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.

Ha.

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.

 

Vigilante Kindness: A New Lens

I take a last sip of steaming hot tea before meeting up with Richard, one of my sweet boys, on this blessedly cool morning.  He arrives dressed in his school uniform, complete with necktie, and we walk the streets of Gulu, already flush with sound and color. We’re walking to the hospital.

“Let me see your socks,” I say.  Richard is taller than I am now, but still thin as a rail.

“You remember that?  You can’t forget anything,” he grins, the gap between his two front teeth making him still look like a kid.

“Of course I remember.” We’re both quiet, remembering the day last year when he got dressed in the dark and accidentally put on mismatched socks, the day when we went to the hospital for his HIV test, which to our delight and surprise was negative.  “Now show me your socks.”

“My socks are not there today,” he lifts the cuff of his pant leg and shows his bare ankle above his shoe.

Today we’re going to a different hospital to get glasses for Richard so that he can read again.

“Excuse me, can you help me cross the road?  I can’t see well,”  another teenage boy walking in front of us turns around and asks.

When he turns I see that his right eye is white with cataracts.  Richard introduces himself to this boy and tells him that we’re going to the same place.

“I’m Alicia,” I say, shaking his hand.

“I’m Kennet,” he greets me in return.

Richard grabs Kennet’s left hand and I grab his right hand.  We turn to the road.  It’s wide and teeming with cars, boda bodas, bicycles and people on foot.  It’s tough even for perfectly sighted people to navigate.

We cross halfway and stop, letting more cars and boda bodas pass.

“Wait,” I tell Kennet as a last car zips past.  “Ok, now we can go.”

We cross the street easily and Kennet drops my hand.  He keeps hold of Richard’s hand and I slip in behind them, tucking in away from the traffic, listening to their conversation.  Richard guides Kennet beautifully, asking questions about where he goes to school and questioning him about the future of his eye. They hold hands every step.

We cross one more street to the small gated entrance to the part of the hospital that specializes in optic care.  Kennet branches off to the door of his department.  Richard and I sit on benches near the clinic where we wait to get glasses.

We wait.  And then wait some more.  Last year we waited for hours and hours on end at the hospital.  Waiting for HIV test results felt like two eternities, so waiting for glasses is nothing.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Richard tells me.

“Why?”

“Ten of us came and seven needed surgery.  I’m one of the lucky ones because I only need glasses.”

We’re both quiet.  I think of Kennet.  Lucky indeed.

An hour and half later the nurse arrives.  She’s a wide woman with a kind temperament.  Her name is Ida and I like her immediately.  She apologizes for being delayed and explains that her husband got a last-minute job driving a group of people on safari and she had to help him prepare.

“It’s ok.  That’s a well-paying job, not one he can pass up,” I smile and she is visibly relieved.

“It’s not easy to make money here,” Ida explains.

“I know,” I don’t know how to reassure her beyond that and I don’t want to cross the line into pity, so I change the subject.  “What do we need to do today to get this kid glasses?”  I motion at Richard, who has taken a seat on a rolling stool opposite me.

“The glasses need to be paid for and I need to make sure his vision hasn’t changes and then measure the space between his eyes for a good fit,”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.” Ida rolls Richard over to the eye machine.  He rests his chin in the machine and tries unsuccessfully not to blink.

We’re done in five minutes and I hand Ida a thick wad of Vigilante shillings.  In return she tells me where to pick up the glasses the following day.

The following afternoon I deliver the glasses to Richard at school.  He’s outside having P.E., a basketball lesson with special coaches from town.  I pull the large, sealed envelope containing the glasses out of my backpack and hand it to him.  He puts the glasses on immediately and I take a snap with my camera.

It’s a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, the perfect day for perfect vision.

Watching him try out his new glasses, I can’t help but think of the pastor’s message a couple of Sundays ago at church.  He said that we all have a choice, to look at life through the lens of fear or through the lens of faith.

If you’ve spent more than a minute with me, you know fear is not on my radar.  Frankly, I could use a healthy dose of fear now and then.

But faith is also not on my radar.

Now hold on before you go thinking I’ve denounced Christ or something dramatic like that.  I’m not talking about my faith as in the doctrine of what I believe.  That’s a well dug deep into the core of who I am.

I’m talking about having faith.  I want to tread carefully here and not start speaking Christian-ease because I hatehatehate it when people can’t talk about having faith without throwing in pious buzzwords.

What I’m saying is this: I struggle with believing in things to come that I can’t yet see.  I’ve said before that I’m the kind of girl who has to stick my fingers in the nail holes to believe.  I’m not proud of that, but I’m on-my-face grateful that God knows that about me and extends His nail holed hands to me anyway.

If you’ve been following along in my Vigilante Kindness adventures, then you know a well to provide clean drinking water for the small village of Te Okot is in the works.  What you don’t know is that the well team has been delayed and are still finishing a well in another part of the country and that the funds donated to begin the well have not yet reached me.

My mom, who was here with me and who seems to have an infinite amount of assured faith, kept telling me not to worry, that it will be accomplished in God’s perfect time, that I should have faith.

All of those things are true.

And yet, I can’t rest easy until I see that water, until the people of Te Okot are drinking water not infested with diseases and elephant fecal matter.

I want to touch the water, to pump it into a bucket and see it run clear.

I’m losing hope of being able to see the water for myself.  I’m here for a scant twelve more days and not an inch of the well has been dug.

Not an inch.  Not yet.

I’m clinging fiercely to that ‘not yet’.  It’s all the faith I can muster and thank God, thank God, thank God a smidge is enough.

I’m trying so badly to see this well project through the lens of faith.  I’m choosing to believe it’s going to happen.  And I mean the kind of choosing where Having Faith and Not Having Faith are on equal footing and I’m grabbing hold of Having Faith and running away from Not Having Faith, which is perpetually gaining ground on me.

Dear ones, I imagine you know that kind of desperation, to cling to faith with trembling fingers because holding on and running like hell away from doubt is sometimes all you can do.

Me, too.

God is in those times with you.  And with me.  Is anyone else overcome with relief?

At night I wake thinking of Richard and his new glasses and I pray for God to help me see life with more faith.

I think of Kennet, who will have his cataracts removed soon, and I pray for two things: for God to remove my lack of faith and also that I’d be boldly humble like Kennet in admitting when I need God to hold my hand along the way.

I think of the people of Te Okot who are strong and sure in their faith that clean water is coming.  I think of all of you: family, friends and complete strangers who doled out your faith in lumps of cold, hard cash believing right along with the people of Te Okot that safe, clean water is on the way.  I say a prayer of thanks that when my faith is present in the most meager amounts, your faith in God, your faith in this work I get to do remains steady.  In my dreams I cling with trembling fingers to that, to all of you, and when the sun shines through my curtain in the morning, I wake grateful for another opportunity to see things with a little more faith than I did the day before.