Okay, I might not be a biological mother but that doesn’t mean I haven’t loved and taken care of others as if they weren’t my own blood. Over the years I have “mothered” many. My title while working with pregnant teens in the states was “House Mother” as I mentored and lived daily life with them. Right now, I am the proud “mother” of 6 Acholi young ladies who attend the school I’m partnered with.
Never before had I been so proud of my girls. This last week was spent at Peace Camp, an initiative to peacefully bring together different tribes affected by the 21+ years of insurgency brought forth by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Out of the 80 youth attending, my girls were simply the most amazing. The 6 of them were the most attentive, accepting, helpful, active, and brilliant youth if I might say. They even learned basic sign language in a day to communicate to the 4 youth who were hearing impaired.
They rocked my world. I knew the week would be difficult for them. If they are a student at my school, they surely have a story to be told. Even though the week might be emotionally difficult, I also knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime to gain knowledge, strength, and support from one another which was too much to pass up. These young women, ages 15 through 17, are the leaders of our Peace Club at the school and leaders at our school in general.
There was much to be learned. The camp was executed wonderfully with staffs passionate about working with youth and mature youth who were passionate about gaining knowledge and skills. Each day was focused on different topics such as peaceful living, positive communication, forgiveness and reconciliation, and a peaceful future.
Although I am proud of all my girls, I might be even slightly prouder of Sharon, Pamela, and Monica. “Aha” moments were had about facing our pain, forgiveness, and passionate leadership.
Sharon was especially eager to attend Peace Camp. All but one of the girls had been chosen to attend Camp GLOW the previous December which fell through. Sharon had been the one to daily ask me what she needed to do, ask if I heard back about nomination acceptance. Each time, her eyes were huge and she wouldn’t breathe until I answered. Needless to say, she was rather excited about the week.
Sharon has a sweet heart and put extra effort towards getting to know the hearing impaired students and making them feel part of the group. While practicing Acholi traditional dancing the first day, her head bobbed with expertise and enthusiasm.
During a logistical meeting the second night, I saw that same head walking across the dark compound and knew something was wrong. All day, Sharon had been happy meeting new people and enjoying the opening ceremony. After dinner, the youth watched the film War Dance which was filmed in 2005 and is a true story which took place about an hour from our school.
The film follows the stories of three students affected by the war in different ways. Hearing their stories at the beginning of the film is difficult since the atrocities that they either had to partake or saw are horrific. The film is a story of redemption—you just have to make it through the first part of sadness.
While seated with the logistical staff on the other side of the compound, I heard the deep crying coming from the film. This scene gets me every time. The girl’s father was killed by LRA rebels and this was the first time the girl had visited the ground where his body laid. She goes with her mother who at one point tells her to be quiet otherwise the rebels might hear her crying. She lies on the grave, her father’s body underneath, and you can feel the deep sorrow she bears. I might tear up a little bit each time I watch this scene.
I knew this week wouldn’t be easy for my girls. As soon as I saw Sharon across the compound, the logistical meeting was over for me. I walked over to find Sharon deeply disturbed.
“Ah, Sandi, the film is not good. It is not good,” said with a shake of her head while looking at the floor.
We talked for a bit outside the large room where everyone else was seated. The scene of the girl mourning her father’s murder struck a chord with Sharon. I don’t ask invasive questions. I held her hand and said how the film gets better. That there is hope for the girl. I asked if it would be okay if I sat with her until the end. We walk back into the room, hand in hand, and sat on the reed mat.
For the next hour, with legs which fell asleep multiple times, we sat there. My hand physically touching her the whole time to remind her I was there for her and to help with not reverting to a hazy daze of the past.
After a traumatic experience, anything that could represent or be associated with the event is a possible trigger which can revert the person back into the mental state of the actual event. Even though the event happened in the past, the same feelings of fear or sadness can be felt full force. When we are presented with a trigger, our guts begin to tighten and we want to escape. Right after an event, this is extremely overwhelming and anxiety ridden. After time and hopefully counseling, at some point we have to face those triggers.
With support from friends, family, professionals, we can face the pain and not let it control our lives. The journey physically hurts our chest but with the right support, we can carry on.
Sharon carried on. By holding her hand, asking questions about the film, she stayed in the moment and her appearance lightened.
I couldn’t let Sharon leave the film at the lowest point. I couldn’t let her give up when things became difficult to face. So, I sat beside her and let her know she wasn’t alone. By the end of the film, Sharon was smiling again. I later asked her what she thought of the film.
“Watching the film was not easy but I’m glad to have watched the ending where everyone was happy.”
