When people look and talk so unlike me, it is easy to think of them as different. And it is harder to keep constant the thought that we have exactly the same motivations and goals for life: health, safety, freedom from want, peace. And we wish all these and more for our children.
When all of the children that I see in a place are barefoot, in tattered clothes, and covered with dust, it is difficult to keep track of the fact that this is upsetting. It somehow becomes the norm. But take one of these children and place them among my children and their friends, and it would be obvious. I want to hold on to this knowledge – the knowledge that how these children are living day to day is not okay.
Here are some of the things I have seen.
A woman tying a baby, a few months old, to her back. She had the baby on her back and the cloth over him. She pulled the cloth under her armpits and tied it in front. Then she bent forward at her waist and grabbed the cloth from under the baby’s bottom, pulled it tight, and tied it in front too. She straightened, picked up the things she was carrying, and continued walking down the dusty, red road.
School children, around kindergarten age, at St. Jude’s Children’s Home were practicing for the Municipality Nursery Competition in Music, Dance, and Drum. They were lined up outside the school rooms, dancing to the beat played on a huge drum by the Head of the School. Teachers were near them demonstrating the dance. Brian, a little boy in a wheelchair was joyfully pumping his arms in rhythm.
While Katie and I watched this, little boys from the preschool came out of their classroom to watch and cling to us. I picked up one who wouldn’t let go of me. He was so trusting and sweet. Katie finally noticed that his classmates were back at their studies and we had to knock to interrupt the class and send him back in.
The pediatric ward at Lacor is well lit and easy to see into around 9 PM. There are separate walled rooms inside but the top half is all windows, so you can see across the entire ward from any point. There are children everywhere you look. The pediatric ward has 105 beds but over 300 children are currently admitted. Every bed is full. Benches are lined with parents holding children along every wall and down the center of the waiting room in the middle of the building. Malaria is on the rise. In April of last year there were only 615 cases of malaria at the hospital, but in April this year there were already 2,756 cases. And the peak season for malaria has not yet arrived: there may easily be over 10,000 cases this June. But already some children are dying from a blood bank shortage.
Moses sat on the concrete porch in front of his house at St. Jude’s in one of the wheelchairs purchased with your donations to Social Promise. At first he was shy towards me, but then he reached out his hand and held mine while he smiled and smiled, alternately holding one of my hands and then the other in his.
So many, many children walking along the road barefoot, without parents. Often they are in their school uniforms (the look depending on the school: sometimes solid bright blue shorts and a checked blue shirt, other times solid navy shorts with a bright pink shirt). They are smiling and running to the market to get something for “break tea”, the 9 AM school break that will be their first meal of the day.
People picking through trash looking for something worth saving.
Men sweeping the dirt around village huts so the snakes will be visible.
People getting from place to place using a boda-boda, the motorcycle taxi. Women sitting sideways on the back like an old-fashioned horseback ride for a lady. The tens of boda drivers lined up outside the hospital who rush to offer us a ride every time we walk outside make us think it might be okay to ride one. Then at today’s Annual Workshop at Lacor, Institutional Director Dr. Martin Ogwang reminded us that the boda-boda is a prime killer of the Acholi people and asked how long we were going to tolerate it.
For me it is easy to mistake the differences here for a right to think of life in a whole different way. To think it is okay for women to have to walk miles on a dusty road with a baby strapped to their back, because every mother does this. To think that the children’s ward is fabulous because it is newer and more beautiful than the other wards. To think a boda-boda ride might be okay. To think if just a few children die from malaria this year that is not so bad. But I am trying hard to respect cultural difference while rejecting the power it has to renormalize my sense of what is right in this world. I’ll keep working at it. It is an ongoing battle; to maintain a sense of optimism without being naïve.