A Welcome Party and a Sneak Peek

The welcome party thrown by Ivan and his colleagues at Art Shop Gulu was really just so sweet. Each time I walk up the stairs into Art Shop Gulu, it gives me chills, thinking of where Ivan came from and how hard he and his fellow artists have worked to create this space.

There was singing.

There was cake.

And of course there was art and paper bead jewelry galore! Here’s a sneak peek at a small selection of the pieces that will be available at our September 8th Paper Bead Jewelry and Painting Sale in Redding, CA. Any remaining pieces will be for sale online after that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Meet Sharon, Sharon, and Good Lynn

It is still a fact of life that in many areas near Gulu, women are considered property. It’s hard to reconcile that this still occurs in 2018, but it does.

When they are not thought of as property, they are still often looked at as second class citizens. If a family has to choose between sending their son or daughter to school because they can only afford to send one child to school, they will often choose to send the boy because he has a better chance of getting a job and earning a living.

To even have a CHANCE at an education, girls have to work doubly hard.

When Leku Ivan threw us a welcome party at his shop one of the things that most excited me was getting to meet his three female colleagues who take care of the books, do the inventory, promote the shop, and create their own items to sell. In other words, who run the world? Girls!

Ivan believes that men and women are equal and within his shop he and his partner, Mike, have established a culture of respect and fairness. That in itself is remarkable.

Meet Sharon, Sharon, and Lynn. Sharon and Sharon are cousins, both named after their grandmother, Sharon. One Sharon is 21 years old and the other is 19, so they call themselves Old Sharon and Young Sharon, naturally. Lynn is just 17 and is Aber Lynn, which means Good Lynn. Sharon and Sharon call Lynn their sister.

During the war when Joseph Kony and the LRA rebels were slaughtering villages of people and abducting women from their homes, Old Sharon’s mother was abducted. She was one of a group of five women who attempted to escape. Three were killed. Two escaped. Old Sharon’s mother was one of the lucky two.

After her escape and the end of the war, Old Sharon’s mother was taught how to make paper beads in order to have a skill to earn a living. Her mother passed this skill down to both Sharons who are now making and selling paper bead jewelry to earn school fees.

Aber Lynn is a war orphan and was living on the streets when Old Sharon found her, and determined that she wasn’t going to let Lynn become a prostitute like so many other young girls on the street. Old Sharon took Lynn to live with her and taught her how to make paper beads, too.

Aber Lynn asked Ivan for a job at Art Factory Gulu and he hired her. It’s always been part of his dream to use art to help homeless kids earn a living and get kids off of the street. Now his dream is coming to fruition and Aber Lynn is safe, employed, and working hard.

After the singing and cake cutting and festivities of the party, I was taking photos of Ivan’s paintings when Old Sharon mustered up her bravery and told me their story. She asked, “Would it be possible for you to buy some of our paper bead jewelry to support us in going to school?” I told her that we already have a Paper Bead Project in Bungatira. She looked crestfallen until I told her, “No, what I mean is that we already know how well the paper bead jewelry sells and we always run out of jewelry and we’d love to partner with you.” She hugged me and asked, “Do you need to consult with your organization?” I said, “We are a board of women who believe education is for everyone. Believe me, our answer is YES! We have a Work Study Scholarship fund for students like you who have a gift and are willing to put that gift to work to earn school fees. We will buy all of your jewelry, so make as much of it as you can before we return home.” Then Old Sharon replied, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! We will be #teamnosleep because we will just be up all night making jewelry.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Vigilantes, I honestly don’t know how we are going to do it, but we are determined to buy every necklace, bracelet, and earring from the Art Shop Gulu Girl Beaders because we believe that when you educate a girl, you educate the world. And for us, that starts with a pair of Sharons and a seventeen year old named Good Lynn.

Want to support the Art Factory Gulu Girls Work Study Project? Visit our Current Projects page to make a donation to the Work Study Project. 

Leku Ivan’s Dream Come True

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.

This kid.

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.

