Piggery

On Saturday Laura and I visited my friends, JB and Jenifer, the couple putting 18 children, including their own children, their nieces and nephews, and their siblings through school.

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Alicia with Jenifer and part of her family in 2015.

They requested help starting a piggery, but we arrived to a completely wonderful surprise: they’d already begun their piggery! They started with six pigs, have already sold two, and now have four pigs. As of Saturday they also have six new piglets!!!

We were delighted that they were able to get the piggery started. In fact they’ve also planted cassava and now cook and sell cassava chips to offset the cost of school fees. Jenifer is a teacher and JB is principal, so they do all of this in addition to their regular jobs. They’ve even started a small school store. The school store serves two purposes. It gives them a little extra money and allows students to purchase small necessities without having to walk or pay for a boda ride to the nearest center. We love families who take initiative like they’re doing.

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Three of the children walking to visit the mother pig and her piglets.

Even with all of their efforts to create sustainable small businesses, it’s apparent that they’re still struggling. After walking out to visit the new mama and her piglets, Laura and I met with JB and Jenifer in their home. To visit someone in their home is like the highest honor you can give here and it broke my heart a little bit when I heard that none of the other mzungus J.B. and Jenifer interact with regularly have ever visited their home.

Once inside we found ourselves asking a familiar question.

What do you need and how can we help?

Their requests were simple. They needed better containment and some supplemental food for the pigs.

While their requests were simple, constructing the piggery proved impossible because the administrators of the school will not permit JB and Jennifer to construct a piggery near their home on campus. JB and Jennifer are from another town in Uganda that is about a day’s drive away and they have property there under the care of some family members. This is where they really wanted to construct the piggery. Unfortunately their hometown is about a day’s drive away from Gulu and we were backed up against some other obligations near Gulu, so it was decided that we would retain the money for the piggery until our next trip to Uganda when we could plan for transport, lodging, time to purchase the necessary supplies to complete the piggery, time to have it constructed, and time to re-locate the pigs.

Sometimes the answer to a problem is wait. Wait is a hard pill for me to swallow, but a project that is rushed likely won’t be done well. It’s better to wait. Ugandans see time differently than Americans. Here there is no rush. While this can be frustrating when trying to complete projects in a short amount of time, most of the time slowing down and allowing time for careful thought is a good thing, a very good thing.

At the conclusion of our visit to their home, JB insisted on driving us to our next destination. He now has a car, his very first car, and he refused to let us take bodas back to town because he didn’t want us to have to pay or to be taken advantage of with the prices some boda drivers try to make mzungus pay. This was a sacrifice on his part because fuel is not cheap.

Time and again, this is what we see, the recipients of our funds doing small considerate things to show their appreciation and love. Ivan the painter drove us around in his van as often as possible. Ivan and Babu Ojok each donated a painting for us to use to raise money. The Bungatira beaders bought sodas and bottles of water for us to drink on our visit because they know our bodies cannot tolerate the bacteria in the well water. The Art Shop Gulu Girls and the Bungatira beaders gifted us with paper bead jewelry. And everywhere we went, they fed us, even in Pawel where maintaining enough food to feed the children is a struggle.

It never ceases to amaze me that out of what little they have, they give from hearts of abundance. For that we are forever grateful.

Light for Aparanga

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An elephant in Paraa just beyond Te Okot

Revered for their strength, tenacity, and intelligence, elephants are the symbol of Uganda and also the symbol of Ugandan women. While it was majestic to see a parade of elephants in the wild near Te Okot, life with elephants for the people living in Te Okot proved untenable.

In the years of my absence, the elephants continued decimating their crops and some bold elephants were not frightened away by the solar lights we’d previously distributed. Given the choice between starving to death in fertile, sprawling Te Okot or moving until they can build up enough food stores to return, the families Te Okot returned to Bungatira or moved to nearby impoverished Aparanga.

When we arrived in Aparanga, it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces. Mamas were braiding their children’s hair. Chickens and goats were milling around in nearby crops. And Musee Lapyiem and his daughter Agnes were waiting to greet us.

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Agnes, Alicia, and Musee Lapyiem

The faces of the people from Te Okot were no longer gaunt. When I hugged them, I couldn’t feel each rib pressing into my arms through their backs. Life with the elephants took its toll and seeing them have the healthy bodies that come from having a regular food intake was such a relief.

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Agnes had prepared chicken and malakwang (my favorite meal) in her father’s house. As we entered Lapyiem’s house, I smiled at the solar lights we’d distributed on my last visit, charging on top of his roof.

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Solar Lights charging in Aparanga

After the meal, we talked with Musee Lapyiem about the issue of a tractor. We hadn’t raised nearly enough money to purchase a tractor, but we were prepared to continue fundraising (though it might take years) or if there was a more immediate need, we were prepared to entertain it.

