This morning we ventured deep into the countryside, far from the town, down a dirt road which turned into a very narrow and bumpy dirt road which turned into a path that was wide enough for us to walk single file through the planted fields. That didn’t stop our fearless driver Ben from maneuvering our large 4 wheel drive Toyota van down the obstacle filled path to our destination. We stopped in a small trading center in the late morning to eat delicious chapatti with egg, prepared by a man roadside. He had a small stand with already shaped balls of dough waiting in perfect rows to be stretched on the hot plate and cooked until golden brown and bubbly.
We must have been a curious sight in these villages so far off the beaten path that outsiders rarely appear. We were greeted all the way by gaggles of kids running to the side of the road when they caught the first glimpse of a car coming, waving and yelling and smiling. What a beautiful welcome.
What we realized over the visits of yesterday and today with Honey Farmer Cooperative beneficiaries is that this first phase of the project has been about training and preparing hives and because it will take about a year for the hives to become fully productive and to begin to bring in income, there is need to supply a certain amount of support for these families in our program until that time. Their serious needs cannot be put off for a year. The honey business is very lucrative, but it is not immediate, as would be chickens or cows, etc.
We visited Lydia, a 14 year old girl orphaned by the LRA and left to care for her three younger brothers. Her tongue is deformed and slightly twisted by a non-cancerous tumor, which has already been removed once. She needs it to be done again. She told us that she and her brothers have almost nothing to eat. Their little hut is leaking and it is the rainy season here. They have no money for seeds to plant or school fees. They are lacking even the most basic of things, like a pot to cook with, plates, cups, a mattress for the ground, a hoe and obviously food. One brother has been suffering from stomach pain and cannot afford transportation to the town where he was referred by the local health center.
The family we visited that was the furthest from town, truly isolated, was headed by Rebecca, a 16 year old caring for her two sisters and grandmother. They were also orphaned by the LRA. Rebecca does her best to stay in school by working on the farms of other people to earn money. She has uncles who live nearby, but refuse to help her, her siblings and grandmother and they are trying to marry her off, which is now against the law here for girls under 21. The presence of our partner organization there and of our presence too lets them know there is someone watching out for these girls. In fact, today we may have told them a little white lie about another family where the uncle married off a young girl and was arrested.
Our last visit was to Evelyn, a woman who I instantly fell in love with. Her house is on a small hill with a gorgeous view and a gentle breeze. In the middle of her compound is a huge tree with a high canopy that creates a lot of shade. She has flowers growing and she keeps it immaculate, the dirt all swept and tidy. She is a grandmother who takes care of 6 children. She had two kids she was caring for that were abducted by the LRA. The boy was killed and the girl returned from captivity pregnant and HIV positive. She is responsible for 5 other grandchildren, in addition to that one and Evelyn and her husband are both also positive. She told us that it is difficult sometimes to get the anti-retroviral drugs they need in the health care center that is accessible and she can’t afford transport to town. She feels her grandkids need trauma counseling, as they witnessed the murder of their father. Her heart is so full of love for not only her own kids, but for all of those who are suffering the affects of the insurgency. She is sincerely one of the warmest, kindest and strongest women I have ever known.
We intended to meet Sarah, who ended up needing to be somewhere else, but her story was told to me by our partners, Jane and Sam. She was abducted at 13 and held in captivity for 10 years as a “soldier wife”, which actually means forced to have sex with a commander and work as a porter. When released, she had three children born in captivity. Later, she had two more kids. She is now 28 years old and alone trying to support this family while trying recover from the emotional trauma herself.
The stories I have shared over the last two days are only a handful of the 52 people in the Honey Farmer Cooperative. There are child soldiers, soldier wives, orphans, kids with mentally traumatized parents, old women caring for kids and others affected by the LRA. The common need is for sustainable income and for some of the youth, it is the only thing they can call their own. Next year when I go back to visit, I look forward to seeing the fruits of their labor.