Team No Sleep

Old Sharon, Young Sharon, and Lynn didn’t disappoint as the latest branch of our Paper Bead Jewelry Project. We gave them 25 pounds of magazines and in the short time that we were here, Team No Sleep (aka Team No Sleep Only Jesus) turned all 25 pounds into necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.

We bought every bracelet, necklace, earring, and bauble that we could and these girls are so excited to get to go to school! I’m not at all embarrassed to tell you that I was a total First Day of School Mom and I asked them to send me photos of their first day of school.

It is so darn hard to be a girl in Uganda and earn enough money for school fees. In many places here, girls and women are still thought of as second class citizens. This is why we love the Art Factory Gulu Girls and the mothers in the Bungatira Beaders who are using old magazines to pay school fees to send all of their children to school.

When you buy and wear their jewelry, Team No Sleep hopes you’ll feel their love and gratitude for being an important part of making that happen.

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Team No Sleep Only Jesus (aka Old Sharon, Lynn, and Young Sharon) modeling some of their paper bead jewelry.

Light for Aparanga

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An elephant in Paraa just beyond Te Okot

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

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

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

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Agnes, Alicia, and Musee Lapyiem

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

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

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Solar Lights charging in Aparanga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, A Woman for All Women

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Tausi and Alicia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, age 25.

Gladys’ Kitten

Last night we asked for $452 to purchase shoes and footlockers for the children of New Hope School. As of tonight do you know how much we’ve received?

$452!!!

Thank you Pat, Mary Kay, Arnold, Kathryn, Dorothy, Nora, and Margie. 7 people just changed the lives of 61 children. On behalf of the students and staff at New Hope, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

I thought you’d like to meet one of the recipients of the shoes and lockers. Meet Gladys. She was rescued from the IDP camp just a few days ago and is the newest student living at New Hope. She is Sudanese. She doesn’t speak English. She has a stuffed toy kitten. And, as you can see from the photos, she has impeccable fashion sense.

While the adults were sitting and chatting, Gladys approached Pastor Amos with her kitten in hand and began hitting him with it. Pastor Amos gently took the kitten from her and started cradling it like a baby, cooing at it, telling the kitty that it was a good kitty. Ever so calmly he said, “We don’t hurt people. We don’t hurt babies.”

Though she doesn’t speak English, Gladys immediately softened, as if she understood.

It was at that tender moment that I knew Vigilante Kindness and New Hope would become partners.

The Sudanese refugee children were born into a country that responds hotly to disagreements with violence. In Sudan, murder is a common response to relatively small disagreements.

The staff at New Hope has seen first hand how small disagreements amongst the refugee children cannot go without intervention because the only way the refugee children know how to end an argument is with violence. The staff also knows that retraining a brain that has experienced trauma comes through small actions seasoned with large amounts of patience.

When Pastor Amos started holding the kitten like a baby, Gladys calmed down. When he started making the kitty make meowing noises, Gladys burst into giggles.

In the next couple of days, because of you, Gladys will have real shoes and more importantly, she’ll have a footlocker where she can keep her stuffed kitty safe.

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Gladys, happily installed on Beatrice’s lap.

New Hope for Pawel

Last night I couldn’t sleep; in fact sleep has been a struggle for me every night since arriving in Uganda. Usually by now, my body has adjusted, but this time is different. So as I laid awake in my mosquito net in the quiet of the night, I wrote some stories, I read a few chapters in a book, I tried to sleep, I tossed and turned, and then I talked to God. Sometimes I think God keeps me awake at night because He wants to talk to me and I’m so busy during the day that I don’t make time to listen.

This trip is going better than I could’ve dreamed. Our projects are going like clockwork and we really are thrilled. While I’m grateful that everything is going so smoothly, as I laid in bed part of me was missing the magic of unexpected projects that come our way, the ones so far beyond my imagination that I never could’ve dreamed them up.

So in the stillness of night, I prayed a simple prayer, “God, if you have something more, I don’t want to miss it. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, I promise. Just don’t let me miss it, okay?”

The next morning Laura and I visited a village called Pawel. Pawel is about 80 kilometers from the border of South Sudan and it’s the most impoverished place I’ve ever been; in fact it’s the most economically depressed place I’ve ever seen in real life or on television. During the reign of terror inflicted on Northern Uganda by Joseph Kony and the LRA, Pawel didn’t have a police force or an army. With no protection, the people of Pawel were sitting ducks for the LRA attacks. The LRA forced people out of Pawel by slaughtering the men, raping the women, and abducting the children. Only those who ran for their lives into the bush or into the IDP camps survived. For ten years from 1996-2006, Pawel was void of residents as the LRA used Pawel as their central hub for decimating the land and the people.

