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.

Solar lights.___1323058761

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.

 

Vigilante Kindness: A New Lens

I take a last sip of steaming hot tea before meeting up with Richard, one of my sweet boys, on this blessedly cool morning.  He arrives dressed in his school uniform, complete with necktie, and we walk the streets of Gulu, already flush with sound and color. We’re walking to the hospital.

“Let me see your socks,” I say.  Richard is taller than I am now, but still thin as a rail.

“You remember that?  You can’t forget anything,” he grins, the gap between his two front teeth making him still look like a kid.

“Of course I remember.” We’re both quiet, remembering the day last year when he got dressed in the dark and accidentally put on mismatched socks, the day when we went to the hospital for his HIV test, which to our delight and surprise was negative.  “Now show me your socks.”

“My socks are not there today,” he lifts the cuff of his pant leg and shows his bare ankle above his shoe.

Today we’re going to a different hospital to get glasses for Richard so that he can read again.

“Excuse me, can you help me cross the road?  I can’t see well,”  another teenage boy walking in front of us turns around and asks.

When he turns I see that his right eye is white with cataracts.  Richard introduces himself to this boy and tells him that we’re going to the same place.

“I’m Alicia,” I say, shaking his hand.

“I’m Kennet,” he greets me in return.

Richard grabs Kennet’s left hand and I grab his right hand.  We turn to the road.  It’s wide and teeming with cars, boda bodas, bicycles and people on foot.  It’s tough even for perfectly sighted people to navigate.

We cross halfway and stop, letting more cars and boda bodas pass.

“Wait,” I tell Kennet as a last car zips past.  “Ok, now we can go.”

We cross the street easily and Kennet drops my hand.  He keeps hold of Richard’s hand and I slip in behind them, tucking in away from the traffic, listening to their conversation.  Richard guides Kennet beautifully, asking questions about where he goes to school and questioning him about the future of his eye. They hold hands every step.

We cross one more street to the small gated entrance to the part of the hospital that specializes in optic care.  Kennet branches off to the door of his department.  Richard and I sit on benches near the clinic where we wait to get glasses.

We wait.  And then wait some more.  Last year we waited for hours and hours on end at the hospital.  Waiting for HIV test results felt like two eternities, so waiting for glasses is nothing.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Richard tells me.

“Why?”

“Ten of us came and seven needed surgery.  I’m one of the lucky ones because I only need glasses.”

We’re both quiet.  I think of Kennet.  Lucky indeed.

An hour and half later the nurse arrives.  She’s a wide woman with a kind temperament.  Her name is Ida and I like her immediately.  She apologizes for being delayed and explains that her husband got a last-minute job driving a group of people on safari and she had to help him prepare.

“It’s ok.  That’s a well-paying job, not one he can pass up,” I smile and she is visibly relieved.

“It’s not easy to make money here,” Ida explains.

“I know,” I don’t know how to reassure her beyond that and I don’t want to cross the line into pity, so I change the subject.  “What do we need to do today to get this kid glasses?”  I motion at Richard, who has taken a seat on a rolling stool opposite me.

“The glasses need to be paid for and I need to make sure his vision hasn’t changes and then measure the space between his eyes for a good fit,”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.” Ida rolls Richard over to the eye machine.  He rests his chin in the machine and tries unsuccessfully not to blink.

We’re done in five minutes and I hand Ida a thick wad of Vigilante shillings.  In return she tells me where to pick up the glasses the following day.

The following afternoon I deliver the glasses to Richard at school.  He’s outside having P.E., a basketball lesson with special coaches from town.  I pull the large, sealed envelope containing the glasses out of my backpack and hand it to him.  He puts the glasses on immediately and I take a snap with my camera.

It’s a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, the perfect day for perfect vision.

Watching him try out his new glasses, I can’t help but think of the pastor’s message a couple of Sundays ago at church.  He said that we all have a choice, to look at life through the lens of fear or through the lens of faith.

If you’ve spent more than a minute with me, you know fear is not on my radar.  Frankly, I could use a healthy dose of fear now and then.

But faith is also not on my radar.

Now hold on before you go thinking I’ve denounced Christ or something dramatic like that.  I’m not talking about my faith as in the doctrine of what I believe.  That’s a well dug deep into the core of who I am.

