Tag Archives: Gulu

Vigilante Kindness: Art Supplies for Ivan

Getting water for the people of Te Okot is heavy on my mind every single second of every day and I’m excited to see how that progresses, but you should also know that the other Vigilante Kindness projects are gaining momentum.  Today here’s a story of how I used Vigilante Kindness Work Study money to support Ivan, my young student artist who paints to pay for his school fees and for the fees of his sister.

“What is it?”  Ivan looks over the long, black bag I’ve just handed him.

“Open it and see.  It’s a gift from my Aunt Nancy, the artist.”

He opens the black bag and pulls out the metal pieces.  Carefully he unfolds the tripod and stands the easel up, adjusting the legs so that it stands tall next to him.

“Thank you so much!  It’s so nice!”

“And these are for you, too.”  I hoist my shoulder bag, heavy with art supplies onto the table in his studio.

Ivan unpacks the brushes and charcoals and pastels and paper and blending tools and a host of other art supplies my aunt has sent me with.  I don’t even know what half of them are or do, but Ivan does.<

His eyes well with tears.  “Thank you for supporting me, Alicia.  I don’t know how to repay you.”

“It wasn’t me.  I’m just the messenger.”

“I don’t know how to repay your aunt.  Maybe I’ll make her a painting?”

“I think that’s the perfect way to repay her.  Let’s record a video message for her as well.”  I smile at him.  “Hey, Ivan, I was at school on Friday.  Why weren’t you there?  Were you sick?”

“No, I couldn’t pay my school fees, so they sent me home.”

“How much do you owe in school fees?”  It’s a candid question and I feel glad that our relationship has earned me the right to ask and also given him the freedom to answer without shame.

“130,000 shillings.”  $50.

I think of the Vigilante Kindness Work Study shillings in my wallet for kids who want to work to pay their school fees.

“I can help with that.  Which of your paintings are for sale?”

He shows me and I pick out two for a total of 150,000 shillings.  I don’t care to barter here, not with Ivan who paints to pay his school fees and the school fees of his sister, Lillian.

I stick around the art studio watching Ivan and his partner Calvin paint.  I snap photos of their paintings and of the two of them at work.

Ivan shows me the set of paintings the hospital has commissioned him to paint to hang in the patient rooms.  He tells me about how they hope to have an exhibition soon so that they can rent the back room of the art studio and begin using it as a gallery.  Right now the door to the back room is locked.

Later that night, I post the photos on Facebook so that Ivan and Calvin can have some clear shots of their work.  It’s hard to find a camera here, even harder to find a camera that takes clear shots.  I post the photos with a note that the paintings are for sale.  Within minutes of posting, the paintings begin selling to my friends and family at home.  I go to bed dreaming of the locked door at the back of their studio and of the gallery room that waits behind it.

Vigilante Kindness: Ivan’s Paintings

“Alicia, will you buy one of my paintings?” Ivan chuckles shyly. He laughs like the cartoon character Goofy and I giggle each time I hear his laugh. “I need to earn some money to buy school supplies and some more art supplies.”

I love this kid for wanting to earn money instead of asking for a handout.

Ivan is one of my favorite kids from this year. A few years ago Ivan and his younger sister were taken in by an American couple. Ivan didn’t have a father in his life and after a tragic accident his mother was left mentally disabled and unable to care for her children. She now lives in a care facility in another part of Uganda. Ivan calls the American couple his parents. When his parents had to return to the U.S., they left Ivan and his sister with a house to live in. His parents send money for the house, for bills, for food and for schooling. Ivan keeps a detailed account of the expenses and he reports it back to his parents every month. Any extra things Ivan needs, he pays for himself by selling paintings out of the art studio at his house. When Ivan and his sister finish school here, they will join their parents in the U.S., where Ivan hopes to attend a university and major in art.

“I’d love to buy a painting, Ivan. Do you have them here?” It matters little to me if his paintings are any good.

“No, but I’ll get them from town and show them to you. I’ve got four finished paintings, but I want to give one to the Vice President of our school when he visits.”

He brings the paintings to school and we go behind one of the classrooms where he lays them out on the ground. They’re good.  I immediately know exactly which one I’m going to buy for myself. It’s a small painting of the word LOVE with Africa in place of the O.

LOVE by Leku Ivan
LOVE by Leku Ivan

What Ivan doesn’t know is that I’m using Vigilante money to buy the other two remaining paintings.

I pick up the LOVE painting and the two other paintings. “I’ll buy these three, Ivan.”

“Three? Really?” His Goofy chuckle rolls up from his belly.

“Yes, three. How much do I pay?”

“Anything is fine.”

“Ivan, I want to support the work you’re doing as an artist. So think of a price that’s fair for both of us and that’s what I’ll pay.”

Ivan takes a few minutes to think. “Is 200,000 shillings okay?” I do some quick converting in my head. He’s asking for roughly eighty American dollars. I pull shillings out of my wallet for the smaller painting and use Vigilante shillings for the other two paintings. We shake hands and both of us leave feeling like we got the better deal.

