We’re a rag-tag group of people vigilantly pursuing self-sustaining educational & employment opportunities with and for students and their families living in rural communities in developing countries. We believe in asking hard questions like, “What do you need and how can we help?” We believe that communities know their needs better than we do and that it’s our job to listen. We’re big on being kind for the sake of kindness and we believe that even the smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference. We believe in keeping vigil over one another and watching for opportunities to help, no matter how far off the beaten path those opportunities take us. We’re vigilant in our belief that God has given each person unique gifts and that one of the highest forms of worship is using those gifts to serve others. We believe God has a purpose for each life and Vigilante Kindness is our purpose. Join us as we live out wild adventures in service of God and others. Join us in committing acts of Vigilante Kindness.
My stomach was a ball of nerves, like one of those giant office supply rubberband balls snapping and bouncing between my ribcage. The ride to Bungatira took me way outside of Gulu, past several villages each boasting a small roadside store or two. Boda drivers waiting to carry fares sat parked along the road and clustered on the corners. Mothers and children sat selling the riches of their gardens and the children called out, “Munu! Munu!” I waved and smiled at their innocence, but the rubberband ball in my gut continued to ping-pong off my insides.
Denis was his usual chatty self, but I couldn’t help but remember my last visit to Bungatira.
The pain of seeing discrimination against people with mental illnesses inked so clearly on their community Constitution.
The anguish of sitting beside my son during talk of child soldiers returning from war changed for the worse.
The feeling of wanting to run away.
The burning sensation in the very core of my being that made me stay and speak up for my loved ones.
The community members who walked out of the meeting.
The tears that fell in the red dirt when I spoke about my loved ones struggling with mental illness and the searing pain that they wouldn’t be welcomed in this group.
The heartfelt apologies for causing me pain.
And finally the blissful relief of seeing those discriminatory words removed from the community Constitution.
This time I returned with a purse full of shillings for the Bungatira community group. 640,000 shillings from my friend Jenna who had been so moved by their willingness to change that she bequeathed $250 raised by her Oregon Vigilantes of Kindness to the group in Bungatira.
The money would go towards helping them start a savings and loan program, wherein group members could borrow reasonable amounts and pay them back with interest. The people of Bungatira would now be able to take out loans to pay their child’s school fees.
Inside my purse beside my fat stack of shillings was my iPad. On it I had pictures of my loved ones who struggle with mental illness and pictures of Jenna and her loved ones as well. I’d go and share our stories, share that we too are mothers and wives battling on our knees alongside our loved ones.
Donald M. Murray, one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, once said, “The more personal I am, the more universal I become.” As Denis steered us closer to Bungatira, I prayed that would be true. I prayed that in sharing the stories of my life and explaining what compelled Jenna to choose Bungatira to receive the money from Oregon, the people of Bungatira would see the very personal side of the universal issue of living with and loving people living with mental illnesses. I didn’t want to be another white person advising them on what I think is best for their community. I wanted to be Lanyero Alicia, a woman and a friend who has walked some of the same paths they’re walking and has come out scarred, but stronger for having chosen to love when it was painful and to fight for my loved ones when they couldn’t fight for themselves.
But, Lord have mercy, that was a tall order and the closer we got to Bungatira, the more it felt like I wasn’t up to size. The sky turned from blue to pallid gray, the perfect match to my unease.
We first stopped at Denis’ brother’s store in Bungatira where a local women’s dance troupe were preparing to perform underneath a mango tree behind the store. Denis had asked them there in my honor and these women were stunning, absolutely stunning. They were dressed in every color of the rainbow with bells tied around their ankles. Two men brought out drums and these beautiful women sang and danced with such strength that my heartbeat began to keep time with their songs. I’m told they didn’t sing a prayer for rain, but the rain came nonetheless and the women kept on dancing. I couldn’t snap photos quickly enough. I marveled at their feet, so tough from everyday life, so exquisite as they danced in time together.
The rain came down in sheets and we moved underneath the overhang in front of the store. The women kept dancing and singing, their voices rising over the rain, which drowned out the thumping ball of nerves in my belly. After the dancing, we ate cookies and drank soda with the women.
