The past few days at CVI have been tiring, though-provoking, and beautiful. Everyone has welcomed me warmly, and we’re quickly becoming friends.
CVI’s center in Lukodi houses 24 girls, their 30 children, and staff. Of their current girls, most grew up in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. One was abducted and forced to serve as a child soldier during the LRA conflict. Many are from northern Uganda, but some are also from South Sudan. Almost all the girls have children ranging from newborn (just visited her in the hospital!) to 7 years old. Since the girls grew up in camps and war zones, they missed a lot of school and weren’t able to learn basic life skills to care for themselves and their children. The highest literacy rate among the girls is a 6th grade reading level, and many are much lower than that. At CVI, the girls go through an 18 month program where they learn basic hygiene, gardening, cooking, and vocational skills they can use to support themselves. They take classes in tailoring, hair dressing, cooking & baking, and sweater weaving. Most of all, they live in a supportive community.
The girls are friendly and kind, but my favorite part of living at the center is the kids—they are so adorable and there are so many of them! Every time I walk by I get swarmed by little children wanting to play. They want to hold my hand, kick the football (soccer ball), sit in my lap, go for piggy back rides, and be chased. I was sitting at the table in the pavilion trying to type on my computer when four kids came over to sit next to me. We started playing telephone where you hold your hand to your ear and call each other. I used my limited Acholi, and they laughed. Soon, they were reaching for my keyboard, typing random symbols, and deleting whole sentences. I surrendered. I took them out to the grass and started chasing them. Squeals of laughter rang out through the center. Hearing the fun, more kids came to join! I ran and ran, tagging each of them until I couldn’t run anymore. Exhausted, I collapsed onto the grass, and they piled on top of me! I lay there and thought, “How blessed I am to be sitting here in the African sun surrounded by a sea of such beautiful smiling faces.” Then those mischievous little angels started tickling my bare feet! I couldn’t even protect myself because four of them were sitting on top of me holding me hostage! Finally, I managed to jump up and began chasing them again.
I live in a very nice hut (complete with large, friendly spiders) that offers a cool relief from the scorching Ugandan sun and use latrines and bucket showers. There’s no electricity, but we have solar lamps and they run the generator for a few hours each night. We eat all our meals together, and almost everything is grown here on the CVI farm. Breakfast is always cassava and tea. At first the cassava was hard to eat, but I’m starting to like it. Meat is served once a week on Saturdays, and it’s always very fresh. Otherwise we have rice or posho and beans and some kind of green. Once we had sweet potatoes, which were really good! My stomach hasn’t quite adjusted to the high starch diet, but pepto bismol and immodium are taking care of that!
The first few days I experienced as much as I could with the girls. I helped them plant maize in the garden—it was hot, backbreaking work! The girls showed me to take a stick, dig a hole, plop one kernel of maize in the hole, cover it up, and repeat for row after row. I was quite slow compared to them! The girls are also teaching me Acholi—I’ve learned quite a lot! But I think my pronunciation is wrong because they laugh every time I ask, “Ni ni nga?” (What is your name?) The girls also love Snapchat! At night when we’re gathered after dinner, they love to use my phone and play with the Snapchat filters—they make some hilarious videos.
One of the girls, Beatrice, showed me how to wash clothes—it was quite the process! First, we hauled water up from the borehole. Watching the girls balance the heavy jerry cans on their heads is an impressive sight! We then placed my clothes in my washing bucket, poured water on them, and scrubbed them with a blue, lathery soap. After scrubbing for a while, we rinsed and wrung the water out of the clothes then washed them again. I thought we were done, but nope, Beatrice pulled out a second soap! This one was white and powdery, and she used it to wash the clothes again! I think she washed and scrubbed each piece of clothing about 5 times—they were cleaner than when they come out of the washing machine back home! Finally, we hung them on the line to dry (inside out to preserve the color from the sun). We had to remember to bring the clothes in before dark or the cows would eat them.
When the girls put away their laundry, they keep their clothes in bags, so they can quickly grab them and run in case the fighting returns. They have few possessions, so they can carry everything they own. While the LRA has moved away from northern Uganda and the area has enjoyed peace for several years, the girls were brought up with this flight mentality. Back in the U.S., I like to think that I don’t live extravagantly and that I work hard for what I get, but the girls work just as hard and possess great talents, except war has hindered them from developing all their skills. I’m shocked and almost ashamed what different lifestyles and opportunities are available to me just because I was born on the other side of the world.