There is a boy in our group of kids who has the depth in his eye of an old man. The set of his jaw always indicates he is thinking deeply. Those were my first thoughts when I saw the original photos of him, and the more I get to know him the more these observations are engraved as truth. It should be no surprise that Denis is the top student in his class at school. He has a quiet mouth and an active mind. He hungers to understand.
As we drove deep into the village to reunite him with his jjajja he sat on the edge of his seat clutching the bag of gifts we brought for her. He was seeing his home again and he was excited. He gave Robert excellent directions on how to find her well hidden home. We parked in front and went to the door. No one was home. But she knew we were coming. I urged Denis to take the bag into the home and see if she were sleeping. He put it on the chair and said “she’s out digging”. So he showed us the way to where she grows food.
We followed Denis down the road where it ends in a big forest. I was thinking to myself, “I hope he doesn’t take us too far in there, we may not come out”. Of course thoughts of creepy critters and fears of rabid monkeys tantalized my mind. A walk in the woods in Texas is not exactly a walk in the bush of Africa. I don’t forget that truth ever.
Thankfully an old woman with a hoe over her shoulder and a young man with a large sack full of food came out of the bush and began to walk along the road towards us. Denis said, “That’s her!” I was so relieved. An American child would have run into the arms of the woman, but there’s a greater degree of formality between Ugandan children and the adults in their lives. As she approached us she recognized Denis and the smile on her face was radiant. When we met in the street Denis knelt before her holding her hands. I also felt her look me up and down with a little bit of suspicion. She offered me her forearm to shake because her hand was dirty and we walked back to her small home.
The man with her is a neighbor who helps her with the work of digging and raising chickens and pigs. I liked it so much to know she is not completely alone. But then again I don’t know anyone in Uganda who is lonely, they take good care of one another. The young man put his old black transistor radio with a tin foil and coat hanger antennae into the arm of a tree. We stood under the tree and talked above the noise of the radio until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I turned the volume all the way down. I apologized with my look to the young man, I know he was proud to have this possession.
She looked younger than the other jjajjas but much older than the aunties. She looked about my age. I asked the woman, “are you his jjajja?” She smiled a bit ironically and said “ask the boy what he calls me”. Denis said, “she’s my mom.” So I asked how did you become his mom? And she told me, it’s a long story. Well, I’ve got time but I wasn’t sure she was going to share.
She assessed me to see if I was worthy of this story. Then she began to talk. “In this village everyone knows everyone even though we might live very far apart. I knew of the boy’s father but I didn’t know him well. The dad died in his home and no one found him for two days while Denis searched alone for food and water. He was four years old. When someone told me he was alone I said bring him to me, I will take care of him. And that’s how he became my son.”
Tears began to fall from her eyes, and she continued, “When the opportunity came for him to go to live with you I knew it was best for him. I can’t pay for his education. People keep stealing my chickens and pigs and we hardly have enough to eat. I was thankful he could have the chance like this but he is the only child in my whole life. Her voiced cracked. I miss him so much.”
She wiped her eyes and walked away to tend to the pot of food she had cooking. Denis had his face dropped and he was intently focused on a seed he held in his fingers. I know it must be hard to see her cry because she misses him. He might feel a little guilt since he is so happy and he likes his new life in our home. I became overwhelmed with feelings for her as I realized what a great sacrifice she made for his benefit. My heart loved her. I wanted to hug her but she wasn’t having the same loving feeling towards me. I am the one who could provide for him better than she could and I am not sure she is at peace with that yet. I am not sure I was either.
She came out from the shanty like structure where her food was cooking carrying a large plate of steaming yams. I want all of you to eat this now because I know it is Denis’ favorite. The kids held a piece and nibbled. She piled freshly dug yams into our van and said “you will cook these for Denis right?” Of course. She told me, I would come with you right now to see where he lives, but I look like this. She pointed to her soil stained clothes. I told her to exchange phone numbers with Robert and they can arrange for her to come to our home have a meal and see what we do. She liked that idea.
As the children climbed into the van I felt the need to give her a thank you gift so I got one of the bracelets I bought to sell and put it on her wrist. I told her “thank you for your sacrifice. You are most welcome at Kirabo Seeds.” I believed she knew I understood her. She turned the tables on us. Usually the jjajjas are thanking us profusely for helping, and here she had me doing the same to her. And this way felt right to me. Denis was never a burden to her, he was the bright light in her life.
I was deeply moved as we drove away. It was the first time I fully understood how deeply loved some of these children were and what a sacrifice they made to let them come to us. She didn’t want him growing up uneducated raising pigs and digging barefoot in the bush all his life. She could see his mind was strong and hungry. She let him go.
If I were in her position I am not sure I could be so selfless. I have a hard enough time thinking of Jordan going away to college next year. Meeting her, hearing her story, and seeing her pain changed me. I respect her very much and I hope to visit her again next time I am in Uganda.
We drove away before she found the gifts we left in her home. I know she will like the photos of her and Denis together. I will bring more next time. I know they would all enjoy a small photo book of the life the children have at Kirabo Seeds. I think next time I visit I will bring that gift.