So this will probably be long...three weeks of these experiences will make it hard to be brief! So thanks if you read this :)
For the past 2-3 years I've been hoping to take a trip to Uganda with my church, who normally sends several teams each summer. Since seeing the documentary "Invisible Children" I wanted to work with the kids who were orphaned or turned into child soldiers by the rebels who shed innocent blood throughout Uganda. For over 20 years villagers lived in fear until some peace finally came to the country around five years ago.
So four months ago this trip became a real option, and God provided above and beyond what I'd expected to make it possible for me to go. The trip was eye opening with new experiences and realizations.
It was hot, but not nearly the heat of hell that I was expecting, being right on the equator and at the start of their hottest season. The mosquitoes were a little annoying, but mosquito nets and being on malaria medication kept me from contracting it, which is more than I can say for two of the Ugandan staff members while we were there!
My team of five lovely ladies stayed at the Children of the Nations (COTN) guest house in Lira, complete with our own 24 hour gate guard.
We took a bumpy ride each day to the COTN Children's Village, which came into being in 2006. People drive like crazy over there, zooming down pot-holed dirt roads through the bush. Little children would step out of our way into the brush with watering cans on their heads as they head back home through the village. The younger kids would run from their huts and follow our van, smiling, waving and yelling "Mo-no! Mo-no!" which means whitey, apparently.
Walking through different villages, I saw a level of poverty and despair that I haven't seen in any other country. As a child I remember seeing the children in Ethiopia on TV. They'd have flies all over them, distended bellies and vacant eyes. Those kids also live in Uganda. Starving, dirty, often parentless. There are so many children orphaned by AIDS and the attacks of the Lord's Resistance Army who are now being cared for by their barely-older siblings.
At the COTN Children's Village, 58 kids have been rescued from their poverty and given and home and people to care for and love them. Many of these children's stories are so tragic, as well as the stories of the staff who are now caring for them.
One of my teammates and I took on sponsoring a three year old name Beatrice who has just recently become a part of the Children's Village. She is adorable. She came to the village only a month before I met her.
Another three year old there actually still lives in the regular village, but comes every day to be cared for in the COTN village. Her father is dead, and mother is dying of AIDS. When she arrived a month before, she was so covered with sores and flies that the staff could hardly hold her. Now she's a new and healthy child, probably the most tenacious one I met. Even when she was covered in sores, she told the staff that she was going to get better. "I was born beautiful," she said. I don't know where she got her fighter personality, but she needs it. I visited the hut next to where she lives at night with her mother. There I saw two children that struck me the most on this trip. They are her neighbors, just a step in life ahead of where she was. They are maybe one and two years old, both parents were dead from AIDS. They were dirty, there were flies and sores, and their eyes were lifeless. Their older sister sister was caring for them. How does she find food for them, when she does? How long will they last? Our 3 year old was similar to these two a month ago.
Two of my favorite kids in the Children's Village are Monica and Pasca. They're both four, adorable, and a little sassy. When you see these kids singing, dancing, and playing with you, you can't tell what they have already been through. Their lives have joy now.
Currently there are kids age 3 to18 living in the COTN Children's Village. I've made a couple relationships with the older ones that I plan to maintain. Some of them are harder to get through to, understandably so. I still don't know most of their stories. Some were being kept at the Internal Displacement Camp in Barlonyo, a village an hour from Lira. Seven years ago the rebels overtook the camp guards and slaughtered their parents, along with a large portion of the weak and defenseless inhabitants. Some have HIV, which could have been a result of the rebels' violent behavior as well.
But amidst all the horror of their pasts, you do see true joy and hope in the kids' faces. The recovery seems impossible and amazing. Seeing their faith in God and the way they pray to him and worship him as their father is inspiring and revolutionary. And COTN's hope is that these children will be transformed and raise a new nation. They plan to expand and create more complexes like the current one, as well as reach out to help care for specific children in the surrounding villages through the Village Partnership Program.
The need you see is overwhelming and heart breaking. I wonder if this can possibly turn around. But as one of the Ugandan COTN staff said to us the other day, the first step is believing that God is capable, and big enough to change it. Then you act, and you pray for Uganda.