In even more exciting news, after seeing my LOVE painting another friend in Africa is commissioning Ivan to paint a similar one for her. My sister is also going to help Ivan make and sell prints of his paintings. Again, one small act of Vigilante Kindness snowballed into something even greater.

When I bought Ivan’s other two paintings I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I just knew that I wanted to support Ivan and his budding art career. Later in my hotel room as I spread the paintings out on my bed, an idea came to me: I’d give them away to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness. The only problem-and it’s an incredibly good problem-is that I only have two paintings and I’ve got way more than two Vigilante donors.

The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting.  One is a vertical tree painting.  The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I'll take better photos when I get home.
The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting. One is a vertical tree painting. The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I’ll take better photos when I get home.

So here’s how it’s going to work, for every dollar you donated, you’ll get a ticket in the drawing. So if you donated $20, you’ll have 20 tickets in the drawing. If you donated $200, then your name will be on 200 tickets and so forth. I’ll do the drawing on September 30th. That will give me time to take photos for making prints.

This is also good news for those of you who wanted to be Vigilantes of Kindness, but weren’t able to because you offered to donate when I was already making my way back home. You can make a donation and be entered in the drawing as well. (Message me for details on how to donate.) Any new donations will go toward my return trip next year and the Vigilante Acts of Kindness that are yet to come.

I’m absolutely giddy at the mere thought of returning to the land I love and exacting more kindness for the sake of being kind. I look at Ivan’s LOVE painting and wonder just what’s going to happen next in my love story-our love story-for Uganda.

The Littlest Bird

This year I was present for Election Day at school. There was a page worth of candidates on the ballot running for different student offices. Each candidate had a couple of minutes to deliver their campaign speech to the 300 members of the student body. Before the speeches began, one of the English teachers stood and spoke about the procedures. He encouraged the students to listen carefully and then to vote with their hearts.

The speeches began and during the speeches the students were asked to submit their questions to the student Parliament running the proceedings. There were many coveted offices like Head Boy and Head Girl, each in charge of overseeing their assigned gender and assisting with any problems they’re having which they may not feel comfortable immediately bringing to the adults. One of the most coveted offices is that of Time Keeper. Time Keeper rings the bell to indicate that class sessions are over, that lunch is over, that the school day is concluding, that church is beginning. It is a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly.

There were several candidates for Time Keeper and each gave an excellent speech, but there was one who stood out to me above the rest. Crispus is an S1 (8th grade), student. He’s a tiny kid, about as big as an American third or fourth grader. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in personality.


When Crispus began his speech, I actually jumped at the sound of his voice, so loud and full of enthusiasm. He proclaimed that he is responsible and owns a good watch which would allow him to ensure that classes ended and lunch began on time. The crowd, which had been boisterous throughout the whole assembly now became more vocal than ever.

“He’s too young!”
“This is too much responsibility.”
“He’s only an S1.”

Tiny Crispus stood, shoulders back, taking it all and never responding in turn, waiting for the student Parliament to gather questions from the audience and read them to him to answer.

The heckling continued until suddenly the audience began to turn in his favor. Those who had opposed Crispus could be heard no longer over the din that arose. First there was clapping, followed by stomping of feet and then a roar erupted from the crowd. They shouted his name and cheered for him.

So loud was their cheering that the student Parliament couldn’t contain them and Crispus couldn’t contain his grin, which had spread from one side of his face to the other. After returning to his seat, Crispus continued to smile for the rest of the proceedings. I imagine he went to bed smiling.

Vigilante Kindness: Doing It Wrong

“Peter Paul Opok Road. That’s where the gallery moved to.”

“I do not know that road.”

“A road you don’t know? I never thought that would happen.” I poke Denis in the back.

“I will find out. We will go.” Denis speaks to some men building bed frames by the just moved sign hanging by the old studio/gallery. He returns a minute later. “Okay, I know.”

We speed to the back side of town, curling in between traffic and pedestrians along the muddy road. I’m going to miss riding on the back of motorcycles. I tip my face to the sky and let the sprinkling rain hit my cheeks.

My favorite artist, Omuny, is in residence and she has new pieces hanging all over the walls. She’s been busy since last summer. Behind the counter is a stack of paintings leaning against the wall.

“Are those for sale?”

“Yes. I just haven’t put them out yet.” Omuny motions me behind the counter and I flip thorough the stack.

imageThe moment I see it, I know it’s the one for my artist sister. Supporting a local artist is the perfect way to spend the rest of her Vigilante donation.

“I’ll take this one, please.” I hand it to Omuny who removes it from the frame and rolls it for me.

I carefully count out bills and I squeeze them tight in my hand. She hands me the painting and I shove the wad of bills in her hand, practically running out the door. I grab Denis’ sleeve and pull him out with me. “Quickly, quickly let’s go!” I can barely control my giggles.

We speed away and from the back of the boda I see Omuny hurrying out the door toward us.

“How much did you pay for that?” Denis calls back to me.


“Did you barter with her?” Denis wrinkles his brow.


“Did you pay the asking price?”

“It’s so much worse than you think.” I turn and wave at Omuny. She waves back and smiles.

