My past few blog entries have been less than uplifting. The experiences I described were difficult things to be even the smallest part of and difficult things to put into appropriate words. While I want to describe and examine the circumstances and consequences of underdevelopment in Atiak, I do not want to forget the other side of life. I spend a lot of time trying to battle against the stereotypes of the African continent (disease, poverty, death, uncivilized war, etc.) and I do not want this blog to contribute further to the stereotypes without also covering the good. After all, it is the good rather than the bad that brought me back to this region of the world.
I work with incredible people who have literally lived through hell on earth. Experiencing war and tragedy in the way that the people of Atiak have can break people – turn them cold or numb. The same can be said of other tragedies that happen both in Atiak and everywhere else in the world – losing a child, contracting HIV, being abused or killed based on race or ethnicity, being too poor to eat, the list goes on. Yet, while the people I have met here have every reason to resent the circumstances of their history, to be angry or vengeful, they are anything but. There is a resiliency among the people of Atiak that both humbles me and restores my faith in humanity when I’m being cynical. I see the resiliency and the vibrance each day.
I have mentioned in a previous post that I share a room with a woman my age named Nighty. The Lord’s Resistance Army abducted her when she was about 12 years old and kept her for at least a year as a rebel leader’s wife. Since Nighty’s escape she has mothered four children and been left by her husband who decided he didn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood. If you met Nighty on the streets of the US you would never guess that she has been through such hardship. She fills so many roles as a young woman – mother, daughter, sister, cook, seamstress, translator, friend. One role she has never caved to is the role of the victim. Nighty works hard. She sends money home for her children’s school fees. We stay up late at night and laugh about stupid things the way I do with my friends everywhere else in the world. She patiently attempts to teach me Acholi (I’m truly terrible at this language!). She hugs my when I’m homesick or just because. We dance in the kitchen when Pasca, the other cook, breaks out in Acholi song. We run errands in town and occasionally drink too much wine with the other members of staff once everyone’s children have gone to sleep. Nighty appears to have moved past her personal history to such an extent that it actually shocks me. Sure, she worries about things – when she’ll see her other children next (they live with Nighty’s mother in a different village a few hours from here) and money – but Nighty is a beautiful and grateful individual when life has given her every reason not to be.
Pasca lives in the center of town about 2 miles from Earth Birth and rides her bike to work every morning. She is a widowed mother of two children . Her husband died due to issues related to being HIV+ after first passing the virus to Pasca. She also lived in Atiak through the worst of the war. Much like Nighty, you would never guess that those are the circumstances of Pasca’s past and present. She speaks maybe 30 words of English, which also happens to be the level of my vocabulary in Acholi, and yet we have been able to become good friends while disregarding a language barrier. She sings traditional Acholi songs and makes me dance around the kitchen with her. She showed me her children’s report cards with a proud smile on her face. Actually, Pasca always seems to be smiling. This weekend Pasca invited Nighty, Christine (another amazing woman who used to work for Earth Birth, but has since moved back to Gulu), and me to her home in the center of town and prepared lunch for us. She slaughtered one of her chickens for us, prepared rice and beans, passion fruit juice, showed us her garden, her hut, her family photos, and welcomed all of us with the same level of happiness that she does each day at work. Pasca is part of a local cooperative of women who make beads and jewelry and we’re working as partners to expand the project and sell the product. When the cooking is done for the afternoon, we’ll often sit outside the kitchen and make beads from recycled paper with Nighty and Esther, one of the local birth attendants who is currently a student at Earth Birth. It’s a simple activity, but it’s one of my favorite things to do here thanks to the company of these women and the friendships I’ve been able to form with them.
When it comes to spirit, Nighty and Pasca are not out of the ordinary. I have befriended several of the local birth attendants who have the same liveliness seeping from their pours. They share with me stories of their children, they sing and dance, teach me about their culture and their traditions, and they do so with pride. The history of this area, the high mortality rates, the poverty – these circumstances all attempt to turn these people into statistics, into people to pity. In reality, these are people with spirit and with hope. Be inspired by their resiliency before pitying the circumstances in which they live. I believe it will make working together to change those circumstances far easier.