I’m talking about having faith.  I want to tread carefully here and not start speaking Christian-ease because I hatehatehate it when people can’t talk about having faith without throwing in pious buzzwords.

What I’m saying is this: I struggle with believing in things to come that I can’t yet see.  I’ve said before that I’m the kind of girl who has to stick my fingers in the nail holes to believe.  I’m not proud of that, but I’m on-my-face grateful that God knows that about me and extends His nail holed hands to me anyway.

If you’ve been following along in my Vigilante Kindness adventures, then you know a well to provide clean drinking water for the small village of Te Okot is in the works.  What you don’t know is that the well team has been delayed and are still finishing a well in another part of the country and that the funds donated to begin the well have not yet reached me.

My mom, who was here with me and who seems to have an infinite amount of assured faith, kept telling me not to worry, that it will be accomplished in God’s perfect time, that I should have faith.

All of those things are true.

And yet, I can’t rest easy until I see that water, until the people of Te Okot are drinking water not infested with diseases and elephant fecal matter.

I want to touch the water, to pump it into a bucket and see it run clear.

I’m losing hope of being able to see the water for myself.  I’m here for a scant twelve more days and not an inch of the well has been dug.

Not an inch.  Not yet.

I’m clinging fiercely to that ‘not yet’.  It’s all the faith I can muster and thank God, thank God, thank God a smidge is enough.

I’m trying so badly to see this well project through the lens of faith.  I’m choosing to believe it’s going to happen.  And I mean the kind of choosing where Having Faith and Not Having Faith are on equal footing and I’m grabbing hold of Having Faith and running away from Not Having Faith, which is perpetually gaining ground on me.

Dear ones, I imagine you know that kind of desperation, to cling to faith with trembling fingers because holding on and running like hell away from doubt is sometimes all you can do.

Me, too.

God is in those times with you.  And with me.  Is anyone else overcome with relief?

At night I wake thinking of Richard and his new glasses and I pray for God to help me see life with more faith.

I think of Kennet, who will have his cataracts removed soon, and I pray for two things: for God to remove my lack of faith and also that I’d be boldly humble like Kennet in admitting when I need God to hold my hand along the way.

I think of the people of Te Okot who are strong and sure in their faith that clean water is coming.  I think of all of you: family, friends and complete strangers who doled out your faith in lumps of cold, hard cash believing right along with the people of Te Okot that safe, clean water is on the way.  I say a prayer of thanks that when my faith is present in the most meager amounts, your faith in God, your faith in this work I get to do remains steady.  In my dreams I cling with trembling fingers to that, to all of you, and when the sun shines through my curtain in the morning, I wake grateful for another opportunity to see things with a little more faith than I did the day before.

Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 3

If you’re just joining the story of Te Okot, read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

I swore to myself I’d never ride a boda boda out to Te Okot or anywhere else that far away again.

And yet yesterday morning I found myself on the back of Bitek’s sport bike.  The knobby tires made quick work of the slick mud that is half of the road to Te Okot.  All hope I had of arriving to the village in any sort of tidy condition was quickly taken care of by the skunk stripe of mud up my back and the mud splattering my face.  The road was so rough that every tooth nearly rattled out of my head.  My shoes were slick with mud and my feet were full of pins and needles from sitting in the same position for such a long time.  My feet kept slipping from the foot pegs, so that I burned a nice commemorative quarter-sized exhaust pipe tattoo above my right ankle. And we’ll just not even go into the condition of my hind quarters, which are still not speaking to me for the atrocities I committed against them by taking a boda out to Te Okot and back, not once, but twice in a single week.

Mud stripes, exhaust pipe burns, rattled teeth and a tush that will probably be on permanent strike-all of those minor inconveniences pale, pale, pale in comparison to hardship of living without drinkable water.  And for me, those minor pains couldn’t hold a candle to the hope I held that when Bitek surveyed the land, he’d find a viable place to drill for water.

Water.  Beautiful, clean, healthy water.

We reached Bungatira and I laughed when Denis greeted me by shouting,

“Acureque!”  (I have no idea how to spell that word.) In Acholi, it means something like, “You’ve kept me waiting!”

