Updated: May 21, 2021
Richard, the social worker at Solid Rock, and I were going to visit the houses of two brand new P1 students: Fibi (pronounced like Phoebe) and Jackson. We walk through the hot, dusty bush to get to Fibi’s house first. I don’t think I can stress hot and dusty too much. The wind is gusty today, giving the whole arid place the feel of an impoverished western frontier town, but in Africa. It’s the kind of hot and dusty that makes your eyes dry and water at the same time. We approach Fibi’s house followed by the usual smattering of village kids curious to see what the white person is doing there.
As soon as they see us coming, members of the household pull out plastic deck chairs in bright blue for us. Plastic deck chairs in bright colors are a staple around here, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice from even the most meager of households. I have never met people with such a capacity for sitting with guests. These bright plastic chairs make any guest feel quite honored to be visiting.
Settling ourselves into these two bright blue thrones, Richard and I look around for Fibi. Her mom emerges from the hut and settles herself comfortably on the ground at our feet, as is the custom with respected guests and a limited number of chairs to go around. The assorted women of the household–whether they are sisters or aunts I can’t tell–sit under the eves of their grass-thatched hut to watch and listen. With respect, Richard begins to ask in Lugbara all about Fibi’s family and her household. Aside from the singular english words like “toilet” and “mattress,” I don’t understand a thing. As I’m trying to follow along from the questions on the questionnaire that Richard is holding, I see a small baby, just barely able to walk, emerge from the hut. She’s wearing a neatly made, slightly too-big bright orange dress. Toddling quickly yet clumsily towards her mother, she reaches out her hands and climbs into mom’s lap. Then, mother reaches under her shirt, takes her breast out by her hand, and the baby, with determined grip and thirsty lips begins to suckle. I’m so taken aback at this exposed moment of a completely natural thing that I hastily avert my eyes, but I don’t think the mother minds. It’s amazing how accustomed you get here to things that to us are totally out of the ordinary. Richard asks to see where Fibi sleeps, so we walk into their hut. As all the houses are, it’s very dark, and as clean as dirt can be. Fibi sleeps behind a curtain that divides the hut in half, on a thatch mat next to her family. No mattress, no pillow. It’s a testament to the poverty here that I look at that and think “not bad.” Richard starts asking about Fibi’s medical history. Though she is but 5 years old, she’s had malaria and parasites. Fibi herself doesn’t smile or cast more than a glance at us. She sits on the ground looking at our feet. She looks sad, lonely. Nothing like her older sister, who has been at Solid Rock for two years and is all smiles and posing for the camera. I wonder if her sister also used to be sullen, and if Fibi too will come out of her shell and be happy at Solid Rock. Their mother is, by what I can tell, beyond thankful. She is so attentive to us, so welcoming to Richard, and eager to accept when he offers to pray for her and her family. I wonder at the fact that people who have so little, and rejoice at the mere chance to send their children to elementary school, can often have so much faith.
Bidding farewell to them, we walk about 100 yards up the road to Jackson’s house. We are greeted in a similarly respectful fashion, and bidden to sit on the one bench outside the door. Jackson’s sister runs up, topless, with some dirty leggings on, wrapping a soiled scarf around her bare chest. She looks at us, and goes inside. A little later, she emerges in a dress. Or, what once was a dress. This dress, in America, would have long ago been destined, not for the thrift store, but for the rubbish pile. The upper layer of the skirt is totally missing from the front and right side, and hanging on by a thread to the left. There is a long rip from the belly button to the back around the middle, so she ties a scarf to keep it up. There was once a white collar that is now the color of red, dusty dirt succumbed to by everything here that once was white. This is the most sorry excuse for a dress that I have ever seen anyone wear, and it was what she rushed hastily to put on when guests came.
The mother of Jackson turns to me and says something in Lugbara. Richard translates: “She is wondering if the people where you come from know what our life is like, how vulnerable we are?” With nothing else to say, I answer, camera in hand, “That is why I am here. To tell them.” As I write this now, I realize that I can’t sponsor all of these children. I can’t donate thousands to build their classrooms that will hopefully be in use long after we are gone. But just like Mick and Elaine a year ago said to me, “come and see,” I can take my camera and in a small way say to those I know “come and see.” $35 a month may not seem like much. But even if you never write a single letter, there is a mom and a child out there whose lives are impacted forever by that gift. The hope that Jackson’s mom has–he is the first child of hers to be sent to school– is palpable. Sometimes I look at these circumstances, and don’t see much hope. But thanks to Solid Rock and Zozu Project, she does, and that hope is worth everything in the world.