At this very moment, I sit writing by the Nile, the Albert Nile stretching out mere steps away in front of me. The river is glass, hiding crocodiles and hippos, a whole underwater world of hungry life. The rain has gathered in the river, engorging her, bringing the banks higher than I’ve seen before. Tiny dragonflies flit all around me and I can’t help but think of dominoes when I think of the path that led me to this moment, sitting at the feet of the teeming river.
I’m amazed at the way things play out, the way life unfolds like a curving line of dominoes, one domino tipping and then colliding into the next and the next and the next. I’ve never been any good at setting up domino mazes. I’m too impatient and I can’t ever seem to get the spacing or the angles right.
Yesterday I returned to Te Okot to check on the well, to deliver 46 more solar lights and to meet with the elders and community about next steps for building a school for the children of Te Okot. On the way to Te Okot I passed the village of Got Apwoyo. “Got” is the Lwo word for mountain and “apwoyo” means either “rabbit”, “hello”, or “thank you” depending on intonation and context. Got Apwoyo the village is named for Mount Rabbit, but each time I pass the Got Apwoyo sign, I’m can’t help but think of a mountain of thanks.
This year Got Apwoyo has taken on a truly special meaning.
When I returned to Te Okot, I was so eager to see all the people I’d come to love last year. I was excited to see the well still pumping out fresh, clean, healthy drinking water and I was glad to deliver a second round of solar lights.
But in the pit of my stomach I was nervous at telling the group I’d not yet found a suitable organization to build their children a school and that I’d not raised nearly enough money to even begin such a project.
In the same way I believe that all people should have access to healthy water, I believe all children should have access to education. There aren’t public schools in Uganda, even the schools built by the government charge school fees.
Though I’m careful not to make promises I can’t keep and I hadn’t promised Te Okot a school, a large part of me felt like I’d failed them. As if any of this is about me or depends on anything I do. Really my feeling like a failure was quite arrogant.
After tramping through the bush to see the well, I returned to the community meeting, sat with my shoes off on a papyrus mat next to the Lapyem, the musee of Te Okot.
After roll call, Lapyem began the meeting, greeting my mom, Denis, Bitek and I.
Apwoyo ludiro magitikany, ki apwoyo Lubanga me ripowa. Bed ma cwing wu tek. Pyen Lubanga ti ked wu. An bene wiya pe wil i kum wu. Pol kare ka amaro pi, atamo pi wu. Cwinya yom pyen wu tiki pi maleng, maber pi yot kum. Anyeyo ni lyec dong pe ka yelowu pyen mac tye. Amarowu matek. Apwoyo.
Greetings to the elders. I thank God for bringing us together again. God is still with you and you are always in my heart. Whenever I drink water, I always remember you. I’m happy because you have clean water, which is good for your health. I hope the elephants aren’t disturbing you anymore because you have lights. I love you all very much. Thank you.
The people at the community meeting were very gracious and this time I didn’t even need someone else to translate my attempt at Lwo into real Lwo. Phew!
During the meeting, we revisited the three needs of Te Okot from last year: water, a school, and a medical facility. I braced myself to bring the news that we were far away from building a school.
That’s when Francis, a mechanic and the brother of Lapyem, stood and reported. He said that what they really need most is a tractor. A tractor would allow their children to go to school and also prevent many of the health issues they’re facing.
I asked Francis to tell me more.
Over the last year, parts of Uganda have been divided into different subcounties. Got Apwoyo and Te Okot were rezoned into a subcounty called the Got Apwoyo Subcounty. Te Okot was included in this redivision because Te Okot now has a source of healthy drinking water. To think that the well was one of the influencing factors in allowing Te Okot to become part of the new subcounty blows my mind.
The important thing about becoming a part of a subcounty is that the government can’t have subcounties without schools or access to medical care. So now that the villages of Te Okot and Got Apwoyo have been designated together to form Got Apwoyo Subcounty, the government will have to build a school and a medical care facility.
I tried to remain calm on the mat, but I was flooded with excitement and relief. I know nothing about building a school. Less than nothing.
Francis continued explaining that their land is too difficult to farm using hand tools. I nodded emphatically. I’ve walked to the well enough times to know that the hard ground, sloping terrain and lush bush are monumental obstacles. Plus there are those pesky elephants who eat whatever they please.
I still wasn’t understanding how a tractor would help with the issues of education and health, so Francis continued. If they had a tractor, they could farm and grow enough food to not go hungry, eliminating many health problems related to starvation. Plus a tractor would allow them to grow food crops to feed their families and cash crops to sell at the market, so they could earn and save money to pay for their children’s school fees when the government school is built.
“So instead we want to the government take care of building a school and a hospital and we want you to partner with us in buying a tractor so that we can take care of our families.”
I nodded my head vehemently, in complete agreement, but still Francis continued.
“From the time we first know ourselves until we are old like that musee, we work the fields, from morning to night and morning to night again, but still we grow only enough to eat and not always enough. Our poverty is deep and if we had a tractor, we’d be free.”
If we had a tractor, we’d be free.
Even now I get a lump in my throat from those words.
I marveled at the simple, yet elegant solution.
I listened as Francis continued speaking, asking questions when needed, but mostly just listening. As I listened I realized that Francis thought he needed to convince me, that the reputation of mzungus is to come in with our own plans, to splash our names all over new school buildings and pat ourselves on the back. The ego of it all turns my stomach and makes my heart sick.
I listened until Francis was finished. Then I stood and told the group, “I’m so relieved not to have to build a school! I don’t know anything about building schools! You know my only talent is writing stories. I don’t know anything about tractors either, but I know that you do. I think a tractor is a wonderful solution. I’ll bring it to my board and to our donors, but I think buying Te Okot a tractor is very possible. I’m so glad you felt comfortable telling me your new plan. We want to be an organization that listens to what you need to help you solve real problems.”
Denis translated for me and the relief that washed over the faces of the people I love in Te Okot was remarkable. There was a little more discussion amongst members about various kinds of tractors and my mom even spoke to the community.
Then I passed out a suitcase full of solar lights and sat on the papyrus mat, cuddling babies, hugging and shaking hands with a throng of adults, and doing my best to gracefully accept all the thanks pouring from their mouths.
As Bitek drove us away from Te Okot and toward the place we’d stay at the bank of the Albert Nile, I sat in shock. A tractor. I don’t know anything about buying tractors, but then again I didn’t know anything about digging wells either and we all know how that turned out.