His name is Innocent. He's 8 years old, and his body is misshapen. In the place of arms, Innocent has short stumps, one of which has a small usable appendage. His left leg is shorter than the right by a few inches, causing him to run on his toes. When he slows, he staggers like an Old West gunslinger, sauntering down the street. But Innocent rarely slows.
His physical differences - while noticeable - aren't what make Innocent stand out. He radiates joy.
We arrived at St. Monica's school/orphanage in Gulu after our long journey north. St. Monica's is not affiliated with Watoto, but, like our host organization, it cares for the children of Uganda so we are united in purpose.
We're here to visit Sister Rosemary. She's something of a local legend because of her service to the children (especially displaced and abandoned girls) during and after the war between Uganda's government and Joseph Kony's Lord Resistance Army (LRA). This particular conflict is yet another dark chapter in Uganda's bloody past. The war ravaged Uganda from 1987 to the mid-2000s and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. (I'll discuss Kony's atrocities later.)
Gulu resides at the heart of the war-torn north, and St. Monica's is a stone's throw from the Gulu road, making it an obvious target for Kony's rebels. Sister Rosemary had countless harrowing encounters with the rebels. Each time, she faced them alone. Each time, she clutched a simple ivory cross around her neck. Each time, they left. She is truly an inspirational figure worthy of recognition. Wearing her nun's habit and a glowing smile, she's servant modern day saint, but she's quickly upstaged by Innocent.
As soon as we enter the gates, he dashes to our party and embraces us all. Later, sitting in a small living room sipping freshly squeezed mango juice, Sister Rosemary retells Innocent's story. A few years prior, Innocent was abandoned by his parents. They viewed his physical deformity as a bad omen and simply left him at a market. Sister Rosemary stepped in, providing a home and love.
Today, Innocent seems a lifetime removed from his past. For almost two hours, we toured St. Monica's, and, for almost two hours, Innocent went everywhere. He picked up sticks with his feet, giggled and teased his fellow orphan Patrick. He ran, hopped and generally caused mayhem like all 8-year-old boys. I instantly liked him.
When I retrieved the camera from my backpack, his eyes widened. I asked if he'd like to take a picture, and he flew to my side. I held the camera while he aimed it. When he was ready for me to push the button, he'd pop his lips mimicking the camera click. We shot several photos this afternoon, and he beamed with pride and glee after each one.
I've never seen joy personified so clearly, and there, in that moment, something began to gnaw inside my chest. Innocent's joy wasn't forced or fake or derived from ignorance of circumstance. He knew he had been abandoned; he knew he was handicapped. But he chose - at 8 years old - to be happy with his life.
As we toured the freshly planted crops and the small houses being built out of used plastic water bottles (both sources of great pride for Sister Rosemary), a subtle melancholy fell over me. It hovered above my head like the branches of the nearby mutuba trees. Standing in the light of Innocent's joy, I couldn't help but reflect on my own outlook. Something was off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. My life seemed dingy. Before I could fully comprehend the internal commotion, our visit ended.
Soon we were saying goodbye and hugging each other like old friends parting too soon. I crouched down and took one more photo with Innocent - this time of us together. I was already trying to hold onto a moment that I had yet to fully understand.
The return trip to the guest house was short, and I fought tears the whole way. In my room with the door locked, the emotion welled to a crescendo and I sobbed - not for Innocent's plight or because of my privileged life, but for how I had lived and what I have chosen to value. My life is filled with more gifts than I deserve, yet I harbor disdain and dissatisfaction.
And there it was. I lacked joy.
There in northern Uganda, 4,000 miles away from my life, I realized I had lost my joy. It had been forfeited for pettiness and ego. Then a little boy with a broken body and whole spirit showed me the way back. I confronted my own brokenness, and I was changed. Personal revelations seem clichéd, even expected, on trips like this then it happens to you. A moment so profound, so consuming, you cannot deny its impact. Your perspective shatters and reassembles anew. It is a lightning strike in the timeline of your life but it results in permanent alternation.
It's true. I found a jewel in Africa, and I will treasure him forever.