It’s our joke because each time Denis would pick me up, I’d put my hands on my hips, furrow my brow and shout, “Acureque!”  Then as we pulled away, we’d break into peals of laughter at the shocked faces of the surrounding Acholis who were stunned to hear a Muzungu shouting in Acholi.

So when Denis shouted it at me, I broke into a wide grin and hopped off Bitek’s bike, almost falling on my face because my feet, legs and rear had all conspired revenge upon me.  I regained my balance and hugged Denis hard, trying not to wince at how thin he’s grown, trying not to think of how little food he and his family have had access to lately.

After introductions, Denis led us inside his hut, which he’d worked hard to expand this week just so we could come inside and have a place to sit.

We sat inside drinking lukewarm bottled soda that Denis had purchased for just this occasion. Men and women and children entered the hut and greeted us, some staying and sitting with us, others shaking hands and returning to the hard work of life.

After a sufficient amount of rest in the hut, we tromped through the compound and through the bush to the water source.  Everyone followed us, except some of the women who were tending to the littlest children and the people who were too old to make the trek.  Men, women, children all trailed the Musee, Bitek and I.  We were quite the parade of people.

Bitek and I snapped photos, he for documentation of the project and me for the joy of it, for the sheer delight I took in this community expedition in search of the best place to mine water.  Bitek stopped several times examining the rocks and dirt, fingering the soil for moisture content, peering into the roasting pit at the stratospheric layers of the ground.We spent quite a bit of time at the current water source and snapped a handful of photos of Agnes filling her jerrican full of the dank water.

I shuddered thinking of sweet Aber drinking that water and felt a pang of sadness stab at my heart because just minutes earlier as we’d walked down the path, Agnes had leaned into me and whispered, “If you can’t take Olarra, take Aber.”  The desperation in her voice to give her children a chance at a healthier, educated life gripped me and I blinked back tears and told her I can’t take her children.

After Bitek surveyed the water hole we marched back up the hill. Bitek took several small side excursions off of the trail to examine all of the possibilities and then to cross some of them off because they were in the direct path of the elephants, who had trampled the tall grasses so flatly that it looked like large trucks had motored through.We paused under a large tree and Bitek declared that this would be the first drilling site.  If the well construction team reachedundrillable rock, they’d move further down the hill and drill at a second site.We finished tromping up the hill to where the rest of the community had gathered on mats in the shade of a large tree.  There were four chairs set in the front: one for Musee, one for me, one for Bitek and one for Denis.  As I went to sit in the chair beside Musee, Bitek pointed to the mats, “Women sit on the ground.”  He was half joking and half informing me of the culture.  I replied that I’d sit wherever the Musee asked me to.  Musee was quick to respond to Bitek, “Alicia sits in the chair beside me.”

 

Denis spoke briefly, followed by the Musee.  Then it was my turn to speak.  I told the group how I’d done what I’d promised, I’d written their story and indeed people had responded.  I told them about how my little brother was spearheading money collection at home and they broke into applause and asked me to pass along their joyful thanks.  I told them how I’d placed a call to Bitek, the only person I know who knows how to build wells.Then I turned it over to Bitek who told them all the details of their coming well.  He told them about the well site and why he’d chosen it and about how the construction team trains the community members to repair and upkeep the well.  He told them about their responsibility to feed and house the construction team while the well was being built.  They had many questions and he answered each one with care.When would construction begin?

In one week after the construction team finishes building a well in the town of Sorotti.

How long would it take?

Two weeks.

How many community members would they train to keep the well in working order?

As many as want to be trained.

Would they leave them the appropriate tools to maintain the well?

Repair of well only requires the use of one wrench.  I nodded emphatically when Bitek asked if I was including the purchase of the wrench with the well.

Would there be a possibility for the men they train to go out and build wells for them?

Yes, they take workers from each past well construction site to build wells at the new sites.

If there’s any money left over from the building of the well, could it go into their community microloan treasury?

My heart did a happy flip-flop at that and I answered, “Yes, definitely yes.”

When the questions had all been answered, we moved on to discussing the solar lights. One of the community members thanked me for the lights because he no longer has to buy and burn paraffin in his hut.  Denis told me that for the past two nights the wild elephants had come through the compound and when the people put their lights out, the elephants moved away.  Another member timidly asked if there were any lights still left because some of them had been sowing seeds for crops during the last meeting and didn’t receive a light.  Again I answered, definitely yes.