Musee Lapyiem decided that the best thing to do would be to bring the issue up to the families living in Aparanga. I also still had half of my birthday solar lights to distribute and being so far from electricity, small Aparanga was just the kind of place where they’d be put to good use.

So we proceeded to a small room where all of the community members, including the children, had gathered to meet with us. Denis, my former boda driver and the chairperson for the families from Te Okot who had relocated to Bungatira, began by introducing or reintroducing us. Then Laura introduced herself.

Then I spoke, first about how happy I was to see them all and how much I love them, then about why I was so delayed in returning to Uganda. I explained how we’d raised some funds, but not enough to fund a tractor and that we were open to hearing new ideas about how to best proceed.

I found myself asking a familiar question. “What do you need and how can we help?”

There was a lengthy, animated discussion amongst the community members about what to do. Members spoke up about how they needed something sustainable to help pay for the school fees and the university fees of their children. They spoke about how they needed something that would help them farm their land to create stores of food so they could eventually return to Te Okot to farm. I listened intently, straining to pick out the Luo words I know and to understand the issues at hand.

After some time, the community came up with an idea, but before executing the idea, it would have to be agreed upon by the people who had relocated to Bungatira as well. After all, though distance separates them, they remain one family, and a decision for one half is a decision for all. We would have to wait another day or two to hear the final decision.

At the end of the community meeting, Denis gave the members a lesson on how to use the new solar lights. There was cheering and clapping and too many thanks to count. One community member didn’t even wait to leave the room to start charging his phone.

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Solar lights mean less charcoal being burned and inhaled in homes at night. Solar lights mean  a reduced chance of house fires. Solar lights mean having a light to study with beyond sundown. Solar charging lights mean parents can pay school fees through their phones. Solar charging lights mean parents can communicate with their students away at school without having to use hard earned shillings to charge their phones. Solar charging lights mean having the ability to hear news right away via a charged phone.

Thanks so much to those of you who donated to my birthday fundraiser and allowed me to distribute lights to those in Bungatira and Aparanga. You gave light to those in need in so many ways. It was a terrific birthday gift and from the people in Bungatira and Aparanga I say to you, “Apwoyo matek!” Thank you very much.

Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, A Woman for All Women

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Tausi and Alicia

One of the greatest pleasures of returning year after year to Gulu is that I get to watch my students grow up. In 2012, the first year I visited Gulu, I taught a writing workshop where students wrote about pivotal moments in their lives.

One of my students, 19-year-old Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, wrote about being elected Deputy Speaker for the district wide student government. She was 16 at the time she was elected into office.

Here’s what she wrote in her essay, “For All Women,” about that experience.

This experience gave me confidence and in the future I want to be the female member of Parliament for my district. I will continue to advocate for gender balance and female emancipation. I will advocate for all women to be empowered even if they have not had the money to attend school. It’s my goal to allocate money to help them create businesses to sustain themselves and their families. I want to be an example for all women in my country.

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Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, age 19. Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee.
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Tausi speaking at the retreat.

Yesterday I was invited to attend a reunion retreat at the school where I taught Tausi and my other very first African student writers. It was no surprise that Tausi was one of the speakers at the retreat. When she spoke, she spoke with poise, passion, and confidence.

I had a few moments to sit and chat with Tausi and was overwhelmed with pride when she told me that she’d completed her degree in Human Rights and was now in school for her law degree. She works in the court system in Kampala as a county clerk. Her dream of becoming a member of Parliament is alive and well and seems more and more like a certain outcome.

Tausi is one of 20 children in her family. She’s number 17 and to this day is the only graduate in her family. She dreams of using her degrees to fight for human rights, specifically for marginalized women and children.

Tausi follows the work of Vigilante Kindness (Hi, Tausi!) and yesterday she asked if I had any groups of girls she could speak to and encourage because she is living proof that no matter your circumstance, if you work hard, your dreams can come true. I don’t have any groups for Tausi to speak to, but I’m confident that after hearing her story, you’re inspired by her.

Tausi was and always has been a woman for all women.

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Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, age 25.

We Are Vigilante Kindness

Last night my Facebook birthday fundraiser for Vigilante Kindness was fully funded!!! There was a mad rush of donations at the end to donate the last $20 that had me absolutely giggling with delight!

We_Are_VIgilante_Kindness_pngMy sleep last night was restless because I couldn’t stop thinking about all of you, who you are, who I am, who we are as Vigilante Kindness.

I started writing out things that are true of you and I, what we do, things we love, what we’re going through, where we’ve been, and all the other things that make us who we are.

It leaves me full of love thinking about each of you and leaves me in wonder thinking of who we are collectively.

Thank you for choosing to be a part of our story.

I couldn’t love you more if I tried, so I made you a present, a story of who we are.

Two Projects Are Fully Funded!!!

As many of you know, I’m celebrating turning 41 by having a fundraiser on Facebook to fund three of my favorite Vigilante Kindness projects.

