If you haven't read about Joseph Kony, let me give you the Cliffs Notes version.
Kony leads the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). (That's present tense. In other words, he's still alive and free. After you read the next few sentences, you're going to be sick that, as a species, we have not rounded up this whack-a-doo and put him in a dark hole somewhere.)
Uganda went through roughly three dictators during the first 25 years after it gained its independence from Britain in 1962. Each new dictator laid siege to the country, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered.
In 1986, current president Yoweri Museveni rose to power much like his predecessors, through military force (who needs voting when you have tanks); however, Museveni finally brought some level of stability to the country. Until Kony showed up. Kony (pronounced like "Coney" Island) began a civil war a few years later that raged until the mid-2000s. This would be the darkest chapter in Uganda's history.
Kony's LRA, which blends a variety of religious extremes into a cult cocktail, claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions. He sold women and children as sex slaves. He abducted, tortured, mutilated and murdered his way to infamy. Despite his countless atrocities, he is most remembered for his child soldiers. Kony abducted thousands of children, often making them kill their own family or fellow villagers, then handed them AK-47s, making them fight in a war they couldn't comprehend.
The war with Museveni's government was waged mainly in northern Uganda, primarily near Gulu, where I'm staying. The Watoto guest house is less than 2 miles from Gulu road. The same road that provided me quite the adventure the day before was apparently the highway to hell a decade ago. People only traveled it with a military convoy.
Kony was finally driven out of Uganda and South Sudan in 2006. He's apparently hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo, still leading the LRA. Since he was vanquished, Uganda has begun to rebuild and take inventory of what was lost. Wars and dictators have stunted the country's growth. In almost every way (infrastructure, medical, educational), the country remains woefully outdated, and at least two generations have vanished because of war. This is part of the reason why 51 percent of Uganda is 15 years or younger.
But there is hope - living hope.
On day 6, we spend the morning helping prep the guest house for a large group of Australian volunteers who will arrive within the week. It's an eye dropper of thanks for the waterfall of generosity we've experienced.
We then travel to Living Hope. Watoto operates two Living Hope centers (one in Kampala, one in Gulu) for women who were victims of the war with Kony. Much like the children's villages provide a second chance for the orphans, Living Hope offers a safe haven for about 2,000 women, many of whom were abducted and sold into slavery. Living Hope provides education, counseling and an opportunity to learn business skills.
We pass an open air market on the way to the center. The day is steamy already, but the market is bustling. I'm taken aback by the items available - everything from nuts and bolts to blankets and trinkets. It even looks like there are a few mass produced items. Are those yellow and pink beach towels? Clearly, tourism is creeping into the culture. I want to see if those items are made in China, but no time to stop.
We arrive at Living Hope, and we are greeted by our hostess Gladys. She wears a purple shirt with the word "dignity" emblazoned on it. Her toothy smile glows. She's the model tour guide: professional, positive and pleasant.
Living Hope is in a small compound - about an acre or so of land - surrounded by walls painted an orange terra-cotta hue. A handful of buildings, mostly open air classrooms, interconnect with paved sidewalks. Gladys leads us through the classrooms. As we enter each room, the women politely stand, and a few greet us with the traditional African yip. Movies in the West portray this call in a certain slapstick manner, but as a greeting, you quickly understand it's a sign of joy and respect.
In this particular classroom, the Living Hope women are studying "forgiveness." At best, these women have been abandoned or displaced. Most likely they have been abducted, tortured and sold into slavery. Now they're willing to learn about forgiveness. When was the last time I held onto some form of unforgiveness. Ah, yes, when that guy stole my parking place at Walmart. Africa provides yet another punch to my priorities.
Down an outdoor corridor and into another building, we find a 20-by-40 room filled with five rows of Singer sewing machines. These aren't the latest models, more like antiques, all powered by foot cranks, but they are alive with activity. The Living Hope ladies spend part of their time making dolls and other items that are sold to support the program.
The room hums with rhythmic action as the ladies sing and talk. The buzz of the machines serves as a subtle harmony. As a seasoned seamstress, Vicki decides to give the foot-cranked machine a spin. The thread snaps a few times. She snarls. She laughs. She blushes. Soon, though, she manages a few successful stitches. Everyone is pleased.
After touring the day care, which Watoto provides so the mothers can attend classes, and seeing where they make fresh peanut butter, we find ourselves back in the main meeting space. It's a simple structure - open on three sides with a tin roof and smooth cement floors.
We're adjacent to a classroom. As we chat, the ladies in the room begin to sing. The dialect is Acholie (pronounced aa-cho-lee), which is spoken mainly is Northern Uganda. I ask Gladys to interpret. "They are saying, God is good. God is great. He overcomes everything.'"
