We sat around a beautiful pile of pikelets, sliced mango and bananas with our friends and their two wee kids. A relaxing Sunday afternoon after a stressful week. Our neighbour Lucy was in hospital, very ill, and needed a lot of practical support. Finally, she was recovering. I took another pikelet, glanced out the window, then did a double take. Smoke. Billowing out of Lucy’s door. We sprinted over and found her bed ablaze with thick choking black fumes from the mattress filling the room. With the help our friends, a neighbour, our small fire extinguisher and many jerrycans of water we managed to put it out. Lucy’s return from hospital was not as joyful as we hoped.
The fire did not remain a mystery for long. The culprit was a small boy called Aken, only 11 years old. He’d managed to steal Lucy’s key. His mother had a long-standing family feud with Lucy, now apparently fuelled by jealousy at Lucy’s fortune in finding a new home moving in with us. With Lucy still in hospital, we were the ones to take our wee arsonist into the police. The police shrugged it off saying he was young, and sent him home with zero follow up. His mother sent him to stay with relatives in the village, but he was chased away after stealing and selling their chickens.
Two weeks later we woke to find our hut roof on fire. I will never forget the fierce red glow and crackle of the grass thatch as I rushed outside. Neighbours came sprinting to our rescue from all directions with jerry-cans and basins, throwing water on the fire and dragging our furniture and things outside. Unbelievably, Lacor hospital fire truck showed up and doused our hut in water inside and out, extinguishing every last ember. It was over. But my mind was ticking over. Physically we’d escaped extraordinarily well: no-one harmed, property soggy but not burnt, roof damaged, but still liveable. But I knew we weren’t going to get much sleep that night. Or the next night. Aken, of course, had fled and was no where to be found.
The next month gave us the tiniest taste of the worried nights everyone here in Northern Uganda suffered for two decades of civil war. Except we feared a poor, downtrodden child with a box of matches, not grenade wielding rebels and government soldiers with AK47s. The emotional aftermath wasn’t all negative. I had a heightened awareness that community was our security, and a grateful warmth to our immediate neighbours who came running. I felt pleasantly detached from material ‘stuff’, and tried to pass on anything useful we weren’t utilising to local friends. But the question of what to do about Aken still loomed.
After several weeks, Aken was finally found, charged with arson and taken to the children’s remand home till the court hearing. I visited Aken again before we headed off to collect family at the airport. The remand home is depressing, but not horrible. There's no razor wire or harsh discipline, just kids sitting around looking bored and dejected. Determined to understand him a bit better, I’d brought some string for him to make a timeline of his life, pebbles to represent the bad things that had happened, and flowers to represent good times he remembered. The guard squinted and said it looked like witchcraft. “Just talking, no flowers” he warned me. I handed Aken a bag of snacks and wondered nervously where to begin. So far I know that his dad died when he was small. He likes school, but has only finished 2 years of primary. His older brothers steal things. His mum had a mental break down two years ago and attempted suicide. He is convinced she doesn’t want him. We decided to drop the charges and find a way to get him to school.
While I’ve yet to get a smile out of Aken on my visits to the remand home, he certainly associates me with food. He is coming home in a week. He can join our after-school reading classes for neighbourhood kids. Then, he will go to boarding school, his first year paid for by our own family back home. If you are the praying type, our big request is that you pray with us that his life is turned around, and that the brokenness can be healed.
So, all in all it hasn’t been an easy return to Uganda. We’ve also had a bad run of illness: between us 8 skin infections, 3 bouts of malaria (all Nick) and numerous tummy bugs. And yet when I look back on the last 5 months there is so much to be thankful to God for. We have some great new relationships with young neighbours. Lucy recovered when we thought she might not make it. We’ve grown enough basil to make a jar of peanut-pesto every week. My community organising group has launched 3 new water-access campaigns and strong leaders are emerging. Next week we are running a preaching-training at our church. Nick's health centres are flourishing better than he ever could have imagined last year. And right now, we're sleeping well at night again.
All this might seem extreme, but is part of the deal here; stuff happens. We’re not singled out, or different from other people. This chain of events is perhaps an induction to the everyday struggles of many of our friends. Pray for complete forgiveness from all ends, pray for Aken and his future, pray for redemption.