Vigilante Kindness: Bringing Light, Water and Love to Te Okot

Sweet Vigilantes of Kindness, I know you’ve been waiting to hear all about the well in Te Okot.

I wasn’t quite sure how to tell the final chapter of this story.  A blog post wouldn’t be enough.  A digital picture album wouldn’t suffice.

So on my eleven hour flight from Cairo to New York, I taught myself to use iMovie.  Really, why not teach myself something new on long flight in a spacious and extremely comfortable airplane seat, right?

The movie is about 15 minutes long and isn’t professional by any stretch of the imagination, but I like that you get to go with me to see the finished well for the first time and you get to hear straight from the mouths of the people at Te Okot just what this well and the gift of solar lights mean to them.

So grab a big glass of clean drinking water and settle in for another great story of Vigilante Kindness.


Vigilante Kindness: The Cabinet Maker

One of the hardest things for me to get used to each time I visit Uganda is “African Time”.  It’s not a stereotype.  Nor is it an insult.  It simply is.

African time means when my language teacher didn’t show up at all during the hour-long lesson we’d scheduled, he offered a quick and sincere apology at the beginning of our next lesson and then we moved on.

African time means that when it starts pouring rain and I’m stranded under the overhang of a store until the storm passes, there will be no animosity for my tardiness waiting for me whenever I arrive at my destination.

There are really some nice things about African time, but it still frustrates me.  I’m a time oriented person.  I like to know what time it is.  I like to be on time.  When I’m late, it upsets me.  It means I naturally look for the most efficient way to accomplish a task at work.  It means balance between time at work and time at home is vital to me.  A few years ago, I wrote down 100 Things I Believe and one of my core beliefs is, “I believe that time is my most valuable resource.”

African time is hard for me.  It’s hard for me not to feel disrespected and unvalued when someone doesn’t hold my time in esteem.  In Uganda, I have to constantly remind myself that African time isn’t something I should take personally.

I was having this particular conversation with myself on my last day in Gulu as I sat in the tiny rectangle of shade behind a cabinet I’d had made for the primary teachers.  The primary teachers, especially Mr. Martin, had asked for a cabinet to lock their supplies in.  Aside from student desks, they have no furniture in their classrooms.  Imagine that, teacher friends, not having a single shelf, drawer or cupboard.

So Mr. Martin had hired a couple of local carpenters to build a cabinet to his specifications.  My job was to make sure it was paid for and picked up by the school truck before I returned to the US.

There I was waiting in the shade of the cabinet for the principal to come in the school truck and pick it up.  I’d been sitting and waiting for over an hour.  Each time I called the principal, he assured me they were just on the edge of town and would be there any minute.


As I sat and waited, Denish, one of the carpenters sat down to keep me company.  He told me about how the main carpenter, Moses, is his teacher and mentor.  Denish and Moses told me all about traditional marriage ceremonies and the dowry needed to marry an Acoli woman.  It was fascinating and before I knew it, I found myself forgetting all about waiting for the cabinet to be picked up.

Denish told me about his wife and two children, how he wants four more and about what a beautiful life he has.  Happiness shone in his eyes.  I just listened, seated in a wooden chair Moses had made only yesterday.

Denish told me about being abducted by the LRA and being a child soldier for six years.

Six years.  It’s unfathomable to me.

I kept listening.  This is not something former child soldiers usually discuss openly.  I knew I was on sacred ground and I tried to take careful steps to listen without judgment, to ask sincere questions and not brashly pry open his past.  Denish unfolded a horrific story, but as with so many of the stories here, it ended with escape, with hope.

He talked of going to a rehabilitation center where he learned to stop killing.  I told him that my son also went to that center.  He simply nodded.

I asked if his nightmares had stopped.

He still has nightmares.  Every night.  But he wakes to his wife and children.  And then he comes to work and builds beautiful furniture, rebuilds himself a little more each day.

The daily gunmetal thunderheads rolled in and Denish shook my hand and told me he had to ride his bicycle home before the rain came.  I asked to take his photo.  He smiled and posed with me by the cabinet.  He asked if I wanted to show people the snap of the cabinet.  I promised to show it, but I told him that most of all I wanted the picture to remember him, to remember his story, and on hard days to remind myself to wake up with the intent of creating something beautiful each day.

The principal of the school arrived at the carpentry shop two hours late.  He apologized and gave me a puzzled look when I remarked how glad I was that he was late.  He muscled the cabinet into the truck and as I walked back to my hotel room, the rain sprinkled and spattered the red dirt road.  I reached the covering of my hotel just before the deluge torn open the sky.  I hoped Denish had made it home already.  As I dried off and watched the storm from my balcony, I thought about what an unexpected treasure it was to spend two hours with Denish.

