Vigilante Acts of Kindness: Meet Opiyo Chris

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites.  I love all of my students, no really I do.  I love my kids, both the ones here and in the ones in Uganda, but the truth of the matter is that there are certain students who wrap themselves around my heart and I’ll feel them in my pulse for the rest of my life.  
 
It’s the beauty of teaching.  I carry my students with me and I like to think that they carry a bit of me with them as well.
 
Opiyo Chris is one of those kids, one of my favorites.  
Opiyo Chris (Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee)
I met Chris two years ago during my first trip to Uganda.  In a writing workshop, he wrote about his memories of his mom who died of breast cancer when he was seven.  I could tell you all about Chris’ piece, but instead I think I’ll let his writing speak for him.
My Great Memories of Mum
Opiyo Christopher, age 16
            My mum was sick with breast cancer for a long time.  When I was seven years old and my sister was five years old I walked home from school one day to find my mother laying on her bed.  My sister was laying with her and some people sat around her.  I knew nothing about what was happening, but I began to understand when an ambulance came and took her to the hospital.
            I was called to go and be there at the hospital.  It was a dilemma for me, not an easy decision.  I made up my mind to go.  I was called inside where my mother was laying.  I tried to call to her, but she did not respond.  
           I touched her forehead with my hand and it was completely cold.
            “Mum, I know you are gone…” I stammered, “but, Mum, why did you have to go?”  I looked into her face.  Later I asked my mum to forgive me for not listening to her when she corrected me and I asked the Lord God to forgive her, too.  “May your soul rest in eternal life, Mum.”
            After my mum passed away, I felt so lonely, like I had nowhere to go and take shade.  My father was dead and I was left alone with my younger sister and we were too young to take care of each other. 
            In her free time my mum used to teach me how to count and write.  Now I can write, count and read well because of my mother’s lessons.  She corrected me when I was wrong and told me to behave well.  She molded me with good character and I learned to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness.
            When she died, I did not realize the benefits of her lessons.  I didn’t know to thank her.  Although she is not here, I thank her for the great job she did, for the great lessons she taught me, for the great mother she was.
 
Darn that kid.  The thought of seven-year old Chris touching his mother’s cold forehead gets me every time.  Hang on, I have to get a tissue.  Talk amongst yourselves.  I’ll give you a topic.  Rainbows or puppies or bubbles or anything happy that will make the lump in my throat shrink to a tolerable size.
 
Opiyo Chris graduated from Senior Four last November.  (That’s the equivalent of junior year here.)  Kids in secondary school in Uganda who want to go on to college or university must also attend Senior Five and Senior Six.  Sadly Chris has not yet begun his Senior Five year because he wasn’t able to scrape together money for his tuition or to find a school.
 
It breaks my heart that money is the deciding factor in who gets to go to school and who doesn’t in Uganda.  It’s wrong on so many levels.
 
This term while Chris was trying to find a school and trying to figure out a way to pay for school, he did a lovely thing.  He began volunteering his time with my friends Kristine and Laura at Educate for Change and helping their Primary Seven (sixth grade) students.
 
I wasn’t sure I could love this kid any more than I already do, but I was wrong.  It’s so like him in the midst of his own struggle for education to go and help educate younger kids.  It is the epitome of who Chris is.
 
Indeed his mama taught him well.
 
Imagine my delight when I received a message Thursday morning from Laura saying she has a spot for Opiyo Chris in school.  In my bathroom with a towel around my head, I did an absurd little happy dance and made ridiculous squealing sounds.
 
Opiyo Chris gets to go back to school.  My Vigilante heart was overwhelmed with joy.
 
Here’s the thing though, I’m not big on giving handouts.  I’m also not big on dropping in and imposing myself as some sort of haughty, all-knowing, superior person who knows what’s best for other people.  I believe in facilitating sustainable, meaningful ways for people to achieve their own goals, in a way that they see best.
 
Then an idea popped into my tiny brain.  What if I used Vigilante Kindness dollars to start a work-study type program wherein hardworking, kindhearted, service-oriented kids like Chris have an opportunity to work and pay for their own education?  I admit I did a second happy dance that was so enthusiastic that the towel previously wrapped around my head came undone and may or may not have landed in the toilet.  Oops.
 
