The one word that bests describes our visit with our sponsored child Petelina in Uganda is “surreal.”
When our truck pulled onto the pathway leading to Petelina’s homestead we were greeted by a group of women and girls waving huge white flags and singing. This was no ordinary singing. It was loud and full of energy, punctuated with undulations of joy as the women burst out with their traditional “Yi yi yi yi yi!” and waved their scarves around us. The music took hold of me and I joined in with the dancing as we made our way to the huts and the huge group of people that awaited us.
And there stood our little Petelina. Well, she wasn’t that little anymore. My husband and I had been sponsoring Petelina since she was six years old. She was now thirteen, almost as tall as me but as shy as any typical girl in Uganda would be when they met a couple of muzungus from Canada.
She took my hand and knelt down on the ground in the traditional Ugandan way of showing respect and servitude. I did the same.
Our day was spent chatting getting to know each other a little more. The letters we wrote over the years had provided some knowledge about her family and ours but nothing like a real face to face and hand-holding-hand conversation can provide.
I learned about Petelina’s family, her personality, her favourite food and games, and how, if you kiss her on the cheek her shyness disappears and a smile will appear on her face instantly.
Of course, we brought gifts: A lantern for her parents, stuffy toys for her younger brothers and sister, a soccer ball for her older brother and a box of nail polish for her oldest sister. Petelina’s eyes were huge as we placed a pack sack of school supplies and special gifts at her feet. As we pulled each item out of the bag her eyes widened and widened and her shyness returned. She looked at the ground then up at my husband and I and whispered, “Apwoyo.” I don’t think she had ever been the recipient of so many gifts in her life.
We ate a traditional Ugandan meal of greens, matoke, rice and goat meat, although the goat meat is not a regular part of the diet in that area and is usually reserved for only special occasions. And then we brought out the baseball bat, balls and gloves that Sportchek had donated to us and we played a game of baseball. First there were the instructions: how to hold a bat, how to hit the ball, how to catch the ball, how to run around the bases. We left the equipment with Petelina’s school with instructions for Petelina that she and her siblings would be in charge of teaching the entire school how to play this American/Canadian sport. She accepted the responsibility with a quiet nod and a small smile.
As we visited parts of Petelina’s community, her school, the clinic, one of the bore holes that was close to her home and met the people at World Vision who were overseeing the development of this Kamuda ADP I couldn’t help but feel a sense of, how shall I say it? Fulfillment? Contentment?
I knew that Petelina was in good hands. Her community was progressing very well. More schools had been built since I had visited the area back in 2008, before we had sponsored Petelina. The grass roof shelter that was once the clinic was replaced with a more permanent brick and cement building that also included a pharmacy. The programs that were created years ago to provide assistance for people with AIDS, provide vaccinations for children and improve the health and well being of the people in the community were doing very well. More bore holes had been drilled decreasing the time and travel women and children had to spend to obtain their water. Plows had been purchased and were going to be distributed once the rains came and the ground could be tilled for another growing season.
But what I think I noticed most in the community, something that was different from the time I was there seven years ago, was the “atmosphere”. I had witnessed the hopeful attitudes of the people as they set out to rebuild their farms and homestead with the seedlings and livestock they had received from World Vision in 2008 and that was a wonderful thing to see. But what I saw this time was something more. This time hope had been fulfilled and there was now the feeling of contentment, of people knowing that things were getting better and they were well on their way.
When we said good-bye to Petelina I was sad, of course. Who knew if I was going to be able to see her again. But after I hugged her and gave her a little kiss on the check and watched that shy smile form on her face, I knew that all was well for her. Petelina was going to make it. She was going to complete her schooling. She was going to work hard on becoming what she wanted to be. Whether she decided it was going to be a nurse or a teacher I knew that everything was in place to make that opportunity a reality. Not just something that could only be a dream.
I waved good-bye and walked back to our truck. And as I did the first rains of the season began to fall. The plows would be put to use soon and another season of growth would begin.
I am not going to get the mother of the year award after I confess this one.
It was 8:00 ish and I was tucking my little girl into bed. It was a day where I felt that although I really really loved my daughter, I really really couldn’t stand to be around her for one more second. It had been a day full of complaining:
“Mom, I don’t like this shirt. It feels funny.”
“Moom, I don’t want this. We ate it yesterday.”
“Mooom, I don’t want to … Moooom, I don’t have to … Mooooom, that is so icky!”
I seriously came this close ( imagine dead bugs on the bumper of a farmer’s truck) to plunking her on a shelf of cereal boxes in the grocery store and putting a for sale sign on her forehead, with a huge warning : “Not responsible for any lose of sanity that may result after purchase.”
So as I was tucking my little precious pumpkin darling dumpling doodles of a child into bed I was thinking: I don’t want to go through another day like this. And then it hit me.
“Pumpkin,” I said to her, “would you like to go and visit Desta tomorrow?”
My little girl’s eyes got as wide as frisbees. She sat up in her bed, barely able to keep herself still. She was like a bowl of jello sitting on a jack hammer.
“Oh oh oh! Can we really go and see her Mom?”
“Of course, you can pack your suitcase and we’ll hop on a plane tomorrow.”
I turned off the light and as I climbed the stairs I marvelled at the innocence of a child. Desta was our sponsored child. She didn’t live next door, or in the next city or next province. She lived in Ethiopia and I would need a tad more time to arrange a trip there.
That morning I put a suitcase by the door and set out a breakfast like no other for my daughter.
Kira bounced up the stairs. “Mom! Mom! Are we still going to visit Desta in Ethiopia?”