“Tell me.” Denis is stern now.

“I paid her double!”

“You’re doing things all wrong.” He shakes his head at me, like he so often does.

“I know.” I can’t suppress my grin.

Back in my hotel room I unroll the painting. I take a snap and giggle at the thought of Omuny counting out the money and finding I’d paid double the asking price. I AM doing things all wrong this trip and my heart feels so completely right.

Vigilante Kindness: Shiny New Shoes, Part 2

If you’re just joining the story of Shiny New Shoes, you can read Part 1 here.

Denis hoisted the sack of shoes onto the front of the boda. Monday morning had arrived and that meant it was time to pass out shiny new shoes to the P1 students and to the children living on campus. Although the road was clear and Denis zipped along, the ride to school seemed interminably long.

Finally we reached the campus and Denis hefted the sack off the boda. I enlisted the help of my son, Geoffrey, and two of my young writers from last year, Richard and Johnson. Together we lined the shoes up on the step outside of the classroom, each pair with a child’s name carefully penned of the tag. 27 pairs in all.


Half an hour before school was finished Mr. Martin brought the class outside and I called out the name of each and handed them their shoes, Mr. Martin and my three older student helpers stood ready to help tie all those shoes.

When I handed each student their shoes and a bright white pair of socks, they were too surprised to speak. The took the shoes and then in a bit of a daze, they got help putting them on. I’ve seen this dazed look before on my own first grade students when we went on field trips that were so amazing that all they could do was stand there and take it in.

One little one said, “Thank you” as I handed her a pair of shoes and the rest of the children remembered their manners and followed suit, thanking me in their best English.


When everyone had been given their new shoes, it was time for pictures. Some of the kids grinned so widely that I was sure I could see every single tooth. Others were still dazed. They sang their goodbye song and I recorded a bit of it to show the donors and then clapped to show their appreciation.


When Mr. Martin dismissed them to go inside and stack their chairs and go home, they stomped up the stairs, giggling at the sound of their new shoes on the pavement. I laughed as they stomped up a storm and when they came back outside, every single child stopped to shake my hand and say thank you.

As they walked off campus, I watched them carefully avoiding mud puddles to keep their shoes shiny and clean. One little girl stopped every few feet to dust off any specks of dirt that got on her shoes. I can only imagine how long it took her to walk home that day!


Another little girl could not wear her new shoes that day. In all my days on campus, I’d never seen her wear shoes. She had a wound on her foot from walking everywhere without shoes. She is the reason this Vigilante Act of Kindness was so needed. She’s the reason why I’m so appreciative of all the Vigilantes who made this shoe project possible. I watched this little girl walk home, cradling her new shoes carefully in her arms. I saw her again two days later wearing her new shoes, protecting her precious feet, and couldn’t help but smile in gratitude for my friends and family who had offered of themselves to provide her with shiny new shoes.

There is a musee (an elder) who stands guard at the front of the school. His English is as good as my Acholi, a fact that we laugh about daily. When Denis picked me up from school that day, the musee stopped me. He shook my hand and in words I think he’d been practicing all day, he said, “Well done, Madame. Well done.” So to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness, I pass along his words and with a full heart I say to you, “Well done, friends. Well done.”

A Room With A View

I left CSI: Bathroom on the second day in Gulu, moving up two floors into the only other vacant room in the hotel.

This room isn’t perfect either, but I no longer fear that my shower is going to come alive at night or that the toilet is going to inflict a disease on me.

My sink doesn’t work, but at least the faucet is attached to the wall so that I hold out hope that it will work one of these days.  It makes a great bathroom storage area for flowery headbands and other bathroomly things.

There’s no electricity in my bathroom which is actually okay, because even the thought of makeup vanishes in the sweat that begins each morning and only ceases when I lay down on top of the cool sheet at night.

The other benefit of no electricity in the bathroom is that I can’t be bothered to even attempt to tame my curls, which have taken on a life, and perhaps a solar system, of their own.  From what I can see out of my peripheral vision, the force grows stronger with my hair every day.  Only time will tell if it remains fairly well-behaved or if it turns to the dark side.  I think it’s going to be the dark side because anytime one clearly sees their hair from the periphery, that hair is clearly up to no good.

But cold water, and on rare occasions even hot water, flows freely from the shower head and the toilet no longer causes me nightmares.

And check out my dresser/closet/pantry/medicine cabinet/table complete with chair.

Perhaps my favorite thing about my new room is the view.  I look out on Gulu now, out onto buildings under construction.  The rhythm of hammers is the heartbeat of a town rebuilding herself, one nail at a time.

From my window I see houses and huts side by side, the new and the old married here.

Gulu is up to become a city this year.  She would be the second official city in Uganda.  Gulu residents are excited at the prospect of more industry and municipalities that reach the outskirts of town.  They hope Gulu will become like Kampala, a polluted, crowded, noisy racket of a city.  I want what’s best for Gulu and I’m just not sure bigger is always better.  So for now, I’ll relish the clink of hammers and enjoy my view of small, kindhearted Gulu.