I had a “group meeting” with my 6 girls before they went to bed. I wanted to make sure they were okay or if they needed to talk, to give them the chance to speak. They were all excited about their new friends and the new songs and games they were learning. They promised to take care of each other and also to take care of the other female campers. After a group hug, they finished preparing for bed and went to sleep.
Monday was the first full day with all the campers. Rafiki Theater, a drama group from Kampala, performed and facilitated conversations with the campers. The main topics were domestic violence and bullying.
I have to admit, parts of the drama made me uneasy. Uganda is a very male dominated society where a wife is expected to produce children and tend to her husband’s every need without a will of her own. In the drama, there were two married couples and at one point, the husband came home drunk, unhappy with his wife’s desire to continue her studies. Although there was no physical contact of actual hitting, their tone, facial expressions, and then the despair in the woman’s face as her husband beat and then raped her was a bit overwhelming.
This was rather mature material for an audience of 15-19 year olds. Then again, early marriages of 15 year old girls, especially in the village, are common. They don’t have the choice of education. They don’t have the choice of who they marry. They are told what to do and how to do it and are married off so their family will gain wealth or materials through the bride price. I can’t imagine growing up in such a society where women are a commodity to be traded with the purpose to basically be a slave to whatever man is in charge.
During the discussion afterwards, the question was asked why women didn’t stand up to their husbands.
“I believe it is because we have low self-esteem,” stated by my one and only— Sharon.
During the previous school year, we spent time focused on personal awareness and self esteem. Self-awareness is the knowledge and understanding of who we are, our potential, our feelings and emotions, where we are in life, and our strengths and weakness. By having a clear sense of “who I am”, we have more potential to live the desired healthy, positive lifestyle.
Self-Esteem refers to how an individual feels about such personal aspects as appearance, abilities and behavior and grows on the basis of their experiences of being competent and successful in what they attempt. Poor self-esteem has an individual feeling defeated and unable to live the life they desire.
For Sharon to say that women don’t speak out because of low self esteem may seem very simple to a westerner, but to these who have had their whole lives destroyed and controlled by others, this statement is huge. These are youth who have been abused and violated, who have been told they are worthless killers, and have been rejected by their families and society.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that as humans, we have 3 basic requests—to be loved by others, to be regarded as good natured and valued, and to be beautiful and desired. With traumatic experiences, these basic desires are shattered. The person who has wronged us has betrayed us and disrespected our bodies, to some degree we self blame for doing something bad that lead to the event being our fault and in many societies we are seen as “spoiled” or worthless, and we view our bodies as ugly and undesirable.
The truth is that no matter our past, we are still loveable and there are respectable individuals who won’t take advantage of us. Even though bad events have happened in our past, tragedy does not define us. Our souls are still good and we are valuable members of society. Each of us is a beautiful being who is desired for the love, the acceptance, and knowledge we carry. We cannot let what we had no control of in the past determine who we are now and our futures to come.
At my school, I work with girls who have lived through traumatic experiences, shattering their self-esteem. In class, we talked about what influences our self-esteem and how who we are surrounded by is a large factor. If a mother daily tells her daughter “Anyaka marach, amaro pe, maleng pe” which translates to something of “girl, you are bad, I don’t love you, you are not beautiful” and then hits the girl, she will most likely have poor self esteem.
If a mother daily tells her daughter “anyaka maber, amaro anyaka, tye maleng” meaning “girl, you are good, I love you girl, you are beautiful” with a hug and warm smile, she will most likely grow up with good self-esteem.
We need to support each other, to tell each other that we are good, loved and beautiful. The more we hear this, the more we internalize these beliefs, the more we will be able to face the struggles of life.
Sharon’s father may have died while she was still very young. She may have never heard him say that he loved her, that she was beautiful, or that he was proud of her. Often, the people who are supposed to fill those key roles are absent or unable to provide the emotional support needed. For this reason, I “adopt” these girls and try to be the best “mother” I can be.
When I pretended to be a mother saying “anyaka maber, amaro anyaka, tye maleng” in class, the girls started hooting and hollering because they thought it was rather humorous that the white girl was learning their language. I swear to this day a year later, students still greet me with “Anyaka maleng, amaro anyaka.” I smile each and every time.
I never really know what the students understand from class or if what I try to teach is going in one ear and out the other. Today, I realized that the lessons hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. When Sharon answered the question about self esteem, I knew I had played a part in her understanding of the concept. Hopefully, I had played a part of improving her self esteem as well.
I may not have any biological children, but I was proud of my girl Sharon.
At the end of the day, I smiled a very proud “mother” smile.