I love that Chris didn’t start tutoring in order to be paid.  I love that he did it because he loves helping others.  And I love that I get to take his passion and help him turn it into a real way for him to obtain an education.  The mere thought of it makes me prickle with all kinds of goosebumps.

I had the pleasure of writing with Chris both summers that I was in Uganda.  Last summer he participated in our This I Believe writing workshop.  Here’s one of my favorite shots of Chris.  It’s incredible to see where his belief taking him.  
 
I, too, believe we ought to love one another.  Opiyo Chris makes it easy.

Vigilante Kindness: This We Believe

Hi, guys.  I’m re-posting this with the slideshow that served as the finished product to this writing workshop.  It was really interesting to see which beliefs the student writers chose for the slideshow and equally interesting to see which ones they didn’t choose.  The finished product is about eight minutes long and leaves me teary-eyed each time I watch it.  I’m so proud of these kids and am honored to call them mine.  

Storms and power outages here have been intermittently casting the evenings into quiet darkness. Malaria is fever has struck several people I know and ringworm is leaving its itching, festering mark on the faces of the kids I love. Life is hard here and I know I’m only scratching the surface.

Last Saturday I held a voluntary writing workshop for the high school kids at the school. There were about fifteen writers including students, myself and two teachers from Sweden who I’d met in town and wanted to join in the fun. We were a small, but mighty group of writers and we tackled the topic of writing about our beliefs, using Tarak McLain’s This I Believe essay as our model. We brainstormed topics to write beliefs about and the students chose to write about God, love, education, friendship, life and then they added on any other beliefs they felt strongly about

imageOne of the student writers summed up the last couple of days perfectly when he said, “Life is demanding in terms of keeping good health.” It is so very demanding and I’m on my face grateful for my own health.

Maybe you or a loved one are facing the demanding battle of fighting for the precious gift of health. Maybe you feel a bit in the darkness as of late. Maybe your spirit is feeling impoverished. I know mine has been as of late.

Last night as lightning and thunder struck simultaneously in the sky above me, I sat under the light of my flashlight reading the beliefs my students had penned. I was reminded that hope rises above darkness. Hope rises above disease. Hope rises above poverty. Hope rises. Period.

Need proof? Here are just some of the beliefs they wrote that are striking all kinds of chords with me.

This I Believe about God:

  • I believe God is our breath.
  • I believe with God we can do better.
  • I believe God is my best friend.
  • I believe in God’s mercy.
  • I believe God can do wonders in our lives.
  • I believe God gives us unique gifts.
  • I believe in the miracles of God.
  • I believe God can feel my heart.
  • I believe God is always present in me.

This I Believe about Friendship:

  • I believe a friend who encourages is a friend of great value.
  • I believe friendship without trust is nothing.
  • I believe friendship is a choice.
  • I believe friendship is magical.

This I Believe about Education:

  • I believe education is boldness.
  • I believe education needs one heart.
  • I believe education is a way to tour the whole world.
  • I believe education gives us hope in the future.
  • I believe education can eradicate poverty.
  • I believe education can stop violence in homes.
  • I believe in education as a solution to ignorance.
  • I believe education builds up the family.
  • I believe education is for everyone.
  • I believe education is the best gift my parents can offer me.

This I Believe about Love:

  • I believe love fulfills.
  • I believe love never hates.
  • I believe without love, I am nothing.
  • I believe love is what you show.
  • I believe love is life.
  • I believe love makes us stay in peace.
  • I believe if you have love, you won’t kill.
  • I believe love does not rejoice in bad acts.
  • I believe love is giving confidence to the broken-hearted.
  • I believe love always forgives.
  • I believe love does not hide anything.
  • I believe love is holy.
  • I believe with love we can transform this world.

This I Believe about Life:

  • I believe life deserves respect.
  • I believe life has no spare parts.
  • I believe life is given by God.
  • I believe life without the soul is impossible.
  • I believe life is full of adventures.
  • I believe life is putting others first before yourself.
  • I believe life means giving comfort to one another.
  • I believe life has no price.
  • I believe everyone has the right to have life.

