Category Archives: Other Stories from Uganda

Doable Things

On my last day in Gulu I saw Sister Rosemary for a few minutes. I hadn’t seen her since my first trip to Uganda-before the story of her life became a best seller and a movie, before she became a world renowned speaker and before Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential people.
Sister Rosemary is an enigma to me. She’s hilarious and down to Earth. She drinks Guinness like a fish. She’s a devout nun. She’s the essence of warmth. And Sister Rosemary gets things done because when she gives you a direction, you follow it.

This is what led my mom and I back to her home at Saint Monica’s Tailoring School on our last day in Gulu. We’d run into Sister Rosemary and some of the good people at Pros for Africa at a cafe in town the day before and Sister Rosemary invited us to visit her. By the time we left the cafe, her invitation had become an agreement that we’d come. And when Sister Rosemary tells me to do something, I drop everything and do it. She’s the kind of woman who inspires equal parts fear and awe in me down in my trembly parts.

On the day we visited, my mom and I found her sitting on the step in front of her house picking out lace to cover the coffin of her cousin who had passed away the day before. Even in her grief, Sister was welcoming and warm and insisted on showing us the pop tab purses that had been made with a donation of soda pop tabs my mom had brought to Uganda to give to Sister Rosemary. 
 After showing us where and how the purses are made, Sister Rosemary gave each of us a purse, an unnecessary and lavish act of generosity considering how much each purse would sell for and how much revenue that would bring to the school. 
We only stayed a few minutes because funeral preparations are elaborate in Uganda, but before we left I told her how much I’d appreciated what she said in her interviews on the girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. She thanked me and said, “We must speak of doable things.” She went on to explain that so often we speak of large problems and large solutions, but really we should focus on small things each of us can do to care for each other, to extend kindness, to wash the muck off each other with a little grace.

Sister Rosemary runs a school for women, many of whom were forced to be child brides of LRA soldiers during the terrorizing insurgency led by the warlord Joseph Kony. On campus there’s a sewing school, a culinary school, a health clinic, a restaurant and a host of other opportunities for the women of Uganda to learn life skills. What Sister does is incredible, but she would be the first to tell you, she’s taking one small step at a time, just trying to follow the will of God. When she speaks of doable things, it’s because she’s living them day in and day out.

On the day of our visit, we hugged goodbye and I promised to visit Sister again when I return next year. While my mom and I waited for our boda driver to get us, I ran my hand over my beautiful pop tab purse, a purse sewn of small doable things.  


As I pray for direction for Vigilante Kindness, pray for direction for this upcoming school year, and frankly as I pray for direction for my life as a whole, I’m praying Sister Rosemary’s words and asking God to give me that same heart for doable things.

Maybe you’re overwhelmed by the problems of the world, frustrated in your job, exhausted with worry for your family, or just plain asking for direction. Sweet Vigilantes, let’s commit to speaking of small doable things and then doing them.

Are you with me?

Love and Struggle With Carrie Underwood and Mister Rogers

Leaving Uganda is always bittersweet. I know how fortunate I am to feel at home in two such distinctly different places in the world, I know what a rare gift that is. This trip has been unlike any other, all of our projects going smoothly or taking unexpected turns for the better. My husband likes to remind me that it’s ok, good even, that things went so smoothly.

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For me the biggest challenge has been balancing being a mother, being a daughter, and being true to the beliefs we hold dear within Vigilante Kindness. It was a tightrope walk for me. My prayers were often petitions for grace and wisdom and strength and understanding. My actual prayers were not that eloquent. They were more like, “I’m out of ideas here, God. Can you let me in on the plan?” Or “God, remind me to be kind. Help me understand.” I prayed that one a lot. But do you want to know the prayer I prayed the most? I hope you find this as funny as I do. I’m not even a country music fan, yet over and over again I prayed-and I wish I were making this up-I prayed, “Jesus, take the wheel.” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s true.

There were times on this trip where I was bad at being a mom, bad at being a daughter, or bad at figuring out where to go next with VK. Sometimes I was bad at all three at once and I’d take a quiet moment, most times while I was washing my clothes in the shower, because there’s something about water that makes me think, and I’d say out loud, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Then I’d throw my soapy hands up in the air like I was releasing a steering wheel. No joke.

I’m new to this mothering thing and this year I got to know my boys better, got to see some of their less desirable qualities. They also got to know me better and I’m sure saw some of my less desirable qualities, too. Mix that in a bowl with my shortcomings as a daughter and two cultures that often operate in opposite directions than one another and you’ve got a big lump of mess.

A big beautiful mess.

But over and over again we chose to love each other, to navigate our differences, our disagreements, to build bridges across the chasms created by our cultures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a quote from Mister Rogers about how the verb love is an active verb, like the verb struggle. Love is a choice we make over and over again. And to love someone as they are in this very moment, perhaps in an ugly mess of a moment, when love is the last thing you want to speak, and yet you dislodge loving words from your throat and speak them anyway, that is love.

I don’t know about you, but isn’t that great news, that in the throes of difficulty we can choose to love? Better yet, in tantrums of our own worst selves, we have people who choose the struggle, choose to love us. Best of all, God chooses every day to love our imperfect, praying in the shower selves.