When the rain let up, it was time to complete the journey to Bungatira. On the back of Denis’ motorcycle, I took deep breaths and listened to the greenery thwapping against my skirt as the road grew narrower. Upon reaching Denis’ compound, the community group gathered and I sat in a plastic chair with the officers of the group. Denis’ brother, Michael, sat beside me ready to translate.
They opened the meeting with a prayer and after a few short words, I had the floor. Gulp. I looked into their eyes and they into mine. With a final deep breath, I began to speak, first thanking them for inviting me back and then the time came to share my story of loving people with mental illnesses. I willed the lump in my throat back down as I spoke and barely contained tears as I spoke of a particular loved one living a happy and healthy life with bi-polar disorder. Michael translated that my loved one is now happy and healthy and the group gathered on papyrus mats at my feet broke into applause. I smiled and showed photos and then told Jenna’s story of loving someone through post traumatic stress disorder. They clapped and cheered when I told them that fatherhood is helping this particular person heal from PTSD. They clapped and cheered like our loved ones were their loved ones. The ball of rubberbands in my stomach settled as my heart filled.
I explained that because they’d changed their constitution to include people struggling with mental illness, Jenna and the Oregon Vigilantes had sent me with money for their savings and loan program. I presented all 640, 000 shillings to the Treasurer and again, the people of Bungatira broke into applause. Denis spoke kind words over me and I deflected them, insisting that the money was because of the changes they’d made not because of anything I’d done.
Denis introduced me to a man and his daughter. The man is a single father and his daughter had epilepsy and autism. Denis explained to me that when the father heard the group was accepting people with mental illnesses, he and his daughter had joined immediately.
Denis’ words were like a punch in the gut. For them, the term “mental illness” also encompasses mental disabilities. Oh God.
I found myself struggling for breath. I thought of all the kids with special needs who I’ve fought to include in my classroom, all the meetings where I’ve gone toe to toe to fight for their rights. To find the fight here in the African bush had knocked me off kilter.
I looked at the man and his daughter sitting so proudly as official dues paying members. Equals with equal buy-in and equal power.
“I’m so glad you’re both here. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I met the father’s eyes.
Michael leaned in and explained to me that since the man and his daughter had joined the group, the people of Bungatira had met to see how they can help him raise his daughter and keep her safe. The women are teaching the girl to cook and the men of the community are acting as her extremely protective big brothers. They have surrounded the man and his daughter and enfolded them into their own families.
After a day of holding back tears, I let them fall freely. I cried for the beauty of it all and for the fact that I got to play a small part in this story.
I stayed in Bungatira until nightfall when Denis’ family sits nightly around the bonfire and roasts maize. The bonfire is where they gather as a family and address any concerns. It’s a sacred time and as one of the children crawled into my lap, I knew how fortunate I was to be included. I sat in their inner circle and listened, gazing up at the sky which had cleared and given way to millions of blinking stars.
On the boda ride back to town, I felt a particular sadness leaving Bungatira and her people. I held their faces in my mind and closed my eyes to the wind on my face. Denis told me several times during my trip that I was changing the world, but leaving Bungatira for the last time, I knew that I was the one who was forever changed.
If you’re just joining the story of A Gift from Oregon, you can read Part 1 here.
While in Uganda I got to spend a lot of time with Denis riding on the back of his boda and visiting his village, Bungatira. He became my closest Ugandan friend which meant I got to see him when he was happy, when he was annoyed with me (which was hilarious), when he was grateful, when he was inspired and when he was sad, but I’d never seen his nervous side.
That is, I’d never seen his nervous side until the day we went to his new school.
I’d heard about his plans to return to school for weeks on end, heard all the questions he was going to ask the admissions counselor, heard him vacillate back and forth between studying to become a doctor or a teacher. School was all he could talk about since the day he picked up his new pigs courtesy of my friends, Julie and Clark. This talk was kicked into high gear when Jenna and her posse of Oregon Vigilantes, bequeathed Denis enough money to return to school that very term while his pigs matured enough to breed and sell for the next term’s fees.
