Sometimes committing Vigilante Acts of Kindness in Gulu involved really glamorous things, the kinds of things that look good in photos, like buying shiny new shoes for 30 kids or wrestling a manure filled sack of piglets on the back of a boda. Like I said, really glamorous stuff.
Other times, the Vigilante Acts of Kindness were magnificently ordinary. Basic needs that were met because I didn’t have my own agenda and instead took time to ask, “What do you need and how can I help?”
I spent an entire day in Gulu town with the head teacher JB and my trusty sidekick, Denis, making sure some of those basic needs were met.
The first item on our list was to buy fencing materials. The boys dorm on campus backs up to a road and JB had been losing sleep at night because the road provided the perfect opening for trespassers, of both the animal and human type, to enter campus.
“So let’s go buy a fence, JB,” I shrugged.
“It will be expensive and we will have to rent a truck to transport the materials.”
“I think I’ve got enough donations, but write down your estimate and let me make sure.”
After a few quick calculations, JB shows me a number. It’s sizable, roughly one hundred fifty American dollars, a small fortune here in Uganda.
“That’s no problem.”
“I didn’t include the truck,” he scrawls another number and shows it to me. A truck rental will be 40,000 shillings, or roughly sixteen American dollars.
“That’s fine, JB. What else does the school need?”
“I still have many textbooks that we need for the library.”
“Let’s get those while we’re in town and you can throw them in the truck, too.”
“Are you sure you’ve got the money?”
“Yes, and I’m running out of time to spend it. What else does the school need?”
“Well, the primary kids need readers and some workbooks. And teachers need pencils, pencil sharpeners, markers and chart paper.” JB waits for me to say no, but with a wad of Vigilante shillings stuffed in my purse, my mouth is full of yes.
“Good. Let’s get that stuff while we’re in town and toss it in the truck, too. I know the students need ringworm cream, so I’m going to go talk to Mama (the dorm mom) and see what other medicines she’s short on.”
Mama is all smiles when I ask her to make me a list. She doesn’t hold back and I love her for being so candid about the needs of the students.
On the day we hit town to pick up all these things, I love Mama even more for adding yeast infection kits to her list. Watching Denis turn thirty shades of red while he translated that one to the pharmacist was worth ever shilling!
On my last day at the school, Mama found me and invited me into her living quarters at the far end of one of the girls dorms.
“Hi, Mama. Etiene maber? (How are you?)” I sit in the plastic chair she’s brought out for me.
“I’m fine. Thank you for buying medicine for the students. Five girls have already made use of the feminine medicines.” She sits down across from me.
“Mama, you already thanked me. Three times. I’m glad the medicine is helping.” I pat her hand.
“You’re different, Alicia.”
I don’t really know how to take that one. Different like the kid who eats paste kind of different? Sometimes compliments here are hard to swallow, like how being called fat is a good thing because it symbolizes wealth.
“You’re different than other muzungus who come here. You asked what we need and then you took action.”
“Thanks, Mama. It’s a lesson I’m still learning with lots of help from the people at home.” I look down at my hands. Mama’s right, I am different. I’m different than the person I was when I arrived. I’ve tried to heed Ernesto Sirolli’s wonderful, if not eloquent, advice to ask what people need and then shut up and do it. No more planting tomatoes for hippos.
“Greet the people at home and tell them thank you for me,” Mama hugs me tight. She’s soft and I see why the kids have such deep love for her.
“I will, Mama.”
I leave campus that day knowing that I’m leaving my kids in good hands. I’m leaving them in hands that daily commit magnificently ordinary acts of kindness without fanfare or fuss. I’m leaving my kids in Mama’s hands.