The time came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud
was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.
~ Anais Nin
I sat across the table from her and wondered what she thought about me. With my most encouraging and sincere smile, I asked the same question again, "Can you tell me something about your family?" She tucked in her chin. I could see little pieces of grass in her braids on top of her head. Her baby boy who was nursing at her breast pulled back and looked at me curiously. I thought he looked just like his mama. "Tema, tema..." ("try, try") the Ugandan teacher sitting next to me gently prodded her. The mama finally lifted her head and gave a shy smile. She said something soft in Acholi, and my friend translated, "She said she doesn't understand any English."
"It's ok," I said. "Let's try a picture." I showed her a picture of a Ugandan family in front of a sugar cane field. "Can you tell me what you see?"
She looked at the picture. The baby's chubby fingers reached out and grabbed it off the table. She scolded him in Acholi and put it back, glancing up at me with an apologetic smile.
I wondered again what she thought about me. Me, a well-dressed white woman with my blue lap top, cell phone, and a stack of test papers between us. But there was more between us. Does she know that I've never worked all day just so I could buy some food to eat that night? Does she know I've never prayed to God that my child wouldn't die or taken medicine to keep my terminal illness at bay? I studied her and guessed we must be about the same age. But it is hard to tell... her dark eyes are deep and wise with the lifetimes they have seen. It seemed I had waited too long for a response - her hand reached up to cover her eyes, and I could see that it was trembling.
"It's ok. It's ok!" I said. She was nervous and embarrassed, and I thought maybe she was about to cry. Then I felt a sting at the back of my own eyes, because I hated to be the one to make her feel so vulnerable. I blinked quick and told myself I was just feeling emotional from getting up before 5am to make the 6 hr. trip up to Gulu. The afternoon heat and the continual English assessments were having their toll on me as well.
Suddenly, she put down her hand, and her eyes were clear. She gave me that lovely smile again, pointed to the mama in the picture with a baby on her hip, and in English she said, "mother."
All afternoon I assessed them. Some of them were old women with teeth missing and a scarf around their head. Some had their babies tied to their backs. A few seemed so thin and frail, and I knew that HIV had been harsh to their bodies. Only two of them could I really have an easy conversation with in English. Many of them had never been to school a day in their life - or else they had only gone to school 2 or 3 yrs. Either their parents had had no money to pay school fees (if they did have parents growing up), or had given preference to the boys in the family to go school. Then, many of them had been abducted into Joseph Kony's LRA army.
But now Watoto's Living Hope is giving them a new chance to start over. It is an amazing outreach ministry to women who are either HIV positive or have been abducted by the LRA. For one year, they will come to the Living Hope Center either in Gulu or in Kampala, and they will learn a marketable skill with their hands, receive counseling, learn some English, and, mostly, importantly, learn how much Jesus loves them.
I was asked just a few weeks ago to help out with the literacy aspect of Living Hope by writing assessments, curriculum, and teaching classes at the Kampala center. My degree is ESL, so, of course, I am thrilled to use it with this special ministry. But, I've also been ... oh, what's the word??... doubtful, overwhelmed, nervous... there are about 500 women in the program now, and I've only a few weeks to get all the curriculum written, and all my ESL books/ lesson plans are in a box somewhere in storage in the US. And I do love teaching, but what do I really know about writing a year's worth of curriculum and tests for three different learning levels?
On Monday this week, I walked into the LH center in Gulu with a little knot in my stomach while giving myself something of a pep-talk. Monday was the ladies' first day of classes, so I bet they had little knots in their stomachs as well. At the end of the day, we asked the women what they had learned that day. One stood up and said she learned to write an "E." The room erupted in claps and kalulu (a shrill, rolling shout of jubilation). Another stood up and said she could now count to 5 in English -same excited response from everyone. On and on, then finally a pretty, young girl in the back of the room spontaneously started singing in Acholi, while everyone else repeated what she sang. What an amazing, powerful voice she had! My Ugandan friend translated some of the song for me, then she nodded toward the pretty girl and said, "That one was abducted to be a child-wife for a solider." Some of the women were crying; all had their hands raised. They were giving God deep gratitude for a new beginning, a second chance. I thought about how brave they are. Such beautiful, brave women- to have never been treated with dignity, yet still have the boldness to believe that they deserve it; to think that they can have more value in their communities than digging, fetching water, and nursing their babies; to be 60 and willing to learn again, to make her last years her best years. So brave to "tema, tema." Try, try. How silly I've been to focus on my own insecurity! If these ladies are willing to come with trembling hands and brave hearts to learn, then I can stretch myself and give them my best.
by the way, here's a brief video about Living Hope, if you want to watch it.