All his talk of returning to school was endearing. There aren’t free public schools in Uganda. Only the well off get to send their children to school. That sentence catches like rocks in my throat each time I write or speak it. Denis’ parents had done their best to raise and sell crops so he could attend school, but the money ran out before the third term of his Senior Three year, the equivalent of the third term of his sophomore year in high school.
Denis is 27.
And he was on his face desperate to return to school.
Can you imagine returning to your high school courses at the age of 27? Neither can I. Friends, that takes moxie I simply don’t have.
So Denis had every right to be nervous and as he pulled the boda onto the school compound, he was quiet. I had my camera at the ready, knowing that he might be too nervous to remember the details of the day, but that it was a day so worthy of remembering. We entered the modest handmade brick building that serves as the office. The administrator was working inside and she welcomed us as we entered. We sat in front of her desk and to my surprise, Denis asked her none of the questions he’d mentioned to me on the boda. He sat quietly in the chair and twisted his hands, fidgeting and barely making eye contact. I began to ask questions on his behalf, voicing all the things he’d wondered aloud on our daily rides. The administrator gave Denis the registration form and he fumbled with it, his hands visibly shaking.
“Denis, relax. This is a good thing. You get to go back to school,” I covered his hands with my own. “Just relax. Why don’t you fill out the form while we’re here and if you want me to look it over, I’m happy to do that.”
“Yes. I’ll fill it out right now,” Denis removed a pen from his pocket. I watched as he wrote every word and letter with precise care. I talked to the administrator while Denis filled the form out and I was delighted to find out that the administrator was once a primary teacher. I shared with her that I’m a primary teacher in the U.S. and we had a lovely chat.
“Alicia, will you take a look?” Denis passed me his registration form. I scanned the facts of his life. His age. His family name. His tribe. His birthdate. The name of his last school. So much information about my friend and at the same time so very little.
“Looks good, Denis, but you have to fill out the back as well,” I said quietly turning the paper over and passing it back to him.
“The back?” If it were physically possible, I think Denis would’ve blushed. He took the paper and read the backside, carefully filling in more spaces.
“Are you his sponsor?” the administrator asked me.
“No, I’m his friend.”
“Yes, he’s my boda driver and we’ve become friends.” I smiled at Denis and snapped his photo as he filled out the registration paper.
“Can I put your name here?” Denis pointed to a place on the form for names of people likely to visit him at school. He’d listed his mother and one of his brothers. There was one more line.
“Definitely. I’d love to visit you at school when I return.” Denis wrote my name. The form also asked for the relationship. Denis penned the words ‘best friend’. I smiled knowing I was in good company with his best friend J.B. and his other best friend, my oldest son, William.
Denis completed the form and we left the school under a drizzling sky that couldn’t begin to dampen my mood. I snapped a final photo of Denis standing outside the doorway, his school name emblazoned above the door.
A couple of days later he returned to school with the requisite passport sized photo and his enrollment fee, courtesy of my beloved Oregon Vigilantes.
In one of our many conversations, Denis asked if I would return to Uganda for his graduation. “You will sit next to my mom and wear a Gomesi.”
“I’d like that.”
“To wear a Gomesi?”
“To see you graduate.”
On my last evening in Uganda, I sat in a hotel room near the airport and all the way across the country from my loved ones in Gulu. My phone rang and on the other end was Denis calling to tell me he’d used some of the money from the Oregon Vigilantes to sign up for additional tutoring before the term started and also to buy books and a school uniform, the requisite attire for all schools in Uganda.
The new term begins in a matter of days and after years of waiting and working and praying and hoping for a second chance to go to school, my dear friend Denis is a student once again. And it’s all because some recklessly kind Oregon Vigilantes saw Denis’ potential from halfway around the world and decided to do something about it.
“They came back to Bungatira after I took you home,” Denis sits across the cafe table from me with his hands folded.
“They did?” Nerves bounce in my stomach and I think a familiar mantra. Walk into the conflict. “Denis, I really didn’t mean to offend anyone. In my spirit, I couldn’t agree with your original Constitution. I just couldn’t.”
