Magnificently Ordinary Acts of Vigilante Kindness

Sometimes committing Vigilante Acts of Kindness in Gulu involved really glamorous things, the kinds of things that look good in photos, like buying shiny new shoes for 30 kids or wrestling a manure filled sack of piglets on the back of a boda. Like I said, really glamorous stuff.

Other times, the Vigilante Acts of Kindness were magnificently ordinary. Basic needs that were met because I didn’t have my own agenda and instead took time to ask, “What do you need and how can I help?”

I spent an entire day in Gulu town with the head teacher JB and my trusty sidekick, Denis, making sure some of those basic needs were met.

The first item on our list was to buy fencing materials. The boys dorm on campus backs up to a road and JB had been losing sleep at night because the road provided the perfect opening for trespassers, of both the animal and human type, to enter campus.

“So let’s go buy a fence, JB,” I shrugged.

“It will be expensive and we will have to rent a truck to transport the materials.”

“I think I’ve got enough donations, but write down your estimate and let me make sure.”

After a few quick calculations, JB shows me a number. It’s sizable, roughly one hundred fifty American dollars, a small fortune here in Uganda.

“That’s no problem.”

“I didn’t include the truck,” he scrawls another number and shows it to me. A truck rental will be 40,000 shillings, or roughly sixteen American dollars.


“That’s fine, JB. What else does the school need?”

“I still have many textbooks that we need for the library.”

“Let’s get those while we’re in town and you can throw them in the truck, too.”

“Are you sure you’ve got the money?”

We purchased over 50 textbooks.
We purchased over 50 textbooks.

“Yes, and I’m running out of time to spend it. What else does the school need?”

“Well, the primary kids need readers and some workbooks. And teachers need pencils, pencil sharpeners, markers and chart paper.” JB waits for me to say no, but with a wad of Vigilante shillings stuffed in my purse, my mouth is full of yes.

School supply shopping is so much more fun on a motorcycle.
School supply shopping is so much more fun on a motorcycle.

“Good. Let’s get that stuff while we’re in town and toss it in the truck, too. I know the students need ringworm cream, so I’m going to go talk to Mama (the dorm mom) and see what other medicines she’s short on.”

Mama is all smiles when I ask her to make me a list. She doesn’t hold back and I love her for being so candid about the needs of the students.

On the day we hit town to pick up all these things, I love Mama even more for adding yeast infection kits to her list. Watching Denis turn thirty shades of red while he translated that one to the pharmacist was worth ever shilling!

How do you say 'yeast infection' in Acholi?
How do you say ‘yeast infection’ in Acholi?

On my last day at the school, Mama found me and invited me into her living quarters at the far end of one of the girls dorms.

“Hi, Mama. Itye maber? (How are you?)” I sit in the plastic chair she’s brought out for me.

“I’m fine. Thank you for buying medicine for the students. Five girls have already made use of the feminine medicines.” She sits down across from me.

“Mama, you already thanked me. Three times. I’m glad the medicine is helping.” I pat her hand.

“You’re different, Alicia.”

I don’t really know how to take that one. Different like the kid who eats paste kind of different? Sometimes compliments here are hard to swallow, like how being called fat is a good thing because it symbolizes wealth.

“You’re different than other muzungus who come here. You asked what we need and then you took action.”

“Thanks, Mama. It’s a lesson I’m still learning with lots of help from the people at home.” I look down at my hands.

Mama’s right, I am different. I’m different than the person I was when I arrived. I’ve tried to heed Ernesto Sirolli’s wonderful, if not eloquent, advice to ask what people need and then shut up and do it. No more planting tomatoes for hippos.

“Greet the people at home and tell them thank you for me,” Mama hugs me tight. She’s soft and I see why the kids have such deep love for her.

“I will, Mama.”

I leave campus that day knowing that I’m leaving my kids in good hands. I’m leaving them in hands that daily commit magnificently ordinary acts of kindness without fanfare or fuss. I’m leaving my kids in Mama’s hands.