Stop Telling Me, “Be Safe.”

After a 2 hour taxi ride and a six and a half hour bus ride, Laura and I arrived in Gulu on Tuesday, exhausted and happy to be to my Ugandan home at last. Gulu is more joyful and peaceful than I’ve ever seen before. It’s such a delight to be back and to see a new lightness where the darkness of war once prevailed.

Vigilantes, we need to have a chat. I love sharing stories from this part of my life with you, but in order for me to continue doing that we have to agree on something, okay? I need you to stop telling me, “Be safe,” or “Stay safe,” or “Be careful.”

You can rest assured that I take my safety very seriously and I take all of the necessary precautions to protect my one precious and wild life.

I notified the Embassy of my travel plans. I wear my seatbelt at all times on the plane. I wear a helmet when I ride boda bodas. I am supremely cautious with my water intake. I am fastidious with my mosquito net. I keep my doors locked at all times. I am militant in taking my anti malarial pills. My only perfume is a combination of sunscreen and mosquito repellant. I am acutely aware of what’s happening around me on the streets at all times. Safety is ever present in the back of my mind.

I know your wishes, prayers, and pleadings for my safety come from a place of love, but since Tuesday evening, I’ve received 41 comments or messages imploring me to be safe. 41. In a single day. Make that 42 because as I was typing that sentence, another message to, “Be safe,” popped up on my screen. Make it 43 because as I was getting ready to post this, I received a well-intentioned, “Stay safe.”

We don’t tell men this same message. We tell men to have fun or to have a great time. We tell women to stay safe.

Do you know what repeatedly being told, “Stay safe,” does?

For me it does two things.

It makes me more UNSAFE and puts me MORE at risk because it insinuates I’m in danger and plants seeds of fear. Guys, I cannot, I will not, waste a second here walking around keeping company with fear.

Secondly, it makes me feel smaller. Being a woman traveling in a developing country and being in danger shouldn’t be an automatic correlation. That is a wrong thought pattern on our part that also has roots in fear. It’s one that has to change.

Please don’t make me smaller. Don’t be afraid for me. Nothing worthwhile in my life has ever been accomplished by playing it safe. I bet the same could be said of your life, too.

Do I want your well wishes and prayers? Absolutely, 100 times over. Here are some things you can say to me instead.

Tell me to be bold.

Tell me to be fearless in pursuing what God has in store for me.

Tell me you’re praying for God’s voice to be clear in my ears.

Tell me to be bottomless with hope and generous with compassion and open armed with love.

Tell me to stand tall in my calling.

Then go find another woman or girl in your life, in fact go find ALL of the women and girls in your life, and tell them those very same things.

The Land of Black and Green

A few years ago I taught a poetry workshop in Uganda. There are so many lines of their poetry that stay with me, but one that came to mind today was this: “I am from Africa, the land of black.” The poet went on to describe how she is from the land of black in her skin, black in the soil where her family grows potatoes, and blinding blackness at night where the hum of electricity hasn’t reached yet.

Today as we drove away from the airport, we travelled on a road under construction. Along the road were streetlights, the first in all of Uganda. They haven’t been lit yet, but all I could think of when I saw them was that poet’s words and how startling it will be to see rows of streetlights shining in the pitch black.

Though in the land of black, for me Uganda has always been the land of green. The equatorial climate makes every plant lush and verdant, with signs of life abundant in every leaf.

Alicia in Entebbe, Uganda.

When I think of green, I think of newness, of the urgency of seedlings breaking free of their seed coats for the first time, of blots of colorful flowers blooming while the dark green leaves do the work of collecting energy from the sun and making it into food.

It reminds me of this verse, which has been knocking around in my head for a few weeks.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭43:19‬

Uganda has been a place for me where old things are shed and new things break free and grow with reckless fervency. It is my land of green lovingly tucked into the beating heart of the land of black.

P.S. I’ll be posting blogs and some photos here, but other things like live videos, short posts, and complete photo albums will be on the Vigilante Kindness Facebook page.