In one corner of Art Factory Gulu there are bold, beautiful paintings, brighter than all of the others in the shop. They’re made with bright colors mixed with the bold prints of traditional African fabrics. When I asked Leku Ivan who the painter was, Ivan replied, “He’s one of my students.”
Yesterday while I was in Art Shop Gulu visiting and working out the details of purchasing paintings and paper bead jewelry, a quiet young man in a baseball cap approached me.
“My name is Babu Ojok.” He looked at his feet and spoke so softly that he had to repeat himself three times and even then I couldn’t hear him. I made him write his name in my notebook and I introduced myself.
“I want to show you my paintings.” He spoke a little louder this time and lifted his eyes to meet mine.
“I’d love to see your paintings. Show me.” I followed him to the corner of the Art Shop where all of his brilliantly colored paintings stood.
“You made these? I’ve been wanting to meet you!” I squealed, momentarily forgetting my manners. “You have a great eye for using color and pattern.”
“Thank you,” he smiled and looked at his shoes again.
“Are you in school?” I asked, the wheels in my head turning, hoping this kid would qualify for Work Study Scholarship money.
He shook his head. “No, I completed my Senior 6 year, but I failed to earn school fees for university. I live with my uncle and he is struggling to pay my school fees. I want to go back to school, but the money isn’t there.”
“I think we can help with that. Tell me about your paintings.” I smiled.
Then Babu Ojok’s face absolutely lit up as he talked about each of his paintings, their names, what they mean to him, and how he made them.
I collected all of the information including prices for each piece so Laura could crunch the numbers and see if there was any possibility to include Babu as one of our Work Study Scholarship recipients this year.
As I was preparing to leave, Babu Ojok handed me a painting. “This is a gift for you, to thank you for all of the good work you’re doing.”
“Thank you so much. I’ll accept it on one condition. Will you let me sell it so that the money can go back into our scholarship fund to send more students in Uganda to school?”
He smiled. “Yes, that would be good.”
Back at the hotel, Laura crunched the numbers. Buying all of Babu Ojok’s paintings will take our Work Study Scholarship down to nothing and I can’t think of a better way to spend our last penny.
As I drifted off to sleep last night I smiled thinking of Babu Ojok, about how glad I was that this quiet artist tucked under a baseball cap was bold enough to introduce himself, bold enough to ask for the chance to go back to school.
Vigilantes, meet Babu Ojok. Write his name in your notebooks. He’s a kid you won’t want to forget.