“I know and I’m sorry for causing you pain,” Denis apologizes for what is the fourth or fifth time and he is so sincere that I have to look away before my tears spill over. “But they came back to assure me that they really will change, that we will accept people with mental sicknesses. We will change. I promise.”
“They really walked back to Bungatira in the dark to tell you that?” I’m incredulous.
“Yes. And I promise we will change,” Denis holds my gaze.
“I believe you. It’s actually why I wanted to meet with you today. I have good news for you and for Bungatira.”
“I already have pigs. What other good news could there be?” he laughs.
“You know how my friends and family have been sending money for me to do kind things here?”
“Yes,” Denis nods. He knows better than anyone because he’s helped me haul pigs and shoes and mattresses and medicine and a wild assortment of other things.
“This is my friend Jenna,” I show Denis a photo of her on my iPad. “Jenna and her friends in Oregon sent over a large sum of money, so large that Jenna and I weren’t exactly sure what to do with it. So we’ve been praying about how to best use this money. You know that some of my loved ones have mental illnesses, but what you don’t know is that Jenna’s son, who was a soldier in Afghanistan, has returned home from war and has also been struggling with post traumatic stress. Here he is with his newborn son,” I flick to a new photo on the iPad.
“I’m sorry,” Denis’ forehead is creased with worry.
“Jenna tells me that fatherhood is helping him return to himself, helping him remember who he’s called to be. Denis, I wrote about my difficult day in Bungatira and when Jenna read that you’d changed your Constitution to include people with mental illnesses, she immediately messaged me to give the money to you and to Bungatira. Jenna and her friends are giving you this money so that you don’t have to wait for your pigs to mature in order to return to school.”
I open my travel notebook to the page where I’ve scrawled 250,000 shillings, the equivalent of $100. It’s enough to pay for schooling for the upcoming trimester as well as part of the next trimester. On a good day driving his boda Denis makes approximately $6, not enough to live off, let alone pay for school. I take the shillings out of my purse and slide them across the table to him. He counts them in disbelief.
“Thank you, Alicia. This is all because of you.” Denis comes around to my side of the table to hug me.
“Denis, I need you to hear me when I say this. It’s not because of me. It’s because of the changes you and the group in Bungatira are making. You’ve inspired Jenna to support what you’re doing here. It’s because of you, not me. I’m just the one who gets to deliver the message.”
“Now you listen to me, Alicia,” Denis jokingly wags his finger at me. “You’re delivering the message and your message is hope.” By this time, tears are welling in Denis’ eyes and flat out dripping down my own cheeks. He continues. “My family told me to go to a trade school to become a boda mechanic, but I kept telling them that I wanted to go back to school and get my degree, that I want to me more than a mechanic.”
“And now you can. Denis, you get to go back to school.” We’re both smiling and blinking back tears. “You get to be a student again.”
“Will you go with me to register for school?” Denis grins from ear to ear and I do, too. He’s 27 and he’ll be returning to what is the equivalent of third trimester of his sophomore year in high school.
“It will be my pleasure.” I use a napkin to wipe my eyes.
“I might become a doctor instead of a teacher,” Denis dreams out loud.
“I think that would be great. Doctors are teachers, too, you know.” We sit for a moment with that dream between us on the table. “But wait, Denis, I have more good news. Jenna and her friends sent money for Bungatira so your group could start up the savings and loan program you’ve been talking about. People in Bungatira will be able to take out loans to send their kids to school. Here’s how much Jenna and her friends want to give your community group. I slide the notebook over again and point at the number I’ve written. 640,000 shillings, approximately $250 dollars.
Denis is out of his chair again and we’re hugging and laughing and crying and making a complete scene in the cafe.
“I know my last visit to Bungatira wasn’t easy for, well, anyone, but I’d like to return and tell the group about Jenna and her son and tell them that the changes they’re making are inspiring people halfway across the world. The other thing I’d like to do is return next year and see all the good Bungatira is doing with the money. Is that okay?” I’m hesitant about asking to return.
