Tuesday, December 5, 2017


I crawled out of my mosquito net before the sun.  I put on my clothes in the dark and walked through the damp grass to the Land Cruiser that was parked outside waiting for me.  I had been living and working in Uganda for 17 months trying to improve babies’ access to vaccines.  For the last month I had been in Kitgum, a rural district in Northern Uganda.  For a decade, Kitgum was slaughtered and tortured by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.  It had been 14 years since the massacre but you could still see the trauma resting heavy in everyone’s eyes.

The longer I stayed in Kitgum the more I could see its ghosts.

I was 26, as new to Uganda as I was to myself.  What kind of woman do I want to be?  Why do I keep moving so damn far away from home?  Where am I going?  These questions sat in my throat.  I was hoping I would find the answers, like big road signs, down one of those dirt roads.

My translator Terrence was waiting for me in the car and sleepily smiled at me as I slid into the passenger seat.    It was barely 5 am when we drove off down the dark, dirt roads.  The windows were cracked and the cool, moonlit air started to blow the sleep from my eyes.  Today I was joining a woman who would be walking the 4 hours to the nearest clinic to get her baby vaccinated.  As part of my research, I wanted to find out what motivated her to travel such a long distance, why she felt vaccinations were so important.  Maybe I could learn a little bit more about why so many of these children were dying of diseases medicine had cured.

It was early but Kitgum was already very much awake.  The red glow of morning breakfast fires dotted the mountainside.  An hour into the ride, Terrence pulled over next to a narrow path that cut through grass taller than me.  A group of motorcycles waited near the entrance to take passengers to the villages that were deep in the bush.  I tucked my skirt between my legs and got on the back of one motorcycle and Terrence got on the back of the other.  My driver wore a cutoff denim jacket and cool guy sunglasses.  He liked to make sharp turns to try and scare me.  But I hadn’t had coffee and was more pissed off than scared.  I hit him in the back of the head with my purse and told him to knock it off or I wouldn’t pay him.  We passed circular villages of mud huts with straw roofs and men playing dice under mango trees.  But we kept going, further and further.  After we had been winding down roads for half an hour, we turned off into a cluster of huts that sat before a large field of potatoes and cassava.  Terrence walked up to a woman, the mother of the household, who was bent over in half sweeping the area in front of her hut. 

“Afoyo!” “Ti mabe?”

“Bey” she said standing up to shake his hand. 

Terrence told me that her name was Florence.

Florence tied her little baby to her back with a large scarf and then tied a callabus, a dried pumpkin shell, over the baby’s head to protect him from the sun.  It looked like a little turtle shell.  A baby hunchback.  A reverse baby bump.  The motorcycles had already left to meet us at the clinic and we set off walking with Florence down the path we had just come.

Florence walked fast.  Terrance and her talked Acholi for a while before I burst in with my questions. 
I learned Rwo, the baby on Florence’s back, was her 10th child but that only 6 had survived.  At 14 she got married to a boy in the next village.  She became pregnant with his baby.  When the Lord’s Resistance Army came to her village she saw her brother killed.  And then she was captured, ripped away from her family and husband and made the “wife” of one of the soldiers. 

Florence would talk for a while in the loping Acholi dialect and then Terrence would translate her words for me.  No part of me was prepared for her story.  Her words knocked the wind out of me and left my hands shaking.  I gave up writing.  I recorded her story on my phone.

She told me how he raped her every night.  How he forced her to take pills to end her pregnancy.  How she was supposed to be bathing in the river when she ran away.  How she wasn’t sure if her baby was dead inside of her but she kept running for the both of them.

Florence didn’t stop walking. Flies tried to balance on little Rwo’s forehead but couldn’t because his mother was walking too fast.  Florence didn’t cry or even stop to look at my reaction.  She just kept on walking.  For the next few hours we were quiet, walking to the rhythm our footsteps. 

I had no more questions.

The tall grasses grew into a jungle and then shrank back down into tall grasses.  I could see her, a 14 year old girl with a swollen belly running just ahead of me.  At 14, I was running around Brooklyn trying not to get caught in games of Hide and Seek. 

Florence said hi to the women who passed us, tall women with babies on their back and large bundles balanced on their head. 

Four hours of walking and we reached the clinic.  A long line of women and their babies already waited under the tree outside.   

“Do you see why I walk this far?” Florence asked through Terrence.  “My baby will survive.”
I tried not to think about the rich mothers in California who elect not to have their babies vaccinated.  

Florence untied the scarf from her back and laid it down in the grass.  Rwo laid on the scarf next to other babies under the tree. I squished his plump little cheeks and sat with Florence for three hours until the nurse could see her.  Rwo received some vaccines but the clinic was missing one of the vaccines in his series and Florence would have to walk four hours to and from the clinic again in a few days to see if it was in stock again. 

I paid for a motorcycle to take Florence and baby Rwo back to their house and hugged them goodbye.  When I could no longer see their motorcycle, I felt relieved.  And then guilty for being relieved.

I got on the back of the bike of Cool Glasses and we drove to the car.  We passed back through the villages and the jungles and the tall grasses.  We passed the women with the heavy sacks on their heads and the babies strapped to their backs.  Cool Glasses turned on his portable radio. 

“I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers cannot deny…”

We passed a wooden cross that marked a mass grave.

I returned to my hotel and stood in the shower watching the red dirt from the walk circle off my body and down the drain. 

That day I stopped looking for answers down windy dirt roads and just kept going.