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James and Beatrice Ekanya

I learned all of this from my friend, James, who was born and raised in Pawel. James is a teacher at the first school I taught at in Uganda. His impeccable kindness to me, to his students, and to anyone he encounters is one of the things that makes him a truly special human being. His family had to flee to from the LRA. James calls himself one of the lucky ones because he attended a boarding school and wasn’t killed. His story is the exception, not the rule in Pawel.

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A kindergarten classroom at New Hope School

For years James has wanted to start a school in Pawel, to bring education back to the children of the people who have returned home to reclaim Pawel.

In August of 2017, James and his wife, Beatrice, opened a nursery school, New Hope School. Beatrice is one of the teachers there. New Hope currently has 40 kindergarten students. Next year they will expand to first grade and the following year they will expand to second grade, etc.

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Nursery and Kindergarten Students at New Hope School

But New Hope doesn’t only serve the children of Pawel. On May 28, 2018 they opened a children’s home for Sudanese refugees without parents. They are careful to call the refugees children, not orphans, and the home a home, not an orphanage, because they want these children to know they are safe, they are home, and they are loved.

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Teachers and Refugee Children of New Hope

Unfortunately, being loved, being held, and being safe are forgotten concepts for some of them who lived in the camps for so long. Many of these children saw their own parents be murdered, either in the war between Sudan and South Sudan or in the tribal wars in South Sudan that are concurrently ensuing. Some of these babies crossed the border into Uganda with older siblings, but some crossed on their own and were left to fend for themselves in a refugee camp with roughly a million refugees. Some were found eating out of trash cans in order to survive.

Worse yet, some of the children lived in the IDP camps and were then transferred to the homes of volunteers, who received extra food rations for taking in refugee children and then turned the children into house slaves. Their young lives have been like jumping from the mouth of one shark into the mouth of another.

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Sarah and Pastor Amos

Two of the founders of New Hope are Pastor Amos and his wife, Sarah. When I asked them what things they were teaching the children, they told me that the most important thing they’re doing is loving the children and showing them they’re worthy of being loved.

Secondly, they’re teaching the children that fighting isn’t the answer. With South Sudan bludgeoning itself to death year after year, all these children have known is violence.

Sarah is teaching the children how to speak English because English is the language of instruction in Uganda and they want the children to be educated. This is no easy feat considering they speak seven different languages.

Lastly, they’re teaching the children how to play again, an important lesson after living hand to mouth in constant peril.

New Hope Children’s Home currently houses 21 refugee children with the help of 2 house mothers, 2 cooks, and 2 night-time security guards. The children arrive to New Hope with maybe one change of clothes and any other small belongings in green plastic bags. Imagine losing your parents, your family, your home, and your country, and having only a plastic green bag to hold all you have left in the world.

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A Hello Kitty shirt in the girls home.

When Amos showed me the homes for the girls, my eye caught a Hello Kitty shirt and a beaded bracelet on one of the beds. One of my students from last year wore that same shirt and I swallowed back a lump in my throat at the thought of her enduring such hardship.

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A bag of belongings in the boys home

When I asked Amos what their most immeciate needs were, he let out a heavy sigh and said, “The needs are so many.” And it’s true they are. They need money for food to feed the children. The children need shoes, especially the nursery children who walk long distances to school without shoes. The refugee children need small foot lockers so they can move their things out of plastic bags and have even the smallest place to call their own. The school children need uniforms and the refugees will need them next year when they finish their course in English and begin school. They need school supplies, like books and pencils and notebooks and chalk and chalkboards.

Vigilante Kindness is committed to helping New Hope in the future, but we’d like to begin now by purchasing foot lockers for all 21 refugee children and shoes for all 61 children because we do shoes, oh yes, we do shoes. The cost of foot lockers and shoes is $452.00. If you’d like to help the children of New Hope, please click the link below.

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As I was taking photos of of the homes, a hand colored sign above the bed of one of the girls caught my eye. It read, “Happey.” Happey is the name of one of the refugee girls, but what I saw today were 61 children who by the grace of God are safe, loved, and happy.

