Another Opportunity to Wait

It took a few days for the communities of Aparanga and Bungatira to decide on how to proceed with the minimal funds we’d raised toward a tractor.

It was decided that each community would receive 4 oxen and 1 plow. Oxen and plows are not readily available and are only available on market days. Since we were pressed up against other obligations and short on time before beginning our departure across the country and back home, we pushed this project back to our next visit.

It’s better to wait and arrange for the best oxen possible rather than to hurry and pick from only what’s available on a certain date.

Pushing back the purchase of oxen and plows also allowed us to move funds around a bit and purchase the remainder of the beads from the Bungatira beaders. They’ve been frantically working under the glow of solar lights each night to complete as many pieces of paper bead jewelry as possible.

We love their efforts and we know you’ll love their jewelry.

Feel at Home in Bungatira

Laura and I rode boda bodas into the bush of Bungatira yesterday. I never tire of the feeling of wind in my face and the contrast of the red dirt against the lush, green landscape. There is a saying in Uganda when you visit someone’s home. They will say, “Feel at home,” which means you should feel free to be yourself there. Of all the places I love in Uganda, Bungatira, the home of my boda driver Denis and his family, is where I feel most at home.

My African Mama, Maria, greeted us, ever with a song in her heart and light in her eyes. She is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She is the embodiment of joy and love and generosity and strength.

Mama doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak enough Luo to carry on a conversation well, but there’s a simple and divine beauty in being able to sit hand in hand with another human when the only words you know are, “How are you?” “Thank you.” “Me, too.” and “I love you very much.”

I think it’s that same kind of simplicity that made me love this visit to Bungatira. It was just a day of regular life in Bungatira. Many times when I visit, I have community business to attend to, elders to meet with, groups to speak with, projects to discuss. Many times I’m seated with or in front of a group of fifty or more and while I appreciate each and every one of those times it makes the times when I can just sit on the papyrus mat with the mamas and their babies that much more precious. I truly feel like one of the family then.

Days like those are rare so I soaked up every detail. The banana tree leaves rustled in the wind. The roosters strutted about the compound calling out to the hens. A gloriously fat pig napped in the sun. A mother goat gave birth to her kid. Maize dried in the sun and we walked through the farms, our dresses and skirts prickled with black jerk.

Mamas strung paper beads into bracelets and necklaces while babies nursed, and cooed, and toddled nearby on the mat. The squeals and laughter of children, who are much taller than when I last saw them, playing after school was the soundtrack to our visit. Babies found swaths of sunshine for reading books. And beautiful Mama Maria tossed and sifted the corn in such a way that it made a rhythmic shushing sound almost like the sound of distant waves.

When it came time for lunch, Denis’ wife, Vickie, served us traditional Acoli food in the cool dark of their hut. It was delicious and when the meal was over we attended to our small business of buying paper bead jewelry, giving them another supply of magazines, and handing over half of the solar lights, which will be useful when the ladies are making paper bead jewelry inside at night.

When it was time to return to Gulu, we all hugged each other a million times and then Laura and I climbed back onto our boda bodas and rode back to Gulu, feeling the complete peace and ease of spirit that comes with feeling completely at home.

Thank you for supporting our Paper Bead Project so that the children of Bungatira can go to school. It means a lot to me that you love my loved ones in Uganda so well. If you’re lucky enough to buy some of the beautiful jewelry created by these artisans, it’s my hope that when you wear it you’ll smile and feel just a little more at home.

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Vigilante Kindness: A Gift From Oregon, Part 3

If you’re just joining the story of A Gift from Oregon, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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.

Vigilante Kindness: A Gift From Oregon, Part 2

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.

Denis signs up for school.

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.”

“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.

IMG_0410Denis 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.

Vigilante Kindness: A Gift From Oregon, Part 1

“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.