Less than Nothing, More than Pork

Calvin unpacks his story of being a street kid beggar and I watch as my son, Opiyo Martin, seated next to Calvin, folds into himself, making himself small and aling, quiet. I see his eyes flash back to the time when he, too, was a street kid picking through the garbage to find food to eat, stealing to buy food when the garbage cans availed no sustenance.

I would give anything to take that part of his life away, to erase those years and rewrite his history, to allow him to be born to a mother and father who chose to love him, chose to keep him, chose him.
I’d rewrite those years if I could, even though it would mean he never would’ve become mine. He never would’ve given me my Acholi name. I never would’ve watched joy fill his face as he ate pork, his absolute favorite thing, second only to God. I never would’ve laughed until I cried when he first said to me, “Mum, I love you more than I love pork.”

Even still, I would remove those early pages of his life.

Seeing him fold in on himself as Calvin speaks, is more than I can take. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this conversation, how to take Martin with me. Instead I catch and hold his gaze and move the toe of my shoe until it’s touching the toe of his shoe, the one with the rainbow laces that remind me he’s still a kid. It’s a small gesture and I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I was better at being his mom.

In Uganda, dogs are the lowest of all animals, pesky nuisances, always begging for food, not worth throwing a bone to. The dogs here are all skin and bones, notched rib cages visible through thin layers of matted fur. There’s an Acholi saying, Adoko gwok, meaning “I’ve become a dog.” It’s a term for the destitute, meaning I’ve become less than nothing, a person unable to provide even my own food.

Opiyo Martin always feeds the stray dogs, coos soothing words to them, feeds them the best pieces of pork from his plate. He does this because he remembers feeling like he was adoko gwok, remembers feeling as if he was worth less than nothing.

When Calvin pauses in his story, Martin explains that he’s sorry, but he has to ride his bicycle back to his uncle’s house before it gets too dark. I jump up and walk him to his bike.

“Are you okay? I know it’s hard for you to think about your past,” I put my hand on his back, rub small circles like my mom used to do when I was sick.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m okay. I’m just thinking about how far God has brought me.”

My voice catches in my throat and I nod, blinking back tears. There aren’t words for the vastness of his statement.

Earlier in the evening, we’d been talking to each other about difficult situations we each find ourselves in, seeking advice from each other. It’s one of the many times, I’m grateful to have been his teacher and friend before I became his mother. How lucky am I that my kid is also my friend?

“Mom, I wanted to pray for you and your situation. Can I do that?”

“Yes, and let me pray for you and your situation, too.” I grab his hand and standing by his bicycle we pray. We finish and I hug him tight.

“Amari, latina,” I love you, my child.

“Amari, mamana,” I love you, Mom.

“More than you love pork?” I tease.

“At least as much as I love pork,” he teases back. 

He swings a leg over his bike and I watch his rainbow shoelaces flutter in circles as he pedals away from me.

Later that night I lay under the cover of my mosquito net and hear the street dogs commence their nightly howling serenade. I wonder if they’ve found enough scraps to eat. I think of the children who are huddling in doorways and I hope that their bellies are full. I say a prayer of thanks that Calvin and Martin are no longer among them. My eyelids are heavy and I fall into a dream world where there are no longer hungry children or skin and bones dogs, a world where nobody feels adoko gwok.

Already Someone

Calvin, the artist, and my kid Opiyo Martin sit across from my mother and I. It’s dinner time, we have chicken, they have pork. As we eat, Calvin unpacks his story for my mom. It’s one I’ve heard before and I am quiet because it pains me anew each time he tells it. Calvin is literally a starving artists and with cheeks stuffed with pork he begins. His dreadlocks hang in his eyes as he tells his story benignly, his is a common story here, nothing remarkable in his mind. 

Calvin’s father passed away when he was very young and at the age of six, his mother sold him to be a child beggar on the streets. He begged for money, or did little jobs like take out the trash for shops. Before taking the trash out, he’d pick through it for scraps of food to eat, anything that would nourish his small frame. Then he’d give the money to his owner and do it all again the next day.

When Calvin was seven his aunt found him and took him off the streets and he got to go to Primary 1 (first grade) for a year until she died. It was the only year he got to go to school. Sometime in his teens, he met John and Cindy, an American couple who took him for a few years until they returned to the U.S.

