This post was written by our friend Tiffany Talen who teaches at an international school here in Kampala. Recently she and her sister, Nikita, joined our team on one of our twice-weekly visits to M1.
Life for me has been a million miles from easy. I was born into an extremely poor family in Northern Uganda which has suffered for decades from periods of war and famine. I was just a few years old when that man with the smile dressed up so nicely came and convinced my desperate mother that he would provide for me a future that only existed in her dreams, dreams which had nearly faded completely away. I cried when we drove away.
It was only a few hours later that the man with the smile lost his smile. It was only a few days later that he dropped me off to another man who beat me and forced me to sit in the blistering sun on the dangerous streets of Kampala with my hands together, open, as if I was catching drops of invisible water.
At night I longed for my mom. In the morning I longed to escape. At noontime I just wanted food. In the afternoon I dreamed of water, real water falling into my hands and all over my body. In the evening I longed to die. But they provided me with just enough to keep me alive to collect coins for another day.
A few months later a big truck came by with bold letters written on the side. A man in a uniform stepped out, picked me up, opened the back door, and placed me inside. My eyes adjusted to the darkness as the truck slowly pulled away. There were other kids like me, wearing rags, eyes wide with fear, sitting silently inside.
Hours later we were all unloaded and the big truck with the bold letters drove away. There were old white buildings around me and many other kids staring at us in disgust.
The next few days, which turned into weeks, which turned into months consisted of waking up every morning on a dirty floor usually embarrassed by the pool of urine around me. One nice lady would try to clean me up and find something clean for me to wear, but she had many other kids to care for and often didn’t have enough time for me. Eventually we would get some food but sometimes there wasn’t enough. The days were boring, but I was thankful I didn’t have to sit on the streets. Even though some of the big kids were mean to me, I was also thankful that I didn’t get beat as much as I used to.
I would fall asleep at night on a dirty mat trying to picture my mom but her face was hard to find sometimes. I would try to keep myself awake as long as possible because I was scared of the dreams that would come of the men who lost their smiles. As I tried to stay awake, I’d pray that tomorrow would be one of the days that the people in the grey van would come.
Actually I’ve never experienced any of this, but I met a few dozen kids last week whose story could fall closely into this outline. Nikita and I piled into that grey van and went to visit the children living at a juvenile detention center (a government run children’s prison) where some friends of mine run a ministry called Sixty Feet.
When we arrived, children crowded around the van wanting to hug each of us as we stepped out.
There were other kids there too… about 200. Most of the big kids (around ages 10-18) were there either for committing a crime or simply because a parent or relative just didn’t want them anymore. And most of the little kids (ages 2-10) were there because they had been picked up off the streets of Kampala by the “street cleaners.” These little ones all sleep on the floor of one large room. They don’t have mosquito nets. If they’re lucky, a bigger kid might let them climb into bed with them.
Sixty Feet is working to help these children in a variety of ways- such as medical care, counselling, finding foster families, family resettlement, and even clothing and mattresses. There are many challenges with this work and just when it might seem like they’ve helped so many, another load of kids are dropped off.
We spent the day helping and learning. We read, coloured, skipped and played.
I have to say, the most incredible part of the day was the time of worship which was organized by Sixty Feet volunteers. It was so amazing to see these children clapping and singing and dancing! Even most of the older children had joined in. It felt like a big celebration. But what’s there to celebrate when you’re a child or teen who lives in a prison and has literally nothing- no toys, no treats, no family?
When I looked over and saw some of the older boys sharing a drum, pounding together, singing with faces so full of joy, I thought of Paul and Silas praying and praising behind the bars of their prison cell (Acts 16). I pictured them all together- Paul, Silas, rough teens in Uganda, young children from Karamoja, all praising God through their suffering. I was incredibly moved. In the midst of what seemed like hell on earth, these kids were celebrating the love and grace that they have in Jesus which was shared with them by the Sixty Feet staff and volunteers.
These kids and teens could have stood there, stared into our faces, and told us to get lost, because to be honest, we don’t and really never will be able to fully understand what they’re going through. But instead, they chose to celebrate.
Maybe we can too. Maybe when days get tough, or feel barren or heavy, when we’re feeling imprisoned by the difficulties of live… we can choose to join these captives in celebrating the incredible love and grace that we have in Christ. If these kids can, maybe we can too.