Leku Ivan pulled up in a van he painted himself. A lion greeted me on the hood and Bob Marley grinned at me from the door. I ran to him forgetting to push in my chair or even to zip my backpack and we hugged for a long time in the streets of Gulu.
I couldn’t stop hugging him, this young man with a beard and a lone long dreadlock, who used to be a goofy, orphaned teenager in a school uniform with tightly cropped hair.
After the hugging stopped and I blinked back a tear or two, Ivan sat with Laura and I for dinner and told us all about his life. His sister Lillian is a stay at home mom now in Kampala on the other side of the country. Ivan has relocated his shop, Art Factory Gulu, into the main market. He now has a business partner, Mike, and three female colleagues who help run the shop, balance the books, keep inventory, and do all the other little things so that Ivan can spend his time doing what he does best: painting.
His shop has a gallery packed with paintings. At least once a month he teaches art workshops in the shop or travels in his van teaching art classes to groups that hire him.
Best of all, Ivan, who once reluctantly told me he was stopping school after graduating from his fourth year of high school (there are 6 years in Uganda), sat across the table from me and told me that he’s back in school. He’s taking art classes in Kampala to get his degree in art and then he wants to get his certificate to become an art teacher.
That evening we strolled to the market to see his shop. We walked upstairs and I had to swallow back a lump in my throat and there was absolutely no use in trying to blink back the tears.
The stairwell was filled with art and as it opened up into the shop, there were paintings hung everywhere. Ivan’s paintings and the paintings of his students and colleagues filled the space with color, beauty, and life.
I was immediately drowned in memories. I remembered Ivan, the timid student asking if I’d like to look at some of his paintings and maybe purchase one to help him with school fees.
I remembered him painting out on the street from a closet sized shop to have enough money for food.
I remembered Ivan being so excited when he sold a painting so that he could buy his sister a brand new dress.
I remembered it all and as I walked up the staircase of his new shop I was undone with love for this kid who worked tirelessly to make his dream of being an artist come true.
Ivan told us some of the stories behind his paintings and I was once again moved at how he expressed his desire to encourage peace and love in his city through art.
Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he said he was throwing us a welcoming party in the art shop the following day. There would be cake and singing and celebrating.
I’ve never even seen cake in Uganda so the fact that Ivan spent his money on having a cake made told me that this was going to be something special.
I had no idea just how truly special it would be or that the next act of Vigilante Kindness was waiting there for me next to the cake.