With a mouthful of pork, Calvin tells about how he calls them his parents and how they still write to him and he wishes that he could write them back, but at the age of 25, he hasn’t yet learned to read or write.

This is a good project for Calvin and my mom, a retired reading teacher. My mom will pick up where I left off with Calvin last year. His goal by the time we leave is to be able to read simple words and to write an email back to his parents.

I believe children are smart in lots of ways and I thank God that when he was a teenager, Calvin taught himself to draw and paint. I watch him when he paints, so serious, so focused on color and form and light. He’s remarkably focused, can see the paintings so clearly before he puts brush to canvas.

It’s not surprising to me that his paintings are rich in themes of family, love for one another and struggling to survive. There’s a popular piece of advice amongst writers to “write what you know”. Calvin paints what he knows; longing for family, a desire to be loved and his struggle to survive.

Calvin’s wife, Faith, is five years his junior. In Uganda getting married is impossibly expensive so it’s common for men and women to become husbands and wives and then have an official ceremony years, or even decades later. This is the waiting place Calvin and Faith are in, settled in their love and devotion to each other, waiting for the money to prove it. Calvin’s face lights up when he talks about Faith, how she loves him even though they have very little money. Calvin says he hopes God will one day bless them with children, but for now he has Faith and has taken Ivan, the other painter, as his brother. I smile when he says this because in the absence of a biological family, Calvin has created one.

Calvin tells me that the reason he paints is to someday become someone. In the time I’m here, I’ll use all my breath to tell him he already is.

The Chicken Farm Project, Part 1: Meeting Lamuno Alice

The road to the chicken farm twists and turns and the wind whips up red dirt clouds under my billowing skirt. This is the red dirt I love under the tires of bodas, the red dirt that paints striking pictures from behind the lens of my camera. On the back of a boda, driving out to the site of chicken farm on a winding red, dirt road, I already feel at home.    

Gulu is growing up, roads are being paved, electricity is more regular, and it’s good, but the more the city grows up, the more I crave time in the villages.

Lamuno Alice is waiting for us outside of her home. She’s dressed in her best gomesi, a beautiful gold one, and baby Patience balances on her hip. Lamuno Alice, an expert chicken farmer, is to be the caretaker of the chicken farm, ensuring everything runs smoothly when my boys are at school. In exchange, she’ll receive chickens and a small part of the profits from the chicken farm will make sure her basic needs, like food and medicine, are met. 

My boys committed to using the chicken farm to help care for widows and orphans and that starts with strong Lamuno Alice and sweet baby Patience. You have to be strong to live here, especially when you have loved and buried three husbands and then continued on your own. Lamuno Alice has made 63 years and at the young age of 62, she adopted Patience. 

Lamuno has strength in depths I’ll never know.

I’m nervous to meet her because she’ll be an integral part of the success of the chicken farm, but what has me really nervous is that she’s also Opiyo Martin’s grandmother. She’s another piece in the puzzle of my Ugandan family and my nerves bounce in my stomach wondering how we will all fit together. I take a deep breath and try without success to pat down the wild springs that are my hair.

Lamuno is gracious and kind and welcoming. She hugs me tight and I feel steadied. Her brown eyes have blue rings around them, a captivating color I’ve never seen before. Unlike me, Baby Patience, Pash for short, does not calm down. She cries at the sight of my skin and would continue to cry each time she saw me.

Lamuno and the boys show me the property, outlining exactly where the chicken farm will be. We move into Lamuno’s home, where she offers me one of her three chairs. I decline and sit on the papyrus mat next to her. The boys take the chairs and serious budget talks begin.  


The boys have almost doubled their start up expenses and they’re learning Hard Business Lesson #1: Stick to your budget. This is quickly followed by Hard Business Lesson #2: When you provide a proposed budget and then double it, don’t expect your mom to bail you out.

They slash their budget and I listen proudly as they carefully pick through their budget line by line, making adjustments until it fits within our agreement. They bounce back and forth fluidly between English and Luo. Lamuno Alice chimes in freely with her opinions about materials and the boys often stop to ask for her expertise.

I watch my three boys come together to double check everything, then assign roles and jobs. William, the oldest, has done most of the leg work, hustling in town to get prices and arrange for the help they need to begin construction. He’s appointed to purchase the materials, supervise the work and maintain the records. Martin, the people person of the three, will find people and places wanting to buy their chickens and soon will head up the charitable arm of the farm, too. As for Geoffrey, the youngest, his job is to graduate high school in November. It’s a miracle he’s made it this far and our little family has a singular wish for him to see that to completion. 

