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. 


Malea’s Good Name

In the darkening Gulu evening, my son, Opiyo Martin, and I stood outside, our bellies full of pork and cassava. I smiled at the laughter coming from my mom and my other sons, Otim Geoffrey and Oryem William, seated only a few feet away, their bellies full of pork and cassava, too.

I kept Martin aside for a few minutes. On our walk back from dinner we’d been talking about the chicken farm project and I told him about the people who had donated to make their chicken farm a reality.

“Opiyo, I have to tell you the story of Malea, a darling, blond-haired, six-year-old girl from my city. She loves swimming, she collects rocks and shells, and she’s one of your chicken farm donors.”

I began to tell Martin Malea’s story and his singular response was, “Oh my God, Mum, oh my God, oh my God.” His words weren’t the bubblegum OMG, used so often today. They were reverent, a sacred recognition of the providence of God.

Before I tell you the story, grab a mug of your favorite something, put your phone on silent, and sit down for five minutes to read Malea’s story. You’ll be glad you did.

A few weeks ago Malea’s mom, Anna, Facebooked this photo of Malea, who had emptied out her piggy bank with the express purpose of using her money to help someone in need. Anna was searching for an avenue for Malea to do just that. I told her about Vigilante Kindness, specifically about our chicken farm project because Malea’s savings would be nearly enough to purchase two chickens. Anna talked it over with Malea and Malea agreed that buying a pair of chickens was a worthy use of her eight dollars and change.

Can’t you just picture her sorting precious dimes and pennies, smoothing out her dollar bills and counting it all up? See that envelope Malea is holding in the photo? She made it and tucked her money carefully inside. It gets me every darn time.


As if that wasn’t enough, a couple of days before I left for Uganda, Anna texted me and asked if there was still time for Malea to donate. I told her yes, that I was making a final deposit of a few last local donations that same day.

Malea had sold rocks and shells from her collection. She’d sold enough of her collection to buy herself a new toy and to buy a third chicken. A third chicken. I can’t even.

Sometimes I can’t believe I get to be part of this work, this work where piggy bank dimes and a little girl’s rocks and shell collection become chickens for a chicken farm in Uganda, a farm that will allow my sons and other students to earn their own school fees and to tithe chickens to take care of widows and orphans.

Never in my life could I have dreamed up such a thing.

I understand Martin’s response to Malea’s story because it’s been the entirety of my prayer life this past week. I’m overwhelmed both by your generosity, sweet Vigilantes, and the providence of God working through you. In the face of such sacrifice and such kindness, I, too am lost for words save for, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

Malea picked out names for her chickens. Her third chicken will be named Jasmine. Her second chicken will be named, Chickaketta, which is quite possibly the most perfect chicken name ever. Her first chicken will be named, Malea, because, in the words of a blond six-year-old who loves swimming and now has a much smaller rock and shell collection, “Malea is a good name.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s be Facebook Friends

Well, Vigilantes, my bags are packed, I’m remembering to throw anti-malarial pills down the hatch and I’m all kinds of excited to return to my Ugandan home.

I’ll be posting longer stories of Vigilante Kindness here as usual, but if you want to follow along and see all the small moments, too, you’ll want to follow Vigilante Kindness on Facebook.  When there’s power, I post a ton of photos there as well as funny little stories that aren’t quite grown up enough to be blog posts. So let’s be Facebook friends.

Also, some of you have been asking how you can pray for us during our trip, so I made this flyer for you.  You can print it out, pop it on your refrigerator and each time you open your fridge door and feel that blast of cool air, think of me in humid Uganda and say a quick prayer.

Pray for VK

Thank you,