The journey to Nighty’s village began around 9am with the solicitation of drivers and fierce negotiation led by Nighty. After finally settling on a price, four adults and three children piled into a 1980s Honda Civic that appeared to be driven right out of a salvage yard.
While Nighty insisted that her village is close to Pader, the journey took over three hours. Several times, we exited the vehicle to push the mighty Civic over bumps or to pull it out of the ditches of the poorly maintained dirt road.
When we arrived at the part of the journey where we took the small car off-roading, I knew we must be close. Nighty pointed out a gathering of a few dozen huts which she explained were the remnants of an IDP camp, largely abandoned now as people have returned to their homes.
Nighty’s family lives on an isolated plot located several miles from the main road and center of Abilo Nino village. Her father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and a slew of children live together in several bandas, subsisting off the land and selling what little crop they can to afford items like clothing and sugar.
Upon arrival, I greeted each family member in traditional Acholi style, spent a short while helping to grind jeenut paste (peanut butter), and then followed Nighty around the compound as she proudly showed off the grounds, well-tended crops, and simple bandas.
The place was beautiful, isolated and peaceful. With fields of sunflowers, high stalks of maize, goats and chickens, it seemed like an idyllic place to raise children.
“You think this is a peaceful place now, but not long ago, this very plot was taken over by the LRA,” Nighty’s uncle explained. “They used our home to cook for the militiamen, and those of us who survived the raids were driven to the camps.”
After a thorough tour of the compound, Nighty’s aged mother invited me into the women's banda. Inside, she set a woven mat upon the dirt floor and swept the ground before placing the meal she had prepared for her first ever muzungu guest: sweet potatoes, pasted malikwang and boyo (greens mixed with peanut and sunflower seed butter). The long journey left me quite hungry, and I was delighted by the vegetarian meal.
Outside, the men gathered in a circle of plastic chairs, awaiting my return. When the father of the family finally spoke, calling everyone to order, the lone English-speaking uncle translated.
“It is such a great honor to host our muzungu friend,” the father began. By three in the afternoon, when the father began his speech, the compound was teeming with nearly fifty people. Word spread quickly about the fair-skinned visitor and every clan member hurried to the compound to witness the event.
As part of a formal ceremony, each elder took a turn giving an oration. All expressed great appreciation for my visit, and then presented a unified dream, a desperate request to help their family.
“You see us before you, living very poorly, some of us with nothing to wear. We do not want your pity, your clothing, or medicine, all we want is education for our children,” one man spoke. “We will give you a plot of land, build you a home upon it, and provide you whatever you need, but our children will be nothing without an education.”
“I will marry you and care for you myself,” one of Nighty’s brothers generously offered.
Each elder echoed the same sentiment, first thanking me profusely for visiting, and then asking me to do anything I could to help their family plan for financing their children’s educations.
Nighty later explained that of her entire family, only one uncle had received an education and the rest remained illiterate. The youngest generation, mostly under six years, have little hope of going to school without a miracle. It was clear that the elders dreamed I would be part of that miracle.
After listening to each speech, I was invited to give my own. I had been moved by their appeals and wanted to communicate deep gratitude for their welcome, but I knew that I could not marry Nighty’s brother, build my home within their compound, or--most regrettably--cover the costs of educating each child on my own. It is one of the greatest disappointments of my time here, wanting to do so much, yet feeling helpless when asked to provide the assistance requested of me.
Before leaving the village, I was informed that the five homesteads had prepared gifts. Nighty took my camera as each head of household shook my hand with a wide grin and presented me with a live chicken, four in total. I am quite sure I have never held a chicken in my life, and my facial expression betrayed me as my mind wandered to thoughts about what a vegetarian would do with four chickens and how I would get them home. [The men tied the chickens’ feet and placed them in the trunk of the car for me. I squirmed every time I heard them squeal on the ride home.]
From a family with very little, I was treated with great honor. Despite my inability to make grand promises, I was embraced upon my departure and invited to visit anytime.
On the ride home, I played American music for Nighty, allowing my own mind to wander to ways I could help her family and others like hers. In time, my thoughts were interrupted as Nighty began to share with me for the first time her own war story.
As I have begun to gain the community’s trust, I have heard many stories of the war, each one equally moving. Nighty’s was no exception: the story of a young girl who ran away from the war, making it all the way to southern Uganda where she found work as a domestic servant and fish factory worker. She returned home to find that everything had changed: several family members had been killed, their homes burned, and the plot overtaken by rebels.
This is the story of the friend who gave me a soda and invited me into her hut on one of my first nights in Pader. Despite not having a clear solution for her family’s struggles, I will never forget them, their warm welcome, four chickens, or dream for their children.