Vigilante Kindness: Tomatoes, Hippos and String

“Is there anything you need for the classroom, Mr. Martin?” I looked around the room and immediately thought of half a dozen things off the top of my head. Chalk, chalkboard erasers, pencils, paint, books, bookshelves, crayons. And then there were the bigger things like electricity and running water.

“Thread,” he replied with his constant smile.


“Or string.”

My puzzled look gave me away.

“I’ve made posters, but have no way to hang them from the bricks and the room is bare. If I had thread or string, I could string it along the walls and hang the posters.”

That afternoon I set off with my trusty boda driver, Denis, in search of thread or twine or string. At our third store we found string for $4,000 shillings, roughly $2.50.

That night as I laid in bed, I couldn’t help but think that if someone had asked me the same question about my classroom, I would’ve rattled off a lengthy list of items I “need”, but all Mr. Martin wanted was string.

A few nights ago, I was listening to a TED podcast featuring Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian missionary. The talk is titled, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen.” In the talk, Mr. Sirolli tells the story of a mission trip he once took to Africa to teach a village how to grow Italian tomatoes. They brought the seeds and planted the tomatoes and the tomatoes grew to be the size of softballs, but the villagers seemed unimpressed and uninterested in growing tomatoes. The Italian missionaries couldn’t understand the complacency of the villagers when the tomatoes grew so beautifully lush. The night before they were to harvest the tomatoes, a pod of hippos lumbered out of a nearby body of water and ate the tomatoes and tomato plants. Every. Single. One.

The Italians were shocked. The Africans were not. They knew the hippos would come.

Ernesto Sirolli’s point was this, when we assume we know the needs of others and don’t bother asking, we will likely miss entirely an opportunity to truly help. Mr. Sirolli is still a missionary, but he no longer travels with his own agenda. He picks a place and then talks to the locals in bars, restaurants, churches, etc. and asks them how he can help. Then he does something revolutionary: he listens and makes a plan from there.

This TED talk continues to strike a chord with me because I returned to Uganda with a plan and when that plan fell to pieces at my feet, I was left wondering why I’d returned at all. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked, “God, what exactly am I doing here? What am I going to do for almost five weeks?”

Because I’ve been relieved of my own plan, I find myself thinking about tomatoes and hippos and asking people questions like, “What does the school need?” and “Is there a specific student in need and how can I help them?” and “Do you need anything for your classroom?” and “How can I best help you?”

And then I’m doing the exquisitely hard thing: I’m shutting up and straining to listen.

The beautiful thing is that, you-you vigilantes of kindness, are also listening and watching for opportunities to genuinely help.

So far you and I have:

  • purchased school uniforms for two students who don’t have functioning families to pay for such extravagances
  • purchased 4 piglets to help Denis raise pigs and earn money to return to school
  • purchased a set of school textbooks to be kept in the school library for students who can’t afford books
  • purchased 2 rolls of string for Mr. Martin to hang his teaching posters
  • purchased a mattress and mosquito net for a student without a bed

And that’s just the beginning. I can’t wait to tell you about the other projects in the works.

The stripping away of my original plan is still painfully raw. I’d like to say that I’m over the disappointment and that I’m done being hurt, but the truth is I’m not. Thankfully the truth is also that there is blessing in this stripping away, blessing in the terrifying willingness to be vulnerable and ask God, “What am I doing here?”

Though I’m the one giving, or giving on your behalf, I’m really the one on the receiving end because the lessons I’m learning are priceless.

Mr. Martin has been working tirelessly to string posters in his classroom and it looks great. Now he teaches from all sides of the room, using each wall and each poster to educate his young learners. I’m so glad I didn’t barge in with armloads of ideas on what I thought he needed when what he really needed most was simply string.

I’m terrified that I’ll return home and when I touch down on familiar ground I’ll forget what I’m learning here. So if you see me with a bit of string wrapped around my finger, it’s because I’m remembering Mr. Martin and Ernesto Sirolli. I’m trying to remember to ask first and then act. I’m trying to remember to shut up and listen. I’m trying to remember that God’s plans are so much better than mine. I’m trying to remember not to plant tomatoes for hippos.