As the meeting drew to a close, one of the members spoke to Bitek in Acholi.  Bitek laughed and turned to me, “You’re building them a medical clinic next?”

“No, I don’t know anything about building a medical clinics, Bitek.”

Patrick, one of teenagers of Te Okot, spoke up, “Yes, Alicia, but you don’t know anything about building wells either.”  He smiled at me with a glint of mischief in his eyes.

“Good point, Patrick.”

Then it was time to say goodbye and get back on the dreaded boda boda.  My lower half protested as soon as I sat down.  After an hour on the motorcycle, Bitek and I stopped for a late lunch in the town of Annaka.  He ate goat.  I had beans and potatoes.

We talked about the other wells Bitek has built and then the conversation turned back to Te Okot.  “It’s going to be hard for them to get enough food to feed us.  Maybe you could buy the food and their contribution could be preparing it for us?”  Bitek suggested between bites of goat.

“Of course.  Just tell me what and how much to buy and where to buy it.”

After lunch, I told Bitek that I simply could not, could not, could not get back on the boda.  I was in too much pain so I would either walk the 52 kilometers back to Gulu, find a car to take me or, if necessary, take up residence in Annaka.

To my delight, Bitek found a taxi taking four other well-dressed women to Gulu.  It was leaving right then and for 10,000 shillings (roughly $4) I bought a seat in the taxi, a banged up Honda Accord.  Dear ones, let me tell you that may be the best four bucks I’ve ever spent.

Bitek insisted on following the taxi back to Gulu to make sure I made it there safely.  As I drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of the happy chatter of the women in the car with me, my rear end gave thanks for small things like taxis to Gulu and my heart gave thanks for larger things like glorious, clean water.

Got Apwoyo?

I set a meeting with Bitek, my Acholi friend who digs wells, for nine in the morning.  So at ten o’clock Bitek arrives.

We sit out on the patio in front of the hotel, sipping hot tea.  He tells me a little about his trip from Sorotti.  It took him all of last night and all of the morning to reach here.  We talk a bit about his younger brother, whom we both adore, and then I show him the photos of the water source of Te Okot.

“They’re drinking this, Bitek.”

“It’s no good,” he agrees.

“What would it take to get them a well?”  I brace myself to hear the improbable, if not the impossible.  My thread of faith is thin, but it’s a thread nonetheless and I can’t sleep at night knowing that a lack of clean water is killing the people of Te Okot.

“I’d need to go out and survey the land first, but once we found a water source, then we’d start drilling.”

“How long would that take?  And how much would it cost?”  I gulp hot tea too quickly and it steams down my throat.

“It takes two weeks and costs one thousand five hundred dollars.”

“What???  One thousand five hundred dollars?”

Relief floods my face and I feel flushed with the possibility of clean, drinkable water. For Denis and his family.  For Mama & Musee.  For Michael and Onen and Patrick and their wives and children.  For Agnes and Olarra and sweet, baby Aber.

Water.

The word overwhelms me, becomes the thump of my heart hidden deep inside my chest.

Wa-ter, wa-ter, wa-ter.

I think of the people of Te Okot and how when I asked them to prioritize among a school, a medical clinic and water, they shouted, “Pii!  Pii!  Pii!”  Water!  Water!  Water!

Bitek continues.  “The community is responsible for feeding the workers while we are there.  Then we train 2-3 men on how to maintain the well so that when parts need replacement, they can do it themselves instead of relying on us.”

I love this plan so much that I narrowly resist the urge to tackle Bitek, to drown him in gangly hugs that are far too tight and far too long.

“What’s your schedule like?  I mean, when could you start?”  I can barely remain in my seat.

“We could go survey the site tomorrow and then we just have to finish the well in Sorotti.  After that we have no wells to dig.  Our timeline is empty.”

“Really???”  It comes out as a squeal.

I place a quick call to Denis to make sure tomorrow is okay.  He confirms that it is and thanks me more times than I can count.

Bitek asks about my mom and I take the stairs two at a time until I reach her door.  I’m breathless and don’t even wait for her to open the door.  I shout the good news about the possibility of water through her door.

The word pulses through my veins now.

Waterwaterwwaterwaterwaterwwaterwaterwater.

