We’re a rag-tag group of people vigilantly pursuing self-sustaining educational & employment opportunities with and for students and their families living in rural communities in developing countries. We believe in asking hard questions like, “What do you need and how can we help?” We believe that communities know their needs better than we do and that it’s our job to listen. We’re big on being kind for the sake of kindness and we believe that even the smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference. We believe in keeping vigil over one another and watching for opportunities to help, no matter how far off the beaten path those opportunities take us. We’re vigilant in our belief that God has given each person unique gifts and that one of the highest forms of worship is using those gifts to serve others. We believe God has a purpose for each life and Vigilante Kindness is our purpose. Join us as we live out wild adventures in service of God and others. Join us in committing acts of Vigilante Kindness.
The welcome party thrown by Ivan and his colleagues at Art Shop Gulu was really just so sweet. Each time I walk up the stairs into Art Shop Gulu, it gives me chills, thinking of where Ivan came from and how hard he and his fellow artists have worked to create this space.
There was singing.
There was cake.
And of course there was art and paper bead jewelry galore! Here’s a sneak peek at a small selection of the pieces that will be available at our September 8th Paper Bead Jewelry and Painting Sale in Redding, CA. Any remaining pieces will be for sale online after that.
Leku Ivan pulled up in a van he painted himself. A lion greeted me on the hood and Bob Marley grinned at me from the door. I ran to him forgetting to push in my chair or even to zip my backpack and we hugged for a long time in the streets of Gulu.
I couldn’t stop hugging him, this young man with a beard and a lone long dreadlock, who used to be a goofy, orphaned teenager in a school uniform with tightly cropped hair.
After the hugging stopped and I blinked back a tear or two, Ivan sat with Laura and I for dinner and told us all about his life. His sister Lillian is a stay at home mom now in Kampala on the other side of the country. Ivan has relocated his shop, Art Factory Gulu, into the main market. He now has a business partner, Mike, and three female colleagues who help run the shop, balance the books, keep inventory, and do all the other little things so that Ivan can spend his time doing what he does best: painting.
His shop has a gallery packed with paintings. At least once a month he teaches art workshops in the shop or travels in his van teaching art classes to groups that hire him.
Best of all, Ivan, who once reluctantly told me he was stopping school after graduating from his fourth year of high school (there are 6 years in Uganda), sat across the table from me and told me that he’s back in school. He’s taking art classes in Kampala to get his degree in art and then he wants to get his certificate to become an art teacher.
That evening we strolled to the market to see his shop. We walked upstairs and I had to swallow back a lump in my throat and there was absolutely no use in trying to blink back the tears.
The stairwell was filled with art and as it opened up into the shop, there were paintings hung everywhere. Ivan’s paintings and the paintings of his students and colleagues filled the space with color, beauty, and life.
I was immediately drowned in memories. I remembered Ivan, the timid student asking if I’d like to look at some of his paintings and maybe purchase one to help him with school fees.
I remembered him painting out on the street from a closet sized shop to have enough money for food.
I remembered Ivan being so excited when he sold a painting so that he could buy his sister a brand new dress.
I remembered it all and as I walked up the staircase of his new shop I was undone with love for this kid who worked tirelessly to make his dream of being an artist come true.
Ivan told us some of the stories behind his paintings and I was once again moved at how he expressed his desire to encourage peace and love in his city through art.
Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he said he was throwing us a welcoming party in the art shop the following day. There would be cake and singing and celebrating.
I’ve never even seen cake in Uganda so the fact that Ivan spent his money on having a cake made told me that this was going to be something special.
I had no idea just how truly special it would be or that the next act of Vigilante Kindness was waiting there for me next to the cake.
The paintings of artist Ivan Leku, 19, may not ring a bell on the first look. They may seem like any other paintings, like the ones for decorating our rooms or office walls.
But on closer and careful observation, one gets fascinated with beautiful graphical illustration of the abstract paintings in acrylics.
The paintings send a striking message about the lives of the African street children, of children living a deplorable life, yet covered with jolly faces.
No Ordinary Painting
“This is not just an ordinary painting. I am trying to relay how our children are suffering on the streets,” Leku says. “All these children need is love and care so that they are transformed.”
Leku says from his experience as a street child for more than 10 years, he knows the challenges street children go through. “From my talent as an artist, I think it is worthwhile telling the world about these children through my paintings,” Leku says, adding: “My ambition at the moment is to ensure that the local people and the government take up responsibilities of looking after the street children who could be in possession of good talents.”
Passion for art
Leku says art has been his passion since childhood. He acquired practical art skills from Jinja Art shop, where he had been undergoing training in abstract and landscape paintings.
“Even in my childhood, no one thought I could be an artist. But because I had people around me who believed that art was what can earn me a living, they groomed me and today, they appreciate my skills,” says Leku.
He began commercial painting in 2010.
With Shs400,000, he rented a room in Gulu Town, which serves as his work station.
In order to reduce the rent he pays, he shares the room with two other artists. On how and where he sells his products, Leku says it is mostly at exhibition shows, trade fairs and hotels, targeting mainly foreign customers who seem to be more interested in his art pieces.
He says some of his clients constitute foreigners, who place their orders and have their goods sent to them and the money sent to him through Western Union.
Leku says he intends to turn his workshop into a free training class for street children, whose lives, he says, are considered wasted.
“I want these children to learn practical art skills for their future life sustenance,” says Leku.
Those foreign clients who place orders and send money via Western Union? That’s you, sweet Vigilantes. You’re making a difference in Ivan’s life. In turn, he’s sharing his heart and his talent with street kids in Gulu.
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.
“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.
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.
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.