Lamuno Alice will oversee the daily operations of the chicken farm and as I listen to her speak and plan with the boys, I sit back on the mat and breathe a sigh of relief.

This is going to work.

As the boys and Alice talk, I mostly keep quiet from behind my camera because I know nothing about raising chickens. What I do know is a good story when I see one and I take joy in documenting the one unfolding before me. 


After three hours, we stand to leave and Lamuno Alice asks me when I’ll return. I assure her I’ll come back soon and she tells me she’s glad because she hasn’t cooked for me yet. I accept her offer and promise to return and eat bo’o with her. It’s one of my favorite Ugandan dishes and my stomach rumbles at the thought.

Lamuno Alice, with baby Pash still crying on her hip, walk us to the road. As we part ways, Alice calls out, “Bye, Lanyero!” I smile at my Acholi name and call out, “Apwoyo, Lamuno. Wa nen.” Thank you, Lamuno. See you soon. She smiles at my Luo and as I walk to catch a boda, flanked by my boys, I know the next time I visit, I’ll be completely at ease. 

Maybe, just maybe, baby Pash will be, too. 


Kijumi is Coming

I woke this morning to the welcome voice of thunder and the syncopation of rain. I drew back my curtain and breathed in the relief. It hasn’t rained in Gulu in a month and a half, leaving everything and everyone parched and jacketed in ruddy, red dust.
I threw on some clothes-okay, I really just yanked a skirt up under the nightshirt I’d peeled off and thrown on the floor. I didn’t bother with shoes or anything else. I grabbed my camera and iPad. I tiptoed to my mom’s room to see if she was awake to watch the storm with me, but the crack under her door was dark. So with my camera and iPad in hand, I scrambled back down the hall to the balcony outside of my room. The sun wasn’t up yet and I knew I was in for a spectacular lightning show across the dark sky. I sat on the balcony writing and snapping photos.

The storm was behind me, so I didn’t see the fingers of lightning pointing from the sky and touching the ground. Instead the whole of the sky would go from pitch black to electric pinks and yellows all at once, like a camera flash to the face. As my retinas recovered from each flash, I’d count the seconds between the turbulent thunder and the blinding flashes of lightning, counting the miles separating me from the storm, just like I do with my students at home when a thunderstorm rumbles in. To my delight the increments quickly shrunk from five seconds to one second and then the thunder and lightning were stacked on top of each other, a thrilling assault on the senses.

Not to be outdone by the thunder and lightning, the wind rushed in as well, a welcome reprieve from the stifling, still humidity. The wind whipped at my skirt and splashed my bare feet with rain. My balcony overlooks the once grand Pece stadium and I watched the field puddle.

During my first two nights in Gulu, sleeping was a near impossibility. My jetlagged body struggled to adapt to the correct clock and to the humidity that always sucks the life out of me at the beginning of my trip. At night I’d lay naked under my mosquito net, not the sexy kind of naked, the ugly, sweaty “peel everything off to survive” kind of naked. Mosquitoes buzzed around my net and I laid there sweltering.

I can only imagine what the last month and a half in Gulu have been like. I’ve seen the parched, brown crops and can imagine the utterings from cracked lips praying for rain in this unexpected dry season.

The morning of the storm, I watched the sun peek her pink face from behind the clouds as the spaces between the thunder and lightning counted back up to six, then seven, then ten miles away until the storm held its breath altogether. The soccer field drank the puddles and they vanished almost as quickly as they’d formed. Just when I thought the storm was through, a fresh slashing of rain fell, and a second helping of thunder and lightning filled the sky until the ground was sodden and swollen with rain.

Later that morning, I sat downstairs talking with an old musee. He taught me the Luo name for thunderstorm (mwoc pa-kot) and the Luo names for different kinds of rain. There’s ngito, meaning a drizzle. There’s kot paminilemu, an unexpected rain. But my favorite kind of rain is kijumi, a long, hard rain.

The musee talked about the parched crops and how this mwoc pa-kot and kot paminilemu vanquished his worries of famine. 


And here I was complaining about the heat because it made it hard to sleep. Fear of famine had never even crossed my mind. I’ve never known the worry pangs of impending famine. Hang on, I need to add that to the list of things I’m thankful for so I remember it the next time I pray. Be right back.

