Death in Uganda

I wasn’t promised an African sunset. When Kimmie Weeks invited me on a humanitarian mission through post-conflict countries, what came to mind were the stunning landscape pictures my friends had brought back from the ranch in Kenya. It was how I had envisioned this beautiful continent. Streaks of red and orange, firing up the night sky of deep blue and purple: a kaleidoscope of color. Instead, I found another kind of sunset. I found the African people wasting away, dying brutal, horrific deaths at the hands of war, disease, and poverty. I found the sun setting on their lives. Not fading into the night with brilliant lights, but being shredded into a nonexistence wracked with pain and suffering.

But even in such darkness, I found the stars. A generosity of spirit and a will not just to survive, but to live. In such darkness, I found the smiles of the children. What they had, they shared. What they did not, they imagined. They played soccer and Indian Chief, tag and Simon Says. Some might have said that they were happy. I suppose that’s true to some extent. But they were happy despite being poor, not because they were poor. Their laughter could not hide their hallowed cheeks. Their horseplay could not hide their swollen stomachs or their scarred feet. We should never allow ourselves to believe that these children would not be happier with medication instead of sickness, or food instead of hunger. With education and peace, instead of poverty and war.

When I look back on my trip to Africa, I remember the smiling faces of the children. Those who could afford school uniforms showed them off with pride. Those who knew how to kick a soccer ball performed tricks. These children exhibited pride and generosity, dignity and joy. I remember these from Africa. But also, I remember the sunset. I remember the little girl, Luthukoi-Alanty, whom I held in my arms. The little girl whose sun had set, not three days after she’d been born. I remember the laughter. But I remember the setting sun, as well.

Death in Kampala December 19, 2006. Kampala, UGANDA: This morning, I sat on a ragged mattress covered with germs and dirt and grime. I ducked through a hole into a dilapidated shack with a leaky roof and a muddy floor. I waded through a disease-infested slum, picking my way through rats and garbage. I leaned against the side of one of the shacks as I picked my way through the mud. It collapsed with my weight. This morning, I sat on a ragged mattress covered with germs and dirt and grime. This morning, I sat next to a dead child. Yesterday we visited one of the worst slums in Kampala. It is one of the areas in which the Karamojong reside. They used to live pastorally in the eastern provinces, but like so many others, civil war had forced them into the graves of this city, living like animals in the darkest circles of hell.

I slipped on the muddy path and my leg went plunging into the stale water replete with dirt and garbage and rodents. The children, covered themselves in the mess from head to toe, gave gasps of horror and went screaming to their parents. Some knelt down and spit on my leg, trying to rub off the disgusting slosh that had coated my foot. Several adults came running to me with a bucket of clean water – a precious little that they had in the community. They poured it over me as the children knelt at my feet, scrubbing away. The white girl is dirty, they cried. One of our local staff members looked at me. They are saying that your pretty white skin is dirty now, he translated. Brown, like theirs. I looked around me in horror, trying to tell them it was okay, knowing I could pour clean water and rub disinfectant all over myself when we returned to the hotel. I knelt down to tell them it was okay, to tickle their stomachs, to caress their cheeks. They forced me to my feet, now wiping off the dirt they had gotten on my jeans from their grubby hands and tight hugs.

All they want is some land. The war is over now; they want the government to give them some of the plentiful land to the east so that they can start over, and live the way they have for generations. So that they can escape the pit of horror into which they have been thrown, like the garbage they breathe in every day. The process has been slow going. In the meantime, the smell of death is in the air. Before we left the slum, we asked them to give us a list of the children who were the sickest. On Wednesday, we would return and take those children to the hospital. We have been in Uganda for three days and our first step will be to pay for medical attention for these, the sickest children. Most of them suffer from malaria and cholera, but who can say the extent of the health damages that afflict these people.

I returned to the slum today with two of our local staff members to pick up the list. The children screamed with delight as I tickled them and spun them around in my arms. One of the community leaders approached us. He was glad to see us, but we should know that the list was being changed at that minute. Other children have become more sick? we asked. He shook his head. One of the children had died over the night. This morning I sat on a ragged mattress covered with germs and dirt and grime. This morning I sat next to a dead child. How old is she? I asked. How many years? She looked so tiny, the blanket pulled back to reveal her open mouth and closed eyelids. She has no years, I was told. They do not know the age? I asked. No, he told me. She has no years. She has three days. She is three days old. You take picture now. You take picture, you show to people. She die last night. She has three days. You take picture now. I didn’t want to. I had snapped photos of the slums, careful to avoid capturing too many of the people, just the conditions. Respecting that they are not animals to be captured in my camera like a circus act. You take picture, they told me. So I did. Knowing that nothing would have made me forget her, even without it.

Her name, I learned, was Lothukoi-Alanty. She was three days old. They do not know how they will bury her. There is little land. It is expensive. Sometimes an NGO will pay for a burial, sometimes a church. They do not know how they will bury her. Tomorrow, we will pick up the other 40 children to bring them to the hospital for medical attention. How many will have died by then? My spirit aches.