While in Uganda I got to spend a lot of time with Denis riding on the back of his boda and visiting his village, Bungatira. He became my closest Ugandan friend which meant I got to see him when he was happy, when he was annoyed with me (which was hilarious), when he was grateful, when he was inspired and when he was sad, but I’d never seen his nervous side.
That is, I’d never seen his nervous side until the day we went to his new school.
I’d heard about his plans to return to school for weeks on end, heard all the questions he was going to ask the admissions counselor, heard him vacillate back and forth between studying to become a doctor or a teacher. School was all he could talk about since the day he picked up his new pigs courtesy of my friends, Julie and Clark. This talk was kicked into high gear when Jenna and her posse of Oregon Vigilantes, bequeathed Denis enough money to return to school that very term while his pigs matured enough to breed and sell for the next term’s fees.
All his talk of returning to school was endearing. There aren’t free public schools in Uganda. Only the well off get to send their children to school. That sentence catches like rocks in my throat each time I write or speak it. Denis’ parents had done their best to raise and sell crops so he could attend school, but the money ran out before the third term of his Senior Three year, the equivalent of the third term of his sophomore year in high school.
Denis is 27.
And he was on his face desperate to return to school.
Can you imagine returning to your high school courses at the age of 27? Neither can I. Friends, that takes moxie I simply don’t have.
So Denis had every right to be nervous and as he pulled the boda onto the school compound, he was quiet. I had my camera at the ready, knowing that he might be too nervous to remember the details of the day, but that it was a day so worthy of remembering. We entered the modest handmade brick building that serves as the office. The administrator was working inside and she welcomed us as we entered. We sat in front of her desk and to my surprise, Denis asked her none of the questions he’d mentioned to me on the boda. He sat quietly in the chair and twisted his hands, fidgeting and barely making eye contact. I began to ask questions on his behalf, voicing all the things he’d wondered aloud on our daily rides. The administrator gave Denis the registration form and he fumbled with it, his hands visibly shaking.
“Denis, relax. This is a good thing. You get to go back to school,” I covered his hands with my own. ”Just relax. Why don’t you fill out the form while we’re here and if you want me to look it over, I’m happy to do that.”
“Yes. I’ll fill it out right now,” Denis removed a pen from his pocket. I watched as he wrote every word and letter with precise care. I talked to the administrator while Denis filled the form out and I was delighted to find out that the administrator was once a primary teacher. I shared with her that I’m a primary teacher in the U.S. and we had a lovely chat.
“Alicia, will you take a look?” Denis passed me his registration form. I scanned the facts of his life. His age. His family name. His tribe. His birthdate. The name of his last school. So much information about my friend and at the same time so very little.
“Looks good, Denis, but you have to fill out the back as well,” I said quietly turning the paper over and passing it back to him.
“The back?” If it were physically possible, I think Denis would’ve blushed. He took the paper and read the backside, carefully filling in more spaces.
“Are you his sponsor?” the administrator asked me.
“No, I’m his friend.”
“Yes, he’s my boda driver and we’ve become friends.” I smiled at Denis and snapped his photo as he filled out the registration paper.
“Can I put your name here?” Denis pointed to a place on the form for names of people likely to visit him at school. He’d listed his mother and one of his brothers. There was one more line.
“Definitely. I’d love to visit you at school when I return.” Denis wrote my name. The form also asked for the relationship. Denis penned the words ‘best friend’. I smiled knowing I was in good company with his best friend J.B. and his other best friend, my oldest son, William.
Denis completed the form and we left the school under a drizzling sky that couldn’t begin to dampen my mood. I snapped a final photo of Denis standing outside the doorway, his school name emblazoned above the door.
A couple of days later he returned to school with the requisite passport sized photo and his enrollment fee, courtesy of my beloved Oregon Vigilantes.
In one of our many conversations, Denis asked if I would return to Uganda for his graduation. ”You will sit next to my mom and wear a Gomesi.”
“I’d like that.”
“To wear a Gomesi?”
“To see you graduate.”
On my last evening in Uganda, I sat in a hotel room near the airport and all the way across the country from my loved ones in Gulu. My phone rang and on the other end was Denis calling to tell me he’d used some of the money from the Oregon Vigilantes to sign up for additional tutoring before the term started and also to buy books and a school uniform, the requisite attire for all schools in Uganda.
The new term begins in a matter of days and after years of waiting and working and praying and hoping for a second chance to go to school, my dear friend Denis is a student once again. And it’s all because some recklessly kind Oregon Vigilantes saw Denis’ potential from halfway around the world and decided to do something about it.