Every day, there is a moment so raw and honest it sucks the air out of my lungs and leaves a lump in my throat. This is the first on this day. It will not be the last.
We depart Living Hope and travel to Laminadera, the third of Watoto's children's villages. The road is dusty, a reminder that it is dryer in the savannah. The day has turned hot. A few puffy clouds linger in the sky, but the sun bleaches almost everything white. The second you step from the van, sweat beads appear almost instantaneously like a smelly magic trick.
At Laminadera, we meet Victor and his wife, who serve as the shepherds of this flock. They are young, late 20s maybe. Young, but so capable.
Each of the three Watoto villages in Uganda looks similar. Eight or nine cinder block homes, capped with the trademark green roofs, form rings. Each village has 10 or more rings, all connected with smooth sidewalks and manicured lawns. Each village also has a primary school, high school, vocational training, a water project, medical clinic and a multipurpose hall for use as a church and community center. They are oases of learning and love.
Each home consists of three bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and bathroom with clean running water and power. We are allowed to view several homes and talk with the house mothers who oversee eight children each.
The mothers are warm and funny, typically working on preparing the day's meals. The children are on a school break so they are scattered throughout the open areas among the houses. Some carry water. Some braid hair. Some shell peanuts. Others use a loop of rope to play a game I've never seen. The best I can tell, it's jump rope except that the rope only moves higher, and the participant must continue bouncing from one side of the loop to the next. If I had a trampoline and a jet pack, I couldn't manage what I'm watching.
Then we meet George.
George is 17, thin and soft spoken. He's feeling under the weather today, but he insists on braving the heat and taking us to his field.
In the past two years, George has cultivated a half-acre plot by himself, tilling the land and sowing the seeds. He has already sold his first crop (for a profit) and has begun to reinvest in more seed. "I can't go to sleep unless I've worked in the fields," he says. "I love being out here. This is what I want to do with my life."
That's a culture shift. Agriculture is often seen as lowly work in Uganda, but here is a young man who loves the land and sees the value in raising food for a starving country.
George highlights his various crops, including maize. When I tell him we call it corn, he thinks for a second and repeats the word - "corn" - rolling it around in his mouth. He smiles broadly, then continues calling it maize. I smile. I wouldn't call it corn either.
There's something special about George. Even sick, his countenance is upbeat. This small plot is his field of dreams - his dreams and a dream for his people. He is growing hope.
Later when we climb back into the van, Steve offers me the rest of George's story. This young agrarian was once one of Kony's child soldiers. He ran away from the army. He ran away from the violence. He ran to Gulu, where he found Watoto, and he was saved. This boy who gushed about growing crops once held an AK-47 and most likely killed people.
And there it is again. The horror of Uganda's history always seems like a moment just past. Like if you turn around, you'll see it again.
In fact, as we conclude our time at Laminadera, Victor shows us the new worship hall. Like most Ugandan buildings, it's open on three sides with a peaked metal roof. It's a giant pavilion - functional and beautiful. This structure is a sign of progress for Victor, a sign of healing for this land.
Here, on the very ground on which Laminadera is built; here, where children live and learn, was the site of a horrific battle between Kony's rebels and the government. So violent was the battle that when they cleared the field, it took 10 semis to remove all the bodies.
Just like at Living Hope, I find myself stunned and my words insufficient.
That night as music once again pours through my window, my mind gnaws on the events of the day. I think about all the women who have seen the worst of this life and how they are learning to forgive. I think about boys being forced to carry rifles and forced to murder. I think about fear and stolen innocence. I think about the violence and hate that ruled this land.
I think about this land.
This land that has been bathed in blood and ash, and is now being reborn. Where death once ruled, children now play and grow, a future sprouts alongside new crops, and hope heals the wounds of an unspeakable past.
One of the house mothers prepares dinner for her children at the Watoto children's village in Luminadera.
A young girl stops to pose for a quick picture. Watoto Child Care Ministries currently helps support more than 2,600 orphans at three different villages across Uganda.
A little boy helps his house mother shell peanuts. Each home in the Watoto children's villages house eight children under the care of a house mother.
A group of Watoto students gather for a photo. Watoto Child Care Ministries supports more than 2,600 orphans by providing education, housing, medical care, discipleship and more. Once children are in the system, they are a part of Watoto for their entire lives.
Our host Gladys begins a tour at Living Hope in Gulu. Watoto's Living Hope operations help support 2,000 vulnerable women in Uganda.
Watoto student, George, kneels near one of his corn plants on a sunny Ugandan afternoon. The 17 year old, who is a former child soldier, has a true passion for agriculture.
Four Watoto children work together to move jugs of water up a hill.
A young lady sits on the porch of her house and has her hair braided by her friends and fellow Watoto children.