Jul 2015 01

How one Lamwo woman’s story shows the real need for GRG programming

Posted in News

By Norah Brinkerhof


Being both a foreigner and a counselor in rural villages in northern Uganda makes people very open to talk with me and to share their stories.  Many don’t have others they can open up to, and I think they also want to get some support and attention from someone who doesn’t come from their village.  Whenever I go to Lamwo District, on the border with South Sudan, my first day is spent visiting GRG’s groups to schedule our activities for the week and visiting friends I have met around Palabek, the small town where our team stays. The feeling is very welcoming, but it also has a downside: many people feel that you arrive with the answers to all of their problems, so they begin to tell you their entire life stories. While beautiful to hear, this can wear me down because I can’t help everyone, and sometimes I can’t help at all.

In Palabek there is a beautiful young woman, Rebecca.* She is a neighbor to where I stay and always visits me with her baby. She recently told me that she had just come back from Mulago, the national hospital in Kampala. I was surprised since such a journey is almost impossible because of distance and cost. I asked why she went, and she told me that she had gotten a small amount of funding because her baby was very sick. Looking more closely at him, I observed that he was somewhat spastic, non-interactive, and extremely small for a one-and-a-half-year-old. She told me that the testing at Mulago showed that her baby has Cerebral Palsy and is epileptic and severely handicapped. She told me how her husband used to beat her and the baby because he blamed her for the child’s problems and “a handicapped child has no use” to him. He eventually kicked her out of the house. As he has three other wives and children with each one, she had no option but to leave. She doesn’t get a penny from him and is also not welcome back home with own her parents because of the shame of being abandoned by her husband and having a disabled child. Rebecca’s situation is not unique. Within Uganda, northern Uganda has the highest rates of childhood mental and developmental disabilities.

Rebecca now lives in a small single room owned by the local church. The priest found her a job teaching in a local school. Though lucky to have found work, she is only paid 80,000 Ugandan shillings per month (about $33)—a small salary, even for Lamwo, and definitely not enough to cover the costs of caring for a severely ill child.  To make matters worse she has not been paid for the last two months because the school has not received money from the government. She does not feel that she can leave the job, however, because her colleagues already have more students than they can handle.

Rebecca’s troubles go on: her brother has also kicked his wife out, leaving Rebecca to take care of this niece as well. (In northern Uganda, children “belong” to their father’s tribe and family, so her brother did not allow his wife to take their daughter when he sent her away, but he does nothing to care for the little girl). While Rebecca works, the eight-year-old girl takes care of the handicapped baby. Rebecca really wants her niece to be in school, but it is just not possible. Rebecca feels that there is no one who can help her, and she often feels there is no one to listen. “Everyone has problems here, so we just don’t discuss them anymore,” she laments.

She cries and tells me that she is done with men, that there has never been one man that did anything good to her, and that she wants to become a nun. But there are no babies allowed in a nunnery. She is stuck.

When she has dried her tears, she looks at me and says that she loves her baby, that this is how God created him, and he is perfect. She does not mind the sleepless nights, and she will keep carrying on and be strong because she has her faith. I tell her, honestly, that she is the strongest woman that I have ever met and a beautiful person. How I wish I could magically solve all her problems. When I walk away, I feel sad that I can’t do more.

But at the same time, Rebecca’s story demonstrates how the post-conflict challenges in Uganda can be overwhelming for women and that GRG’s work is hugely needed.  Decades of conflict have left behind a legacy of single-parent households, conflicts over land where women  can be chased away, poor healthcare and low education where something like a sick child can become the driving force of domestic violence. GRG tries to help these women by bringing them together and providing them with family sensitization sessions on domestic violence, a safe place to save money and instruction and inputs for them to start their own income generating projects. Seeing the women who laugh, sing and gossip together at GRG meetings and group counseling sessions reminds me that although “everyone has problems,” there are also ways to confront them.  Stories like Rebecca’s are almost too much to hear, but her resilience and strength make hearing them worthwhile.

*For privacy reasons, names are changed in this blog post.

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