Click here to read Part One.
Here in this image of children playing on the grounds of God Cares School in Kampala, I see the promise of Uganda’s future.
In the background, a few of the older kids enjoy a break from their studies. It’s the kind of carefree moment they seldom experienced before receiving the gift of an education. Leaving behind an all too brief childhood, their days became ones of extreme hardship as they worked long hours to help support their families. Fathers were, and are, rarely present.
Without the benefit of schooling, the cycle of systemic poverty that plagues this nation would likely have been repeated within their own families. Their future would not have been bright.
In the forefront of the photo, two recent arrivals, most likely brother and sister, are adjusting to their new lives. Their feeling of uncertainty is palpable, as they look up with wide-eyed wonder, but also with a certain soberness, at the group of American volunteers. It’s hard to take in, all this strange commotion disrupting their daily routine.
The children’s uniforms are far from neat. The boy’s socks are mismatched, his shoes worn. The girl’s shiny black Mary Jane’s are stained, and not exactly practical for playing in the red dirt of an African schoolyard. They’re the kind of details that parents take care of before sending their kids off to school—except that most of these children don’t have parents. Just overworked “house matrons” in two separate dormitories filled with 40 or so children.
A Woman of Substance
I had the honor of meeting one such house matron by the name of Sarah. Sarah is undeniably a beautiful woman—inside and out. Her pride in her appearance belies her impoverished circumstances. And yet she considers herself rich, and not just in the spiritual sense.
As I approached her “bedroom” in the dorm, Sarah smiled, motioning me, in motherly fashion, to sit down on the bed next to her. It was immediately apparent that she was proud of her little corner, a drab, cramped space with peeling walls and a sagging twin mattress. A vivid, multi-colored woven rug served as the single piece of “decor.” Only a thin curtain separated her from a dormitory filled with noisy children, one of whom was her own son. But to hear Sarah tell it, it was a palace compared to the place she had lived in before.
Her life before finding this job was hard for most of us in the West to fathom. Wed to a Christian pastor, her husband decided early on in their marriage to return to Islam, where, according to Sarah, he could “enjoy” the benefits of polygamy. At the time, Sarah had been diagnosed with bone and joint tuberculosis. She was also six months pregnant with their child.
Despite her precarious situation, she left her husband, unwilling to violate either her beliefs or her dignity. It was an immensely courageous step to take, considering she had no means of visible support in a country already beleaguered by rampant poverty.
“You’ll Never Walk Again”
Within a few months, Sarah was sent to Kenya to undergo a caesarean section. Given that her bones had been eaten away from the TB, they had to perform the operation through her back. The prognosis wasn’t good. “You’ll never walk again” the doctors told her, relegating her to spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair. This wasn’t a cheesy line spoken by a TV doctor in a Lifetime TV movie. This was real life.
Today, Sarah walks, bends and does everything the doctors said she’d never do. She attributes this to “a miracle from God.” Faith is everything to Sarah, and, besides her miraculous recovery, she also believes it’s the reason that she has her job as dorm matron.
” I was in a bad way,” Sarah shared with me. “I had received one miracle, now I needed another one if I was to support my son and give him what I never had— an education. I knew it was his only hope.”
Thankfully, Sarah’s prayers were answered. Within a few weeks, a friend of hers who worked at the school, managed to get her a job there as well. And as often happens to those with unshakeable faith, Sarah received “above and beyond what she could ask or think.” Her six-year-old son, Misusera, was allowed to live with her at the school, and soon she had the kind of caring and supportive community that most single moms can only hope for.
As I got up to leave, Sarah handed me a list. “It’s my ‘Wish List,'” she whispered softly. I was taken aback by what I read. Expecting to read a list of things she wanted for herself, or maybe even of her dreams and aspirations, instead was a scrawled list of items that she wanted for “her kids”—the orphans under her charge.. “Vaseline, net hooks [for mosquito nets], school shoes for Kato, bed sheets for Jovan” … the list went on.
Strictly speaking, teachers, matrons and sponsored children are not allowed to make personal requests of visiting volunteers, as these donation requests must be handled according to set procedures. Learning that, I handed “Sarah’s List” over to the appropriate person. But I certainly didn’t fault Sarah for making it. How could I? To say Sarah’s “heart was in the right place” would be a gross understatement.
We parted with Sarah’s final words to me lingering in my ears. “Thank you so much for having a good heart.” I found it hard to reply with, “You’re welcome.” Because really, what did I do? Not much, in my estimation. I also knew for certain that were I to make a list of my own needs and wants, it would not look anything like hers. I’d also struggle to find joy in living in such meager circumstances, with no space hardly any space to call my own. Perhaps in time I’d adjust and be a better person for it. It’s hard to say.
Change a Life. Shape a Nation.
The only thing I do know for certain is that when and if we suddenly find ourselves being stripped of everything we’ve ever known or found comfort in—most of which are mere props on a stage—is when we find out who we really are. But I think it’s best not to wait for circumstances to expose that inner core. Rather, we should take the necessary steps to become the person we’d like to be now—while we still can. And to do all in our power to ensure that our children become the men and women God destined them to be. This is what will shape a nation.
Meanwhile, I have hope for Uganda’s future—hope in knowing that brave and compassionate people like Sarah exist. And hope that there’s a better-than-average chance that her son, Misusera, will become the kind of citizen that makes a mother—and a country—proud. Both she, and the teachers of God Cares School, who tirelessly pour their lives into shaping destinies, will make sure of that.
Click here to read Part One.