’s not safe for you to go there alone.”  Denis took a last sip of Mountain Dew, warm in the bottle.

“You came all this way tonight just to make sure I wouldn’t be in danger?  I’m sorry, Denis.”

“I knew you wouldn’t stop looking for me until you knew I was safe.  And I wanted to tell you myself why I’m not around, but I couldn’t afford minutes on my phone and there’s not electricity in Te Okot to charge my phone.  So here I am.”  Denis smiles and I can’t fathom how he can be smiling. “Don’t worry.  We’re okay.  We’re good now.”

“But what about school?  Don’t you want to keep going to school?”

“Yes, but there aren’t schools near Te Okot.  And I have no way to get to school.”

I think of my wallet, stuffed with dollars intended for the Bungatira group treasury.  I can’t bring myself to give the remaining members of Bungatira the money after what has been done by the Pawel to Denis and his family. The group in Bungatira mostly disbanded after the pigs were poisoned.  I think of the remaining chiefdoms there, powerless against the Pawel and yet unable to move and my heart breaks for them.  I understand why they disbanded, understand how hard it would be to continue to live under the guise of democracy with the bloody underbelly of tyranny.

I swirl the remaining drops of orange Fanta at the bottom of my soda bottle.  Through my anger, through my guilt and sadness, familiar words rise from my throat and are a salve the moment I say them.

“Denis, what do you need and how can I help?  I’ve been raising money for the Bungatira treasury.  I was going to surprise the group with it, but now it feels like it should go with the members of Bungatira who are relocating to Te Okot.”

“Can you come to Te Okot tomorrow and meet with the chief and the rest of our chiefdom?”

“It would be my pleasure.  You mentioned that there isn’t electricity near Te Okot.  Would solar lights be of any use?”

“Yes.  Very much so.  Did you bring some with you?”

“Yes, I brought a few with me.  How many do you need?”

“Twenty five, but that’s a lot.”

“Give me your bag.”  I hold my hand out and he gives me his messenger bag covered in the red dust that coats everything here.  I race upstairs and pack twenty-five of the small solar lights and eight of the charging solar lights into his bag to give to Denis and the people I loved in Bungatira and can’t wait to see again in Te Okot.

“You will love Te Okot.  It’s along the River Nile and we will see tribes of elephants roaming free.”  Denis says it so matter of factly and for the zillionth time since my first trip to Uganda, I realize just how little I know about the world around me.

As I fall asleep that night, I feel the warmth of gratitude in my cheeks because my friend is safe, his family is safe, a village will soon have light and most of all in the midst of humankind at it’s most vile, there are still peaceful places in the world where wild elephants roam free.

Finding Denis, Part 1

The boda driver killings in Gulu began on May 28th and on May 29th I received a frantic message from my boda driver, Denis, that a rebel group had entered Gulu and was killing boda drivers in the cloak of night.

Denis’ message to me was quick and to the point.  “A group of people are killing boda boda riders in large.  And they are using guns.”

Messages from my other loved ones in Uganda came in frantic bursts.  The number of drivers killed was nearing twenty.  A mandatory curfew was put in place over the town.  The police were vigilant in their pursuit of the rebel group, but drivers continued to be shot and killed.

I called Denis.

And messaged him.

And sent my son, William, out to Denis’ village, Bungatira, to find him.

His phone was disconnected.  He didn’t reply to messages and worst of all, he was nowhere to be found in his village.

For weeks I tried to find him.

Then weeks turned into a month.

Time kept on growing and still no word.

The pit of my stomach felt like it was full of rocks. I thought of the voice in my ear telling me to let go.

No, I would not let go of this.  I would not let go of my friend.  I spewed angry prayers from between clenched teeth.  I am not letting go of my friend, God.  NOT LETTING GO.  So You and your voice are going to have to help me find Denis.

I wondered if Denis was alive.  And if he was alive, why wasn’t he home?  Why was his phone, his life line, not working?

Something was terribly wrong.

Since the summer of 2013 I’d heard from Denis at least every other week.  He regularly filled me in with reports on his pigs and reports about the village treasury.

And now nothing.

I arrived in Gulu and tried calling Denis countless times to no avail.  I planned to go to Denis’ village the following day to figure out for myself where my friend was and whether he was alive or not.

I can’t tell you how happy I was later that day when I picked up my phone and it showed a missed call from Denis’ number.  I kicked myself for having it on silent.

Again I called and didn’t get through.  Later William called and talked to Denis.  Denis was in Te Okot, the land of his clan.  William reported that Denis was walking to Gulu to come and see me.

Again alarm bells sounded.  Te Okot is 2-3 hours from Gulu and that’s if you go by motorcycle.  Why was Denis walking?  Why was he so far from home?

I called Denis and can’t express how overjoyed I was to hear his voice for myself.  I fired questions at him.

“Where have you been?  You scared me to death.  I thought you were dead.  Why isn’t your phone working?  What are you doing so far from home?  Aren’t you in school?  Where’s your boda?  Why are you walking from so far?”

“I’ll explain it all when I reach you.  I’ll be there around midnight,” Denis replied.

“Why don’t you take a boda?  It will be much faster.”

“It’s expensive.  I can’t pay for it.  My pigs were all poisoned and died.  My future has died.”

“What???  Who killed your pigs?  How much is the boda ride?”

“40,000 shillings.  I’ll explain everything when I get there.”

40,000 shillings is roughly $15.

I told Denis I’d pay the boda driver, that he should just come and come quickly.

Then I waited one of the longest hours of my life.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which I will write when there’s electricity again.