“Of course, it’s okay. You’re ever welcome in Bungatira,” Denis smiles and then pauses. “Alicia, where are you from?”
“Denis, you know I’m from California,” I laugh because this is a fact he’s known for over a year.
“No, I mean where did you come from?”
“Sorry, I don’t understand the question.” I’m lost in translation a LOT in Uganda.
“I mean, I don’t think you were born. I think you were sent.”
“What? Denis, trust me, I was born. I weighed nine pounds, one ounce. I was definitely born. Just ask my mom.”
“Alicia, trust me, your mom would say you were sent.”
“Denis, you give me too much credit. This is because of you, not because of me.”
“And you don’t give yourself enough credit, Hero Lanyero.”
I blush at my name, one I’ll forever try to live up to. I quickly change the subject. “You’ll talk with the group in Bungatira and let me know when I can return and present the money to them?”
“Yes, we’ll go on Sunday. I’ll ask the local dance group to come and perform traditional dances as well.”
“I’d like that. I haven’t seen any traditional dances yet.”
“And tomorrow we’ll go to my school so I can register.”
“I’d like that even more.” My cheeks ache from smiling, but I can’t help smiling at my friend who gets to go back to school. I can’t help but smile for my sweet friend, Jenna, and her fellow Vigilantes of Kindness who have made this possible.
Denis leaves me alone in the cafe and I sit thinking about how blessed I am to return to this land and to this people I love so dearly. My mom can verify that all nine pounds, one ounce of me was born in California, but sitting in my favorite cafe in Gulu, I know with every beat of my heart that this-this beautiful work of being kind for the sake of kindness-this is why I was born.
A friend once advised me that when I find myself in opposition with another, I should “walk into the conflict”, meaning move in closer so that resolution or at least common ground can be found.
It’s a difficult task for me because, well because I’m a giant chicken and my natural inclination is to retreat. It’s even more difficult for me walk into the conflict when I don’t see it coming and then suddenly find myself face to face with it.
Sunday was one of those days.
Bungatira, a village outside of Gulu, is home to Denis, his family and some mighty cute piglets. I was delighted to be invited back along with my son William, and my two new Swedish teacher friends, Annika and Jessica. It was a beautiful day and with a view of the lush green valley that seems to stretch for miles, the ride there didn’t disappoint.
When we arrived in Bungatira we were greeted with a welcome song and dance from Denis’ mother and the ladies of the community. It was lovely.
Bungatira has a local community group, of which Denis is the chairperson. The group is working together to make their community a better place. They’re doing it independently of NGO’s that seem to have set up camp on every corner in Uganda. They’re doing it without government aid. It’s a grass-roots group focused on improving their future.
This group is doing so many great things and I love that all of their ideas are purposes are from within. They’re beginning a savings and loan program for members. They’re looking for ways to fundraise to pay school fees for their children. They’re seeking education on issues like health and cleanliness and domestic violence. They have an eleven article constitution that details the rights and duties of membership. They have democratic elections each year. Membership is open to both male and female residents who are at least twelve years of age. The group in Bungatira is doing so many progressive things, especially when compared with surrounding villages. So when Denis asked if I’d sit in on their meeting and offer them advice if I had any, I was honored. In the back of my mind, I hoped to find another place to exercise some Vigilante Kindness.
After taking a tour of their village and having lunch in Denis’ thatch roof house, Annika, Jessica, William and I joined the meeting in progress outside. I sat down on a mat next to Denis’ mother. The group was discussing the savings and loan idea. I listened in and strained to translate Acholi into English. William joined the meeting as well and sat a few yards away from me, translating when I requested clarification. Annika was feeling ill and so Denis took Jessica and Annika back to their hotel on his boda. The meeting continued in his absence and moved on to elections. Denis was nominated for re-election and I was pleased to see that the nominations for other offices were split between men and women.
The Vice-Chairperson turned his attention to me and asked that I speak well of their group when I returned home. I asked to first read their constitution, which was written in English. The constitution was meticulously written in ink on lined paper, something that is quite costly and not easy to find.