After a few minutes of visiting with my mom, Bitek leaves us with the promise to pick me up at eight the next morning.  I’ll be ready at eight.  He will likely arrive at nine and then we’ll ride his boda boda three hours to Te Okot to survey the land, to look for signs of water hidden deep within the heart of the land.

There’s a road sign on the way to Te Okot that says Got Apwoyo.  The literal translation of Apwoyo is ‘rabbit’, but it’s also the word for ‘hello’ and most importantly it’s the word for ‘thanks’.  Got means ‘mountain’.  So while the sign is really a marker for Mt. Rabbit, I can’t help but think that the sign is asking me, “Got thanks?”

Power has gone out again and in the darkening night I pray for the heart of the land of Te Okot to run deep with water.  And then I think of that road sign and pray that my heart will run deep with gratitude.  Got Apwoyo, indeed.

Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 2

If you’re just joining the story of Te Okot you can read Part 1 here.

The people of Te Okot waited to hear my plan.  I didn’t really have one, except to write about the need for clean and consumable water and then wait.  Oh, and pray.  A lot.

Can that even be called a plan?  Surely not, but maybe a thin thread of faith would be enough to string something together.  It would have to be enough because I was still tamping down doubt, still reeling from the sting of Bungatira.

I was once slapped by a classmate in junior high school.  I deserved it.  Frankly, I deserved more than one slap, but that’s a story for another time.  What I recall so vividly is the sting left on my cheek, the red shame fingerprinted across my face.

I felt the same way about Bungatira, like the forced relocation of Denis’ clan had delivered a full body slap and my skin still radiated with the sting of it.

Doubt bubbled up.  What if the same thing happened in Te Okot?  What if injustice opened its wide mouth and swallowed everything up again?

It was the thought of innocent Aber, daughter of Agnes who compelled me to continue.  Even if the hearts of the people in Te Okot eventually did turn, could I really walk away from children in need of safe water?

No.  Absolutely no.

“Ok, here’s what I can do,” I took a breath.  “I’ll write about your need for water, but I’ll need to take your pictures and pictures of your water source to help tell the story. So if there’s anyone who disagrees, speak now, please.”

Nobody disagreed.  In fact they arranged themselves for a photo.  I snapped a few shots, my finger shaking on the button.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne LaMott and what she calls two of the most holy prayers skittered into my thoughts. “Help!” and “Thanks.”  I’ve talked about the lack of polish of my prayer life before and I’m okay with it, okay with knowing that my feeble pleas and pittances of thanks are enough.  At that moment I prayed and felt the “Help!” prayer down through every part of me.  The “Thanks” prayer was insincere at that point, but I said it anyway hoping the uttering of the prayer would bring about the thanks.  Because sometimes it’s that way for me, the action begets the feeling and there in the severe bush I clung ferociously to that notion.

Denis told the community group about the solar lights I’d brought on behalf of my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness.  Each family in attendance at the meeting received a light.  (I was nineteen lights short, so the following day I stuffed nineteen more lights in Denis’ messenger bag.  The eight charging lights I carried in my backpack will now be used as a charging station, free to all members of the clan to come and charge their phones.)

Then the Musee and many others in the group led me down the path to see their water.  I was wet with humidity before even a minute passed.  The walk to the water was about a mile through grasses as tall as I am.

I whispered to Agnes, “I fear snakes.”

“It’s the elephants who do the most damage.”  She pointed to a place where the grass had been trampled by elephants.

Ah, yes, wild elephants, how silly of me to have been afraid of the snakes.

To say that the water source was abhorrent is an understatement.  I’ve seen quite a few different kinds of water sources in my time here and this, this one is the worst.  See for yourself.

Thirsty?  Me either.  Want to wash dishes in that?  Want to wash yourself in that?  Want to cook for your family with that?  No, no and no.Plus again, there are the elephants.  This is where the elephants get their water.  If you and an elephant reach the water at the same time, guess who’s getting the water?Not you.

So not you.

The rain began just as we started back toward the village and even though we ran, we were soaked through and took refuge in Agnes’ hut.  Aber, the warm baby in my lap, was all coos and giggles and wags of her tongue.