Maybe African time isn’t so bad after all.

Alicia & Denish

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: School Supplies

I’ve always loved school shopping.  Is there anything more beautiful than a brand new box of Crayola crayons?  Don’t even get me started on the perfection that is the big box with the built-in sharpener in the back.  And can we talk for a minute about Trapper Keepers, the hands-down best binder ever created?  My favorite one had wild horses on the front.  Yes, I was that nerdy girl who played pretend horses at recess.

As a teacher, one of the best things about a new school year is buying fresh, new supplies.  Rectangular, lined Sticky Notes and Sharpies, unblemished by little hands still sticky from the peanut butter and jelly sandwich from lunch, are my go to staples for starting a new year off right.  All is right with the world when I have a bouquet of Sharpies and a pad of sticky notes on hand.

This year school shopping looked a little different for me.  I made all of my preparations for the coming year in May.  I ordered my supplies and put them all away, so tidy on my shelves, and then I locked my door and left for Uganda.

The calendar flipped to August and you, dear teacher friends, started posting pictures of your school supply finds, carts of crayons and folders and glue sticks.  Be still my heart, I love those purple glue sticks.  Seeing your school supply deals filling up my Facebook feed made me feel, well, left out.

So I took my friend and fellow teacher, Mr. Martin, school shopping.  You remember Mr. Martin.  He’s the same guy who when asked what he needed for his classroom last year had a list of only one thing: string.  And he used the string beautifully to hang posters and word walls and all sorts of learning materials that made all the walls of his classroom learning spaces.

This year there are now three primary teachers and their classrooms are still desperately bereft of basic materials like books, shelves, clocks, pencils, paper, and almost everything else.  Fellow teachers, I know you can relate to the continual challenge of teaching on a shoestring budget and making due without the materials you need.

So I asked the primary teachers to get together and make a list of the supplies they needed.  This time the list was significantly longer and I was thrilled.  In the good company of Martin and the principal, J.B., we hit the bookshop in Gulu hard.  That’s right, the principal went school shopping with us, too.  They checked things off their list and a pile of supplies grew in the store and suddenly I didn’t feel so left out.

I didn’t buy anything, save for one item.  There was a kid in need of a mattress.  He didn’t have one and his family couldn’t provide one.  As we shoved the mattress in the back of the car we’d rented to haul our plunder, I thought of the kid last year who needed a mattress and how out of his need and out of the generosity of my friends and family, Vigilante Kindness was born.

This year a pocket full of Vigilante Kindness shillings has stocked the primary classrooms  and given another kid a bed to sleep on.  I don’t have pictures of carts full Sharpies and Crayolas and sticky notes to post.  Instead here’s a shot of Mr. Martin, and his school supplies.

Dearest teacher friends, I’m with you half a world away as you prepare for a new year.  I’m with you as you organize your rooms and fill them with things shiny and new.  I’m with you as you create warm, stable environments for kids who don’t have beds to sleep in or homes that provide them a soft place to rest.  Thanks for making a space for them in your classrooms and in your hearts.  Now go and buy yourself some new Sharpies because you’re about to make a big mark in this world.

Vigilante Acts of Art: Abandoned Art Project

A few months before I returned to Uganda, Barb, the proprietor of Happy Go Smile, my favorite boutique in Cayucos, started participating in an Abandoned Art Project.  The deal with abandoned art escapades is that you make a piece of art and abandon it somewhere for someone else to find and keep.  I offered to take one of Barb’s pieces with me and abandon it in Gulu.

She gave me this heart piece to abandon.  Since today is my 18th wedding anniversary, I decided today was the perfect day to abandon this heart piece and send some love to The Hubs on the other side of the world.

And I had the perfect co-conspirators to help me do it–Seddrick and Ivan, my two student artists.

After church we set off to Pece Stadium, a soccer stadium built as a War Memorial to honor the role Acolis had played in WW2.

The back wall of the stadium has a mural by Calvin to commemorate the end of the more recent war against Joseph Kony and the L.R.A.

This stadium, meant to be a symbol of peace, seemed like a perfect place to leave a little piece of love from California.  Plus it’s right across from my hotel, so my plan was to inconspicuously watch to see who took the painting.

Ivan and Seddrick casually placed the painting on the stadium wall and then we watched and waited.  Ivan and Seddrick eventually returned to their studio to work on their own paintings and I sat out on the patio casually waiting with my camera nearby.

Hundreds of people passed the painting without giving it a second glance.  Even the cows didn’t seem to notice.