They’d obviously put a lot of thought into it and I agreed with all of it-except their policy for dismissal from the group. Reasons for dismissal from the group were:
voluntarily leaving the group
failure to pay membership dues without reasonable cause
Wait, what? Mental illness was an automatic reason for dismissal?
I felt like I was having one of those moments in the movies when the people are happy and there’s upbeat music playing and then everything halts as the music comes to an abrupt needle-scratching-across-the-record-stop.
After I read the Constitution, the Vice-Chairperson asked if I’d speak well of their group and be a bridge to anyone in the U.S. who might be able to offer help.
“Your group is doing so many things well, but I’m afraid I’m not the right person to speak on your behalf because I don’t agree with all of the articles in your Constitution.”
“We’re not asking you to support our group financially, just to be a bridge to anyone in the U.S. who might be able to help us. Perhaps you have friends who might be interested in helping,
“I’m sorry, but I cannot speak for your group when I disagree with parts of your Constitution and I don’t want to give you false hope and tell you I’ll be speaking on your behalf when I know in my spirit, I won’t be. I know my friends at home would also disagree with parts of your Constitution.”
“Which parts do you disagree with?”
“I disagree with the two places it says members will be dismissed because they have a mental illness. Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by mental illness. Perhaps you can explain more.” Walk into the conflict, I reminded myself. I hoped that this was going to be an easily fixable thing that was simply lost in translation.
“It means depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.”
I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. In the expansive outdoors, suddenly there wasn’t enough air. William moved from his chair and sat down next to me on the mat and I was grateful for his presence in the sea of strangers.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with you. You’re treating those conditions as if the person can choose to have them or choose not to have them. To me it’s like saying a person will be dismissed from your group for contracting malaria.” I thought of my family and friends who have fiercely battled mental illnesses and I felt a lump knot in my throat. I willed myself not to cry. In the bravest voice I could muster I said, “I’m sorry, I simply can’t advocate for a group that discriminates against people with mental illnesses.”
There was a pregnant silence.
Denis’ mother spoke.
“William, what did she say?” I whispered.
“She said that maybe you’d like to see the children sing and dance.”
“Um, sure,” I recognized that retreat tactic and I almost took the welcome escape. Instead I took a deep breath and said, “But I’m not sure how that’s going to help us reach a resolution. Seeing the children sing and dance isn’t going to change my mind on this issue. Perhaps I can see them dance later.”
Another silence followed.
“Lanyero,” the Vice-Chairperson addressed me by my Acholi name. “I’m sorry, but I must go. The discussion will resume when the Chairperson returns. I wish you friendship and a safe journey back home.”
“Apwoyo. Wot maber.” (Thank you and safe journey.) I replied as he and another member climbed on their boda and sped away.
I wished I could have sped away as well, but I was in the middle of the bush, miles away from where I could catch a boda back to town. And so I sat on the mat and willed my tired brain to listen as the group addressed other issues.
I heard Denis’ boda approach from the road behind. He parked his motorcycle and hurried back to the group. After reassuring me that Annika was okay, he turned to the group, which all at once began speaking to him, their thirty some odd voices becoming a complete mash of words to my untrained ears.
“William, what are they saying?” I whispered.
“They’re filling Denis in on everything that was discussed while he was gone.” William leaned in and translated.
After the group spoke, Denis turned to William. “Would you like to say something?”
“I have already spoken,” William replied. It was true that William had spoken freely throughout the meeting, voicing his opinions and ideas about several issues.
“Alicia, would you like to speak?”
“I think I’ve said quite enough already.”
“Alicia, you are welcome in my home and in Bungatira. Please feel at home here. We know-I know-how much you’ve done for Uganda. We’re not asking you to contribute financially to our group, only to speak on our behalf in the U.S. if you see it fitting.”
“Denis, you know how much I love and respect you and how much I want to help,” I met his eyes with my own. Mine were red from fighting back tears and he cocked his head to the side, silently asking for an explanation. I continued, “I think your group is doing many great things like pursuing education for your children and seeking to end domestic violence in your village, but I’m really struggling because I cannot advocate for your group because I don’t agree with all of the articles in your Constitution. I can’t support something I don’t agree with in my spirit. I respect you too much to tell you I’m going to support your group when I know in my heart I can’t.”