How could I get her clean water?  It played over and over in my mind.God, help and thanks, help and thanks, help and thanks.  That was all I could pray under the pelting rain.When the rain let up, I gave sweet Aber back to her mom and Denis and I continued via boda to Pakwach, the town nearest to Te Okot.  Here I forked out Vigilante Kindness shillings for food starts like beans and dried cassava root for Denis’ family.

He’d spent the past few weeks chopping down trees, burning the logs into charcoal and selling the five feet tall sacks of charcoal for $8 a bag.  He did this because it was the only resource he had to buy food for his family.Imagine that kind of hard labor, that kind of hungry desperation to try to provide food for your family.  I thank God that I’ve never had to know that hunger.  I’ve never had to wonder if and when I’d get to eat again.It crushed me to think of Denis the eager student, Denis the pig farmer, Denis the leader of his community group sitting by the roadside peddling charcoal.

We dropped the beans and dried cassava off at Te Okot and stopped to eat a meal they’d prepared for us, beans and millet bread.  I bit my lip to keep the tears from coming.  This simple meal was perhaps the most generous gift I’ve ever received and as I ate, I savored every spoonful.

This is what sacrifice tastes like.  This is the flavor of generosity.  Beans and gritty millet bread prepared for me by my loved ones in the bush who have little more than nothing and give to me with abandon.  Anything I give in return to my loved ones in Te Okot will pale in comparison to this meal.  I give from abundance.  They fed me out of their need and just like that the order of my prayer changed.  Thanks and help.  Thanks and help.  Thanks and help.

Denis and I finished our meal and as the sun set over the River Nile, we began our long journey home.  We rode in darkness and said very few words.  We’d spent them all today and my mouth felt bankrupt of words that would suffice anyway.  Our bodies were heavy with fatigue and the full face of the moon watched over us as we rode through the scarred, dark land two and a half hours back to Gulu.

The next morning everything still ached, like down in my bones ached, from the long trip the day before.  I say a prayer of thanks that I didn’t do it on foot or on a bicycle.  Denis runs me around town on errands and after a few errands, he bounced up and down to tell me that he’d found a second-hand boda boda for sale and it’s in our price range.  After a quick test drive, I couldn’t pay for it fast enough with the Vigilante Kindness shillings.

A boda means Denis can go to school.A boda means Te Okot can pile their jerricans high on boda and fetch clean water from another town until we figure out how to get a sustainable clean water source.A boda means they can ride to the nearest medical center when needed.

A boda means Denis can transport his elderly parents safely to Te Okot.

It’s not clean water.

Not yet.

But for the day it was enough and as I put my head on my pillow, I got a call from Denis telling me that the people of Te Okot put their solar lights outside that night to keep the elephants, who fear light, from trampling into their village. It’s the first time they haven’t had to sit up all night stoking a fire to keep safe.

Ah, yes, those wild elephants, how silly of me to have only thought of the lights lighting up the inside of the huts.

I closed my eyes and before I fell to sleep I prayed again.  Thanks and help, but mostly thanks.

P.S-I’m meeting with my well guy tomorrow morning.  I know some of you are chomping at the bit to help me get a well to Te Okot and I love your urgent Vigilante hearts.  You’ll be the first to know as soon as I know more about exactly how to make it happen.

Vigilante Kindness: Te Okot, Part 1

“Did you make a list of the things your family needs?”

It’s eight in the morning and I stuff the remaining half of a banana in my mouth as I slide onto the back of the boda.  It’s the boda Denis’ older brother Michael rents and drives.  I’ve paid Michael 30,000 shillings, roughly $11.50, to use it for the day, marveling at the fact that $11.50 is a good day’s wage.

“I have the list here.”

Denis produces a school notebook and shows me the list.  Tarps for keeping the moisture from the ground out of their huts, food starts like beans, millet and dried cassava for grinding into a kind of bread, mats for sleeping on, a bicycle or boda boda for riding to the nearest town to fetch water, a plowing machine and textbooks for Denis’ next school term.

I add a phone and airtime minutes to his list.

“So I never have to wonder if you’re alive or not again.”

I shake my finger at Denis and he smiles.  I snap my helmet on and off we go.

For $20 we purchase a phone and enough airtime minutes to last him quite a while.  Next we look at plowing machines.  They shine and glint in the Gulu sun, but the price is double the money we have and so Denis edits his list and changes plowing machine to ox plow.  Animals are cheaper than machines apparently.  We pick up some tarps, rolling and tying them on the back of the boda.  We spend quite some time pricing boda bodas, but they too are out of our price range.