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Amarowu Bene

Every morning, Laura and I start the day with Luo lessons just after breakfast. Our tutor is Opiyo Chris, one of my most skilled writing students from the first year I taught in Uganda. You may remember his face from my second year when I taught a writing workshop about what my students and I believe.

I love everything about this kid. He’s funny. He’s kind. He’s hardworking. And he’s ever so patient with us as we, his faithful students, struggle to learn basic things like the alphabet, numbers, months of the year, days of the week, and the basic things every good kindergartener in Uganda already knows.

Opiyo Chris is 22 now and has completed all six years of high school. He works at a restaurant and earns enough to buy food and keep the electricity on, most of the time.

Opiyo Chris.jpgChris shows up every morning dressed sharply and on time, just like a real teacher. His language skills are excellent, something I knew from the very first essay he wrote with me, but beyond that he is an natural teacher, always striking the right balance between challenging us and encouraging us. He reminds me of the kind of teacher I want to be when I get my new batch of first graders next month.

We pay him out of our Work Study Scholarship Project, which allows students and families to use their gifts to earn school fees. Leku Ivan and Babu Ojok paint. The Bungatira Beaders and the Art Factory Gulu Girls make paper bead jewelry. Opiyo Chris patiently instructs us on things like how to make our very American mouths say the troublesome Luo ng sound.

Our lessons are $5 per person for an hour long intensive lesson. At the end of our first lesson, I reached into my wallet to pay him and Chris stopped me. “Mom, can you pay me at the end? It’s a lot of money and I don’t want to waste it. Can you hold it for me so I can have it all at the end for my school fees?” I agreed immediately, so proud that he didn’t want the temptation to squander a single shilling.

One of my favorite phrases in Luo is, “Amarowu bene.” It means, “I love you all so much.” Vigilantes, your generous donations to our Work Study Project allow students and families access to education. You are changing lives and for that I say to you amarowu bene.

Meet Babu Ojok

In one corner of Art Factory Gulu there are bold, beautiful paintings, brighter than all of the others in the shop. They’re made with bright colors mixed with the bold prints of traditional African fabrics. When I asked Leku Ivan who the painter was, Ivan replied, “He’s one of my students.”

Yesterday while I was in Art Shop Gulu visiting and working out the details of purchasing paintings and paper bead jewelry, a quiet young man in a baseball cap approached me.

“My name is Babu Ojok.” He looked at his feet and spoke so softly that he had to repeat himself three times and even then I couldn’t hear him. I made him write his name in my notebook and I introduced myself.

“I want to show you my paintings.” He spoke a little louder this time and lifted his eyes to meet mine.

“I’d love to see your paintings. Show me.” I followed him to the corner of the Art Shop where all of his brilliantly colored paintings stood.

“You made these? I’ve been wanting to meet you!” I squealed, momentarily forgetting my manners. “You have a great eye for using color and pattern.”

“Thank you,” he smiled and looked at his shoes again.

“Are you in school?” I asked, the wheels in my head turning, hoping this kid would qualify for Work Study Scholarship money.

He shook his head. “No, I completed my Senior 6 year, but I failed to earn school fees for university. I live with my uncle and he is struggling to pay my school fees. I want to go back to school, but the money isn’t there.”

“I think we can help with that. Tell me about your paintings.” I smiled.

Then Babu Ojok’s face absolutely lit up as he talked about each of his paintings, their names, what they mean to him, and how he made them.

I collected all of the information including prices for each piece so Laura could crunch the numbers and see if there was any possibility to include Babu as one of our Work Study Scholarship recipients this year.

As I was preparing to leave, Babu Ojok handed me a painting. “This is a gift for you, to thank you for all of the good work you’re doing.”

“Thank you so much. I’ll accept it on one condition. Will you let me sell it so that the money can go back into our scholarship fund to send more students in Uganda to school?”

He smiled. “Yes, that would be good.”

Back at the hotel, Laura crunched the numbers. Buying all of Babu Ojok’s paintings will take our Work Study Scholarship down to nothing and I can’t think of a better way to spend our last penny.

As I drifted off to sleep last night I smiled thinking of Babu Ojok, about how glad I was that this quiet artist tucked under a baseball cap was bold enough to introduce himself, bold enough to ask for the chance to go back to school.

Vigilantes, meet Babu Ojok. Write his name in your notebooks. He’s a kid you won’t want to forget.

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