“Please, Alicia, tell me which parts you disagree with.” Denis’ face was full of concern. “I’ve invited you here to advise us. Please.”
“Twice in your Constitution, it states that a member with mental illness will be dismissed for having that mental illness. I don’t agree with that. I can’t agree with that.”
“Let me explain to you the origin of that part of the article.”
Walk into the conflict. Walk into the conflict. Walk into the conflict. I willed myself to remain calm. I stretched out my legs in front of me and leaned back on my hands. If I could make my body relax, maybe the rest of me would follow suit. William matched his posture to mine.
“Mental illness is rampant here. When the L.R.A. was in power, they abducted many people and most of those people returned different, returned damaged.”
Oh, God, it was getting so much worse.
I felt William’s fingers inch to over to mine and I held the hand of my son who was abducted and forced to be a child soldier for the L.R.A. My son who escaped with the help of a stranger and was welcomed back home. My son went to a rehabilitation center to be retrained to be kind instead of to kill. My son who loves animals and children and biology. My son who is college bound this month.
I wondered if William would speak, but he sat quietly clenching my hand. These are dangerous things you don’t speak of. These are things you try to forget.
Denis continued. “Many of those people committed terrible acts of violence and do not have sound minds.”
“I know that time was unspeakably horrible and I’m so sorry you had to endure it. I’m profoundly grateful that you survived and that you’re safe now.” I said the words to the group, but they were for William. “I understand that you need to keep your community safe and I agree with you that if, for any reason, a person is a danger to others or to themselves, they need to get medical help and counseling, but that is not what your Constitution says. It states twice that if a person has a mental illness, they will be dismissed from the group. Those who were abducted didn’t have a choice and by not allowing them to be members of your group, you’re punishing them for something that was not in their control. If I were made to do the things they were made to do, I’d be mentally unwell, too, but I hope to God my community would welcome me back and help me heal.” I was losing the battle against the tears welling in my eyes.
Denis motioned for the Constitution to be passed to him so that he could read it.
I took a deep breath and continued in a shaky voice. “I have a loved one who battled depression and, thank God, is now happy and healthy. One of the things that helps him is being with friends, being a part of a group. It breaks my heart to think that if he lived here, you categorically wouldn’t permit him to be in your group. Being part of a group focused on the betterment of the community is one of the things that helps people heal. When they have a way to contribute that is of service to others, it can give them added purpose.” I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I know your group is doing great things in the community, but as it stands, your group discriminates against the people I love most and I can’t…” My voice broke. “I can’t be even a small part of that.” I felt thirty pairs of eyes on me and I looked down at my lap.
I wanted to run, to disappear into the ground, to be anywhere but there.
I didn’t want to be the muzungu who came to their village for a day and told them how to live out their lives when my knowledge of their lives wasn’t even a drop in the bucket.
“Alicia,” Denis spoke my name quietly. When I looked up, I was surprised to see tears in his eyes as well. “I can see we have pained you and for that I’m sorry.”
The word pained came out as “painted” and I thought about how true it was because I was thoroughly painted in sorrow at the memories of my loved one fighting so hard against depression. I was painted in sorrow for my son who tries so hard to forget his past and move toward the future.
“We are not trying to discriminate. We have a member who is deaf and a member who cannot speak.” Denis informed me.
“I’m glad to hear you welcome people with physical disabilities, but it makes me all the more confused as to why you discriminate against people with mental illnesses.”
“Let me discuss your advice and questions with the membership.”
“Yes, please do, but please discuss it outside of my presence so that members can feel free to voice their opinions even if they differ with mine. I’m only part of this community for a short time and you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into your Constitution, so any changes to it need to be made by the group, not by a visitor.”
“Please, Lanyero. We will discuss it now and William will translate so you will know our hearts.” Denis began speaking to the membership in Acholi. William translated as needed. There was much discussion, but surprisingly no opposition.
