24 July, 2006
More than of anyplace else I’ve ever been I don’t know how to tell of northern Uganda. To put down facts of suffering does nothing to relay the experience of this place. I only know how much I want to share what has too many facets to be described.
The earth is dry sand packed solid then baked by the brightest sun you’ve ever seen. Most Acholi adults are taller than me. Given the powerful sun, I have to cast my eyes toward the dull brown ground instead of lifting my eyes to the friendly faces of adults who wish to try out a conversation with me (with my very limited knowledge of the Acholi language my conversations would be very short anyway). The children, on the other hand, are right in my line of vision.
We are in Mari-Opei, only 16 uninhabited kilometers from the Sudanese border. We are at the foothills of a mountain range which embraces this northern region of Uganda. Here the landscape is flat, dry and bare as the children’s feet which are calloused and thick. There is a determined gritty sound that tough bare feet make against the dry packed earth. It’s a sound that runs up my spine when I’m not thinking of it, like nails on a chalkboard - only heartbreaking. Not that the shoeless children feel themselves at all unfortunate. At the moment they are gathered around the place where I’ve stopped, next to their open recess field. Most have never been so close to a person as light-skinned as me. My color can make babies cry and small children scream in fearful delight. They gather wide-eyed and curious, ready to bolt at any sudden move I might make.
This is the birthplace of Fr. Robert Obol, the priest studying in Ohio who invited me to visit his country. Next to the school is a tree planted years ago (the large trees were planted by the British, I am told). To my non-horticulturist eye, trees here seem to be all root and branches. There is no trunk, only long thin growths stretching to the ground and branches running horizontal before reaching for the bright sun above. Under the shade of a tree is a wooden table with six chairs. The school uses this shady spot as its office. A big branch of the tree stretches forth and has a radio hanging from it. It is tuned to BBC News. From this flat land, embraced by distant mountains, in the span of less than ten minutes, I heard reports of an attack on a market in Iraq, of people suffering following a bombing in Mumbai and evacuations of Lebanon.
While I sat, wanting to soak up the reality of the world news, more children gathered around in clothes mostly donated from distant lands. This was one of my first days in Mari-Opei. I had yet to realize that the clothes they wore that day would be the only clothes I would see them in; one outfit was all they had so all they wore day in and day out. When the buttons fall off their thin shirts they sew the shirts shut rather than spend precious resources on buttons. To spite the lack of quality in their clothes, I am struck by the quality of their eyes. To think of it now brings tears to my own. They have very little hair, their skin is fresh and dark, their eyes bright and white. First they fear my look; their eyes dart away if they happen to meet mine. Then, somehow, in only moments, courage is found. One meets my eyes, then another and soon I have twenty or more sets of bright truthful vulnerable eyes meeting mine. We have no language in common, until they start to teach me to count. In unison they begin to shout: Acel… Aryo… Adek…
I have been blessed to have visited many places. None is like this.