Bye-Bye going to bed hungry
On Christmas Eve day we were relaxing, baking cookies and enjoying the Christmas carols, and we had no real plans for adventure other than prepare a dinner for friends. Phiona arrived and found me in my room with Kira sleeping on my lap. I think I was considering having a doze off myself. She said, “Tonya, I have some friends who have an orphanage outside of Kampala and they are having a Christmas celebration with the kids today, why don’t you come to it with me.” I should have stopped and memorized that moment more thoroughly because at that time I had no inkling that my life would become altered by the adventure ahead. I shrugged and said, “Sure, let’s go”. I’d rather spend Christmas Eve with an orphanage than at a fancy party any day, not that we had a fancy party to visit. But we did have several people coming for a dinner Emily was preparing so we were promised we could fit in our orphanage outing and be back in time to finish the cooking.
I tucked a big box of blowpops I brought from home into the van, we loaded up and figured an hour ride was ahead. It took two and a half hours in the worst traffic jams I’ve seen since arriving in Uganda. Apparently this was one of the ways out of the city into the villages, and everyone was on their way to join their families for Christmas. Our driver Edde took control of the situation in such a way that I screamed for fear of my life. I suppose if he hadn’t we would still be sitting in that traffic. Emily was making a video of Kira laughing in the car, and me in the background screaming for my life as I watched the traffic situations through the windscreen.
When we arrived we knew we weren’t in Kampala any longer. This village is on the outskirts of the city and it is called Kyengera. They have electricity in the village, but this compound does not have it. Our van squeezed into the entrance. We found our way back to the courtyard which is surrounded by several rectangular brick buildings. There is the orphanage sleeping house, the church, the pastors house, a storage room for food (which was completely empty), and a small room for the “moms” or volunteer women who help with the bathing, cooking and dressing of the children. Instead of doors there is a cloth hanging and flowing with the cool breeze, and fluttering at the announcement of the comings and goings of children. Everyone was inside the church welcoming us with drumming. We were introduced to Pastor James and his wife Rebecca. He has a joyful countenance bright with smiles and a bounce in his gait, while she has a peaceful aura. I liked her immediately. She wore an African dress, bitenga, that I admired, full length, brightly colored and pleasing to her pretty shape. She helps to take care of the littler orphans, and allows them to sleep in her small home at night. They have six children of their own. Pastor James has the reputation as a mighty prayer warrior, I am so glad I am on his list.
The group had been waiting for us all to arrive for over an hour. They were eager to begin their celebration. There were young men playing the bongo drums at the entrance. That’s all I needed to get in the celebration mood, as African drums speak to a place inside me that once dreamed of living my life as a dancer. We were seated at the front near the stage and then the dancing began. Three young girls who live in the community and come to the orphanage to teach the children traditional Uganda dances took the stage and began to shake it like all good Africans do. We enjoyed it so much!
The friend of Phiona and his wife, Adams and Alitia, who run an organization, “Another Child International” are the ones who struggle to get food to the children here once a day. For a year and a half they have squeezed money from every possible opportunity to try and feed fifty children. They are more than accustomed to the hungry look in their eyes and the clutch of their stomachs and it has driven them to keep trying to get a meager meal on their plates, but they are mostly alone in their efforts. These children are offered a bowl of porridge in the morning and then in the afternoon they get posho and beans. Yes, sadly, that is all they can manage to do for fifty kids on a preachers salary and no outside help whatsoever. Adams admitted to me that it’s been so difficult and often discouraging he occasionally feels like giving up, but the look in the children’s faces when they have a full tummy and the faith that God will continue to provide keeps him fighting for the cause.
Adams took the stage and introduced us, “the mzungu guests of honor”, then he honored each of the moms with a cheery introduction as these are the women who volunteer to make sure these children take a bath every day, eat, get potty trained, wear clean clothes, and have a spot on the floor to sleep through the night. I watched them wave from the back of the room with broad smiles, and I couldn’t help but love them for what they spend their life doing. Pastor James took the microphone next, which was powered by a noisy generator in the courtyard. He spoke about Christmas and welcomed us, the visitors. There were more drums and dancing then it was announced the feast would begin! Christmas afterall is not celebrated here with gifts but with the knowledge that there would be more food than one could eat. For this celebration at the orphanage, I saw two bicyclists arrive at the back door with cases of orange soda loaded on the back as a rare treat for the children. The woman had been cooking in big pots over a coal stove in the courtyard mounds of posho, rice, gravy and for one time a year, meat. The children emptied out of the church through the back and formed a line from the serving point that wound around the buildings. The women literally piled these oval plates that were as big as platters for each child. The plate was bigger than some of the children’s heads. Each child carefully carried his treasure to a seat in the church and began to happily eat with their hands until all of it fit inside their tummys.
