It wasn’t supposed to be this way: The abject poor of Africa pooling their meager earnings to help alleviate suffering in the United States. But so it was.
For days the Acholi women of northern Uganda broke rocks in the quarries of Kampala, the capital, with one goal in mind. “We organized into groups of ten. Each group had a stone quarry. All the women would go,” said Teddy Bongomin Amito, one of the women. They hauled buckets and buckets of stones and sold them at construction sites. For every five-gallon bucket they filled, they earned about 100 Uganda shillings – 6 U.S. cents. Some of them filled enough buckets to earn $1.20 a day. With building booming in Kampala, the quarry is like the village bank, the women say. When you’re broke you go there.
The Acholi women live in Kireka, one of the unspeakably wretched slums of Kampala that some 600,000 northerners call home. The slums sprang up in the 1980s, when northern ethnic groups began fleeing the conflict between the Uganda government and the Lord’s Resistance Army. More than one million fled. About 1,000 Acholi households now live in Kireka. The Acholi were the worst ravaged by the 19-year conflict.
When the women of Kireka had raised nearly $1000 from the quarries they decided it was time. “Some of us were ashamed of the money, that it was too too little. But other women said ‘no. If it can only buy a plate or pay rent for one night, we must send it. We also love them as someone also loved us,’” Bongomin said. They sent word to the U.S. Embassy requesting an official to come to the Kireka Meeting Point Center, the place where they gather every Thursday for various classes and to sing and dance and discuss income-generating ideas; the place where they get small loans for their micro enterprises, help for their children’s school fees, and money and transportation to buy antiretroviral drugs at local hospitals and clinics.
The center is run by Meeting Point International, a nonprofit founded by Rose Busingye, a Ugandan nurse, to provide care to HIV-positive people in Kampala. Donations come from the UN World Food Program, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Associa-tion of Volunteers in International Service, and individuals like the wives of foreign ambassadors resident in Kampala. “One Thursday, Sister Rose told us about what happened in America, that many children were left homeless, that many were killed. She said, ‘Let’s pray for our friends in the U.S.’ But the women said, ‘We cannot just pray. We have to do something because we have been helped by so many people who do not know us,’” Bongomin explained.
With traditional pomp and ceremony, the women presented the money to the Embassy official with their instructions: “This is for the families who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.” The money, accompanied by the women’s letters, was sent to Baton Rouge and Houston. “For us it did not matter who they were. In fact, we did not know that they were Black people. We thought they were only white,” Bongomin said. “Some people who came to the presentation said we were stupid to give money to those people who are rich. We said we are poor but we are the richest because we have friends around.”
On May 15, in the presence of more than 2,000 guests at its 21st annual “Celebrating Women Breakfast,” the New York Women’s Foundation honored the women of Kireka with its Vision Award. The foundation, which helps women and girls in the city’s five boroughs achieve economic security through grants, brought five representatives from Uganda for the event: Bongomin, Josephine Antimango, Margaret Achan, Jovina Bako and Agnes Agwang, a Meeting Point staff member. “When we got the invitation we were so surprised. It was unexpected. All from the director who told us to pray,” Bongomin said.
It was the evening before the breakfast, at a reception at Audubon Theological Seminary in the women’s honor, that she told me their tale.
By Rosalind McLymont