As of tonight we’ve raised $1,870 out of $2,000 dollars and two of the three projects are fully funded!!! With 4 days left until I leave for Uganda, we’re $130 away from funding all three projects! That’s just AMAZING! Here’s a quick video to tell you a little more.

These Little Lights of Mine

an elephant grazing in Murchison Park, adjacent to Te Okot
an elephant grazing in Murchison Park, adjacent to Te Okot

The elephants of Te Okot were tromping through my mind today.

A few weeks ago, I received a mini grant that allowed me to purchase 23 solar lights from Unite to Light, the same company I purchased solar lights from last year.

23 more solar lights for Te Okot.

23 solar lights that will not be fire hazards in their huts.

23 solar lights that won’t accidentally set their mosquito nets on fire.

23 solar lights that won’t require families to purchase kerosene and then breathe toxic kerosene fumes.

23 solar lights to keep the wild elephants at bay.

It’s that last one that gives me goosebumps.  You might know the story already, but if not, let me get you up to speed.  The people of Te Okot are sustenance farmers, meaning the food from their gardens is what they eat.  It’s not like there’s a grocery store down the block.

A garden = food = life.

So you can imagine what, quite literally, a large problem it was for the people of Te Okot to have wild elephants come and devour their gardens at night, not to mention the acute fear of having wild elephants trample your hut and your sleeping family inside it.

The solution was an elegant and, for me, an unexpected one.

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Now on nights when the elephants come near, the people of Te Okot turn on their lights and place them outside of their huts. Elephants associate light with the lights on the scopes of guns, so when they see the lights, they lumber away, leaving the people of Te Okot and their gardens safe and sound.

All of those things would be enough, more than enough, but, dear ones, this is not a story of just enough.  This is a story of Vigilante Kindness from unexpected places and of a company who shows their heart through their actions.

Last week Unite to Light sent me an email saying that there was a mix up and they’d accidentally shipped another box of 23 lights.  They gave me three choices:

  1. Return the lights and they’d reimburse me for postage.
  2. Buy the lights.
  3. Keep the lights for free and give them to an organization to distribute and then report back to Unite to Light who I gave them to and where the lights will be used.

The idea of sending the lights back broke my heart, but I didn’t have a spare $250 lying around to buy the extra 23 lights either.

Unite to Light gives generously to non-profit organizations all over the world.  We’re not a non-profit, not yet.  So I did the only thing that made sense to me, the same thing I did when I didn’t know how to get clean drinking water for Te Okot.

I told a story.

I wrote back to Unite to Light and told them the story of solar lights and elephants and the people of Te Okot.

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I told them about our little rag-tag organization, Vigilante Kindness, and that we don’t have our official non-profit status yet.  I told them that it would be an incredible gift to bring the extra lights to Te Okot in July, but that I understood completely if they couldn’t do that because of our status.

My email was forwarded to the President of Unite to Light and her response still makes me get all teary-eyed.

Hi, Alicia,

I am so excited about the work that you are doing. I have already promoted you and your website on our Facebook page. (I hope that is OK!)

Your story is so intriguing. I am glad that you will be able to take the extra lights with you and deliver them to the people in Uganda.

You are brightening lives and we thank you.

Sometimes our mistakes work out for the best. Twenty-three more lives will be positively affected with those extras.

Blessings to you for the work you are doing.

I love the line, “Sometimes our mistakes work out for the best.”  I’ll say.

23 46 solar lights for Te Okot.

23 46 solar lights that will not be fire hazards in their huts.

23 46 solar lights that won’t accidentally set their mosquito nets on fire.

23 46 solar lights that won’t require families to purchase kerosene and then breathe toxic kerosene fumes.

23 46 solar lights to keep the wild elephants at bay.

So now when the elephants of Te Okot tromp through my mind, I’ll smile and think of 46 more shining solar lights, peacefully keeping the people, the gardens, and even the wild elephants of Te Okot safe and sound.

a mother and baby in Murchison Park, adjacent to Te Okot
a mother and baby in Murchison Park, adjacent to Te Okot

Want to help bring light to people of Te Okot and the students of Northern Uganda?  Click the PayPal link below.  You could be light number 47.

Vigilante Kindness: Bringing Light, Water and Love to Te Okot

Sweet Vigilantes of Kindness, I know you’ve been waiting to hear all about the well in Te Okot.

I wasn’t quite sure how to tell the final chapter of this story.  A blog post wouldn’t be enough.  A digital picture album wouldn’t suffice.

So on my eleven hour flight from Cairo to New York, I taught myself to use iMovie.  Really, why not teach myself something new on long flight in a spacious and extremely comfortable airplane seat, right?

The movie is about 15 minutes long and isn’t professional by any stretch of the imagination, but I like that you get to go with me to see the finished well for the first time and you get to hear straight from the mouths of the people at Te Okot just what this well and the gift of solar lights mean to them.

So grab a big glass of clean drinking water and settle in for another great story of Vigilante Kindness.