I was altered in my heart at the sight of these children lining up for their Christmas meal knowing it was the only time in the year they could afford meat to eat. I could sense the hunger in the way they ate steadily and quietly with big eyes watching us smile down at them. One little boy tipped the plate up to his mouth when he was nearly finished to slurp up the remaining gravy. I think that was the moment I knew there was no way I could leave this place and not work for their cause. But I was also overwhelmed by the intense need and it frightened me to care so much and see such precious children suffer. Many of their parents have died or abandoned them. There are thirty children who are actual orphans and sleep there, but there are nearly sixty or more who live in the village and are sent to the orphanage by their single mother who has eight or more mouths to feed and no way to provide. In some cases there are old grandmothers who have eight children they are caring for themselves and cannot manage an income on their own. These children are also fed at the orphanage. Adams says, “we cannot turn a hungry child away. “ His big heart and faithful service won me. I knew I was in, but I had no idea how I would proceed, yet I believed at that point I would hear from God who always directs my path clearly when I am willing to be obedient and stretch outside of my comfort.
After the meal was finished we gathered once more in the church where the girls danced and the boys drummed for us, their visitors, and in this way they were “releasing” us as a goodbye. Adams spoke once again, and then on the spot asked me to come give a message. Here I was again thrust into public speaking and my first instinct was to shrink. But I already loved these children and I wanted them to know we share the same love in America as we do here with our great and faithful God who continues to provide. I also shared the gospel with them. I shared Kira’s story with them and how she became a member of my family, and asked them not to lose hope because God has not forgotten a single one of them. He has a big plan for each child in that place. I closed by saying “mirembe”, may peace be with you.
I made no promises to anyone other than to pray for their ministry and to spread the word about what they are doing. Being the “boss” of the group is an uncomfortable position for me, I needed my husband, we needed to talk about the needs here. Without him, I feel like half of myself. I did give Adams and Alitia a Christmas card with the shilling equivalent of five hundred dollars. It is the money that you, my friends and family have so cheerfully given us to use in ministry here in Uganda. I haven’t ever seen a ministry that needed more help than this one so I figured this little amount at least would purchase one month worth of the basic food for the children. But, I knew in my heart there needed to be more done, I just wasn’t sure how.
We said good-bye to the children much sooner than anyone wanted us to do, but we were crunched with a dinner party to prepare and traffic to endure. I spent the ride home silently absorbing all I had seen and learned at this orphanage. It felt like dorothy’s house from the wizard of oz landing on my chest. I knew I didn’t need magic slippers to get it off, but rather God’s grace. I allowed the weight to sit there, and the feelings to swarm through me, and the melancholy of it all to morph into hope. I simply asked God to show me how to proceed without my fear obstructing His plan. And then I waited and prayed.
Meanwhile, the other half of my family was on their way to arrive in Uganda. I shared with Craig over our morning coffee what I had experienced. I was so affected I couldn’t accurately express what I had learned. I thought about showing him the photos but somehow I knew I had to take him to see it for himself. He has a softer heart than I do, and if he could experience a fraction of what I did, we could talk about it in a unified way. Our schedule was full while we were together as a family here in Kampala. We had one final day open and free, the day they were scheduled to fly back home. We had several offers and opportunities to visit friends or even make a trip to the botanical gardens to feed the monkeys bananas. I only asked Craig if he would prefer to relax and sightsee, or go visit the orphanage. We agreed to spend our last day with the children in Kyengera. Truthfully, no one really wanted to go because we were signing up for a heartache. But I knew it was what needed to happen. How could my whole family come together for this cause if we had not experienced the children and the environment together? It would be impossible. I knew my last job as leader in this cause was to introduce my husband and children to the needs and then he could take over as boss. What a relief.
So Friday morning Phiona joined us and we followed Adams and Alitia back to the orphanage. I suggested we stop at a market and buy pineapple for all of the children to get a special nutritional treat. So Edde pulled up on the road to a cart loaded with pineapples and we sent Phiona out to negotiate a good price since she is Ugandan and they wouldn’t do the “cha-ching” of seeing a mzungu. She got us twenty-five enormous pineapples for thirty dollars! Once she made the deal she signaled to us and we hopped out to transport all the fruit into the van. I wish you could have seen the look on the venders face when he realized he was really selling to mzungus. I knew what he was thinking so I told him, you did a good thing today, you are feeding these pineapples to children who only eat posho and beans once a day. I hoped this made him feel better, if it didn’t he needed a good slap up the side of his head.
Earlier that morning I was sitting with my coffee and thinking how badly I wanted these children to have milk to drink every day. It occurred to me that I could buy a couple cows. I had the money from my friends fund to do it, but what if no one was able to care for them. I just suggested it to Emily that we try to buy cows while we were here for them and she nearly screamed. She runs the dairy business for her family’s farm back home and she has knowledge and experience that could be useful in accomplishing this. We agreed to mention it to Adams and Alitia to see if it were possible.