This I Believe about Other Things:

  • I believe in my mother.
  • I believe a family is someone who protects you.
  • I believe faith rescues.
  • I believe I have a future.
  • I believe I am a blessing.
  • I believe I can change the world.

Your turn. What do you believe?

The Pearl of Africa

In the stillness of morning I sit in my living room.  The lights are out and my husband is sound asleep in our bedroom.  The sky outside is just beginning to be edged with light.  It’s one of my favorite times to write and I sit in the company of the stories of my Ugandan students.  I’m editing and revising, marrying their written pieces with the notes I took from our one on one interviews.

One particular story grips me today.  It’s the story of a girl who was never expected to be born, the story of a girl with a heart that beats for the orphaned girls all over the world.  This is Beatrice’s story.

Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and as I sit with Beatrice’s words spread out on the carpet around me, I can’t help but feel the weight and truth of that name.  Natural pearls are born when an irritant like a piece of sand or a broken bit of shell works its way into an oyster, or more rarely a clam or mussel.  As a defense mechanism the mollusk secretes layer after layer of a crystalline fluid called nacre that coats the irritant and turns what was once a broken bit of shell or an insignificant piece of sand into a lustrous pearl.

Beatrice (Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee)

Beatrice is smart, kind and has a quick wit that had me smiling at something new each day I spent with her.  Did I mention she’s a poet?  Beatrice is a girl cut of my own heart.

I met Beatrice when I was sitting behind a hut on campus.  I was flicking through yearbook photos on my camera when she and two friends sat down near me.

“Hi.  What are you girls up to?  No class right now?”

“We want to have a discussion.”  Beatrice said.

“Oh, let me move out of your way so you can have some privacy.”  I began to collect my things, wanting to respect their space.

“No, we want to have a discussion with you.”  Beatrice laughed.

“Oh, okay.” I blushed, feeling silly that I didn’t understand the first time around.  “What should we discuss?”

“California.”  Beatrice said decisively.

Our conversation began with California, delved into this crazy book project that brought me to Uganda and then sunk down deep when brave Beatrice began to share her story.

Beatrice was born to a mother with special needs, a woman who cannot think or speak on her own.  It’s not known how Beatrice’s mother came to be pregnant or who Beatrice’s father is.  Even her mother cannot give voice to how it came to pass that she grew this child inside her.  I shudder imagining how the pregnancy began and yet, my arms prickle with goosebumps that such an amazing life began with such an unlikely start.

Beatrice and her mother were raised by her grandmother and her Uncle Angelo, a man who loved to read, a man who tells Beatrice with assurance that she is a blessing to this world.  In writing about her Uncle Angelo, Beatrice says he is everything to her because he instilled in her a love of learning and gave her all the things that other children with parents had.

Every little girl should be so fortunate to have an Uncle Angelo who coats their most broken places with layers of blessings.

Beatrice aspires to be a lawyer.  And an accountant.  And a politician.  In fact she’s got her sights set on being a member of Ugandan Parliament.  She wants to push corruption out of Uganda and help her country shine brightly.

Her other goal is to care for and educate orphaned girls because according to Beatrice, “When you educate a girl, you educate the whole nation.”  I’d wager to say that the reaches of educating this particular girl stretch far beyond the borders of Uganda.

As my trip was drawing to a close, Beatrice asked if I’d help get her story out to encourage other girls.  When she tells her story in our upcoming book, I have a feeling it will strike a chord in the hearts of girls all over the world.

I leave you with a snippet of Beatrice’s encouragement for young girls.  “Take care and know that your life is important.  The world is because of you.  It is up to us to make the world shine.”

As I lay out Beatrice’s story, as I look at her photo, my heart is full for this girl who blesses the world with her very being.  She’s right, it’s up to us to make the world shine.

Across the ocean, ten hours ahead of me, where night is beginning to draw the curtains on the day, there’s a girl who already is the bright shining pearl of Africa.