Moms out there, I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. This motherhood thing isn’t for sissies. Maybe you’re like me, and you and your kid are unveiling the vulnerable and sometimes messy sides of yourselves. Maybe you aren’t bridging the cultural gaps we’re traversing, but maybe your kid is residing in the very foreign land of Teenager and you aren’t finding common ground. You’re not alone.

In the moments when you’re on empty, borrow Mister Rogers’ words. Choose to struggle for love, choose to struggle in love, choose love. And in the moments when all you can do is throw up your soapy hands and give up the wheel, Carrie Underwood and I are here for you, too.

Hot Nails

I’ve never been part of an Acholi forgiveness ceremony or seen one in action. I don’t know if it’s a practice that still takes place, but even if it’s only a part of history, it leaves me tinged with awe and wonder.
The gist of it is this: if you wrong someone, the person you’ve wronged gets to decide your recompense. Your recompense must be something that requires some sort of sacrifice on your part, but it can’t be something completely unattainable. Costly, but not impossible.

Once appropriate recompense is decided and attained, the offender presents it to the offended in front of the community, and sometimes in front of the entire chiefdom. 

Then it’s done. 

The offense is cancelled out by the recompense made and it’s as if the offense never transpired.

The slate is washed clean.

I’ve been invited to the 93rd birthday party of Uncle Patrick’s father, a highly respected elder. Uncle Patrick is my language tutor from last year. He’s also the father of Lydia, one of our work study scholars, the father of Olive, my current language tutor, and is the only father my kid, Martin, has ever been loved by. Though Patrick is really some sort of older cousin, he claims, loves, and treats Martin as his son. I love Patrick and his family dearly.

Patrick’s invitation was followed by the phrase, “And my father only lives a hundred meters or so from Martin’s biological father, so you may be able to meet him as well.”

After the invitation I was barely able to control my face, let alone my mouthy mouth. I responded that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to attend because I’d already committed to being in another village that day. It was true and I was glad to have a real reason to consider going or not.

Here’s the thing about Martin’s biological dad, he gave Martin up, let him live on the streets and eat garbage. He only phones Martin when he needs something and when Martin isn’t able to help, his dad pulls a full on guilt trip on him and tells Martin that he never wants to help his dear old dad.

So meeting this guy is not #1 on my To Do List. 

I really want to throw rocks at him and say a few choice words. His whole personhood makes me want to spit hot nails.

But from somewhere behind my hot rage, from a better place within me, the Acholi forgiveness ceremony rises up and gently curls around my angry heart.

The person wronged gets to choose the recompense. This man has not wronged me. He owes me nothing. Forgiveness isn’t mine to give. Or to withhold. Ouch.

It’s Martin who was wronged and he’s forgiven his dad a million times over. Martin, along with every kid on the planet, still seeks his dad’s love and approval, something that may never come. It breaks my heart to watch him fall for his dad’s guilt trips every time, but in that same vein there’s a lightness Martin has that I don’t because each time his dad is awful, Martin forgives him freely and without expectation of recompense.

I truly don’t know if I’ll be able to rearrange my other village visit to attend the birthday party, and I surely don’t know that if I do I’ll be able to extend an iota kindness toward Martin’s biological dad, but if nothing else I’m determined to shut my mouthy mouth.

Swallowing those hot nails back down is proving to be painful.

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.

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. 

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.

The Littlest Bird

This year I was present for Election Day at school. There was a page worth of candidates on the ballot running for different student offices. Each candidate had a couple of minutes to deliver their campaign speech to the 300 members of the student body. Before the speeches began, one of the English teachers stood and spoke about the procedures. He encouraged the students to listen carefully and then to vote with their hearts.

The speeches began and during the speeches the students were asked to submit their questions to the student Parliament running the proceedings. There were many coveted offices like Head Boy and Head Girl, each in charge of overseeing their assigned gender and assisting with any problems they’re having which they may not feel comfortable immediately bringing to the adults. One of the most coveted offices is that of Time Keeper. Time Keeper rings the bell to indicate that class sessions are over, that lunch is over, that the school day is concluding, that church is beginning. It is a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly.

There were several candidates for Time Keeper and each gave an excellent speech, but there was one who stood out to me above the rest. Crispus is an S1 (8th grade), student. He’s a tiny kid, about as big as an American third or fourth grader. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in personality.

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When Crispus began his speech, I actually jumped at the sound of his voice, so loud and full of enthusiasm. He proclaimed that he is responsible and owns a good watch which would allow him to ensure that classes ended and lunch began on time. The crowd, which had been boisterous throughout the whole assembly now became more vocal than ever.

“He’s too young!”
“This is too much responsibility.”
“He’s only an S1.”

Tiny Crispus stood, shoulders back, taking it all and never responding in turn, waiting for the student Parliament to gather questions from the audience and read them to him to answer.

The heckling continued until suddenly the audience began to turn in his favor. Those who had opposed Crispus could be heard no longer over the din that arose. First there was clapping, followed by stomping of feet and then a roar erupted from the crowd. They shouted his name and cheered for him.

So loud was their cheering that the student Parliament couldn’t contain them and Crispus couldn’t contain his grin, which had spread from one side of his face to the other. After returning to his seat, Crispus continued to smile for the rest of the proceedings. I imagine he went to bed smiling.