I’ve been meaning for a while now to give a description of Lukodi—our new homes here in the North. It’s strange how much it does feel like home—okay, maybe not home, but at least very comfortable and normal. Who would have thought that a girly girl like me would ever say she felt comfortable sleeping in a mud hut, peeing in a hole in the ground, and bathing with a water bottle? But here I am, and honestly, it’s not so bad.
Lukodi is beautiful—especially in the morning. Each day, when I wake up and roll out of our dark hut, I have to stand for a few moments and take in the sunrise. Every day it is different, but always cool and quiet with a sleepy peacefulness interrupted only by roosters crowing and goats crying in the distance.
Our row of mud huts lies just outside the Child Voice compound—a converted school that several years ago was bombed out by the LRA and renovated to be a rehabilitation center for girls who had been abducted during the war.
The buildings are a big L-shaped row of concrete classrooms, some used for cooking, some for tailoring, some for dorms (for the CVI girls), and some as nursery rooms. Last week, a classroom doubled for a maternity ward when not one but two babies were born here—and they just happen to come the week an American OBGYN was visiting. Needless to say, the boy was named after the good doctor!
There is a fence running along the outside of the compound, with a large field inside, two big shade trees, a small garden (complete with 3 rabbits), and some huts in the back for the staff. A big gate opens up to a red dirt road and the primary school nearby (built by Child Voice to replace the one that was burned during the attacks), and our huts lie just outside the fence, on the far side from the gate, so that it takes a few minutes to actually walk around to get inside, even though we are close enough to hear the babies all cry in chorus when they wake up in the morning.
About a football field away is the camp—an IDP (Internally Displaced People’s) camp set up by the government to protect the people from the LRA’s attacks. Sadly, the camps have actually kept the people from their farms, giving them no way of obtaining income, and depending completely on NGO’s to feed them. There is poverty there like you see in UNICEF commercials: naked babies with bulging stomachs, children in tattered clothes that barely cover them. One toddler will wear a threadbare, torn sweater, and nothing else. Another little girl will have a dust covered rag barely hanging onto her thin shoulders.
A pathway runs from the camp, past Child Voice’s fence, and on towards the school and the bore hole (water well), so that people are constantly passing by and watching the activities inside (usually with impossibly heavy jerry cans of water balanced on their heads). Sometimes children will sit for hours, watching the white people (“mono”), calling to them & practicing their broken English. A large field stands in front of the school, just outside CVI’s gate, where children play soccer (football) with a makeshift ball made out of plastic bags & rubber bands.
Inside the compound, the girls (about 30 of them, ranging from 14-23 years old) work hard, cooking, cleaning, learning catering, tailoring & “saloon” (salon—hair straightening & braiding), carrying water from the bore hole, and receiving basic education. Most of them speak little English, which was a surprise to most of us, and it is tough communicating with them. Because of their sensitive [not-so-distant] past, we have to be very careful about the questions we ask them… but I do know that many of them were living as “wives” to some of the top commanders of the LRA before escaping, one even calling Joseph Kony "Father", and he calling her "Mama".
It has been more difficult than I expected to connect with the girls. Their schedules are really packed, and we are asked not to interfere with their work. They are pretty shy, and I never know when I am intruding, but today, when I was sitting by myself reading, one of the girls came over, attempted conversation, and invited me to sit with them. I spent an hour or so huddled in the middle of the girls as they chatted in Luo (the language in the North), working on their sewing, playing with their babies, and joking with one another. I think they are finally starting to warm up to us.
Although our schedule is flexible and open, I find myself constantly exhausted. The sun is insanely intense—just a few minutes out in it leaves us white folk melted and withered. I think between the food (rice and beans for lunch & dinner, and 2 small rolls & pineapple for breakfast), the sun, the culture shock, and the sleepless nights in uncomfortable hammocks, we are all pretty wiped by the end of the day. Actually, is hottest part of the day, and most of us look pretty wrung out by then.
The huts are about 20-25ft in diameter, with a cement floor and a long pole in the center, reaching up to a grass-thatched roof. There is one small window that opens & closes, and a wooden door that locks. The walls are made of brick, covered in mud, and the huts are dark & relatively cool inside (although there’s not much of a breeze, without both the window & door open)
Our “beds” are thin nylon hammocks suspended from the grass thatched roof (held together by a spider web of bamboo poles). The hammocks have a built-in mosquito net, and are a claustrophobic nightmare waiting to happen. The first night, one of our students flipped over his hammock, ripping out of his mosquito net and falling onto the concrete floor (no broken bones, thankfully!). I haven’t fallen out yet, but I do confess that I had a little panic attack the first night when I got all zipped up inside and turned out the lights. Also, there is some strange biological occurrence in those hammocks that causes me, not only to freeze to death every night, but also to have to pee at least once (sometimes twice) in the night. And getting out of a sleeping bag, maneuvering out of a hammock without flipping, walking to the pit latrines, and then coming back and getting situated again inside the sleeping bag & hammock takes about 20 minutes. Even when you don’t have to pee, it is really tough to find a comfortable position.
Speaking of the pit latrines, the bathrooms consist of a hole in the ground, with a reed mats propped up vertically around most of it for [semi]privacy (the “door” opens out to the bush, and I’m sure that several Ugandan soldiers & children have seen at least one of us peeing). The “showers” are the same, except without the hole in the ground. Instead, the ground is covered with lava rocks to keep from getting muddy when taking your bucket bath.
That leads me to water. There is a well (bore hole) about a 10 minute walk from our huts. Any water we need for doing laundry (also done on a basin), or bathing (Chris discovered a great method using 2 water bottles—meaning that we use less than 3 liters of water to take a shower!) comes in giant jerry cans from the bore hole. Pumping the water is an intense tricep workout, and carrying them back [for me] is a complete joke. The CVI girls carry the water on their heads, but I can barely lift it! As I was laughing about my lack of strength, one girl quietly asked “How do you carry water back to your house in
I mentioned before that our meals are pretty simple. Breakfast is 2 small rolls (made on site by the CVI girls—sometimes I get to help!) with margarine & jelly, hot tea (sweet enough to induce a diabetic coma), and when we’re really lucky, pineapple or mango. Lunch and dinner have been rice & beans for the past 2 weeks, with the addition of an interesting cooked cabbage side that helps add a little saltiness to the beans. I get at least one bite of rock or a solid, crunchy dirt clod in every meal, but other than that, it’s really not so bad.
The miraculous part was when Chris spent several days crunching numbers, and discovered that we were able to up our food budget from $5 per person/day to $6 per person/day! Our students almost cried the first night that green beans or avocados or mango was added to our rice & beans repertoire. We also acquired a team salt shaker, bottle of soy sauce & garlic powder. You would think we were eating at 5 star restaurants by the responses. It’s amazing how grateful we can become!
Because of the war, the North has really been cut off from the rest of the country, making little items like bananas or greens even more expensive than in The States. Anything that isn’t locally grown costs an arm & a leg, so we’re staying pretty simple. But like I said, it really isn’t that bad (and my clothes are fitting a lot looser!).
Except for those times when I have been sick, I have to say that this whole “living in a mud hut in
I wouldn’t quite say that it has been a life changing experience yet. I definitely have some bragging rights & great stories, but the revolution I was sort of hoping for inside hasn’t quite happened. I guess I hoped that I would be transformed by the poverty & pain that I saw, and that through it, would regain some of that old passion & compassion that used to light me on fire.
It hasn’t happened yet. But, we still have 2 weeks here, and a lot more beautiful & stretching experiences to come. I look forward to them…