William quietly cleared his throat, the signal for wanting to speak. The discussion halted. “Perhaps if the member suffers from mental illness and is unable to participate in the group, a close family member can be appointed to stand in their place until they’re ready to rejoin.”
“Yes, yes. How would that be?” Denis turned toward me.
“It depends on who decides when the member needs a stand in and when they get to return? Who picks the stand in advocate?”
“The group would decide and choose the advocate,” said Denis.
“William, it’s a good idea, but the member with the illness should have the right to make those final decisions, not the group. The same should be true for all members who have any sort of illness that prevents them from attending for a period of time.” I looked at the membership.
“Let me discuss this with the group.” Denis spoke to the membership and the dialogue went on loud and long, but it seemed now that they were discussing what should take place when a member dies.
I was just about to ask William to translate when Denis turned to me. “The group agrees with you. We also decided that when a member dies, a family member will be invited to join the group in their place so that the family can continue to benefit from the group and from all the dues the member contributed to the savings and loan.”
“But what decision was made about dismissing a member on account of mental illness?”
My brain was tired from trying to translate and I was fighting to understand what had just taken place. Did they move to another topic completely? Were they going to discuss it later?
“The group has decided to strike completely that reason for dismissal from our Constitution.” Denis took a pen and crossed it out in both places, inking over it again and again so that none of the words were visible any longer. “I promise you, Alicia, that we will now include those with mental illnesses. When you return you’ll see that we have changed. As chairman, I promise this will happen.” Denis met my eyes and I could see that he meant what he said.
“I believe you will, Denis.” I faced the group. “Apwoyo matek.” (Thank you so much.) Tears pricked my eyes again, but this time they were tears of joy.
The meeting concluded with a prayer and as the members left, they came and shook my hand and asked me to return again.
When the members had gone, Denis approached me. “Alicia, can we go inside for a moment?”
“Of course.” We entered his thatch roof house and sat on the couch.
Denis took my hands in his, a gesture usually reserved for friends of the same gender or for family members. “I’m so sorry I pained you.”
Again it came out as painted and I thought how over my sadness today, I received a second coating of joy.
Denis continued, “I didn’t know that your loved ones have had mental illnesses. You never told me. I’m so sorry to have brought you here and caused you pain. Please forgive me.”
“And I’m sorry if I have offended you or your members. I didn’t live your history and can only begin to understand what happened here. Because of my own history, I tend to be passionate about the topic at hand today. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to speak about it without becoming emotional.”
“It’s your heart that makes you Hero Lanyero,” Denis said, using the name he and William had bestowed upon me a few weeks ago, a name I couldn’t accept.
“I’m not a hero.” I shook my head. William entered the house and sat with us. I met his eyes and he looked as exhausted as I felt. “Come sit with us.” He took a seat across from me. “I’m so glad you were here with me today,” I said earnestly grateful I didn’t face the day alone.
“I’m proud you’re my Mum.” William smiled at me.
“I’m proud to be your Mum.” I squeezed his hand.
We had some bread before heading back to town on bodas. William rode with Michael, Denis’ older brother, and I took my usual place seated side saddle behind Denis. I watched Bungatira fade into the distance and we rode back to town, both of us quieter than usual.
“Itye maber?” (How are you?) Denis asked.
“I’m okay.” It wasn’t my usual response, but it was all I could muster.
“Let me buy you some roasted maize,” Denis offered, knowing it is one of my favorite roadside foods.
“Maybe tomorrow. I’m satisfied for now. I’m just tired.” I smiled into his rearview mirror assuring Denis that I was indeed okay, that our friendship was also okay. At the hotel we shook hands and wished each other well.
In bed that night, my whole body was heavy with exhaustion. I looked at my toes poking out of the end of my bed sheet. The African sun has darkened my feet, save for the pale stripes of skin left from the straps of my sandals. My feet look very different than the feet that first brought me to Gulu. They are browned from the sun and dyed with the red dirt of the land I love.
When these feet walk me back into my life at home, I hope they will serve as a reminder to me of the beautifully painful and joyful changes that can come from choosing to walk into the conflict.