When Alvin, the son of one of the hotel employees showed up, I admit I lost focus.  I love this kid.  His giggle lights up my day.  Alvin and I had some rousing games of Peek-a-Boo.

Then I taught him This Little Piggy on his toes, which he the proceeded to play on the toes of every adult not wearing closed toed shoes.

I looked up from our game of This Little Piggy and the painting was gone.

So to the person who found the abandoned art, I wish you lots of love today.  To the Barb at Happy Go Smile and to Ivan and Seddrick, thanks for creating beautiful things.  And to my husband, who has loved me with reckless abandon for all of these years, thanks for loving me and sending me out into the world with a heart that is full.

Vigilante Kindness: From the Bottom of My Liver

Sweet Vigilantes, your Vigilante Work Study dollars have been hard at work helping students who want to earn school fees, money for textbooks, etc.  Using work study dollars I bought some of Ivan’s paintings and Ivan was able to pay the balance of his school fees and those of his sister, Lillian, for the term that has just ended.  Now that you’re buying up the rest of his paintings, almost as fast as he can paint them, he and Lillian are in good shape for next term.

Opiyo Chris, the first Work Study scholarship kid, is teaching math classes to primary kids during their upcoming holiday break.  He will earn enough Vigilante Kindness Work Study dollars to pay for everything he needs for his next term, while we wait interminably for his passport to be approved so he can finish his high school career in Medford, OR. where he received a full ride scholarship to a private high school.

And of course there’s Denis.  I used Vigilante Kindness Work Study dollars to pay for textbooks and in return Denis is teaching the women of Te Okot to make paper bead jewelry, which will allow them to make and sell goods and earn money of their own.  I love these business minded women so much.

My son, William, is also one of the recipients of the Work Study Vigilante Kindness dollars, but not in the way you might think.  William works as a biology and computer lab assistant at a high school here.  He is in college and uses the money he earns to pay his tuition, but also to pay the school fees of his younger cousins.  William is such a hard-working kid, but this year he didn’t make quite enough to support his cousins as well, so your Vigilante dollars helped William pass on the gift of education to the next generation of his family.

There’s one last recipient of your Vigilante Kindness Work Study dollars.  And he’s not a student.  Patrick is a father of four and his two youngest children are in high school.  I met his two youngest kids, Emmanuel and Lydia, on my first trip to Uganda when they wrote beautiful pieces for our book.  Patrick is a part-time literature professor and has been struggling to pay their school fees on his shoestring of a salary.  Teacher friends, I know you can relate.  Because he’s an educated man and a teacher, I knew Patrick would be the perfect person to teach me Acoli.  So each day I go to his house for an hour to an hour and a half and he patiently teaches me to speak, write and read Acoli.  In return I pay him so that he can pay for Lydia and Emmanuel to attend school.

There are a few other things you should know about Patrick.  He takes in his nieces and nephews who don’t have anyone to care for them.  One of his nephews is my son, Martin, who Patrick rescued from the streets when Martin was a very young child.  Another interesting fact about Patrick is that his father was a chief, but when his father became a Christian, he renounced his chiefdom because being chief meant preserving practices he no longer agreed with, like witchcraft and polygamy.  So Patrick’s family doesn’t receive any of the benefits of being in the lineage of the chief because they have chosen to live as Christians, even though that means missing out on many privileges.

Needless to say, I’ve learned quite a lot from Patrick, but for our purposes I’ll stick to some things I’ve learned specifically about the Acoli language.  The Acoli language doesn’t have the letters h, q, s,  x or z.  They also have a letter that makes the “ng” sound that looks like an n with a tail.  My keyboard won’t type it.

Learning and conjugating verbs is the toughest thing for me so far.  Pwonyo, one of my favorite verbs, means to teach.  Leko means to dream.  Ngwech means to ride a bicycle.  And perhaps the hardest one of all for me, both to say and learn to do, is ling mot, meaning to be quiet and still.

In addition to learning verbs and the alphabet, I can now name body parts.  The funniest one I’ve learned so far is “dog” meaning mouth.  My mouth often gets me in trouble so I like the idea of being able to call it bad dog.  Dog arach means “My mouth is bad.”  It figures that would be one of the first sentences I’d learn.

Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned is that when the Acoli people speak of their feelings, they don’t speak of the heart, they speak of the liver.

Sweet Vigilantes of Kindness, it’s because of you that Ivan, Lillian, Opiyo Chris, Denis, Lydia, Emmanuel, and William’s young cousins get the privilege of being educated.

It’s with all sincerity and profound gratitude that I say to you, “Amari i wi cwinya.”  I love you from the bottom of my liver.