“Of course. We’ll get going right away. I thought you would like to eat what many of the people in Ethiopia have for breakfast. As soon as you’re done we can get going.”
My daughter took a look at the table, looked at me, then at the table again.
“Well,” I said, “I know you were so tired of eating the same thing day after day after day I thought that maybe you would like to try something different.”
My daughter looked at the plate and glass and her chin fell to her chest. A minute passed, then two. I had never seen my child so quiet for so long. Then finally she said those words that made me think that maybe things were going to be alright:
“I’m sorry, Mom. I won’t complain anymore.”
I gave that little girl of mine a big hug. Not because I knew she wouldn’t complain anymore, because gosh golly she will. But she got it. She actually got it.
I dumped the glass of muddy water into the sink and gave our dog the crust of old dried bread while my daughter grabbed the Cheerios.
Have you ever met a person and after a few minutes into a conversation you realize that you are in the presence of someone powerful and great like Gandhi or Martin Luther King? I think that when people talk to Amani they must get this feeling. Amani has been through hell and back. No, correction, she lived in hell for eight years. She was abducted by the LRA when she was sixteen, forced to kill other children, innocent civilians, and be the wife an LRA soldier and give birth to his two children. But, and here’s the big thing, Amani faces each day by refusing to let the past continue to be a part of her life. She realizes that reliving the past only makes her a victim over and over again.
When I asked Amani questions about her life with the LRA I couldn’t help but think that she was patiently waiting to get to the questions that dealt with her new life, the life out of the bush, as many formerly abducted people (FAP) call it. She spoke of all new things in her life: the completion of her high school education and then receiving her first degree, the encouragement of her children to complete their education, and all this possible because she applied her meager earnings to what is the most important thing in her life: hope.
When she meets other FAP’s she tells them of God’s love for them and encourages them to look forwards, not backwards. I can’t help but think that as she tells others this, the message is planted deeper and deeper into her heart until it is as much a part of her as every breath she draws in.
And for this I commend Amani. I admire her for moving forward. She shares the pedestal with such greats as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and yes, the boy who inspired me to write Bullets, Blood and Stones: the journey of a child soldier: Charlie.
When a once-beautiful piece of cloth has turned into rags, no one remembers that it was woven by a master weaver. ~ Igbo proverb
The first thing that comes to mind when anyone visits the World Vision Gulu Reception Centre for former child soldiers in Uganda is this: Big. The cement wall encloses at least 18 large buildings. Some buildings are set aside for counselling activities where children re-enact their experiences with the LRA, draw pictures of their abductions and life in the bush, and talk and dance and sing and play music. Some buildings offer rooms with beds for the children to sleep, safe, with new friends. There are, of course, a few latrines and some tents and the odd tree offering shade from the afternoon sun. But when a person walks through the compound a sudden realization occurs: If the centre is so big, just how many former child soldiers have had the good fortune to escape and come to this haven away from hell?
The answer? Some 25,000 children have made their way through this and the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) centre since 1994.
But now the number of children who receive counselling has dropped. Not because there are no longer any more child soldiers, but because many of the children who were once abducted are now adults and are now managing to escape. After 5, 10 or more years as a child soldier these adults, deprived of their childhood, now come to the recovery centre and learn ways to return to a normal life and leave the past behind them.
One of these adults, a woman I will call Amani which means “peace” in Swahili, was abducted when she was sixteen years old and forced to be a child soldier for eight years.
Now imagine it: eight years. What would a typical girl be doing for those eight years? Going to High School, hanging out with her friends, going to University or College, starting a career, finding the love of her life, getting married, starting a family …
But what was Amani doing? Looting the homes and properties of her fellow countrymen, being forced to kill innocent civilians, ambushing vehicles and burning them, abducting other children (seven per week or there would be dire consequences), and walking for long, long distances without any rest. She was also forced to “marry” an older man, a soldier in the LRA and give birth to his children.
Not your typical teenage years, are they?
When I asked Amani what regrets she had she said it hurt her to think about the things she was deprived of: her chance for an education, her chance to have a normal childhood and the love and care of her parents. She also said she is traumatized for having witnessed the brutal killing of many abductees. But her biggest hurt? Being forced to marry at such a young age and bearing the children of a man she could only fear and hate.
It makes you wonder how a person like Amani can move forward. But she did. And I’ll write about that next time.
As a supply teacher I’m often on the front lines, so to speak, trying to stop fights and helping kids learn how to get along with each other. It’s much nicer being in a classroom where everyone works well together. I get less grey hairs and the kids have the pleasure of having Mrs. Snow White as a teacher rather than some form of ogre or troll.
I’m sure I’ve quelled thousands of arguments during the past twenty-some years but there is one incident that stands out in my memory above the rest. It was at an elementary school out in the country and three boys were in the middle of a lunch time show down when I walked in on them. They were having one of those “Did not, did too’ arguments. I heard them at it before and I’m sure I would have the wonderful pleasure of hearing it again and again and again.
When I inched my way closer to their stand-off I stuck my head in to the circle and said one simple thing: “You know boys, there’s so much fighting and hating going on in the world, wouldn’t it be nice if there wasn’t any in this school?”
They stopped and looked at me and were stone still quiet.
Then one of them spoke those really, really nice words that I will always treasure: “You know you’re right Mrs. White.” The other two boys nodded their heads and the three took off outside for recess. I didn’t hear any bickering coming from them the rest of the day.
Now, I’m not too sure about the boys' next day or the day after that. Such is the life of a supply teacher. We never get to gain a firm grasp on a school or a class or a child because we jump around from school to school each day. But I like to hold onto that memory when something I said made a difference, even if it was for only a couple hours.