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When a Ugandan woman offered me her child

This is a post I wrote back when we went to Uganda, but never got around to putting it up!

“Husbands,” she said. “That is our biggest problem.” They give their wives a meager allowance, beat them when there isn’t enough food, and beat them again when they ask for money to buy more food. An Acholi woman recently described this cycle when we attended a meeting of her women’s association under a tree in Lira, Uganda. In Pader and Kitgum – towns further north and more affected by the war – women complain of HIV contracted through rape by the rebel army, the struggle to feed their illegitimate children, and the stigmatization they face from families who feel angry that their daughter served the rebel cause, even if she was abducted and forced to kill or be killed.*

“Can you give us money for school fees?” they asked us. “We have all taken in orphans, but we can’t afford to pay their school fees.” Christina and I explained the Global Grassroots model of giving money to support sustainable social ventures instead of individuals; in other words, no hand-outs. But they really wanted a donation. We’d been warned about this ‘Dependency Syndrome’ in the north: after living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps where their every need was provided for by NGOs and there was no real need to work, some people are struggling to adjust back to normal society.

“We try to hold a training and I’m in the middle of introducing myself when someone says, “What are you giving us? Food? Money?’ “No, I’m giving you training’”, explained an NGO leader in Kampala, betraying her frustration. When the women in Lira tried another tactic and asked me to buy an overpriced, unattractive and unfinished pot, I stared at the lumpy clay and sloppy silver paint and tried to remember that some of them had probably lived over 20 years in the camps. They knew life could be sustained entirely by foreigners. I didn’t want to think about their children who were born in the camps and denied the experience of witnessing people working to support their families.

“What would I do with a pot like this?” I tried logic.
“Plant something.”
“How will I get it back to Kigali? It’s bigger than that child!” I tried logic with a bit of humor.
“Carry it.”
“It’s too big! And I don’t really like the color. If I take this pot now, you will find it on the side of the road in two kilometers.” I was straightforward, and they laughed again, finally accepting defeat.  We continued talking: about the war, the poor planting weather and finally our social change model and the conditions of women in Rwanda.  Two women, Josephine and Betty, spoke directly to us in English, indicating a decent education.  We acquiesced their requests for photos and stood up to go. But they couldn’t help one more appeal.

“Please, can you help us pay school fees? Or do you know a donor?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
A small boy, breast-feeding from one of the widows, was thrust towards me. “Will you take the child?”
I smiled. “Well, it’s either the pot or the child, choose one!”
They laughed. “The child! The child!” We all laughed, somewhat anxiously.

The next day, typing reports in a coffee shop in Kampala, my phone rang. “Hello?” It was Josephine, one of the English-speaking widows from Lira. She had bought credit for her pay-as-you-go cell phone to call me and wish us a safe journey to Rwanda.

“And tell the Rwandan women we say hi! Please send them our best wishes.”  Mixed in with their offers of pots and orphans and the undeniable burdens carried by women after the war was an interest in a sort of cross-cultural friendship. They were calling me because they felt a sort of kinship with other female victims of war. Or, depending how cynical I’ve become, just because they wanted to practice their English.
*Visit this link for more information about the LRA’s war in Northern Uganda. http://www2.invisiblechildren.com/history-of-the-war

One of the women we met in Lira, Uganda. Many of the women adopted orphans after the war and have children of their own, and they struggle to pay school tuition for all of them. I'm not completely sure, but I think I might have been able to take this child home...

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