While I’ve not known physical famine, I have known the feeling of famine in my spirit, the ugly nakedness of feeling bereft. I know about waiting and praying with dry, cracked lips for some relief, any relief to fall from Heaven. I also know the reprieve of rain and the joy of hearing the cool whisperings of God blow into my life.

Vigilantes, it’s a privilege to know so many of you in person, to know your stories well, as if they were my own. Some of you are impossibly parched right now, famished down to brittle bones, praying desperate prayers from cracked, dry lips. I don’t have any pretty, pious words for you, but I prayed for you today, prayed that you’d be absolutely sodden with a first and second helping of rain. I want to encourage you to hold tight, dear ones, in the midst of your dry season keep praying. 

Your kijumi is coming.  

Leng Leng Like a Watermelon

“I see you’ve put on more weight.”

If there are words more hurtful or cutting, I don’t know them. Only my doctor gets to say that to me and even he says them sparingly while beyond the reach of my right hook.

On my first evening back in Uganda, I sat outside my hotel in Gulu when my friend, Chris, who works at the hotel approached. I hugged him tight and greeted him in my best Acholi. He responded, “I see you’ve put on more weight.”

I fought back tears and forced a smile, one that might cover the fact that I have put on weight.

This past year was a tough one. I survived an impossible situation at work and spent the year learning to navigate the unexpected bouts of loneliness that came with my husband’s new work schedule, which has him working out of town more often. I’m not saying either of those are a good excuse for overeating, but that’s the reality of the choices I made this year.

So there I stood, chubbier than I was a year ago, absorbing Chris’ statement about my weight.

Now before you start readying your own right hook for Chris, let me explain a little piece of Acholi culture. The Acholi are a strong, svelte people. They primarily grow and raise their own food. Every home has a well-tended food garden and there is not enough food to eat for any other reason other than hunger.

When they comment on a change in weight, it’s an observation, not a judgment. When you lose weight, it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “You are losing your fat, are you sick?”

In that same vein, if I have a pimple or a mosquito bite or a scrape, my Acholi loved ones will poke it with their finger and ask me about it. It would be rude to notice something like that and not inquire about it. Let me just say that having the pimple that popped up on my nose poked at is not super fun. But again, it’s not done with any malice and I am expected to do the same to them. Just last night at dinner, my boda driver, Denis, wanted me to feel a wound on the back of his head. I explained that I didn’t want to poke something that already hurts and cause him more pain, but he insisted I feel it, feel the place he was hurt.

That’s the thing that had me fighting back tears when Chris remarked on my weight. He was poking a tender place that was already hurt. I know as I see more of my Acholi loved ones for the first time this year, they’re going to remark on my weight, they’re going to unintentionally touch a painful place.

Yesterday on the eight hour bus ride from Kampala into Gulu, our bus stopped alongside the road for one of the many patches of road construction. Food and drink vendors rushed to the stooped bus to sell their items to the people on the bus. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but as our bus waited I struck up a conversation with two of the vendors standing underneath my window. I figured it would be a good opportunity to practice my Acholi. They greeted me. I greeted them. They asked where I was going. I told them I was going to Gulu to do some work. It was all very benign.

Then of the vendors said I was beautiful. This is another Acholi cultural thing, they think all white women are beautiful and they feel free to comment on it. Normally I don’t give any attention to such remarks because they’re not real compliments and the color of my skin has nothing to do with beauty, but the vendor outside my bus window had said something a little different.

He said, “Mzungu, you are leng leng like a watermelon.” Translation: White girl, you are beautiful like a watermelon.

Then his friend chimed in, “Your eyes are like beautiful pineapples.”

I laughed and thanked them in Acholi and our bus pulled away a few minutes later.

That evening as I sat talking with Chris, fighting back tears from his remark about my weight, the words of the roadside vendor launched from my lips. “Today someone told me I’m leng leng like a watermelon, Chris.”

It’s true, I may be round like a watermelon, but I’m also delicious and full of life. I’m happy to tell you that I not only survived that impossible work situation, but I came out the victor. I’m glad to tell you that I’m doing a better job navigating bouts of loneliness. I’m riding my bike and doing this revolutionary thing called eating when I’m hungry. If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, then you know how seriously revolutionary that is.

Beautiful like a watermelon? Hell yeah, I am.