The morning is getting away from us and if I’m to meet with the chief and elders of Te Okot, then we have to get going.  We leave town and while I believed Denis when he told me that Te Okot is very far away, riding side saddle on the boda for 120 kilometers brings a whole new meaning to what ‘very far away’ feels like.

By the time we reach Te Okot, my face is red with the dust and everything aches.  My backpack, which carries the 8 charging lights and few other items, feels like it weighs a hundred pounds.  I think of Denis walking all that way to get to me the night before and it’s unfathomable.

At Te Okot, I’m greeted by Denis’ father, his brothers and their wives, and their children who have grown so much in a year.  Babies who were crawling are now running around the compound.  The little girls who were chubby faced three-year olds are longer and leaner four-year olds.

I hug them all and fight back tears when, Musee, Denis’ dad hugs me long and hard telling me things in Acholi that don’t need translation because the heart knows what love sounds like.

After greeting everyone, Denis brings me to the hut of Agnes, a clan member who has been living on the land for four years.  Her father is the brother to the chief and the second eldest Musee on the land behind the chief.  The Musee tells me that the chief has gone for a burial today and sends his greetings to me.

Denis leaves me in the company of Agnes and her three children while he and the other clan members attend a community meeting to discuss equitable land division and other issues.

Agnes sits cutting the tops and bottoms off of okra she’s picked from her garden and is preparing to cook that night for supper.  I sit on the floor across from her wanting to help, but there is only one knife so instead, we chat away and I swoon over her baby girl Aber who is sleeping peacefully on the mattress next to me.

Her two sons come in and out and the oldest son, eleven year old Olarra, helps clear away the okra tops and bottoms.  The boys are old enough to attend school, but there isn’t a school anywhere nearby and even if there was a school nearby, Agnes has no foreseeable way of earning an income to pay school fees.

“Alicia, please take Olarra with you so that he can go to school,” Agnes begs with eyes set on mine.  “I want him to attend school.  Please take my son.”

My heart breaks for her, so desperate to give her son an education that she would beg a stranger to take him.  Olarra sits in the doorway waiting for my response.

“Coo apwoyo,” I’m sorry, but I can’t.

Even if I’d wanted to take Olarra, the U.S. is in disagreement with Uganda regarding some recent laws that have been passed and the U.S. isn’t granting Visas from Uganda.  There is no way I can take him and my helplessness crushes me.

After an hour or so visiting with Agnes, I’m asked to join the community meeting.  I sit in the place of honor at the right hand of the Musee.  I feel embarrassed by my whiteness and swallow the guilt I still feel over having had a part in the displacement of so many of the people before me from their home in Bungatira.

Denis, who in his short time in Te Okot, has already been appointed Secretary, addresses me and tells me they’ve been discussing the needs of the community and have come up with three things that they’re hoping I’ll be able to help with.  In no particular order, the group tells me that they’re lacking a medical facility and medical supplies, they have no school and they don’t have access to clean and healthy water.

“Denis, what have you told them? Who do they think I am?”  I turn to him, feeling so far in over my head.

“I’ve told them you’re a woman who accomplishes great things.”

I turn back to the group.  “I don’t know what you know about me, but I only have one talent, one gift to offer up in service of your needs.  I write.  I’m a writer and I write stories about people.  And then if people at home are compelled to help, they do.  I don’t know anything about starting a medical clinic or a school and I certainly don’t know anything about digging wells.”

I pause for a moment, hating that I’m about to ask them to choose between water, medical care and education.  No human should have to choose between those basic rights.  And yet, here I am asking them to prioritize the three.

“Perhaps if you can decide which of the three is most important, I can write about that one first and see what I can do.”

Before I have a chance to continue, they all begin shouting, “Pii!  Pii!  Pii!”  Water!  Water!  Water!

One man speaks up, “Without clean water, we will keep dying.”

Keep dying.  Not begin dying.  Keep dying.  “Without clean water, we will keep dying.”  I know as soon as he’s said it, it’s a phrase that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I take a deep breath and the tiniest seed of a plan begins to germinate in my mind.