“He’s the one who cut my ear.” Geoffrey looks at the ground and twists a piece of grass between his fingers. It surprises me how in this moment, nineteen year-old Geoffrey reminds me of a little boy.
“Do you want to tell me more about that?” Up until that point my questions about his story for our book were benign. How old are you? How long did you live with your grandmother?
I’d known Geoffrey for going on 2 weeks, and I’d come to love this orphaned boy. He is sweet in unexpected moments, mischievous in others and I love both sides of him.
I’d noticed his ear on my first day at the academy, when he saw me with a camera and asked if I’d show him how to use it. I didn’t ask him about his ear, figuring he’d tell me if and when he was ready.
What I didn’t know is that when he was ready, he’d tell me a story for which I’d never be ready.
Geoffrey’s parents died when he was a young child. His father died at the hands of a LRA soldier and his mother died shortly thereafter of an illness. After their deaths Geoffrey lived with his grandmother, but unfortunately her hut was located in an area that was soon infested with LRA soldiers set on kidnapping children to turn into child soldiers. To protect fourteen year-old Geoffrey, his grandmother sent him to live with his uncle.
Geoffrey’s father was a rough man; prone to acts of abuse inflicted on his children and even his younger brother, the uncle Geoffrey came to live with.
“Why would he cut your ear? I don’t understand.” I stammer.
“He was taking revenge on my late father.” Geoffrey meets my eyes and I blink back tears.
“I still don’t understand. Why would he cut your ear? How is that revenge on your father?” I probe further.
“I went to church in Gulu to pray and my uncle, who didn’t believe in God told me not to pray. When he found out I’d gone to church to pray, he told me ‘You never listen!’ and then he flashed a knife and cut off part of my ear.”
I will the hot vomit rising in my throat back down into my stomach where it gurgles and boils.
“Did you go to the hospital?” I gulp for air, trying to give him the space to continue if he so chooses.
“I walked to the clinic.”
“Did you continue living with your uncle after that?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Where did you live?”
“On the streets.”
“For how long?”
“Two years. Then my cousin’s sister found me and I lived with her for a little while and then more on the streets. Now I live here.” He looks around at the academy. “I have my own place in town.”
“How do you pay for your own place?”
“During holidays I work here at the academy doing construction and I save that money so I can have a place to live.”
He keeps talking and I look at his ear until white-hot fury blinds me and I have to blink it away.
It is enough to be orphaned.
It is enough to leave your home to avoid becoming a child guerilla.
It is too much to suffer violence inflicted by the very family meant to protect you.
It’s too much.
On the inside I am choking on my anger, willing myself to remain calm while he unpacks the rest of his story.
Geoffrey continues, telling me about school and about the American family-his family- who helps pay for his school fees. He tells me about his future plans to open up an orphanage to care for lost children and my heart swells with pride for this boy. My fingers can barely keep up with him as I take down his words.
The day I showed Geoffrey how to use my camera, he took off with it for a couple of hours, snapping photos all around the school. That night back in town, I looked at the images he’d captured. I was taken aback by some of his shots. He has a natural way of seeing people and capturing light. I suspect this comes from watching people from the outside.
I suspect that as he grows into a man, Geoffrey will always have an eye for seeing people. I also have a feeling that throughout his life he will hear the voice of God speaking clearly, whispering into his severed ear that he is loved, he belongs and that he is in fact a valued part of a big family.
“We need to work on your title a little bit, Geoffrey, to make it match your story.” We toss ideas back and forth for a few minutes and then Geoffrey smiles.
“I know what to call it.” Geoffrey grins from ear to ear.
“Tell me.” My fingers hover over my keyboard.
“I want to call it ‘Finding Family’.”