When we arrived at the orphanage there were happy children playing who ran to greet us with big hugs. My boys were wide eyed as they began to mix into the children pumping hands and lifting up the little ones for a neck hug. We handed a pineapple to shaking hands eager of help and within minutes all the pineapples had been delivered to the courtyard resting against the edge of the church building. The children gathered around me as Kira was strapped to my baby carrier in the front. I asked them to sing a song for me and they all began to sing a beautiful song in their own language. Next they sang about God’s love in English. I asked Jack to do a dance for them, but he was feeling shy so he said no way. But they were eager to dance, as all Africans are, so Joseph- Adams brother who lives in the village and works daily with these children- gathered them up into a circle for a game where one person runs around inside the circle to choose the next performer and dances in front of the chosen one to pass the baton. They played this for half an hour with Kevin and Jack taking their turns. It was a happy scene and I soaked it all in while my boys enjoyed the play.
Adams took Craig on a tour and shared with him about his plans for the area. They are currently renting the space and it is very expensive. Renting also prohibits any improvements because the owner could see the advancements and decide to kick everyone out and keep the asset for himself. This is how business is done here, sadly. (Can you imagine kicking a bunch of orphans and a church out so you could enjoy the electricity and a new chicken coop?) Adams believes he could buy all the buildings and a good piece of land for twenty-five thousand dollars, and then he could begin to make improvements for the children and church there because he wouldn’t be paying rent or live in fear of being chased out. He hopes to build a vegetable garden so the children and widows can work it for the food they eat. Jordan said, I want you to have chickens so the kids can eat eggs every day. He then promised to give all the money he brought with him so they could buy chickens and begin raising them to lay eggs. The extra eggs could be sold in the village to help earn income. This was the first time I ever saw Jordan moved to such personal sacrifice and generosity. My heart swelled as I could really see God working through my son.
It was time to begin slicing the pineapple. Emily, Jordan and Phiona and Rebecca worked quickly to extract all the fruit from the pineapples filling two large plastic tubs with spears. The children lined up quietly, got their hands washed by pouring water form a jerrican over them and then they were given the pineapple. The littlest ones cut the line as soon as they finished their first piece and some returned for as many as four. When children are given a treat, the girls all curtsy low and the boys bow to one knee to show their thanks. It gave us all so much joy to watch these children enjoy as much pineapple as they could eat. This is what I would call a good day.
I mentioned to Adams I wanted to buy a cow, and Emily wanted to buy a cow so the children could have milk. Would that be possible? He nearly fell to the ground. Two weeks before the pastor’s wife came to him and said she wanted to begin a dairy business to help earn income for everyone by selling milk and making yogurt if he could supply her with the cows. Her husband was once a cattle keeper, so he has much experience caring for cows. Here in this country the primary symbol of wealth is having a cow. Having milk to drink ensures good health and long life. We agreed that before Emily and I leave for America we would try and deliver the first milk to the children from their own cows! We had a big project in front of us. Adams has a friend who works for Museveni, the president, who has hundreds of the best type of milking cows and so they are arranging to begin negotiations and shopping, with Emily at their side as the expert in purchasing a quality cow.
Can you see how God had all of this pre-arranged? Emily’s expertise. ..Rebecca’s request to help with a dairy… The pastor’s prior experience with cattle… Adams’ friend with cows…my urgency as a mama to get milk to the children for their health… I stand in awe of our great God and the way he organizes his will to be done through us when we are willing. I do not believe in coincidence. I believe in a sovereign God.
The story does not end here. My husband decided to raise the money to pay for the cost of the food for the orphans for one year so they could then begin to invest in ways to sustain the orphanage on their own. He proposed to the boys they get busy coming up with fund raisers to bring income and awareness to the needs of these children so they can eat more than corn, beans and porridge every day. Jack said he will sell cupcakes to raise money to feed the kids. Jordan was all over the chicken coop project talking about bringing back a group of teenagers to build the coop and buy chicken feed. Donny began to think about how he could use his music and get his friends on Baylor’s campus to get behind the cause. Kevin is willing to help in anyway. Emily is all about the cow business and her parents are eager to participate with great honor and excitement. I hope by sharing the story and the photos and the needs of these beautiful children we can make their lives better. Give them a hope for a future where they are healthy and educated and loved. I cannot bear the thought of a child being left behind, forgotten, overlooked or denied the basic elements of being human. We can do a little and make a big difference for these children.
Adams gathered everyone into the church after our talk. He introduced us. He thanked me for listening to God and bringing back my whole family so we can begin a special relationship with the people there. He then said to the children, “do you know what today means? Today is the day you can say ‘bye-bye to going to bed hungry’ because The LaTorre family is going to raise money to pay for you to eat for a whole year, and they are going to buy cows so you can drink milk, and chickens so you can eat eggs”. The church cheered. The women whooped. He asked the children to repeat after him, “bye-bye going to bed hungry”. They began to chant it with cheers and arms waving. I broke out the tears. So did Craig. So did Emily. Our lives will never be the same. We have a great cause to care for and help so lost children can grow healthy, without fear, and to know the love of God reaches far and wide. All we asked in return is they not thank us, or give us a bit of credit, but to only thank God who chose to work through us. We are just simple messengers of what God is going to accomplish and we have faith that He will.
***I have to post this without photos. I would rather not but I hear someone two feet tall screaming for me alone. It’s been a bad day for her. I’ll post the photos as soon as she will give me some peace. I know you understand.